Lessons of SOPA

The mid-January defeat in Congress of the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and its evil twin, the Stop Piracy Act (or SOPA), is a dramatic illustration of the decline of established authority in the face of a rebellious public.  The authorities engaged in this particular farce were political and economic:  a handful of senators and congressmen, and the organizational chieftains of the entertainment industry.  The performance began with quiet murmurs behind drawn curtains, but ended with a pratfall-filled chase scene in the full light of day, worthy of the Marx Brothers.

The sponsoring politicians clearly believed this was a technical matter, to be settled among lawmakers and interested parties.  It never occurred to them that anyone would be paying attention.  For their part, representatives of the “creative” establishment felt entitled to reduce the web to something like an occupied country, and co-opt the Justice Department to secure their profits.  It never occurred to them to question the outsourcing of their business needs to the government.

This being Washington DC, the line between political and corporate power was fuzzy.

According to Politico, Allison Halatei, former Deputy Chief of Staff to House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, and Lauren Pastarnack, a Senate Judiciary Committee Senior Aide, just accepted jobs with two of the lobbying firms backing SOPA and PIPA. Halatei and Pastarnack helped write the bills. Halataei is now the National Music Publisher’s Association chief liaison to Congress, and Pasternak is now the director of government relations for the MPAA.

The head of the MPAA is Chris Dodd, a former senator.  By law, he is banned from lobbying Congress, but as sultan of the music publishers he can throw fistfuls of coins to his friends from a $100 million lobbying war chest.

PIPA/SOPA enjoyed support from the Republicans who run the House and the Democrats who run the Senate.  It was a rare bipartisan effort, mantled in the undivided power and prestige of the federal legislature.  That it collapsed so quickly, and in such a comic opera atmosphere, should be considered a symptom of our strange moment in history.

The dispute over SOPA is often framed as pitting Washington-savvy Hollywood against the naïfs of Silicon Valley.  This characterization is by no means false.  I applied it in my previous post on the subject, and it pretty accurately describes the early phases of the conflict.

But something changed.  As the knowledgeable Yochai Benkler observes, it wasn’t Google or Facebook which orchestrated the bills’ astonishing reversal of fortune.  It was the eruption into the process – typically sudden and unforeseen – of the hordes of an aroused public.

It turned out many people had been paying attention after all.  Marketing campaigns by tech companies helped call attention to the problems with SOPA, but this was largely an organic movement, an internet thing.  I don’t know much about the internet, but I know this:  virality is unforeseeable.  Marketing geniuses, deploying the sexiest technical applications, will fail to achieve it.  Yet teenage kids reproducing images of kittens go viral in a trice.

The web is overwhelmingly populated by cute cat communities and their like.  This is Ethan Zuckerman’s insight, not mine.  Building on the idea, Zuckerman has advanced a “cute cat theory” of web activism:  if you mess with the governance of the internet, you will get into serious political trouble at the point when you truly and really piss off the cute cat users – the multitudinous, normally apolitical public.  That, in brief, is what happened to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and to SOPA’s sponsors in Congress.

Some tech companies, in fact, seemed dazed by the ferocity of the public’s reaction.  Within a week of Godaddy’s announced support for SOPA, a user boycott had moved over 70,000 domains out of the company’s hosting site, forcing a clearly disoriented management to distance itself from the bill.

The effort to publicize the fight over PIPA/SOPA involved web activists like Rebecca MacKinnon and new media mavens like Jeff Jarvis, nonprofit entities like Wikipedia and multibillion-dollar outfits like Facebook.  On 18 January, while Congress continued to ponder various versions of the two bills, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of additional sites – including, let it be noted, the most popular cute cat location – went dark in protest.  Other websites maintained service but made their displeasure known.  Google, for example, conspicuously blacked out its logo.

But it was the blizzard of tweets and emails from an outraged public which battered Capitol Hill into submission.  Soon politicians were scrambling to change positions with fervent demonstrations of new medianess:

First, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Republican star, took to Facebook, one of the vehicles for promoting opposition, to renounce a bill he had co-sponsored. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who leads the G.O.P.’s Senate campaign efforts, used Facebook to urge his colleagues to slow the bill down. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina and a Tea Party favorite, announced his opposition on Twitter, which was already boiling over with anti-#SOPA and #PIPA fever.

Then trickle turned to flood — adding Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Representatives Lee Terry of Nebraska and Ben Quayle of Arizona. At least 10 senators and nearly twice that many House members announced their opposition.

“Thanks for all the calls, e-mails, and tweets. I will be opposing #SOPA and #PIPA,” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, wrote in a Twitter message. Late Wednesday, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, withdrew his support for a bill he helped write.

Two days after the Wikipedia blackout, both PIPA and SOPA were withdrawn without ever coming up for a vote.

There are lessons from this struggle, for those with eyes to see.  Political power sought control, rather than the imposition of any particular ideology.  The web is mostly illegible to government.  Those who have absorbed James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State know that modern governments everywhere seek to transform the social landscape to make it more legible from the center.  On this account, SOPA won’t be the last attempt to impose a policing regime on the web.

Political and business actors argued from authority, rather than the merits of the case.  They suffered from tunnel vision, willfully ignoring the unintended consequences of patrolling the public’s means of communication on the web.  Political players believed they worked within a club of friends.  The entertainment industry looked at its business interests and saw a moral imperative.  Neither expected opposition from outside their charmed circle, so neither could muster persuasive arguments when, to their complete surprise, that opposition materialized.

Established authority was blind to the information environment in which the public works and plays.  It could not see where the revolt against SOPA came from.  Authority emanates from hierarchical structures which once monopolized access to information and communication.  Everything produced outside these structures appears worse than illegitimate:  unreal.  Dodd thus blamed his industry’s legislative disaster on “Internet companies” and their “ability to spread their message globally, without regulation or fact-checking.”  He never saw the public that trounced him.

Finally, the nature of the conflict between authority and the public is what the Pentagon would call asymmetric:  one is powerful and slow-moving, the other numerous and quicksilver.  Principles of action diverge accordingly, with authority worshipping rank and orderly process, while the public, as public, displays informality and a contrarian streak sometimes verging on nihilism.  With SOPA, authority tried to make the web more like itself.  Disruptive change, I suspect, will soon flow in the opposite direction.

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2 Responses to Lessons of SOPA

  1. Pingback: The economic implications of the Fifth Wave « Random Ramblings of Rude Reality

  2. Pingback: The web as school of manners: a beatific vision | the fifth wave

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