They lined up in familiar opposing ranks. On one side Rupert Murdoch, sounding crustier than ever now that he tweets... the Motion Picture Association of America (which of course includes Murdoch's 20th Century Fox studios)... and other traditional media conglomerates like NBC Universal.
On the other side, younger digital dynamos like Google, Mozilla, WordPress and Wikipedia.
Their one-day protest against the proposed legislation in Congress that aims to stop online piracy from harming America's intellectual property and the people who work on it (but risks a clamp-down on freedom of speech, and threatens many of our Internet-based businesses) achieved pretty much what they wanted. A lot more public awareness, suddenly.
But the various parties to the protest had a wide range of differing ways to get that attention. Wikipedia, which after all is a nonprofit organization not building income on its visitor-volume, could easily go completely offline for a day -- in English, anyway.
Tumblr, on the other hand, protected itself from losing customers by doing what they've done for a while now... simply signal very clearly to new arrivals that "Censorship" is looming, and offer a lot of information about the Senate's and the House of Representatives' respective 'reform' bills.
Google chose to do largely the same thing, niftily 'redacting' its own own home-page logo (which we've grown used to seeing creatively manipulated for effect) with a rectangular black-out, and directing users to a good old-fashioned "Write Your Representative" petition against the legislation. No threat there, or very little, to all those revenue-generating Google ads that pepper the search pages.
The "Internet community," as these very variegated entities are fond of calling themselves in this debate, are now crowing cock-a-hoop, since the White House joined the fray on the eve of their protest, to signal that the Obama Administration will only support anti-piracy legislation if it avoids infringement of citizens' (and U.S.-based Internet companies') First Amendment rights.
Postings from that same "community" during the black-out (or at least from the parts that didn't themselves go dark) suggested great confidence. Articles across the hyper-local network Patch (from AOL and HuffPost) proclaimed "Protest over SOPA may have stopped bill" (referring, of course, to the Senate's acronymic Stop Online Piracy Act) and many like-minded bloggers announced in a frequently chiming word-choice that the legislation is now "on life-support."
I wouldn't be so sure.
It all remains -- like all federal legislation tends to -- a matter of Washington lobbying, despite this week's one-day leap into the forum of public debate. And as always, the industry associations with their deeply-expert methods of arm-twisting in and around both sides of Capitol Hill will in all likelihood remain the strongest deciders of how things go.
The digitally-based newcomers can no longer be seen as strangers to the lobbying game, especially not now with Facebook's most recent hires, Joel Kaplan and Myriah Jordan, both previously in George W. Bush's White House. And Facebook is joined by Google, Yahoo and Amazon in a representative grouping called NetCoalition, which has dug itself in well, now moving from North Capitol Street to the heart of lobbyville, K Street. Google itself is spending $6 million a year, now to be rocketing higher, we can be sure, on D.C. lobbying efforts in its own interests.
But all this pales compared with the amassed forces and sheer weight of dollar numbers brought into play when Hollywood, network television and the recoding industry all join forces, as they have over this issue.
Among the bills' industry supporters there's greater unity (and even richer lobbying clout) born out of having an overriding common interest -- i.e. profits -- to defend.
The very multiplicity and variegation that characterizes Silicon Valley's successful meteors can often dim their effect in the nation's capital. Google, for instance, hasn't completely stayed in step with the NetCoalition alliance, and Microsoft (whose sincerity many seem to doubt on any issue at all) has been very canny indeed to avoid strong identification with the digital side of the argument.
As Congress resumes formal business, the language of these bills is obviously going to be sliced and re-sliced every which way... but it's far from certain that the major content-producers, which is how the old megaliths think of themselves, will end up losing their defensive fight.
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