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Anti-piracy bills have pointed up divisions in Congress. But Wednesday, protesters such as Nadine Wolf in New York were of a single mind.

Michael Appleton, New York Times

Antipiracy fix crashes in a new-media storm

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • January 20, 2012 - 8:03 PM

Chris Dodd has little patience for opponents of federal antipiracy legislation.

"It sort of reminds me of kids who can't get their way, hold their breath and start screaming, instead of engaging with the debate and providing information, encouraging a discussion on how this can be improved," Dodd told National Public Radio.

Dodd, the former Democratic senator who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America, was opining about the Silicon Valley and citizen protest against antipiracy legislation backed by the MPAA, the recording industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and many other organizations and individuals.

But what was childish to Dodd was actually a political maturation for Silicon Valley, home of tech giants that had mostly left legislation to the Beltway before this week.

To protest the U.S. House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the U.S. Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), some new media giants first tried old-school methods like lobbying.

But on Wednesday they harnessed the horsepower of Internet interconnectivity. Google covered its iconic logo with a black patch. Wikipedia and other sites went dark.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted his protest. And tweets urged opposition and provided links to contact Capitol Hill.

A lot of people did just that, and the protest resulted in furious flip-flopping, as several senators and representatives, including some bill sponsors, announced their opposition (fittingly, in many cases, online).

"We've had instances where you get an intense enough opposition, but it's particularly rare when you see something that emerges in this day and age unanimously, and then all of a sudden you get this massive retreat across the board," said Norman Ornstein, the nationally noted congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Web's warp speed caught Congress off guard, said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

"It shows the power of the Internet, and it also shows that as powerful as interest groups may be in providing information and lobbying members of Congress, at the end of the day they are still responsive to the people who have the power to vote them in and out of office. ... There's no doubt that the power of the Internet can be marshalled with social media to galvanize public opinion in a way that took longer and was more difficult in the past. And that can apply to any issue."

Actually it should apply, again, to this issue. Because now that both bills -- which were imperfect solutions to real concerns-- have basically been halted, the same zeal should be put into crafting and crusading for better legislation.

Unlike the wide divides that exist on so many other issues, victory need not be a zero-sum game. Anti-SOPA activists don't want more piracy, and backers don't want to censor or smother a content delivery device that exponentially increases opportunities to watch, hear, read (and, yes, pay for) artistic expression.

Online piracy is intellectual theft. And it's not just Cate Blanchett, but caterers, camera operators and thousands of other people who aren't on People magazine covers who lose when billions of dollars are lost to piracy. And many of the same firms opposing SOPA are also content creators or conduits for user-generated content.

The industry, and individuals, were right to push back. Too often legislative cures create a different disease. Yet doing nothing doesn't solve the problem of piracy.

Because the issue doesn't fall along fault lines normally dividing the political parties, a solution pushed by new media could create new politics, too.

"This issue is bipartisan in a way that in our contemporary partisan environment many issues have not been," said Pearson.

Ornstein agrees, to a point. "There clearly are areas where you can find compromise, but this is going to be tricky now when you get these activists," he said.

Of course activists could also advocate for a compromise bill, even though such a campaign isn't likely to inspire as much passion as this week's protest. "Wikipedia's not going to shut down in support of a compromise piece of legislation," Pearson rightly suggests.

But maybe it should. If Silicon Valley really wants to prove Dodd wrong, it will use similar tactics to lead lawmakers toward a better antipiracy fix.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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