Full disclosure: I work on issues at the intersection of technology, copyright and policy. In recent months, I’ve been able to observe firsthand the impact of internet-powered social movements. To wit: the unprecedented outrage around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT-IP (PIPA) stopped either bill from becoming law — something many in Congress assumed was a fait accompli.
Then there’s the immense pressure brought on Susan G. Komen for the Cure after the organization pulled funding to Planned Parenthood. The swift disapproval — again, largely web-driven — was so intense that Komen’s VP is now stepping down.
The “bitroots” blowback is hardly limited to the US. Public demonstrations are currently taking place in the EU over ACTA, an international intellectual property agreement that some think goes too far. Protests have spilled into the streets, with more than 20,000 people participating in Poland alone. But the real engine of dissent is online.
Powerful as this new form of protest is, it’s hardly perfect. Oversimplifications are common, which is to be expected when complex policy matters are condensed into viral action items. Still, there is one clear takeaway: the world’s netizens will no longer lay back while decisions are made that impact their lives, online and otherwise.
From my experience, I can say that the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement was broad and remarkably diffuse. Internet users are now stakeholders, and they have countless ways to share information and amplify their voices. And, although it would be incorrect to call them a monolithic group, they are perfectly capable of representing their own self-interests when push comes to shove.
It’s unfair to characterize the SOPA/PIPA skirmish as one between Hollywood and Silicon Valley (read: Google). While some major tech companies were certainly involved, most of the push happened at the netroots level. I’d say it went down something like this:
The true action came from internet users who found themselves in a position to push back against a fairly draconian set of proposals. The technology itself amplified their message to the extent that a bill that had already passed out of full committee in the US Senate was put on ice, and the House companion never even made it past markup. You can believe me when I tell you that this is a new dynamic in Washington. I’m not sure anyone has fully wrapped their heads around what it means.
So, are these movements merely lighting in a bottle, or the foundations of a new and lasting form of advocacy? Can these spontaneous yet incredibly potent movements be transitioned from something reactive to something proactive? We may have to wait a while to find out. For now, if I was the MPAA or the RIAA, I might consider internalizing the lesson, instead of blithely dismissing the movement as ill-informed, or worse, driven by tech companies.
What do you bet they won’t?