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Week In News: The Salvo Against SOPA



JAY CARNEY: We need to do something about online piracy by foreign websites.


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It's pretty clear to many of us that there's a lack of consensus at this point.

RAZ: That's House leader John Boehner and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on two bills to curb online piracy. Under enormous pressure, Congress abandoned those bills this past week. James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us now as he does most Saturdays for a look behind the headlines. Jim, good to have you here.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Let me start out with the story about what's known as SOPA and PIPA. These were supposed to easily pass in Congress. Now, basically, a massive campaign mounted by technology companies sunk them. What happened with this thing, Jim?

FALLOWS: This was fascinating in several ways. One was the speed of the change that happened. As you noted, a week ago, 10 days ago, almost everybody would have thought this would have gone through the Congress without much problem. But just in a couple of days because of the boycott mounted by Wikipedia, Google had blacked out logos on its page.

You saw just hour by hour senators backing off their support of the bill. And the Obama administration also which had sort of testily approved it moved away. The additional aspect of this that was so interesting is you can sort of sum it up as a San Francisco versus Hollywood struggle.

RAZ: Because Hollywood supported it.

FALLOWS: Exactly. So you had the content creators saying we need this protection against piracy. And then you had the technology industry of Northern California saying that this is too clumsy and crude a tool. That we understand a need for an intellectual property protection, but in so doing, you're going to wreck a lot of the basic infrastructure of the Internet. And the idea that in that struggle, the traditional political powers of Hollywood who had also been very important to the Democratic Party traditionally, they were not able to outwit or outpoll the new powers of the Internet industry. That was a sign of a kind of correlation of forces we haven't seen.

RAZ: I mean, I'm wondering, if this is crushed so easily, some of these tech companies - I mean, I wonder if they're going to come to regret this in the future. Google, for example, you've pointed out, they are really worried about their intellectual property. They are fiercely protective over their source code, I guess, to the extent that they don't even give it to their Chinese office.

FALLOWS: Exactly. So the technology industry understands that intellectual property is important. It just hasn't paid as much attention to movies and music, et cetera, and probably the apparent defeat of this bill will be a step towards a more sensible solution.

RAZ: But for now, the battle is over.


RAZ: Let me turn to another story that we're going to be hearing a lot about next week, and that is President Obama's State of the Union speech. Normally, the speeches are state affairs, it doesn't matter which president is delivering them. But this is an election year. Are we likely to see a campaign speech?

FALLOWS: We are. And I mean that in a good way. Something that's bad about these speeches - and as you know, I once worked on them for President Carter long ago - is that State of the Union speeches are essentially contracts. Or they are tender offers.

RAZ: Here's what we're going to do.

FALLOWS: Exactly. And every branch of the government gets mad if there's not one clause about its program. Every country in the rest of the world gets mad if they're not mentioned, et cetera. But when a president is preparing for a reelection year, there's a different sense to the State of the Union speech, even though presidents have a disproportionate share of airtime and headspace and all the rest in the American consciousness.

But the last couple of months, it's mainly been his Republican challengers who've been on the air with all their debates. And so we haven't heard as much directly from the president as we usually do. And so his case about what the Republicans are saying on the over-reach of government, about his medical care plan, about who's responsible for the economy, I think we'll hear a preview of the way he wants these issues to be considered in the next 10 months.

RAZ: This past week, President Obama took some people by surprise, I guess you could say by storm, when he stood up to sing this. Take a listen, Jim.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (Singing) I'm so in love with you.


RAZ: That is not Al Green. President Obama.

FALLOWS: I thought that was incredibly gutsy a thing to do, because to try a cappella in front of a big crowd just to do a rift on the Reverend Al Green...

RAZ: And the Apollo Theater, by the way.

FALLOWS: The Apollo Theater. It reminds me of the time during the campaign when he was on some military base in the Middle East. And he attempted this three-point basketball shot...

RAZ: He made it.


FALLOWS: He made it. It was nothing but net. So this was a big risk, and I am impressed that he pulled it off.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Those guys didn't think I would do it.



OBAMA: I told you I was going to do it.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thank you so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.