SOPA blackouts just might kill the bill

This past Wednesday, the world went dark. Quiet. Well, part of it anyway. If you’re reading this article I’m going to assume you visited at least one of the 115,000 websites that had made alterations to their frontpages in a “blackout” protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act. For Wikipedia, it meant displaying a mostly black page with the Wikipedia logo and an explanation of the ramifications of the bill. While some sites went for similar service-outages, others made small changes to raise awareness. Google simply put a big black box over the logo on its homepage. Participation hit every corner of the web, from content aggregators like Reddit to the porn networks. It seemed like everyone was opposed to the bill, even if just for a day. I thought it must be a fluke.

It wasn’t. Millions of people signed an anti-SOPA petition that Google had put together, and that was just one petition. Several sites held similar petitions and email drives, all of which reported hugely successful numbers. Still, the biggest number on the day of the blackout was eighteen. Eighteen is the number of Senators who changed position on the bill. Changed. In some ways that’s an inspiring figure – it’s fantastic to see that activism can produce change. On the other hand, it’s more than a little disconcerting that people in office were ready to pass a bill that could have such a negative impact on the most valued aspects of the web, namely that it is free and open.

Wednesday wasn’t an all-out victory over thoughtless legislation against the internet. The day also saw the US Department of Justice seize and shut down file-sharing site Megaupload. I’m not going to claim that the site hasn’t been involved in any criminal activity — it very likely has — but as several other sites have mentioned, the indictment has a few inconsistencies. In one instance, the indictment charges that “a member of the Mega Conspiracy made a transfer of $185,000 to further an advertising campaign for involved a musical recording and a video.” That seems not only within the confines of the law but daily business practice. As Ars Technica points out, “When Viacom made many of the same charges against YouTube, it didn’t go to the government and try to get Eric Schmidt or Chad Hurley arrested.”

That’s where Anonymous came in. You knew they wouldn’t stay out of this one. After Megaupload went down, the hacker collective organized DDoS attacks against just about everyone involved in the Megaupload case, including the DoJ, the MPAA, and the FBI. In short, Anonymous took a piss all over the good vibrations of the blackout, and certainly the goodwill of anyone who may have been on the fence about the whole SOPA thing. It goes without saying that Anonymous hurt the conversation just as much as the blackout may have added to it, and that’s not something lawmakers will soon forget.

This is why I think the blackout’s effort to kill SOPA could still be a “maybe.” While the bill does look like it has been pulled off life support, the Megaupload indictment and the Anonymous attack stand as two steps back after that one big step forward. I’m hoping the internet pulls through, but I’m not nearly as confident as I was Wednesday night.


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SOPA inspires widespread web activism


I’ve been hesitating to write about SOPA for a few reasons, but mainly for the fact that there are a number of far more knowledgeable individuals writing about the topic. I knew I had something though when web users started targeting companies that support the SOPA bill. The most recent wave of companies to renounce their SOPA ties include Sony, Nintendo, and Electronic Arts. The movement didn’t start there, though. It started on Reddit as a force against GoDaddy, the popular domain name registrar. The social content site didn’t stop there, though. They’re also going after legislators who favor the bill, like Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan.

We’ve seen focused activism from the internet before, but never quite on this scale. In just a couple of days GoDaddy lost more than 40,000 domains and, although hard statistics are tough to nail down, something to the tune of $500,000. That’s not exactly small money. Then again, roughly the same number of people registered new domains in the same time frame, so it’s difficult to say just how much of an effect the movement will have on the domain registrar.

It is having an impact on the SOPA bill and the bill’s supporters, though, as evidenced by the aforementioned media companies’ stance change and the impact on Paul Ryan’s campaign. That’s not to say web activism is without its flaws. In another recent news story, Redditors rallied against Ocean Marketing’s Paul Christoforo, who horribly mismanaged one customer relationship over email. Unfortuntely the company that hired Christoforo for marketing was caught in the crossfire and took a lot of negative press on Amazon and other review sites.

I find this type of mistargeted web activism just as disconcerting as I find the SOPA activism heartening. SOPA is a terrible idea, supported for the most part by people who don’t understand the way the internet works today. But so much of the experience on sites like Reddit revolves around feeling like a part of the collective “we” that people often get caught up in the movement without considering where the gun is being pointed.

Lamar Smith

I do, however, find it difficult to hold activist groups to such a high standard without doing the same with the politicians crafting this legislation. Lamar Smith, who wrote the SOPA bill, said the following about Reddit:

“It’s a vocal minority. Because they’re strident doesn’t mean they’re either legitimate or large in number. One, they need to read the language. Show me the language. There’s nothing they can point to that does what they say it does do. I think their fears are unfounded.” A simple look at the GoDaddy numbers could show anyone just how legitimate a force sites like Reddit can be, to say nothing of the fact that Smith clearly doesn’t understand how vague language in a bill like SOPA can affect its interpretation down the road.