SOPA Opera, Republican Presidential Candidates Edition

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I expect that it will have little bearing on the outcome of the Republican primaries, but I was surprised by the conversation in last night’s debate about the great Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley brawl underway in Washington over online piracy. You can read my piece from this morning for a primer on the debate over what is shorthanded as SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). But the gist is that the big record and movie studios are pressing Congress for new powers to crack down on copyright theft by piracy websites that allow users to, for instance, download free copies of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol. In response, the Silicon Valley-based dot-com world is warning that the remedies under discussion are ill conceived, authoritarian and will cause severe unintended economic consequences. Right now Congress has slammed the brakes on SOPA and its Senate counterpart bill, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and its advocates are regrouping to see what they might salvage.

When the issue came up last night, I thought the GOP candidates (save perhaps the libertarian Ron Paul) might reflexively talk tough about stamping out copyright theft, and express support for some kind of strong legislative action. In part I was thinking politics: Hollywood execs and music moguls are not traditional Republican allies, to be sure, but the GOP-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce and influential CEOs like Rupert Murdoch are pushing hard for the legislation. (Here’s where I dutifully note that TIME’s corporate parent, Time Warner, is doing the same.) But there’s also principle: Republicans tend to put a high priority on law and order, often subordinating other issues like civil rights or personal freedom. Think of the stop-and-search debate in urban areas, the opposition to illegal immigrant “amnesty,” or homeland security measures like wiretapping.

And yet not one of the four candidates on stage expressed support for SOPA/PIPA. “I’m standing for freedom,” declared Mitt Romney, who called the bills “far too threatening to freedom of speech and movement of information across the Internet.” Newt Gingrich allowed that he is still “weighing” the issue, but then ripped Hollywood’s pro-regulation position: “The idea that we’re going to preemptively have the government start censoring the Internet on behalf of giant corporations’ economic interests strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do.” Also citing “freedom,” Ron Paul boasted that he was the first Republican to oppose the law. Only Rick Santorum, who sounded a little startled by the consensus forming around him, gave the entertainment industry’s position any real credence, and nodded to the traditional law-and-order line: “The Internet is not a free zone where anybody can do anything they want to do and trample the rights of other people…. We have laws, and the respect of law and the rule of law is an important thing.” Yet even Santorum made clear that he doesn’t support the law, which he said “goes too far.”

I don’t have a neat explanation for this consensus. You might theorize that the candidates have concluded that there’s more money to be raised from Silicon Valley than from Hollywood. And that Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter have enough public support and influence to inflict real harm on a candidate who crosses them. (And that rebuking Rupert Murdoch is hard, but ticking off Chris Dodd is fun.) Or perhaps the candidates were persuaded by the argument that SOPA really was poorly crafted, and sure to cause collateral damage. And that, when in doubt, the system should not err on the side of protecting intellectual property but rather defending the autonomy of the Internet–in which case we’re witnessing a defining moment of political philosophy.

All that being said, this debate isn’t over. SOPA’s chief sponsor has withdrawn his bill, and its opponents are celebrating. But Ron Paul almost surely got it right last night when he issued a warning to his audience: “This bill is not going to pass,” he said. “But watch out for the next one.”