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The Day the Internet Started Fighting Congress

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, January 18 2012

Ron Conway at an anti-SOPA rally in San Francisco on Wednesday. Photo: Sarah Lai Stirland / techPresident

Throngs of technologists took to the streets in New York and San Francisco Wednesday to protest controversial anti-piracy legislation now before Congress, two of five events planned across the country, as many people who depend on Internet freedom for their livelihood shuttered their websites for the day and marched in an unprecedented level of political cohesiveness from online industry.

Wednesday's developments indicate a turning point in the Internet's short history. The shareable nature of content on the open web has made companies like Google and Facebook into an economic powerhouse; on Wednesday, technologists across the country made the case that they can and should flex political clout, too, in defense of the open Internet.

In short, the people who make the cat videos view two anti-piracy bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 in the Senate, as an existential threat to their livelihoods. It's also viewed as a threat to the fundamentally open nature of the Internet, which is sacrosanct to many users of the global network.

"We're fighting against the wholesale destruction of the Internet," Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian told a crowd of perhaps 1,000 people gathered in front of the midtown Manhattan offices of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats who are co-sponsors of the Senate legislation. The crowd, organized by the New York Tech Meetup, also heard from Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, Internet thinker Clay Shirky, Tumblr vice president and former White House policy hand Andrew McLaughlin, venture capitalist Brad Burnham, Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, "Filter Bubble" author and MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser, and Personal Democracy Media founder Andrew Rasiej.

Personal Democracy Media, techPresident's parent, has taken a stance against this legislation. Rasiej, chairman of the New York Tech Meetup board, was a co-organizer of the rally.

Especially compared to the boisterous, confrontational Occupy Wall Street actions that took to New York City's streets just months before and likely will return again, the gathering in New York was downright polite. Ohanian called it "one of the geekiest, most rational protests" in memory. And it was not alone: In San Francisco, a small knot of about 200 coders and start-up company staff gathered to protest SOPA and PIPA in 45-degree weather among the muttering homeless people sprawled around City Hall plaza. The attendee list reads like a who's who of Silicon Valley, including Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Jonathan Nelson of Hackers and Founders, and angel investor Ron Conway, whom Vanity Fair named in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the information age. Conway's friend MC Hammer, a co-investor with Conway in several Internet companies, also spoke at the rally.

"I am a big believer in participatory media, and not top down media, not media that is imposed on us by a class of media overlords," Fake said at the San Francisco rally. "And the people who are creating the legislation, it’s obvious to me, are people who don’t understand the industry, and who don’t understand how it works, and never built any of these products."

Conway himself has invested in more than 600 internet companies since 1994.

"I’ve been fortunate enough to invest in companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, all of whom would be severely impacted by this proposed legislation," Conway told the crowd, and a bank of television cameras, on Wednesday.

"Technology and the Internet have created 4 million jobs and counting," he said. "The Internet today is the biggest contributor to new jobs in the United States. We have giant companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and even more important and relevant are the companies who can’t afford lobbyists. Those are the startups, startups with five and 10 people that are tripling every year. We cannot stifle their innovation."

Conway's remarks were echoed not only by the hackers and programmers who shared the stage with him, but by city officials, who worry that the legislation could damage the internet boom that's buoying the city's fortunes as the rest of the country struggles economically. Both a representative from Mayor Ed Lee's office, in the form of its chief innovation officer Jay Nath, and David Chiu, the president of San Francisco's board of supervisors attended the Wednesday protest.

"We all recognize that Internet piracy is a real phenomenon," Chiu said. "That being said, this piece of legislation is not the right way to go. I am here to ask our federal representatives from congress to rework this piece of legislation."

"We need to figure out how to craft a federal policy that does not stifle innovation, does not stifle entrepreneurialism on the technological superhighway that we have today, and that does not kill jobs."

The paradigm-shifting nature of the day's events were not lost on its participants.

"This is an incredibly important day. I’ve not been aware of anything like it before," Kahle, also a longtime digital copyright activist, told techPresident in San Francisco. The Internet Archive, which gets two million visitors per day, joined British pop artist Peter Gabriel, Reddit, Wired.com, Metafilter, and Wikipedia among some 7,500 web sites that blacked out some or all of their content Wednesday in protest. The group provided code that enabled any web site operator to participate.

In response to mounting pressure Wednesday, dozens of federal lawmakers, including Sens. Jim DeMint, Susan Collins, Orrin Hatch and Scott Brown, either came out against the bill as written Wednesday or expressed concerns with the language. Some of those lawmakers, such as Hatch and Sen. John Cornyn, have historically been reliable votes for the entertainment industry. The push was enough that House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday there's not enough consensus for the legislation to be considered on the House floor.

According to ProPublica's SOPA Opera legislative tracking tool, the legislation has 27 supporters in the House and 83 opponents. In the Senate, there are 38 supporters and 19 stated opponents. Overall, the bill has lost at least 15 supporters in Congress in recent days, according to ProPublica.

The legislation is backed by a powerful coalition centered in Hollywood and including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America and others. Casting about in search of a solution to online digital piracy and the sale of counterfeit goods by entities based outside of the United States, these groups lit upon SOPA and PIPA, which would give copyright and trademark owners and federal law enforcement authorities the legal power to compel Internet intermediaries to block access to the offending foreign sites.

That coalition did not take kindly to the "Internet strike" that happened yesterday. In a statement Tuesday, Chris Dodd, MPAA chief and a former senator, called it "irresponsible" and a "disservice."

"It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today," said Dodd, Hollywood's top lobbyist in Washington. "It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests."

Despite the pressure, the senators representing California and New York — Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in California and Schumer and Gillibrand in New York — all remain co-sponsors of PIPA, and have yet to change their positions. The Senate legislation is set to move next week; in the House, however, Wednesday's events were enough to persuade House Speaker John Boehner to wait for consensus before attempting to move SOPA out of committee.

Conway, for his part, appealed to the tech industry trade groups TechNet and the Net Coalition to come up with a technological fix rather than a legal one. Both groups, which represent Silicon Valley companies, oppose the legislation in both chambers of congress in their current form. In the meantime, he issued the following plea:

"Congress: Please work with us on efforts to stop this legislation," he said. "Once again, technology has created over 4 million jobs, and we are the biggest contributors of new jobs within the United States. Please do not hurt that."

After Wednesday, activists aren't sitting back. The bipartisan duo of Demand Progress (run by Democratic activist David Segal) and Don't Censor The Net (run by Republican Patrick Ruffini of Engage) on Tuesday launched a new site, called Vote for the Net, that's designed to reward members of congress who vote against the two bills.

The duo claim that both their groups already have more than a million members.

With Miranda Neubauer in New York

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