It’s ironic that the web speaks the loudest when it shuts up. But as the Cheezburger network joins Reddit, domain registrar Tucows and other sites such as Wikipedia that are considering a blackout on Jan. 18 in protest of Congress’ attempts to pass legislation to stop piracy, it’s becoming clear that site owners believe an end to their chatter might matter. On Thursday, Ben Huh — CEO of the Cheezburger Network, which hosts famous sites such as the Fail Blog and I Can Haz Cheezburger — said on Twitter that the company’s sites would be blacked out in protest.
Reddit made a similar decision on Tuesday, and as far back as November, when Tumblr “censored” it’s users’ sites, web companies have been making it clear that their form of SOPA activism would be less about donating to campaign coffers and more about driving their millions of users to call their Congressmen. It seems that web companies are using their influence with constituents to counteract the lobbying dollars spent by the content industry, which is in favor of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, and the Protect IP Act in the Senate.
However, as we draw nearer to the Jan. 24 date when SOPA emerges from the House, it’s unclear how much room there is for compromise on each side of the debate. The tech industry has a litany of issues with SOPA and PIPA, and on Thursday, when PIPA sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy decided to listen to engineers about the DNS blocking provisions that really incensed the tech community, my inbox began filling up with statements from tech community members and public interest groups that are still unhappy with the bills. Washington horse trading is a messy business, as both Skype and Verizon learned during the network neutrality negotiations, but the concept of being willing to trade is essential.
By bringing in the “great unwashed” from the web, Reddit, the Cheezburger Network and others risk building a movement that won’t be able to compromise in D.C., as well as a new class of single-issue voters. For example, will the folks incensed about SOPA engage as citizens when it comes to the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN), which many see as an alternative? It’s unclear. So I’m glad that web sites are getting active in policy — but I hope that they don’t just shut their mouths, and instead are willing to come to the table and start a necessary conversation about solutions.