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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  • An inspiring assessment and call to [further] action!

    The best way to heed Clay’s warning to “Get ready to have this fight again” is to keep exercising these civic engagement muscles, and I hope many who became active during this period will stay active. As you note, there is no shortage of other threats to our society in our midst.

  • That there is, “no shortage of other threats,” is not the best point to make. We should flex these new muscles to get better laws considered not just bad laws defeated.

  • The web as a whole, may have finally realised it’s potential; before the week just passed, i will admit, as will many others that i was sceptical as to what power the internet community has, but coming together as we did. I’m pleasently suprised and excited.

    If we now know, what we have the ability to do, and what changes we have the ability to enforce, or stop. Then we should happily come together at any other threat to our freedom, and anything that tries to hinder the development of the web as a whole.

  • KDS

    Our favorite representative from San Jose spells her name: Zoe Lofgren. Great post!

  • I agree with the view that this is not the end of Washington’s attempts to sneak in such legislation. If they were to bring it in after an adverse event occurs, the public might be much less willing to oppose it as they did this time around.

  • What fascinates me about this debate, especially Clay Shirky’s talk is how this goes from copyright, essentially a discussion of who has “property rights” over an item and who can “profit” from those property rights to “censorship”. See 8:50. We go from someone protecting their property to this being censorship. If someone stops a person from breaking into an atm and rewiring it to provide them with someone else’s money, how is that “censorship”?

    For example, 99% of the world do not have the time, the inclination, or the technological capacity to counterfeit money. By creating those techniques, raising the barrier to “sharing the government’s money” ie the anti-copying instruments that are enforceable around the world is that “censorship?”

    If so, I would ask that everyone stop “censorsing” me and let me copy your money or better yet, just let me go into your house so I can “share” it. :)

    I think this debate has a while to run and it will be up to the technological companies (both Silicon Valley and Hollywood (with some input from the financial sector)) to find a way to rework this to protect the intellectual property right.

    This is the age the internet has reached maturity because it is finally having the “mature” conversation about regulating it. Privacy was the first, and is still unfolding, while “property” is the next step. I would say in one sense, this is another sign that the original idea of the internet (harkening back to the halcyon days of 1992 for example) is fading and the electronic frontier is being tamed.

  • jjolla

    Lawrence Serewicz claims that because we dont want people copying money we should outlaw instruments which let that happen. Assume, hypotheitcally, that copying money was easy to do with the household inkjet printer and plain paper … would you outlaw the inkjet printer? The paper?

    How about outlawing the electricity required to drive the printer? Or cars and trucks because they are need to transport the printer to your house?

    This is silly .. the solution is not to stop you using instruments that are useful in many other ways … but to make it harder to counterfeit money. The entertainment industry has tried that with DCRM but failed. The fundamental problem they have is that the stuff they make is quite difficult to stop being copied with “household” tools (the internet & PCs) – which we need elsewhere other than in entertainment.area.

    If it becomes too hard to stop infringements, then the product they have needs to change. Or at least they should change how they sell it. It’s unfortunate and sad, but just like film-based photography had to die very quickly once digital cameras emerged, so will other industries have to adapt or die.

  • It needs to be made clear that these issues are GLOBAL issues. If we in Australia had had the same brilliant support as recent days we would (perhaps) not have one of the western worlds most censored internet. Eternal vigilance and global action is all we have and we must adopt a proactive approach. We cannot spend a single moment in self-congratulation Beware the ‘deals’ made ‘offshore’. Laws enacted in Australia, in Europe and enacted by stealth.

  • Scott

    The thing that seems to be most astonishing is that Washington has no idea how to deal with a rush of direct democracy – in effect a massive digital plebiscite – that isn’t accompanied by huge “contributions’ or other financial lubrication.

    The concern with censorship is valid – the U.S. has a long history of back-door censorship ranging from prohibiting birth-control information as “pornography” to any number of things as communist propaganda.

    The ability of a commercial enterprise to muffle complaints without review or oversight and the ability of the government to stifle disclosure or disagreement would be a further nail in the coffin of our waning democracy.

  • @Joe Thank you. More informed citizens that stay engaged with Congress would be a good result.

    @Bryan +1 to thinking about what would constitute better law and being “for” something, not just against.

    @KDS Thank you for the catch; fixed.

    @Lawrence The sticky widget is that online, the new public square – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms — are third-party, private companies. Countries can and do shut down or block access to these sites or those similar to them on the ground that they are hosting copyrighted content — along with words, images or video which has political aspects they may dislike. I wrote more about that here:

    To extend jjolla’s points, if counterfeit goods are sent via UPS or FedEx, should we shut those services down? If someone puts up unauthorized posters of Disney characters in a public park, do we shut down access to it?

  • Lorelei Kelly

    Thanks Alex,
    I agree that SOPA/PIPA opponents should not rest on their laurels. if our civic-life were truly healthy, and collective public interest knowledge were truly an obligation of leadership, this legislation would have never been introduced. Congress is presently running on appx 80% or less of the staff expertise that it had in 1979…and it keeps getting worse. The poor institution sees and hears the world like its 1948 because of antique committee jurisdictions and lack of capacity. Given the antagonistic political culture and general disinterest in democratic practice–our Congress today has many characteristics of a cartel–an information cartel anyway. Good information is a commodity flogged by lobbyists or a weapon like armor piercing talking points. it is not, however, a social obligation. This is the bigger problem. (I say this as someone with almost a decade working on the House side)
    keep up the good work!

  • gregorylent

    too bad #ndaa didn’t get this kind of attention …

    it comes out of the same mindset, and could become more dangerous

  • I think we all need to take some measures to fight against SOPA and other projects like this.
    If we don’t take measures, slowly, the government will close all our liberties that we have today and we all became human robots or worse… zombies.

  • SOPA and PIPA will be renamed, and changed almost out of recognition, and then we’ll be back in the same situation. There’s too much money involved, and the internet has no limits and no control. If there was anybody with enough power, influence, money and support. Who had more of a chance than anybody of in some way of controling and making back money off the open world of the internet, it’s going to be Hollywood.

    So, all i’m saying is that, SOPA and PIPA may be seemingly over, but the overall fight, is still on. Just keep an eye out, and take all the action you can against such laws as you can.