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Remembering The Fight Against SOPA 10 Years Later... And What It Means For Today

from the greenhouse-time dept

Tue, Jan 18th 2022 9:30amMike Masnick

Register now for our online event featuring Rep. Zoe Lofgren »

As mentioned last week, today is the 10 year anniversary of the big "Internet Blackout Day" that effectively killed any forward momentum that the terrible copyright bills SOPA and PIPA had. Our new Greenhouse panel is going to be all about that, with plenty of folks who were there looking back at what happened -- and also what it means for things moving forward.

But I wanted to highlight a few things from that experience that still stick with me today. The first bit was that the fight against SOPA only worked because it was joined by a very diverse group -- including some old-timers who had fought many, many battles against the draconian and anti-public expansion of copyright law. Those old timers were useful in that they knew the system and they knew the process, and understood the political levers. But -- and this is the important part -- they had basically lost every battle on copyright going back decades and they came into the fight with a kind of resolution that this battle would be lost as well. No one ever said this, but in talking to them, the mood was very much: "We'll fight, and make a lot of noise, but in the end we'll lose, because we always lose."

What was different was that others joined in on the fight, and many of them were politically naïve, but had a really strong conviction that SOPA could not be allowed to pass. I don't think they ever thought it was even possible that the bill would become law, and because of their involvement, and the people they activated, SOPA was actually stopped.

The very first meeting that I was aware of involving a bunch of the different activists looking to stop SOPA, it was the folks at Fight for the Future (calling in from Massachusetts to a meeting held at Mozilla) who suggested having an internet blackout (though this was targeted at the markup day in November, and was kind of a test run for what happened in January). People agreed -- and some pointed to a similar kind of blackout that was done back in the 90s, but I actually thought it was an awful idea. I thought that there was no way that enough people would care or do anything to make it matter. And, my fear was that if it fizzled, it would demonstrate how weak this coalition was, and how easy it would be to keep passing even worse legislation over and over again.

I was wrong. People did get energized and all sorts of people from all different backgrounds and viewpoints came together to speak up and make it clear -- loudly -- that this was not to be.

It actually wiped away much of a fairly thick layer of cynicism I had built up in watching the politics regarding policies that impact the internet. I -- like many people -- had come to believe that most of these bills are bought and sold by lobbyists and concern about the public is left aside. The reality, as I came to learn, is that while there are many bills that are passed cynically, the power of the public to speak out loudly and make change can and will outweigh the power of special interests. But, it's quite rare that that can happen. Most bills people don't have time to deal with, and most people live lives where they can't be expected to pay attention to everything that Congress does.

And, at the same time, we've seen this same kind of energy abused, with certain folks in the media getting people wrapped up in believing that this bill or that bill is bringing about the end of America or some such nonsense. We've seen a kind of reverse playbook on this with Section 230 -- in which people are being fed nonsense (from across the media) about how Section 230 is damaging "democracy" or "harming free speech" or other kinds of nonsense.

Another key point that I learned a decade ago, was that this was never about a single battle, but it is an unending fight. I was actually in the Capitol on the day of the blackout. I had come to Washington DC to attend the State of the Net conference, where I got to debate one of the key lobbyists for Hollywood on the importance (or not) of SOPA the day before the blackout. The next day I was wandering the halls of the Capitol, meeting with Senators, Representatives, staffers, whoever, and (this part was fun) hearing phones ring off the hook as people called in to protest SOPA.

However, the very next day, while I was waiting at Dulles for my flight back home, it was announced that (without SOPA) the DOJ had seized Megaupload and (with New Zealand law enforcement) had arrested Kim Dotcom and a bunch of other executives at the company. This was interesting and disturbing for a few reasons. First, Megaupload was held up as example numbers 1, 2, and 3 as to why SOPA was needed in the first place (somewhat mirroring, years later, the DOJ seizing days before FOSTA was signed, even as we were told FOSTA was needed to take down Backpage). We later learned many of the questionable things done in the Megaupload case that raised serious questions about the evidence in that case.

But the underlying issue was there. Even as the DOJ's indictment against Megaupload suggested that it was interpreting perfectly reasonable business and legal decisions as criminal, it showed that stopping SOPA would not stop terrible ideas around site blocking and site removals. Indeed, various pieces of SOPA and other kinds of attempts to give the government the power to shut down websites have continued to creep into various laws around the globe. And nowadays, even some of the people who fought against SOPA are supportive of some of those ideas.

I still think the real lesson of the fight was how bringing together different people with different perspectives -- but with a common interest in having an open and free internet -- can lead to amazing things. But I do wonder where that will take us now. The coalition that came together around SOPA easily fractured soon after. The differing goals and perspectives of those involved were unlikely to keep that kind of coalition together for long anyway. And various other campaigns tried to co-opt that effort -- usually without much luck.

However, I do still wonder if the next great aspects of building a better, more open internet are going to come from the same combination of different and unexpected forces. I see the seeds of this in some of the arguments we see today, whether it's about content moderation online, or even about things like DAOs, in which you have combinations of powerful legacy forces pushing in one direction, and then a variety of users -- some feeling strongly one way, and others feeling strongly another, arguing and fighting over how the internet should be. I'm still hoping that we'll see a new and interesting coalition emerge out of all this mess -- one that possibly includes a cynical old guard who knows why things won't work, combined with a more naïve new guard who insists it must work, and somehow finds a way to make it happen.

I wrote a little about this last summer in my Eternal October post. I think that there's a path forward, building on these lessons, figuring out how to build a better future internet -- not one dominated by legacy special interests, but one in which the people on the internet are the ones who control its future and can create something wonderful.

This Techdirt Greenhouse special edition is all about the 10 year anniversary of the fight that stopped SOPA. On January 26th at 1pm PT, we'll be hosting a live discussion with Rep. Zoe Lofgren and some open roundtable discussions about the legacy of that fight. Please register to attend.

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Filed Under: activism, copyright, free speech, site blocking, sopa

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