This has turned out to be an effective form of protest.
An Internet blackout Wednesday by Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla and thousands of other sites against two anti-piracy bills in Congress has started to have its desired effect: Co-sponsors of the legislation have changed sides and other lawmakers have called for more debate before any vote.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who was a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act — became the latest lawmaker Wednesday to pull his support. In the House, Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), originally a co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, pulled his name from the list of sponsors on Tuesday. A spokesman for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), meanwhile, told the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday that the congressman is also unable to support SOPA as written.
The widespread Internet protest is even bringing new Washington voices into the fray. Mostly silent in the debate, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tweeted Wednesday he doesn’t back the bills.
"I support intellectual property rights, but I oppose SOPA & PIPA," DeMint tweeted. "They're misguided bills that will cause more harm than good."
But the fact was that these bills were all but dead before the blackout. "[S]ponsors of the House and Senate bills ran into fierce and unexpected opposition, largely derailing their legislative plans. The White House didn’t issue a veto threat, per se, but the administration’s chief technology officials concluded, 'We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.' The statement added that any proposed legislation 'must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet,'" writes Steve Benen. "The White House’s position left SOPA and PIPA, at least in their current form, effectively dead."
Part of the problem here is that members of congress are often asked to vote on legislation dealing with issues they don't really understand. The members of the specific committees generally get the bills they generate, but outside those committees they're about as well informed as you or I might be. Think about it; do you really believe your congress critter is an expert on issues like internet commerce, international trade, the health insurance industry, nuclear power, and national defense all at the same time? Pretty doubtful.
As a result, congress members rely on lobbyists and their own colleagues to educate them. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but the problem is that there's often incentive for these educators to be a lot less than honest. And it's not just corporate lobbyists who present this problem, but citizen groups as well. Imagine being a member of a group committed to eliminating online porn -- giving congress the tools to shut down websites could be an inviting first step in realizing your goals. This is a precedent you want to set and you're obviously not going to give a presentation that includes a "here's the downside" PowerPoint slide (actually, small money lobbyists probably just write a letter or submit a study, but you get the idea).
It's hard to see how this can possibly be avoided. Even if we reduce the money influence of lobbyists, you could make a pretty damned good argument that the educational influence of lobbyists is almost necessary. You've seen congress. Some of these people are dumber than a sack of doorknobs. Their only actual skill seems to be in getting elected. I, for one, don't want Rep. Louie Gohmert trying to figure out NASA'a latest rocket science project or trying to figure out the math behind monetary policy. If you gave a monkey a shotgun, he'd do less damage.
So what's the answer? You're looking at it. Pressure from citizens and businesses that would be affected by SOPA and PIPA have severely hobbled the legislation's progress. Co-sponsors are jumping ship and the White House is suggesting it's heading for a dead end -- assuming it moves forward at all. It's not the blackout itself that's causing the problem for lawmakers, it's the message that websites are putting up instead of their usual content, a message they've been pushing for weeks now -- call your congress members, tell them to oppose these bills.
It's just like dealing with hate speech. If the answer to hate speech is more speech, not censorship, then the answer to misleading educational lobbying is more lobbying -- in this case, from actual voters. If you contact your representative or senator, it has an impact. If you tell them that you're going to do more than just vote against them -- that you're going to volunteer for and donate to their opponent in the next election -- it counts that much more.
If you doubt that your opinion matters, look at what's happening today and reassess that conclusion.