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Google Tries to "Start Something" Post-SOPA/PIPA

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, April 9 2012

This morning somewhere between two and four million people got an email in their inbox from Vint Cerf, Google's official "Internet evangelist," asking them to complete the following sentence: "The Internet is the power to …" and to share their answers with the tag #ourweb. The effort is a direct outgrowth of the seven million-plus petition drive Google ran last January 18th against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), with the people being emailed the ones who opted in to getting more information on the issue. With this move, the other shoe that hadn't dropped since January's legislative battle is now in motion.

As someone who has called for Google to really unleash the potential power of the millions of people on this list (see "Editorial: How @Google and Friends Can Build Local Internet Power"), I'm pleased to see that the company is taking some strong first steps in the direction of greater engagement. First, it's smart to have this email come from Cerf, one of the Internet's founding fathers. And it's good that this email is signed by a real person, unlike the thank-you note Google sent after SOPA went down. This shows there's some real ownership here of an unfolding process. The effort, I'm told, is led out of Google's policy shop in Mountain View, CA.

Second, there's network building underway in asking people to join a common conversation and use a common hashtag. And it's also nice to see Google pointing users not just to Google+ as the place to have that conversation, but also Facebook and Twitter. Here's a look at the flow of responses coming in on Twitter alone. And Topsy shows about 1500 uses of the #ourweb hashtag so far today.

And third, by asking people to "start" rather than "stop" something, Google is trying to do something hard but also smart. The Internet is obviously much better at marshaling "stop" energy, but those of us who want a open and free networked public sphere know that we have to do more than just oppose bad legislation, we have to offer constructive solutions as well.

Some commenters over on Y Combinator's Hacker News seem to have trouble understanding why Google is dipping into direct political engagement of its users with this kind of soft ask at the beginning of the process. One wrote, "I'm confused. I understand the whole 'we are the web' thing. But do we really need a PSA for social networks?" Obviously, people who write code and people who organize other people are two different breeds.

The question remains, though, of where this conversation goes next, and how Google will navigate the new terrain it is entering. We'll be watching closely.

The email reads:

Micah, earlier this year you did something amazing.

You spoke out and showed that, when we stand together, we can prevent bad policies from hurting the Internet. You proved we can stop something, but now it’s time for us to start something.

The Internet is the foundation of millions of conversations among billions of people all over the world — and that includes you. Those conversations have allowed us to connect with friends, collaborate on a global scale, and produce some amazing innovations.

It’s time to start a new chapter in our Internet conversation — one in which we come up with positive and proactive plans to drive constructive Internet legislation in countries around the globe. Instead of reacting only to legislation that is harmful to the Internet’s utility, we should be promoting policies that improve the Internet’s usefulness while making it a safer and more secure environment for everyone.

To begin with, let’s discuss how much the Internet has empowered us. Complete this sentence:
“The Internet is the power to _________.”

If you feel moved to do so, you can and should write more, but don’t feel any pressure. This is only the beginning of an important dialogue.

To begin our conversation, let’s focus on all the different things the Internet has given us the power to do. Some of these things may seem trivial, but when you step back and look at the real potential and real power of each Internet-based exchange, each email sent, vacation booked, photo shared, and dream realized, they add up to something really incredible.

Our combined discussions about the importance of the Internet will remind legislators around the world that the web isn’t like all the other things governments regulate. It’s not a system of roads, or a factory, or a farm, or a company. It’s an organic collection of diverse communities whose shared conversations are making the world a better place.

That’s the tradition I hope you’ll continue today. Tell us what the web has given you the power to do and then share that with your friends so they take part in the conversation, too:

Thanks for everything you’ve done. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you start.

Vint Cerf

Chief Internet Evangelist