Yesterday, hundreds of websites1 were “blacked out” in protest against two pieces of particularly onerous legislation, SOPA and PIPA.((For those whe don’t know, these are anti-piracy bills (in the sense of copyright infringers, not open seas marauders) which threaten to emplace draconian measures which will affect thousands of perfectly legal and innocent websites and businesses along with the criminals. Google has more info. )) In addition to the blackouts, many other websites posted information about these two bills on their websites along with reasons to oppose them. As a result 18 senators, some of who had previously been cosponsors, have newly announced their opposition to these bills. In addition, the subject has broached the national consciousness and now mainstream new organizations across the country are reporting on the debate. With all kerfluffle, one would think that the blackout has served it’s primary purpose in spreading awareness and dealt a powerful blow to forces attempting to push these bills through Congress.
There are, however, dissenting voices. Maddox an individual known for his controversial entertainment website has made the claim that “Blackout Day” is just another example of Internet “Slacktivism,” which will ultimately go nowhere and is a symptom of the general malaise and of todays generation of protesters: people who will protest anything so long as they can do so from the safety and comfort of their own computer screens. He says:
There have been many bills attempted (and some passed) like SOPA before it. There’s the DMCA act of 1998, PRO-IP Act of 2008, the 2011 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, and now the PROTECT IP Act of 2012. Think this victory means anything? A new bill gets introduced every year or two like clockwork. Check back in a few years, and there’ll be another SOPA or Protect IP Act being squeezed down the lower intestinal tracts of congress. And then what? We black out our websites again like a merry band of idiots?
Raising awareness is a great way of feeling good about yourself without actually doing anything.
Maddox goes on to propose that the only way to effect permanent change is to protest in a manner which is both uncomfortable and which takes the fight to where the money is. He suggests that a general boycott of the three largest supporters of the bill will do much more in the long term than Blackout Day did.
And here’s where I disagree. Maddox and those who think like him, have a fundamentally broken idea of how politics works. According to them, the only way to stop these bills or others like them is to stop the money funding them. To a degree this is correct, these bills have a lot of corporate support and a few industries are spending fortunes on lobbyists and campaign donations to encourage these bills pass. If these companies were successfully pressured to change their minds then, yes, these bills and others like them would cease to be an issue, at least for the short term. But he’s wrong in that the problem is actually much deeper than that.
The problem is that there is an economic incentive for the companies that the MPAA and RIAA represent to want these pieces of legislation to pass. Piracy is a legitimate problem and these bills would seem to help them deal with it, even if they were to do so ham-handedly and unjustly. Pressuring two or three companies to change their stance on the issue would help in the short term, but in the long term the motive for these bills would still exist and it would only be a matter of time before and they try again. Maddox’s solution is just as short term a solution as he believes Blackout Day to have been.
The economic incentive for Internet censorship will only disappear after substantial changes to the content production industries have happened which make piracy yet again a fringe issue. The root cause can’t easily be dealt with through political means. We need a means to sustain long-term opposition to these bills and attacking these companies won’t achieve that.
However, there is one strong weapon which can be used against the proponents of Internet censorship, and that is the Public Consciousness. If the general public is made aware of the issue, made aware of the stakes, made to care, and made to strongly oppose SOPA, PIPA, and similar legislation, then it will become increasingly difficult to get something like them passed. The United States of America is a republic, which is a kind-of-a-sort-of-a democracy. Even today, with the widespread corruption and heavy influence of money on politics,2 the ultimate authority in the country still lies with the people and if the people are broadly and strongly opposed to something, it would be very difficult for it to gain traction in the political arena.
Slavery for example, could not be legalized in todays political climate,3 even if corporate America supported it wholeheartedly. Similarly with child labor. The reason is that these issues are seen as moral issues in the eyes of the public. Piracy, so far, is mostly an economic issue. People don’t care about economic issues unless they affect them personally. Moral issues, however, are the rallying cries of the political power brokers. Turning something into moral issues with broad support (or opposition,) is the easiest, most effective, and most long-lasting way to mobilize millions people. Sell the public on a moral issue, and they won’t need to be told to boycott.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people take time off from work to protest abortion.4 This is a hot-button issue for millions of Americans; it’s a maker and breaker among conservative political candidates. Millions of people will actually refuse to vote for someone who supports abortion even if they agree with the candidate on every single other issue. In fact, the only reason that abortion is still legal in America is because its supporters also see it as a moral issue. Abortion support is just as much a maker and breaker for progressive political candidates as it is for conservative ones. SOPA, PIPA, and similar bills are fundamentally moral issues too, and if the public were to regard them as such, and oppose them with the same fervor with which they fight over abortion, the allegiances of corporate America would matter not one wit as compared to the will of the people.
This is why public awareness is so important. In order for an issue to gain broad support or opposition, it must first have public awareness. The Public Consciousness must be tuned to the issue and made to care about it, enough so that mainstream news covers it, that people read the coverage and look for it, and that people actually start caring about their representatives’ stances on the issue. Once that happens we’ve won (or lost depending on your view.)
And this is how Slacktivism helps. The act of using your own usual channels to spread your message lets people know your view, it gives people a chance to care about the issues you care about and is a necessary step towards moving politics in your direction. Post information on your blogs, bring up issues on public forums, sign online petitions, and especially join in large attention seeking stunts like Blackout Day. Why? Because then people will hear about your issue, they’ll start asking questions, they’ll start forming opinions, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll join you in the fight.
- Including such notables as Wikipedia, Reddit, and even my rather unimportant corner of the web. ↩
- Actually these things have always been rampant; they aren’t particularly worse today than they were at the time of Andrew Jackson’s election or Harry Truman’s. Only the scope of the Federal government and its ability to cause harm through corruption has really increased. ↩
- even ignoring the constitutional amendments which prohibit it ↩
- The March for Life regularly draws over 250,000 people and in 2011 drew in excess 400,000 ↩