House Cyber Legislation: Debunking the SOPA Myth

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In January, an Internet phenomenon never experienced in D.C. before lead to the presumed death of two bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protection IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.

In January, an Internet phenomenon never experienced in D.C. before lead to the presumed death of two bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protection IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. The two bills, which pitted content providers (e.g. Hollywood) against tech companies (e.g. Silicon Valley), were designed to counter the online trafficking of intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Instead, the widely perceived overreach of the bills led to a grassroots campaign that resulted in a number of congressmen and senators retracting their support for the bills and withdrawing them from consideration.

Ever since the SOPA/PIPA defeat, pundits have searched for the next bill that would suffer a similar fate. Some have even postured that any Internet-related bill had little chance of passage as members were scared of tech bills and the uproar they saw during the SOPA saga.

In the past few weeks, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, H.R. 3523, has been compared to SOPA, with many calling for the bill to be shelved because of privacy and civil liberties concerns. The bill, which will be on the House floor this week, was said by detractors to violate the Constitution and there was a call for a protest of the bill.  Among the headlines making the net in an attempt to drum up opposition to the bill:

"Say 'hello' to CISPA, it will remind you of SOPA"

"SOPA mutates into much worse CISPA, the latest threat to internet free speech"

"Spreading CISPA Awareness (Similar to SOPA, But Worse), Anonymous Initiates Tweet Bomb"

"The Ghost of SOPA Has Congress Spooked"

Yet, even civil liberties and privacy groups have admitted that CISPA is not SOPA. They have raised issues but note that that they are more concerned about the 4th Amendment than the 1st Amendment this time around. And, what looked like a groundswell of opposition to the bill because of the privacy concerns seems to have fizzled to traditional D.C. policymaking with lots of amendments being offered to correct the bill's perceived lack of privacy and civil liberties but none of the 100+ co-sponsors is pulling their names off the bill. Few have called for the bill to be pulled off the calendar and the grassroots movement seems to be largely led by the traditional privacy interest groups within the Beltway, not the netizens empowered by SOPA.

To be fair, the bill will not come to the House floor until later this week, when we will know for sure how it fares. But, even then, should the bill unexpectedly fail, it will do so by regular order and not in the face of protests or grassroots activism.

So, what does this mean for the SOPA myth of a new world order for Congress and its attempts to legislate tech? Maybe nothing. Or, maybe it is really a lesson of civil society in the innovation era. The CISPA-SOPA comparison was a false one to begin with as SOPA did not involve privacy or what the government could do to your ability to function on the Net. Rather, the debate over CISPA is one of privacy and our level of comfortability with our information being gathered and used by both the private sector and the government. As we've seen by the recent social networking phenomenon, privacy doesn't motivate us the same way that threatening to limit our ability to do something does. We share our information freely and while we would like to think that we support privacy, what we say does not always correspond with our actions, especially as we use the net to communicate and socialize. And that is why CISPA will make it to the House floor this week.

That's not to say we are not concerned about "big brother" watching us. One need only see the dozens of amendments offered by both Republicans and Democrats to CISPA that attempt to limit the government's ability to collect certain types of data, puts restrictions on how the government can use any data shared by the private sector, or require stricter privacy and civil liberties. The co-sponsors of CISPA, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), have already agreed to take some of these amendments.  

In the end, though, the exercise this week may show that SOPA was an anomaly that is not easily replicated just because a bill references tech, the Internet, or innovation.