It wasn’t that long ago at all that the idea of protest on the web was the sort of thing you laughed at. Casually irritated people taking 13 seconds to sign what might be their actual name to a toothless petition with all the impact of a softly drifting soap bubble was great for shouting at the wind, but the idea that anyone would actually take an online protest or movement seriously was fantasy of the highest order.
And yet, here we are on the far side of the great internet blackout, assuming the internet is entirely made up of Google, Wikipedia and places that aggregate pictures of cats, which I have to admit is a pretty reasonable assumption. The once seemingly invulnerable legislation of SOPA and PIPA that could have changed the web as we knew it is now all but dead, and you can be forgiven for feeling like we can chalk one up for the good guys and pop open the champagne.
Which is exactly the kind of complacent, short-sighted, self-congratulatory lack of direction that will leave us having won a battle and lost the war. While everyone is deciding how we’re going to refocus our illusion of new-found authority in the world of politics and advocacy, the ground will be crumbling under our feet, and when the fall comes I fear it will be a horrible shock, leaving us far worse for a time than we might have been had SOPA just passed quietly in the night as had been intended.
No, the watch-word of today can not be success. It must be vigilance.
The faulty lesson that I fear far too many might take away from the recent success of January 18th is that it succeeded because people made a lot of noise in their online comfort zones. While this sort of focused angst carries an effect within its own echo chamber, the reason that the crusade against SOPA and PIPA worked is that enough people hit ‘em where it actually hurts.
How We Won Round 1
And, in this case, where it hurt was in the risk of politicians being labelled as in favor of censorship and inconveniencing the public during an election year. It would be a huge mistake to consider this a win against the entertainment industry, because those people got up this morning angrier and more motivated than ever. Don’t for a minute mistake capitulation today as forfeiture, and it would be an absolutely critical mistake to think that those who stayed quietly on the sidelines or parroted a tepid rejection of SOPA are anything like allies.
This can’t even really be called a win against the politicians themselves, particularly when being folksy and internet illiterate is practically a platform for some to appeal to a Baby Boomer base. This wasn’t some advancement of an ideology in a technical age. Truth be told half of the people who would have voted on this bill either genuinely have no idea what the discussion is about or actively foster an aura of idealistic, narrow-minded ignorance. This is a world where, “aww shucks I don’t know nothin’ bout this fancy internet, but I do know that this bill stops bad people from stealing from artists” is phenomenal deception for pandering to high paying special interests.
No, what we have here specifically is an accomplishment against specific legislation. This was about making enough noise to fight the right fight at the right time.
And, that’s good. These terrible constructs of law needed to go away, even though by the end SOPA had been gutted and left as toothless as a veteran hockey player. Though the fight isn’t technically over, it’s hard not to see that the PIPA and SOPA are essentially DOA, which is great for today but in the long run means virtually nothing, because the establishment doesn’t think of this as a fundamentally different copyright landscape, but as a surprising upset by chaotic and subversive forces. In short, we won the battle, but we’re still the bad guys and next time Plan 1 will be to do better at shutting dissent up in advance.
“Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”
I hear people around the web breaking their arms to pat themselves on the back for winning the censorship fight as though it were a thing that was now over. These people are wondering what institution they will next irrevocably change forever, as though they were the first protesters to ever enjoy a transitory victory. That’s not how this works, and as the average American goes back to thinking about Tim Tebow, Steven Tyler and Rick Santorum, what we’re going to see is that the internet freedom fighters are still outgunned, out-organized and outspent on Capitol Hill. If the response from technology leaders and the internet public is the same next time around (assuming they still agree), then we can go ahead and just plan on losing that fight right now.
Already the entertainment industry is doing something far more threatening to politicians than making a fuss at Slate.com. They are pulling millions of dollars away from candidates who pulled support for SOPA during an election year, and they are giving that money to people who will sign anything, give up anything to get a seat in Washington. And, now that Wikipedia is back up and there’s no ominous black box across the Google logo, the people who briefly cared that their normal routine was interrupted have all but forgotten and assume that censorship is dead in America again.
One need only notice that on the very day that internet champions were winning one victory over antiquated ideas about media in the digital age, the Supreme Court handed down a decision saying that Congress could pull public domain works and re-copyright them.
It’s nice that we’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to have a voice and an impact in the public debate over legislation, but Reddit is far from being an effective lobbying organization or PAC. It’s an aberration that already people are strategizing against. There are angry conference calls happening all over the country where long-established forces are arguing about how to best make sure that what happened yesterday doesn’t happen the next time a copyright protection bill comes around.
This is a fight worth having, but it won’t succeed if it’s just reaction. Minds haven’t been changed. Ideologies are still firmly entrenched, and well funded and organized associations remain as committed as ever to seeing these kinds of bills pass. They are acting in a thousand different ways across a thousand different local, regional and global governments. Every second we spend in celebration of our public relations success is a second where the forces marshaling against a free and open internet recover, reorganize and lay the foundation for the next front in this war.
Round 2 starts yesterday.