Or why this site is not blacked out.
(Updated to add links for further reading at the end of the post. I realize as my thoughts are shared beyond my usual readership that this entry doesn’t adequately explain the issues and what is at risk, relying very heavily on my writing and podcasts to make clear what is at stake and my broader views on copyright.)
Blacking out web sites in protest of proposed legislation that would adversely impact the values embodied in online conversation and activity is one of the more venerable traditions in a space defined by a metaphorical clock that ticks at breakneck speed.
In the past, these efforts have seemed to me to be a bit tenuous at best. I say so not to doubt the sincerity or commitment of those participating but of the visibility of these virtual actions to the general prublic and responsible policy makers.
Not so this time around. I don’t think it is the sheer volume of participation, though I don’t have any hard data to back up my sense of that. I think that access to the net is now much more a part of an expanding fraction ordinary people’s daily reality than in protests past. There are still not inconsiderable challenges we have left to realizing true universal access but all the same I feel this campaign is a signal moment beyond just the issues it is directly addressing. The audience size seems to have passed a tipping point, not the head count of those speaking out. Perhaps this is as a result of the recent round of social innovations, maybe it is just the logical outcome of growth curves going back to the original commercialization of the net in the nineties.
The reason my site is still live has nothing to do with skepticism of other destinations going dark. Hopefully I’ve made clear how I feel the highest profile sites speaking out will affect more people than any other issue thus far. I am especially eager to get a sense of how broadly the self imposed embargo of Wikipedia reaches. A site that is more used by more people seems hard to imagine, even the most popular news or media outlet. And yet, try to think back to Wikipedia’s presence in the public consciousness ten or even just five years ago in comparison.
The core provocation invited by the web wide blackout is to imagine an online space where laws like SOPA and PROTECT IP are on the books. In such a world, the expanded and unchecked private rights of action will the your most notorious YouTube takedown spat to date look like a mild disagreement over an obscure point of netiquette in the most civil of networked fora. Easy to imagine existing voices quelled, as many are doing to themselves in protest; far harder to envision what voices might never be heard, what innovations never developed.
The most effective participation I’ve seen so far, at least for me, are the protests where the authors have clearly internalized the issues and put forward the same call to action, to contact your elected representatives to voice your concerns. Uniformity breeds complacency where as unqiue expression better begs thoughtful contemplation and hopefully active engagement.
In that context, in my speculative imagining of post-SOPA, post-PIPA world, I would still be here. Day in and day out I already try to parse and share the implications of the slug fest between the increasingly monopolistic entertainment industry and the innovators of all sizes from the technology sector. I don’t necessarily accept that piracy is the huge existential problem that the Hollywood establishment makes out. Taking that as a point of departure, there are just far too many questions around how legislation like the already on the books DMCA and the proposed ones we are currently protesting are appropriate responses.
Beyond my loud mouthed persistence in publicly teasing apart these questions, my own imp of the perverse would drive me to tempt the exercise of these new private rights of action on steriods, powers that lack appropriate cheks-and-balances when the proven potential for abuse is so great.
Let them try to shut me up, if the stakes are free expression then being subject of impact litigation is well worth the cost.
To learn more about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and why so many sites and people are protesting them, the page for taking action at American Censorship has plenty of additional resources, scroll towards the bottom for a video, some selected articles and a timeline of events around these pieces of legislation.