Blackout Day, The Public Consciousness, and a general defense of Slacktivism.

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.

  1. Including such notables as Wikipedia, Reddit, and even my rather unimportant corner of the web. 
  2. 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. 
  3. even ignoring the constitutional amendments which prohibit it 
  4. The March for Life regularly draws over 250,000 people and in 2011 drew in excess 400,000 

Last update: 19/01/2012

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