Something big is happening on the Internet today, as you may have noticed. Yes, the English version of Wikipedia is blacked out, as are Craigslist, Reddit, Boing Boing and O’Reilly Radar. Google, Mozilla, Wired.com and WordPress all have put up some kind of anti-SOPA graphic or statement. Many of those that aren’t blacking out text or turning their sites off are nonetheless posting updates expressing sympathy for the movement. All of this is significant, but what is perhaps most interesting is the collective effect these protests are having: Today, SOPA becomes a mainstream issue.
A few days ago, I wrote about Wikipedia’s plans to black itself out in protest of SOPA. I don’t often flood my Facebook Timeline with my own tech writing, but I decided to share that story, given the broad impact the story was likely to have beyond the technology community. It got a few “likes” and from one generally well-informed, but non-techie friend, a confession: “I had to Wikipedia SOPA.”
A week ago, SOPA was an issue that was brewing into a major controversy on the Web, but for many of those who aren’t immersed in Internet culture and tech news, it may as well have not existed. Coverage of it in mainstream media outlets was minimal and not of all the reports that began trickling in were particularly thorough.
From Reddit to the New York Times: SOPA Goes Mainstream
Today, things are palpably different. It seems that every other tweet and Facebook share is SOPA-related. On Facebook in particular, some of my most non-techie friends are sharing anti-SOPA links and sentiments.
A good friend of mine who writes for Entertainment Weekly instant messaged me first thing this morning to ask if I knew of any potential sources for a SOPA story. Meanwhile, the SOPA shutdown dominates the homepage of the New York Times, pushing coverage of a potential war between Iran and Israel a few hundred pixels down the page.
If today’s protests were designed to heighten public awareness of the tech industry’s opposition to SOPA and related anti-piracy bills, the tactic appears to be working quite well.
Successful or Not, It’s a New Breed of Digital Activitism
There will undoubtedly be debates about whether or not today’s demonstrations had an impact on the survival of the anti-piracy bills being considered by Congress. This is especially true considering that the fate of SOPA was unclear even before Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia would be going dark.
What is undeniable, though, is that what’s happening on the Internet today represents the pinnacle of a new breed of digital activism. Not only can Web-based communities succeed in forcing large corporations to reconsider controversial policies, but a concerted and widespread enough effort to voice meaningful dissent on the Internet can, at the very least, generate serious awareness about an issue.
Today’s acts of symbolic self-censorship and advocacy go beyond their PR effect. Rather than just going dark, many sites are actively encouraging users to contact their representatives in Congress. Wikipedia has made looking up your representatives’ contact information one of the few things you can do on their English-language site today.
Perhaps this issue is somewhat unique in that it is perceived to strike at the heart of the Internet and, in turn, the Internet is striking back. Many have wondered if other issues could ever see the kind of outcry that SOPA has generated. It’s true that sites like Wikipedia and Google are unlikely to throw their weight behind an issue that doesn’t deal so directly with the inner workings of the Web itself.
Yet even before the big players officially got involved, a grassroots movement was already well underway, fueled by communities like Reddit and technology-focused blogs. That movement had already successfully challenged a few companies and generated online petitions about SOPA, one of which caught the White House’s attention.
The Web may not be reinventing democracy as we know it, but as examples like this proliferate, it’s hard to not take its potential longterm impact seriously.