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Looking back on the legacy of SOPA

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Let’s jump back in time—all the way back to Jan. 18, 2012. Everyone online was agitated about a careless Congress that might destroy the Internet and excited by the way some of the biggest and most important websites around were stepping up to challenge. I don’t know about you, but to me, it felt like the dawning of a new era.

I’d just been hired full time at the Daily Dot, and something big was on the horizon. SOPA, they called it. It was an easy acronym for a mouthful—the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives—and it had a sister bill in the Senate, the Protect IP Act (PIPA). But I don’t think most people thought about SOPA’s mechanisms or how it differed from PIPA. Stop SOPA was the rallying cry.

I started contributing at the Dot half a year earlier, in August 2011, around when Hurricane Irene hit New York City, where I live. The actual storm was relatively uneventful. I spent it holed up in my apartment with my girlfriend, never without power, drinking gin and tonics and watching both Kill Bill movies.

It’s the days leading up to Irene that made a much bigger impression on me. Traffic on even the quietest streets in Brooklyn slowed to a crawl as the entire city seemed to gridlock. People milled about on sidewalks, hurriedly raiding the corner stores for nonperishable food and bottled water and cheap votive candles. Everyone disagreed on how dangerous Irene would get. One friend called me to suggest we drive hours inland to ensure we don’t get stuck without supplies; another wanted to meet by the Hudson River to watch the storm come in.

More than anything, I remember a quiet buzz in the air. Everyone knew something big, something bursting with energy, might be coming; moreover, we all silently agreed we didn’t know what to expect.

That’s how it felt the morning of Jan. 18. Grumblings against SOPA had been escalating for months, but it wasn’t until Jan. 10 that Reddit, a social news site where I spent hours each day for both business and pleasure, announced it was shutting down for an entire day. That started a cascade of sites that promised to join in: The Cheezburger Network and Wikipedia followed suit two days later, then Craigslist, Wordpress, and Google. Activist group Fight for the Future estimated that if you include the thousands of individual blogs that joined in, more than 100,000 sites offered some sort of protest.

Jan. 18 was probably weirdest morning I’ve logged onto the Internet since my parents got Prodigy when I was a kid. What was the Internet going to look like with half its major sites either hobbled or were not functioning at all? What were the odds that SOPA’s proponents were right, and that the bill wouldn’t average Americans anyway? What was I going to do all day if I couldn’t get on Reddit? And would the protest actually have any effect on politicians?

It took about an hour and a half to answer that last question. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), an early cosponsor of PIPA, announced on Facebook at 9:33am that morning that he no longer supported that bill. It was his constituents’ demands that they needed a free Internet that led him to change his mind, he said. More than 2.4 million tweets from that day mention SOPA. People saw splash pages on their favorite sites that said their Internet was in danger and that they should call their senators and representatives to complain. One by one, those bills’ cosponsors peeled away.

Two days later, both bills were officially dead.

Here’s some perspective on how Jan. 18 changed things. This summer, the European Union went through something very similar to what Americans saw with SOPA. Their opponent was the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which would penalize users copyright violations. And again, there was a massive groundswell of popular opposition.

Just a few months earlier, before protests ramped up, ACTA seemed poised to pass the EU Parliament. But on July 4, 2012, in the face of what the EU said was an “unprecedented” amount of popular opposition, ACTA was voted down, 478 to 39. It was yet another resounding victory for the Internet.

The U.S., along with seven other countries, had already signed it in October 2011. It faced hardly any opposition whatsoever. Where were the protesters then?

The U.S.’s signature doesn’t matter now. Without the EU on board, ACTA would have to be completely rewritten and re-signed to take effect. But can you imagine the outcry if we faced ACTA today?

For one thing, I’m pretty sure the Internet Defense League (IDL) would shine its cat signal in cities across America, heralding the fact that many of the sites that participated in the SOPA strike were going dark again—sites like Reddit, the Cheezburger Network, BoingBoing, Grooveshark, Imgur, and Fark. Visitors to any participating sites that day would be greeted with an unavoidable plea to call their representatives in Congress.

It maybe wouldn’t even need the whole army. Last month, when the Senate debated the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, a few campaigns—not the entire IDL—encouraged people to call their senators to fight the bill. Activists at Fight For the Future claimed their phone campaign was a complete success, and that each of their targeted senators received at least hundreds of phone calls.

Senator Joe Lieberman had called passing the Cybersecuirty Act “absolutely my top legislative priority of this last year.” In the face of popular opposition, it failed in the Senate Aug. 2.

That’s not to say that activists have won every battle since January.

A group of redditors put forth an amazing effort to see that Lamar Smith (R-TX), who introduced SOPA to the House, would lose in the primary primaries this year. They raised over $35,000 for anti-Smith billboards, TV commercials, and mailing flyers. That movement failed, though Smith still has to win the general election.

The controversial Cyber Intelligence Security Protection Act (CISPA), which would allow government agencies to bypass confidentiality agreements to share user information in the event of a cyberattack, passed the House of Representatives with ease in April. (Many IDL members, including Reddit, didn’t openly oppose it until the vote was near.) CISPA currently sits in the Senate, and it’s safe to assume it’ll face a lot more opposition for its second vote.

Here’s some more perspective: In July, Russia had its own major strike against legislation that would “destroy the Internet.” A new censorship law—ostensibly designed to block sites that promote crime, like child pornography—would kill free speech, activists feared. So a number of them, led by blogging platform LiveJournal, went black to protest.

The Russian Duma didn’t care. It passed the bill. Almost immediately after, LiveJournal was mysteriously blocked for three days.

Would that had happened to Reddit had SOPA passed? We’ll never know. And a possible solution to make sure we never see anything like it again is underway.

The Declaration of Internet Freedom, a terse five sentences that describe rights for a free Internet, was created at the beginning of July. Such a document is nothing new; over a dozen lengthier, often techier takes on a document proclaiming a free Web have been drafted, and the first one is at least at least  8 years old.

But the genius of the declaration is its brevity and its popularity ability. What’s unprecedented is that its signatories include more than 50,000 citizens, thousands of websites, and two members of Congress, and those numbers are growing. Their signatures don’t actually guarantee anything. Some of those sites might sponsor a law that would censor some corners of the Internet; some politicians who sign it might do so disingenuously.

But it’s a start. At least, until the Internet produces its next big protector. I can’t predict what things are going to look like in the near future. For that matter, I can barely remember what they were like eight months ago.

Photo via Intergalacticrobot