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Patrick Ruffini

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Beyond SOPA: A New Birth of Internet Freedom

Posted: 01/20/2012 4:17 pm

The first TV signals were beamed from the New York's World Fair in 1939, but it took until 1952 -- and arguably 1960 -- for television to make a difference in who we elected. The promise of the Internet to transform politics was hyped in its early days, but not until 2008 did one campaign, Barack Obama's, so thoroughly master the medium did it help decide a presidential election. And not until Wednesday's blackout did the Internet truly and finally bring its power to bear on the the problem of governance in Washington, D.C. -- leading to the demise of both the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act for the foreseeable future.

The impact of disruptive innovations don't manifest themselves overnight. In each of the cases cited above, it took 15 years or more for their world-changing impact to become apparent. The road along the way was filled with false starts, as well as those who doubted or belittled the power of the medium.

In 1996, the Web launched its first online blackout -- after President Clinton signed into law a bill that banned "indecent" pornographic material from ever appearing on the World Wide Web. As an early Internet adopter, I joined the '96 blackout and added a blue anti-censorship ribbon to my site. But the effort didn't exactly gain notice in Congress, nor was the lobbying for it very effective. Only after the bill was signed into law did the web protest. The law failed, and was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.

Sixteen years later, the web blacked out, and the result was an American Tahrir Square, with members of Congress racing to their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to express solidarity with the protests, or at a very minimum, to send a clear signal to their constituents that their voices had been heard.

Arrayed on the other side were some not-inconsiderable forces: powerful groups like the MPAA who spent $94 million on lobbying for increased IP regulation in 2011 -- and a conspiracy of silence from media owners with a vested interest in passing SOPA and PIPA. Despite being completely shut out of the lawmaking process, and with little access to traditional media, the anti-SOPA movement proved that the revolution need not be televised. Google alone drove 7 million petition signatures on blackout day.

By the end of the day, the best laid plans of the bill's proponents lay in ruins as users stood as one with the companies and web services who blacked out, collectively exercising a power they didn't know they had weeks earlier.

Moving forward, there will be a temptation to conclude that Silicon Valley needs to play the inside game better. And there is a time and place for this: a fully built out lobbying presence could have prevented skewed bills like SOPA and PIPA from being considered in the first place. On low-wattage issues, lobbying will continue to be important. But on big issues that capture the public imagination, it is less important. The broader optics of a situation, the politics of it, the ability to stir public outrage, matters far more in those cases. This is the trump card that opponents of SOPA and PIPA were able to play.

More interesting still will be ability to infuse the inside game of lobbying with the realtime ethos of social media, using social networks to out move intel that was previously the exclusive domain of lobbyists and mobilize outside pressure. The lesson of SOPA and PIPA is not that the inside game is dead, but that inside players will increasingly need to use outside tools like social media to win. Effective legislative strategy will employ a combination of inside-outside tactics, in the same way that the best political campaigns combine solid digital strategy with traditional field organizing.

Just as with Obama's digital victory in 2008, a digitally driven outside game won't win every time, but its capacity to upend the traditional establishment has now been proven in the staid realm of D.C. influence. Frustrating powerful lobbies like the MPAA and the RIAA was always going to be the toughest nut for the Internet to crack, but that can now be crossed off its to-do list.

In the ashes of SOPA and PIPA (at least in their current form), there is also the hope that a new political force is rising -- one untethered to existing ideologies or the rules of terrestrial politics. In 1996, cyber-libertarian and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow issued his stirring A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, writing:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.


We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions.

This vision, almost Randian in its purity, had decayed beyond the incremental compromises one expects to happen with time. It had been all but given up for dead, as the role of the State in regulating the "wild west" of the Internet has become an increasingly commonplace assumption even in Western democracies. Yet in recent months, Americans on both the right and left united to stop SOPA and PIPA. They had little else in common, but understood that a free and open Internet is now the basis of everything else -- the indispensable medium through which ideas are communicated and movements organized.

SOPA and PIPA were not about right vs. left. They were about new vs. old. Will the communications technologies of the future be delivered to passive conusmers in static celluloid packages -- the Hollywood way -- or will the consumers become collaborators and take an active role in shaping the content and platforms of the future -- the way of the Internet? It was this shared sense of connection between Internet platforms and their users that allowed sites like Wikipedia to lead, and millions to follow.

For libertarians, there is new hope in the power of a self-organizing and self-regulating Internet to stand up for itself against invasive governments and powerful legacy industries that seek to manage our options as consumers. If the Internet can hold out and become the one area of our society to escape massive regulation -- in the words of Jeff Jarvis, an Eighth Continent where people from America and Iran can to go to interact freely -- it can continue to flourish and serve as a beacon for how the thorny problems of the offline world can be solved -- not through government, but through decentralized startup innovation.

In the last year, I've been struck by how much I (as someone on the political right) had in common with those on the left who also happened to oppose this legislation. Both sides have little faith in government as it exists today to solve problems. Though our goals may be different, young people on both sides of the political divide distrust a government that is out of touch and too slow, looking to startup platforms like Khan Academy as the future of education and YouTube as the future of the creative industries. Indeed, many of today's celebrities were first found on the Internet. Overly restrictive copyright -- a perfectly fine concept in the old world where products could not be quickly remixed and improved -- will damage innovation in the new.

This is a time for celebration, but also a time of resolution and reflection on what's next. In the face of a problem, a technologists did what they do best: they hacked their way around it. Now is not the time to return to our pre-SOPA slumber, but to fight to keep the Internet a free zone for innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, and in turn, create a political process that is every bit as attuned to the opinions of its citizens as it was this week.

 

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