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The Future of Internet Policy Bills

On January 24, 2012, Congress was scheduled to vote on whether to debate two controversial bills regarding internet privacy and intellectual property. The Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were meant to limit online piracy and stem copyright infringement. However, they were met with fervent opposition from civil liberties advocates, privacy groups, online search engines and millions of consumers. Congressional offices were swamped with phone calls, letters and emails calling for legislators not to support the bill.

In fact, a week before the vote was to take place, a highly publicized online blackout was staged. Nearly 115,000 websites, including popular search engines Google and Wikipedia staged protests by blacking out their sites. Essentially, they asked the public: Imagine a world without innovation and free flowing knowledge?

Congress eventually ceded to public pressure and cancelled the vote; a move that essentially shelved the bill for the remainder of the legislative session. However, what was hailed as a dramatic and convincing victory against censorship may only be temporary. In previous years, Congress has considered a number of similar bills intent on controlling information disseminated online, including the Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004, the Protecting Intellectual Rights Against Theft and Expropriation (PIRATE) Act, the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008 (Pro-IP Act), and the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA). While all of these were not signed into law, it shows that when one bill fails, another will soon be introduced to take its place.

While it was interesting to see so many groups come together for a common cause, it is not likely that they will be engaged on every issue and every proposal that affects the Internet. Policy makers may understand this already, and may rely more on consultants who specialize in harnessing the views and interests of Internet users. However, lawmakers will have to make several changes in future proposals in order to reach their goals.

Specifically, they will have to modify the message behind future bills to reflect what is important to consumers; and even that may be a tall order. The proponents of SOPA and PIPA believed that the simple message of "piracy is bad" would gain public support when consumers actually viewed it as another means of Orwellian control of ideas and information. Also, they will have to combat the overarching concern that such legislation is simply another backroom deal between lobbyists, industry executives and legislators. Further, they will have to accept input from opposing views in order to create concise, narrowly construed regulations that do not punish lawful Internet use.

It remains to be seen whether future intellectual property proposals will follow these ideals. In the meantime, the next Internet regulation bill will be on the horizon soon.