One year ago today, significant portions of the Web went dark to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that critics claimed would kill the Internet as we know it. Yet, while the protest was successful, the architect behind the bill, Congressman Lamar Smith, remains in office—and there’s nothing the World Wide Web can do about it.
A representative for Texas's 21st district, Smith became the Internet's bogeyman after he introduced House Bill 3261 on Oct. 26, 2011. The legislation was meant as a step forward from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton in 1998, when the Internet as we know it barely existed. The Act provided safeguards for copyright holders while also giving Internet service providers [ISPs] some breathing room with regard to infringement claims.
What SOPA aimed to do was hold service providers more accountable for violations. According to some interpretations, the bill would have given the law enforcement the ability to entirely shut down sites whose users violated copyright, potentially threatening sites like Reddit and Wikipedia. In November, Mozilla (makers of the Firefox browser), Tumblr, and others put up banners protesting SOPA, and Jan. 18, Wikipedia and hundreds of others sites famously went dark. The proposed bill got booted to Congressional purgatory, and and its most prominent lobbyist said it's "not coming back.
However, even after trying to pass what is arguably the least popular Internet-specific legislation in the history of the Internet, Smith made it smoothly back into the House of Representatives in November—despite the Reddit-fueled TestPAC raising money to change the direction of the electorate.
If the Internet had voted, it would have sent Smith to a stockade, but without a local focus, the campaign failed. Is this something specific to Smith’s district, or does it point toward a bigger, more dominant trend?
The 21st district includes parts of Central Texas that spans Austin, San Antonio, Kerrville, New Braunfels, and more. In 2012, Smith won with 60.59 percent of the vote. The turnout was higher than in 2008 or 2010, but at 308,865 votes accounted for, it was less than in 2004 (341,119). In 2000, the district's population was approximately 651,000, but in 2010 that number was ratcheted up to 698,488. In other words, not even half of the eligible voters in the 21st district visited the polls for this election in 2012, TestPAC or no TestPAC.
While it's impossible to guess how the 390,000 non-voting residents of the district may have felt about Smith, we do know that young people, traditionally, are the least apt of any constituency to do any actual voting. Writing from Austin, The New York Times' Ann Beeson noted that “even national averages for young people (18-35) have teetered just around 50% for most presidential elections, and they’re half that in non-presidential election years – 24% in the 2010 midterm elections.”
But even given the history of low youth turnout, the central problem may more be about finding a center to begin with.
The officers of TestPAC are scattered everywhere from Arizona to Massachusetts, and while the work of this political action committee goes beyond the SOPA campaign, it’s worth noting that the organization doesn’t have a Texas base or a designated chapter from the area.
Could anyone on the TestPAC committee even vote against Smith? How can the Internet better organize real-world campaigns? Even with subreddits—the topic-specific sections on Reddit—and the continuity of sites like Meetup.com, locally sourced action (for political or pleasurable aims) feels far removed.
We’ve seen Twitter, Facebook, and even YouTube help power uprisings around the world. But while such online communities can spur outrage and dissent in the U.S., most fundamental changes still occur at the voting booth.
Until we see the political equivalent of a Grindr or Kickstarter for votes or causes that doesn’t feel like spam or overwhelming detritus—and more importantly, that targets us where we live—we’ll continue to see campaigns that reach high but fall short.
And we’ll be stuck with Lamar Smith.
Photo via Lamar Smith