SOPA, PIPA, & Digital Activism

Yesterday’s battle royale over the future of the Internet has been characterized in many ways – technology companies vs. media conglomerates, content vs. distribution, and perhaps most convincingly by the Harvard Business Review as the Young Startups vs. the Old Guard.

And indeed, change was in the air (and over the servers) yesterday. In protest of a pair of laws now before Congress that address online piracy, some of the most highly-trafficked websites in the U.S. made their sites inactive, dark, or otherwise blocked access in some way. Sites like Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, and those crazy catz at Cheezburger all participated. Furthermore, companies like Twitter and Facebook joined in expressing their opposition to the proposed legislation and urged their users to reach out to Congress.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate are both similar in scope and address the same issue-namely that of illegal content piracy. The problem of content piracy is not a new one, but it has proliferated in recent years with high-speed internet and bit torrent sites.

The supporters of this legislation-media companies and perhaps most notably the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA)-have made the case that the current system is untenable and unfair. On that point, the opponents agree. The disagreement is rooted in the way the bills seek to curtail the illegal behavior, potentially threatening the vibrancy and character of the Internet itself.

Today, many Americans (and brands!) live and make their living online. Yesterday, the blackout exercise proved to be an astonishing feat of PR and opened another chapter in the story of digital activism. More than 162 million Americans saw the Wikipedia blackout page, and more than 8 million contacted their Congressman through the website’s tool.  4.5 million people signed Google’s petition, and Twitter saw more than 2.4 million SOPA-related tweets.

As Brendan Daly, EVP Ogilvy Washington Public Affairs noted, “Sites like Google and Wikipedia have enormous reach to make their users aware of what’s at stake in this debate. And with the pervasive use of social media, it’s easy for people to spread the word to their friends and colleagues. I saw it firsthand among my Facebook friends today, including a number of Members of Congress who posted their strong opposition to SOPA.”

And the results speak for themselves.  Senators and Congress people, including former sponsors, abandoned both bills in droves yesterday. Along with a strong statement from the White House issued last week, there is little-to-no chance the bills will pass in their current state. Yesterday’s events demonstrate once more just how powerful a tool the Internet is and the profound effects it is starting to have on the nature of our democracy. It is even predicted that when the dust settles, and the surveys come back, we’re going to see a large percentage of people who were moved to contact Congress for the very first time about this issue.

When I asked former Mashable editor-at-large Ben Parr what the most important lesson was from the day’s events, he said, “banding together works.” Just imagine what we can all do together (with a little help from Google)….

How did yesterday’s blackout affect you? Were you moved to contact Congress or sign a petition? Let us know about your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.