What Does the Activism Surrounding SOPA Reveal About the Future of Online Organizing?

Just a few weeks ago, passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) seemed all but certain. Then online users got involved.

On January 18, an estimated 13 million took part in an online protest, while 50,000 web sites, including Wikipedia, went dark. The message on Wikipedia's site said, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.

For decades, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet.”

Tech heavyweights, including Facebook, Google and Reddit also expressed opposition. AOL took out a full-page ad in The New York Times.

These actions resulted in rarely seen drastic changes in Washington. Dozens of lawmakers known for bowing down to corporate interests and Hollywood withdrew support for the bills.

“This was the most amazing and the largest of outpouring of political strength on the Internet that we've ever seen,” says Josh Levy, online campaign director with Free Press. “A lot of provisions in both of these bills would have threatened the way the Internet has existed since its beginning. If you care about the openness of the Internet, you should oppose those bills.”

What would these bills do?

Declan McCullagh, senior writer and chief political correspondent for CNET, writes that SOPA “allows the U.S. attorney general to seek a court order against the targeted offshore Web site that would, in turn, be served on Internet providers in an effort to make the target virtually disappear. It's kind of an Internet death penalty.”

Parker Higgins, activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents the major movie studios and is headed by former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, was the main player pushing for the passage of these bills. The MPAA is reportedly paying Dodd $1.2 million a year. “The MPAA came out and made statements saying they'd dial down the language a bit,” he says. “The MPAA was the driving force behind this.”

Free Press is calling on members of Congress who receive money from the MPAA to give it back in order to prove their votes can't be bought.

Companies and trade groups that lobbied on the two bills spent as least $104 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, more than double the $49 million they spent in the previous quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The number of lobbyists who worked on behalf of these companies and groups more than doubled, from 462 to 956.

The computer and Internet industry had 246 lobbyists working against the bill, while the TV, music and movie industry had 241 lobbyists working for it.

“The role of money can't be underestimated,” says Levy. “Hollywood thought it was going to get its way because it supports certain members of Congress and gets what it wants. But in this case, the voices of millions of people, when they rise up together in unison, can count for even more than money. That was an encouraging sign and it made a lot of people who participated in the protest realize that hey we can participate in our democracy and if we work together, we can actually get things done.”

On January 18, millions of citizens sent emails and made phone calls to their representatives. Senate.gov went down for part of the day because there was so much traffic to the site.

“Hollywood has a good run in the last 15 years getting nine out of 10 bills that they've proposed,” says McCullagh. “They thought this was going to be a cake walk. They did not see this coming. They got rolled by the Internet.”

So, what sparked the massive outcry? Hundreds of companies and advocacy groups marked American Censorship Day on November 16 by censoring their logos in protest of SOPA and PIPA. From then on, the organizing efforts snowballed.

“It became unstoppable,” says Levy. “That's why you saw members of Congress starting to jump ship because they realized that they should throw their cards in with the millions of constituents that they represent rather than one part of California that was urging them to support the bills.”

Higgins says free speech advocates have been waiting to see more political awareness and power online for over ten years. “It was really exciting for us to see. The possibilities are endless.”

The stop SOPA and PIPA movement was comprised of a broad left, right and libertarian coalition. The question is, can this kind of activism be applied as quickly and effectively to other issues?

Listen to Your Call discuss SOPA, PIPIA, copyright protections, online organizing and what this means for the future of online activism.


Parker Higgins, activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Declan McCullagh, chief political writer and senior writer at CNET.

Josh Levy, online campaign director with Free Press.