SOPA Blackout, One Year Later

A number of folks are celebrating the one year anniversary of the Great Sopa Blackout as Internet Freedom Day. I’m glad, because it deserves celebrating and remembering.

In the first place we ought to remember how the broader Internet community came together and shifted SOPA from “unstoppable” to “dead” in a week. As I noted at the time, the cynical “will have all manner of sensible explanations for what ‘really’ happened and why what we did didn’t ‘really’ make a difference.” As time goes on, and it turns out that corruption continues to corrode our political system, the siren call of the cynics likewise corrodes the will to resist despite the evidence of our own experience. It’s important, therefore, to remember what we achieved and to realize that we can therefore achieve it again.

Nor was SOPA the one-time event some seem to believe. True culture change takes time and persistence. SOPA/PIPA was not an aberration, it resulted from the normal way of doing business in Washington, where legislators and policymakers treated copyright and Internet issues as industry food fights, brokering backroom compromises between lobbyists without concern for the public or the public interest. So yes, CISPA passed the House — after Republican House leaders rushed the vote to outrun public protest. But as I observed at the time, this was a sign of weakness, not strength. Despite industry buy in, public resistance from the “Internet constituency” killed the bill in the Senate.

Like the Internet itself, the “Internet Spring” triggered by the anti-SOPA campaign had global repercussions. Anti-SOPA backlash killed ACTA in Europe, and firmed up resistance to extending ITU jurisdiction into Internet governance. Resistance in other countries to SOPA-like provisions in trade agreements forced the U.S. Trade Representative to acknowledge, for the first time, the importance of limitations and exceptions to copyright. Again, we are not surprised that having made this concession, USTR has tried to gut these protections as much as possible. But, just as “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue,” hypocrisy and pandering in politics are the tributes paid by politicians to those they fear. USTR never felt the urge to pretend to care about anything but the Hollywood agenda before. To the contrary, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk had nothing but contempt for his critics until it became clear they had the political clout to make his life more difficult. That Kirk feels compelled to make a gesture publicly, while privately doing everything to undermine it, shows us the pressure is working and we need to redouble our efforts.

Feld’s Ratio of Political Power states: “Your political power is proportional to your perceived ability to cause pain.” For example, the NRA’s power stems not from its political contributions (although these obviously help), but from it ability to persuade millions of voters to rise up against any Congressional proposal it opposes. The good news is that the new politics around copyright in D.C. on the first Internet Freedom Day reflect a healthy degree of fear for the pain the “Internet Freedom” constituency can inflict. For the first time, we can realistically talk about a positive agenda to correct the aggressive overreach of the last two decades.

The bad news is that we will, from time to time, be called upon to prove SOPA was not a fluke. Those pushing a copyright maximalist agenda are merely momentarily cowed, not converted. They will continue to test the boundaries, while simultaneously working on new packages of focus-group tested propaganda to help sell the concept.

We must look at this not as a cause of despair, but as a necessary duty of citizenship in a democracy.  This is not new. Any student of the progressive movement of the last century will recognize that those movements overcame corrupt politics and hostile courts by persuading millions of ordinary citizens to stay informed and engaged. It has only been a phenomena of the last 30-40 years that we have abandoned the idea that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people needs the people. Not simply to give money, not simply to vote every even-numbered year, but to actually pick up the phone or go to the office of your elected official and say “You work for me! Not for your donors or future employers, but for me!”

So let us remember #SOPAStrike. Let us, as Henry V advised, yearly on the vigil feast our neighbors and remember — with advantages! — what feats we did that day. A year ago, I said that the worst thing about SOPA/PIPA was that the bill and its support in Congress confirmed every awful, cynical thing people say about how Washington DC works. But the best thing about PIPA/SOPA was that how we stopped it confirmed the best things we say about American democracy.  When citizens wake up and speak up, and speak to each other, they find — to their surprise — they are strong. They find they have power. And they find that being a citizen may take hard work, but it is so, so, SO much better and more satisfying than being a couch potato. As the great Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not me then who? If not now, when?”

A year later, I still believe this is true. I hope others do as well.

Stay tuned . . . .

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