Q. How do you stop dangerously bad legislation backed by $94 million in lobbying money so far this year and what was seemingly insurmountable support from lawmakers and D.C. insiders?
A. The Internet.
On November 15th and 16th, social media mobilized like never before against the Stop Online Piracy Act (#SOPA), a bill which would impose crippling regulation on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube -- and prevent fledgling social and mobile startups from getting off the ground in the first place -- all in the name of protecting Hollywood copyrights.
The problem with the bill, and its Senate companion, the PROTECT IP Act, is not in its goals: no one disagrees artists should be paid for their work. It's that it uses illegitimate means -- censoring and blocking websites like they do in repressive regimes from China to Iran -- to pursue these objectives. Furthermore, each subsequent version of the bill took even more draconian steps to regulate the Internet, effectively leaving any site with a user-contributed content no choice but to pre-screen every posting to comply with the law. Try that with 50 million tweets a day.
Having been involved in this fight for over a year through Don't Censor the Net, the outpouring of opposition was truly amazing -- made possible only by the instant, connective power of social media. At the end of it, people who don't normally agree on anything -- from Nancy Pelosi to Michele Bachmann and Rand Paul -- all agreed that SOPA needed to be scrapped or drastically re-written.
Knowing that an important hearing in the House Judiciary Committee was coming up on November 16th, Don't Censor the Net kicked off its efforts with a Social Media Lobby Day on the 15th, encouraging visitors to call, tweet, or post Facebook messages on the walls of Judiciary Committee members. We wanted to make sure that representatives were well aware that scoial media was watching going into the hearing. The effort attracted tens of thousands of visitors, generated and led to a meek attempt by the MPAA to hijack the #LobbyDay hashtag.
On the day of the hearing, numerous groups banded together for American Censorship Day -- using a simple bit of code to "black out" their sites. Internet companies stood united in protest. Tumblr, the hugely popular blogging platform, "censored" user dashboards and linked to a simple calling tool to connect people to their representatives. Over 87,000 calls -- 3.6 per second -- were made. Four of the hottest searches online that day were SOPA-related. And what about the bill's supporters? Legislative tracking platforms from OpenCongress to PopVox found a whopping 1-2% of users in support of SOPA.
The fight isn't over yet. Despite this tremendous show of opposition, there are strong indications its sponsors intend to move SOPA forward unchanged. If that isn't a sad commentary on how just how few in D.C. "get" the Internet, I don't know what is.
What can you do to stand up for your freedoms online right now?
Everywhere this year, we're seeing the power of the instant activist -- whether it's in the changing-by-the-minute Presidential race or in legislative battles like SOPA. Insidery D.C. lobbying fights may be ripe for technology-driven disruption just like political campaigns were a decade ago. A big difference between Activism 1.0 and Activism 2.0 is that massive lead times (and frankly, funding) are no longer as necessary. Given the right launchpad, and the social battlefield shaped in your favor in advance, a captivating message can spread to millions of people in an instant, as it did on Lobby Day and Censorship Day.
(This post originally appeared on the Engage blog.)
Follow Patrick Ruffini on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PatrickRuffini