Can Internet Protests Get Political Results? Yes, They Can

Yesterday's actions generated a massive anti-SOPA backlash, and many senators and representatives reneged their support.

Yesterday's actions generated a massive anti-SOPA backlash, and many senators and representatives reneged their support.


Yesterday saw the biggest day of online protest in the English world in history, with thousands of websites temporarily dark and many more displaying prominent banners of opposition to the anti-piracy bills now in Congress. Many of the most-visited sites participated -- Google and Wikipedia most prominently -- and more than 25,000 WordPress blogs did as well, with another 12,500 sporting a "Stop Censorship" ribbon. The New York Times called the organization a sign of the tech industry's "coming of age." Today, as the Internet flits back to its normal operations, and the dust of the protests settles, here's an accounting of the day's effect.

The Wikipedia Effect

When Wikipedia went back online, it announced an impressive figure: Its protest page had been viewed 162 million times -- that's more than five times the number of views English Wikipedia receives on a normal Wednesday. In a thank-you note to supporters, the Wikimedia Foundation celebrated, "The Wikipedia blackout is over -- and you have spoken. More than 162 million people saw our message asking if you could imagine a world without free knowledge. You said no. You shut down Congress's switchboards. You melted their servers. From all around the world your messages dominated social media and the news. Millions of people have spoken in defense of a free and open Internet."

Twitter Activity

Twitter declined to participate in the blackout, and instead it hosted a busy day of discussion about the two pieces of legislation, known as SOPA in the House and PIPA in the senate. By 4pm EST, there had been more than 2.4 million tweets about the bills. Several protest related hashtags trended globally, including the amusing #FactsWithoutWikipedia. Perhaps the most popular came from Twitter user @WFv2, who said:

At one point in the day, the hashtag #wikipediablackout appeared in nearly one percent of all tweets.

Google Search Traffic

Google searches for information about the bills surged.





The Political Response

Throughout the day, lawmakers were hearing it from constituents. More than 7 million people signed Google's petition. Wikipedia said that more than 8 million people used its tool to find the contact information of those who represent them in Congress. The Senate's website reportedly faced technical difficulties as people tried to contact their senators.

In response, seven co-sponsors of the Senate bill withdrew their support. PIPA continues to have more supporters than opponents (37 to 21 as of this writing), but neither constitutes a majority. The bill is still scheduled to be brought up for a vote next week.

The House bill, SOPA, now has far more opponents than supporters, and was already on its deathbed before yesterday's protest. Nevertheless, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas has not been deterred, and has vowed to continue the bill's markup in February. The loss in support for both bills has come mostly from Republicans. Mike Masnick at TechDirt writes that the Democrats are risking the support of "an entire generation of voters" with their intransigence on this issue.

On the Radar

When these bills do come back they'll look different: Sponsors of both the House and the Senate versions had vowed to take the DNS-blocking provision -- their most reviled element -- out of the bills even before yesterday's protests, but the specifics of the updated legislation are still unknown. And though those specifics matter -- a lot -- many critics say these bills are irredeemably bad. Timothy B. Lee writes in Ars Technica:

While the DNS language posed the gravest danger to free speech online, the bills are full of provisions that trample free speech, due process, and online innovation.

It's hard to know exactly what will be in the final version of these bills, since they are still due for several rounds of debate and amendment before they could reach President Obama's desk for a signature. But the latest versions of the bill we could get our hands on--the version of PIPA reported out of the Senate Judiciary in May, and Rep. Smith's "manager's amendment" to SOPA from December--show a number of remaining problems, and we've gotten no commitments from the sponsors to address these remaining issues.

Both PIPA and SOPA feature inadequate judicial oversight, allowing injunctions to be granted after a single, one-sided court hearing. Both give the power to seek injunctions not only to the attorney general but also to private copyright holders. And SOPA has a provision, not included in PIPA, that would make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

So while the story of SOPA and PIPA is not over, yesterday's events are a good example of the kind of noise a hostile Internet can make. It's hard to get people to sign a petition or call their senators, but take away the basic tools that people have come to rely on and they'll pay attention. These sites -- Google, Wikipedia, and many more -- have a lot of power, and for now they're aiming it at defeating these bills.