An unprecedented online protest against a Hollywood-backed copyright bill may be working: some of its previous supporters in the U.S. Congress are backing down.
The protest, which included a Wikipedia blackout and home page alerts at Google.com and Amazon.com, has prompted some senators contacted by CNET today to abandon their earlier enthusiasm for Protect IP and the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. A Senate floor vote on Protect IP is scheduled for January 24.
"I'm withdrawing my co-sponsorship for the Protect IP Act," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
Sen. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican, "will be withdrawing his name as a co-sponsor" of Protect IP, a spokesman told CNET today. Fellow Protect IP co-sponsor Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican, said today that he wants "more time to re-examine the legislation before going to a vote" and has asked staff for a detailed briefing, a spokesman said.
And Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who has long been a close ally of Hollywood on copyright and is up for re-election this year, said on Twitter that "I will not only vote against moving the bill forward next week but also remove my co-sponsorship of the bill." Hatch's volte face is notable because of his enthusiasm for similar measures in the past: once proposed that copyright holders should be allowed to remotely destroy the computers of music pirates and tried to outlaw peer-to-peer networks through his Induce Act.
In the House of Representatives, where the similar Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, will be voted on in a committee next month, support also appears to be weakening.
Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican who is listed as a SOPA sponsor, "reserves judgment on the final bill," a spokesman told CNET today. "He's certainly not saying pass the bill as-is -- there are legitimate concerns in this bill." SOPA sponsor Tim Griffin, an Arkansas Republican, now says: "I will not support a bill unless my constituents are comfortable with it."
Wikipedia's English-language pages went completely black last night with a splash page saying "the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet" and suggesting that readers contact members of Congress. The blackout is intended to coincide with next week's Senate floor vote on Protect IP and a committee vote scheduled on the House version, called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. (See CNET's FAQ on the topic.)
The home pages of Craigslist and Google feature exhortations to contact members of Congress and urge them to vote against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate version called Protect IP. Amazon.com and Yahoo's Flickr have also joined in. (Craiglist's snarky note: "Corporate paymasters, KEEP THOSE CLAMMY HANDS OFF THE INTERNET!")
New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats who are Protect IP sponsors, sent CNET a joint statement saying: "While the threat to tens of thousands of New York jobs due to online piracy is real and must be addressed, it must be done in a way that allows the Internet and our tech companies to continue to flourish." They said they believe "both sides can come together on a solution that satisfies their respective concerns."
A spokeswoman for Protect IP sponsor Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said the volume of phone calls today has been "significant." Cardin, who previously said he couldn't vote for the measure in its most recent form, is remaining a co-sponsor "so that he can actively participate in fixing flaws in the current bill," she said.
Even some members of Congress who are remaining as sponsors are now doing so with markedly less enthusiasm.
"I'm hearing from South Dakotans on both sides of the issue," said Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat. "I've cosponsored the bill and plan to support cloture so we can continue the debate in a reasonable fashion. I will also be reaching out to Chairman Leahy and asking him to refine the bill and work with stakeholders to ensure their concerns are heard as we move forward."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, will remain a cosponsor. He'll vote to override a promised filibuster from Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, so "the bill can be debated and improved."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, said through her press secretary that she's "open to the final version changing and thinks everyone should come to the table and find a compromise." But she remains committed to being a SOPA co-sponsor.
A spokesman for SOPA sponsor Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, told the Omaha World-Herald that SOPA isn't the solution. And Rep. Ben Quayle, an Arizona Republican yesterday had his name removed from the official SOPA sponsor list.
Among the other Web sites that, in one way or another, have joined the blackout: Metafilter, the Consumer Electronics Association, BoingBoing, OpenDNS, WordPress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Internet's most popular dinosaur comic strip. Some physical protests are also planned.
SOPA, of course, represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore Web sites. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies, forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish. It's opposed (PDF) by many Internet companies, users, and civil liberties groups.
Sen. Blunt, who withdrew his support today, also said: "Upon passage of this bill through committee, Senate Judiciary Republicans strongly stated that there were substantive issues in this legislation that had to be addressed before it moved forward. I agree with that sentiment. But unfortunately, Senate Leader Harry Reid is pushing forward with legislation that is deeply flawed and still needs much work."
Sen. Boozman added in a Facebook post that: "We should not rush to pass this bill, rather we should be working to find another solution so that the epidemic of online piracy is addressed in a manner that ensures innovation and free speech is protected."
In one early sign that the blackouts and protests would have an effect, the MPAA yesterday characterized them as "stunts." The group's chairman, Chris Dodd, took a thinly veiled swipe at Wikipedia by denouncing the protests as "an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on [the sites] for information and [who] use their services." News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to offer similar thoughts.
Last updated at 12:55 p.m. PT