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The Internet Infrastructure's SOPA/PIPA Silver Lining

from the it-brought-people-together dept

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Ten years ago a massive, digital grassroots movement defeated the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, and its Senate companion the Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA). Looking back, this signal victory drove an even more important outcome–the birth of a large wave of Internet activism organizations, including our own Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition), a new, unified, independent voice for Internet infrastructure providers. 

Our story began in 2011 when I led operations for a web hosting company called ServInt. My future co-founder of the i2Coalition David Snead, was our outsourced General Counsel. He and I became alarmed about the damaging impact on the Internet infrastructure layer of a little-known bill, the Combating Online Infringement, and Counterfeits Act, or COICA, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). 

While well-intentioned to combat infringement by foreign “rogue” websites, the bill would have allowed for the mass blocking of websites by the Department of Justice without due process, on the say so of intellectual property holders. We met with Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and his staff to seek advice about how to have a voice in the COICA debate. Their answer was direct : “get more of you.” 

At that point, it seemed like just a handful of small Internet infrastructure enterprises were even aware of COICA. We realized that we needed to start a grassroots movement.

We began intensive outreach to the Internet infrastructure community online and offline at conferences, meetings, and events, which led to formation of the “Save Hosting Coalition.”We launched letter writing campaigns to explain our deep concerns to legislators in Congress, which continued when SOPA/PIPA eventually superseded COICA. 

Fortunately, as our group worked to build a social media campaign and to connect with legislators, we found that we were no longer alone. The Consumer Technology Association, known then as the Consumer Electronics Association, had an active lobbying team who invited us to join them in their efforts to convince Congress of the dangers of SOPA/PIPA.

This broader collaboration became a turning point when we realized the crucial nature of our role in the SOPA/PIPA debate. As Internet infrastructure providers, we were best positioned to explain to policymakers how the technology works and that their well-intentioned proposals to fix problems actually would undermine the functioning of the Internet ecosystem. We showed that proposed SOPA/PIPA technical provisions would make it impossible for small and medium-sized Internet infrastructure businesses to continue operating at scale.

Our campaign against SOPA/PIPA culminated in our decisive conversation with Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, which helped convince Senator Moran to join Senator Wyden in a bipartisan hold on PIPA in the Senate. This procedural move froze Senate action for a bit, and gave the time for our new friends at Reddit and Fight for the Future to organize the Internet Blackout Day, which shut down 115,000 sites and galvanized public support for stopping the bills. We aided in the coordination of this vital day, which effectively stopped SOPA/PIPA in its tracks.

The power of facts made the difference in our collective victory. Concerned technology companies explained with one voice how the bills would destroy Internet infrastructure operations. Aligning with the CTA enabled a strong and unified advocacy campaign. Consequently, minds changed in Congress because members and staff heard rational arguments and listened to our concerns.

The SOPA/PIPA legislative debate made clear the ongoing threat of uninformed Internet policy. We saw the need for continued educational advocacy from our Internet infrastructure provider vantage point. 

Four companies in the Save Hosting Coalition (Rackspace, cPanel, Endurance (now Newfold Digital), and Softlayer) invested to keep our group going. On July 25th, 2012, we formally launched the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) with 42 members with a mission to ensure that Internet infrastructure providers are at the table helping to solve future Internet policy problems. 

We believed then, as we do now, that Internet policy solutions should be scaled appropriately without creating barriers for new, small entrants in the infrastructure layer, be they college students innovating in their dorm rooms, or entrepreneurs fulfilling a need. Policymakers must understand the technology underlying all these small digital businesses to avoid laws and regulations that inadvertently would disrupt their functioning, ultimately limiting incentives for future innovation and market entry

We proudly reflect on our strong work a decade ago to educate Congress about how SOPA/PIPA would impair the Internet ecosystem. That successful fight led to the i2Coaltion’s formation, and our story is not unique. The most important outgrowth of the SOPA/PIPA saga turned out to be the creation of permanent organizations like ours, set up to defend Internet innovation.

There will always be a need for more Internet education for legislators and regulators, and there will always be somebody coming out with another SOPA/PIPA-like proposal. The Internet needs permanent voices ready to address both.

As we celebrate the i2Coalition’s 10 year anniversary in 2022, we know our work is always evolving. The Internet infrastructure industry today faces a diverse set of challenges involving security, safety, privacy, and more. We face many of the same intermediary liability focused challenges that we had when we started, particularly while engaging in complex issues such as Section 230 reform in the United States and the Digital Services Act in the EU. 

We need to keep learning together and empowering alliances with other like-minded stakeholders, to ensure that an educated appreciation of the nuts and bolts of how the Internet works informs policy making fully. At the i2Coalition we are as excited as ever about the digital future, and look forward to continuing to be the voice for the multitudes of businesses that build the Internet. 

Christian Dawson is the Co-Founder of the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) where he works to make the Internet a better, safer place for the businesses that make up the Cloud.

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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