January 18, 2012 should be remembered as the first day of the “Internet Spring.”
I like to say that the worst thing about PIPA/SOPA is that it confirms every awful, cynical thing people say about how Washington DC works. But the best thing about PIPA/SOPA is how it can also confirm the best things we say about American democracy.
As a policy advocate who routinely takes on multi-billion dollar companies, I have regular cause to be grateful for our proud First Amendment traditions. Around the world, advocates who oppose corporate power literally take their lives in their hands. I can do what I do in no small part because I don’t believe “the regime” will lock me up or that the MPAA will have me “disappeared.” I do not claim our democracy is perfect. We are rightly appalled when police arrest reporters covering Occupy Wall Street. But there is an order of magnitude difference between that and living in the expectation that advocating for what you believe routinely leads to arrest and torture.
But it is all the difference between having the freedom to protest and believing what you do as a citizen matters. For years, Americans have increasingly felt disconnected from their own government. On the left and right, we have come to see our government not as a thing “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but as a mechanism by which special interests impose their will and politicians battle for no better purpose than to remain in office and advance their personal fortunes and the fortunes of their political party. Anyone witness to the spectacle of a Congressional hearing where Members literally beg opposing industry representatives to “come to consensus,” so that Congress can avoid even the task of adjudicating between special interests by rubberstamping what lobbyists put before them, cannot help but see cynicism as wisdom. When 60 Senators refuse to meet with constituents on PIPA, but defend themselves on the grounds that they are “meeting with industry stakeholders” instead, we know exactly where We The People stand in the order of things and to whom our elected representatives really consider themselves accountable.
Meanwhile, our news media, charged with providing the electorate with the information critical for self-governance, has deliberately marginalized itself. We have fallen so low that last week the public editor of the New York Times – supposedly the gold standard for ‘serious’ reporting in the United States – asked for public comment on whether reporters ought to question dubious facts presented by advocates and politicians or if they should merely serve as stenographers. When covering PIPA, to the extent the news media have covered it at all, the media simply line up supporters on one side and opponents on the other, hiding behind the excuse that they are “reporters” and their job is simply to “let the people decide.” But is it not the job of a reporter to point out when Ruppert Murdoch tweets that Obama has “sided with Silicon Valley paymasters” that News Corp and other interests supporting PIPA/SOPA have given millions more in political donations? Or point out to those who insist that opposition comes only from Google that PIPA and SOPA have been condemned by groups as diverse as Tea Party Patriots, Reporters Without Borders, and Sandia National Labs?
As the final insult, what analysis we do have in the news media resembles our sports coverage rather than any effort to keep the citizens of a democracy informed. What articles we have in the media now talk about Silicon Valley v. Hollywood or what political party or candidate gains or losses advantage. Where is the news coverage that actually reads the bills? Where is coverage that describes what the provisions do, why opponents express such concern, and whether such concern seems alarmist or justified?
All of this is why I regard today as the birth of the Internet Spring. It is no small thing for a business, particularly an internet business that makes its revenue through its website, to go dark for a day. These are not companies that seek the limelight or engage in politics. For Reddit, Cheeseburger Network, Wikipedia, and the many others going dark today, it takes extraordinary provocation and a feeling of extraordinary need. It takes frustration with the endless media black out and the media’s refusal to question claims by PIPA and SOPA supporters that are not simply opinion, but are demonstrably untrue. It takes a real sense that these bills threaten not only their livelihoods, but their fundamental freedoms. But it also takes hope, and the belief that what we do as citizens still matters. It takes belief that being a citizen and fixing what’s wrong with our democracy goes beyond the ritual of voting every even numbered year. It is not just that we can still feel outrage – it is that we as citizens can transform and channel that outrage in a way that makes a difference.
The reactions of PIPA and SOPA opponents bear an astonishing rhetorical resemblance to the responses of the “old regimes” in Tunisia and Egypt – blaming small handfuls of the discontented, outside agitators and criminals while calling on the opposition to behave “responsibly” and return to their daily affairs. While the MPAA lacks tanks and tear gas, it is disquieting to see an industry purportedly devoted to free expression darkly warning that peaceful protests are “an abuse” of free speech. But one detects an undercurrent of fear in these increasingly strident denials and thinly veiled threats. For the first time, those who own the networks can no longer control the message. Small wonder former Senator Chris Dodd, now head of the MPAA, looks to China as a model for how government and the media ought to work together to promote harmony.
Nor does it seem credible for Members of Congress, after ignoring the opposition to PIPA as virtually non-existent, to denounce the most effective form of protest as a “publicity stunt” that makes opponents – whom they have hitherto denied existed and ignored – unworthy of engagement. Do they no longer understand how Democracy works? These debates take place in the public square, and our elected representatives are supposed to take heed and, at the very least, engage and respond. Instead, we see SOPA’s author, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), pledging to push ahead next month as if nothing has happened. It calls to mind the astonishment the world felt watching Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak trying to brazen out Tahrir Square by denouncing it as the work of unrepresentative troublemakers seeking publicity while promising to “study” and “address” “legitimate concerns” by some supposedly more authentic stakeholders — with Mubarak as the ultimate authority on who constitutes an “authentic stakeholder.” Can it really be that Lamar Smith, in the face of unprecedented protest, will continue to pretend that the outrage seen online is not the work of “authentic stakeholders” with “legitimate concerns?”
But if some PIPA and SOPA supporters have dug in deeper, their colleagues are listening. Every day brings reports of more Senators and Representatives taking a stand against PIPA/SOPA, or at least backing away from their previous support and pledging to “address concerns.” The White House, certainly not deaf to political protest in an election year, has come out strongly in opposition to PIPA and SOPA in their current forms and reaffirmed the commitment that any law for protecting copyrighted material from infringement must show equal respect to the principles of free speech and due process.
So I will repeat as I began: January 18, 2012 marks the beginning of the Internet Spring. The flower of democracy, long dormant in our cynical winter, forces its green shoots through the frost and signals a season of renewal. We are an astonishment to the cynical, an outrage to the established order. But most importantly, we are free people in the land of the free. Today, we prove that “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” has not perished from this Earth.
Stay tuned . . . .