The week the web changed Washington

Collective action halted SOPA and PIPA. Now we're in unexplored territory.

This morning, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement that he would postpone next week’s vote on the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) followed with a statement that he would also halt consideration of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Collectively, millions of people rose up and told Washington that these bills shall not pass.

This outcome was driven by an unprecedented day of online protests on Wednesday of this week, and the resulting coverage on cable and broadcast news networks had an effect.

“Senator Reid made the right decision in postponing next week’s vote on PIPA,” said Center for Democracy and Technology president Leslie Harris. “It’s time for a hard reset on this issue. We need a thoughtful and substantive process that includes all Internet stakeholders. We need to take a hard look at the facts and find solutions that honor the Internet’s openness and its unique capacity for innovation and free expression. We are thankful for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden who from the beginning stood against this bill; his early opposition and leadership gave voice to the important concerns of the Internet community.”

Wikipedia, Google, BoingBoing, Reddit, O’Reilly Media and thousands of other websites, blogs and individual citizens asked their communities to take a stand and contact Washington. January 18, 2012, will go down as an historic day of online action. Consider the following statistics:

  • 162 million Wikipedia page views, with some 8 million visitors using an online form to look up the address of their Congressional representatives.
  • 7 million signatures on Google’s petition.
  • 200,000+ signatures on the Progressive Change Campaign Committee petition.
  • 30,000+ Craigslist users called Congress through the PCCC’s website.
  • 250,000+ people took action through the EFF’s resources.
  • 2.4 million+ SOPA-related tweets were sent between 12 a.m. and 4 p.m. on January 18.
  • 140,000 phone calls made through Tumblr’s platform.
  • Nearly 1,000 protesters outside New York’s U.S. Senators’ office in New York City.

The key metric to consider for impact of this action, however, was not measured in digital terms but by civic outcomes: 40 new opponents in Congress.

On Wednesday morning, according to ProPublica’s SOPA Tracker, U.S. Senators and Representatives were 80-31 for SOPA and PIPA. By the end of the day, SOPA and PIPA had 68 supporters and 71 opponents in Congress. And by week’s end, ProPublica’s data showed 187 opponents and “leaning no.”

“The amazing thing is that the power of these networks delivered,” wrote Votizen co-founder David Binetti on TechCrunch. “By the end of the day, 25 Senators — including at least 5 former co-sponsors of the bill — had announced their opposition to SOPA. Think about that for just a second: 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. Regardless where you stand on the issue — and effective copyright protection is an important issue — this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.”

I concur with that last point. Last night, we finally saw one of the most important questions about the future of the Internet and society asked in a presidential debate: all four GOP candidates for the presidential nomination came out against SOPA during Thursday’s debate on CNN.

“Get ready to have this fight again”

Carl Franzen, in his must-read analysis of how the Web killed SOPA and PIPA, lays out a convincing case for why we should think of these bills as effectively “dead.”

These bills are not completely in the grave, no matter what headlines you read today, although I can now say with confidence that they will not pass as currently drafted. In the months to come, keep an eye out for efforts to redraft them, cutting DNS filtering provisions or search engine blocks in an effort to make them acceptable to technology companies like Google.

It will be some months yet before Congress is “done” in this election year. No one I’ve consulted at the Center for Democracy and Technology or Public Knowledge thinks this is over. I’m certainly not convinced yet. The White House said that it would like to see action on anti-piracy legislation this year. Senator Reid had indicated that he would like to revisit legislation in February. It will be months until Congress really shuts down during the election year.

Clay Shirky made an important point today in his post on Hollywood and copyright today: “The risk now is not that SOPA will pass. The risk is that we’ll think we’ve won. We haven’t; they’ll be back. Get ready to have this fight again.”

Video of Shirky’s TED Talk on why SOPA is a bad idea is embedded below:

While the power of the Internet to drive media coverage and collective action mattered in Washington this week, it’s also critically important to recognize that but for the efforts of Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Rep. Jared Polis (R-CO) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), I believe SOPA and PIPA would likely have passed. </p

Senator Wyden put a critical hold on the PROTECT IP Act after it sailed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The four representatives proposed dozens of amendments to SOPA in a marathon, days-long markup session that effectively filibustered the bill, delaying it until the House came back into session in January. That delay enabled hundreds of organizations and individuals, including newspaper editors, human rights advocates, academics, engineers and public interest groups, to rally to save the Internet as we know it.

“Supporters of the Internet deserve credit for pressing advocates of SOPA and PIPA to back away from an effort to ram through controversial legislation,” Issa said in an emailed statement.

The statement continued:

“Over the last two months, the intense popular effort to stop SOPA and PIPA has defeated an effort that once looked unstoppable but lacked a fundamental understanding of how Internet technologies work.

“Postponing the Senate vote on PIPA removes the imminent threat to the Internet, but it’s not over yet. Copyright infringement remains a serious problem and any solution must be targeted, effective, and consistent with how the Internet works. After inviting all stakeholders to help improve American intellectual property protections, I have introduced the bipartisan OPEN Act with Senator Rob Wyden which can be read and commented on at It is clear that Congress needs to have more discussion and education about the workings of the Internet before it moves forward on sweeping legislation to address intellectual property theft on the Internet. I look forward to working with my colleagues and stakeholders to achieve a needed consensus about the way forward.”

Unexplored territory

In the meantime, everyone who participated in this week’s unprecedented day of online action should know that the action mattered. If you’d asked me about the prospects for the passage of these bills back in December — and many people did, after I wrote a feature in November that highlighted the threat these anti-piracy bills presented to the Internet, security and freedom of expression online — I estimated that it was quite likely. So did Chris Dodd, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, who told the New York Times that these passage of these bills was “considered by many to be a ‘slam dunk’.'”

We’re now in unexplored territory. I’ve been writing about how the Internet affects government and government affects the Internet for years now. This week was clearly a tipping point in that space. The voices of the people, expressed in calls, letters, tweets, petitions and protests, were heard in Washington.

We saw unprecedented mobilization across the Internet, enabled by an increasingly networked society, social media and a number of tech companies and website owners taking principled stands in support of freedom of expression and the Open Web.

I support the right of Internet companies and services to use their platforms to educate their users about proposed legislation that would harm a free and open Internet, as we understand that term today. It’s important now that those same companies and citizens work together to craft an alternative to SOPA, as Rob Preston, the editor-in-chief of Information Week, argued today. The problem of money, politics and SOPA is a thorny one, as John Battelle wrote this morning:

“We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore … Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington — for too long we’ve treated ‘Government’ as damage, and we’ve routed around it.”

Just so. We need the smartest minds of our generation thinking about how to help make society work better, creating tools to help others do so and using them to help millions of citizens still struggling to make their way out of the Great Recession. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are more than 3 million unfilled jobs. Let’s figure out how to fill them.

We need our elected leaders not to focus on big government or small government but a smarter government, more innovative government that uses the power of technology to empower civil society and the collective intelligence of its citizens to adapt to our rapidly changed world. This is precisely what the open government movement that we’ve been writing about at O’Reilly over the past five years is focused upon.

Anil Dash, in a post on the history and future of Web protest, gives special credit to the new civic infrastructure we’ve gained in the past few years:

One of the most unheralded successes of this week’s SOPA and PIPA victories was the role that pioneering open government and government transparency efforts had in enabling the protests to take off. Just a few weeks ago, few online had heard of either bill, almost no one could understand their potential impact, and even fewer had read the actual bills.

But thanks to efforts like OpenCongress, which routinely creates valuable resources like this look at the money behind SOPA through its support from the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, the web was able to see who was helping pay for the law. Giving that information a place to live on the web was a fundamental step that enabled powerful demonstrations like the GoDaddy protests in which thousands of users moved their business from the company in protest of its support of SOPA. (I have some misgivings about the tactics and effectiveness of that particular protest, but overall as a first example of the organization and focus of those who would object to SOPA, it was inarguably powerful.)

Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics powered detailed look at lobbying dollars which drove the bills, which organizations like MapLight could use to create a clear picture of how SOPA and PIPA were purchased.

There are incredibly difficult challenges that face us as a country and as a global community, from jobs to healthcare to the environment to civil liberties to smoldering wars around the world. If more leaders in Silicon Valley and the rest of the country heed Battelle’s call, we’ll have a chance at solving some of the problems ahead.

What happened this week, however, will reinvigorate the notion that participating in the civic process matters.

Here’s to working on stuff that matters, together.


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