Score one for the American people and Internet freedom

As the doors closed last Friday on the International CES, the world’s greatest innovation showcase, the doors also began closing on extreme legislation that would endanger the very innovation the event championed. Under the auspices of combating “rogue” websites that traffic in stolen digital content, the twin pieces of legislation – the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) – would in fact bestow unprecedented power on the federal government to arbitrarily close down entirely legal sites and bring an end to the Internet revolution.

As usual, CES had much excitement, buzz and optimism about the positive role of innovation. The massive event showcased over 3,100 innovative companies to 153,000 attendees, with some 6,000 media covering it. But the looming threat of PIPA and SOPA – favored by both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees – cast a shadow over the whole week. In response, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) held a press conference at CES to decry the proposals and propose a more innovation friendly alternative (the so-called OPEN Act).

Meanwhile, a panel session featuring several members of Congress expressed views on both sides and I offered my own opposition to SOPA and PIPA during my keynote address.

But as the show closed Friday, the dynamic shifted. To the applause of the assembled geeks, Issa announced that House Majority Leader Cantor had agreed to not bring the bill to the floor, even if it passed out of the House Judiciary Committee, unless there was a consensus supporting the bill.

Also, six Senators, including an original sponsor of PIPA, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), wrote Senate Leader Harry Reid asking him not to bring the bill to a floor vote unless its flaws were addressed. (This for a bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee 19-0). Hours later, the White House announced that despite its abhorrence for piracy, it was concerned about the bills’ impact on the Internet and innovation.

At least in the House, the legislation as drafted is effectively dead.

In the Senate, however, Reid reiterated his determination to bring PIPA to the floor despite the mounting opposition. Even with the Internet crippling “DNS” (short for “Domain Name System”) provisions removed, the bill remains a litigator’s dream that will allow content owners to choke innovation with too few due process protections.

The copyright lobby that has put millions in dollars lobbying for SOPA and PIPA is in shock. After locking up support from both chambers’ Judiciary Committees, they expected clear sailing. This is not an industry accustomed to setbacks.

The copyright owners have had their way with Congress for a long time, including extending the term of copyright some 14 different times since LBJ and expanding the penalties for copyright infringement. Their selfish crusade has led to cavalcade of lawsuits and hundreds of millions of dollars in statutory damages.

By the latest count, some 30,000 American families were destroyed by these lawsuits from the recording and publishing industries, which mercilessly hunted down casual Americans who did not know they were even breaking the law.

But not this time. The American people have rebelled, and Congress is finally beginning to listen. The public’s disdain for Congress’ cozy relationship with the content industry combined with the growing fear that the Internet itself was in danger to kill this terrible legislation. Whether this begins a long overdue review of other copyright laws remains to be seen.

For now, score one for the American public, who raised a voice of opposition so loud that not even Congress could ignore it. The content industry just got caught with its hand in the cookie jar.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”