December 19, 2011
The U.S. Senate will debate a controversial Hollywood-backed copyright bill as soon as senators return in January.
A vote on the Protect IP Act, a close cousin of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, will be held January 24, thanks to a last-minute push by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) over the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who calls Protect IP "a bipartisan piece of legislation which is extremely important."
"This is a bipartisan piece of legislation which is extremely important," Reid said Saturday. "I repeat, it is bipartisan. I hope we can have a productive couple of days, pass this bill, and move on to other matters."
Both Protect IP and SOPA have earned the enmity of Silicon Valley companies, Internet engineers, venture capitalists, civil libertarians, and a growing number of Internet users because of the methods they use to make suspected piratical Web sites virtually disappear from the Internet. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, author of the treatise American Constitutional Law, says this approach violates the First Amendment.
On Saturday, as the Senate was preparing to adjourn until 2012, Reid proposed that the initial debate on Protect IP would take place at 2:15 p.m. ET on January 24, one day after senators return from the holidays.
"I am pleased the majority leader has filed a motion to proceed to the Protect IP Act," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Protect IP's author, said afterward. "The costs of online infringement are American jobs, harm to America's economy, and very real threats to consumers' safety. The answer cannot simply be to do nothing."
In the House of Representatives, allies of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Association of America also are moving with dispatch. Even though the House is likely not to be in session then, SOPA author Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has scheduled a vote on the legislation and related amendments for Wednesday, just in case.
"From our perspective we don't understand the rush, especially when these are dramatic policy changes with regard to the Internet," Markham Erickson, head of NetCoalition, whose members include Amazon.com, eBay, Yahoo, and Google, told CNET today. "We think they ought to be handled in a very thoughtful and careful way."
One explanation for the rush to vote is that a groundswell of opposition among Internet users has become better organized and higher-profile in the last month--meaning that if SOPA and Protect IP supporters move quickly, they may be able to send one version of the legislation or another to President Obama for his signature.
Nearly 90,000 Tumblr users telephoned Congress to register their disagreement, and another 10,000 did using Engine Advocacy's Web site. More than 1 million people have signed a petition posted by the Avaaz.org advocacy group; over 700,000 people chose to "like" the AmericanCensorship.org anti-SOPA site.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a foe of Protect IP, has threatened to filibuster it on the Senate floor. "I will be working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle over the next month to explain the basis for this widespread concern, and I intend to follow through on a commitment that I made more than a year ago, to filibuster this bill when the Senate returns in January," he said over the weekend.
Reid's motion to end debate, which would require a three-fifths supermajority of 60 senators to invoke a procedure called "cloture," is a preemptive strike against Wyden's promised filibuster.
Invoking cloture would impose a 30-hour limit on the motion to end debate. There would then be a second 30-hour period on the bill itself, and a third 30-hour period if supporters want to amend Protect IP from the version approved by a committee in May.
Obtaining 60 votes to end Wyden's filibuster curb debate, however, may not be that difficult for Hollywood's allies in the Senate: Protect IP already has 41 sponsors. (During last week's House Judiciary hearing, copyright enthusiasts outnumbered critics of the bill by margins of three-to-one or four-to-one.)
A representative for Wyden, who has offered an alternative proposal, told CNET today that her boss is undaunted:
The senator is prepared to require the Senate to take multiple cloture votes and use all time allowed under Senate rules to prevent passage of this misguided bill, even if that means taking a full week of floor time or longer. And he intends to use every minute of that floor time to let colleagues know that there is a lot more to voting for Protect IP than doing a favor for industry lobbyists.
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.