At midnight on Wednesday, January 18, a group of major websites closed down their services. Google redacted its image, Mozilla’s page went black, and Reddit and Wikipedia users were shut out. The Internet, something that is often portrayed as a chaotic free-for-all, came together in solidarity to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), legislation which would fundamentally change the Web by punishing content providers for illegal content that their users upload.
This isn’t the first blackout we’ve seen, however. Back in 1996, another controversial bill, the Communications Decency Act (CDA), successfully made its way through Congress. The CDA effectively criminalized the use of computer networks that allowed minors access to indecent and obscene material, and similar to SOPA and PIPA the Internet activists of the day were outraged by what they saw as an attack on free speech. The resulting Great Web Blackout consisted of more than 1,500 sites changing their background to black. At the time the Center for Democracy and Technology proclaimed it “by far the largest and most successful Internet demonstration in history.”(1) However, some netizens at that time expressed frustration the protest hadn’t occurred until after the bill was created. The Internet of 1996 was reacting to the world rather than shaping it. This week was different. A much more media savvy and socially networked Web got the message out regarding the restrictive effects of the proposed legislation with songs, videos, and memes. They even resorted to withholding sex. In response, key sponsors of SOPA withdrew their endorsements and Harry Reid put PIPA on hold. This latest protest over government restriction on information has already proved to be much more effective than its predecessors. It is clear as the Web becomes more social and our applications more sophisticated, the ability for large numbers of groups to form in solidarity becomes more and more of a reality. Are the recent online (and offline) protests and their effects proof that Internet activism works? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, it is clear when an issue is found to be important enough, people come together to create change. In this case, Internet consumers become Internet advocates. That’s a huge jump. On the other hand, this kind of advocacy just pits one group of commercial interests — the Internet and software industry — against another — the film and entertainment industry. The key question is whether this sort of activism can be translated to issues that go beyond the consumption of media.
Climate change is one issue where another Web blackout could prove useful. Earth Hour, the global event organized by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), calls for businesses and residents to turn off their lights for one hour in an effort to raise awareness about climate change. In the week leading up to the event, the WWF encourages websites to bring attention to the issue by changing their backgrounds to black. In the past, major websites such as Google have followed suit. But what if this year, at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31, along with houses and office buildings around the world, the Internet went dark? What if users went to sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, and — dare I say it? — Facebook, and saw the message: “We’re powering down our site for one hour. Will you join us in a conscious effort to fight global warming?” On a weekend evening, surely we could handle not having information immediately at our fingertips for one hour. If there was concern about access, users could opt out. As a user enters, sites could offer the option of participating in Earth Hour, or proceeding to the regular site. Not only would this request force people to stop and think about our effect on the global climate, it would also give us analytics about those who joined and those who did not. The involvement by online communities could prove that Internet activism can go beyond one issue, and that as world citizens we can join together and sacrifice for the greater good. It would be a small gesture made great by our immense, networked community – a reminder that there is more at stake than just websites.image: Earth Hour. Courtesy pirate johnny on flickr. (1) Mitchell, D. (1997). “Remembering the Great Web Blackout” http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/1997/02/1947