Web blackouts. Is this the new face of American activism?

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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.

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