"When I feel the heat, I see the light," Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois fam`ously said. He died in 1969, just weeks before the first data packets were sent on ARPANET, the Pentagon-funded academic and research digital network that was a forerunner of the Internet. The senator's remark certainly applied to events this month in Congress.
Two bills severely constricting the Internet were sailing through Congress with the backing of the powerful movie, television and recording industries: The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate. Both bills would have allowed the U.S. government, pressured by content producers, to shut down offending Internet sites with a court order — but without a hearing or trial.
Fortunately, Internet users, rallied by such ubiquitous online names as Wikipedia and Google, protested. Literally millions of phone calls and emails were sent. Congress felt the heat and saw the light. It dropped the bills — for now.
It was an important victory in the battle for free speech.
"It is not the Internet per se that has set the stage for the next quantum leap in human knowledge and advancement, but rather the free association at the core of the Internet," Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said in a speech on the floor of the House after the bills' demise. "And this is precisely what SOPA and PIPA directly threaten."
Rep. McClintock pointed out that, as with other kinds of theft, individuals involved in stealing intellectual property should be accused of specific crimes in a court of law. By contrast, he said, "upon mere accusation, these measures would allow the government to shut down websites, ruin honest businesses, impound property, disrupt legitimate speech and dragoon innocent third parties into enforcing laws that may or may not have been broken."
The main threat of damage from SOPA and PIPA was to the vast social networking going on across the Internet, said Steven Titch, a telecommunications and media policy analyst at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. The laws could have shut down sites, from small blogs to Facebook, simply because a user posted a copyrighted music file or article.
"This would have produced a chilling effect," Titch told Freedom Communications. "As a pre-emptive measure, many sites would stop taking comments."
Rep. McClintock and Titch said existing intellectual property laws should be enforced. "There already are laws that address these problems," Titch said. "Although sometimes it's complicated because many sites are offshore" in other countries.
However, Rep. McClintock pointed to the arrest Jan. 20 of "Kim Schmitz and his associates in New Zealand, who now stand accused of operating one of the biggest of these rogue sites," a file-sharing service called Megaupload.
"Rather than the lazy way of SOPA and PIPA, it's harder work involving diplomacy, international relations and police work," Titch said of fighting online piracy using existing laws. "Domestically, it means working in the framework of existing copyright and intellectual property."
Currently, Facebook, YouTube and other sites police themselves, taking down copyrighted material, although they're not perfect. And smaller sites that refuse to take down copyrighted material after being notified of their offense can be prosecuted through normal legal channels.
This victory shows how we must remain ever-vigilant in protecting our freedoms. Congress will keep seeing the light only so long as Americans keep applying the heat.