There were no chants of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” to be heard, no picket lines to cross. There was not even an inflatable giant rat — the motif of any good protest. Instead, there were redirected pages, black bars across logos and folk songs titled “The Day the LOLcats Died.”

Last week, the Internet (or parts of it, anyway) went on strike in a 21st-century take on the labor stoppages of the Industrial Revolution.

Instead of fighting for better working conditions, the protesters were trying to stop proposed changes to the Web. On Wednesday, Wikipedia, Reddit, Craigslist and a number of other influential sites shut their virtual doors to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The two similar pieces of legislation — the former under consideration in the House; the latter before the Senate — aim to prevent piracy online. But they have stirred intense opposition from Internet denizens who complain that the bills overreach in dangerous and innovation-stifling ways.

The measures pit two competing industries against each other: content creators and content hosts. The proponents of the legislation, including Hollywood studios and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, want tougher laws to combat the vast amount of stolen copyrighted material available on foreign-registered sites. But the content hosts — Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, Reddit and Zynga, among others — worry that the language in the bills could impose an unreasonable standard on otherwise law-abiding companies. Or, as online cartoonist the Oatmeal wrote during the strike, “This is like dealing with a lion that has escaped from the zoo by blasting some kittens with a flamethrower.”

The sites worry not only that the bills would require companies to police the sometimes millions of inputs they receive each day for instances of piracy, but also that if the sites fail to make a metaphorical arrest, they could be punished — almost like sending a police officer to jail for failing to catch all the criminals on his beat.

(Harry Campbell for The Washington Post)

For months, the protests smoldered online, but it wasn’t until the strike was declared that the debate became a national one.

Strikes can be dicey propositions (just ask the air traffic controllers). But they are a decidedly democratic form of expression: withholding work over an issue of principle that affects the ability to earn a living. It may be hard to draw parallels between the workers at Carnegie Steel in the 1890s and the purveyors of cute annotated cat images today. But the reality is that in just 10 years, technology companies and their users have found a way to unite using a more diffuse power structure to battle Congress — in essence, updating the old strike format.

It’s a messy, loose display of democracy. There was a heated debate at Wikipedia over whether to take the site down. Even after the decision to strike was made, members continued to voice their dissent.

It’s also uncertain whether the strike will make any real impact on the bills. They are scheduled for hearings in January and February.