Early this year, the US Congress appears likely to move forward with two controversial copyright enforcement bills, even with vocal and widespread opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act in the Internet community.
The two bills, SOPA and PIPA for short, appear headed toward approval this year, unless opponents can change the minds of many lawmakers. Dozens of lawmakers have voiced support for the bills, despite reports from digital rights group Fight for the Future that more than 1 million people have sent email messages to Congress in opposition.
The US Senate is expected to begin floor debate on PIPA shortly after senators return to Washington, DC, on 23 January, and supporters appear to have the votes to override a threatened filibuster by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and a handful of other lawmakers.
Both bills have strong support in Congress and among some segments of US industry. The US Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America, two powerful trade and lobbying groups, are among the 400-plus organisations supporting the bills. Other supporters include the National Football League, Time Warner, L'Oreal and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Several supporters of the two bills declined to make predictions, but it's hard to ignore the numbers in Congress so far.
PIPA has 41 co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate. The votes of just 19 more senators would be needed to override a filibuster from Wyden and his allies.
In the House of Representatives, the Judiciary Committee will continue a markup of SOPA when lawmakers return to Washington. During the first three days of the markup in December, lawmakers opposed to SOPA introduced about 20 amendments intended to water down the bill. All of them failed, by roughly two-to-one margins in the committee.
"I'm not very encouraged, quite frankly," said Paul Ferguson, senior threat researcher at Trend Micro, a cybersecurity vendor with concerns about the bills. "There's a lack of technical knowledge here in the legislative process."
DNSSEC would be set back by bills
Ferguson and other Web security experts have questioned provisions in both bills that would allow court orders forcing Internet service providers to block subscriber access to foreign websites accused of copyright infringement and domain name registrars to stop resolving queries that direct traffic to those sites.
The filtering provisions in both bills would set back the decade-long effort to roll out DNSSEC, a suite of security tools for the DNS, Ferguson said. "It seems like all the technical concerns are just being dismissed out of hand," he said.
The bills would also allow the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders to seek court orders blocking payment processors and online advertising networks from doing business with foreign sites accused of infringing copyright.
The DOJ-requested court orders could also bar search engines from linking to the allegedly infringing sites.
Other opponents of SOPA and PIPA seem a bit more optimistic about derailing the bills. While some powerful entertainment and content groups support the bills, "on the other hand, you have everybody else, including millions of Americans," said Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association, a large trade group opposed to the bills.
Opposition is growing because US residents are hearing that the bills would hurt the Internet, Petricone added. "There are plenty of people in both the House and Senate that are doubting the wisdom of the bills," he said.
The bills have hit a couple of speed bumps in recent weeks. Giant domain-name registrar Go.Daddy withdrew its support for SOPA after threats of a customer boycott, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has defended tough copyright laws in the past, questioned several provisions in SOPA.
"The federal government needs to protect intellectual property rights," wrote James Gattuso, senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the foundation. "But it should do so in a way that does not disrupt the growth of technology, does not weaken Internet security, respects free speech rights, and solves the problem of rogue sites."
Waiting for a White House petition response
In addition, since 18 December, more than 46,000 people have signed a WhiteHouse.gov petition calling for President Barack Obama to veto SOPA. A second petition, calling for Obama to stop PIPA, has generated more than 51,000 signatures since 31 October.
The Obama administration has promised to issue an official response to all petitions that generate more than 25,000 signatures within a month.
Opponents of the bills are waiting for the White House's official position, said Heather Greenfield, spokeswoman for the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a tech trade group opposed to both bills.
The White House "has responded to petitions about alien life on earth, so we imagine they'll respond to the ones about SOPA, too," she said.
CCIA is also encouraged that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and main sponsor of SOPA, has promised to hold a hearing on the cybersecurity implications of the bill, Greenfield said.
"We're optimistic that if members really understood the Internet architecture and cybersecurity measures, they would not support SOPA as written," she added. "Instead, members who are really committed to combatting online piracy would look for effective ways to do that without compromising cybersecurity or the open architecture of the Internet."
Lammakers continue to hear from opponents of the bills, she said. "Members of Congress say their phones are ringing with calls from thousands of Internet users who are furious Congress plans to censor and regulate the Internet - ahead of understanding what they're doing," she said. "So this could be the netroots issue, and it's hard to say yet how that's going to impact support."