Just how grassroots were the SOPA protests?

Some critics have blamed Silicon Valley tech firms for the massive online protests last month against two controversial copyright bills. Other groups have trumpeted the grassroots nature of the protests.

The first narrative, that giant tech companies drove the uprising, has little basis in fact, according to several people who helped organize the protest. The second storyline, that the protests bubbled up from regular Internet users, comes closer to explaining the phenomenon, but reality is more complicated, participants said.

The protests were a combination of independent decisions by Web sites including Wikipedia and Reddit to go black on Jan. 18, behind-the-scenes organization by a number of groups, and grassroots response to the blackout and other online efforts, participants said. 

The reason it’s important to explain what happened is to show that it’s possible to again organize large-scale online protests in the U.S., participants said.

“What we’re seeing here is this integration of the organizations with [Washington] expertise, and these organizations that are very plugged into these user-driven social networks,” said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, one of several groups that worked behind the scenes on the protest. “Multiply all of that across a community that is used to figuring out ways in which people can use these technologies for social interaction very quickly.”

Fight for the Future, a fledgling group started in late 2011, plans to build on the SOPA protest model to draw together a network of Web sites to form an “Internet defense league” to contact Congress about future bills that threaten Web freedoms, said Tiffiniy Cheng, cofounder of Fight for the Future and OpenCongress.org, a congressional watchdog site.

Cheng said she was less surprised with the level of protests against SOPA and PIPA and more “in awe of experiencing a moment of political activism that turned out so well — having seen a bill get shelved so quickly.” 

Last October, the group worked against a bill that would make the unauthorized online streaming of media content a felony — an idea that would make it into SOPA — and saw how a campaign could spread across the Internet through word of mouth, she said.

Fight for the Future counted 10 million petition signers during the SOPA protest, 8 million attempted calls to lawmakers and 4 million emails sent. More than 115,000 Web sites participated in some way in the protest, the group said. Dozens of lawmakers voiced opposition to the two bills during the week of the protest, with several withdrawing previous support.

Those numbers “seemed very fitting for our time,” Cheng said. “This is a struggle for free speech and is at the center of why people use the Internet and why they care about it.”

‘Silicon Valley paymasters’ blamed

Critics of the protests have suggested they were driven by large tech companies opposed to the bills. 

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in a tweet, blamed “Silicon Valley paymasters” for driving President Barack Obama’s administration to put out a statement seeming to oppose the two bills on Jan. 14. Murdoch, a vocal supporter of the bills, tweeted on the day of the protests that the “blogosphere has succeeded in terrorizing” many lawmakers.

The Motion Picture Association of America, on the day before the protest, called the protests a gimmick. “Technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns,” Chris Dodd, the MPAA’s chairman and CEO, said on Jan. 17.

It’s true that Google, Amazon.com and several other tech companies opposed SOPA and PIPA, but large tech companies were among the last to join the protest. Google blacked out the logo on its home page and directed visitors to a petition against the bills, where more than 7 million people signed. Amazon had a small link on its home page.

It’s also true that many blogs, including the crusading TechDirt, drummed up opposition to the bills. But the criticism from Dodd and Murdoch ignores the efforts of many groups not directly tied to big tech firms, participants in the protest said.

The characterization of the protests as a top-down effort is wrong, said Mark Stanley, new media coordinator at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group that helped organize the protest. “That’s just such a mischaracterization of what happened,” he said. “This was definitely the Internet community at large.”

The future of civic engagement

As the Wikipedia and Reddit communities debated whether to stage a blackout — an idea that started with Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales (pictured) in mid-December — a group of activists discussed other tactics and messaging on an email list that grew to more than 100 participants before the protest.

Feld, from Public Knowledge, called the group the “future of cloud civic engagement.”

The email list included members of Fight for the Future, Public Knowledge, CDT, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, Mozilla and Demand Progress, a liberal civil liberties group, participants said.

“If it had been left to just the tech companies, we would’ve gotten spanked again,” Feld said. “They were dragged along by their communities, in a lot of these cases.”

The participants debated how Web sites should state their objections to SOPA and PIPA and how to most accurately portray the bills, email list members said. They also worked together on tools to help protesters contact Congress, and provided talking points for those discussions with lawmakers. The group also debated whether a Web blackout could be effective and successful.

The interaction on the leaderless list was an “amazing phenomenon” that led to widespread collaboration, said Cheng, from Fight for the Future. The list was “both organized and very open and distributed,” she said. 

Independent decisions

There was some “very informal” contact between the advocacy groups and Reddit, said Erik Martin, general manager of the participatory news site. Reddit employees and posters began talking about a blackout after it was proposed by Wikipedia’s Wales, he said.

On Dec. 15, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held a markup hearing to debate and amend SOPA. Supporters of the legislation voted down about 20 proposed amendments intended to weaken the bill. 

Reddit members, watching by Web cast, said committee members “proudly profess their Internet ignorance” and voted down the amendments, Martin said. The SOPA markup hearing spurred the Reddit community to action, as community members began to fear that passage of the bill looked “more and more imminent,” he said.

Reddit announced on Jan. 10 that it would go black eight days later, when another SOPA hearing was scheduled. Reddit did not ask other sites to join the blackout, but its decision prompted other sites to join the protest, and Fight for the Future set up a Web site to collect the names of Web sites joining the protest, to help sites with blackout coding tools, and to offer lawmaker contact information. 

Wikipedia joined the blackout Jan. 16, creating a huge media buzz and prompting other large sites to join. The idea came from a blackout by the Italian version of Wikipedia last October, said Wales.

Wales was unaware of any organized effort to protest SOPA and PIPA, he said. “I first mentioned the idea of a blackout to the [Wikipedia] community on December 10th, and they took up a big discussion of it,” he wrote in an email. “When Reddit announced, we started to talk more specifically about whether we should choose the same date.”

The blackout had a grassroots beginning, Wales said. “As I’m an individual, it doesn’t get any more grassroots than that.”

Other participants described the protest as months of work in the making. Activists had been urging Web companies to mobilize their users, and the threat of PIPA passage in the Senate was “compelling enough that more and more of them did so over the course of the fall,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress. 

The level of protest “definitely wasn’t a surprise — it was a function of months of conversations and meetings with various people and groups,” he added. “It snowballed over November and December, and eventually yielded the extraordinary events” of Jan. 18.

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