An Internet-Illiterate Congress and Online Activism
By Tommy Brown
On January 18th, the Internet went dark. Sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Mozilla shut down in protest to the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives, and its counter-part Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. As a result of the action taken by websites across the web, as well as their organized efforts to lobby Congress, it seems that SOPA and PIPA are on their way out. In the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) postponed a vote on the bill to work out disagreements, and in the House Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the sponsor of the bill, has delayed the House Judiciary Committee from considering the legislation. The two bills certainly livened the debate on how to protect intellectual property in the Internet-age, but more importantly they highlighted how fundamentally misunderstood the Internet is by members of Congress.
Thankfully, we have moved past the era in Congress when the Internet was simply known as a “series of tubes,” as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) put it in 2006. Both bills, as their names would suggest, are attempts to curb online piracy. The problem is that these bills would not have any serious impact on piracy. Any legal action would be against American companies, not at their users actually committing the crime of intellectual property theft. While it is easy to scapegoat both Bit Torrent and the Pirate Bay for facilitating illegal online sharing, it is the users, not the companies, that commit the crime. The way the bills are drafted, it would make it illegal for any website to link to illegal content; the problem is that this would apply to all websites based in the United States. Websites like YouTube, Reddit, and Wikipedia have been able to grow at an exponential rate because they depend on user-submitted content. If SOPA or PIPA were to pass it would hold these websites more accountable for the content their users submit. Punishing websites for the crimes their users commit solves a problem that does not exist by creating scores of problems that should not exist.
As we saw in the financial sector with the proliferation of new financial products outside of regulation, such as credit-default swaps, technology always evolves faster than the legislation that regulates it. While the sponsors of the bills are well intentioned in trying to stop online piracy, they should not be regulating something they fundamentally misunderstand. This lack of understanding, though, is something Congress has the ability to overcome: expert testimony at committee sessions has always been a great tool in drafting legislation. Congress did ask for input on the legislation, from both the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, but failed to consult Internet executives until there was already serious discontent with the legislation. Now that the bills have been tabled, the question is why Congress didn’t work with the real Internet experts from the very beginning. The sheer number of original co-sponsors of the bills that are now opposed to them shows that the level of support for SOPA/PIPA in Congress would be very different if they had consulted the executives of Google rather than the lobbyists of the RIAA.
Fortunately for the every-day Wikipedia user, even if Congress fails to solicit input from people who actually understand the Internet, the Internet is capable of advocating for itself. As elections since 2004 have shown us, the Internet is a powerful tool for political organizing. Barack Obama’s use of new media in the 2008 election, the increasing importance of what stories are ‘trending’ on Twitter, and the fact that YouTube hosted a presidential debate are all evidence of this. However, the protests against SOPA and PIPA show that, beyond lobbying for a particular interest, candidate, or party, the Internet is capable of defending itself. The Wikimedia Foundation, Google, and Reddit played their first significant role in lobbying for the interest of the Internet. The depth at which the Internet permeates our society and economy could be seen when, without the help of high-paid lobbyists, the web rallied enough opposition to the bills to lead to their demise. This was a referendum on the freedom we enjoy through the Internet, a resounding victory to the openness of the Web, and an effort that was only possible thanks to the unbelievably wide-spread use of the Internet.
As the Internet-savvy generation becomes more politically active, I think that we will see the “series of tubes” become a much more integrated tool for political advocacy, a genuine avenue for true free speech, and a powerful force in the political sphere of the 21st century. We are already seeing signs of this. The State Department asked Twitter to avoid going down for routine maintenance after the Iranian elections in 2009. Many credit the web as an organizing tool in helping the successful Egyptian revolution as well. Wikileaks would not have been possible without the Internet’s ability to disseminate information to anyone and everyone with access to a computer. In this age, Wikileaks will play a more important role than the Pentagon Papers, and it will be interesting to see how our elected representatives react.