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Net Censorship Bills On Top of the Agenda for After the Holidays

December 21, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

As grassroots opposition to the internet censorship bills known as SOPA and PIPA continues to build, the entertainment industry and their allies in Congress are scrambling to move them forward as quickly as possible. Here’s a quick update on where things stand at the moment.

Senate (PIPA)

PIPA is officially the top item on the agenda for when the Senate returns from the holiday recess. During their final day in session last week, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid [D, NV] submitted a cloture petition, signed by 18 Democratic senators, on the motion to proceed to the bill, setting up a vote to occur no earlier than one hour after the Senate adjourns on the second calendar day after the motion is filed. According to the Congressional Record, that will be January 24th at 2:15 p.m. ET.

The motion will take a supermajority of 60 votes to be approved. The bill already has 41 co-sponsors, so the supporters only need 19 more to pass the motion. So far, only 4 senators have come out solidly against the bill — Sen. Ron Wyden [D, OR], Sen. Rand Paul [R, KY], Sen. Jerry Moran [R, KS], and Sen. Maria Cantwell [D, WA].

Sen. Wyden is leading an attempt to stop the cloture vote from taking by planning to basically shut down the Senate floor with a reading of the names of more than 1 million individuals who have signed a petition against the bill. The plan is to eat up as much floor time as possible and see if they can stall things long enough that Reid will withdraw his motion and give up on holding the vote. The three other senators who have already come out against the bill may help Wyden execute the reading, but they’ll probably need even more help if they hope to keep things tied up for long enough to win. It’s basically going to come down to a physical question of how long they can hold the floor. If there are 4 of them, holding the floor around the clock is pretty difficult. But if there are 10 it will be a lot easier.

If Reid waits out the Wyden filibuster and the cloture motion ends up being approved, the bill will almost certainly win final passage from the Senate later that week. Final passage only requires a bare majority of 51 votes, and 60 senators will have already shown tacit support for the in voting to approve cloture on the motion to proceed. Reid has taken $1,383,541 from corporations and special interests supporting SOPA and PIPA this year — more than any other member of Congress — and he seems to be highly motivated to get the bill passed. Don’t expect him to give into the Wyden filibuster too easily.

House (SOPA)

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by lead SOPA sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith [R, TX-21], held a marathon, 15+ hour mark-up session on the bill. Dozens of amendments were voted on, and every single amendment to improve the bill for its opponents was rejected by a wide margin, including one to take China-style DNS blocking out of the bill. But the bill itself never got a vote. During the morning of day two of the mark-up session, Smith suddenly announced that he was going to postpone the vote.

The mark-up and vote was originally scheduled to continue tomorrow morning, but now that too has been postponed by Smith, citing the schedule of the House (having voted down the Senate’s tax cut bill, the House is now adjourned). At this point, we won’t see action on the House side until late January or early February. It’s even possible that the mark-up vote will be delayed until the committee can hold hearing with security experts about how the bill could increase U.S. exposure cyberattacks.

The main reason the mark-up is postponed, however, is that the folks from all corners of the internet have risen up in a grassroots, cross partisan effort to fight this bill and the members of Congress who support it. As I wrote last week, the online uprising against the bill is itself a perfect example of what’s wrong with the bill, as many of the sites that have facilitated the uprising would be vulnerable to censorship under SOPA/PIPA. The bill’s supporters had been trying to ignore and suppress the very legitimate security and free speech concerns of the internet experts, legal scholars, human rights groups, and web companies that oppose the bill. But all the attention online, and the millions of calls and emails to Congress, simply made them impossible to ignore.

As of this moment, the mark-up has not been rescheduled. My guess, though, would be that Rep. Smith was put it back on the schedule for some time shortly after the House reconvenes on January 18th.

The January recess is going to be a crucial time for the bill’s future. If SOPA/PIPA opponents can flip some on-the-fence senators and reps. to solid “no” votes and get a few more to join the filibuster, there’s a good chance these bills can be killed. The momentum is certainly going against internet censorship at the moment, but a quick look at the 91 corporations and special interests behind the bills should be enough to show that if the public sleeps on this, there is a huge network of money and influence ready to push things back in the other direction.

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