The History, and Future, of Web Protest

This week, many of the web’s most popular sites shuttered their doors in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the pair of bills that had been winding their way through congress with the stated intent of fighting piracy and the unfortunate side effect of fundamentally threatening the web. After this concerted outburst of activism from the web community (which even extended to a first-of-its-kind offline protest by the New York Tech Meetup community), the sponsors of the bills have withdrawn their support, many undecided or former supporters of the bills changed their positions and in all, people who love the web are claiming a victory. Hooray! And it’s still not too late to express your displeasure to your elected officials if you’d like to make sure they know how you feel.

But. There are a number of unanswered questions about this victory, and some important questions about what it means going forward, not just for web freedom, but for the technology community as a driver of public policy and legislation. We should start, as always with a brief look back.

Blogs Were Born To Do This

The entire modern social web was born from the blogging movement, and social activism has been part of the blogging medium since its birth. But ironically, the most common form of protest for our young medium has been self-censorship.

  • One of the inarguable pioneers of blogging, Dave Winer, started his first blog as the news page of the 24 Hours of Democracy campaign. What was that about? Well, it should sound familiar — the leading voices and sites of the social web spent 24 hours protesting onerous potential legislation that they thought would significantly curtail free speech on the web. SOPA? Nope! It was the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which unified the nascent personal web sixteen years ago, and the protests that accompanied the 24 Hours of Democracy included the Blue Ribbon Campaign and the Black World Wide Web shutdown, which climaxed in an estimated 7% of all active U.S. websites changing their background colors to black in protest.
  • Just a few years later, my late, lamented friend Brad Graham, who coined the word “blogosphere”, also created one of the first blog-specific protests when he launched the Day Without Weblogs in 1999 in observance of World AIDS Day. Patterned after the Day Without Art, and named “Day Without Weblogs” because the word “blog” was not yet in common usage, this moving demonstration was an annual tradition for many years (eventually evolving into a more information-oriented project called “Link and Think”) and carried on the social web’s deep tradition of drawing attention by shutting itself down and forcing users to confront a black page. Sadly, it seems much of the early record of Day Without Weblogs has been lost since Brad’s untimely passing.

Just at a cultural level, it’s fascinating to me that our medium finds that the most powerful thing we can do is deny the rest of the world our voices and creations, and that this almost invariably takes the form of a black screen confronting unsuspecting, perhaps uneducated, and certainly confused non-geeky users.

How It Works

Does this form of protest work? It’s hard to say — most of the CDA protests from 1996 took place after the law had already been signed. But we have some feedback on the more contemporary protests:

When Rupert Murdoch dog whistles “terror” about a topic, he’s saying he wants some people illegally detained and tortured. So that’s a good sign we had some impact.

This is a particularly stunning turn for a few reasons. First, as Bijan Sabet noted, congress members had considered SOPA and PIPA a done deal. Not “likely to pass”, but “such a sure thing that I should sponsor it, even though I haven’t read it and don’t really understand it, so I can have my name on successful legislation”.

This is especially remarkable because the tech industry sucks at 1. understanding how legislation happens 2. how legislation can impact their businesses and 3. actually responding to these issues before it’s too late. John Battelle discusses this in depth, explaining “[T]he fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money.” Marco Arment continues, correctly, by stating that SOPA will keep coming back, over and over, in some form until it passes. Does that doom us to recurring bouts of black page syndrome? Maybe not.

The Infrastructure

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.

Of course, I’ve got a dog in this fight; Expert Labs was founded specifically to conduct experiments about getting people on social networks to organize in ways that would allow them to impact policy makers. And we had some amazing successes in unexpected ways — Clay Johnson on our team educated hundreds of thousands of people on how techies can effectively engage with the policy-making processin his piece “Dear Internet: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works”. And despite her well-earned misgivings about having a disproportionately large social network, Gina Trapani demonstrated the best potential of that network with a result that is best illustrated in a single tweet:

That’s the CTO of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, directly thanking Gina for her honest, forceful feedback about SOPA and linking to an official White House response to a petition asking for a veto of SOPA. Despite the well-intentioned skepticism of folks like Felix Salmon in response to my admittedly optimistic visions of “#OccupyWhiteHouse”, the idea that this sort of direct online feedback could have a meaningful impact was validated by none other than the Director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement:

Ever wondered if White House is taking @WeThePeople seriously? We are. This #SOPA petition made a big difference

— Jon Carson (@JonCarson44) January 14, 2012

Still, amidst the web-nerd triumphalism, it’s worth noting: This isn’t how I thought it would work. While I’ve always believed in the potential of the open government and transparency movements, I predicated our work at Expert Labs on the idea that the type of large-scale, effective, (relatively) well-organized demonstrations we’ve seen against SOPA and PIPA online were unlikely to happen. I was, perhaps, too willing to assume that change would only happen through more traditional channels. While we’ve made an amazing tech platform in ThinkUp, I was trying to push it to conform to the lobbyists-and-big-dollars world of D.C. today, and this week’s victory gives me hope that I was wonderfully, delightfully, completely wrong about that decision.

So Now What?

What we’ve gotten so far, with our SOPA and PIPA demonstrations, is a first, rough beta test of the power to impact policy online. What we don’t have is the way to use this power effectively. We are missing a few key things:

  1. The ability to organize for issues that aren’t life-or-death for big tech players

  2. The ability to clearly and quickly form communities of interest around particular issues that are complicated

  3. The desire and willingness to stand up for issues that aren’t simply about the self-interest or self-preservation of technology experts

This final point is my biggest concern and greatest wish for our industry. We now know we have the power bend the law to our will, and to make legislators respect our values, if we can just coordinate our efforts and focus our attentions. But there are many issues which have to do with the soul of our nation that may not galvanize a redditor who’s only concerned with legislation that might interfere with watching movies online.

Google Waterboarding

We have discovered that our biggest companies, our most popular sites, or most passionate communities on the web are willing to stand up and have a powerful impact on the laws that govern our country. But we’re on the fence. Google’s spending somewhere around $10 million dollars on old-fashioned lobbying this year. Maybe that’s useful — as Clay said, we need to know how the old system works before we can reform it.

But maybe we should be darkening our sites for deeper, more profound issues. We have the ability to affect marriage equality and reproductive freedom and immigration reform and many other issues where those of us who love technology tend to have similar values regardless of which of the traditional political parties we list on our voter registrations.

This is the power we were promised the web would give us. Let’s use it.