By Tom Still

MADISON – For many users of the Internet, the online lobbying effort that blocked two “internet piracy” bills from whizzing through Congress was best summarized by the recent 24-hour blackout of the English-language version of Wikipedia.

For one day in late January, would-be users of the online encyclopedia were greeted with a message about why the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the companion “Protect IP Act” would hamper creativity and threaten free speech.

“In short, these bills are efforts to stop copyright infringement by foreign web sites, but, in our opinion, they do so in a way that actually infringes free expression while harming the Internet,” read a message from Wikipedia.

That view, amplified by similar appeals on web sites as large as to tens of thousands of blogs to millions to Twitter messages, sidelined both pieces of legislation last week. The bills (S.968 and H.R. 3261) were backed primarily by the entertainment industry and may yet come back in an amended form.

Whatever happens next in Washington, however, won’t diminish the significance of the largest “e-lobbying” effort in the history of the Internet – or the commitment of its users to the principle of largely unfettered expression.

One of the uniquely American innovations of the last quarter century has been the Internet. It has been a model of innovation from the start and continues to be so, creating opportunity, companies and jobs for millions of Americans.

Of course, the Internet is not immune to manipulation. That is evidenced by the proliferation of rogue websites, most often established offshore, that are essentially dedicated to counterfeiting, copyright infringement and other criminal activities. That’s why the internet piracy bills were introduced.

Unfortunately, both overshot the mark. As written, they would have exposed law-abiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to uncertain liabilities, private rights of action and technology mandates that would hamper the historically free-flowing, innovative nature of the Internet itself.

The bills would have forced tech companies to pre-screen and monitor all user comments, pictures and videos – all but killing the burgeoning social media industry. In addition, they would have compelled all Internet search engines, ISPs, social networks and any website with a hyperlink to police all these links and could shut a website down that linked to any type of pirated content.

These bills would make it harder for young companies to grow, to attract investors and to generally operate in an environment that isn’t dampened by the constant threat of red tape and litigation. If you’re launching a new Internet company, the last thing you want to do is spend time fighting web-o-crats.

Congress already has at its disposal a better mechanism. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 provides a safe harbor for Internet companies that act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites. The DMCA is one of the big reasons companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter weren’t crushed in their early days by frivolous lawsuits. Existing law works for the vast majority of online companies.

That’s not to say pirating isn’t a serious problem. It can be addressed, however, in other ways that don’t disadvantage domestic Internet and technology companies that aspire to be fair, conscientious players.

Those include the Internet’s own self-policing functions. Internet governance is currently restricted to a non-profit, multinational body based in California. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers maintains a host of technical standards, which allows traffic to flow throughout the global communications network. ICANN is a private organization with an international board of directors, but there is already some oversight by Washington because it’s a U.S.-based corporation.

At an international conference on the Internet about six years ago, a member of then-President Bush’s administration said it well: “The Internet itself is not controlled by any single government; it is not controlled by any single person. It is a manifestation of the creativity and the genius of the world spirit… The promise of the Internet is not fulfilled by economic growth alone. Its greater promise is the opportunity it offers to the people of every nation to pursue educational, cultural, political, medical, scientific and commercial achievements for the betterment of all.”

As last year’s Arab Spring protests and subsequent events have demonstrated, the Internet has become a foundation for 21st century democracy. While the Internet should be neither above nor below the law, Congress must take care not to undermine a platform rooted in the most exportable of American values – freedom of expression.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.