You’ve read how Facebook and Twitter fueled the Arab Spring uprising. You are watching the videos coming out of Syria on Facebook. But most likely you have not witnessed the power of social media impacting politics in near real time right here at home in America. Sure, activism groups and politicians have tapped social media to raise money. But to date, no flash mob has ever stopped a bill in its tracks or beaten down in less than 48-hours legislation pushed by some of the most well-funded, well-connected lobbies on K Street. But that’s exactly what happened on Jan. 20 when a loosely organized campaign to stop PIPA and SOPA swept the Internet and shook the power structure of Washington D.C.
As a result, we have entered an entirely new and exciting era of politics.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
On Jan. 20, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev), the Senate Majority Leader, postponed a vote slated for this week on the PROTECT IP Act and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) stopped consideration of the Stop Online Piracy Act. PIPA and SOPA are designed to combat piracy and protect intellectual property with a particular focus on IP that can be transmitted over or pirated on the Internet. Key supporters of the bills included the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents record labels and the music industry, and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents the movie industry and is headed by Christopher Dodd, the former U.S. Senator turned lobbyist.
The proposed bills would have given law enforcement sweeping powers to shut down entire Internet domains if those domains were deemed to be infringing on copyrights or violating IP strictures. Reid and Alexander pulled back after a tremendous cyberprotest erupted. Phone lines and email inboxes at the U.S. Congress were jammed with messages. The onslaught included nearly 200,000 phone calls (made via Craigslist and Tumblr), 7 million online signatures (the Google petition), and over 2.4 million tweets via Twitter. Over 1,000 protesters showed up in person, as well.
But that’s the least of it.
The significance of this event was captured best in the RIAA’s response to the demise of those bills. "It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users and arm them with misinformation," said the RIAA in a statement, “it’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform." (I got this quote from
A sleeping giant — the technology world — finally rose. Google, Mozilla, Reddit, O’Reilly Radar, Wikipedia, and thousands of other Websites rose up to protest PIPA and SOPA. They argued that the two bills were too draconian and could, in fact, inhibit commerce while simultaneously threatening free speech and innovation. The famous Google doodle that day showed a large black rectangle aping censorship. Wikipedia was literally darkened entirely (at least the first page – you could work around this with a set of keystrokes if you so chose). To frame this battle properly, a loosely organized group of Internet leaders outwitted a well-funded lobbying organization. And they did so in grand style, convincing dozens of lawmakers to reverse their votes virtually overnight. As Alex Howard laid out on O’Reilly Radar: