Next week, the Senate could be meeting to vote on the Protect IP Act (PIPA), the bill that many people are warning could damage the Internet. It's a horrible prospect — but this isn't the first time that Congress has tried to sacrifice a technology at the behest of corporate lobbyists.
Here are 10 other technologies that Congress tried, at one time or another, to legislate out of existence.
Top image: Neal Sanche/Flickr.
1. Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs)
Who Wanted it Killed: The movie studios, mainly. The MPAA's Jack Valenti famously testified before Congress that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone."
How it Worked Out: No fewer than six bills were introduced in Congress to control the VCR. The MPAA finally dropped its demands that VCRs be outlawed, but instead supported bills that would require licensing of VCRs, royalties on the sale of blank videocassettes, and a copyright owner's permission before renting out video tapes. In the end, Congress decided to wait and see what the Supreme Court decided in the famous Sony Vs. Universal case. And then, in 2002, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act required all VCRs to include "automatic gain control," thus making Macrovision copy protection an integral part of all VCRs.
2. The Phonograph
Who Wanted it Killed: John Philip Sousa, the guy who wrote "Stars and Stripes Forever." He testified before Congress that both the gramophone and the player piano would put musicians out of business. And that they would stifle composers from writing new music by removing "all incentive to further creative work." In marathon hearings, Sousa and the American Copyright League argued in favor of a bill which would have given copyright owners control over all sales (including resale) of their work.
How it Worked Out: In the end, Congress passed a milder bill, which simply assured musicicans and composers royalties from recordings. Sousa was satisfied, and in 1923, he told Thomas Edison, "You have made the art of the musician immortal, Mr. Edison."
3. Genetically modified food
Who Wanted it Killed: Environmentalists and food safety advocates. Congress has tried many times over the years to regulate or ban certain types of genetically modified foods, and many bills have been introduced over the years. Most recently, as the Food and Drug Administration has been deciding whether to allow the sale of AquaBounty Technologies' genetically modified salmon in the U.S., the House of Representatives voted to block FDA approval of the "AquAdvantage" salmon.
How it Worked Out: In general, U.S. laws remain laxer than those in most other countries. Regarding the salmon issue, it doesn't look as though the House provision has passed the Senate, or gotten President Obama's signature. Meanwhile, the FDA still hasn't made a decision about the "franken-salmon."
4. Internet gambling
Who Wanted it Killed: The Feds themselves. The Justice Department was very alarmed by the rise of online gambling, especially as run by offshore operators, and concerned that this gambling could serve as a cover for money-laundering.
How it Worked Out: Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which didn't outlaw online gambling, but did bar U.S. banks and credit card companies from processing payments to gambling sites. Since then, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has been trying to restore the legality of online gambling, arguing that we could tax it and generate a lot of revenue, at a time when budgets are under strain.
5. The Whizzinator
Who Wanted it Killed: Pretty much everybody. After Minnesota Vikings running back Onterrio Smith was caught at an airport with one of these devices, which is basically a fake penis that allows you to fool drug urine tests, Congress held hearings on May 17, 2005. Rep. Bart Stupak held up Whizzinator advertising and spoke against the national scandal of simulated urination. "How will we stop the flow?" demanded Stupak, as the room exploded in unintended giggles.
How it Worked Out: There was no Federal law against manufacturing such devices, so states were powerless to go after the makers. In the end, the feds never managed to pass an anti-Whizzinator law, but federal prosecutors were able to go after the manufacturers for selling drug paraphernalia.
6. Mp3 players
Who Wanted it Killed: Actually, this is more like a random casualty of a reckless shooter. Congress has tried to pass a few laws to protect copyright owners in the past, which were so broadly written that they would have banned a wide range of technologies, including mp3 players. There was the Induce Act, which would have banned any technology that induces people to violate copyright. Earlier, there was the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, which banned any devices that could be used to read digital content that didn't have Digital Rights Management (DRM) built in.
How it Worked Out: So far, none of these bills has passed, so your iPod is safe.
Who Wanted it Killed: The dairy farmers. Margarine was introduced in 1874, after a French chemist named Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès figured out a way to make a cheap butter substitute from beef fat. The dairy industry freaked out, because the much cheaper margarine threatened to drive smaller dairies out of business. They tried passing various state laws, but some of those were shot down in court.
How it Worked Out: The dairy farmers went to Congress, and there were hearings that culminated in the Margarine Act of 1886, which imposed a tax of two cents per pound on margarine — although the original bill called for a ten cent tax instead. This was followed by the Margarine Act of 1906, in which the federal government raised that tax for margarine that was dyed yellow to look like real butter. (Some state laws required margarine to be dyed weird colors, like pink or black.) The state and federal anti-margarine laws were on the books for decades. (For more about the margarine saga, click here or here.)
8. Embryonic stem cells
Who Wanted it Killed: Pro-life advocates, mainly. In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which bans any federal research in which human embryos are created, destroyed or put at risk of harm. This law, which remains on the books, essentially prevented most embryonic stem cell research.
How it Worked Out: In 2001, then-President George W. Bush announced a new policy in which 61 cell lines of existing embryonic stem cells would be allowed for federally-funded research. Congress tried to pass a bill expanding this policy, but Bush vetoed it. Since then, President Obama has tried to abolish the Bush policy, but Obama's executive order has been tied up in federal courts. (In a related issue, Congress has repeatedly voted to ban human cloning.)
9. DAT (Digital Audio Tape) recorders
Who Wanted it Killed: The music industry, yet again. Congress held hearings throughout the late 1980s over whether to stop this digital technology from coming to consumers. Music industry lobbyists demanded that DAT players be fitted with technology that would degrade the sound quality of any music copied on them, or that sales of DAT tapes include a royalty payment to the music industry.
How it Worked Out: As Stanford's Mark Lemley puts it, "Digital audio tapes were then subject to a compulsory licensing scheme and were never heard from again by mass-market consumers. The technology flopped once it was put under the control of the content industry."
10. Assault weapons
Who Wanted it Killed: Gun control advocates. The ban on semi-automatic weapons in 1994 was a major achievement of the Clinton Administration's first two years — and probably a huge reason why the Democrats lost control over both houses of Congress that year.
How it Worked Out: The federal assault weapons ban was scheduled to sunset after ten years, and it did. The ban expired in 2004, and attempts to renew it were unsuccessful. Image via 2DayBlog.
Additional reporting by Gordon Jackson and Marykate Jasper. Thanks also to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Wendy Seltzer for the suggestions.