Just What, If Anything, Did Wednesday’s Protest Achieve?
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
UPDATE: Friday, January 20, 2012: Not content to leave the battle un-joined, the hacker group Anonymous stepped into the SOPA fray Thursday evening by launching a massive denial of service attack on several SOPA supporters, including Universal Music, the RIAA and MPAA. Also targeted was the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Copyright Office; although those attacks are likely to have been prompted more by Thursday’s shutdown of the website “MegaUpload” by Justice officials. AnonOps claims that 5,635 individual machines were used to launch the coordinated attacks, the largest single effort yet by Anonymous. As we’ve noted before, when there’s a big story that has anything to do with the Internet, expect Anonymous to step in.
Whether the protests and hacks changed minds isn’t clear; however it has changed the bills’ fortunes on Capitol Hill. Friday Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) announced he would shelve SOPA for the moment, while in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) cancelled a vote on PIPA.
For weeks Huh had been using his Twitter account and other means to encourage Internet companies of all stripes to join in a one day protest against two pieces of legislation currently before Congress. “SOPA”, for Stop Online Piracy Act, and “PIPA”, the “Protect IP Act” were designed, say its authors, to crack down on overseas copyright piracy by strengthening the U.S. government’s hand in who they could prosecute and remove from the web.
Introduced more than a year ago, the legislation has the strong support of major entertainment companies such as Sony or the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA. But it has equally strong opposition, centered mostly among civil libertarians, online freedom activists and Internet-based firms like Google and Wikipedia.
This back and forth has put the bills into a sort of legislative limbo – not scheduled for floor or committee markup, but not officially dead, either. So beginning early January, Huh and others proposed a protest that would grab headlines, and perhaps knock SOPA’s advocates back on their heels. Their Internet sites would go dark for 24-hours, replacing their usual content with a stark message warning about the dangers of the bills, and urging users to contact their members of Congress.
So what happened? To start, Wikipedia went dark – kind of. The online compendium of facts large to obscure was unavailable for 24 hours, offering instead a shadowy black-and-white message on why PIPA and SOPA would censor services like theirs. It was billed as a total blackout, but as mobile phone and tablet users quickly found out, there was a still a back door open for full access from mobile devices. Ben Huh’s “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” family of 54 websites of lolcats and goofy pranks all featured a large shield that could only be removed by clicking through to a site warning about the bills, and urging users to sign letters of protest. (Once clicked, however, all the lolcats were again available.) Google slapped a large black box over its logo, although its search function continued to work, and online magazine Wired blacked out all the text on its site, which, however, became visible when you moused-over it.
“Boing Boing”, “Firefox”, “Tumblr”; these and many more sites limited services and featured ominous warnings about the bills. But many other sites did not participate. Twitter refused to join the protest, calling such a single-issue stoppage of a global company “foolish.” Amazon.com didn’t make mention of the bills either – but this perhaps was less surprising as retailers, in general, would not be as threatened under PIPA and SOPA than over content-rich sites. Even some editors of Wikipedia complained that the blackout could threaten Wikipedia’s reputation as a non-biased source of information. “My main concern is that it puts the organization in the role of advocacy,” editor Robert Lawton told the Associated Press. “Before we know it, we’re blacked out because we want to save the whales.”
In the end, the protest garnered headlines but changed few minds. Ebay, Facebook, Yahoo!, Google, Twitter and others still oppose SOPA, while NBC Universal, Comcast, 3M, Walmart, the RIAA and others still support it. And the larger question now is: what will opponents do if and when the bills actually start moving again in Congress? A one day blackout is one thing; shutting access for an indefinite period of time will be a much harder, and costlier, sell.
For his part, SOPA author Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has introduced a “manager’s amendment” – which you can read here – which represents a modification of the original bill, and one that, for parliamentary reasons, Rep. Smith may begin to move through committee as early as February. In the meantime, SOPA & PIPA proponents, such as the Creative Alliance, have announced they will soon launch an advertising campaign about the benefits of the bills.
And Ben Huh isn’t the only one taking his campaign to Twitter. SOPA supporter Rupert Murdoch tweeted yesterday: “Seems blogosphere has succeeding in terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed. Politicians all the same.”