Idaho politics: Online piracy issue leaves Jim Risch adrift

When he began campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2007, Jim Risch was proudly computer illiterate.

After spending the better part of three decades in public life — and making a small fortune as an attorney — Risch all but boasted about being unplugged from e-mail, the Internet or the blogosphere. If anyone had a problem with it, they could presumably drop Risch a note. Or a telegram.

But Risch got a lesson Wednesday in the political power of the Internet, when he caught himself on the wrong side of the tide on the issue of online piracy.

Unless you were completely off the grid — or living like Jim Risch, circa 2007 — you know that Wednesday was the day the online community rose up against two controversial online piracy bills. Wikipedia went black. Google used its homepage to criticize the bills.

In Boise’s social media community, Twitter users urged each other to lobby their lawmakers to oppose the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s version, the Protect IP Act.

Late Wednesday, Risch spokesman Brad Hoaglun issued a statement — via e-mail, it must be noted, in the spirit of fairness — that spoke of a boss caught in a bind.

Here it is:

“Sen. Risch is a co-sponsor of S. 968, the Protect IP Act. At the time of introduction and at the hearings, there was no opposition to the legislation (you may recall the Internet community was all on board with this, then a big split happened). Since that time, concerns have been raised and Sen. Risch is willing to take another look at the legislation.

He has asked staff to review the specifics of the issues raised, and if legitimate, to see what changes can be made in the legislation to address those concerns. He doesn’t believe it is necessary to rush this legislation through. He still believes that online piracy is a very, very serious problem that needs to be addressed. The theft of intellectual property is real and needs to be reined in, but he is optimistic that this legislation can be reworked, or if necessary, new legislation drafted to address online piracy and the new concerns being raised.”

“Take another look at the legislation?”

No need “to rush this legislation through?”

Sounds like co-sponsor’s remorse.

It didn’t help Risch that the rest of the Idaho delegation was getting as far away from SOPA and PIPA as they could. Rep. Raul Labrador posted a statement on his website Wednesday, voicing his opposition. Through a spokesman, Sen. Mike Crapo said he was opposed to the bills in their current form, and 2nd Congressional District Rep. Mike Simpson voiced his concerns.

On Thursday morning, Boise venture capitalist Mark Solon took to Twitter to tout the results of the lobbying effort: “Twenty-four hours ago, Idaho had one delegate (and co-sponsor) supporting SOPA/PIPA and three undecided. Today, two opposed, two undecided. Proud of our community!”

By Friday morning, Solon and fellow critics got their wish — and, perhaps, so did Risch. The Senate postponed a vote on PIPA, scheduled for next week.

I can see Risch’s bind. As an attorney by trade, the idea of protecting intellectual property must carry some basic law-and-order appeal. It’s also a sensitive spot for this newspaper and our parent company, as more of our readership migrates to online platforms — where readership is easy to track, yet harder to monetize.

Still, I can’t help but think that Risch’s Internet unsavviness came back to bite him on this one. If you don’t use the Internet — if that behavior isn’t wired into your routine — it’s tough to be sensitive to people who fear that SOPA and PIPA would stop the free flow of information online.

I wouldn’t call him Risch 2.0, but the senator has become a bit more plugged in over recent years. He has told Spokane Spokesman-Review blogger D.F. Oliveria that he now reads some blogs — including mine.

This week, Risch got an earful from his Internet-literate constituency. Risch would be wise to make it the start of a continuing conversation.

Get Twitter updates on my blog and column and Statesman editorials. Become a follower. You can also get updates on Facebook's Idaho Statesman Opinion Page.