Blacking Out: Why We Protested PIPA and SOPA (and why we almost didn’t)

Thanks to Amanda Summers, a Masters student at the Oxford Internet Institute (and a great friend), for her irreplaceable help with this post.

When we started this blackout, I had two main concerns about PIPA/SOPA. First, would I still be able to access images of cute puppy pictures through Google Image Search? And second, would I be allowed to post copyrighted emo lyrics on my Facebook status when I’m feeling moody?

Even while writing this post, I still don’t know the answers. Nevertheless, The Georgetown Progressive decided to participate in a 24-hour blackout yesterday to support freedom on the internet. I acknowledge that this was not without serious discomfort on my part as Editor-in-Chief. I like protests as much as the next progressive, but sometimes, they don’t raise the kind of awareness desired. Most of what I learned from the Wikipedia blackout, for example, is that my mother has been right all a long: we are way too dependent on Wikipedia. Thank goodness the Wikipedia page on PIPA was still accessible!

The blackout, popular on websites where users consider themselves creators (WordPress blogs like this one, Wikipedia, Reddit, etc.), provides a false sense of grassroots activism. In a time when so many Americans are disenchanted with Congress, the President, big corporations, or all, grassroots activism is appealing because it originates with millions of people and works its way up instead of the other way around (think #Occupy and the Tea Party pre-Bachmann Caucus Era). But protesting PIPA and SOPA isn’t the same. Consider one of the leading sponsors of an anti-SOPA/PIPA petition: Google. Google makes millions of dollars every year by linking to obvious copyright violations. YouTube, in particular, makes money every time I decide I want to listen to a 3OH!3 song without having to admit that I like 3OH!3 by buying their music.

No, not THAT kind of blackout.

No, not THAT kind of blackout.

That said, despite the removal of the controversial DNS blocking statutes, there are still several major problems with both PIPA and SOPA. The legal concept of imposing secondary liability is a little strange. Techdirt has a fantastic article about the bills with a particularly good metaphor to explain what PIPA/SOPA does: “The point of safe harbors from secondary liability is blaming the party actually doing the action that breaks the law. We don’t allow people to sue AT&T because the telephone was used in commission of a crime and we don’t sue Ford because someone crashed their pickup truck into another car. Liability should be properly applied to the parties doing the action that breaks the law.” Before you claim that US companies are safe, take a look at this piece, which does a good job of reminding us that sites like or are still American-based companies that may be blocked from US search engine results (like Google).

The anti-circumvention laws are understandable in their intent but also seem to create more problems than they solve. If I tell you where to find a foreign pirating website on my Facebook after its links have been removed from Google, Facebook is screwed rather than the pirating site or the user who shared the information. More importantly, the legislation may cause serious problems for journalists and NGO employees abroad who are trying to communicate with their employers, their families, or the U.S. government.

In short, the proposed legislation is potentially extremely damaging for a whole host of reasons. The blackout was intended to raise awareness. But it didn’t do all that it could have. Ask your friends who signed Google’s anti-SOPA petition: what does SOPA do? If the answer isn’t more than “censor the internet,” send them here. We can’t have a productive conversation about how to intelligently protect the creators of intellectual property until everyone knows not just that Wikipedia blacked out for a day, but why.

3 Comments on "Blacking Out: Why We Protested PIPA and SOPA (and why we almost didn’t)"

  1. They enjoy them, but they don’t think they’re worth anything. I enjoy sitting outside, but I don’t want to have to pay for the sun, and the only “worth” I’m thinking of is the value of the time I’m spending. Which is fine: The sun didn’t cost any money to produce. But media does. It costs the time and effort of zillions of people, not to mention the actual products that were used in manufacturing (sets, instruments, printing presses). By not paying for products that require money for their creation, we’re sending the message that they’re not worth paying to create.

  2. “…a culture in which we think that intellectual property isn’t worth respecting, in which we don’t believe that media (music, film, or even books) are worth paying for. And since we live in a capitalist society, that essentially means we’re saying they aren’t worth anything.”

    I don’t play for Mozilla Firefox’s AdBlock. Thanks to open source, I don’t think I should have to pay for an ad blocker. Does this mean that I find AdBlock worthless? Not at all.

    If people found media worthless, why would they even seek out “music, film, or even books?”

  3. Thank you for reminding me that the reasons the SOPA/PIPA protest bothered me was not just my inherent disdain for protests! Believe it or not, this is one of only two articles I’ve read today that pointed out that Google, Wikipedia, and the like make lots of their money off of pirated works.

    I understand the reasoning against the anti-circumvention laws (Amanda shared that link with me, too), but I don’t fully agree. My problem with current anti-piracy laws is that they place the burden of copyright protection on the victims of piracy; i.e. if NBC/Universal doesn’t complain that I’ve uploaded the latest episode of 30 Rock, Youtube (or whoever) doesn’t actually have to take it down. That’s not fair. Let’s compare this to the flesh-and-blood world – if you drink too much at my house and get into an accident driving home, maybe the company that created your car isn’t liable, but I am for letting you drink and then not stopping you from driving. There’s an inherent discrepancy in the way that internet businesses and non-internet businesses are treated, and that’s not fair. I generally tend to favor less regulation for all businesses, but you know what? Back at the turn of the century, businesses claimed that anti-child-labor laws and the forty-hour work week would destroy American business. That…didn’t happen. Websites might have to invest more of their own energy into policing their content, and might have to lose money by giving up the traffic provided by giving access to pirated content. But they’ll figure it out.

    I’ve used the internet-as-frontier metaphor a lot today, but I really do think it applies: eventually, internet businesses need to be subject to the same rules as all other businesses. Just think of how the knockoff purse kiosk near Wisconsin runs when they see the police. Does anyone get scared of getting in trouble for accessing pirated work? The lack of regular punishment for internet piracy (yeah, some people get in trouble, but waaaaay fewer than actually participate in it – which is basically everyone who uses the internet) breeds a culture in which we think that intellectual property isn’t worth respecting, in which we don’t believe that media (music, film, or even books) are worth paying for. And since we live in a capitalist society, that essentially means we’re saying they aren’t worth anything.

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