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#WeThePeople: SOPA/PIPA, Occupy and the future of political activism

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At this point, it would seem almost an understatement to refer to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Address Act (PIPA) as “controversial.”

The now-infamous blackout of popular websites such as Google, Wikipedia, Reddit and BoingBoing focused the attention of millions on the legislation, which proposes giving media companies more power to prosecute through the US Attorney General those suspected of copyright infringement.

Google collected over 4.5 million names for its anti-SOPA/PIPA petition — making it the largest online petition ever.

By Thursday, former supporters of SOPA and PIPA in Congress were jumping ship and the “hacktivist” group known simply as Anonymous crashed the websites of the White House, the Department of Justice, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and others in retaliation to a federal raid on the headquarters of Megaupload.com, a site which allows users to upload and download copyrighted material.

 The bills pitted Silicon Valley against Hollywood, and the monetary interests of Silicon Valley conglomerates in this case coincided with those of huge masses of Internet users, resulting in a truly unprecedented wave of opposition and protest. 

Few would deny that there are legitimate reasons for protecting intellectual property. But SOPA and PIPA encountered such vitriol in part because of the harsh penalties proposed for those accused of copyright infringement. Uploading a clip of yourself singing a popular song on YouTube, for instance, could result in a felony conviction and up to 5 years in prison.

The Department of Justice would also be allowed to block access to websites that allow users to host copyrighted content. Meaning, the US government could shut down YouTube if just one of its hundreds of millions of users uploaded copyrighted content.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), author of PIPA, claimed that many of the accusations launched at SOPA and PIPA were misleading, but these claims largely fell on the deaf ears of citizens who felt that the bills would give far too much power to media companies.

According to the campaign finance watchdog website Opensecrets.org, Leahy received $104,550 in campaign contributions from the film, television and music industry during the period from 2007-2012, and media giants Time Warner and Walt Disney Co. were among Leahy's top five contributors during the same time period. SOPA author Lamar Smith (R-Texas), another favorite recipient of campaign cash from media companies, received almost $20,000 in campaign contributions from CC Media Holdings, the parent company of radio giant Clear Channel, from 2011-2012. 

Similarly, former Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), one of SOPA/PIPA's most vocal proponents, now heads the MPAA, earning $1.2 million annually lobbying members of Congress to support bills like SOPA and PIPA.

It's easy to understand why media giants like Time Warner would support SOPA and PIPA, and it's not all that surprising that many citizens saw more cronyism than justice in the bills given the industry connections of their authors. But it is unusual to see a corporation as huge and as influential as Google publicly advocate a position on a piece of legislation and to mobilize sympathetic citizens to protest the legislation.

The bills pitted Silicon Valley against Hollywood, and the monetary interests of Silicon Valley conglomerates in this case coincided with those of huge masses of Internet users, resulting in a truly unprecedented wave of opposition and protest.

Opposition and protest seem to be consistent themes in recent headlines. Just over two years ago, the Arab Spring revolutions began to change the character of Mid-East countries forever, and have in turn inspired popular uprisings in Southeast Asia and other areas of the world.

Soon after, labor solidarity activists in Madison, Wisconsin, who were all but defeated by the passage of the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, organized with redoubled enthusiasm to remove Gov. Walker and the bill's other supporters from power in an almost unprecedented recall election.

Occupy Wall Street has become a household term for all Americans after being all but ignored by the media until it became too large to ignore.

So should the defeat of SOPA and PIPA be counted among the victories of a new populist fervor spreading across the world?

There are some important differences between the defeat of SOPA and PIPA and those other protests. While millions of Americans clearly did not support these bills, it is doubtful that the bills would have been so roundly and quickly defeated had Silicon Valley giants like Google not spoken up.

Consider, by way of comparison, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a bill that met overwhelming opposition among the population due to the sweeping powers it grants to the US government and military to indefinitely detain US citizens suspected of supporting terrorism. Despite the public's grievances, Congress and President Obama scarcely hesitated to sign the bill into law, and the more cynical among us may conclude that the enthusiastic support by the business community for NDAA gave Congress no reason to pause.

Indeed, it would be naïve to expect the interests of Google and other massive corporations to align with the interests of ordinary citizens as neatly as they did in the case of SOPA/PIPA. But it's key to remember that it was not CEOs and investors signing the petition or melting the switchboards at Congressional offices — it was ordinary people. As Amy Goodman pointed out in a recent Guardian column, “[i]nformation is the currency of democracy, and people will not sit still as moneyed interests try to deny them access.”

We would be remiss to forget that it was the same open, free and massively popular web sites and services Google used to mobilize anti-SOPA/PIPA citizens that were so critical in helping organize and spread awareness of the Arab Spring uprisings and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

If nothing else, the defeat of these bills should serve as a reality check to defeatists who claim that citizens are powerless against the over-reach of government authority. Perhaps the most important lesson to take from SOPA/PIPA is that, while there are important differences between SOPA/PIPA and bills such as the NDAA, Americans can and should use the protest of SOPA and PIPA as a model to defeat future pieces of legislation that they believe threaten our rights and our way of life. 

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