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.
According to advocates, 90,000 calls were generated to Congress in a single afternoon.
Opponents of the bill said that they had been barred from testifying—a point Hill staffers dispute—but they noticed that questioning was noticeably more pointed than they expected for the bill’s proponents.
“It was a kind of WTF moment, where people said, ‘Don’t let this happen to your Internet,’” Mr. Grossman said. “It was clear there is a new breed of activism where the approach is viral and distributed and Internet-meme oriented.”
At the time, both the opposition and the support for the bill in the House and the Senate had been bipartisan, but just as the tech community in New York was organizing itself in earnest, the right-wing blogosphere was making it clear that it was opposed to the bill too. The Heritage Foundation said that the bill “threatened free speech.” The libertarian Cato Institute accused the motion picture industry of inflating their own statistics. The Tea Party Patriots sent out an Action Alert, warning its members: “Have your own website? Maybe the government will shut it down tomorrow … without any notice to you.” The influential blog Red State listed the bills sponsors and said that it would support primary challenges to any of them.
Soon, it was as if Republicans spotted a battering ram lying unused on the battlefield, and picked it up, realizing they could use it to pummel Democrats. Prominent Republicans like Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch and Roy Blount suddenly decided they could no longer even support a bill that they had once sponsored, leaving Democrats seething. From the their perspective, by dropping their sponsorship, the Republicans were taking a politically symbolic stand in lieu of working to improve the bill.
In an interview with The Observer, Marc Cenedella, a tech entrepreneur who is considering running against Senator Gillibrand in the fall, echoed a line that many in the tech community reiterated during the fight—that Congress is ignorant of how the Internet works and what the next wave of start-ups will look like.
“It could cost New York thousands of jobs. It is a very dangerous and potentially damaging bill to the nascent information technology community here in New York City. Senator Gillibrand should have done her homework before sponsoring it,” he said, adding, “This is what happens when Congress tries to regulate things it knows nothing about. You wouldn’t sponsor this bill if you knew how the Internet works.”
(Mr. Cenedella is on somewhat shaky political ground here, however: one of the bill’s most vociferous supporters has been Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post has also been the house organ of his nascent candidacy.)
Bill O’Reilly, a Republican political consultant who has been advising Mr. Cenedella, said that the ongoing controversy can be used to peel away what was thought to be a core Democratic constituency.
“It’s New York versus L.A., and it’s just the latest example of government overreach into private industry,” he said. “It will be curious to see if that crowd considers how government reaches into other industries now that government is reaching into theirs.”
The bill also became a chance for Republicans to turn some of the Democrats base supporters—namely Hollywood and the labor unions—against the bill.
“Clearly on the left there were some interest groups that were pushing pretty strongly for this,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican media strategist.
“It certainly is surprising to me,” said Aaron Swartz, the head of Demand Progress, a non-profit political action group involved in the lobbying effort against the bill, such as it was. “Who would have thought that Republicans would be more responsive to their constituents.”
Democrats meanwhile say that the notion that they were somehow doing the film industry’s bidding in support of election year dollars is hogwash. Jobs in film and music have been decimated due to piracy, which explains why so many of labor unions involved in production came out in favor of the bill. Tumblr, they point out, may glow from a million computer screen, but at the end of the day one of the biggest players in the New York tech scene has fewer than 60 employees..
Plus, they point out, piracy is, you know, illegal—whether its bag sellers on Canal or websites that stream movies for free.
“Look, it’s very easy to say ‘Don’t censor the Internet,’ but that’s never what this was about,” said one advocate of the bill. “You can’t put whatever the fuck you want on the Internet and then say that just because it’s now online it should be legal.”
A number of senior Hill staffers said that they had hardly heard a peep about the bill from their constituents as it made it worked its way through the legislative process over the past year. This was a far cry from other controversial pieces of legislation, which have well-heeled lobbyists and loud-voiced advocates pushing this way and that as the bill moves through various committees.
“What we have here are a bunch of people who are frankly naive about the way Congress works,” said one Hill aide.
The tech community, to a degree concedes this point, and say that they have always assumed that what happened in D.C. didn’t much affect them.
“The rule was technology would always win no matter what government put in front of it, and that’s just not true,” said Mr. Johnson. “Government has tanks and technology doesn’t. Government makes the rules and technology has to play.”
Senators Schumer and Gillibrand had been regularly meeting with members of the local tech community before the legislation unraveled and had been tweaking the bill address the tech community’s concerns, although it appears as if news of those meetings didn’t trickle down to the rank-and-file, who never heard of them.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Mr. Swartz, the head of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group involved in the lobbying effort against the bill, such as it was. “Who was telling them this bill was a good idea from the tech industry? I don’t even know anyone who knows anyone who had been negotiating with Congress on this bill.”
Mr. Rasiej, the founder of the NY Tech Meetup, had been in regular contact with both Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Schumer’s office, and said that “it is true that we were in touch with both Schumer and Gillibrand, but when we got to the point that Reid was making everyone aware that we are going to a cloture vote, we requested that Schumer and Gillibrand publicly state that they are no longer going to support it. They had been talking about minor adjustments. We asked them to state that they would no longer support the bill or that they would say specifically what amendments they wanted to bring.
“We made it unequivocally clear that this bill should not exist at all. Unless they were willing to publicly state what amendments they were working on behind the scenes, we weren’t going to give you the political cover. Minor modifications weren’t enough to satisfy us. The political establishment had to be punched in the face a bit and they didn’t expect that.”
A major question going forward is what the tech community will do with its new found lobbying powers. Conversations with a half-dozen organizers of the anti-PIPA effort revealed that they weren’t quite sure.
“Our group is not D.C. insiders, so we rely to some extent on what we hear. What we can do now is build consensus around what the movements are that made Wednesday happen into something we can build a campaign around,” said Holmes Wilson, a cofounder of the Participatory Democracy Foundation. “The next time one of these bills comes out we will be much faster.”
According to Mr. Johnson, this is exactly the wrong approach. Technologists need to get on the offense, he says, now that they have the momentum.
“The Internet can’t be on the defensive,” he said. “Are we going to call for a compromise, or are we going to go all in for what we want—reasonable fair use, an end to ridiculous copyright law. It may be time to go all Lessig on the place.”
The Senate, meanwhile, sounds anxious to just begin again, but given the messy demise of SOPA and PIPA, most agree it will be a long time until further antipiracy legislation is proposed.
“What it really was about was democracy in action,” said Senator Gillibrand this week. “These issues are so important and people really have to be heard on them. I think the bill was complex and it took awhile for people to really weigh in and have their voices be heard. But at the end of the day, it worked. We will know go back to the drawing board to reach this balance better.”
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