Five days before a critical vote, senators are abandoning a bill to punish piracy on the web after an outpouring of online opposition to tinkering with Internet freedoms.
Senate Democratic leaders still plan to vote next Tuesday on taking up the Protect Intellectual Property Act and supporters were scrambling to make changes before then to answer some of the critics, but it was questionable whether they had the 60 votes needed.
Half-a-dozen of the 40 original co-sponsors of what is known as the PIPA bill withdrew their support Wednesday amid a one-day protest blackout by Wikipedia and other web giants and a flood of emails to Capitol Hill offices that at times doubled normal volumes.
When more than seven million sign a petition on Google saying the Senate bill and its counterpart in the House would censor the web and impose burdensome regulations on U.S. businesses, lawmakers listen.
"The overwhelming input I've received from New Hampshire citizens makes it clear there are many legitimate concerns that deserve further consideration before Congress moves forward with this legislation," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who represents that state. She is among the senators who pulled back their support of the bill.
Others included Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boozman of Arkansas. Nearly all cited the earful they are getting from constituents.
"I can say, with all honesty, that the feedback I received from Arkansans has been overwhelmingly in opposition to the Senate bill in its current form," Boozman said.
Several Democratic co-sponsors also now say they oppose the bill as it is now written.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who as majority leader controls the Senate's calendar, has resisted suggestions he put off the Tuesday vote. Reid and the bill's main sponsor, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, also a Democrat, say it is too important to delay action on legislation aimed at combating the billions of dollars American content creators and companies lose to foreign copyright violators and counterfeiters every year.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Thursday urged Democrats to shelve the bill for now, saying serious issues with the measure should be resolved before "prematurely" bringing it to the floor.
The Senate bill, and the parallel Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, would allow the Justice Department and copyright holders to seek court orders against foreign websites that steal from American content creators. It would bar advertising networks and payment facilitators such as credit card companies from doing business with the offending websites.
The bills have the strong support of the entertainment industry which loses billions every year to foreign copyright violators and from industries such as pharmaceuticals battling fake and sometimes harmful alternatives sold on the internet. The opposition, as demonstrated by Wednesday's protest, is led by internet-related industries that say the bills will lead to censorship of the internet and a surge in lawsuits that will discourage budding internet entrepreneurs.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a leading opponent of the bills, said the groundswell of opposition to legislation dealing with the esoteric subject of copyright law showed that Americans understand that "while combating copyright infringement is important, you shouldn't do extensive damage to the net."
He said the protests Wednesday were historic: "In terms of communicating with government the country is never going to be the same."
"It will change the way intellectual property policy is made in the future," agreed Michael Petricone, vice-president at the Consumer Electronics Association at a news conference Thursday organized by opponents of the bills. "On the internet there are no longer any back rooms" where lawmakers traditionally make deals on legislation.
Still, closed-door meetings continued as Leahy worked to come up with changes in his bill that might answer critics and increase the chances of getting 60 votes next Tuesday.
Both Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Republican, the author of SOPA, say they are open to changes while rebutting what they say are mischaracterizations of their bills.
"SOPA does not censor the internet," Smith said. "It only targets activity that is already illegal and only targets foreign websites that steal and sell America's technology, inventions and products."
Smith, whose committee will resume consideration of his bill next month, also said legislation offered by Wyden and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa that has won some good reviews from the high tech industry, would be inadequate and ineffective. The Wyden-Issa approach would put the International Trade Commission, rather than the Justice Department, in charge of claims against foreign websites.