It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes the will of the people is powerful enough to influence Congress. Last spring, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed well-meaning legislation that sought to combat digital piracy — a very real problem. Two senators (who were not even on the Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Rand Paul) objected and, along with a number of their colleagues, their filibuster threat delayed the bill and prevented easy Senate passage.
Leaders cannot govern without the consent of the governed. Whether it’s the American Revolution, the East Germans tearing down their wall, the crumbling of the Soviet bloc, or the Arab Spring, people really do, by action and voice, empower a government. Those in power have a tendency to forget that, often to their own peril.
Even in modern-day America, occasionally our government must heed the public outside the normal cycle of the ballot box.
Responding to an outpouring from millions of constituents, scores of politicians from both parties abandoned the well-heeled copyright lobby, comprised of Hollywood and the recording industry, and turned their backs on SOPA/PIPA. The legislation is now forever dead in its current form. Led by advocates on both sides of the political aisle, the American public drew a line in the sand and dared Congress to cross it. When it was over, and the people had won, Senator Ron Wyden took to the Senate floor to describe what occurred:
Last week, tens of millions of Americans, empowered by the Internet, affected political change in Washington. Congress was on a trajectory to pass legislation that would change the Internet as we know it. … And when people learned about this, they said no. … Their voices counted more than all the political lobbying, more than all of the advertising, and more than all of the phone calls made by movie studio executives. Their voices were heard loud and clear. … Last week the Congress did what the American people wanted, instead of what Washington insiders wanted. That’s what I call change. … In all, in just one day, more than 15 million Americans communicated with Congress and urged it to reject the Hollywood proposal …
Since then, one image keeps flashing in my mind: in the movie “Gladiator” 2000), where the Coliseum crowd forced the Emperor Commodus to spare the lives of Russell Crowe’s character Maximus and his fellow gladiators. Having just won a “battle” they were supposed to have lost, the gladiators led by Maximus win over the crowd.
Commodus enters the arena to congratulate the gladiator, only to discover that their leader, Maximus, is his arch enemy. He wants to kill him, but dares not cross the crowd. He knew his power would weaken if he killed the slaves in defiance of the people’s will. Indeed, he expresses his frustration to his aide and plots revenge:
Commodus: And now they love Maximus for his mercy. So I can’t just kill him, or it makes me even more unmerciful! The whole thing’s like some crazed nightmare.
Falco: He is defying you. His every victory is an act of defiance. The mob sees this, and so does the Senate. Every day he lives, they grow bolder. Kill him.
Commodus: No. I will not make a martyr of him.
Like today, those in power just cannot enforce their will absent the consent of the governed. When faced with the overwhelming tide of public opposition, which was bipartisan and broad-based, our own Congress abandoned the SOPA and PIPA legislation. Yet the Roman Senate and the American Senate perhaps shared a similar detachment from the everyday concerns of the American people. This scene is too delightfully apropos not to share:
Gracchus: But the Senate IS the people, sire. Chosen from AMONG the people. To speak FOR the people.
Commodus: I doubt if any of the people eat so well as you, Gracchus. Or have such splendid mistresses, Gaius.
History will mark the defeat of SOPA and PIPA as a defining moment in American and technology history when the “crowd” spoke loudly. It remains to be seen when the crowd will again roar and on what issue. In any case, the politicians, bombarded with unprecedented opposition, will never again simply embrace a Hollywood proposal that infringes on the freedom of the Internet. While we all love movies like “Gladiator” and want to stop foreigners from pirating them, Congress should always consider a fair and open process and defer to freedom over regulation.
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.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that Sen. Rand Paul, along with Sen. Ron Wyden, threatened to filibuster an online piracy bill last spring.