When large content holders want to rewrite copyright law, or enact legislation like the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, they give House Judiciary chairman Lamar Smith a call.
Rep. Lamar Smith, whose congressional district in Texas encompasses the cropland and grazing land stretching between Austin and San Antonio, might seem an unlikely ally for Hollywood on Internet piracy.
Smith, a Republican member of the Tea Party Caucus, is from an old South Texas ranching family and proudly subscribed to Field and Stream magazine as a college freshman. He earned a perfect "A+" rating from the National Rifle Association and, in a move not calculated to endear him to coastal elites, tried to increase fines for "indecent" broadcasts.
The self-described former ranch manager has become Hollywood's favorite House Republican not because of his conservative views on social issues, or his zero percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America -- but because he heads the influential House Judiciary committee, which is charged with drafting copyright laws. (Sen. Orrin Hatch, the occasional songwriter who once proposed banning peer-to-peer networks, probably qualifies as Hollywood's favorite Republican senator.)
Smith has scheduled a vote today on his Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA -- a bill so controversial that only big media companies with headquarters far from Texas Hill Country seem truly enthusiastic about it.
"This is a prime example of the content industry capturing members of government," says Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's hard to imagine how Rep. Smith's constituents are well-served by this legislation. His district seems to be about as far from Hollywood as any district can be." EFF today released an open letter from 83 prominent Internet engineers against SOPA.
The TV, movie, and music industries are the top donors to Smith's 2012 campaign committee, according to data complied by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Another reason why Smith's unyielding support of SOPA -- a revised version he introduced this week did little to quell criticism -- is noteworthy is that his congressional district includes part of the Austin area, home to offices for Dell, Facebook, and Apple. Facebook, whose Austin offices Smith visited last year, is no fan of SOPA. Also nearby: local branches of eBay and Google, also foes of Smith's legislation.
Smith declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.
SOPA represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. It would allow the Justice Department to seek an order making allegedly piratical Web sites virtually vanish from the Internet. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA.)
Getting cozy with copyright holders
In another sign of the close relationship between Smith's offices and large copyright holders, the SOPA-supporting National Music Publishers' Association last month announced that Allison Halataei, Smith's deputy chief of staff, had joined the group to be its vice president for government affairs. (A report this week from the Sunlight Foundation highlighted where other former Judiciary aides ended up.)
The music publishers group counts executives from EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, and the Universal Music Publishing Group on its board of directors. It previously feted Smith at a dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, where the Texas Republican received the "President's Award" for his enthusiasm for expanding copyright law.
It's difficult to overstate how capably Hollywood and its allies woo members of Congress. The American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers, or ASCAP (a SOPA fan) held a concert in the Library of Congress where Smith and other politicians took to the stage to introduce the performers.
BMI (another SOPA fan) organized an event at the Friars Club in New York City where members of Congress could mingle with musicians and, if they wanted, join the legendary jazz double-bassist Ron Carter for a few tunes. Smith is a "true friend," BMI lobbyist Fred Cannon claims. And it's unlikely that Patrick Leahy's abilities as an actor -- he heads the Senate Judiciary committee and sponsored the Protect IP Act -- earned him cameo appearances in two Batman movies, including the 2008 film The Dark Knight.
"I think that Chairman Smith genuinely believes that he's defending property rights that are at the heart of capitalism," says Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a free-market think tank that sent a letter to Smith yesterday criticizing SOPA. "I don't doubt his intentions."
Szoka says that Smith appears to have been ensnared by "a trap that conservatives can sometimes fall into: of being so upset about what they see as an attack on property rights, that they abandon their normal healthy skepticism about government regulation."
In general, Smith is a fierce critic of a Justice Department with unchecked, arbitrary power: he's pressed the DOJ on open government laws, the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal, and on its unusual decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, in court.
Yet his own proposal hands tremendous authority to the Justice Department. SOPA would let the attorney general obtain a court order requiring Internet providers to "prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site that is subject to the order." That includes Internet Protocol address blocking and also appears to allow deep packet inspection to restrict access to specific URLs.
Rep. Jared Polis, an openly gay Democrat whose district includes Boulder, Colo. and is probably Smith's polar opposite on social issues, is a bit more pointed in his criticism.
"Other Republicans have been very skeptical of the attorney general's leadership, of his use of discretion," Polis told CNET in an interview this week. "And here we're going to give him enormous powers over the Internet and allow him to use them at his discretion in a selective way."
SOPA has attracted criticism from Internet engineers, Web companies including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Zynga, and civil liberties and human rights groups. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe says SOPA violates the First Amendment and "should not be enacted by Congress."
Smith, whose favorite topics include allegations of media bias, appears to relish the fight. In a press release yesterday, Smith accused critics of "spreading lies about the legislation in an attempt to stall efforts by Congress to combat foreign rogue Web sites."
It won't be the first time Smith has chosen to confront Internet companies and civil liberties groups. In 2002, he used the same language to defend a proposal -- ultimately unsuccessful -- he supported that would have permitted copyright holders to disable or otherwise impair a peer-to-peer node that they suspected was distributing their intellectual property without permission.
In 2007, he proposed that sexually explicit Web sites must post warning labels on their pages or face imprisonment. He opposed a journalist shield law for bloggers, and pushed to expand the ability of police to conduct warrantless Internet wiretaps.
Probably the most significant political tussle came over data retention. In 2007, Smith said that Internet providers must be required by law to keep track of what their users are doing in case police want access to the logs later. He's been winning that one, at least so far: his legislation was finally approved in a 19 to 10 committee vote in July.
Last updated at 7:30 a.m. PT