March 24, 2023

Victory on Antipiracy Issue Buoys Internet Lobby

If labor unions once amplified the legislative agenda of certain American industries, the antipiracy fight showed the potential power of a different force: young Americans who live and breathe the Internet.

A Pew Research Center poll this week found that the antipiracy legislation was the most closely followed news topic among Americans under the age of 30; even news of the presidential elections failed to get as much attention in this age group.

The bills in the House and Senate, backed by the entertainment industry, encountered a surprising defeat after a vast alliance of chip makers, Internet service providers, rival Web companies and digital rights groups cast them as a means of censoring the Web. Several sites went dark for a day in protest, and in Washington e-mail servers were deluged with messages from citizens opposing the bills. Soon even sponsors of the bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and Protect I.P. Act, or PIPA — had backed down.

But if the Internet industry was buoyed by support from its users on this particular issue, they may find themselves on opposing sides in other cases. Consider the prospect of Washington seeking to restrict the use of facial recognition technology, which Facebook uses to speed the process of adding the names of friends to photos. It is hard to imagine Facebook users lobbying on Facebook’s behalf.

“The lesson here is not that the tech industry has millions of people blindly doing what it suggests,” said Eli Pariser, former executive director of and now a member of its board. “I don’t think Google will be able to count on all the people who took action on SOPA not to challenge Google when it does something that feels counter to the ethos of the Internet.”

The scruffy nature of the digital protests was summed up by one of their informal spokesmen, Alexis Ohanian, 28, a co-founder of the popular social news site Reddit. “No one can predict what will catch on,” he said. “If SOPA and PIPA are any indication, if it’s something that threatens the Internet, I believe we can recreate this.”

Mr. Ohanian is not unlike many in his generation. He grew up in Maryland, but had not been to the Capitol until last November, when he met with members of Congress as part of a tech lobby against the antipiracy bills. He studied history in college, he voted and he consumed political news mostly through “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — and of course, he read what bubbled up on Reddit. “My focus was on building technology,” he said. “I was not engaged.”

That changed last fall. Friends alerted him to SOPA. They were starting a Web site, “I thought, O.K., let me see how can I help.”

Mr. Ohanian turned to Reddit users to find out what to say to members of Congress. To his surprise, Congress listened. “I’ve come out of this very optimistic,” he said. “Americans still do run Washington, not lobbyists — at least in this case.”

Now he is part of a flurry of online discussion about what to tackle next. There are some who oppose a global treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which the United States and many European countries have already signed. Others want to block a bill that would compel Internet providers to retain data on users’ online travels.

And some even want to take on political finance reform. Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia, one of the Web sites that went dark to protest SOPA, was asked to lend his bully pulpit to that cause. He declined. “We as a community would not be able to find consensus on the question,” he said on his talk page on Wikipedia, “nor should we even try.”

Of course, the Internet industry is already involved in more old-fashioned lobbying, and spending by Silicon Valley companies has ballooned in recent years. A report compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics showed that the computer and Internet industries spent $125 million on lobbying in 2011, outpacing the $122 million spent by the entertainment industry. Google more than doubled its spending to $11.4 million in 2011, and Facebook’s $1.4 million represented a 288 percent increase from the previous year. Copyright, patent reform and privacy were their top issues.

Silicon Valley has also become a lucrative trough for political campaigns, with President Obama’s re-election campaign frequently taking him to California for fund-raising events, including one hosted recently by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

Despite the industry’s growing muscle, it is improbable that political opinion in Washington about the antipiracy bills could have been swayed by corporate lobbying alone. On this issue, there was an unusual confluence of events.

“It’s the first emergence of a broad-based Internet community that brings together not only tech giants and the users, but all the young innovators and investors,” said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group backed by several technology companies. “It’s hard to predict when and how they’ll come together. What unified them was a threat to an open Internet.”

No one seems to have been more surprised by the bills’ defeat than their backers. Christopher J. Dodd, a former senator who is now chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, marveled at the technology industry’s “ability to organize and communicate directly with consumers.” Speaking at the Sundance Film Festival this week, he called it “a watershed event” the likes of which he had not witnessed in his 30 years in politics.

In some ways, it was the awakening of a generation that has come to rely on its right to digital freedom.

“What this did show is as a citizen in the Internet age, you have to add the Internet and your digital rights and liberties onto the list of things you need to be worried about if you want to retain your political freedoms,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of a book on digital rights, “Consent of the Networked.”

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