The SOPA Fight Reminds Us Of The Internet’s Power And Usefulness

from the don’t-let-it-get-taken-away dept

Ten years ago this week, I watched my computer screen as much of the Internet slowly switched off. Over a hundred thousand websites, including that of our predecessor organization CEA, were going dark in a last-ditch protest of a House bill called the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA).

These bills were backed by large content companies concerned that the Internet would disrupt their longstanding business models. While we sympathized with their concerns about unauthorized downloading, we could not agree with their proposed solution: allowing content owners to easily “take down” entire websites, without due process or notification, if they claimed that the site hosted unauthorized content.

If these bills had passed, the consequences for the Internet would have been devastating. Any website featuring third-party content, including libraries and community bulletin boards, would have been vulnerable to sudden and permanent removal after a single complaint. Sites would vanish and have little recourse. Bad actors would run rampant, using the SOPA-PIPA process to harass competitors and censor opposing viewpoints.

Opposition to SOPA-PIPA had been slowly growing. A strange-bedfellows coalition ranging from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the Heritage Foundation was opposing the bills. Artists like Amanda Palmer and OKGO denounced the bills’ impacts on creativity. A group of startup founders including Alexis Ohanian, Micah Shaffer, and Christian Dawson walked the Capitol meeting with legislators, many of whom had never previously been face-to-face with an internet entrepreneur. And at the 2012 CES, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden stood together and declared they would do anything in their power to stop the bills.

But this opposition, vigorous as it was, shrank in comparison to the bills’ support. SOPA and PIPA were backed by dozens of DC’s biggest players, including the Motion Picture Association, the Recording Industry Association, and the powerful US Chamber of Commerce. SOPA had dozens of Congressional sponsors, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith.

In the Senate, PIPA sailed unanimously through the Judiciary Committee and Majority Leader Reid announced that he planned to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. By normal DC rules, the game was over and the bills were sure to pass.

But the Internet blackout drew public attention, and the tide quickly turned as Americans began calling and emailing their members of Congress. In total, more than 14 million Americans contacted their lawmakers to protest the legislation. I remember sitting in a legislator’s office the morning after the blackout and watching in sincere astonishment as the phone rang off the hook.

The impact was swift, as legislators rushed to take their names off the bills. For the first time, policymakers realized that the Internet wasn’t some fringe domain for computer geeks, it was a central and treasured element of their constituents’ daily lives. Within a week, SOPA and PIPA had been pulled from consideration in the House and Senate.

The death of SOPA/PIPA unleashed a Cambrian Explosion of online innovation. Companies like Instagram, Tinder Slack, Patreon, and thousands of others changed the way we work, play, and live. Anyone who attended CES 2022 could not help but see the extraordinary dynamism and competition that currently exists in the technology industry.

The content industry also thrived once they stopped treating the internet as an enemy and began treating it as an asset. While content companies once declared that ”you can’t compete with free,” in the wake of SOPA-PIPA they pivoted to offering well-designed, consumer-friendly services at reasonable prices. 

According to the RIAA, U.S. recorded music revenues grew 9.2% in 2020, with 83% of the revenue coming from Internet streaming. The movie industry has seen similar gains, with global streaming video revenue projected to hit $94 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, independent creators used new internet platforms to present their work directly to fans without having to go through gatekeepers or intermediaries.

Most importantly, the post-SOPA-PIPA Internet has proven to be the most impactful communications platform in human history. On May 25, 2020, 17-year-old Darnell Frazier used her smartphone to document the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Posted to Facebook, this video kicked off an ongoing national conversation on race and injustice.

Similarly, in 2017 women took to the Internet to respond to sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and describe their own experiences under the hashtag #MeToo. Widespread media coverage changed the way our society responds to sexual harassment. For the first time, regular people have been empowered to speak to millions on important issues, and they are using the power to change society for the better.

Over the last decade, we have learned many lessons. We have learned that the Internet, while it provides tremendous benefits, is not perfect. That is why we need clear federal guidelines in areas like online privacy and digital currencies that protect consumers and promote innovation.

We have learned that Americans continue to care passionately about the Internet. Over the last two years during COVID, millions have gone online to work, educate their children, access health care, keep in touch with loved ones, and arrange delivery of critical goods. No wonder online companies rank highly in surveys of America’s most-loved brands.

However, the SOPA-PIPA fight is not over. In “Groundhog Day” fashion, threats to the free and open Internet are reemerging. Policymakers are threatening to increase government control over Internet speech, and impose other limitations that would harm online companies and small businesses.

Many of those pushing today’s “anti-tech” narrative are the same disgruntled competitors and legacy industries that engineered SOPA-PIPA. In fact, some broadcasters and content companies are even opposing an eminently qualified FCC nominee, Gigi Sohn, because of her correct and pro-consumer opposition to SOPA-PIPA a decade ago

Congress is now considering legislation that would eliminate products like Google Docs and Amazon Prime. These services are woven into the lives of millions who rely on them to surmount the difficulties of COVID. If Congress breaks these services, the reaction from voters could make the SOPA-PIPA earthquake look like a mild tremor. Similarly, you could predict a SOPA-PIPA-type backlash if the government places unreasonable restrictions on the 46 million Americans who own digital assets.

A few weeks after SOPA-PIPA died, I was ordering coffee when the barista pointed at the “STOP SOPA” sticker on my laptop. “I emailed my member of Congress about that, and it worked…It was the first time I felt I could actually change things in Washington,” he said.

Thankfully, ten years after SOPA-PIPA, the Internet’s ability to empower American expression and innovation is only just beginning.

Michael Petricone is the Senior VP, Government Affairs, at the Consumer Technology Association.

This Techdirt Greenhouse special edition is all about the 10 year anniversary of the fight that stopped SOPA. On January 26th at 1pm PT, we’ll be hosting a live discussion with Rep. Zoe Lofgren and some open roundtable discussions about the legacy of that fight. Please register to attend.

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Filed Under: activism, copyright, innovation, internet, open internet, sopa

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