Lessons of SOPA: How a Slam Dunk Bill was Stopped

Passage of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) seemed inevitable. It was introduced with 40 Senate co-sponsors, including plenty of both Republicans and Democrats. (At the time it was called PIPA — Protect IP Act.) Senate passage requires 51 votes; to override a filibuster you need more. The entertainment industry (Hollywood) had spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year to pass such a bill; the people behind the lobbying felt the survival of their industry was at stake. Senator Patrick Leahy, whose office wrote the bill, is in the new Batman movie.

Yet SOPA was defeated.

The story, as I was told it, begins on a Sunday. The bill was scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, three days later. Peter Eckersley, who works at the Electronic Freedom Foundation in San Francisco, called Aaron Swartz, who lives in New York, to ask, “How are we going to defeat this?” At that point, Aaron hadn’t heard of it. Aaron’s talk about this.

It is a stunning example of David defeating Goliath. I asked Aaron what he learned from it. He told me three lessons:

1. Popular support matters. It can overcome large amounts of money. The anti-SOPA forces spent little money but got many people to tell their Congressman or Senator that they opposed the bill. The domain registrar GoDaddy reversed its position on the bill. Aaron worked with lobbyists for Google. The lobbyists believed, at least at first, that the bill could not be stopped, only weakened.

2. A little-known issue can be made a well-known issue. When SOPA was introduced, shortly before the scheduled vote, no one had heard of it. At MSNBC, and presumably other news organizations, employees were told not to cover it. When people at Google were approached to support the opposition, at first they said the bill couldn’t possibly be that bad or they would have heard of it. Without coverage by MSNBC etc., eventually everyone heard of it.

3. People will act if they can be convinced they are responsible. People at Wikipedia and Google, not to mention the originator of the GoDaddy boycott, were convinced to act, says Aaron, because they were convinced that they bore responsibility for the outcome, whatever it was. (I would put it differently. I would say they were convinced they could help determine the outcome.)

What interests me most about this story is how wrong the lobbyists were. They’re the experts in how to change/defeat legislation. They were utterly wrong. They understood the forces within their system but had no understanding of what was possible outside their system. I think healthcare experts will turn out to be equally wrong.

3 Replies to “Lessons of SOPA: How a Slam Dunk Bill was Stopped”

  1. “Passage of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) seemed inevitable. It was introduced with 40 Senate co-sponsors, including plenty of both Republicans and Democrats. (At the time it was called PIPA — Protect IP Act.) Senate passage requires 51 votes; to override a filibuster you need more. The entertainment industry (Hollywood) had spent hundreds of millions of dollars per year to pass such a bill; the people behind the lobbying felt the survival of their industry was at stake. Senator Patrick Leahy, whose office wrote the bill, is in the new Batman movie.”

    This is incorrect.

    SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) was introduced by Lamar Smith to the House of Representatives. PIPA (PROTECT IP Act) was introduced to the Senate by Patrick Leahy.

    Two completely different bills, both introduce at nearly the same time and both attempting to accomplish the same thing. Pretty much the rest is correct though, it had bi-partisan support (SOPA introduced by a Republican and PIPA by a Democrat).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PROTECT_IP_Act
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act

  2. Lobbyists are always in favor of a bigger, more intrusive, more activist, and more interventionist state, since that is more money in their pockets, even though it is often less money in the pockets of their clients.

    Lobbyists are excessively cozy with the state. Let us suppose you are a big business that employs a team of lobbyists. Chances are Senator big shot will call up your lobbyists, and ask “what most terrifies your biggest paying customers. What could plausibly pass, and create the most horrifying ruin and destruction for them. They will tell him. He will then introduce the bill, in order to get paid off for it not passing.

    Seth: In this particular case, you could say the lobbyists believed that only tweaking was possible because that is the main thing lobbyists are paid for.

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