WASHINGTON -- After two days of debate, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) abruptly halted a key hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act, postponing a Committee vote on the bill until 2012. The move marks a win for hordes of internet activists who oppose the bill, but gives lawmakers another opportunity to juice deep-pocketed corporations for campaign contributions.
"This is a huge victory for everyone who uses the Internet -- and proof that millions of people speaking out can still make a difference in a Congress usually run by corporate lobbyists," said Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and Demand Progress, an organization that has staunchly opposed the bills for months.
SOPA is being aggressively pushed by Hollywood movie studios, major record labels and luxury goods providers as an effort to crackdown on internet piracy of their products. But the tools envisioned are so extreme that tech experts warn the legislation threatens the very functionality of the Internet. The ACLU and other free-speech groups emphasize that by authorizing the federal government and corporations to shut down entire websites without a trial for posting just a single piece of copyright-infringing content, the bill would sharply curb the exercise of free speech online.
Delay has been the dominant strategy for SOPA opponents in Washington for some time. The deeper into 2012 the vote on the bill is pushed back, the more likely the legislation is to die in an election year.
"It is good news," said Sherwin Sie, deputy legal director Public Knowledge, a non-profit group opposing the bill. "The last thing you want is to get something like this rushed through at the last minute while people are trying to do something else. That's been the message of SOPA opponents throughout. What's the big rush?"
It's a legislative strategy that members of Congress are all too willing to accept. With huge corporations on both sides of the bill, lawmakers will be able to request another round of campaign contributions, no matter what the legislation's ultimate fate may be.
"The most troubling dynamic in Congress is the way the agenda itself becomes a tool for fundraising," notes Harvard University Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig. "Dramatic fights over billion-dollar industries are exactly what legislators want going into an election year, because it flushes money into their pot. "
And SOPA is precisely one of those issues. Smith did not need to delay the vote in order to round up additional support to ensure passage. The House Judiciary Committee has close ties to Hollywood and is strongly supportive of the bill. Smith wrote the legislation, and over the past two days, the committee shot down amendments to weaken or moderate provisions of the legislation by wide margins.
"Congress benefits from keeping us all in suspense," noted Gabriela Schneider, spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency."Those special interests who have a stake in it are ... contributing directly to campaigns, and this gives them more time to do it."