Controversy over legislation in the U.S., Europe and Canada to protect online copyright has mobilized a wave of new players from the user comm unity who deploy the Internet in new ways to influence the political debate. This phenomenon -- characterized by street protests organized via social media, online petitions, viral videos and other "hacktivism" techniques -- is being called "exo-politics" (i.e. outside politics as usual). It may presage a significant change in the political power equation.
Since the advent of commercial Internet services almost twenty years ago, there have been many debates about proposals to regulate services provided online. The most heated debates have touched on four hot button issues: (1) privacy, (2) security, (3) copyright and (4) pornography and censorship. But never has there been a debate in this context as heated, emotional -- and transatlantic -- as the debate during the last year about efforts to protect online copyright with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA.) This is because both these texts touched all four of these hot button issues at once -- and because SOPA and ACTA could have profound (and as of now hard to ascertain) implications for the evolution of the Internet and the services provided over it.
In the U.S., SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives in October 2011 and quickly gained bipartisan support from dozens of people in Congress and a diverse coalition of groups including labor unions and the powerful pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Similar legislation, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), gained support in the U.S. Senate. (At the same time, somewhat similar bills were being considered by the Canadian Parliament -- notably C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act.) In the international arena, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was negotiated and signed by the U.S., EU member states and nine other countries: it called upon signatories to take intrusive action against websites deemed to violate patent or copyright protections.
Provisions in all three measures would have required Internet Services Providers (ISP’s) to take steps to block access to websites providing unauthorized use of copyrighted material. The original versions of SOPA and PIPA stipulated that ISP’s should use domain-name filtering technologies to block access to such sites. Some ISP’s and members of the Internet technical community raised serious objections to the approach embraced by the bills. They worried about the feasibility and cost of implementing filtering technologies and worried that, once installed, such “censorware” would be used not just to fight piracy but -- in many countries -- to suppress freedom of speech and block innovative services. Even worse, they argued, the language of the proposed legislation was so open-ended and vague that it could be used to undermine the current fundamental rule in the U.S. (section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunication Act): it includes a clause (described by one scholar as being “best Internet law ever written”) exempting ISP’s and websites from liability for illegal content disseminated over their networks. (The only requirement is that they remove such content promptly after being notified about it.)
What troubled many bloggers most was a concern that the draft legislation and the ACTA agreement implied that protecting copyright-owners’ profits was more important than protecting Internet users’ privacy. All these measures called for the use of mechanisms to detect copyright violation (which might include techniques such as “deep-packet inspection”) that would involve monitoring individual Internet users’ browsing on the web.
As these draft bills were being debated in Congress and in Canada, ISP’s and other parts of the traditional Internet industry deployed the usual tools of political lobbying to seek changes to the legislation, but they were not making significant headway. In contrast, the Internet user community was starting to become aware of the profound potential consequences of the proposals and bloggers weighed in. Voices such as Mike Masnick at TechDirt contended that if SOPA, PIPA, C-11, and ACTA had been in force ten years ago, the world would never have seen websites such as Facebook, YouTube or Wikipedia. Such websites, based on user-generated content, would have had to ensure that none of the content on their site was copyrighted — before it could be posted. That would have been a hurdle impossible for these innovations to clear.
Critics in the blogosphere also objected to provisions in the draft bills and the trade agreement that, in their view, were liable to eliminate the well-established principle of “fair use” of copyrighted material in the digital realm.
With traditional Internet industry lobbyists’ floundering, the user community and bloggers mobilized new means of political persuasion, some of which proved surprisingly effective.
The most publicized -- and most global -- example was the self-imposed 24-hour blackout on January 16 of the English version of Wikipedia. Conceived by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales as a way to dramatize the impact that SOPA might have on sites that depend on user-generated content, notably on not-for-profit sites like Wikipedia, it caught media and popular attention globally. Wales estimates that more than 160 million Wikipedia users “saw” the anti-SOPA message that day, and hundreds of thousands of them took some action to express their opposition to the legislation. An estimated 7000 other sites also shut down for the day of protest. Online petitions against SOPA gathered more than seven million signatures, and online campaigns were organized to encourage boycotts of companies supporting SOPA.
Very soon, membe rs of Congress who had co-sponsored SOPA and PIPA started realizing that the bills were not, as some had been led to believe, non-controversial measures with broad-based support. Instead, they learned that many of the people who had voted for them in their last election felt so strongly on this issue that they would vote differently in the next election. Quickly, dozens of Congressional co-sponsors sought to have their names removed from the bill.
One blog, Reddit, mobilized its users to target specific members of Congress who were supporting SOPA or trying to decide whether to do so. Representative Lamar Smith, sponsor of SOPA, and Paul Ryan, a prominent Republican leader in the House of Representatives, both discovered that hundreds of people from around the country who opposed SOPA had sent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the campaign chests of their previously underdog opponents. In Canada, Internet activists took a different — and even more unconventional — approach. The hacktivist group Anonymous posted a video declaring Public Safety Minister Vic Toews “a joke of the Internet” (and revealed the name of his mistress) as retribution: Toews and other Conservative government ministers supported C-11 and similar legislation designed to monitor Internet traffic intrusively in the name of fighting crime.
In countries across Europe, activists used the Internet to educate Internet users about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and to put pressure on national parliaments and the European Parliament to prevent or delay ratification of the agreement. Many of the early and m ost effective protests were held in Poland after the Polish government announced on January 19 that it would sign the treaty on January 26. Two days later a number of government Web sites, including the Prime Minister’s and the President’s, were shut down by overwhelming denial-of-service attacks. By the end of the week, tens of thousands of protesters — mobilized by social media — had taken to the streets of several Polish cities and more than 1.7 million Poles had sent e-mail messages to members of the Polish parliament expressing their opposition to ACTA. In mid-February, Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that the Poland would not ratify the treaty. Furthermore, he wrote to members of the European Parliament affiliated with his political party to urge them to oppose ratification of ACTA. Similarly, the Slovene government, faced with street protests and outraged bloggers, announced that it will not ratify the agreement. Bulgaria and the Czech Republic intend to delay ratification pending further analysis.
The ability of the Internet to give groups of average citizens the power to pressure individual lawmakers in this way is a new factor in our political systems. Nigel Cameron, the founder of the Center for Policies on Emerging Technologies, has coined the term “exo-politics” to describe how the Internet is enabling new players to influence the political debate outside of methods traditionally used by lobbyists. By using social media to organize street protests, “flashmobs” and “moneybombs” of campaign contributions, by creating online petitions and videos with potential to go viral and by deploying denial-of-service attacks and a variety of “hacktivism” techniques, groups as diverse as the Tea Party, Americans Elect, MoveOn.org, Anonymous, and Occupy Wall Street have made their voices and demands heard in new ways. These tactics seem to be drawing previously unengaged citizens into the political process.
Michael Nelson teaches in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University and is a member of the European Institute’s Steering Committee on Telecommunications and IT