Thursday, January 19, 2012

So How Was Your Blackout?

Wikipedia, Reddit, and many other popular websites temporarily went down yesterday to protest a pair of bills currently making their way through Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). I won't get into specifics except to say I am vehemently against them. Fighting piracy is good, but breaking the Internet to do it is bad.

Being a frequenter of Reddit, I was aware of the protests well in advance, but very few people in the mainstream were. SOPA and PIPA got very little news coverage before now. Jon Stewart admitted a week ago on "The Daily Show" that he wasn't aware of the controversial legislation and promised to brush up on their history. Last night, he devoted his entire first segment to taking the bills and their congressional supporters to task. It was amazing how quickly everyone else sat up and took notice too. After Wikipedia went down at midnight yesterday, and the wails and lamentations of the general public began, the media began scrambling to provide answers. Many of the sites I like to browse were down, but keeping up with the flood of stories about the blackout and the piracy bills was more than enough to keep me occupied.

Some have suspected that the big media companies, who are pushing for the two piracy bills through the MPAA and the RIAA, may have had more than a little to do with keeping the discussion of the bills out of the spotlight. After yesterday this was no longer possible. The tech companies have been quietly amassing influence for years, but they very rarely get involved in any political fights. The SOPA/PIPA blackout was the biggest coordinated advocacy effort by Internet-based companies that I've ever seen, and it immediately changed the narrative that the bills' backers were trying to control. It was kind of exhilarating to see support for SOPA and PIPA crumble in the face of so many angry voters who were suddenly very aware and interested in what was going on.

And the blackout wasn't even that big in scope. Most of the major Silicon Valley players like Google and Facebook only made symbolic gestures. Google blacked out its logo and sites like Yahoo and Amazon provided front page links to more information. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Google's search engine went offline for a whole day? Traditional polical activities like lobbying or organizing protests could never match up to that. I've long joked that the internet is taking over every aspect of human society, but even after the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, it didn't really hit me until now how huge its influence could be on specific pieces of legislation.

They've certainly got Hollywood spooked. You might have missed Deadline reporting yesterday that several studio heads and moguls announced they were withdrawing their financial support for President Obama's reelection campaign because of his position on SOPA/PIPA, which I can't see as much more than a desperate attempt to throw their weight around and prove they're still politically relevant. Earlier on in the debate over the piracy bills, there was some criticism that the tech companies weren't lobbying hard enough or maintaining enough of a presence in Washington to look after their interests. Well, it turns out that they don't really need to. The Internet, after all, is everywhere and reaches everyone.

Does it concern me that so much power is concentrated in the tech industry now? Yes it does. However, the tech companies have a strong interest in making sure that the internet remains free and neutral, and it has been proven time and time again that a free and neutral internet is the great leveler, the medium tends to put power back in the hands of the individuals rather than the interest groups and corporations. I'd rather the people writing the rules and legislation for it be the ones who actually understand it, and wish to promote it. Maybe the tech industry will turn on us after it finishes eviscerating Hollywood, but that doesn't seem to be likely in the foreseeable future.

It's also encouraging to see that the news media, or at least significant parts of it, are willing to side with the technology companies over the entertainment companies, with which they are traditionally associated. There are a lot of big shifts going on here, not just in the political arena, but in everything to do with the future dissemination of content and information. I don't know how this is all going to play out, but I do know that the sleeping giant has awoken, and the political fights over regulating the internet are going to get a lot more interesting from here on out.

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