Here's an angle that just occurred to me about yesterday's widespread online protests against the "Stop Online Piracy Act": normally we talk about digital activism being HOSTED on the internet, but this is a great example of what happens when the companies behind the internet start to DRIVE protest. And when they're driving the protest, it's their customers and users who matter.
One immediate consequence of so many sites shutting down: quite likely, a short, sharp spike in human productivity! With no Wikipedia to be my procrastination-buddy, how can I "spend" time "researching" the latest findings on Kuyper Belt Objects or doing vital "work" like checking out the anti-aircraft armament of modern Chinese ocean-going frigates? What, I'm supposed to do my job??? Even the LOLcats have gone on strike!
In any case, if you're out of the loop, here's what's up. To protest legislation in Congress that (among other things) would make it much easier to shut down websites that host content that someone claims is pirated, sites ranging from Wikipedia to Google have painted themselves black or shut down their normal content in favor of asking readers to pressure their representatives to kill the bill. For instance, Wikipedia asks U.S. readers to enter a zip code and then contact their congressmembers, conveniently providing both the phone numbers and a link to the members' web contact forms. No list-building here! Just pure advocacy.
I suspect this effort will be quite powerful, and it's already caused Florida Republican Marco Rubio at least to jump ship. Why? Of course at some level this is a busines-versus-business battle (content-owners like the film industry vs. content-hosters like Google), but taking the fight public potentially changes the dynamic. In this case, it's the customers, not just the companies, that matter -- by going to a black page layout and including a prominent "take action" button below the usual search form, Google is trying to turn every American customer into an advocate. Of course, companies mobilizing employees and customers for advocacy is nothing new, but in this case think of the scale: tens of millions of people in this country use Google every day, and most digital denizens are likely to touch at least ONE of the sites today that's protesting SOPA.
Potential consequences? For one thing, how many people start to care about copyright and publishing freedom who hadn't given it a moment's thought before? How many people who've never acted online suddenly find out how easy it is. And, how many OTHER internet-based industries start thinking about how they can leverage their vast user bases to promote their own political interests? Fascinating times ahead....
For the record, e.politics leans against SOPA but recognizes the complexities: I'm a writer, and a graphic designer, and I'm slowly learning to be a musician, so I understand what it means to create something and have someone else steal it. But I also see the value of a culture that allows us to build on past creations to make something new, a process at the heart of postmodern art forms like, say, hip hop. The balance between rights-holders and reusers is critical!
And with SOPA, one group of content-creators (or rather, mainly content OWNERS rather than creators) is trying to short-circuit the discussion we need to have about that balance, hoping to get things entirely their own way by working the political system behind the scenes. And I in turn hope the huge and very public reaction from internet companies that thrive on free and open distribution of information will stop them where they stand. Our creative culture is too important to be legislated based on campaign contributions and back-channel lobbying alone -- the creators, the remixers, the hosters and the consumers all need to be a part of what happens next.
BTW, here's a clever musical response. Enjoy.
Follow Colin Delany on Twitter: www.twitter.com/epolitics