U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy found himself in an uncomfortable and highly unusual position last week. The Vermont Democrat, one of the Senate’s leading and most devout and revered liberals, became the target of a massive popular uprising waged from coast to coast by none other than American liberals.
The assault was instigated by Internet power players like Wikipedia and Google, who are opposing a piece of legislation designed to crack down on the online piracy of intellectual property, such as films and music. Leahy, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is chief sponsor of the bill, (S968), called PIPA, or the Protect Intellectual Property Act. A similar yet slightly different bill — SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act — has been introduced in the U.S. House.
Google, Wikipedia, Facebook and other Internet players told their followers that the two bills could potentially lead to censorship on the Web, threaten domain access rights and impair cyber security. Wikipedia shut down its site as an act of protest Wednesday. Tens of thousands took the bait, besieged Capitol Hill offices with phone calls and emails, and were so effective in their protestations that Senate majority leader Harry Reid postponed a procedural vote on the Leahy bill that had been scheduled for this Tuesday. Leahy’s office alone received 302 calls and 1,202 emails on the PIPA bill.
Leahy suggests that opponents of the anti-piracy measure are crying wolf when there is no wolf in sight. The brunt of the opposition to PIPA and SOPA, he says, is misdirected.
“Much of what has been claimed about the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions,” the Vermont senator said in a statement.
PIPA will not affect Wikipedia and other domestic websites that have “any legitimate use,” Leahy explained. Rather, the bill is aimed at what he called the “foreign rogue website…that has no real purpose other than infringement.” Foreign websites engaged in such infringement and piracy of U.S. intellectual property cost Americans billions of dollars annually, Leahy said.
Domestic Internet sites like Google claim that PIPA and SOPA would be costly and arduous for them to comply with because they would need to monitor their own sites for foreign piracy if the legislation were enacted.
“There’s no need to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions in U.S. jobs,” Google said in a statement.
The alarm created by the Internet opposition to PIPA has caused some senators to withhold their immediate support for the legislation. Among them is Vermont’s other member of the Senate, Bernard Sanders.
“While I believe that online piracy is a serious issue, it is absolutely essential that the Internet remain open and free of censorship or the chilling effects that result in self-censorship.” Sanders said, in explaining why he has yet to come out in favor of PIPA. “I will not support legislation that results in censorship or self-censorship on the Internet.”
It would be difficult to accuse Leahy of supporting censorship of the Internet. “From the start of the Internet, he’s been a champion of Internet freedom,” David Carle, Leahy’s press secretary said. “He’s been the bridge between civil liberties and the law enforcement community.”
Leahy’s liberal credentials and his standing as a civil libertarian and defender of First Amendment rights are beyond question. Last year he received a perfect rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, one of only five senators to achieve such a ranking. (Sanders won a 95 percent rating to Leahy’s 100.) And the National Journal ranked Leahy and Sanders, along with seven others, the most liberal members of the Senate.
But there is another dynamic that may come into play here, and that is the inevitable force of the dollar in everything political in contemporary America. Leahy has received far more in campaign contributions from companies that support PIPA than from those that oppose the legislation, while for Sanders, the situation is reversed.
MapLight, a non-profit group that focuses attention on the pervasive role money plays in politics and on policy, reports that interest groups seeking passage of PIPA have donated $682,231 to Leahy’s coffers, while those working against the legislation have given him $176,075. Sanders, conversely, has received $158,746 from interest groups supporting passage of PIPA and $514,984 from those opposing the bill.
What’s more, many of Leahy’s most generous contributors are major supporters of PIPA. In fact, the five groups that have donated most to Leahy from 2007 to 2012 all are lobbying for passage of the legislation. They include Technet ($81,961), a group promoting innovation and technology; Girardi/Keese ($72,000), a large California law firm that specializes in intellectual property litigation; Time Warner ($62,150), the U.S. media giant that owns Warner Bros. movie studio; Walt Disney Co. ($45,150), the Hollywood film maker; and Vivendi ($36,706), an international media conglomerate that produces films and music.
As chairman of an influential Senate committee, Leahy receives big bucks from those on the opposite side of the PIPA fence as well. Google, for instance, gave the senator $21,600 between 2007 and 2012. And Intellectual Ventures, another major opponent of PIPA, was Leahy’s eight most magnanimous donor in that time span, contributing $28,400 to the senator’s campaign treasury.
Money doesn’t necessarily buy votes or support, but it often does acquire access.
In his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy has brought both sides into the negotiations over PIPA, the big film companies and music producers as well as the Internet firms and civil libertarians. “He’s been as inclusive as he can in shaping a compromise,” said Carle.
Now that PIPA has been put on temporary hold, Leahy will have to redouble efforts to forge a bill that can rein in piracy and convince the Internet companies and their supporters that censorship is not a legitimate concern. It won’t be easy. He’s caught between two opposing interests — the entertainment industry versus Internet companies and First Amendment supporters. He has been a strong advocate for both of those competing factions, and they have historically supported him. His status as a leading Senate liberal may rest on how skillfully he can bring about a compromise on his anti-piracy bill.