WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders yesterday indefinitely shelved two antipiracy bills that had rallied the Internet and rocked Capitol Hill, dealing a major defeat to the traditional media industry while emboldening a new breed of online political activists.
Using a medium that helped organize protests against the legislation, Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, announced via Twitter that the vote would be delayed. But he indicated that the issue, which had been scheduled for a vote Tuesday, had not died.
“There’s no reason that legitimate issues raised about PROTECT IP can’t be resolved,’’ he wrote, referring to the Senate bill by its shorthand name. “Counterfeiting & piracy cost 1000s of #jobs yearly. Americans rightfully expect to be fairly compensated 4 their work. I’m optimistic that we can reach compromise on PROTECT IP in coming weeks.’’
In the House, Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called off plans to draft his version formally of the antipiracy bill next month.
After vowing two days ago to move forward, Smith said in a statement yesterday, “The committee remains committed to finding a solution to the problem of online piracy that protects American intellectual property and innovation.’’ But he added, “The House Judiciary Committee will postpone consideration of the legislation until there is wider agreement on a solution.’’
Speaker John A. Boehner, talking with reporters yesterday in Baltimore, where House Republicans held their annual retreat, called the bill “well meaning,’’ but said it needed “more consensus.’’
Supporters of the shelved bills as well as opponents pushing an alternative backed by the Internet giants Google and Facebook said differences could be bridged. But privately, congressional aides and lobbyists say the pressures of an election year make action this year unlikely.
Lawmakers will not be eager to brave another firestorm incited by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and other popular websites.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, a key opponent of the bills, said lawmakers had collected more than 14 million names - more than 10 million of them voters - who contacted them to protest the once-obscure legislation.
“It’s going to be a new day in the Senate,’’ said Wyden, who is the coauthor with Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, of an alternative bill that seeks to choke off money flows to Internet pirates. “The way citizens communicate with their government is never going to be the same.’’
Wyden spoke briefly to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who was the author of the shelved bill, and both men said they pledged to find a way forward.
But Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made it clear that proponents of his bill, the Protect IP Act, felt burned by Internet companies who they said misled citizens into believing the bill would cripple the Internet.
The opposition turned illegal on Thursday when the online hacker group Anonymous brought down the Justice Department’s website.
“Assuming everyone’s telling the truth, that they want to stop the theft of property, that they want to stop endangering people with counterfeit goods, then we ought to be able to find common ground,’’ Leahy said. “I hope people, when they’re dealing, will deal honestly with you.’’
The Protect IP Act and its counterpart in the House, the Stop Online Piracy Act, had broad bipartisan support when they were drafted.
The bills were pushed hard by the Hollywood studios, recording industry, book publishing world, and US Chamber of Commerce as antidotes to rampant piracy of US cultural wares by offshore websites.
By Thursday night, senior Republican staff members were boasting that the remaining supporters of the bills were largely Democrats, even though members of both parties had helped draft them.
Leahy went along with Reid’s decision to back off but made it clear that he was doing so reluctantly.
“More time will pass with jobs lost and economies hurt by foreign criminals who are stealing American intellectual property and selling it back to American consumers,’’ he said in a statement.
“The day will come when the senators who forced this move will look back and realize they made a knee-jerk reaction to a monumental problem,’’ he added. “Somewhere in China today, in Russia today, and in many other countries that do not respect American intellectual property, criminals who do nothing but peddle in counterfeit products and stolen American content are smugly watching how the United States Senate decided it was not even worth debating how to stop the overseas criminals from draining our economy.’’