Reflections on SOPA: It’s the People, Not the Platform

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Today marks the second anniversary of the ‘Internet blackout’ that ultimately derailed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).  It is an interesting time to reflect on the significance of the Internet as an enabling platform.

While SOPA advocates tried mightily at the time to paint the bill as uncontroversial, with opposition being limited to a few intransigent companies, more recent academic research has reinforced the initial assessment that the outcry against SOPA and PIPA was a largely distributed phenomenon.  Larry Downes, co-author of Big Bang Disruption, wrote in a column for Forbes at the time that it was the bitroots movement, in

“a revolt of, by and with social networks, turning the tools that organized them into groups in the first place into potent new weapons for political advocacy.  The users had figured out how to hack politics.”

Research led by Prof. Yochai Benkler last year validated this, finding that networked communications enabled widely distributed and often peripheral individuals or actors to play crucial roles in public dialogue.  Additionally, Benkler et al. noted that

“widespread experimentation carried out by new and special-purpose sites facilitated the conversion of discussion into action. Several different organizations and individuals experimented with dozens of special-purpose sites and mobilization drives some of which succeeded in garnering attention and mobilizing effectively via, for example, emails or phone calls to Congress, the symbolic strike of January 18, 2012, and consumer boycotts.”

Not all advocacy projects succeeded; many failed, but advocates learned what worked and adopted it — a model that, according to Benkler, replicated “Internet innovation more generally: rapid experimentation and prototyping, cheap failure, adaptation, and ultimately rapid adoption of successful models”.  Those successful models wound up derailing legislation with powerful backers, which had seemed inevitable — until it wasn’t.

Ultimately, Internet users succeeded as a political entity where Internet business interests had not, using the tools provided by the Internet.  It is a valuable lesson that the importance of the Internet isn’t in the tools themselves, but in the people those tools empower.