This wednesday, Wikipedia, Reddit, and a range of other high profile on-line sites will go black in protest of SOPA and PIPA, legislation currently being considered by the U.S. Congress, which will impose regulations on net practices in the name of exerting greater control over “piracy.” For those of us who have been involved in the digital world for a long time, this protest recalls another key moment in the history of the web when key sites went black in 1996 in protest of the Communications Decency Act, which would have similarly regulated the content and practices of the online world, in this case in the name of “protecting children” from obscenity. We should be cautious about the deployment of morally fraught terms like “piracy” and “decency” in framing public policies, since the stakes in these regulatory struggles are always more complex than such black and white language might indicate. Both are often deployed in ways that place the participatory ethos and free expression of the web at risk.
One can argue that the broadcast media has already largely “gone black” over SOPA — since they have shown a remarkable unwillingness to discuss this important media policy issue on the air, or at least had refused to do so prior to the statement the Obama administration issued this past week coming out in opposition to SOPA but defining alternative ways that they might confront the war on “piracy.” (I recall having a CNN executive some years ago tell my class that they did not cover the Federal Communications Act because they did not think the public would be interested, a unique definition of the “public interest” if ever I heard one. Thankfully, my students were not buying this explanation, which is more than the public got in terms of the willingness of news media to cover issues where their own corporate interests are at stake.)
Under such circumstances, those us in the blogosphere have a special obligation to help educate the public about matters that commercial media thinks is “over our heads” (or more accurately, “behind our backs.”) So, I was delighted when Alex Leavitt, a PHD candidate in Communications at USC, offered to share his reflections on SOPA and especially on the online communities efforts to rally in opposition to it. Leavitt worked with the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and now is part of the Civic Paths Research Group I run here at USC.
Internet Blackout: SOPA, Reddit, and Networked (Political) Publics
by Alex Leavitt
If you don’t have time to read this article in full, the easiest way to skim information about this topic is to visit http://americancensorship.org/.
In the past year, we’ve dealt with various novel political moments around the world that have been enabled or augmented with networked technology, from Anonymous’ global “hacktivist” incidents to the numerous protests in the Middle East, topped off of course with the vibrant grassroots protests of the Occupy movement. Over the last few months, we’ve also seen another interesting case study taking place in American politics: rampant opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, dubbed as “the most important bill in Congress you may have never heard of” by Chris Hayes of MSNBC.com.
Watch Chris Hayes’ interview for a good introduction to the debate around SOPA.
SOPA, a bill currently making its way through the House of Representatives (along with its sibling PIPA, the Protect IP Act, currently in the Senate) has faced weeks of protest from Internet companies and users alike. Why? Well, on Google Plus, Sergey Brin — cofounder of Google — likened the potential effects of SOPA to the Internet censorship practiced in China, Iran, Libya, and Tunisia. Basically, to protect against international copyright infringement, SOPA allows the US to combat websites (such as file lockers or foreign link aggregators) that illegally distribute or even link to American-made media by blocking access to them. Theoretically, the bill has dangerous implications for websites that rely on user-generated content, from YouTube to 4chan. Many have already written about the worries that SOPA and PIPA cause, such as Alex Howard’s excellent, in-depth piece over at O’Reilly Radar. For more information on the bills, visit OpenCongress’s webpages, where you can see summaries of the legislation, which companies support and oppose them, and round-ups of by mainstream and blogged news: SOPA + PIPA. The bills are one more step in a long line of anti-piracy legislation, such as 2010′s Combatting online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).
Within the first few weeks since SOPA was introduced, http://fightforthefuture.org/ introduced the hyperbolic http://freebieber.org/ to illustrate the fears ordinary Internet users should have in relation to the legislation. In essence, SOPA would radically undermine many of the fan practices that Henry and others have analyzed on this blog. Fight for the Future also released the following video (which was my first media exposure to SOPA):
However, for the most part, criticism — or even basic coverage — of SOPA remained an online phenomenon. While there have been a few online articles written on CNN and a couple other networks, the mainstream news coverage of the bills remain fairly nonexistent, reports MediaMatters, likely due to the fact that the television networks largely support the bill. The Colbert Report featured a pair of short segments on SOPA in early December.
The Internet, though, largely worked around that problem.
In his book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software, UCLA anthropologist Chris Kelty describes free software programmer-activists as a recursive public. Drawing from Michael Warner’s concept of “publics and counterpublics” from Habermas’s “public sphere,” Kelty illustrates these programmers as a group that is addressed by copyright and code, and who work to make, maintain, and modify their technological networks and code as well as the discourse with which they engage as a public. This “circularity is essential to the phenomenon.”
Especially over the past two months, we’ve seen an exceptional effort on the part of online companies to engage users with the political process to oppose SOPA. For instance, on 16 November 2011, Tumblr blacked out every image, video, and word on each user’s dashboard, linking at the top of the page to http://www.tumblr.com/protect-the-net, where users could call their local representative.
The effort set of thousands of shared posts and hundreds of hours of calls.
While other companies attempted similar experiments (like Scribd on 21 December), Internet leaders joined together to spread word and inform Congress (such as with this letter from Facebook, Google, and Twitter on 15 November, and later this letter by many others on 14 December) and even political opponents of SOPA reached out on social media, like when Senator Ron Wyden asked people to sign their names at so he could read the list at a filibuster. Other experts eventually spoke up too.
But perhaps the most intriguing political effort occurred within one specific online community: Reddit.com.
Reddit, founded in 2005, is a social news and discussion website where users submit and vote on content. According to Alexa.com, Reddit is currently the 53rd most-visited site in the United States. Due to its increasing popularity, Reddit’s slogan is “the front page of the internet” — pertinent, because when a link hits the front page of Reddit, it can lend hundreds of thousands of page views. Though members at times highlight the site’s immaturity and incivility, its vibrant community — combined with the hypervisibility of the front page, has particularly thrived over the past couple of years, especially in terms of political participation and charity. Co-founded Alexis Ohanian gave a TEDtalk about Reddit’s dedication to strange things online and when that translates into a sort of political participation:
Humorously, every activist-related post on the official Reddit blog is tagged with “do it for splashy.
In terms of more prominent political activism, Reddit’s community — particularly it’s subreddit, /r/politics, and the emergent subreddit /r/SOPA — has unified around opposing SOPA, in line with the free-speech, utopian personality that pervades the site. For instance, a couple posts on /r/politics and r/technology that reached the front page [1, 2] helped bring rapid visibility to Senator Wyden’s filibuster initiative.
A more effective protest occurred in the form of a website boycott. GoDaddy, the domain register, was discovered to be a supporter of SOPA. After some discussion on Reddit, one r/politics thread reached the front page: GoDaddy supports SOPA, I’m transferring 51 domains & suggesting a move your domain day. Visibility of SOPA-related content was aided by a new subreddit, r/sopa, to which a global sidebar linked from the Reddit homepage. Less than 24 hours after the boycott started (even though, by numbers, it was deemed hardly successful), and with two more /r/politics threads that reached the front page [1, 2], GoDaddy reversed their stance and dropped support for SOPA.
SOPA debate continued to be fueled by various posts, including one by cofounder Alexis Ohanian: If SOPA existed, Steve & I never could’ve started reddit. Please help us win.. At the end of December, r/politics joined together to place pressure on SOPA-supporting Representative Paul Ryan; eventually, he reversed his position and denounced the bill.
Most notably, Alexis Ohanian recently announced on the Reddit blog that the entire site would voluntarily shut down on Wednesday 18 January 2012 for twelve hours, from 8am-8pm EST. Replacing the front page will be “a simple message about how the PIPA/SOPA legislation would shut down sites like reddit, link to resources to learn more, and suggest ways to take action.” This blacking out of Reddit coincides with a series of cybersecurity experts’ testimonies in Congress, at which Ohanian will be representing and speaking.
In reaction to SOPA (and PIPA, to which the opposition is now growing, since the SOPA vote has now been shelved), a vigorous public emerged across the web and united around discourse about the bills, particularly on Reddit.com. But to return to Kelty: is this a recursive public? Do the political users of Reddit have enough power and agency to maintain and modify their public?
I believe this question gets at a deeper question of ontology: what does political participation mean in a 1) networked, and 2) editable age? For instance, some users are able to promote their skills for discourse — eg., My friend and I wrote an application to boycott SOPA. Scan product barcodes and see if they’re made by a SOPA supporter. Enjoy. — but in certain cases, participation in technological systems becomes participation in a recursive public because that participation helps modify the system. In the case of Reddit, participation can become political when content reaches extreme visibility. And this is particularly important when we reconsider that the mass media has barely covered SOPA as a topic: due to this conflict, participation on a network platform like Reddit becomes an inherently political action.
And out of these seemingly-innocuous actions emerge more political moves. In reaction to the black out, other websites have agreed to join the effort, such as BoingBoing.net. Perhaps the decision with the most impact came on Monday, when Jimmy Wales announced that Wikipedia — which receives up to 25 million visitors per day at the English-language portal — would also shut down, but this time for a full 24 hours, after a lengthy discussion on Wales’ personal Wikipedia page. Wales responded to the announcement on Twitter by saying, “I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday.”
In a recent New York Times article, Reddit’s political actions were noted. “‘It’s encouraging that we got this far against the odds, but it’s far from over,’ said Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit.com, a social news site that has generated some of the loudest criticism of the bills. ‘We’re all still pretty scared that this might pass in one form or another. It’s not a battle between Hollywood and tech, its people who get the Internet and those who don’t.” Of course, Reddit isn’t the only platform that is part of this important recursive public, just as Twitter wasn’t the saving grace of the Arab Spring or the Iranian Revolution. The efforts of hundreds of activists around the country have contributed immensely to the anti-SOPA effort. But keep in mind that Reddit has reached a pinnacle of political participation in the last few months, and I have a feeling that — like YouTube in the 2008 presidential elections — Reddit may be the site to watch in 2012.
Alex Leavitt is a PhD student at USC Annenberg, where he studies digital culture and networked technology. Recently, his work has focused on creative participation in immense online networks, examining global participatory phenomenon like Hatsune Miku and Minecraft. You can reach him on Twitter @alexleavitt or via email at email@example.com; to read more about his research, visit alexleavitt.com.