The following is a guest post from author Chris Ruen, who you can follow on Twitter @fakeChrisRuen. It is is an excerpt from his 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 his US Publisher, OR Books. The book will also be released in Australia this March.

Read Part 1


The $300,000 grant was reported in a little read article by the Boston Globe which revealed other interesting facts of the SOPA blackout. Elizabeth Stark, a Stanford University Internet activist, is paraphrased in the article as noting that Fight for the Future “was a key participant” in the January 18th blackout and that the group built “much of the technology that made it possible.” But Fight for the Future’s “most significant contribution to the effort,” according to the Globe, “may have come during a Nov. 9 meeting about the antipiracy legislation that was held at the Mountain View, Calif., headquarters of Mozilla. Taking part that day were tech companies, advocacy groups, and academics about the antipiracy legislation. Cheng and the group’s other cofounder, Holmes Wilson, 32, said they called in to the session to pitch the idea of a Nov. 16 protest, which also called for companies and organizations to close down their websites.”1

This early November meeting, facilitated by Mozilla, one of Silicon Valley’s most visible businesses, never made it into the popular history of the SOPA blackout. Nor was it widely known that both Silicon Valley industry and their complements from the nonprofit world were strategizing so early. It is unclear which organizations were or were not involved, but Elizabeth Stark admitted on a 2012 panel on Internet activism that Google and Reddit joined Fight for the Future in the meeting at Mozilla.2 So what really happened at this meeting and who was there? Was it true that, far from organically originating from Reddit in January or Wikipedia in mid-December, the idea of a blackout really came from a month-old nonprofit with a questionable source for its hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding?

The obscure website JammerDirect interviewed Fight for the Future co-founder Holmes Wilson for their podcast, The Dose, on January 25th 2012, one week after the conclusive SOPA blackout. Wilson was forthcoming on where the idea for a blackout came from and how that idea was brought to the strategy meeting on November 9th.3

“The strike movement itself started in late October—early November, right after SOPA came out,” Wilson said. “When SOPA came out it was just way worse than anyone expected” and Fight for the Future started speaking by phone to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge. Wilson described his reaction to SOPA and what he feared it would mean:

I thought about it like, ‘We were going to wake up and go to the same sites we use every day and see some stupid message from the government telling us we can’t visit those sites anymore because we were Americans. Whatever we do for the campaign has to be based off of that feeling’… The idea for the protest was for sites to run one pop-up simulating the site being blocked… We started shopping it around to sites we were close to and organizations saying, ‘We think this is the best way to respond to SOPA and are you in?’ One of the key moments was—when working with a close friend of ours, Elizabeth Stark who is at Stanford, and has been into the free culture and remix culture movement for ages now—she worked with us to organize a meeting and call at Mozilla, the folks who make Firefox, at their headquarters in Mountain View a week before the protest. And that was really pivotal in getting the attention of Mozilla and a few other large Silicon Valley organizations… The meeting was basically all these groups in DC being like, ‘This is worse than anything we’ve ever seen and there is nothing we can do to stop it. This thing will pass unless we all band together and do something crazy.’ And the folks in Silicon Valley were like, ‘This wasn’t even on our radar.’… Nobody knew about it. And on that call we said, ‘Here’s a proposal. We should block out our sites and direct people to email Congress.’ Then one of the folks at Mozilla came up with the idea of blacking out your logo as a secondary ask to sites that can’t throw a pop-up on their page the whole day…And we were like, ‘That’s an awesome idea, we’re gonna run with that too.’ We put up a page the next day or that Friday, AmericanCensorship.org, and included instructions on how to participate.

Yes, the blackout idea came directly from the MDF-funded organization and was presented to the inside players of Silicon Valley over one month before Jimmy Wales mentioned the blackout idea on Wikipedia. The day after the meeting organized by Mozilla, the veneer of populism was already being applied to the initiative of a handful of dedicated interest groups which derive their funding from Silicon Valley companies. Fight for the Future tweeted: “Internet fights back! PK, EFF, FFTF, FSF, OC to stop #protectip #sopa Join us 11/16 to help to stop worst bill,” linking to Fight the Future’s website, AmericanCensorship.org. “PK” stood for the group Public Knowledge; “EFF” for Electronic Frontier Foundation; “FFTF” for Fight for the Future; “FSF” for Free Software Foundation; and “OC” for Open Congress, an organization also run by the founders of Fight for the Future.

According to Fight for the Future, these five groups were “the Internet”—and “the Internet” was “fighting back.”

As for Reddit, though involved in the Mozilla meeting according to Elizabeth Stark, they couldn’t so easily begin advocating for SOPA protests, as they were a bottom-up community of users, predicated on a belief in the wisdom of crowds. As some have suspected, Fight for the Future actively posted articles trying to get the Reddit community involved. Holmes Wilson admitted to placing links on the site. He did so under the username “holmesworcester.”4

And we got on Reddit that Friday. And it was tricky to get on Reddit even—Reddit is just this beehive of anti-SOPA sentiment but at that point really wasn’t woken up to it. I remember sitting down at the keyboard and thinking, ‘Okay what will get people’s attention?’ The post I wrote was something like, ‘The MPAA will soon have the power to block American’s access to any website unless we fight back’—comma—‘hard!’ And that was the post—that post got to the top. And that linked directly to the protest site (Fight for the Future’s AmericanCensorship.org). So it started going viral. It started going viral on Tumblr at that point with people using the code (provided by Fight for the Future) to black out their titles and a lot of big Tumblr sites doing it. We started to see a lot of sites sign on. I think in the end five thousand sites signed on. And early in the next week we started to get some big sites. I forget exactly what happened with Reddit but at some point they said they would do it. We reached out to the folks at 4chan—4chan is awesome. And Mozilla, the folks who were on the call at Mozilla hustled all weekend—you know, Mozilla is a big organization and for them to take a step that pointed their millions of visitors to their start page to a political action, that’s something they never had done before. That was unprecedented and the folks at Mozilla, they took that on and took it up the chain and made it happen… Then BoingBoing and Cory Doctorow there who is kind of an old friend of ours and has worked with us a lot on different stuff and has always been a supporter of projects we have worked on. I mean, he, he—they went above and beyond for us. The Reddit folks did. The conversation started with Wikipedia at that point, too. We said, ‘Can Wikipedia do this?’ and Wikipedia said, ‘We don’t control that.’

So, just as they had done to garner viral attention on Reddit, Fight for the Future posted on a Wikipedia forum asking about the site participating in the November 16th anti-censorship protest. “And we did that,” Wilson said, “and it didn’t go anywhere immediately but then Jimmy Wales restarted that conversation and it started to move forward. That was in mid-December.” Some who questioned how grassroots the SOPA protest on January 18th really was point to reports in late December that NetCoalition was considering the “nuclear option” of a blackout. But it is clear that planning between opaquely-funded nonprofit organizations and the very companies represented by NetCoalition were in cahoots long before that date and, more than anyone, Fight for the Future engineered the strategy and organized the blackout. As Holmes Wilson described on The Dose, “The big surprise of that November protest—which was awesome—was that Tumblr called us in the middle of the day to warn us that they were either about to or already sending tons of traffic our way.” According to Wilson, Tumblr alone directed 87,000 calls to congress on November 16th and posted an information page on the protest with “perfect talking points.” With the success of the November 16th protest, Fight for the Future recognized the need for a follow-up protest:

And the Round Two will let us go from all the people who participated to an even wider network and say, ‘Okay guys, now is the time.’ And in the end what really ended up happening was once the idea got out there, the idea itself, sort of took on a life of its own, where the seed we planted at Wikipedia—that started to go—into a real discussion that was engaging the whole community moving forward. There must have been a similar discussion going on at Google, internally. And everybody started talking about, ‘When this really gets close to happening, what are we gonna do?’ And Reddit called for it. They said, ‘We’re going dark on the 18th’ and Wikipedia was at the point at which they would almost decide—I think they made the final call the night before. And all the pieces were in place. And we were just like, ‘Okay this thing is happening. We’re just going to make a website to coordinate, that we can use to list all the sites that are participating and all the tools you can use to participate.’ Basically just get out of people’s way and give them the tools they need to do this… So yeah, that’s the story.

There are some reasons to be hopeful about the future of Internet activism after the SOPA protests. They proved that it was possible to mobilize millions of people thanks to the radical efficiency of digital communication. And though the blackouts would never have happened or had their effects without the dedicated work and organization of Fight for the Future, there were also smaller protests that were more grassroots in nature. But Fight for the Future’s deft strategy was to quickly co-opt any genuinely grassroots protest against or criticism of SOPA and then use it for their own advantage. When a long-time user on Reddit wrote to the community saying they were going to transfer dozens of their domains away from GoDaddy, in protest of the company’s support of SOPA, the community of users rapidly joined in the boycott, which quickly led to GoDaddy reversing its position.

On December 22nd, the day of the boycott post, Fight for the Future tweeted: “Not an ad, but if u switch from @godaddy to another registrar / host, some companies will give u anti-#SOPA discounts.” By December 23rd, they posted a new webpage, GoDaddyBoycott.org which facilitated that protest. That Fight for the Future webpage soon made its way to the original Reddit post, left at the bottom of the post for anyone who wanted to participate.

But the sad truth of the SOPA protests, led for months by Fight for the Future (and enabled by whoever the hell was funding them), was that the actions of millions were fueled by lies and propaganda. As Holmes Wilson said on The Dose, recounting when he was trying to get the Reddit community to run with American Censorship Day:

‘Okay what will get people’s attention?’ The post I wrote was something like, ‘The MPAA will soon have the power to block American’s access to any website unless we fight back’—comma—‘hard!’ And that was the post—that post got to the top.

We should take note of Wilson’s acknowledgement that he was struggling to get people’s attention. The more desperate one is to get attention, rather than to accurately communicate what one believes a problem is, the more one ventures into the realm of sensationalist propaganda. While it is possible to find attention-getters that are nonetheless truthful, that is not what Wilson did and it is not what Fight for the Future has done or continues to do. Characterizing SOPA as the MPAA (and only the MPAA) having the unequivocal power to block access to “any” website was a misrepresentation (or an outright lie) that Wilson ought to be embarrassed about. Through the Private Right to Action (a provision I did not support), SOPA gave all creators the right to bring forth evidence that a site was “dedicated” to infringement and had reasonable knowledge of the infringement happening on their networks. That isn’t “any site,” that is a site that may be guilty of illegally exploiting the legal rights of artists or businesses. But such distinctions did not suit the goals of Fight for the Future, so they went on spreading baseless propaganda that frightened well-meaning Internet users into participating in a blackout under false notions.

As Wilson admitted, Fight for the Future was interested in results, not the truth, and they were willing to do whatever it took to sufficiently scare people into actions that benefitted their interests, and perhaps those of whomever was funding them. The slick video produced by Fight for the Future, called “SOPA/PIPA will Break the Internet,” a fiction in itself, relied upon conflating the past mistakes of the entertainment industry with a bill that sought to protect all creators’ rights. The video presented an entirely false choice between copyright enforcement and popular social networking sites continuing to exist. They presented “Internet freedom” as an inalienable right that the RIAA was trying to strip away, concealing the truth, that the imperfect bill’s very aim was to protect human rights and legal rights of artists not be exploited by unsanctioned business. They deceived the public that SOPA was a “censorship” bill, clearly a talking point they had settled on early in the planning of the protest. The SOPA/PIPA video, filled with deception and fear-mongering, was eventually watched by over four million people.

Fight for the Future produced an infographic, also filled with propaganda.5 It said that “a few infringing links are enough to block a site full of legal material”—an outright lie which provided no support for the claim. The cartoonish digital flyer said that, as a result of SOPA, “Sites’ self-censorship increases dramatically,” next to a circle-shaped graphic labeled, “self-censorhip on websites.” A small, bright red circle labeled, “Today’s self-censorship” is overwhelmed by a large, ruddy circle labeled “Self censorship if the bill passes.” They provided zero reasoning or evidence for their baseless claim and of course made no effort to draw the distinction between censorship that occurs because someone is breaking the law and censorship that occurs on account of the content of their speech. Nor did they bother to justify a linear chart that purported to show “new startups being launched.” A happy, blue upward reaching line represented “before SOPA,” with bright red line sinking down “after SOPA.” Again, Fight the Future passed a baseless claim off to unsuspecting Internet users as certain fact.

“What sites are at greatest risk?” another text box asked. The answer? “Anywhere people are expressing themselves or finding content: social networks, hosting sites, personal pages.” Next to this quote, which didn’t even mention piracy or copyright, logos for Vimeo, Facebook, Myspace, Aol Instant Messenger, Twitter and Reddit appeared—even though each and every one of those sites was already liable for “dedicated” infringement under US law. There was no mention of the many sites that, Internet users well understand, exist for no significant purpose other than to facilitate unlicensed downloading or streaming of legally protected works. That’s because Fight for the Future had no interest in exploring the nuanced truth of the piracy debate. Their aim was to frighten and mislead and enter themselves into the long tradition of cynical propagandists like Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee.

“Our basic Internet freedoms are on the chopping block,” the infographic finished. Sure, if “Internet freedom” means the freedom to exploit people.

SOPA was not a perfect bill by any means, but it could have been fixed and helped us along the path of reconciling the regulation of the Internet with creators’ rights. In fact, that’s precisely what the threat of the blackout accomplished. The weekend before the blackout, the DNS-blocking provisions were reportedly stripped from SOPA. But Fight for the Future didn’t want some watered down version of SOPA to pass. Their irrational and defensive philosophy is based upon the idea that any regulation of the Internet is an attack on the Internet and its “freedom,” so any proposed regulation needed to die.

Perhaps the philosophy of “Internet freedom” was truly that of Fight for the Future’s donors. Whoever funded the group was apparently pleased after the blackout. As quoted in the same January 26th Boston Globe story that revealed the $300,000 grant which seeded Fight for the Future, “[Media Democracy Fund] director, Helen Brunner, said the fund is finalizing another $759,000 grant for Fight for the Future.”6 That’s the reward, I suppose, for making a concerted propaganda campaign appear to be a grassroots uprising and duping millions of well-meaning Internet users to suit one’s own devices. This was no example of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of an educated public ensuring liberty, but the story of a poorly educated public manipulated by well-funded factions.

As Holmes Wilson admitted to Talking Points Memo, Fight for the Future is a 501(c)4 nonprofit. 501(c)4 groups are also called “dark money” groups. Many of them legally launder unlimited amounts of political donations to America’s super-PACs.”7 Groups with 501(c)4 status are lobbying and political advocacy groups with no spending limits on their own campaigns and—more relevant to an Internet community that pats itself on the back for their commitment to “transparency”—under no obligation to disclose their donors. Ironically, the Sunlight Foundation itself has publicly campaigned against 501(c)4 groups for their lack of transparency and corrupting influence of the public interest. Fight for the Future could be funded by anyone, but will never have to disclose a thing. Who is behind them and how much are they truly receiving? Your guess is as good as mine, and the flip side to hiding sources of one’s funding is that any guess become fair.

So much for the grassroots, transparency, openness… and so much for the “planetary soul.”

 

Footnotes

  1. Michael B. Farrell, Small Worcester Group Plays Large Role in Online Protest, Boston Globe (Jan. 27, 2012). []
  2. “Defending the Internet Panel 2/4 – ROFLCon 2012″ at 14:30 (YouTube). []
  3. Holmes Wilson, One of the Creators of the SOPA Strike Movement, is this week’s special guest on The Dose, Jammer Direct (Jan. 25, 2012). []
  4. Overview for holmesworcester, Reddit. []
  5. SOPA: The Internet Blacklist Bill, Americancensorship.org (Infographic). []
  6. Farrell, supra. []
  7. Sarah Lai Stirland, Geeks Gear Up To Fight Online IP Bills, PIPA, SOPA, TechPresident (Jan. 11, 2012). []

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[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”. []

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