MN Senators Franken and Klobuchar co-sponsoring controversial Internet censorship legislation


The Protect IP Act (PIPA) (S.968) was first proposed in the Senate in May by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) with the intention of stopping “rogue websites dedicated to infringing on counterfeit goods.” Initially cosponsored by other 11 Senators, including Minnesota’s Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, 28 peers have since joined.

A House equivalent, “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) (HR. 3261) was introduced in October, since which the House Judiciary Committee have examined surrounding issues of SOPA in mid November and subsequently debated changes last week.

PIPA is targeting domain name system providers, financial companies, and ad networks — not companies that provide Internet connectivity — like SOPA. That basic idea here is to make new sets of intermediaries the checkpoints at which authorities can police for websites dealing in infringing content.  While SOPA has been garnering most of the headlines, for all intents and purposes, these are two peas of the same pod.

Financially motivated by interests who see a future based less on innovation and more on political protection, this legislation is paid for by organizations and corporations like MPAA, Dell, Microsoft, Sony, RIAA, IIPA and the US Chamber of Commerce, amongst others.

The MPAA suggests “more than $58 billion is lost to the U.S. economy annually due to content theft, including more than 373,000 lost American jobs, $16 million in lost employees earnings, plus $3 billion in badly needed federal, state and local governments’ tax revenue.”

Opponents see this as a redux of the controversial Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) that narrowly failed to become law in late 2010, and many are viewing it as no less problematic than its predecessor.  Since the introduction of SOPA and its Senate twin PIPA, staunch opposition has been snowballing.

Human rights supporters and grassroots Internet freedom fighters consider the legislation, as proposed, a threat to the freedom for expression that the web was designed to provide, and take particular issue with the potential for abuse in the form of online censorship.

Entrepreneurs and investors have their own reasons for concern. A Booz & Company report released in November a study shows that that 80% of venture capitalists and angel investors interviewed said they would rather invest in a risky, weak economy with the current laws than a strong economy with the proposed law in effect.  Over 50 prominent tech angel investors believe “PIPA will ultimately put American innovators and investors at a clear disadvantage in the global economy.”

Google and other tech behemoths — AOL, eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo and Zynga — also lodged a formal complaint mid November the form of a letter sent to key Senate and House lawmakers. “We support the bills’ stated goals,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, the bills as drafted would expose law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities [and] mandates that would require monitoring of web sites.”

A New York Times op-ed called it “The Great Firewall” , echoed by “Serious problems that must be fixed.”  A division of the U.S. Department of energy warned that SOPA wold “negatively impact U.S. and global cybersecurity and Internet functionality,” and 100 law professors from 31 states are openly opposed on the grounds of “violating our [U.S.] core tenets of due process.”

Two days ago, a group of prominent Internet and security engineers who played major roles in birthing the web sent ‘An Open Letter From Internet Engineers to the U.S. Congress’. “…these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure,” says the document, signed by 83 — including legends such as Vint Cerf, Jim Gettys, Tony Lee and Robert W. Taylor.

“When we designed the Internet the first time, our priorities were reliability, robustness and minimizing central points of failure or control. We are alarmed that Congress is so close to mandating censorship-compliance as a design requirement for new Internet innovations. This can only damage the security of the network, and give authoritarian governments more power over what their citizens can read and publish. The US government has regularly claimed that it supports a free and open Internet, both domestically and abroad. We cannot have a free and open Internet unless its naming and routing systems sit above the political concerns and objectives of any one government or industry.”

The core of the constitutional concerns over freedom of speech can be found in the uncertainty of the legalese — void of precedent and clear definition, it leaves the Internets future for many open to interpretation by few.   For example, the current version of SOPA would allow copyright holders to apply for court orders and the Attorney General to, in turn, have sites blocked or de-listed without a proper hearing. PIPA, on the on the hand, also involves similar questionable tactics around DNS and other components of online commerce.

The greater collective takes pains in regulatory consequences, international jurisdiction, and lack of technological understanding. In sum, a large part of the problem here is that the text of each bill, as put forward, doesn’t carefully distinguish enough of the ambiguities in all of these areas.

Both Minnesota Senators have been active around technology and innovation related issues as of late, whether collectively or independently.

Franken has a history of siding with the concept of ‘Net Neutrality’. In February, he was elected to Chairmain of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law and has since proactively pursued an active consumer protection agenda. He now finds himself embattled between big business and the same gray areas of Internet privacy which he purports to defend.

Klobuchar, a perceived political champion of Minnesota’s innovation initiatives, held an “Innovation Summit” in January and subsequently introduced the “Innovate America” Act in February to “help revitalize America’s innovative edge and ability to compete in the global economy.”

“The Innovate America Act will create jobs and foster innovation by establishing a more favorable environment for small businesses and entrepreneurs everywhere,” counterpart Sam Brown (R-MA) added.  Yet copyright and intellectual property laws hang in a delicate policy balance between the monopoly and relinquishment of ideas.   It’s difficult to imagine how PIPA will be beneficial towards startups and entrepreneurs.

It remains to be seen where things go from here. PIPA was approved by committee and appears headed for a Senate vote at some point.   Friday’s SOPA markup saw the introduction of some 50 amendments, but was cut short as time ran out. Security experts may be called in for the next hearing, which appears to be on Wednesday, but may be delayed until next year given the timing.

What is your perspective? Leave a note below or contact U.S. Senator Al Franken at (202) 224-5641 & U.S. Senator Klobuchar at (202) 224-3244 to let their offices know where you stand.

*Neither Senator was available for comment at the time of publishing, but were sent a copy of this article for any follow-up.  Peter Fleck contributed to research.


  • Tristan

    Thanks for writing about this, Jeff. It is a very important issue to so many people.

  • LLEN

    Just discovered your site.  Is there an easy way to get a printable version online?
    Thanks for the informative article. 


  • fuzzmello

    This piece is just now breaking wide on the web. I think Senator Franken might have some explanation for this that could just involve his Hollywood past. 

    How does it feel to be the one who has to sacrifice his bespoken principles to satisfy his personal obligations, Senator?  How does it feel to sell out your supporters? You're now the worst of the lot, congratulations.  Pun that one off.

  • Pwdevine

    Al Franken has been a Hollywood insider for decades. I am not at all surprised to see him excited about taking away freedoms and providing more “governement intervention” in the name of security. Laughable weasel words from a couple socialist congress cronies.

  • Tech2R4

    Jeff: The American people need to defend the long standing, sometimes misread (purposely misinterpreted) US Constitution. I believe our Founding Fathers expected the allegiance to the document's contents to come under political fire. Withdrawing godly prayer from schools was unhelpful in this regard. Literary censorship only fueled the fire for people to read banned works. Blackballing American directors, film writers and the the like in the McCarthy era isn't unlike the blackballing of privacy and the freedom to internet usage which we face today; but this, this issue is much grander in scope. We need to be proactive in order to turn this vote on January 24 around. Big brother is afoot.