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Summary:

Countless websites — including Google, Wikipedia, Scribd, O’Reilly Media, WordPress — have put up some kind of message today asking users to take action against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Is this the new face of activism in the U.S.?

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Countless websites — including Google, Wikipedia, Scribd, O’Reilly Media, WordPress (see disclosure) — have put up some kind of message today asking users to take action against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Some, such as Wikipedia, have gone so far as to replace their typical content with a black screen and a message about the proposed legislation. Even though I personally agree with their stance (I don’t support SOPA or PIPA), as protests go, I have reservations about their approach.

These anti-SOPA protests represent a shift in how politics are played out, and I’m not sure it’s a step forward. To begin with, the biggest actors in the SOPA/PIPA protests today are corporations, which are changing their sites and asking their users to take action. Second, the protests, which are taking place almost entirely on the web, leave out chunks of our society that aren’t connected to the web or don’t rely on those sites, making those people oblivious to the issues involved. (Alexis Madrigal over at the Atlantic challenges that contention with images of mainstream papers’ coverage of the web blackouts as evidence of the attention these protests are bringing to what can be perceived as a rather esoteric issue.)

Regardless of what one thinks of SOPA and PIPA, these mostly online protests — especially when contrasted with the physical protests of the Occupy movement and in the Middle East — beg the question: Is this the new face of activism in the U.S.? And, secondly, are web companies promoting activism for the greater good or for the preservation of their livelihoods?

Whose war is this is anyway?

As legislation that affects the average consumer, SOPA and PIPA touches the lives of Americans, but not as deeply as other hotly debated laws, such as health care reform or even spending bills, do. As a journalist, I’m worried about these bills, which is one reason I write about them. Sites such as Wikipedia, which are platforms for sharing and conversation, are rightly concerned about provisions in the legislation that could end up forcing them and other sites to police users instead of merely providing benign platforms for sharing.

In grayer areas, there are actors such as Google, which may actually find parts of its business directly affected as an intermediary between those providing pirated and counterfeit goods and those searching for it. As an example, check out Google’s settlement with the U.S. government over selling ads for Canadian drugs.

It’s these for-profit (or, in the case of Wikipedia, non-profit) sites — not neutral sources — that are mobilizing concerned citizens. As grassroots as this may seem, it’s really just another example of corporate influence in the political process. As a testament to the power of corporate action on an issue, thousands of Americans branded their Twitter avatars with a message related to an intellectual-property bill, while the Occupy movement – a legitimate grassroots effort that more directly affects most Americans — seems to wither. The Occupy movement in particular seems to be suffering in part because its organization and messaging is poor, an area where corporate involvement would undoubtedly help get the message out on Occupy’s issue of income inequality.

The new face of tech activism in Washington

In talking to Brad Burnhan, a managing partner over at Union Square Ventures, about SOPA and PIPA yesterday, he told me that as the political debate graduates from the relatively apolitical physical layer of providing access to the application layer, the tech industry will have to become more engaged with lawmakers. He said:

Most of the people in the industry still don’t like playing the game by D.C.’s current rules. They are trying to be innovators and making the world a better place and they don’t want to get into the political game that feels like a zero sum game where people are tying to pick apart a pie to get a bigger piece of it. What I find fascinating by what is happening is that it appears as though the tech industry is trying to discover a new way to direct policy. No one is in charge and no one is raising money and no organizations are getting paid to do what’s happening, and … it may turn out to be a pretty powerful mechanism.

I take issue with his idea that no one is in charge: The heads of many of these sites are in charge, taking action to protect their interests, which also happen to coincide with the interests of their users. Aside from a few active consumer organizations, journalists and web celebrities, corporations are very active around SOPA, especially when it comes to attracting a wide base of citizenry to protest.

And as I wrote before, I’m not sure the political process gains from this type of activism. In some cases, online activists behave less like an educated citizenry and more like a mob. For example, in Dec. 2011, Reddit users who believed (incorrectly) that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) co-sponsored SOPA attacked Ryan with the aim to unseat him, going so far as coordinating a massive effort to raise funds for his opponent, based solely on Ryan’s purported support of SOPA. Ryan later came out against it.

More splits in society

Finally, there is a dichotomy on this issue between those digital natives who are clearly aware of the problem, and those who rely on TV news or who don’t have web access (that group represents about a third of Americans according to the FCC) and are unaware of this issue. That split in awareness may be the reason why Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) feels so justified in pushing forward with his sponsorship of the SOPA bill, even as other senators and representatives come out against SOPA and PIPA, SOPA’s sister bill in the Senate.

Tech industry activism and using tech for activism are different.

Given the digital divide on the issue, the reliance on corporate entities to drive attention to the anti-SOPA/PIPA position and the almost-hysterical reaction from the web, I’m hoping this kind of protest doesn’t represent the future of the technology community’s strategy in Washington — or at least, doesn’t represent the only facet of that strategy. I hope we see citizens who have become engaged through this process use the web-based tools, such as the dial-a-congressman service from Engine Advocacy or their Facebook pages (or Twitter streams) to bring attention to political issues in a constructive and educational way.

Maybe like-minded individuals can get together on the web to raise money to hire a lobbyist. Likewise, the monolithic voices of astroturfing groups or large corporations pretending to represent a segment of the population could be refuted widely by actual members of that population. Washington proposes many poorly written (at best) or blatantly biased laws (at worst) each year. Having a citizenry that can educate themselves and take their messages viral about such legislation would be the best legacy SOPA and PIPA could give us.

Disclosure: Automattic, the maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

  1. Can I get an RSS feed that doesn’t include pieces by this “journalist”?

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    1. Totally agree, great comment.

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  2. So, RIAA & MPAA have the right to lobby and spend large amounts of money on SOPA & RIAA, and WE don’t have the right to lobby using our means. Is that the conclusion of your article?

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    1. Hardly. I am merely pointing out that the success and notice of the campaign to stop SOPA has benefitted from corporate action. And it’s wise to question and point out the reliance on such action, since corporate and consumer interests tend to diverge at some point.

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      1. The citizenry would be fools to question corporate help when a corporate interest and their own align. I don’t see how this leads to a tricky situation once they diverge for two reasons. If this action had been attempted to support an unpopular bill or to oppose a popular bill the reaction from visitors to the sites would the opposite of what the corporate actors are going for by calling the attention of their users to the issue. It also excludes the very real possibility that even if these specific corporate interests diverge at some point from consumer interests on this or any other they are not the only corporate interests around and others may be more than willing to align with consumers. If anything I’d say this development in great for the democratic process in the US. A common complaint is that Washington is too beholden to corporate interests in general but if the public can use the tools at their disposal to find corporate backers for their positions on issues this flaw could become a powerful tool for democracy.

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      2. This kind of circumstancials alliances are the secret of movements like #OWS or the #spanishrevolution. Suddenly people from left to right that were, just the day before, opponents gather together to defend common interests and when done will go back to their previous status. But will get back if once again they are put in question. Some even gather together for a longer goal, I’m a member of the National Directorate of the Spanish PIRATE Party, and we are not a leftist or conservative party as a whole although individually some come from the left and other from the right, but we have a basic common goal, the defense of our rights, liberty, NetNeutrality and Direct Democracy, once achieved the goal the Party will “self-destruct” and everyone wil go back to their original political beliefs. That is what we call an horizontal movement.

        I know that for traditional thinkers it is difficult to understand how this can be, this is clearly a success of Social Networks.

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  3. Oooppps I meant SOPA & PIPA of course

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  4. Has it occurred to this journalist that the ‘almost-hysterical reaction from the web’ is entirely justified given the language of the bill?

    I’d also say the strategy was most effective in generating non-web based news on the issue. Before today there was very little mainstream coverage of this issue but now their’s tons, relatively speaking. The web and those who use it often enough were already well aware of this bills and the danger they posed but seeing ‘SOPA PIPA Protest’ as front page news in more than half of my local papers was very heartening.

    In general I’d say your point would have a lot more merit if these tech companies were advocating a position obviously detrimental to their users using these tactics but they’re not.

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    1. I am more concerned that this becomes the playbook for online activism, but what happens when the tech companies don’t want to play activist? I suppose I am looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I do have reservations and do think it’s something to think about.

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  5. Considering that most of the tech companies that are in protest generate their money based on user interaction.I would say in almost all cases they will be aligned with the users perspective. Facebook, google, etc have basically become the collective bargaining group(read:union leaders) of free speech on the internet. They are essentially in the business of facilitating the trading of ideas.

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    1. This is the sort of logic I worry about because it’s not always true. Plus, it leads to a potential vacuum when one of these companies doesn’t step up, as in Google’s about-face in the network neutrality fight.

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  6. Stacey, if corporations want to help me fight legislation that would take away due process, I’m glad for the help.

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  7. Hallo Stop Wall Street Protests!

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  8. Danielle Morrill Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    Another indirect benefit of this action from Digital Natives is that many of us (myself included) have been somewhat passive about activism because we are building our companies. But this dipping the toe in, and seeing the impact that can be made, might leave a small percentage more people engaged in the process before and re-using and refining the tactics used this time.

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    1. I do think that is good. And at the bottom of the story I made sure to cover how the tools and activism here could help shape the political process even without Google advocating for it. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I just have reservations about the heavy reliance on corporate entities to spread the word and give the activism more legitimacy.

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  9. It seems to me that this article makes a good point about giving some careful thought to this relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps one of the dangers is that corporations might employ a strategy of promoting a similar campaign to promote their own interests by tying it to a slogan/catch phrase issue that appears to be in the interest of the everyday web user/average citizen, but really isn’t. As people have now been primed to respond to these sorts of pleas, it makes the job easier in the future. I wonder how many people who are moved to oppose SOPA/PIPA by the calls of these corporate entities really have an understanding of the language of the legislation and its implications. Without that sort of careful independent investigation, it seems like there is a real potential for manipulation in the future.

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  10. if you think that CEOs and corporations do not guide the policy making in washington already you are ignorant. This is simply a number of like minded individuals using the tools that they have available to encourage change. I am againsy piracy, but this bill is a very slippery slope that will grow until it encompasses a fair amount of the internet, and companies know that as well , so we choose to fight it, however we can.

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