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How The SOPA Blackout Happened

from the the-internet-saved-the-internet dept

“[Historical knowledge] gives understanding of how the present world came to be, and maybe more importantly, an appreciation that everything that is, never necessarily had to be” -from “History as Freedom” —Joe Costello, longtime political organizer, writer

On the 10th anniversary of the groundbreaking SOPA Blackout, a question seems to surface above all else: can any one of us really go on to change history? And how, exactly, does that happen?

For the 24 million people who participated in the largest online protest in history against the Stop Online Piracy Act, and the millions more who witnessed the protest in real time, the course of history was changed. Had it succeeded, SOPA would have given anyone the power to shut down entire websites over a claim of copyright infringement without recourse or the obligation to demonstrate any trespass at all.

The SOPA Blackout not only killed the bill in 2012, but shook Congress so profoundly that no significant copyright legislation has been introduced in the ten years since. Because the Blackout achieved so much progress against the political order in a matter of weeks, this moment in history rewrote what we collectively think is possible in the political realm; in particular among the political set, even though triumphs of this proportion remain elusive, and power is even more entrenched.

“Many people prefer glory to power, but on the whole these people have less effect upon the course of events than those who prefer power to glory..” —Bertrand Russell

Much of the disaffection with politics comes from the sense that it never seems to change. We feel on a gut level that what passes or doesn’t pass is actually debuted by the spreadsheets of lobbying firms along K street, the number of saved cell phone numbers and email addresses in legislators’ contacts, the social network of influence that is woven through corporate and political America, and the skyrocketing graph of expected or donated campaign dollars. 

Generally, power’s alignments don’t get upset. And, that was almost the case with SOPA. With this bill, Hollywood was on the verge of achieving their holy grail of legislation. It was the most expensive lobbying campaign Hollywood had ever launched; they gained 100 cosponsors from both sides of the aisle and backing from a slew of companies. A swift road to passage with no organized opposition seemed guaranteed. Instead, the SOPA Blackout was the first time in recent US political history that the expected political order was turned upside down so swiftly.

“It often happens at critical moments in history that ideas which have long held the field almost unchallenged are suddenly discovered, not to be wrong, but to be useless; then almost everyone can see they are absurd.” —“Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages,” R. W. Southern

How did a bill of this magnitude, that was largely unknown to the public and had no organized opposition, suddenly fall apart? 

Yes, SOPA overreached against the will of the people to an absurd degree, but most bills of this nature still pass. Upsets against the political status quo generally depend on a highly complex set of factors and usually take years of organizing, but our SOPA protest had neither of those. 

Our work was different because this time, the Internet made it possible for a few people to play an outsized role in quickly catalyzing disparate voices into a large opposition, ripping the ceiling off of what was possible. The game plan—to be super clear about a riotously unjust bill that would censor the Internet, and provide the means for thousands of people to get to Congress’ inboxes with one click—allowed far-flung groups and individuals to target SOPA’s passage on a mass scale. 

Harvard’s SOPA-PIPA data study tracks the uniqueness of this bubbling up, and should be read to get some empirical grounding for the personal narrative I’m providing.

One piece of our strategy was probably the super spreader mechanism: we changed the form of protest itself. The act of protesting went from the great work of petitions and articles by sites like Techdirt to the use of websites as the protest themselves. My cofounder Holmes and I, on the phone during a freak snowstorm on Halloween, simultaneously suggested that the most effective protest would be if sites actually shut down—the way they could be forced to shut down if SOPA did pass. So, we built a widget that anyone could use to “shut down” their site, with an explanation about the bill and a form for people to contact Congress to oppose SOPA. 

Soon, brave early adopters would join the protest and/or use the tool––Mozilla, BoingBoing, Techdirt and tens of thousands of others would follow. Working with Demand Progress, EFF, Elizabeth Stark, and others, we received a growing roster of signups and were able to tag-team to get to Tumblr––one of the largest platforms with 40 million blogs. 

Everyone remembers January 18th’s SOPA Blackout, but the snowball started on our first day of action, November 16th, 2011. Thanks to the creative work by Tumblr staff, tens of thousands of sites helped blindside Congress with millions of emails and close to 100,000 calls to Congress.. This was the first time an online protest of this scale sprang out of nowhere. 

This day in November seeded a death by a thousand cuts: Redditors, YouTubers, and the then astute 4chaners were ablaze with ideas, like boycotting the domain registrar GoDaddy for being, weirdly, a SOPA supporter. With hundreds of thousands more people mobilized against SOPA, our coalition decided to call for a full shutdown of the Internet. I spent weeks building consensus with the community behind Wikipedia, one of the ten largest sites on the web, so that they could do something that was absolutely unheard of.

So, on January 18th, Internet users rose up, and the Internet shut down for a day. People couldn’t access at least 115,000 websites, including the biggest ones, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and WordPress (which powers 40 percent of the web). Because millions of people were contacting congressional inboxes, they too were completely shut down. Lobbyists and legislators weren’t allowed to think about anything else. The very next day, Congress did an about face on SOPA and shelved it. Because we were the news on that day, we defined political reality.

Often the way change gets reported on is that it all of sudden happens or it was inevitable. But, to have big moments, you first need to develop a critical mass around the existing milieu to build the movement that most people see. We were uniquely positioned to build a coalition invested in defending the Internet because the Internet itself gave us the tools to unify vast numbers of people, ideas, and resources. On top of that, the historical moment was different: the Internet still had a bit of utopian idealism that infected its early days. Large and vocal communities were forming around newly accessible information, and it was easy to make and share powerful tools. 

“From the impulse to dominate the unknown, he points out, spring such desirables as the pursuit of knowledge and all scientific progress.” —Maria Papova, blogger, on Bertrand Russell

What still applies by the logic of the SOPA Blackout? The absurdity of our political system is a disgrace. This system is acceptable until it isn’t. The Internet, though, has changed. It is no longer as young, and its cornerstone players are the biggest monopolies in history. 

Companies are fighting for policies that are so antisocial and far-fetched that there will likely be a moment that forces a reckoning, and possibly another watershed moment. In the meantime, distaste for the system is building into a foundation for collective action––people are discussing, debating, and organizing with each other and figuring out where the lines should be drawn. 

Every wave of change represents an opportunity for making epic moments like SOPA happen. And, perhaps that is the most cited of the legacies of the blackout; Congress is still afraid of getting “SOPA’ed”; that a piece of legislation will set off people who aren’t afraid to find new ways to create a firestorm. They’re right to be worried.

How do we make the next moment happen? First, come with the impulse to dominate the absurd order of things. If you start to see a scam of grave proportions and can identify groups of people who would go to bat against it, try to feel out what your greatest leverage is—put your finger on the pulse of it. 

If you’re one or two people and want to build off of the moment you have and become the new zeitgeist, use a strategy that instrumentalizes all the different actors and points them in the same direction. If you fight with a thirst for blood and shoot for where it hurts, you will find how to protest in a way that matters. Who knows what will work, so try many different ways to speak to millions of people—both visually, to show what’s wrong, and narratively, to pull back the curtain.

Some of the biggest problems in the 21st century, like monopoly power and surveillance, won’t automatically work themselves out. A lot of scrappy lobbyists know how to manipulate Congress, but there aren’t enough people who try to do exactly that for honest policy changes that maximize good for everyone. There are lots of ways to approach doing so, and we should all be trying different things. If you want to use the Internet and new tech to help bring disparate groups together for the public interest, we need you. And, we’re still looking for people for an A-team to try some things here. 

Tiffiniy Cheng is a Political Director for A-teams. She also co-founded Fight for the Future and is a Shuttleworth Fellow. 

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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