The Internet was supposed to fight back yesterday. Instead, it fizzled.


The Wikipedia homepage before the SOPA/PIPA black out in 2012 (KAREN BLEIER - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Tuesday was supposed to be the day the Internet fought back against National Security Agency spying. Digital activist groups organized what they hoped would be a massive online day of action -- a "worldwide day of activism in opposition to the NSA," honoring Aaron Swartz and the anniversary of the 2012 SOPA/PIPA blackout. But "The Day We Fight Back" fell far short of the fervor that marked the earlier protest.

The blackout aimed at halting the pair of anti-piracy bills with broad implications for an open Web was a defining event for Internet activism: On Jan. 18, 2012 thousands of Web site went dark with message of protests and calls for action. Fight for the Future, which helped organize the blackout claims 10 million petition signatures were gathered, over 4 million e-mails were sent, and 115,000 sites participated. Wikipedia reported more than 8 million U.S. readers looked up their congressional representatives using the blackout landing page to protest the bills. The online pressure was so great it briefly took down some congressional web pages.

But now two years later, when widespread online data collection and surveillance has been revealed as the policy status quo, many of the same groups could only command a fraction of the same engagement. Instead of 115,000 properties going dark, around 6,000 Web sites posted a banner requesting action, according to one press release. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation's blog post claimed "over 71,000" calls to Congress, and "over 200,000" signons to an anti-surveillance policy statement.

Those outreach numbers are nothing to sneeze at, and the movement gained traction with major tech brands like Google, Microsoft, and Twitter via its endorsement from the Reform Government Surveillance coalition. But the results don't even come close to the behemoth outpouring that accompanied the SOPA/PIPA blackout.

Part of this might be attributable to the more nuanced stakes. The SOPA/PIPA blackout was aimed at stopping what activists considered bad bills, so protest organizers had a concrete bogeyman and a clear plan of action: This bill is bad for the Internet and if it doesn't become law, we win.

In contrast, "The Day We Fight Back" felt somewhat disjointed -- memorializing Swartz and the anniversary of the blackout a month late as well as opposing mass surveillance. On the latter subject it did have a distinct ask: Protesters were urged to ask their member of Congress to support the USA Freedom Act, a proposal to reform some NSA spying practices and decry the FISA Improvements Act, a law that would enshrine some aspects of the disputed programs. But asking for support on legislation is a more complex process than organizing pressure in opposition.

Since Congress has largely been in gridlock in recent years, it's much harder to get something through the legislative process than it is to get something stopped. It's also more difficult to battle an incumbent policy. The revelations about government snooping over the past year show a concrete, pervasive program that is already entrenched cross multiple agencies and affecting the general public right now. The SOPA/PIPA fight had the luxury of battling something that was still a theoretical menace.

But regardless of the reasons for the decreased turnout, one thing is clear: While trying to reignite the activist fire of the blackout, "The Day the Internet Fights Back" fizzled out.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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