There are uncanny parallels between colonial protests against the Stamp Act and last week's website blackouts protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act.
Last week's protests against two bills aiming to curb copyright infringement and piracy on the Internet were jarringly familiar to scholars of the American Revolution. After all, we've seen this narrative before. In seeking to solve a problem, legislators propose a bill that directly affects the flow of information. Those whose businesses would bear the brunt of the laws see it as a direct assault and mobilize in opposition. The public responds to the rhetoric, rallying behind the call to prevent censorship and protect the free exchange of information. The government backs down in the face of the outcry, but promises to revisit the underlying issues. That description of the Internet protests of 2012 echoes in unnerving detail the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, the moment when dissent against imperial control morphed into a Revolutionary movement.
The Stamp Act crisis started with a problem that had little to do with communications. At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Britain faced a fiscal crisis and an unstable political environment. It had amassed enormous debt to defeat France, and the fallout sank one ministry after another in the early 1760s. Exacerbating the political situation, King George II had died in 1760 and left the throne to his young grandson, George III. Seeking an answer to the vexing financial problems, George Grenville, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, devised a plan in 1764 to tax the colonies, which had benefitted greatly from British success in ejecting France from North America.