It’s a damn fascinating time for the social art of protest. We’re living in an era when coordinated protest is arguably more effective than it has ever been. Even in cases much smaller and less drastic than the instantly legendary Arab Spring, the speed and power of mass demonstration is pretty staggering. Consider the outcry over the proposed debit card fees the likes of Bank of America attempted to institute toward the end of 2011. The protest was so quick, so well coordinated and so plugged into the media stream that it actually compelled change almost immediately. The mass exodus of customers to credit unions and small, local banks helped, but even that direct action wouldn’t have been as vast without the mass communication available to the millions of little guys and girls affected by the fees.
The recent hullabaloo surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act is a similar, though not identical, case. Those two pieces of legislation have been fuel to the fire of Internet activism from the moment they hit newsfeeds, but the blaze burned especially hot this week as the debates in the Senate and House over the bills drew near. It wasn’t just the little folks protesting a perceived injustice this time. Big organizations like Wikipedia, WordPress and Google made sure to put their displeasure in the headlines, some with more drastic action than others. The end result? Both bills have been shelved.
That’s great for the opponents of SOPA and PIPA, but it’s not the end and they know it. The protests aren’t ending because the bills haven’t been killed yet. The few supporters they still have in Congress may try to revive them when the furor has died down. Of course, that’s assuming it will die down.
This gets at the core of why SOPA and PIPA are poorly constructed bits of legislation. The people who wrote and sponsored them simply don’t understand the Internet. Folks on the Web don’t… let things go very easily. It’s not like the mainstream news cycle. Trending stories, however ephemeral they seem, don’t vanish from the docket when they’re no longer fresh. Websites stay live, forums keep fomenting debate and the protest stays active, if even in a semi-dormant form. Right now the lion’s share of the independent video games industry (the fastest growing segment of the games industry as a whole) is coordinating a boycott of E3, the most important and profitable gaming convention of the year. They’re doing so because the lobbyists for most AAA game publishers haven’t withdrawn their support for the now torpid copyright bills. They’re keeping the discussion rolling, which is all it takes to launch an entirely new campaign of protest should SOPA, PIPA or any similar legislation rise again.
Even as the federal government cracks down symbolically on Megaupload, one of countless streaming services on the Internet, there’s a sense that the interests behind Internet censorship are fighting a force that’s too large and well organized to overcome. In America, our legislators don’t know how the deepest parts of Internet culture work, so they don’t anticipate the backlash they’ll receive whenever a corporate body tries to make bank on a new set of laws to the detriment of everything the current Internet stands for. Since it’s not likely the politicians who hop aboard the bad-ideas-on-wheels that are SOPA, PIPA and other such misinformed bills are going to become more Web-savvy any time soon, it seems like we’ll be stuck in the cycle of lobbying and protest for the foreseeable future. The protesters certainly aren’t hanging up their hats yet, or possibly ever.