The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, ‘The Day We Fight Back’ is not like the SOPA/PIPA fight. It’s a bigger challenge.

(REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Today's the day Internet users are protesting the NSA's surveillance powers. It's being billed as a massive online event akin to Jan. 18, 2012, when some of the Web's biggest destinations — reddit, Wired, Wikipedia — voluntarily went dark.

If the Internet activists of 2012 blacked out the Web to protest the threat of censorship under SOPA (Stop Online Pirvacy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), today's online demonstrators are trying to do just the opposite: Shed new light on an opaque system that combs through our e-mails, phone records and other electronic data we generate on a daily basis.

But while the comparison is superficially apt, today's protesters face the much more challenging task. In 2012, protesters were trying to stop what they viewed as a bad bill. Today they're trying to push a positive legislative agenda. How the demonstrators fare could tell us a lot about the challenges of online organizing, as well as about the future of Internet protest.

Visitors to reddit are currently being served ads for the day of protest that include a quote from Benjamin Franklin:

Tech companies have also gotten in on the act. The Reform Government Surveillance Coalition, which includes Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft, declared its support for the demonstration. In a blog post, Google vowed to press Congress on surveillance reform and provided a link to activists who want to stay abreast of what it's doing.

"In December," wrote Susan Molinari, Google's VP of public policy, "we unveiled a set of government surveillance reform principles that address many of the recent concerns around government surveillance. In Congress, Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced legislation — the USA Freedom Act — that would codify many of these principles."

As much as today's protests resemble the SOPA/PIPA battle of 2012 in that they oppose an alleged governmental injustice, the so-called "Day We Fight Back" is also about advancing a concrete proposal. That's an important step. From what we know about Occupy Wall Street and other distributed movements, the inability to coalesce around a policy idea makes it much harder for a protest to sustain itself over time. As with any political campaign, people switch off when they lose confidence in what a movement (or a candidate) stands for. It's not enough to know what it stands against.

Today's protesters benefit significantly from the fact that the USA Freedom Act has already been introduced in Congress and has lawmaker support. They're also backed by the tech companies that have substantial lobbying power on the Hill. If the bill passes, activists will be able to claim that their efforts at Internet organizing contributed in some measure to actual legislation, adding momentum for further actions down the road.

It's much easier protesting the threat of online censorship than it is protesting surveillance, which is more abstract.

"Expansive surveillance programs damage user trust, stifle innovation, and risk a divided Internet," according Mozilla's Chris Riley, whose organization is in on the demonstration. "They affect all Internet users around the world – and yet we still don’t know their full impact, even now."

The bill (and the protesters) could still fail. Some have said the USA Freedom Act merely proposes baby steps. But between the greater challenge of taking on an opaque idea and the need to promote a policy alternative, the bar is also a lot higher for today's protesters than a couple of years ago.