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Geeks Gear Up To Fight Online IP Bills, PIPA, SOPA

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, January 11 2012

Picture: Isaac Mao

Activists advocating an open Internet and worried that the Senate could fast-track a controversial online intellectual property protection bill are coalescing on the web and getting together to set up meetings with their members of Congress and staffers in states across the U.S. to express their concerns with the legislation.

The meetings are taking place over the next couple of weeks either with congressional staffers, or at town hall meetings that the activists plan on attending. They're going armed with talking points prepared by digital rights group Public Knowledge, which ask the members of congress to vote no on the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP, or "PIPA.")

“SOPA really angers people,” says 31-year-old Tiffiniy Cheng, director for the Media Democracy Fund's Center for Rights, which is the non-profit behind Americancensorship.org, where the organizing among the grassroots opponents of the legislation is going on. Cheng and her colleagues have been working with Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the the Mozilla Foundation to gin up public attention to the measure. The senate could vote as soon as January 24, a day after it returns from recess, to approve it.

SOPA is the House version of the Senate bill. It's an acronym for the Stop Online Piracy Act.

“This is not a copyright issue, this is not about Hollywood,” Cheng says with indignation on the phone. “This is about who controls the internet. And that issue is just so big. People love the internet, and they want it to be open and accessible to them, and they love the idea of the free flow of information.”

AmericanCensorship.org launched its current initiative to get people out to town halls to lobby their members of congress a week ago.

“People will be going to these meetings up until January 24th, and then out of that, we’re hoping to get people to understand that this is a real issue that people care about, and that they’re going to take in real life to their senators,” Cheng says.

Public Knowledge is holding two briefing teleconferences this week with people organizing at Americancensorship.org's site.

By the end of this week, Americancensorship.org is going to launch a petition to the major web companies to follow the link-sharing community Reddit's lead. Reddit announced Tuesday afternoon that it plans to go black on January 18 for 12 hours and simply stream a hearing that Alex Ohanian, one of its co-founders, will participate in that day on Capitol Hill. It's being held by the House Oversight and Investigations Committee, and its chairman Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.) is sponsoring a competing House version of a bill that attempts to tackle the issue of online piracy and counterfeiting i from foreign-run web sites through the International Trade Commission instead of having the Justice Department unilaterally seize web site domains. Domain name filtering is not part of the bill's proposal.

Americancensorship.org isn't the only group with plans to get members of the public to speak out against the legislation in its current form.

There’s also talk about raising money for candidates who oppose the legislation.

“There are already all these campaigns happening that have to do with fundraising for senator heroes who have been fighting to stop SOPA, and targeted campaigns against senators supporting SOPA, and those are taking off, and we’re supporting those,” Cheng says.

Most recently, members of the Reddit community appeared to have successfully elicited a statement from Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to commit to opposing the proposed House version of the legislation in its current form.

Though Ryan isn’t on the House Judiciary Committee where the legislation is being crafted, a group of Redditors launched a campaign called “Operation Pull Ryan.”

The idea was to persuade Ryan to state his opposition to both SOPA and the provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act that included provisions to officially allow the indefinite detention of Americans, or to face the Redditors’ campaign to boot him out of office this year.

The group took the first step by inviting Ryan’s Democratic challenger Rob Zerban at the end of December to participate in an “Ask Me Anything” session. Zerban answered many policy questions, but he also wrote an open letter to domain name registrar GoDaddy telling them that he was transferring his domain name away from the company because of its support for SOPA (GoDaddy has since reversed its position.) Zerban also launched a section of his campaign web site to collect signatures to oppose the legislation.

In return, Redditors rewarded him with $15,000 in 48 hours. Zerban also told Redditors that his campaign had signed up hundreds of volunteers after his AMA session.

Cheng says that Sens. Al Franken, (D-Minn.) and Chuck Schumer, (D-New York), both –co-sponsors of the senate bill, are next on her organization’s contact list.

Though they’re not up for re-election this year, both are high-profile figures who should care about this issue, she says. Franken in the past has been a supporter of net neutrality, and Schumer’s state, New York, is now the home of many start-ups in the technology and media industry.

“They have the ear of public discourse and should care about public opinion,” she says.

The Americancensorship.org coalition aren't the only ones out there organizing a campaign against the legislation in its current form.

Engine Advocacy, a new digital advocacy group in New York City for tech start-ups, plans to set up "a new PIPA-focused web tool on our site in the coming days and we hope to drive a lot of traffic against PIPA," co-founder Michael McGeary tells techPresident.

The Americancensorship.org coalition’s last major action was Nov. 16. Called American Censorship Day, the event featured participating sites blacking out their logos. Tumblr used new messaging tools to connect users with their members of Congress to oppose the legislation. For their part, Cheng says that more than 50,000 calls were made through the Mobile Commons calling app on AmericanCensorship.org’s web site since it was made available on the site Nov. 16.

Will these and other campaigns have any effect? It's difficult to say, but they might help in putting the brakes on the passage of the legislation while they may not kill it outright.

As this graphic based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows, the traditional media, entertainment and business groups' spending in 2010 and 2011 on lobbying dwarfed the spending by web companies and a tech industry trade group: In 2011 alone, the entertainment and business groups spent $94.1 million on lobbying compared with a paltry $15.1 million by Amazon, Facebook, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, eBay, Google, the NetCoalition and Yahoo.

Even if activists do use Reddit to raise money, it would probably be up to the tech companies to lay out the kind of cash needed to mount a credible traditional lobbying challenge against the bill. And doing so against an already established, massive coalition that, to some observers' dismay, includes an array of big labor unions on the same side as the megacorporations that employ their members, would be a heavy lift.

The fortunes of SOPA and PIPA are uncertain, but it's clear that this fight is part of a growing political consciousness among the ever-increasing number of people in Internet-powered industries.

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