At least, until midnight on Jan. 18, when suddenly, it wasn’t. On the 18th, Wikipedia went black. On its ominous homepage read the words, “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” Wikipedia’s protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) had begun.
The giant online encyclopedia wasn’t alone. SOPA and PIPA, copyright laws designed by Congress to protect intellectual property on the Internet and save the entertainment industry from massive annual amounts of revenue lost to piracy, had been deemed by many members of the web community as unlawful censorship of the web. Google, Reddit and several more of the Internet’s largest sites went black in some form or another, all for the same reason: to protest the prospective passing of the two bills, which, if passed, would give the government the power to block sites that are suspected of hosting illegal sharing of pirated content. Opponents of the acts protest that the laws give the government the excessive power to censor the web.
Across the country, people hit social media sites to voice their concerns about the laws. Several East students joined in a protest that convinced dozens of senators to oppose SOPA. After visiting Wikipedia’s blacked-out homepage, junior Helena Buchmann emailed Missouri representative Emmanuel Cleaver and urged him to reject the bills. Junior Eden McKissick-Hawley, frightened by what she called, “a demise to our freedom and the idea of democracy itself,” joined in the protest, even though she didn’t think the acts would ever actually pass.
“If [the laws] did pass, I would feel terrible that I hadn’t even expressed my concern,” McKissick-Hawley said. “It’s part of being a part of your democracy, expressing your opinion and voting.”
Before the 18th, SOPA and PIPA were hardly national issues. Business teacher Jennifer Hair tried to change that. Before the blackouts, she took it upon herself to try to inform her students of the situation. In an in-class activity, Hair had her students read several possible benefits and drawbacks to the acts and showed them how they could get involved by contacted legislators about the acts.
Hair introduced the subject to students partly because she believes that it has special pertinence to their generation.
“[Students] are going to be facing [this issue] for several years – this concept is not going away,” she said.
When the blackouts finally came on the 18th, they spurred the public into action. Protests spread across the web. Twitter, the company whose site hosted much of the public’s protest, tweeted that between 12 a.m. – 4 p.m. on the day of the blackouts there were over 2.4 million tweets about the acts.
Mckissick-Hawley began to do her part by tweeting at Kansas representative Kevin Yoder.
“Representative @kevinyoder: Don’t pass #SOPA. Don’t pass #PIPA,” she posted.
But McKissick-Hawley wasn’t done yet. Next, she signed an online petition calling for Yoder to reject SOPA.
The efforts of McKissick-Hawley and hundreds of other Kansans were not fruitless. At 10:50 a.m. on the 18th, Yoder joined many other politicians in rejecting SOPA, posting the following message on his Facebook page:
“Thank you for your feedback regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act. Please review my statement below. I appreciate your feedback.
Washington, DC – Congressman Kevin Yoder stated his opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) today and will oppose the bill if brought to a vote in the House. While Congressman Yoder is concerned about copyright infringement, SOPA goes too far in combating it by imposing harsh restrictions on Internet service providers and websites that will stifle innovation across the web.”
Yoder’s anti-SOPA statement was just one of many released by politicians on the day of the protests. As thousands of Americans contacted politicians voicing their concerns about the acts, their representatives listened. In a single day, SOPA and PIPA lost 17 supporters and gained 86 new opponents in Congress.
According to NYU journalism professor and expert on the social and economic effects of social media Clay Shirky, it was the success of the protests which made them significant, not their scale. The protests demonstrated the power Americans still wield in their democracy.
“We showed that it is possible to defeat even bought-and-paid-for lobbying efforts with a show of real voter strength, making PIPA and SOPA not just losing propositions, but so toxic that no one even dared cast a vote for them in public,” Shirky said in an email interview.
To some, the efficacy of using social media sites as platforms for a major political protest came as a surprise. Emporia State political science professor Michael Smith had previously been unsure of the ability of social media sites to host effective political discourse between politicians and their constituents.
“I think the big thing with the social media is that what we haven’t yet seen is if the social media can adapt to longer, more in-depth engagement with ideas,” Smith said. “Twitter is obviously the stereotype, because you’re limited to a certain number of characters, and not every thought or every idea can be communicated in x number of characters.”
But the success of the protests on Jan. 18 has proven that social media can effectively channel political discourse, which is a good thing for opponents of SOPA and PIPA, because despite the defeat of those acts, their fight to protect their liberties on the web is not over yet. Next on the horizon is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), an international trade agreement equivalent to SOPA and PIPA. Opponents of ACTA contend that the agreement would threaten the freedom of the Internet.
“Get ready to have this fight again,” Shirky said. “Freedom of the press is not just an abstraction, it’s a right you exercise every day on Facebook, and that “web publisher” actually means you. [This issue] matters an awful lot in your daily life, and is worth calling your Senators and Representatives the next time some industry tries to control speech in this way.”