[The following is a guest post from author Chris Ruen, who you can follow on Twitter @fakeChrisRuen.]

This is an excerpt from my new book, Freeloading: How our insatiable hunger for free content starves creativity, available from Amazon (they have a nice long sample for your perusal) or direct from my US Publisher, OR Books. The book will also be released in Australia this March.

At this time last year, the Internet community didn’t know that it was in for a historic and definitive techno-political moment: the anti-SOPA blackout. One nonprofit group, founded the same month (October) SOPA was introduced in Congress, had been hoping for the blackout since at least early-November. They conceived of, organized, and facilitated the protest. Have you heard of them?

I’m glad SOPA—as it was originally written—didn’t pass. But that legislation’s real flaws don’t make the shady dishonesty and ignorance of the SOPA blackout any less embarrassing. Like the socialized acceptance of freeloading (mass digital piracy), the protests are a black eye for the digital revolution’s starry-eyed notions of progress.

-Chris Ruen


In Part One, I acknowledged the dreams of Kevin Kelly, that the Internet was destined to merge us into a great and bountiful “planetary soul.” That appealing vision has gone on to inspire many activists in their quest to “protect” the Internet from threats to its “openness.” The rights of creators (aka the rights of individuals) have been seen as the primary threat to this “open source” digital utopia which will eventually give us more prosperity, democracy and more freedom. In short, this is a belief in the power of networks and the collaboration they allow for. New Media academics like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis have evangelized for this future. For them the future of the Internet should not include paywalls or respect for rights holders because it adds friction to their great wheel of digital life. We will not need professional journalists because the wise crowd knows more collectively than any individual journalist ever could. The wisdom of crowds, through the network effect, is the righteous salvation offered by the Internet.

The incredible effectiveness of the SOPA blackout was seen as the single greatest example of the potential of networks to improve our lives. How could the rights of a few measly artists or old-time corporations justify hamstringing the innovation of the single greatest advance in human history!

The technology companies who fought SOPA and participated in the blackout were seen as responding to heartening, grassroots efforts that organically originated from web communities like Reddit. The SOPA blackout was an American Tahrir Square or an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street—normal citizens standing up to defend the freedom of online expression in the face of draconian attempts at censorship that were merely an effort to put money in the pockets of the corrupt entertainment industry.

That’s what it was…right?

Right…

When the SOPA blackout was gearing up in January of 2012, a distinct tone of paranoia emerged in the arguments being advanced by critics of the bill. SOPA didn’t merely need reform; it needed to be killed. Why? Because it would actually break the Internet. If you posted a single infringing link to your blog, even unknowingly, you could face five years in jail. Were politicians so stupid and in the pockets of the entertainment industry that they would risk passing a bill that would break the Internet and send innocent people to jail for years and result in the mass violation of First Amendment rights? Yes, absolutely they would.

You don’t trust politicians and the RIAA, do you?

What’s more, SOPA wouldn’t even make a difference for rights holders being hurt by piracy. And what would we, the public, be saddled with? Censorship! It was not a copyright bill. It was a censorship bill.

Do you support SOPA? Do you support (clears throat) INTERNET CENSORSHIP?

Due to these talking points, the public was placed in a position where they felt they had to be against the law even if they had never heard of the bill before, read about it or read the legislation itself. The tone and substance of the SOPA backlash harkened back to the heated debate over health care reform in the United States in the summer of 2008, in which ideological lobbying groups pumped an anxious public full of lies that fed their pre-existing biases. The claim that SOPA would break the Internet, I predicted, would go down in history as an infamous piece of propaganda, like the fear mongering warning that President Obama’s health reform plan included “death panels” that would “kill Granny.”

I took it for granted that the technology industry was viewing SOPA as major new government regulation upon their industry that, all things being equal, they would rather not have to deal with. But why talk about the reasons for or against regulation when you can just as easily scare the bejeezus out of people who weren’t terribly well schooled on the issues? Though I suspected the technology industry’s influence, I accepted the idea that Reddit had genuinely corralled their digital brethren in the fight against the legislation. With so many eyes on SOPA coming from an established Internet culture that prided itself on openness, transparency and sincere collective actions, it was hard to believe that technology companies like Google would be so daring as to risk being exposed for misleading the public. After following the Decade of Dysfunction and engaging with a host of bizarre arguments that arose from a need to justify immoral actions, I knew false notions could easily rise up all on their own.

Even if I was appalled by the misinformation being dangerously bandied about, the success of the SOPA blackout was really something to behold. Perhaps it was the genuinely new paradigm of political action that SOPA critics made it out to be, a digital revolution by the consent of the networked. As Tech Crunch declared after SOPA was defeated, “A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time. Regardless of where you stand on the issue—and effective copyright enforcement is an important issue—this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.”1

On January 26th, PPC Associates CEO David Rodnitzky posted a blog entry that questioned how “grassroots” the SOPA protests really were.2 He noted, “Google’s, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, eBay and many other companies have been aggressively lobbying Congress for months regarding SOPA.” The companies had proposed an alternative bill to SOPA and taken out full-page ads in national newspapers on November 16th to express their opposition. Google’s spending on lobbying had tripled from the previous year to $3.74 million in the fourth quarter of 2011 as the SOPA battle raged into the winter. Robert Levine, author of the book Free Ride, reported that Google’s lobbying expenditures jumped once again in the first quarter of 2012, up to over $5 million, covering the run-up to the blackout on January 18th.3 That was a 240 percent increase from the same period in 2011. Levine wrote, of Google’s sudden $5 million lobbying tab:

That’s more than the official lobbying budget of the MPAA ($570,000 for the same time period), the RIAA ($1.67 million), or media companies like Disney ($1.3 million) or News Corp. ($1.57 million). It’s more than Microsoft ($1.79 million), Facebook ($650,000), Amazon ($650,000), and Apple ($500,000) combined.

The Board of the Sunlight Foundation, which funded some groups who participated in the SOPA protests, included one former lobbyist for Google. Robert Levine has reported on the financial and personal ties between Google and “open” Internet advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Public Knowledge before. No one could say just how much Google did or did not affect the eventual blackout, but clearly the entertainment industry wasn’t the only group flooding Congress with cash. Markham Erickson, who leads the NetCoalition—an advocacy group for tech companies such as Google, Facebook, eBay, Yahoo, Mozilla, Twitter and others—dusted off notions that his group had driven the blackout, telling the New York Times that, “The Internet responded the way only the Internet could.”4 In the same Times article, Representative Zoe Lofgren said, “Too often, legislation is about competing business interests. This goes way beyond that. This is individual citizens rising up.”

David Rodnitzky at PPC Associates was skeptical. He tracked the first big bump in traffic for SOPA searches on November 16th—which happened to coincide with American Censorship Day, a sort of blackout-lite campaign run by the non-profit group Fight for the Future, and also the day of the full-page ads taken out by Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al. The second bump in traffic he saw occurred on December 13th, “when the Washington Post ran a story about a ‘visual petition’ on the website IWorkForTheInternet.com.”5 IWorkForTheInternet was also run by Fight for the Future. When Rodnitzky looked further into the websites run by Fight for the Future, he noticed that the names of whomever had registered their domain names were kept private on the online domain registry. And he found the lack of information provided on the groups themselves, mixed with the obvious professionalism of the websites, suspicious:

The only names listed on the FightForTheFuture site are “Tiffiniy Cheng” and “Holmes Wilson.” I looked up Tiffiniy online and she apparently works for “DownhillBattle,” which as best I could tell is a blog that is mad about record labels. But she also lists herself as the “Founder, Executive Director, PPF, Open Congress.” PPF is the “Participatory Politics Foundation,” a 501-c-3 non-profit that was founded and funded by The Sunlight Foundation, which is also a non- profit… Anyways, I’m not an investigative journalist, but all of this strikes me as quite odd; the sudden launch of some very nicely designed, privately registered, anti-SOPA Websites without any contact info other than a woman who once founded a non-profit that gets money from another non-profit that gets money from technology companies? Methinks something is rotten in Denmark.

For most of the millions who signed petitions on January 18th, the day of the blackout, the controversy over SOPA was over nearly as soon as it began. They groggily logged online in the morning only to see Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and a host of other sites they trusted offering alarming information about SOPA. Users were linked to simple websites with petition forms and easy ways to send form letters to representatives in Congress. A couple of days later, users heard that SOPA was dead. These users, we were told, had participated in a revolutionary grassroots movement.

In the days and weeks after the defeat of SOPA, the protest of which had moved very quickly, journalists tried to understand how, exactly, it had happened. Of course, the technology companies and advocacy groups of Silicon Valley were thrilled, and trumpeted the rise of people power. As mentioned above, there were a few voices that questioned how grassroots the protests actually were and whether large companies like Google were truly driving the protests from behind the scenes. Sen. Chris Dodd, the former Senator who was president of the MPAA during the SOPA fight, accused technology companies of using their customers as “corporate pawns.”

Mark Stanley, new media coordinator at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Macworld that the notion that the SOPA protests were a top-down affair was wrong. He should have known, seeing as his group had “helped organize” the protest. “That’s just such a mischaracterization of what happened. This was definitely the Internet community at large,” he said.6

The Macworld article hewed closely to the conventional wisdom on how the blackout had developed—primarily through “open Internet” luminaries like Reddit and Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales had mentioned the idea of a SOPA blackout in mid-December and Reddit, an online community in which users can post links or messages and the community has the power to vote them up or down, was the first site to publicly confirm their own blackout on January 18th. They made their announcement on January 10th.

At the time of the blackout, I was so busy trying to understand SOPA that the exact nature of the blackout’s run-up eluded me. I accepted the widely-held assumptions about Reddit and Wikipedia. The fact that the “crowd” was so involved explained the poor arguments and misunderstandings emerging as fact in the controversy. Were technology companies and other non-profits involved? Well, of course they were. But without those collaborative online communities and the public rallying around them, the SOPA blackout never would have been possible.

The Macworld article cited only “very informal” organizing between outside “open Internet” advocacy groups and Reddit, according to Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager. Martin claimed that it was only after Jimmy Wales came up with the blackout idea that Reddit, and other websites, began to seriously consider a blackout.7 The truth of the SOPA blackout is quite different from the myth of some wholesome demonstration of mass democracy. To understand how the protest came about, we must look more closely at Fight for the Future—the non-profit group David Rodnitzky called “a bit odd.”

“Those guys were amazing,” Mike Masnick said of Fight for the Future after the blackout. “They had ideas. Those were two people in Western Massachusetts who came out of nowhere.”8 In fact, Fight for the Future was founded in October of 2011—the same month SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives—and the group’s founders had been running “open Internet” projects like OpenCongress and the Participatory Politics Foundation for years. Founders Tiffiniy Cheng and Holmes Wilson had existed within the framework of non-profit websites and organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge—groups set against the enforcement of copyright online (because they believe enforcement violates “Internet freedom”) and evangelists for “openness” and transparency. This non-profit network has deep personal ties to and funding from Silicon Valley, as shown in the work of Robert Levine.

For their part, Fight for the Future began in October 2011 with a $300,000 grant from the Media Democracy Fund, a foundation that dedicates itself to “free expression on the web.”9 In fact, Fight for the Future is a project of the Media Democracy Fund’s Center for Rights.10 The Center for Rights is described as “a nonprofit working to expand the Internet’s power for good” on the Fight for the Future website.

Far from a grassroots organization, Fight for the Future was a well- connected and well-funded arm of the Media Democracy Fund. In the “about” section of the MDF website, they say the Fund:

… partners with funders to make grants that protect and promote the public’s rights in this new era. We help grant makers of all sizes and issue areas amplify their impact…More and more, economic opportunity, education, creativity, freedom of expression and democracy are intertwined with access to and openness of our new information and communication technology. These connections mean that ignoring this area is no longer an option. But this emerging field can be confusing and complicated. MDF can help you simplify and focus. We understand the connections, the policy environment and the landmines. We help our partners cut through the noise and make an impact.11

The description sounds like MDF is an organization that filters money from outside contributors, who have specific goals in mind, to groups and projects that can ostensibly achieve those goals. Was the $300,000 grant to Fight to the Future the result of one of MDF’s “partners” wanting to “cut through the noise and make an impact”? If MDF was more or less a middle-man for its donors, then who was the source of Fight for the Future’s considerable funding?

Read Part 2.

Footnotes

  1. David Binetti, SOPA Scorecard: Internet 1, Lobbyists 0, TechCrunch (Jan. 19, 2012). []
  2. David Rodnitzky, Lobbyists 1, Internet 0: An Alternative Take on SOPA, PPC Associates (Jan. 26, 2012). []
  3. Robert Levine, Why No Web Blackout For CISPA? Google It, Fast Company (May 8, 2012). []
  4. Jonathan Weisman, In Fight Over Piracy Bills, New Economy Rises Against Old, NY Times (Jan. 18, 2012). []
  5. Rodnitzky. []
  6. Grant Gross, Who really was behind the SOPA protests?, Macworld (Feb. 6, 2012). []
  7. Gross. []
  8. Sarah Lai Stirland, Mike Masnick: Accidental Activist to Some, “Demagogue” to Others, TechPresident (May 10, 2012). []
  9. Michael B. Farrell, Small Worcester group plays large role in online protest, Boston Globe (Jan. 27, 2012). []
  10. Sarah Lai Stirland, Geeks Gear Up To Fight Online IP Bills, PIPA, SOPA, TechPresident (Jan. 11, 2012). []
  11. Media Democracy Fund, “About”. []

About the author: Chris Ruen

Chris Ruen