Considering tech’s strong presence in DC politics, it’s hard to believe that half a decade ago, the notion that the internet community was capable of any unified political engagement seemed far-fetched. But exactly five years ago today, the nation’s political apparatus quickly came to understand just how powerful a constituency the internet community could be.
On January 18, 2012, more than 50,000 websites went dark in the largest online protest in American history. The goal of the effort was to push back against the ill-fated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) by symbolizing the online censorship that SOPA/PIPA would have made possible in the name of fighting online copyright infringement. The protest blindsided many policymakers and quickly stopped what were thought to be easy victories for the bills’ sponsors (many of whom withdrew their support in the wake of the blackout).
The bills themselves would have allowed the government, at the behest of copyright owners, to blacklist and functionally deny access to websites accused of hosting infringing content, undermining the fundamental architecture of a free and open internet. And, whereas the Digital Millennium Copyright Act permits copyright owners to demand removal of allegedly infringing material from a website without requiring any legal order showing that the material in question was actually infringing, SOPA would have allowed copyright owners to instruct payment processors to cut off access to a website allegedly hosting infringing material without any actual proof of infringement. Given how prone the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process is to abuse from copyright owners (or people merely pretending to be copyright owners), the prospect of allowing anybody to shut off money to a website without stringent judicial oversight was gravely concerning to internet users and companies.
In many ways, the SOPA/PIPA protest was the inaugural moment for tech’s engagement in DC. (For Engine, it was our literal inaugural moment, as we were founded to harness the burgeoning momentum of the SOPA/PIPA protest into sustained engagement for startups that previously had no political voice.) In the five years since the blackout, the startup community has played a critical role in a number of policy debates in Washington, from convincing the Federal Communications Commission to implement some of the strongest net neutrality protections in the world to passing a law allowing everyday citizens to invest in startups throughout the country. Without the efforts of the SOPA/PIPA protest organizers and the millions of participants throughout the world, these achievements might not have been possible.
But even as we celebrate the SOPA/PIPA protest and all the subsequent political victories it ultimately made possible, we must not forget that the fundamental goal of the SOPA/PIPA protest—protecting an open and censorship-free internet—still demands vigilance. As significant as it was, the defeat of SOPA/PIPA prevented a system already skewed towards the interests of a few large corporate copyright owners from becoming even more skewed. Continued calls for “notice-and-staydown” rules that would make it effectively impossible for any web 2.0 startup to survive demonstrate that the forces behind SOPA/PIPA have not been sufficiently chastened by the bills’ defeat to back away from their efforts to undermine internet freedom. In Europe, regulators have recently proposed new copyright rules that would require all online platforms to pre-screen user content for alleged copyright infringements, potentially censoring legitimate expression before it’s even posted.
While these are certainly politically challenging times, we only need to look back five years to remember that with inspiration, coordination, and drive, the internet community can be a powerful political force. Defeating SOPA/PIPA and the censorship it threatened helped ensure that the internet remains a potent medium for this type of grassroots political engagement. It is essential that as a community we continue to defend against attacks on the free and open internet, and never forget the vital role the internet community now plays in protecting that freedom and the creativity it engenders.