The Defeat of SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA: The Networked Public Sphere Comes of Age | rheacock | December 10, 2013

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The Defeat of SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA: The Networked Public Sphere Comes of Age

Bruce Etling

Arguably the most striking example of the rise of the networked public sphere as a political force is the reversal of support for the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the United States, and the international trade agreement ACTA, which lost support after the successful defeat of SOPA and PIPA.1

A number of successful tactics were used to support the movement, which culminated in January 2012 when millions of citizens contacted Congress to voice opposition to the legislation. Specialized tech media news outlets such as Tech Dirt, which exist primarily as web native media, as well as groups dedicated to digital freedoms, including Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, played a critical role in sounding the alarm early and pushing the issue into the mainstream public sphere. Major online platforms and their communities of users, in particular Wikipedia, blacked out their websites and simultaneously pointed US voters to contact information for their elected representatives in Congress. Critically, the technology industry was also opposed to the legislation, although opposition was not universal. Google in particular, with its huge online user base and lobbying power, was also a major player in coming out against the legislation, placing a banner on its site in opposition to the legislation and connecting users to their Congressional representatives.

Users of a number of online platforms, such as Reddit and various online gaming communities, successfully pushed technology companies to reverse their support for SOPA and PIPA. A superb example is the Reddit community’s boycott of web-hosting company Go Daddy, where a single user mobilized the community to begin moving their websites to other domains. The boycott quickly led Go Daddy to withdraw its support for the legislation. The online community was also able to draw on and promote expert commentary and analysis by Internet engineering pioneers to rebut the claims made by the content industry. Bloggers also used the space to take down the specific claim that the cost of piracy in the US is $58 billion, a number bloggers showed was vastly overblown and based on faulty assumptions.

These tactics may not be applicable against all types of legislation; they also appear to be less effective in countries with less democratic forms of government. For example, although the international agreement ACTA was stalled after the SOPA/PIPA reversal in the United States, the online community in Russia was not able to stop the passage of recent Internet legislation that now allows deep-packet inspection and gives the Russian government the ability to take down websites. This occurred even though opponents to the legislation adopted many of the same successful tactics used against SOPA/PIPA, including a blackout of Russian Wikipedia, support from Russian technology companies and their leaders, and active opposition from the Russian online community. Further, even in the United States, this type of online action cannot necessarily overcome a well-funded lobbying and advertising campaign by major industry players, as seen with the reversal of public opinion against Proposition 37, a GMO labeling initiative in California. That initiative saw opinion swing from solidly opposed (by nearly 3 to 1), to eventual passage by 3 percent at the polls thanks to a multi-million dollar advertising blitz by the chemical industry (most prominently Monsanto), major processed food companies, and grocers. Money and corporate influence have not been eliminated from the political process, but there have been some important victories when the legislation concerns the Internet and in places where governments are responsive to citizen demands and public opinion. Still, it may also be the case that SOPA and PIPA are a harbinger of future online civil society action, as the tools and tactics used in this case gain adoption by civil society more broadly.

NOTES

  1. For a detailed analysis of this case see: Yochai Benkler, Hal Roberts, Rob Faris, Alicia Solow-Niederman, and Bruce Etling, “Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate,” July 25, 2013, http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2013/social_mobilization_and_the_networked_public_sphere.
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December 11, 2013

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