The unprecedented online revolt against PIPA and SOPA, congressional bills targeting online copyright and trademark infringement, has many Washington insiders scratching their collective heads.
Legislation that seemed poised to steamroll the opposition, based on the simple message that "piracy is bad" and the considerable lobbying horsepower of the movie industry and the chamber of commerce, was stopped dead in its tracks by a popular online uprising culminating in the much-publicized "blackout" of Wikipedia, Reddit and 115,000 other websites on Jan.18. As calls and emails swamped congressional offices, even co-sponsors of the legislation began to abandon ship. Within two days, the Senate canceled plans to try to push through the legislation, and the bills were essentially sunk.
The Washington Post's legendary publisher Philip Graham famously said that news was the "first draft of history ... about a world that we can never fully understand." Already Washington insiders are rushing to shape the "rough draft" about this watershed moment, and their lack of understanding of the Internet "world" is on full display. It may be too early to say for sure what this dramatic turn means for the political landscape or for Washington's future forays into Internet policy, but it is not too soon to debunk the spin and suggest a few lessons learned.
1. First and foremost, the online revolt against SOPA and PIPA was not a command and control operation. Don't believe the claim that Google (or anyone else) orchestrated all these efforts.
The Motion Picture Association of America's Michael O'Leary, for example, recently suggested that the outcry against the legislation "was driven mostly by Google," which used its control over online communications platforms "without any restraint" to mount a "campaign of misinformation, which, frankly, caused the reaction that you saw."
Others are pushing the same message. This is flatly wrong and puts the lack of understanding about how the Internet works on full display.
Opposition and criticism regarding PIPA and SOPA had been mounting for quite some time. My organization released its first warning about the early predecessor to these bills in September 2010. A group of prominent technologists released a report highlighting security risks last May. And prominent bloggers and social media sites have been buzzing about these bills for well over a year. Eventually, it all boiled over into a full-scale online protest, but that protest was neither orchestrated nor controlled by Google or anyone else, nor, given the Internet's lack of a "leader," could it be.