Last week’s “SOPA blackout” was a massive success. Almost 100,000 people changed their Facebook or Twitter profile pictures in support of the blackout; Google blacked-out their logo on their homepage and sent people to an online petition against SOPA, resulting in upwards of seven million signatures; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted on (of course) Facebook strongly criticizing the bill; and Wikipedia shut down entirely for one day, resulting in eight million people searching for contact info for their member of Congress. The public outcry was so overwhelmingly anti-SOPA, that 90 Senators and Congressmen came out against SOPA in less than 24 hours.
In the week since the blackout, there has been much self-congratulating in Internet circles (what a shock), and perhaps rightly so. An article on TechCrunch aptly entitled “SOPA Scorecard: Internet 1, Lobbyists 0” sums ups the jubilation like this: “Not a single anti-SOPA lobbyist was hired for yesterday’s protest . . . A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time.”
I admit, I had a good feeling on blackout day. It felt like a victory for citizen democracy and a victory for free expression online. But I’ve tried to live my life by the credo best expressed by Bob Dylan: “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parkin’ meters.” Whenever I suddenly feel myself swept up in a surge of populist enthusiasm, I try to step back and ask myself: do I really support this cause? Do I even understand the underlying issues?
I remember after 9/11 how easy it was to rally Americans to support virtually any Draconian law, abuse of human rights, or aggressive military action – all in the name of fighting ‘the war on terror.’ I was 100% in support of the Iraq war, and I ignored the naysayers (few that there were) that questioned the evidence of weapons of mass destruction or that the Iraqis would welcome us as ‘liberators.’ Most Americans were like me; when the Iraq War initially started, 72% of Americans supported the decision to go to war. That’s more Americans than believe in the theory of evolution (note: by 2008, support of the war had dropped to 38%).
My point here is not to argue the justness of the Iraq War, but rather to note how easy it can be to get caught up in a moment, often without fully thinking through why we are for or against a cause. So now that the initial ebullience of our anti-SOPA moment of triumph has worn off, it’s worth reflecting a little deeper on this moment in Internet history. How exactly did the SOPA blackout come about, and why did so many people rally to its cause?
Was SOPA Blackout Day a Grassroots Movement?
The SOPA blackout was about as organic as the masses of North Koreans crying in the streets upon hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death. Behind the scenes, the SOPA protest was a well-organized campaign, fueled by the lobbying arms of major Internet corporations.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, eBay and many other companies have been aggressively lobbying Congress for months regarding SOPA. The major Internet companies have gone so far as to propose an alternative to SOPA, called OPEN. Google’s lobbying expenditures tripled to $3.76M in Q4 2011, largely due to SOPA lobbying.
The history of public reaction to SOPA is really a history of effective public relations. SOPA was introduced into the house in late October of last year by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. You probably heard little about the dangers of SOPA, however, until mid-November, when Google, Facebook, and several other large Internet companies bought full-page ads in major newspapers outlining their opposition to the bill. Shortly after these ads, and testimony by a Google attorney in front of Congress, and who knows what else behind the scenes, editorial and tech writers started to come out against SOPA.
Just days after Google’s testimony and full-page ads, Nancy Pelosi (CA-D) and Darrell Issa (CA-R) publicly came out against SOPA. Google is the 8th-largest contributor to Nancy Pelosi and is listed as a “top contributor to Darrel Issa” on OpenSecrets.org. Facebook is listed as a top contributor to Pelosi.
All of this activity resulted in the first noticeable blip on the Twitter radar, with Trendistic reporting .14% of all tweets on Wednesday, November 16th referencing the hashtag “#SOPA.” That may not sound like a lot of action, but when you consider that .14% is more traffic than #Obama gets most days, it’s a significant number.
The next big surge of Twitter traffic came on December 13th, when the Washington Post ran a story about a “visual petition” against SOPA on the Website IWorkForTheInternet.com. The IWorkForTheInternet site doesn’t have any contact info on it, and the domain was registered privately. The site was created by “FightForTheFuture,” whose Web site also doesn’t reveal who registered the domain name, and apparently was created in 2011, given their slogan “Fighting to Keep the Internet Open Since 2011.”
The only names listed on the FightForTheFuture site are “Tiffiniy Cheng” and “Holmes Wilson.” I looked up Tiffiniy online and she apparently works for “DownhillBattle,” which as best I could tell is a blog that is mad about record labels. But she also lists herself as the “Founder, Executive Director, PPF, Open Congress.” PPF is the “Participatory Politics Foundation,” a 501-c-3 non-profit that was founded and funded by The Sunlight Foundation, which is also a non-profit. The Sunlight Foundation is funded by folks like Adobe, Google, Craigslist, the Hewlett Foundation, Reid Hoffman, Esther Dyson, Matt Cutts, and Mark Cuban. Anyways, I’m not an investigative journalist, but all of this strikes me as quite odd; the sudden launch of some very nicely designed, privately registered, anti-SOPA Web sites without any contact info other than a woman who once founded a non-profit that gets money from another non-profit that gets money from technology companies? Methinks something is rotten in Denmark.
In late December, NetCoalition, one of several lobbying organizations that represent the tech community, hatched the idea for the SOPA blackout day. And of course, as we know, eventually the blackout took place, leading to the dramatic increase in awareness and outrage about SOPA that the tech giants had been hoping for all along:
And just to state the obvious, when was the last time Google gave their Google Doodle team discretion to post political commentary on the Google homepage? How about never! You may hate Chris Dodd – the head of the Motion Picture Association of America – but I think he had a point when he noted: “It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.”
The notion that this was a battle of David vs. Goliath – the unwashed masses versus powerful Hollywood lobbyists – is a fiction. The outrage against SOPA simply would not have occurred without well-funded, well-organized efforts led by lobbyists and lawyers at major Internet sites. This was a battle of lobbyists versus lobbyists. It so happens that the Internet lobbyists were much more effective at mobilizing the masses to their cause than those in the entertainment industry, that’s all.
What Were We Protesting, Anyway?
I admit that I’ve never read SOPA (or PIPA), and I’m guessing that about 99% of the seven million people who signed the petition on Google’s homepage also never read it. I’m guessing that my understanding of the bill is pretty consistent with most people’s: it’s a bill that attempts to protect copyrighted material online, but it’s been constructed in an overly broad manner that could result in the government having the authority to shut down commercial web sites for minor copyright infractions.
That sounds bad to me – heck, I make my living helping Internet sites prosper – the last thing I want is for Congress to enact a bill that has a chilling effect on current and future Internet commerce! Of course, it’s also worth noting that everything I’ve heard about SOPA has come directly from the anti-SOPA lobby. I never read anything from the MPAA or even bother to really understand their side of the story. I suspect I’m not alone here.
I’m sure there were some anti-SOPA activists who were staunch libertarians or conservative anti-big-government idealists; it’s understandable that those groups would oppose SOPA. But then, those groups are vocal about a lot of issues online, and none of those other issues generated the massive consumer response that SOPA did. As an example, consider the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that President Obama signed into law in late December, 2011. The NDAA has a little provision in it that has enraged civil liberty activists and libertarians alike: it allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens, on American soil, by the military.
One would think that a law that takes away one of our basic Constitutional rights (the right to due process) would be more worthy of mass protest that SOPA. Apparently, most Americans do not worry about whether a black van might someday pull up to their front door and whisk them away to a military prison. But take away my LOLCats? Well, now you’ve got me mad!
Can’t We All Fight A Better Fight?
All of this brings me to my last point: in hindsight, I wish all the mass anger about SOPA was directed to a better cause. To be clear, I’m not saying it would have been OK to let SOPA pass, but given the massive lobbying power of Internet companies and the potential financial impact of a bill that could hamper the Internet economy, it seems likely that without the SOPA blackout day, a compromise would have been reached. Congress is dumb, but not that dumb.
In marketing, we have a term called “frequency.” It means the number of times we show an ad to a specific user. Frequency is important because showing an ad too many times is inefficient and may eventually piss off a consumer. No doubt there is a similar frequency metric when it comes to social causes. Americans can be mobilized for a good cause, but only to a point. We choose our favorite charities, our favorite volunteer activities, and our favorite political causes to support. Every time a cause gets us on board, another worthy cause ends up out in the cold.
In my opinion, SOPA was a cause that should have been left to the lobbyists, and perhaps to us Internet insiders who had a financial stake in the outcome. I’d personally rather see average Americans up in arms over the issues that impact them more directly – how we spend tax dollars, our foreign policy, local governance – instead of the proper regulation of copyrighted material online (and basically, that’s what SOPA really is: an attempt – perhaps a bad one – to prevent wanton violations of copyright law). For that matter, I’d rather see multi-billion dollar Internet conglomerates dedicate their home pages to raising money to cure cancer or stop poverty than to political battles that benefit their bottom line.
I love the fact that the Internet has become a powerful channel for popular outrage. Today you can piss off one consumer and he’ll tell three or four million people, thanks to the viral nature of the Internet. I would love nothing more than to see the power of lobbyists damaged or destroyed by the collective voices of millions of online users. But that’s not what happened with the SOPA blackout. At its origin, the blackout was the result of an effective lobbying effort that drove populist action. Who’s to say that the next time around, it’s not the MPAA that comes up with a clever scheme to convince Americans that theirs is the just cause? Enact “SOCA” (Save Our Culture Act) today or the movies and music you love might disappear forever – talk to your Congressperson today!
– David Rodnitzky, CEO