This article originally appeared in the 1.26.12 issue of Metroland
It’s incredibly rare these days when something good happens in Washington. Even more rare when it happens unexpectedly, spontaneously, and for the right reasons.
But last Wednesday something really good happened in Washington. The SOPA/PIPA legislation, which would have given courts broad powers to blacklist websites and encouraged “voluntary” snooping on your online activities by internet service companies, was nuked as a result of a furious outpouring of opposition from millions of people.
One of my predictions for this year (see Metroland 12/29/11) was SOPA/PIPA “going down in flames” and becoming a major campaign issue for the 2012 elections. This was one of those “in a perfect world” predictions; frankly, I almost left it off because it seemed too ridiculous. I’ve been writing about these bills for over a year (Metroland December 2010, June, October, November, and December 2011) and I felt like I was yelling at a tornado. I was sure the fix was in.
What happened? Awareness of the proposed laws’ dangers had been growing steadily for a couple of months, and in December opposition was started to gain traction. But just a little. There were still dozens of bill sponsors; Congressional hearings were a farce; there was absolutely no mainstream media reporting on the bills for the simple reason that the Big Media conglomerates who own the news outlets were staunchly in favor of the bill. The bill had remarkably broad bi-partisan support, something that’s unheard of these days, and the White House had been sending signals that it also supported the bills. The little opposition that was popping up was mostly grassroots, with only one visible cheerleader in all of Congress, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Wyden had placed member’s holds on Senate versions of the bill and issued thoughtful memos about the bill’s dangers, memos that were ignored by his colleagues.
Then two weeks ago, things started turning. A couple of Congressmen, tea party guys, started publically questioning the bill. This gave the grassroots folks (who probably wouldn’t agree with the tea party guys on any other issue) a boost. Chris Hayes, who has a little-watched weekend morning show on MSNBC, came out swinging against the bill. The White House issued an unexpected and unequivocal message that the “blacklist” provisions of the bills were unacceptable. It was reported on a blog that during a pre-show warm up, someone asked John Stewart why he was ignoring SOPA/PIPA, and Stewart said he hadn’t heard anything about it and promised to look into it.
Supporters of the bill, the RIAA, the MPAA, the US Chamber of Commerce, and all of their toadies in Congress, went into overdrive. The lock-step of their public announcements was absolutely Rovian—everybody, industry flaks and lawmakers, stayed “on message”, and everybody was lying. One day it was that online infringement cost the US economy $25 billion each year, a totally made-up and unsupportable number. The next day it was that SOPA/PIPA would create 180,000 new American jobs in its first year, another ludicrous claim. The next day it was that opposition was being orchestrated and financed by Big Tech, specifically Google. This was absurd, as the most vocal opponents were publicly pleading for the mostly-silent Google to take a public stand on the issue; fact is that the Big Media proponents of the bills had spent four times more than the tech sector lobbying Congress on the bills. Finally, the big spin meme was that opponents to SOPA/PIPA were misrepresenting the proposed laws and fear-mongering people into contacting their officials. Positively Orwellian. And fascist.
Last Wednesday was supposed to be some kind of "day of action." Yawn. Tuesday Wikipedia announced it would go dark for the day, which took everyone by surprise. Late Tuesday Google announced it would do "something", too. Rachel Maddow ended her show with a short rant about the dangers of the law. Wednesday morning I saw headlines about Google blacking out its logo and a bunch of sites going dark. I found some code that was supposed to black out my websites, but couldn’t figure out where to stick it. So I just figured ho hum, and started to go about my day. Around 10AM I got a call from WAMC, asking if I could come in at 2 to do a special VoxPop about SOPA/PIPA. I’m like, really? I took a look again at the news and saw that an unprecedented game was on.
By the end of the day, some 13 million people had contacted their representatives. Phone lines were jammed, websites crashed. Sponsors bailed in droves. The next day votes were being canceled and by Friday SOPA/PIPA were dead.
The mainstream media is still reporting that this was a fight between Google and Hollywood. It wasn’t. It was a triumph of democracy. And there will be more. Big Media will continue to attack the internet. This ain’t over.
Paul Rapp is an intellectual property lawyer based in Housatonic MA. He can be reached at paulapp.com.