Nailed it: SOPA protest a sign of things to come?

If anyone doubted the potential power of the Internet, Jan. 18 provided a good lesson.

In an unprecedented act of online activism, thousands of websites went dark or posted messages urging visitors to join the millions of people who had already signed petitions in opposition of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate.

By mid-day, the air seemed to have gone out of SOPA and PIPA, which had already been losing some support because of the mounting opposition. The focus for some lawmakers began to shift to the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, an alternative to SOPA and PIPA that does not include provisions for blocking or rerouting traffic from sites suspected of peddling pirated goods or content.


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The protest, also called the SOPA Strike in some quarters, didn’t happen overnight. A lot had already been said and written in opposition, more than 100,000 people already had signed online petitions to the White House, and the Obama administration had responded.

But everything came to a head on Wednesday. Reddit, which was the first to announce it would stage a blackout, posted a message stating the bills threatened innovation and the existence of sites with user-submitted content, a sentiment shared by other protesters. Wikipedia, the most-visited site to go dark, posted its message under the headline, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.” MoveOn.org’s page said, “This is what Internet censorship looks like.”

Many other popular sites, including Mozilla, BoingBoing, WordPress, the Internet Archive, openSUSE and Greenpeace International, posted similar statements over black backgrounds, and other sites supported the protests in various ways.

Google was working but redacted its logo and posted the message: “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the Web!” with a link to a petition. Craigslist did something similar, asking people to petition Congress before continuing to the site. Wired blacked out its headlines, although they appeared if you scrolled over them. Even the hacker group Anonymous went dark, suspending its Twitter feed for 12 hours.

Facebook decided to remain up and running, but founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement on his Wall opposing SOPA and PIPA as "poorly thought out [bills] that get in the way of the Internet's development." He said he had been working with "pro-Internet" lawmakers and other political leaders to help craft alternative legislation to fight piracy.

The protest provided a startling example of how quickly an idea can gain steam on the Internet when it resonates with people. Plenty of Web giants and other groups opposed the legislation for months, but Wednesday’s blackouts spread suddenly.

Just a few days ago, the blackout seemed a fairly small idea, with a relative handful of sites planning to go dark. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, whose company has opposed the legislation, nevertheless called the notion of a blackout “silly,” and “foolish." By Wednesday, when the groundswell had reached flood levels, he might have been feeling foolish for leaving Twitter out.

Combined, the blacked-out sites get tens of millions of visits per day (Wikipedia alone averages about 10 million), and every one of those visitors was greeted with a statement opposing SOPA and PIPA.

And the protest had an effect, accelerating Congress’ second thoughts about its provisions. As the day wore on, lawmakers in both houses started to announce they were withdrawing support. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, canceled a hearing on SOPA and said it would not be taken up by the House, at least as written.

In the Senate, PIPA is scheduled for a test vote Jan. 24, unless the surge from the protest scuttles the bill completely.

The success of the protest raises the question: Could similar campaigns could be staged to influence policy? It’s not likely to happen often, since it’s rare that an issue arises that so many people agree so strongly about. And widespread website blackouts would probably be more rare. In this case, they were approriate because sites being shut down is what the protesters feared. But it does show the potential power of concerted opinion on the Web. And, if nothing else, it shows the Internet’s users won’t give up their freedoms lightly.

 

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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