In January we all saw something pretty amazing. An incredibly effective online protest, organized by websites and online companies large and small, changed the course of American politics. Even with companies as massive as Google involved, the entire effort came together in a very “grassroots” manner, without any central organization or marching orders. The Internet just did what it does best: spreading a message through social media and its tightly knit communities, and conveyed that message on a scale nobody had seen before. I don’t think any of us, least of all the US Congress, saw it coming.
The legislation that got us all up in arms, of course, was SOPA, and its twin sibling, PIPA. Creators, providers, and consumers of online content saw danger to more than just our livelihoods: SOPA represented a threat to the way of life we had developed through the internet. Together, we spoke out using those same tools and sites that were on the chopping block, and convinced even the bill’s sponsors to back down.
While this is an incredible achievement that we should all be proud of, we shouldn’t let the issue fade into memory just yet. It’s important to take a closer look, recognize what happened, and prepare for what’s likely to happen next.
When I got involved in online business 17 years ago, the Internet was a different place. Working in such a young medium meant that politics hadn’t yet entered the picture. We were all still discovering what could be done with the Internet; regulations hadn’t yet been considered because nobody knew quite what to regulate. That environment instilled us all with a refreshing sense of freedom – freedom to take risks, implement radical and untested ideas, and share content of every kind. It provided us with a level playing field, where the best ideas, best technology and best business execution could create large, innovative and disruptive businesses. This true meritocracy helped nurture companies such as Netscape, Yahoo, Google, eBay, Skype, PayPal and many others.
We grew accustomed to certain creative and business freedoms, and reveled in the power these gave us over the direction the Internet was taking. We didn’t need or want politics to enter the picture; we were building a new business world on a foundation of new technology, far removed from traditional business and politics. Most of us actively avoided getting involved in lobbying and regulation efforts. We had built this powerful engine using our technology and forged a deep connection to our users. So, when politics inevitably entered the picture, we felt obligated to defend those technologies and those users.
The fight against SOPA clearly demonstrated the new power that is held by our Internet community, not just by the major architects and technology pillars like Google, but also by non-profits like Wikipedia, communities like Reddit, and hundreds of smaller sites and end users willing to band together under a common cause. This was a good “win” for our side.
However, it’s important to recognize that while SOPA may have been misguided and poorly designed, piracy is still very much an issue, and the major forces behind traditional media creation, such as the MPAA, RIAA, and others, are still very concerned about it. Those concerns aren’t going to go away and we can expect those industries to keep putting pressure on the government to do something about the issue. SOPA and PIPA may be temporarily off the table, but there’s a good chance they’ll be re-evaluated, re-written and brought before Congress again.
Those of us who consider ourselves citizens of the Internet have shown what we can do to stop legislation that could harm us and our end users. Now, it’s time for us to use that same power and drive in a proactive way. Like it or not, the political game has caught up to the online world, and we’re all starting to realize that we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and be reactive.
Our next move, instead, ought to be some legislation of our own, or in collaboration (if possible) with content owners, demonstrating our own commitment to combating piracy while maintaining the freedoms we’ve come to enjoy and expect online.
We’ve shown the world that we are passionate about online issues, and that we have the power to affect them on a grand scale. Let’s use that passion and power to tackle this problem in a responsible way and ensure a bright future for the Internet.