Online Blackouts and Outrage Online: Protests Against PIPA and SOPA

January 18, 2012 , ,

If you're reading this, you likely saw that today, January 18, Public Knowledge has “gone dark” in protest of the proposals in the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). And it's not just tech advocacy organizations like us, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and others taking this action. Major Internet communities like Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, BoingBoing, and reddit have also blacked out their web pages. Other groups reliant upon the Internet, though not often directly involved in copyright fights, like Reporters Without Borders and Global Voices are doing this as well. Google has jumped into the ring with a message on its home page about the bills. And individuals from Buddy Roemer to Peter Gabriel are blacking out their sites, too. A thorough (but by no means comprehensive) list of blacked-out sites is here.

The massive online protest reflects a huge and still-growing anger that these overbroad and Internet-jeopardizing bills have been allowed to progress this far, with objections to them being disregarded or minimized. The blackouts are meant to represent to the world the threat of legitimate sites being blocked by these laws.

Critics might claim that the most censorship-like provisions of PIPA and SOPA, the DNS filtering provisions, are going to be removed from the bills, and that the blackout is therefore a lot of noise for nothing. But they're wrong. As an initial matter, all we have regarding the removal of the DNS provisions are some press releases. What any new text will look like is still unknown. In fact, you could read Senator Leahy's press release on the issue as saying that DNS blocking will remain in PIPA, just with a built-in delay subject to a government study of the issue. Representative Smith's press release likewise might represent a removal of DNS blocking, but then, the blocking provisions in it now were formerly characterized as “voluntary,” which they are only in the most hair-splittingly technical of senses.

But more importantly, people are still upset about other provisions in the bills. And more than that, they're generally angry at the thought that Congress could get this far along this path without accounting for the voices of their Internet-using constituents. To have already signed petitions, called and emailed Congress, and be told that their opinions don't matter, or were astroturf, is tantamount to being told that they don't exist.

And yet they do. Regardless of what might be proposed in the next few weeks for these bills, the fact that anything as outright ludicrous as the originally-introduced SOPA even got introduced has demonstrated to Internet users that Congress wasn't taking the Internet seriously, and was willing to blunder blindly into making specific technological mandates for systems it did not understand. The volume and fury of the popular anger against these bills isn't just (or even mostly) about the overbroad definition of “information location tool” in Section 2(4) of PIPA or the incorporation of “enable or facilitate” by reference (through 18 U.S.C. §2319 and )18 U.S.C. §2323) in section 102(a)(2)(A) of PIPA. It's about Congress and a few industry lobbyists presuming that Internet users are a strange little niche, and that they can fumble crudely with the laws, norms, and principles that underpin the Internet as we know it without voters getting upset. These blackouts demonstrate otherwise—that Internet users aren't a minor subset of the voting populace any more than telephone users or postal customers are. The Internet is the public, and it's not going to be ignored any more.