God bless the Internet. Not only for its contributions to the culture, but because it has ripened so enthusiastically into its inevitable role as our last true public square -- the favorite refuge of the pamphlet-waving lunatic, sure, but also the only place left where being a part of the discourse has nothing to do with how much money you've got to your name. Democracy is old, but it has never faced obstacles as towering as it does today in America; thanks to the near-total consolidation of the media in the hands of a few massive corporations, a Congress mulishly beholden to its respective financiers, and a Supreme Court that has chosen, tragically, to usher us into the Age of the Super PAC, the voice of the people has been rendered fainter (and consequently hoarser) than ever before. Such powerful noise can drown out speech, but typing, as it turns out, is a harder freedom to subdue.
We learned this lesson on Wednesday, when the Internet just went completely ballistic over SOPA and PIPA, the Bebop and Rocksteady of online censorship. Led by some of the heaviest hitters on the web -- including forward-thinking colossi Wikipedia and Google -- January 18th witnessed the self-proclaimed "largest online protest in history," a chance for sites to fight firewall with firewall by censoring their own content in an effort to create awareness about the pending legislation. As lobbying tactics go, Internet protest traditionally falls somewhere between "sending telegrams to your senator" and "taking imaginary hostages" on the effectiveness scale, yet early indications are that the SOPA/PIPA blackout has been a rousing success.
More interesting to me than the actions of the websites, however, were the reactions of my peers, those friends and "friends" who make up my various social networks. Links were posted! Profile pictures changed! Tweets and statuses sprung up across my artificial turf with a fervor unlike anything I had seen before! The sheer number of people who took the time to speak out against SOPA and PIPA legitimately astonished me, as did the intensely passionate nature of their outrage; the fact that so many of these folks were among those who almost never use social networking platforms to comment on political matters added to the vigor of the communal response. Scanning my feeds that day, it was almost as if the whole of my generation had come together with one voice to at last declare to our leaders, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, one sacred ultimatum -- you don't screw with the Internet.
I have to say, I was proud of us. These are, by any reasonable metric, terrible pieces of legislation, and certainly deserving of our sternest rebuke. The whole episode made me wonder, though: what if we decided that you don't screw with a few other things too? If this level of clamor has the potential to stop a piece of legislation in its tracks, why have we chosen to wield it in the name of Internet censorship alone, given the vast universe of critical rights that today are very much in jeopardy? If, tomorrow, one million Facebook users decided to change their photos to speak out for reproductive freedom, or fair economic policies, or against corporate money in politics -- if they shared articles with their friends, raised awareness in their own networks, contacted their representatives, and convinced a handful of others to join them -- what effect might it have on the discourse surrounding those and other issues of tremendous national concern?
Sure, the Googles of the world wouldn't (and shouldn't) be there to spark a more partisan fray, but we ought to be able to know when to care without their prompting. We've demonstrated that engagement can work to bring about just and democratic outcomes, and we know that ours is a Congress that, left to its own devices, is woefully out of step with the priorities of the American people. While it will take organization and publicity to orchestrate another sufficiently fevered pitch, there is no longer any reason to doubt that it can succeed, in precisely the way that everything worthwhile succeeds on the Internet: by way of the most democratic process of all -- the viral spread. The days of the sit-in are gone, replaced not a moment too soon by the days of the status update. How we exercise this once-latent ability in the months and years ahead will play a crucial role in the fate of our democracy, as our offline mechanisms of popular expression continue to rust in the corruptive atmosphere of money politics. Let us use it wisely, to protect those rights we must, lest we lose something more fundamental than just our ability to enjoy the [REDACTED] Internet.