Top 0 Lessons Learned from the SOPA Protest

So what just happened? Well, several of the world’s most prominent Web destinations interrupted their regular programming to remind their readers of the dangers of a world where certain content may be arbitrarily made to disappear. For most Americans, this was probably the first they’d seen of any efforts by Congress to change the Internet, for whatever reason they’d want to do so.

They were given links to click on to learn more. Some of those links led to the White House Web site, where over a hundred thousand people signed petitions urging the President to veto any bill that would suborn Internet censorship. A few of those links led, to our own surprise, to ReadWriteWeb; and for a few hours yesterday, our traffic rose to unprecedented levels.

You can never step in the same river twice

Whenever you divert a river through a narrow channel, the result is always raging and torrential. Google, Wikipedia, several blogs published through WordPress and Tumblr, and a few other sites yesterday successfully stuck a few logs in the river. They diverted people’s attentions for a moment, and got quite a few of them to agree that changes in the Internet to divert traffic away from content (except for this one) are usually bad.

The result was a logjam of public support, a signal of concerted public opposition to government altering the mechanism of the Internet. Principal sponsors of the SOPA and PROTECT-IP (PIPA) legislation publicly withdrew their support of both bills in their respective houses. Now, despite new markup hearings scheduled for next month, it is extremely unlikely that anti-piracy legislation will emerge from Congress this term.

Victory, it would seem, for the SOPA and PIPA opponents. But we need to ask ourselves, do millions of Internet users truly know more today about the efforts to preserve the Internet and the industries that depend on it, than they did 48 hours ago? Or did Google and Wikipedia just present everyone with yet another popup (like the one with the green button and the red button where the green one says, “YES, I’M 18 OR OVER”) and people click the one closest to the content they’re really looking for.

But you can surely step in it once

You’ve often told us this yourself: We in the media are too full of ourselves; we think we’re so clever. We can stick our foot in the river, and when it changes direction we proclaim ourselves God and say we, too, can change the course of mighty rivers. We’re always trying to make ourselves “mainstream,” and we scratch and claw for any means necessary to have Google make us “mainstream.”

But we typically fail to keep track of where the river goes from here. Which makes the report this morning from Nikki Finke of Deadline Hollywood an ominous and foreboding indicator of future events for anyone preparing a “Mission: Accomplished” banner for the victory party. Finke cites an “anonymous” memo from an unnamed Hollywood studio executive (who, despite not being named, openly states he produced a TV series called “24”) as making clear that Hollywood’s campaign contributions are not guaranteed to anyone. After last Saturday’s statement from the Obama Administration, the content industry may be rethinking its support for Democratic Party fundraising efforts in the near-term.

Hollywood, which is in California, the home state of Rep. Darrell Issa, who has become the loudest SOPA opponent in the House. California, with 55 electoral votes. The state where recent polls expressed a preference for that nice fellow who worked with Hollywood to help produce the Salt Lake City Olympics.

In the two decades-plus that I’ve covered anti-piracy legislation in the U.S., as well as other countries, I’ve provided the nasty details, the ironic twists, the points of conflict where the legal, creative, and technology worlds fail to connect. And in all of that time, I’ve been told by editors (when I’ve had editors), and even frequently by some readers, that folks like you simply don’t care. I can still hear the words of one editor who hosted a media workshop resounding in my head: “The Internet is not about facts,” he said. “It’s about traffic. And you don’t get traffic by publishing a bunch of facts, facts, facts, facts.”

If anything is less about facts than that particular editor’s view of the Internet, it’s politics. You can’t garner public support or opposition to an issue, I’ve been told, through a technical recitation of every use case. Instead, it’s been suggested, to make an issue popular, you should boil it down to two words that fit on a protest sign. Case in point: Easily the most convincing explanation I’ve ever read about the potential effects of the anti-piracy system SOPA suggested comes from the blog of an ISP named SoftLayer. It’s a detailed technical description of the mess that any DNS server would have to wade through if it were to be amended with instructions preventing it from resolving only certain domain name requests.

As an optimist, I’d think a reasonable person would come away from that blog post convinced that SOPA’s suggested remedy was not viable. But you can’t fit “DNS Pre-emption Would Break Name Resolution Cycles” on a campaign banner.

Insert cause here

You need something else. Up until 2009, the two-word slogan that anti-piracy opponents went with was “government conspiracy.” (Which still made for a big protest sign.) Yet it did not resound with a broader audience, probably because none of the players in the alleged conspiracy had any direct relationship with you, the everyday user. It was all taking place in soundproofed, smoke-filled, underground bunkers, probably with Peter Sellers playing at least three roles.

What ended up working was something more like this: “Censorship bad.”

And you know, it’s true. Censorship bad. You don’t want censorship? Of course not. Here’s a nice popup for you. Click the button that says censorship bad. You can do it. Good boy.

Never mind that none of the bills are really about censorship. If they have the same effect, I’ve been told, it’s the same thing. As you go forth about your business today, and as you take heart in the very probable fact that the Internet will not be ruined by an ill-considered bill from folks who didn’t comprehend the technology, ask yourself this: How long will the Web maintain its integrity as a source of unfettered, unfiltered facts, facts, facts, facts as long as congresspeople, service providers, content providers, artists, publishers, journalists, political candidates, and you continue to let yourself be used as a tool for someone else’s two-word-slogan, private interests?

Scott M. Fulton, III is the author of this opinion article and is solely responsible for his content.

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