SOPA To The Future: Reclaiming Collective Internet Power
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Amid fears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) could be the first nail in the coffin of an open internet, our collective defeat of the legislation was a win for an emerging digital world that puts the interests of people first.
A decade later, many of our fears have come to reality, even without SOPA to speed them along. Worse yet: the optimistic, values-driven resistance of the SOPA era has transitioned to bitter conflict (or worse, nihilism) around digital life, rights, and restrictions. We now stand at a new inflection point that SOPA resistors are facing or ignoring in turns—despite the potential for a positive vision that might unite us all again.
The SOPA Internet Blackout was a moment where digital citizens united with one voice to support the continuation of the internet’s innovation of “permissionless publishing” or “sharing” an infinitude of digital printing presses. The internet accelerated speech and connection, it brought together global communities of mutual interest, enabling organizing and activism on a scale never before seen. This has been a powerful tool.
And yet, it was not accessible for many.
Platforms like Facebook filled some of the gaps, marketing ease of connection in exchange for data it could exploit. The internet granted anyone who could log on permission to publish and share in a way that newspapers in the 80s could never imagine.
But the technology of the time could not take the next step and allow everyday people to maintain the database tools necessary to ensure the integrity and function of social media networks. You could share, but you could not curate or control the related data with anything nearing the utility of sharing itself.
Neoliberal capitalism did what it does amid this half-baked promise of internet freedom—locking in centralized players and championing monopoly. Monopolies are quite simply easier for entrenched gatekeepers to collude with. Powerful corporations recognized the momentum of protests like SOPA’s, the utility of an unfettered communications medium, as an existential threat to their profits and bad practices.
And so, they used the centralized databases that the people could not yet control to obscure their mechanisms of oppression, bringing about the era of algorithmic trade secrets, performative legislation, censorship, and conspiracy theories we live in now. The threats to our digital lives are compounding in darkness, even as our human lives become more digital.
Regardless of ideology, everyone recognizes that something is fundamentally wrong. But, we don’t trust each other because of the pervasive cloud of darkness that intermediates our interactions. This distrust was seeded via the centralized, opaque databases of Facebooks and Amazons, and amplified by the very same. Our every “social” action online is leveraged to manipulate the internet out of its power and promise.
Even digital rights activists who recognize and resist these harms find themselves in conflict because they have uncovered another fundamental shortcoming of our current system: any vision of a digital future, a digital life that is one-size-fits-all, will always be exclusionary.
These toxic database-powered social platforms are vivid proof that billions of dollars and extensive global legislative and social pressure, even when combined with the best thinkers and moderation that money can buy, will still miserably fail many different communities in ways as diverse as communities themselves are: by amplifying hate, by promoting harm, by expanding censorship, by profiting from mass surveillance, by capitulating to shareholders and governments at the expense of democracy, and more.
We have found the outer limits of centralized database platforms as tools of liberation. Along the way, we have lost the optimism that characterized the dawn of the web and the anti-SOPA movement. Optimism is now frequently mocked as privilege, as white men’s myopia—and with all the compounding harms that would not have been possible without the internet, it is no wonder that those who speak well of the web are met with hostility.
But just as the blunt rock eventually became a knife, the tool of the internet will continue to evolve. In the long shadow of SOPA, and at a time when new technologies are once again disrupting our digital lives, the question we must ask is who will hold that knife, and how will it be used?
This question is pressing—as it appears the database limitations Facebook, Amazon, and Google exploited could mark them as the next newspapers in the ‘80s. New technologies like blockchain have the ability to make databases permissionless in the same way that the internet made publishing permissionless. This innovation could unlock a new digital future that, while still filled with human problems, may enable far better, community-owned tools to address them—as well as something we have not had for many years: a new, inclusive vision for the internet.
Today, we could begin to fight for a future of many interoperable, decentralized webs, tools, and technologies. Community owned and governed databases as diverse as the world itself. A vision that brings organizers and technologists out of conflict over censorship and control by working together for the rights, education, and tools for each person and community to equitably build and own their digital experience. This is work that cannot succeed unless the marginalized people who have been traditionally excluded from technology and the policies that govern it lead in a central role.
To ensure this just transition, we must also support new generations in gaining greater competency and higher expectations for their digital lives, and invest now in a collective vision of sharing open, transparent, and transformative tools that will render the legacy entities that have failed us obsolete. If we do not, others will invest in perverting these technologies all over again.
There isn’t one answer for what the future of the internet should be. Let’s reclaim the hope that defeated SOPA and work together toward a world where everyone can equitably build, own, moderate, control, and access their own digital lives and communities.
Lia Holland is Campaigns & Communications Director at digital rights organization Fight for the Future, where she focuses on web3 and copyleft issues.
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.