The SOPA Blackout Created a Big Problem

My connections in the technology world are nearly universally opposed to SOPA. They (i.e. we) see it as a threat to the open Internet. Hollywood and the music companies say there is nothing to fear from this legislation. Yet most independent analysts and the organizations that would have to comply with the law say that it creates serious problems.

To protest SOPA, many Internet companies -- as you no doubt have seen or heard by now -- have blacked out their websites. I've seen Internet watchers go back and forth about the usefulness of the current blackout protest. Two tweets stand-in for a whole lot of others:

"Going dark is cute, but, the only way SOPA dies is if the tech industry starts lobbying just as hard as the entertainment industry," Gizmodo's Mat Honan wrote. And Gawker Media's Joel Johnson tweeted, "Is it possible to appreciate protest blackouts and also think that they're mostly preaching to the choir?"

Combined, the two tweets suggest support for anti-SOPA ideas, but a fear that the protests are basically useless because the target audience (Congress) won't be swayed by the blackouts. It's a sentiment that I've seen (re)tweeted in various guises over the last few days.

In thinking about this critique, I recalled talking to a long-time organizer during the heat of the Occupy protests late last year. "Protests don't solve things," she told me. "Protests create problems that policymakers then have to solve."

To be clear, by "create a problem," I mean to frame some set of facts and events in the world in such a way that they become a coherent bad, separate from the general messiness of the world. For web nerds, it's like dropping a shadow on text: suddenly, something is foregrounded. Much of that foregrounding isn't accomplished by the protests themselves, but by the media that spins out of such protests.

Remember all those pieces after the occupations that asked, "What are protesters so upset about? Whoa! It turns out there's something to this 1% stuff!" The number of media mentions of income inequality skyrocketed and the number of people who believed income inequality has grown and the government should do something about it grew along with them. You saw the rhetoric of politicians change and policy wonks offer Washington-ready ideas. Occupy created the problem (in the narrow meaning presented above) of inequality in the United States. They gave meaning to the growth of income and wealth gaps in this country.

Back to SOPA. It looked like SOPA was going to sail through Congress. Remember that in May, its sister bill PIPA passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in just two weeks and with almost no opposition. But then the Internet -- its for-profit companies and non-profit allies -- woke up. and BoingBoing and Ars Technica started to cover the story in greater depth. Redditors were suddenly very interested in these bills. The tech community became aware of this problem. The efforts of protesters over the last eight months convinced most in Silicon Valley that they had to do something about these bills' progress.

But The SOPA Problem remained largely within the tech world, within the choir. How to push those ideas into society more broadly? One might think, "Let's create a 'news event' with a digital protest." Would that work?

Last night, the Wikipedia blackout was the top story on the BBC. This morning, the New York Times homepage looks like this:


People across the country are hitting Wikipedia and Google homepages. They are being confronted with a protest that says, "This is a problem!" And the problem has the specific feature, the sites' rhetoric holds, of restricting the free flow of information on the Internet. Then citizens are going to the New York Times or listening to the radio and hearing about the web protest. Or they are seeing hashtags emerge on Twitter about Wikipedia and SOPA. The blacked-out websites successfully created a news event today in all media, old and new. Millions more Americans will have at least a passing knowledge of what Internet companies think the problem with SOPA is.

Will the anti-SOPA effort be as successful as Occupy in changing the way that people think about online piracy and legislation to clamp down on it? Probably not. On the other hand, it doesn't have to be. This is a narrow protest against two bills. And to solve this particular problem, Congress merely has to do what it does best: nothing.