By Zaid Jilani
Today, Wikipedia, along with thousands of other sites, has gone dark, shutting off services to its English-language users for 24 hours. This dramatic move will impact millions of people: Wikipedia was ranked by Google in 2011 as the fifth-most popular site on the Internet, pulling in 2.7 billion U.S. page-views every month.
Wikipedia’s bold move is intended to protest two pieces of legislation before the United States Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives, and the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
These bills are being touted by their supporters as powerful – and necessary – weapons in the fight against online piracy. They would allow media companies and other copyright holders to ask the federal government to shut down websites that so much as link to sites containing copyright-infringment, clearing the way for widespread suppression of the Internet on behalf of big corporations. In November, over 100 lawyers, law professors, and practitioners wrote an open letter to the House protesting the censorship that could occur if these bills were passed.
While the tech community is ablaze in its opposition to these Internet censorship bills, many in Congress are leaping to side with the media industry’s push for this legislation. While appearing on Meet The Press this past Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) praised the legislation and said that passing PIPA would be “job saving” and would help “protect the American economy.” Meanwhile, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced SOPA, claimed that opponents of his bill “apparently don’t want to protect American consumers and businesses.”
Yet there is very little evidence that the bills would do much for the American economy. Using the same research produced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, concluded that SOPA won’t save a single net job for the economy.
So why are so many in Congress pushing for these bills if they could lead to draconian censorship of the Internet and have few proven benefits for the economy?
Because Big Money is involved.
The entertainment industry is the top contributor to Rep. Smith’s 2012 re-election campaign and the second-largest contributor to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who oversaw PIPA’s introduction. Overall, a MapLight analysis from last month found that SOPA sponsors collectively pulled in four times as much in contributions from Hollywood (strong supporters of the bill) as from Silicon Valley (who oppose it).
The connections between the entertainment industry and the Hill go beyond campaign contributions – some in government have profited personally from their work on the bills. Allison Halataei, a former deputy chief of staff to Smith who helped author SOPA, recently took a government affairs job with the MPAA. Lauren Pastarnack, a Republican senior aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee who worked on PIPA, has become the “chief liaison to Capitol Hill” for the National Music Publishers’ Association. These trips through the revolving door were deemed “shockingly unshocking” by TechDirt last month.
Of course, a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions and some cushy job offers for connected politicos isn’t the worst damage SOPA and PIPA can do. While Internet freedom is in peril, so too is the state of American democracy. As Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, a popular social news site, said on CNBC:
”Why is it that when Republicans and Democrats need to solve the budget and the deficit, there’s deadlock, but when Hollywood lobbyists pay them $94 million dollars to write legislation, people from both sides of the aisle line up to co-sponsor it?”