WASHINGTON-In a victory for new social media over traditional content industries, top congressional lawmakers on Friday delayed moving forward with controversial anti-piracy legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, bowing to mounting pressure, canceled a vote scheduled for Tuesday on the Senate version, called the Protect IP Act. Meanwhile, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would postpone consideration of that chamber's version, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act.
"I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy," Smith said in a statement. "It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products."
Just a day earlier Smith had vowed to move forward with the legislation aimed at stopping foreign websites making profits on pirated U.S. products. But the moves Friday by Reid and Smith came at the end of a week that saw top internet companies unleashing a barrage of coordinated criticism against the bills.
High-profile internet groups like Wikipedia blacked out their websites in protest on Wednesday. Other web powerhouses like Google, Facebook, and Twitter protested the legislation without shutting down.
The now shelved bills focused on stopping foreign websites from offering illegal copies of copyrighted movies, TV shows, and music. The proposed measures would empower the Justice Department to require that internet providers and search engines block access to guilty websites.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America, record labels, and other media groups support the bills. They argue that online copyright infringement costs the U.S. economy more than $100 billion annually and threatens industries that provide 19 million jobs.
Detractors of the bills agree that online piracy needs to be halted. But they argue that the current legislation as written would impose onerous and costly police burdens on internet companies that could stifle the growth of the web. Critics also claim that the bills threaten free speech, giving the federal government new control over the web that could be misused for political reasons.
Tea Party members, who have joined Silicon Valley in opposition to the bills, are worried that these new laws would make it easier for large, established media corporations to intimidate small business competitors.
The Heritage Foundation, a top conservative think-tank, warned Tuesday that the anti-piracy bills might cause "unintended and dangerous consequences." The group urged lawmakers to oppose the bills, warning that it would track any votes on the measures in the group's election year voter scorecards.
"While the federal government does have a role in protecting intellectual property rights, it should do so in a way that does not weaken internet security, disrupt growth, or restrict free speech rights," the Heritage Foundation wrote in a blog post.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously supported their version of the anti-piracy legislation last May. But six Republican members of that committee wrote a letter last week to Reid requesting a delay of additional action. Several members of the House also pulled their support of the House version this week.
"Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Reflecting the internet-focused nature of this debate, many lawmakers turned to social media to announce their concerns.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the Senate measure, announced on Facebook that he would withdraw his support. "As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators, and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs," Rubio wrote. "However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies."
Meanwhile Sens. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., took to Twitter to announce their opposition. Showing the bipartisan nature of the strengthening congressional resistance, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey also tweeted his doubts, adding that he is "working to ensure critical changes are made to the bill." Another Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, had threatened to filibuster the bill on the Senate floor.
White House officials publicly acknowledged concerns that the legislation could unfairly restrict the internet.
Not all lawmakers backed away from the bills. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the lead sponsor of the Senate version, accused his colleagues of making a "knee-jerk reaction" by withdrawing support.
"Somewhere in China today, in Russia today, and in many other countries that do not respect American intellectual property, criminals who do nothing but peddle in counterfeit products and stolen American content are smugly watching how the United States Senate decided it was not even worth debating how to stop the overseas criminals from draining our economy," Leahy said.
Top Senate Democrat Reid promised that talks would continue on the bills "to forge a balance between protecting Americans' intellectual property and maintaining openness and innovation on the internet. We made good progress through the discussions we've held in recent days, and I am optimistic that we can reach a compromise in the coming weeks."
But with support dwindling from both parties in the aftermath of this week's protests, lawmakers may be reluctant to revisit the bills in an election year. Meanwhile, traditional Hollywood may need to take a few public relations pointers from the up-starts in Silicon Valley.