Killing SOPA and PIPA: Did “the people” (or you?) really make a difference?
A mere few weeks ago (mid-January 2012), we were told by the press that the online world witnessed the formidable power of internet protesting as two new anti-piracy bills were shut down before they were able to have serious debate by the United States Congress. As online users all over the U.S. and beyond became aware that the bills in question were being “postponed indefinitely,” any significant reading of blogs, comments, and other online chatter made it clear that the general populace had become convinced that the collective “power of the people” was responsible for this legislative outcome.
But were they really? Was it really the collective power of the people, or some other less organic influence that altered the future of internet legislation? Before answering this question, let’s briefly consider what this fight was all about.
PIPA, SOPA, and Online Piracy
The Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were originally developed to combat the ever-growing online piracy dilemma. Online piracy has grown to epic proportions, with almost an entire generation of youth now regularly downloading copyrighted music, movies, pictures, and books without providing any compensation to the creators and distributors of such works. These activities generate a number of concerns, among them the potential that the drastic reduction in revenue for information and entertainment sources ultimately will result in lower quality content and production.
Although laws already exist in the United States to protect the intellectual property of various creative endeavors, a great deal of the online piracy unfortunately is derived from foreign sources beyond the scope of U.S. law. The intent of PIPA and SOPA was not to punish foreign piracy sources directly, but to limit their reach and scope by punishing U.S. companies that facilitate the digital data transfer or assist web users in finding the illicit websites.
Who Was For and Who Was Against?
Although there is much agreement that online piracy is rampant and that it is harmful to the creative processes (i.e., stolen compensation demotivates artists to produce complicated and costly work), several large organizations were at the forefront of either supporting or opposing PIPA and SOPA.
On the supporting side were what blog site Boing Boing said were “five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers” that were trying “to maximize their profits.” There is compelling evidence of their assertions: organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America expressed early support for these bills. They were joined by media behemoths such as Time Warner and News Corp. These firms generally argue (and rightfully so) that online piracy steals revenue, reduces the funding for quality content, and creates a culture of theft rather than fair exchange.
So with such good ideas for supporting SOPA and PIPA, who was against them? On the opposing side was, in essence, the Internet. Or at least the big players who would have been forced to police the massive user-generated content that increasingly dominates the online world. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit, AOL, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo, Zynga (and the list goes on) all expressed support for limiting piracy, but also expressed concern over SOPA and PIPA’s methods of achieving that goal.
Why Did the Protest Work?
The online protest, which took place January 18, 2012, was proposed as a way to show politicians that the online community was united in its opposition to SOPA and PIPA as written. For the most part, it meant that homepages either “went dark” with a message opposing the legislation or at least included some reference to the concerns. The results were impressive. Not only did Congress table the bills and postpone their discussion indefinitely, but key supporters, such as the Entertainment Software Association, reversed their stances and dropped their support.
Thus, the online protest was deemed not only a success, but as a clear illustration of the power of the people. But is the latter true?
Consider the messages that were delivered to Congress and how they were delivered. Did numerous politicians just happen upon small blogs (such as this one), or read through a multitude of comments (both pro and con) to a news article, or consider the plight of the millions of people who just don’t feel the need to pay an artist for a song in order to listen to that song? It’s doubtful.
More likely, the power of this protest was driven not by “the people,” but by the large organizations who enjoy the bulk of the internet traffic. Were it not for Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and the other online powerhouses, the bills likely would have moved forward without many changes to them.
Why Is This Important to Know?
Why do we care if it was the people or if it was a Google/Facebook collaboration that effected change? Because as much as you may have enjoyed this protest, its drama, its fight against “big corporations,” and eventually, its outcome, you should also know that it wasn’t just big corporations who lost. Big corporations on the other side of the fight won as well.
But more importantly, it’s important to know why they won. And the answer is simple. As much as the firms who fought for SOPA and PIPA control the vast majority of high-priced creative content (think top music performers, popular authors, and blockbuster films with huge special effects), the firms who fought against SOPA and PIPA control, or at least influence, the massive flow of user-promoted information and are seen as the facilitators of the social internet that so many of us embrace.
For this particular battle, the seeming majority of internet users were on the side of the Google/Facebook alliance, but there may come a battle that the majority of us do not support. Unfortunately, we’ll likely find that those who control the flow of information also control the scope, direction, and outcome of the battle.
The Internet is truly powerful. And those who control the Internet are the ones in power.
Too much control may not be sensible…
A little more reading for you:
Doctorow, Cory (2012), “Boing Boing Will Go Dark on Jan 18 to Fight SOPA & PIPA,” Boing Boing (January 14), <http://boingboing.net/2012/01/14/boing-boing-will-go-dark-on-ja.html>.
November 15, 2011 letter to Pat Leahy, Chuck Grassley, Lamar Smith, and John Conyers, Jr from AOL Inc., eBay Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., LinkedIn Corporation, Mozilla Corp., Twitter, Inc., Yahoo! Inc., and Zynga Game Network <http://www.protectinnovation.com/downloads/letter.pdf>.
Pepitone, Julianne (2012), “SOPA and PIPA Postponed Indefinitely after Protests,” CNNMoneyTech (January 20) <http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/20/technology/SOPA_PIPA_postponed/index.htm?iid=EL>.
Pepitone, Julianne (2012), “Wikipedia, Reddit Plan Blackout in SOPA Protest,” CNNMoneyTech (January 17) <http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/16/technology/sopa_wikipedia/index.htm>.
Schreier, Jason (2012), “Entertainment Software Association Drops SOPA, PIPA Support,” Wired’s GameLife (January 20), <http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2012/01/esa-sopa/>.
Simon, Mallory (2012), “Murdoch Launches Twitter Tirade against Obama, Google over Online Piracy,” This Just In (January 16), <http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/16/murdoch-launches-twitter-tirade-against-obama-google-over-online-piracy/>.