Ryan won’t support Internet piracy bill

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) found himself at the center of a controversy he did not create this month.

The controversy stemmed from H.R. 3261, the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which would empower the U.S. Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines, Internet providers and ad networks cut off access to sites “dedicated” to copyright infringement. The bill is aimed at blocking foreign sites that offer illegal and cheap copies of movies, music and television shows with impunity.

A broad coalition of forces, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, organized labor and advocates for Hollywood and the recording industry, are supporting the bill, which was sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

However, consumer watchdog groups and major Internet companies, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, are opposing SOPA and warn that the bill could stifle innovation and censor free speech.

The division between support and opposition on the bill is not falling directly down party lines.

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, became a target of “Operation Pull Ryan” (www.pullryan.com), a Reddit campaign community, last month, and Internet rumors quickly spread that Ryan was a sponsor of the bill. He was not. Ever.

Ryan originally declined to take a stance on the bill. Eventually, as the Internet campaign against him grew, Ryan issued a statement announcing his opposition to the bill: “The Internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history. It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse. I do not support H.R. 3261 in its current form and will oppose the legislation should it come before the full House.”

Smith said his bill does not apply to lawful websites, and opponents such as Google are “spreading lies” about SOPA.

“Chairman Ryan is usually very knowledgeable on issues before Congress, which is why it’s surprising that he appears not to have closely read the manager’s amendment to the Stop Online Piracy Act," Smith said in an emailed statement to The Hill, a web site that tracks Congress.  "Had Chairman Ryan read the manager’s amendment, he would have realized that the bill targets only foreign websites dedicated to illegal activity.  It’s not regulation to enforce the law against online criminals. And it’s not censorship to prevent online criminals from stealing the products and profits that rightly belong to American innovators."

Smith claimed foreign websites are costing American businesses billions of dollars and thousands of jobs every year.

As “Operation Pull Ryan” progressed, members of the movement began to gravitate toward Rob Zerban, Ryan’s Democratic opponent in the 2012 elections. Zerban, a Kenosha County Board supervisor, was quick to denounce SOPA and credited his opposition with helping him to raise more than $220,000 in campaign donations in the final quarter of 2011.

Zerban said, "Paul Ryan has bowed to public pressure and decided to join me in opposing SOPA legislation, which endangers our freedoms online. This legislation is clearly contrary to the will of the people, and thousands of people helped get that message through to Paul Ryan. I realize I am a partner in this effort with the public and I am not claiming credit for this. The American people rallied behind this effort and my position, and they got results.”

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the bill when Congress returns from its recess later this month. The Senate is also set to vote on its version of the legislation, the Protect IP Act, when Congress returns.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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