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Posted on Techdirt - 25 January 2022 @ 09:30am

Speak Up: Reflecting On The SOPA Debate From Inside The Capitol

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On December 16, 2011, more than a decade ago, I had just concluded one of the longest Committee markups during my time in Congress. After hours and hours debating the future of the internet, I took to my website to echo the call to action coming from many, including writers at Techdirt:

“If you are opposed to SOPA, speak up. You can place a phone call to your Member of Congress’ D.C. office and express your opposition… Members of Congress face the voters of their districts they represent every other year at election time. The opinions of the people who live in the districts they represent matter to a Member of Congress a very great deal.”

During that long Judiciary Committee markup, a few of my colleagues from both parties joined me in offering amendments. I refused to allow unanimous consent to waive the reading of the bill — that meant the clerk read aloud the entire measure, which took considerable time. Together, we were able to delay consideration of the bill in Committee so that final action would trail over to January. This delay allowed for organizing against the measure. Internet activists, including the late Aaron Swartz, began organizing an internet-based public outcry. I was in touch with him and others as those plans progressed.

The mass public outcry to Congressional offices was unprecedented. When Marsha Blackburn and others went to the House Floor to ask that they be removed as co-sponsors of the bill, it was obvious that SOPA was dead.

As I wrote on Reddit:

“I was inspired that millions of Americans cared enough about freedom to contact their elected Representatives… Your opposition to SOPA/PIPA had nothing to do with political parties and everything to do with preserving free expression on the internet.”

The public opposition that culminated in the SOPA blackout of January 2012 led to the bill being pulled from any further consideration. It would have irrevocably changed not only copyright law, but the architecture of the internet.

Since then, there is no doubt that the mood of the public debate and the pervasive narrative about the internet has changed. Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom about everything going online was perhaps too naïve – with some people only seeing the transformative possibilities while overlooking the more complicated realities, which today include the spread of disinformation, privacy and data abuses, and more.

Yet, I also worry when the focus is solely on the downsides and worst-case scenarios of online platforms and services. We shouldn’t take for granted that so much of humanity’s knowledge is now literally at our fingertips. We are all free to write a blog post like this and share it quickly and easily with our friends, family, and/or the entire world – without getting the permission of some big company, let alone the government. The fight that was won in 2012 was not for naught. The internet is free and open in part because millions of Americans who opposed SOPA spoke out.

Ultimately, the SOPA debate was about openness versus centralization and control. Openness won. That struggle hasn’t gone away. Every year, we see renewed efforts to use the law to lock down online platforms and ecosystems. Of course, targeted regulation is sometimes necessary, but the debates in Washington often fall into familiar patterns. During the SOPA fight, many pretended that the only online stakeholders who matter are the tech companies themselves, as opposed to their users and the larger platform ecosystems. We’ve seen that same message repeated more than once since. That’s why, ten years later, my best reflection from the fight over SOPA is that we must encourage everyday internet users to keep speaking up in collective defense of our digital rights.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren has been a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives since 1995. She represents the 19th District of California, based in the ?Capital of Silicon Valley,? San Jose, and the Santa Clara Valley.

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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