All four Republican presidential candidates today denounced a pair of controversial Hollywood-backed copyright bills, lending a sharp partisan edge to yesterday's protest against the legislation by Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other Web sites.
The bills are "far too intrusive, far too expensive, far too threatening (to) the freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said during tonight's CNN debate in South Carolina.
Romney's rivals offered similar criticisms of the Senate measure, Protect IP--scheduled for a floor vote next week--and the House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said that while he's "weighing" the bills, having "the government start censoring the Internet on behalf of giant corporations" is exactly the wrong thing to do. Former senator Rick Santorum said that while there is a "role" for the government in protecting intellectual property, SOPA and Protect IP go "too far."
Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas Republican, publicly opposed SOPA long before nearly any other member of Congress, as CNET reported in November. Paul said tonight that "the Republicans unfortunately have been on the wrong side of this issue"--SOPA's author is Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, Hollywood's favorite Republican--and he's glad to see that changing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, calls Protect IP an "extremely important" piece of legislation, and is planning a floor vote for next Tuesday despite objections from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican warned today that there are "serious issues" with the bill.
Wikipedia's English-language pages went completely black on Wednesday 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. (See CNET's FAQ on the topic.)
Here's an excerpt from the transcript of the debate, conducted by CNN's John King:
KING: Let's continue the economic conversation with some input from a question from Twitter. If you look up here you can see it, CNNDebate.
"What is your take on SOPA and how do you believe it affects Americans?"
For those who have not been following it, SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act, a crackdown on Internet piracy, which is clearly a problem. But opponents say it's censorship. Full disclosure, our parent company, Time Warner, says we need a law like this because some of its products, movies, programming, and the like, are being ripped off online.
Let me start with you, Mr. Speaker. There's two competing ends, two engines, even, of our economy here at on this.
How do you deal with it?
GINGRICH: Well, you're asking a conservative about the economic interests of Hollywood.
GINGRICH: And I'm weighing it. I'm weighing it. I'm not rushing in. I'm trying to think through all of the many fond left- wing people who are so eager to protect.
On the other hand, you have virtually everybody who is technologically advanced, including Google and YouTube and Facebook and all the folks who say this is going to totally mess up the Internet. And the bill in its current form is written really badly and leads to a range of censorship that is totally unacceptable.
Well, I favor freedom. And I think that if you -- I think we have a patent office, we have copyright law. If a company finds that it has genuinely been infringed upon, it has the right to sue. But the idea that we're going to preemptively have the government start censoring the Internet on behalf of giant corporations, economic interests, strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do.
KING: Mr. Speaker, Governor Romney, these companies complain -- some of them are based in Hollywood, not all of them are -- that their software, that their publishing, that their movies, that their shows are being ripped off.
ROMNEY: I think he got it just about right. The truth of the matter is that the law, as written, is far too intrusive, far too expensive, far too threatening, the freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet. It would have a potentially depressing impact on one of the fastest growing industries in America, which is the Internet, and all those industries connected to it.
At the same time, we care very deeply about intellectual content that's going across the Internet. And if we can find a way to very narrowly, through our current laws, go after those people who are pirating, particularly those from off shore, we'll do that.
But a very broad law which gives the government the power to start stepping into the Internet and saying who can pass what to whom, I think that's a mistake. And so I'd say no, I'm standing for freedom.
KING: I mean, it's a big issue in the country right now.
Congressman Paul and Senator Santorum, your views on this one quickly.
PAUL: I was the first Republican to sign on with a host of Democrats to oppose this law. And we have worked --
(APPLAUSE) PAUL: We have had a concerted effort, and I feel like we're making achievement. This bill is not going to pass. But watch out for the next one.
And I am pleased that the attitude has sort of mellowed up here, because the Republicans unfortunately have been on the wrong side of this issue. And this is a good example on why it's good to have somebody that can look at civil liberties and work with coalitions and bring people together. Freedom and the Constitution bring factions together. I think this is a good example.
KING: Those who support the law, Senator, argue tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.
SANTORUM: I don't support this law. And I agree with everybody up here that is goes too far. But I will not agree with everybody up here that there isn't something that can and should be done to protect the intellectual property rights of people.
The Internet is not a free zone where anybody can do anything they want to do and trample the rights of other people, and particularly when we're talking about -- in this case, we're talking about entities offshore that are doing so, that are pirating things. So, the idea that the government -- that you have businesses in this country, and that the government has no role to try to protect the intellectual property of people who have those rights in this country from people overseas pirating them and then selling them back into this country, it's great.
I mean, I'm for free, but I'm not for people abusing the law. And that's what's happening right now, and I think something proper should be done. I agree this goes too far.
But the idea that, you know, anything goes on the Internet, where did that come from? Where in America does it say that anything goes? We have laws, and we respect the law. And the rule of law is an important thing, and property rights should be respected.
KING: All right.
Gentlemen, I want to thank you.