PIPA / SOPA and the Online Tsunami: A First Draft of the Future

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Rather, the protest was decentralized and organic. The tsunami of opposition transcended political divides, with extensive participation from individuals and groups on both the left and the right. It was driven by a commonality of interest in the continued vitality of social networking and "user-generated content" sites – an interest broadly and actively shared by both rank-and-file Internet users and the technology innovation community (entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, technology companies, bloggers, established Internet advocacy groups like CDT and Public Knowledge and savvy new online grassroots organizations).

Those social networking tools enabled that common interest to be harnessed to the common purpose of defeating PIPA and SOPA. This online uprising was not a "tactic". MPAA Chairman Christopher Dodd told the New York Times that "one of the lessons learned" during this event is that the 2-plus million people working in the film industry "need to pipe up," as the Times put it. But Internet users are not "astroturf" and the notion that next time the content community just needs to get its own Internet campaign is entirely the wrong message to take away from this seminal event.

2. The dramatic online mobilization carries lasting implications for Internet policy.

Something profound happened in the last few months. A loose but potent bipartisan community of interest came together in defense of the open Internet. It is not going away. To be sure, the powerful community that rallied against PIPA and SOPA can't and won't get similarly engaged on every issue and on every bill that affects the Internet, and even then, members of the community will not always agree.

This powerful coalescing of interests may not happen anytime soon; however, the potential for this kind of mobilization, and its demonstrated impact, will loom large in future Internet policy discussions. Policymakers that fail to consider the interests and views of the Internet user community will do so at their peril. The day may come when the Internet again rises up in defense of the open Internet, but Congress would be wise to look over its shoulder and tread more cautiously regarding any action that might be viewed as detrimental to the Internet's open, participatory culture.

3. A more cautious approach requires a more open process. Treading cautiously will require, first and foremost, avoiding both the reality and the perception that legislation is the product of backroom dealing by (and for) industry lobbyists. If proponents of PIPA and SOPA take anything away from the January tsunami that swamped Congress, it is that transparency and a fair process matter. The anger regarding PIPA and SOPA spread online as the perception grew that powerful industries and congressional leaders were coming together to cut deals for the benefit of specific industries – with little regard for the general impact on the open Internet. Hearings on the legislation seemed more aimed at greasing the skids than at exploring real concerns. As opposition began to increase, the bills' proponents responded by trying to rush the bills through as quickly as possible. Any changes to address concerns were to be at the sole discretion of those who authored the bills, with little time for scrutiny or consensus building.

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