One Friday earlier this month, Andrew Rasiej, the chairman of NY Tech Meetup and an old-school Internet evangelist, sent out an email to the 20,000 members of the group asking them to do something most had never even considered before: close their laptops, leave their coworking spaces, put their iPads down (but not—god no!—their smart phones, essential to live tweeting) and pick up a picket sign.
“The future of the NY tech community is in jeopardy,” the email read. “We are writing to call you to an Emergency NY Tech Meetup in New York on January 18 so that we can publicly demonstrate our collective dismay at the unprecedented attack currently being made on the Internet and our industry.”
The email called for a mass mobilization IRL in front of the offices of Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who had become the public face of the Protect Intellectual Property Act, a bill that they said was necessary to cut down on the kind of online piracy that steals from the film industry, recording studios and pharmaceutical companies. Mr. Rasiej and his cohort describe the bill as “censoring the Internet,” or, with a bit more nuance perhaps, suggest it would cripple the now-booming New York City tech industry by putting at legal liability the owners of the websites that host much of what the web 2.0 has become—user generated content, whether it be music videos or 140-character quips.
It was timed to coincide with a simultaneous blackout engineered by websites that feared they would be most threatened by the bill—Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing—something that brought the bill to the attention of millions of office workers suddenly unable to distract themselves with videos of porcupines drinking coffee.
Police estimate that 1,200 people showed up, and tech scenesters say that up to 12 million lent their names and email addresses to online organizations devoted to fighting the bill.
“I asked the New York tech community to not just make their sites go black or email their congressman. I asked them to come out and physically show their presence on the street,” Mr. Rasiej said in an interview this week. “What the protest would provide was the physical background, the photo-op for the actual human beings representing the Internet. We couldn’t have the news reports on television just put up screen shots of Wikipedia blacked out. We needed to put a human face not only to the New York tech industry but to the future of our country, its economy and its democracy.”
Two days later, in a reversal that seemed impossibly far-fetched just a week earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the vote on the bill would be postponed. The move represented a stunning victory for the nascent tech community, proved a big embarrassment to Congressional Democrats, and left political observers wondering if we were at last on the verge of a long-predicted paradigm shift.
“I used to believe that there were around a million or two million people online that cared about being activists, and that they formed around MoveOn, then went to the Howard Dean campaign, chilled out Ted Kennedy for a while maybe and then went to hang out with Barack Obama,” said Clay Johnson, a technologist who was the lead programmer for Mr. Dean’s 2004 effort, which first tried to turn online organizing into real flesh-and-blood precinct victories (and, notably, failed). “Now I’m not sure. I think the Internet has gotten big enough and people have become active enough and the tools have gotten simple enough that it’s not hard to imagine a new reality. In the long history of government being on the side of the people this was an honest to goodness populist victory. It warms my cynical Washington heart, to be honest with you.”
From the perspective of Senate Democrats, opposition to this bill seemed to explode almost spontaneous this fall. In truth, organizing against PIPA and its House analog, the Stop Online Piracy Act, had begun long before the masses assembled in front of the offices of Mr. Schumer and Ms. Gillibrand. In November 2010, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act was introduced in the Senate and Boing Boing, Reddit and a few other Internet hubs brought the bill’s more baleful aspects to light. It got delayed, a hold was put on, and the bill ultimately died a quiet death.
This time around, tech entrepreneurs like Brad Burnham and Fred Wilson joined the Internet hubs early on, coming out loudly against the bill. Up sprang a number of what Nick Grossman, executive director of Civic Commons called “supernodes”—a handful of small websites, like AmericanCensorship.org or SopaStrike.com, that bloggers and web producers were able to link back to and that provided a quick summary of the issues. He estimated that as the fight heated up, there were tens of thousands of websites publicizing the fight, and for the most part these weren’t so much political websites but the kind of sites that the tech community would visit in the course of their daily rounds. By the time the bill came up for a hearing in November, Tumblr, the popular blogging platform, had blocked users from posting as part of an “American Censorship Day” protest.