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.
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.”
- Michael B. Farrell, Small Worcester Group Plays Large Role in Online Protest, Boston Globe (Jan. 27, 2012). [↩]
- “Defending the Internet Panel 2/4 – ROFLCon 2012″ at 14:30 (YouTube). [↩]
- 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). [↩]
- Overview for holmesworcester, Reddit. [↩]
- SOPA: The Internet Blacklist Bill, Americancensorship.org (Infographic). [↩]
- Farrell, supra. [↩]
- Sarah Lai Stirland, Geeks Gear Up To Fight Online IP Bills, PIPA, SOPA, TechPresident (Jan. 11, 2012). [↩]