Last week when congress attempted to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two pieces of legislation that would fundamentally change the way the Internet operates, they forgot to consider a significant voice in the debate - the Internet.
Both bills, which initially received bi-partisan support, were indefinitely shelved by the largest online protest in the history of the Internet. According to Digital Trends, approximately 75,000 websites participated in the January 18 SOPA “blackout.” Many of these pages contained click through links to explain the legislation and how to contact your local representatives to share your opinion on the issue. Wikipedia’s blackout page received 162 million page views, 4.5 million signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition, and 1.5 million people signed similar anti-SOPA/PIPA petitions elsewhere. Approximately 35,000 people sent letters to senators and representatives, two million sent emails, and 2.4 million tweeted about it.
Without a lobby or organized coalition, the Internet changed the course of proposed legislation. Many politicians, including some bill cosponsors, withdrew their support after the blackout protest. After a spark from the Wikimedia editing community and Reddit, major online entities like Mozilla, Wikipedia, and Google spoke to their users—the public—directly. That call to action resonated not just in the US but around the world. Disparate users banded together to not only cry foul, but to actively change the course of politics.
This represents a new step in the evolution of the Internet. In politics, grassroots support of this strength does not go unnoticed, and currently there are no Facebook pages in support of SOPA or PIPA, while hundreds exist encouraging users to fight against them.
Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales responded with a message of congratulations to SOPA detractors: “You said no. You shut down Congress’s switchboards….From all around the world your messages dominated social media and the news. Millions of people have spoken in defense of a free and open Internet.”
Celebrity VC investor Fred Wilson, who has been outspoken against this type of legislation for years, wrote in his blog, “I am extremely proud of the online demonstrations we all participated in over the past month to change the mood in Washington over the two bills. We showed that the Internet can be a medium for ‘peaceful demonstration’.”
Forced to retreat, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who wrote the legislation, released a statement reading: ”I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns….It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products.”
He dismissed the response to the blackout protests as a “knee-jerk reaction.”
In light of the blackout, VICE reported that a background image that originally appeared on Smith’s website, was in fact being used without consent or credit according to the owner of the photo. If SOPA would have passed, Smith would have found himself ironically in violation of his own legislation.
Sen. Marco Rubio, an original co-sponsor of PIPA, wrote on his Facebook wall that he, “heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the Internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government’s power to impact the Internet,” adding that “Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences.”
The New York Times called the blackout the “political coming of age for the tech industry,” with media columnist David Carr adding that, “People who don’t understand the Web should not try to re-engineer it.”
Votizen co-founder David Binetti may have summed up the impact of the blackout best: “A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time. Regardless where you stand on the issue — and effective copyright protection is an important issue — this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.”
While SOPA and PIPA may have been defeated by legions of keyboard commandos, the issue of Internet piracy and intellectual property protection is still very much on the table. The media powerhouses of the MPAA and RIAA continue to employ lobbyists and extend influence in Congress, ensuring that similar legislation will be brought up again at some point in the future. However, the success of the blackout has demonstrated that it will be necessary to engage the public make this happen.
The blackout has also revealed what has been long suspected, the raw power of Internet communities. What if Google, Mozilla and the others took their anti-SOPA vigor and used those platforms to remind users to vote, or helped them register or find polling places? The inter-connectivity of social networks and Reddit like pages, combined with the global outreach of the flagship brands makes the online world a powerful force. When this force is focused towards a common goal the sky is truly the limit.