After over 100,000 websites blacked out on Wednesday the US senate and congress have indefinitely shelved their assaults on a free web in the form of the SOPA and PIPA bills. This is a historic victory for the citizens of the internet. Through coordinated action they have defeated one of the most powerful corporate lobbys in the world and have proved the worth of the internet as a tool for activism.
The bills are designed to stop online copyright infringement, by giving the US based copyright owners powers against any websites that that they deem to be aiding and abetting piracy. US law cannot reach as far as shutting down a foreign owned and operated website, so the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) instead take measures against US based institutions supporting the site. This means that “bad” websites can be taken off search engine results, have advertisers blocked from the site to stop any revenue and prevent any other payments and donations being handled by companies like Paypal or Visa.
This may sound reasonable, but it encourages copyright owners to simply shut down anything they disagree with, then work out if they have a legitimate claim. As we’ve already seen when given new powers the music and film industries rarely use it wisely, SOPA and PIPA would allow copyright owners to to nuke first and ask questions later. The bills would mean that websites would be presumed guilty by a non-judicial figure, even if they can prove their innocence, the cost of having their site effectively shut down would ruin any future viability.
The bills are badly worded enough to mean that nearly every website could be considered illegal. Merely having a user link to a website like MegaUpload, even if they’re posting material they’ve created, could allow the parent website to be targeted. The bill’s designers have said that it won’t affect sites like Twitter or Facebook, but the implication is that the bill would target only sites small enough not to be able to defend themselves.
The ridiculousness of the bill is highlighted by the fact that even supporters of the bill are committing copyright infringement. Roy Blunt, Claire McCaskill, Dennis Ross and Sherrod Brown are all using copyrighted images on their Twitter profiles and websites without crediting the owners. Russian website YouHaveDownloaded uses public bittorrent trackers to map filesharing, they’ve found cases of infringement at Sony, Fox, the RIAA, the Department of Homeland Security and Nicholas Sarkozy’s private palace.
The bills were dangerous enough to provoke a response from many bastions of the internet. Over 100,000 websites shut down or partially closed for the day, including giants like Wikipedia, Reddit, Wired and thousands of Tumblrs and Wordpresses. As a result of the blackout ten million petition signatures were gathered, three million emails were sent to senators and congressmen and thousands of calls were made to protest against the bill. Congressional support for the bills collapsed from 80 supporters and 31 objectors before the blackout to 65 supporters and 101 objectors the next day.
In classic dismissal of legitimate protest former Senator Chris Dodd, CEO and Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America said “A so-called “blackout” is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals.” “It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today”
Dodd also told Fox News in an exclusive interview that Obama could expect withdrawal of support from the entertainment industry for not lending support to the bills. “Those who count on 'Hollywood' for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who's going to stand up for them when their job is at stake," "Don't ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don't pay any attention to me when my job is at stake."
Dodd’s attitude reveals the twisted ideals that brought the bill into existence. Not for profit sites like Wikipedia are abusing their power by protesting against the bill but the entertainment oligarchs who have spent millions buying senators and congressmen are victims. The internet blackout has proven that there are ways in which the corporatocracy can be challenged.
The users of the internet don’t possess the financial might of established industry, but they have the numbers and the passion to persuade government to uphold their commitment to its citizens. Hacktivism was previously the main tool for using the internet in protest, but is inherently flawed in that it relies on small cells to set the agenda and exposes activists to pursuit by law enforcement.
The internet blackout shows the creep towards a more democratic model of internet activism, whereby it is normal citizens, acting well within their rights that are driving change. The success of the campaign means that it is a tactic that will not be readily abandoned. The only question is what the next issue will be. The giants of the internet acted because the bills threatened their very survival, the true test of their morals will be whether they can spark action on causes not related to their own self interest.
Photo modified from Randall Munroe at XKCD.