Shawn Douglas

Thursday - Jan 26, 2012

SOPA ProtestBack in March 2010, Learn the Net posted an article about internet activism, stating that despite criticism, e-activism “isn’t going to disappear.” The closing line of that article was: “Often it takes more than a few words on a blog or an e-mail to make a difference, but it’s a positive start.”

Fast forward a bit to December 2011, which saw a bitter debate erupt around the world over concerns that proposed U.S. legislation would potentially put too much power into the hands of the U.S. government to censor the Internet and bring many information sharing sites to a swift end. That legislation was introduced as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.

The ruckus culminated in a massive Internet-based “blackout” on January 18, one that saw thousands of websites go dark in protest of the legislation. In fact, over 75,000 websites participated in a blackout through SOPA Strike, one of many online activists groups that tried to rally people to protest.

Many people were surprised to see the likes of Wikipedia, Google, and Craigslist either go dark or include website content that made users keenly aware something was not right. Many even stated they didn’t know what SOPA and PIPA were until they visited websites participating in the online protest, if nothing else proving that awareness was raised by the event. And Internet users shouldn’t be surprised to see similar actions (though perhaps on a lesser scale) in the future.

“Technology has grown as a part of our lives, and the companies now have something of value that they can withhold in terms of services, which is a shift in the overall political landscape,” Colin Gillis, a technology analyst at BGC Financial, told the L.A. Times. “Is this spawning a new level of activism? I’d say absolutely yes.”

While citizens continue to find new and interesting ways to better protest using the Internet and technology, it’s worth noting this “new level of activism” seen last week didn’t exclusively take place on the Internet. Protesters wrote letters to, called to, and even visited the offices of their representatives, frequently doing so on multiple occasions over a prolonged period of time dating back to 2011. Activists even pulled together to participate in rallies in San Francisco, New York, and other major U.S. cities, adding an additional discontented presence to the masses. Two days later, voting actions on the SOPA and PIPA bills were postponed indefinitely by House and Senate leaders for further discussion.

While it’s easy to argue whether or not this is truly an end to the legislation, what’s difficult to argue about is the role the Internet itself played in bringing the votes to a halt. Not only did activists use the Internet as a tool, but they also were essentially fighting for their right to continue to protest online without fear of having their voices censored. And while last week’s blackout wasn’t the first time hundreds of thousands of people have took to the Web during times of dissent, the blackout stands out as a sort of “high water mark” for what can be accomplished using the Internet.

It may be a while before we see online activism in such capacity again, but be certain that it will happen. As the concept of social networking continues to change and draw in new Internet users, new methods of bringing information to people from all walks of life will certainly appear. Additionally, as an increasing amount of business is performed and information is exchanged over the Web, look for online businesses and other entities to become more vocal, using their clout to help shift political and social thought. With them will come a continuing evolution in how people communicate, learn, and protest.

Photo via mangtronix, Flickr Creative Commons