Biggest Day Ever of Online Protest in English

Daily Headlines readers know we devoted lots of digital ink this week to the ongoing debates over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) [#SOPA and #PIPA, if you’re Tweeting at home]. Last week, we ended our weekly round-up saying, “The developments on these two bills are likely to be one of the most-watched issues as Congress returns to Washington.” We’re proud to announce we are an early nominee for “Understatement of the Year.”

On January 14, Victoria Espinel, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at Office of Management and Budget, Aneesh Chopra, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Howard Schmidt, Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff, published a reply to two We The People petitions – “Veto the SOPA bill and any other future bills that threaten to diminish the free flow of information” (51,689 signatures) and “Stop the E-PARASITE Act” (52,096 signatures). Their response outlined what the Administration will support—and what it will not support:

  • Any effective legislation should reflect a wide range of stakeholders, including everyone from content creators to the engineers that build and maintain the infrastructure of the Internet. While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.
  • Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.
  • We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet.

At the same time, support for SOPA was slipping in the House. House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) said Jan 14 that Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised him the House will not vote on SOPA unless there is consensus on the bill. The day before, House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), the major force behind SOPA, said he will drop a controversial provision that would have required Internet providers to block infringing websites. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vowed to move forward with a controversial online piracy bill on Jan 15, despite the White House expressing concern with the measure and Senate Judiciary Committee republicans asking for a delay of the vote.

All these developments, however, are overshadowed by the events of January 18. We devoted an entire edition of Headlines to the unprecedented online activism that manifested that day -- some are calling it the biggest day of online protest in the English world in history.

  • Over 10,000 websites protested the bills by going dark for the day.
  • Many more websites displayed prominent banners of opposition to the anti-piracy bills
  • The Wikimedia Foundation says it reached 162 million people with Wikipedia's 24-hour English-language protest of the antipiracy bills. (That's more than five times the number of views English Wikipedia receives on a normal Wednesday.) Of those, more than 8 million readers in the United States took the opportunity to look up contact information for their members of Congress through the site. Presumably, that generated tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of calls to congressional offices.
  • Google did not black out its entire site as Wikipedia did, but it still generated at least 13 million page views to its anti-SOPA page and got 7 million people to sign its petition.
  • The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group, logged 200,000 signatures on its petition. The organization also says more than 30,000 Craigslist users called Congress through the PCCC's website.
  • Opponents of SOPA and PIPA also staged in-person protests around the country; two of the largest were in New York City and San Francisco.
  • By 4pm EST, there had been more than 2.4 million tweets about the bills.
  • Americans weren't the only ones moved to action. The whole world was watching, and the whole world chimed in. Activist website Avaaz asked its members to sign a petition from "concerned global citizens" urging members of Congress to vote against both PIPA and the SOPA. Avaaz reports that 1.8 million from 141 countries around the world signed its petition. The petition did especially well in Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Canada and Mexico, but people in Jamaica, Morocco and Malaysia also lent their voices.

Throughout the day, lawmakers were hearing it from constituents. The interest translated to more calls to Hill offices and clicks on members' official Web pages, creating a bottleneck on the phone and delays online. The Senate's website reportedly faced technical difficulties as people tried to contact their senators. The result: “Members of the Senate are rushing for the exits in the wake of the Internet's unprecedented protest,” reported Ars Technica.

Here is a list of new opponents to PIPA in the Senate. [An * indicates a former sponsor.]

Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)
Roy Blunt (R-MO) *
John Boozman (R-AR) *
Scott Brown (R-MA)
Ben Cardin (D-MD) *
John Cornyn (R-TX)
Jim DeMint (R-SC)
Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) *
Orrin Hatch (R-UT) *
James Inhofe (R-OK)
Mark Kirk (R-IL)
Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)
Marco Rubio (R-FL) *
Olympia Snowe (R-ME)
David Vitter (R-LA) *

In addition, these Senate Judiciary Committee members had asked for a delay of the vote on PIPA: Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Of course, the most vocal – and, previously, the most lonely – Senate opposition to PIPA came from Sen Ron Wyden. He published an open letter in the Huffington Post thanking those who stood up “for what's important, for continuing to speak out and for demonstrating that we should always stand up for what we think is right regardless of the odds. This is an opportunity to reshape the way Washington operates, not just responding to narrow interests but hearing the voices of millions of Americans whose rights and livelihoods are affected by our actions.”

As we go to press, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has postponed a procedural vote scheduled for Jan 24 on the PROTECT IP Act, although he held out a glimmer of hope for a compromise in an online piracy push that many were proclaiming dead.

The House bill now has far more opponents than supporters. That support comes mainly from Democrats thanks in part to the bill's strong union backing and the fact that Hollywood has opened its collective wallet wider for Democrats historically.

Putting aside the merits of the bills, Headlines has marveled at the online activism. As Nick Bilton wrote in the New York Times, “The World Wide Web is still learning how to stage protests online, with people and companies trying different tactics, throwing spaghetti against the Internet and trying to see what sticks. The reaction from the Web on Wednesday to two separate bills in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, seems to have pushed the online protesting experiment a little further.”

“This is the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School. He added, “The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first.”

Clay Shirky, a scholar of Internet culture who teaches at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, said that unlike other protests that are inflection points for a society, the SOPA-related outcry didn’t have one turning point when a switch flipped in the public consciousness. Instead, he said, it was a 21st-century version of a phone tree. “It pervaded people’s consciousness more and more as time went on,” Shirky said. It wasn’t long, he said, before “a disorganized group of people online became a coordinated group of people taking action.”

Twitter played a role in keeping the momentum moving — particularly since there was little coverage of the bills in major media outlets until recently. There were nearly 200,000 Twitter posts mentioning SOPA on Monday, more than 450,000 on Tuesday and about 3.9 million on Wednesday. And although the decision by Wikipedia and Google to join the protest was instrumental in drawing attention to the dissent, they “did not lead this effort,” Shirky said. “They followed it.”

Alexis Madrigal helped put the activism is perspective in a piece in The Atlantic. "Protests don't solve things," he quotes an Occupy Wall Street protester saying. "Protests create problems that policymakers then have to solve."

To be clear, by "create a problem," Madrigal means to frame some set of facts and events in the world in such a way that they become a coherent bad, separate from the general messiness of the world. For web nerds, it's like dropping a shadow on text: suddenly, something is foregrounded. Much of that foregrounding isn't accomplished by the protests themselves, but by the media that spins out of such protests.

It looked like SOPA was going to sail through Congress. Back in May, PIPA passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with little opposition. But then the Internet -- its for-profit companies and non-profit allies -- woke up. and BoingBoing and Ars Technica started to cover the story in greater depth. Redditors were suddenly very interested in these bills. The tech community became aware of this problem. The efforts of protesters over the last eight months convinced most in Silicon Valley that they had to do something about these bills' progress. So January 18 has created “The SOPA Problem.” And the problem has the specific feature of restricting the free flow of information on the Internet. The protest successfully created a news event in all media, old and new. Millions more Americans will have at least a passing knowledge of what Internet companies think the problem with SOPA is. In their Jan 19 debate, all the GOP presidential candidates denounced the bills.

The biggest question now is – what happens next? To solve this particular problem, Congress merely has to do what it does best: nothing. Some are talking compromise and Motion Picture Association of America Chairman Chris Dodd said he would welcome a summit meeting between Internet companies and content companies, perhaps convened by the White House, that could lead to a compromise on a federal law

Ars Technica has actually taken the lead in suggesting a way forward – both in process and content for a law to address online piracy. Let’s see if anyone is ready to follow.