In the next few weeks, among the most talked-about legislation will be the Stop Online Piracy Act — commonly referred to as SOPA — which, if passed, would give the Justice Department the authority to block access to foreign websites deemed to be dedicated to copyright infringement.
Both SOPA and its Senate version, PIPA (officially known as the PROTECT-IP Act), have widespread bipartisan support among lawmakers. But the proposed law has become a pitched battle between entertainment companies — who believe SOPA will curb the illegal distribution of movies and music — and online media companies like Google and Facebook, who fear that the bills will be burdensome to implement and are tantamount to censorship.
Though the controversy involves companies that trade in information, it's been surprisingly difficult to find out basic facts — like where each member of congress stands and what financial backing they've received from interests who have the most to gain or lose.
Over the holidays, I made a news app — SOPA Opera — as an online resource to collect the facts about which member of congress support SOPA, and to shine a light on the debate and process behind a bill that may have major ramifications on how the government regulates communication and commerce online. Today SOPA Opera is moving to ProPublica, where we'll continue to update it.
SOPA Opera's tally of congressional supporters and opponents is based on factors including whether they've sponsored the legislation, whether they've voted for it in committee and their public statements about it. For each legislator, we're tracking what they've said or done so far about SOPA. We're also tracking campaign contributions to each legislator from the entertainment and Internet industries (using data from the Center for Responsive Politics).
Check out SOPA Opera.
Our SOPA Opera uses a combination of legislative data and research to fill out the biographical information and position of each member of Congress. The websites and APIs we consult include:
- OpenSecrets / Center for Responsive Politics – Their extensive campaign finance database contains categorized spending from Federal Election Commission reports.
- OpenCongress – An invaluable site that takes the archaic data from the U.S. legislative site and formats it for modern web consumption.
- New York Times Congress API – an extensive API that contains the boilerplate biographical information and historical legislative data.
- GovTrack.us – Another comprehensive resource about the legislative record.
- Library of Congress THOMAS – The official clearinghouse for legislative information.
How are the positions of the members of Congress determined?
- Co-sponsored the bill (or one of its precursors).
- Voted to move the bill (or one of its precursors) forward in committee.
- Has defended the law in public.
- Supports amendments or competing legislation that would undermine the bill.
- Withdraws sponsorship of the bill.
- Speaks out against the bill (e.g., Sen. Rand Paul's dontcensortheinternet.com).
The majority of members of Congress are listed as having an unknown position and this may be the case up until they cast a vote.
Campaign Finance Information
Using the API and data from OpenSecrets and the Center for Responsive Politics, we included the reported campaign contributions (as categorized by OpenSecrets) from the "Movies/Music/TV" and "Computers/Internet" industries for the 2008 to 2010 election cycles. 2012 is not yet available through the OpenSecrets API yet. The totals here may differ compared to other SOPA-tracking sites because of the different timespans involved.
While many other groups, including labor unions and pharmaceutical companies, are also joining the SOPA/PIPA debate. We focus on the entertainment and computing industries because they have so much at stake financially and therefore have the biggest incentive to use money to influence politicians.
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