“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” – Thomas Jefferson
If you are an online denizen who had somehow not been aware of the controversy surrounding the US government’s proposed SOPA/PIPA anti-piracy legislation, you could not have missed the day of protest on Wednesday, January 17th when major sites that constitute the very essence of the internet such as Wikipedia, Reddit and over 50,000 more shut themselves down for 24 hours and Google shrouded its famous logo in protest.
The barrage of opposition to this authoritarian, harsh and heavy-handed legislation had the desired effect: Almost immediately, dozens of lawmakers changed their positions to oppose the proposed regulations, and the leading SOPA advocate Representative Lamar Smith killed his own bill. The actions proved that people power still rules the internet and pointed to a future where legislation may be shaped by either formal or spontaneous online referenda.
13 Million Protesters
Just a couple of weeks prior to the protest it seemed that the passage of SOPA/PIPA in Congress was effectively a done deal. The coordinated lobbying campaign by the US Chamber of Commerce acting in concert with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America, and several other copyright protection groups, had resulted in strong majority support in both the Senate and the House. What the promoters of the legislation had failed to take into consideration was the amount of outrage present among internet users, who would be facing the prospect of having many of their favorite sites blocked due to the act of a single user placing a single link to a copyright-violating item. More than 13 million people participated in the one day online protest and more than three million email protest messages were sent to members of Congress.
Echoes of Orwell’s 1984
The rush to flee the sinking legislation ship sparked considerable metaphors with rodents: Florida Senator Marco Rubio rushed to Facebook to post a renunciation of the bill he had co-sponsored; Senators John Cornyn, Charles E. Grassley, Mark Kirk, Roy Blunt and Jim DeMint, along with Representatives Lee Terry, Ben Quayle and others experienced thunderbolt epiphanies and now saw the dark side of SOPA/PIPA. The 180 degree head swivel was eerily similar to the mid-speech announcement on the sixth day of Hate Week in George Orwell’s 1984 that Oceania was at war with minutes-ago ally Eastasia and was now allied with former enemy Eurasia.
Petition to Charge MPAA CEO Dodd with Bribery
Former Senator Chris Dodd in his current role as Chair and CEO of the MPAA played the “fear of mob rule” card while digging an uncomfortable hole for himself. He told Fox News that he expected results from the politicians on the receiving end of the MPAA campaign donations over the years. An online petition swiftly accumulated tens of thousands of signatures claiming Dodd had committed an “open admission of bribery and a threat designed to provoke a specific policy goal”: actions that, if substantiated, could result in criminal charges against the MPAA head.
Individual Citizens Rising Up
Representative Zoe Lofgren stated that this was “an important moment in the Capitol… this is individual citizens rising up.” Whether you attribute the mass uprising to the prevailing sense that SOPA/PIPA had turned every online denizen into a Howard “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore” Beale; or if you simply see it as the rightful opposition to a profoundly flawed piece of legislation, the effect of the massive protest was that lawmakers can no longer view the internet as the hangout of eccentric nerds, phishers and proud grannies sharing photos of their grandchildren. The internet is evolving into an enormous public oversight committee over the excesses of legislators.
The reversal of SOPA & PIPA demonstrated that by applying a Caterpillar D9 where a surgeon’s scalpel would have sufficed, the lawmakers severely misjudged the power and influence of the amorphous webizens. Thomas Jefferson would be proud.