Saturday, January 21, 2012

RIP SOPA: The Internet Kills Its Attackers

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Be honest: When this week began, how much did you really know about SOPA?

Five days ago, the Stop Online Piracy Act was still a relatively obscure House bill. Sure, your average geek knew what was contained within; Mashable, in common with other tech news sites, had been covering it from all angles for weeks. Go Daddy had seen the wrath of the online community firsthand when it tried to support the bill. But the silence from primetime network news, where most Americans still get their information, was deafening.

Even if you knew the difference between SOPA and a bar of soap, it was just too easy to gloss over the news. Too easy to think, “OK, it’s got something to do with piracy; it’s probably a bit too tough, but what can be done? Hollywood has too many powerful lobbyists. Congress is too beholden to them. It’ll just be one more bad copyright law on the books. Maybe there’ll be loopholes. They probably won’t send anyone to jail who doesn’t deserve it. I wonder what’s in the sports section?”

Then Wednesday happened, and suddenly everyone seemed to understand how serious this was. Wikipedia went dark, and the country wailed; we realized how much we have come to depend on the crowdsourced encyclopedia. Google hung a black sash on its logo. Crowds marched in protest. Facebook issued an uncharacteristically political statement (although we urged it to go further). Network news could not fail to take note.

In short: the Internet got its act together, and the world shook.

SOPA’s co-sponsors began to withdraw that day. By Thursday night, the GOP candidates for president were trying to outdo each other in anti-SOPA statements. Senate Republicans, also sensing a political opportunity, tried to hang the PIPA bill (SOPA’s sister in the Senate) around the Democrats’ necks. Finally, on Friday, SOPA and PIPA were withdrawn. Given a tight congressional timetable, and the toxic nature of these bills, it’s unlikely we’ll see them again.

True, we’re not out of the woods yet. There are few lobbyist organizations as deep-pocketed as the MPAA and the RIAA, and they have a long history of choosing to fight new technology with legislation (even if that technology actually benefits the entertainment industry in the long run). This battle may well have to be fought all over again — hopefully over a less draconian bill.

But there is a sense in which these mega-lobbyists are running scared. They woke a sleeping giant, and they don’t like the results. Witness the strange response from Chris Dodd, former senator and new head of the MPAA, who called the actions by Wikipedia, Google et al “stunts that punish their users or turn them into corporate pawns.” Given how many pawns the MPAA effectively owns in Congress, it was hard to suppress a grin at that.

So, well done, Internet. You did it. You took a relatively obscure bill and you made the world care. One concerted day of action by you shook Washington to its core. Lobbyists like Dodd who have had too much unquestioned control for too long got served notice. There’s a new power player in town; not one man in a suit, but millions of faces with electronic megaphones. And this power player doesn’t take kindly to bills that threaten its behavior.

Take heed, legislators. Want to stamp out online piracy, or regulate any other corner of the new digital landscape? In the future, you’d better come talk to the millions with megaphones first.


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