Stanford Progressive

The Stalling of SOPA: A Stray Beam of Light in American Politics

By Chan Chi Ling, published February, 2012


Most people have come to realize that democracy in America is so dysfunctional that it’s hard for one to celebrate it without being called a naive, starry-eyed idealist. As a matter of fact, money speaks louder than anything else in American politics, public discourses have been hijacked by lobbyists and interest groups of all stripes and colors, and the prevailing gridlock in Capitol Hill has convinced us that party politics have conveniently rendered the nation’s interests secondary. “Power to the people” has long become a myth, like fading graffiti on an abject-looking brick wall discolored by disillusion and cynicism.
The recent stalling of SOPA, however, is a rare beam of light in the darkness that might offer a glint of hope. The controversial Internet censorship bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act, despised by the public and netizens as unnecessarily draconian, ineffective, and a blatant curtailment of free speech via Internet censorship, has been stalled due to – by official accounts – a “lack of consensus”. But this probably has less to do with “consensus” in the Congress and more to do with the serious backlash from tech enclaves (right here in Silicon Valley) and the online community, which have responded with blackouts in protest, petition-signing, and inundations of congressional hotlines and websites.
While the bill is not technically scuttled, it appears to be destined for an ignominious defeat, and that gives every Internet user a reason to cheer. It is a victory, and a sign that people can affect policies and bills if enough attention is generated, if enough people care enough, and constructive activism efforts made their way into Washington. Of course, the killing of SOPA isn’t entirely a bottom-up effort that speaks simply of victory of the grassroots or netizens; afterall, it had the backing of a powerful tech industry which no doubt had their own army of lobbyists. The fight may be characterized as a proxy war between the movie and music industries that are pro-SOPA, and the tech industry that is vehemently anti-SOPA. But the countervailing forces, one should realize, certainly wasn’t entirely directed by the tech industry.

What emerged were activist groups such as www.engineadvocacy.org and www.americancensorship.org that aimed not just to spread public awareness, but to build some sort of infrastructure that helps to change things in more tangible ways in Washington – an infrastructure that puts the government’s internet policies under greater scrutiny by generating sustained discourse and getting its network right to extend its sphere of influence. In politics, money matters; but knowing the right people who can speak up for you is just as important, and navigating through that complicated mesh of relationships can be a real difficulty. In this case, a strong chorus was generated, powerful enough to have forced SOPA and PIPA (Protect IP Act) proponents to cave in. For the “undecideds” in Congress who didn’t know what to make of SOPA, it became politically disadvantageous to support it in the face of the strong opposition both on line and off.

Why did SOPA pass through the Congress as far as it did? One can take the more cynical view that congressmen who backed SOPA did it merely under pressures of lobby groups from the music and movies industry, but one may also think of them as generally good souls who are well intentioned, but lacking in understanding of how the Internet works or how piracy can be effectively combated. An individual who wishes to remain off the record once commented that SOPA made it as far as it did partly because there was a discernible knowledge gap between congressmen and the wider Internet community – a very plausible claim.

Regardless, here is a rare instance where democracy worked to stop a bad policy in its tracks – by the sheer force of people (though this did not happen in the absence of big corporations’ backing), where freedom of expression has allowed players outside of the establishment to change the minds of people inside the establishment. And that’s a feat. It took the right mix of disruptive innovators compelled to serve causes that are not being served by the incumbents, to figure out a way to work around the lumbering establishment crowded with clamoring lobbyists, to finally make themselves heard and taken seriously. But stopping something bad is far from enough; true victory comes from building the right infrastructure that can get good things done. It’s entirely likely that SOPA would re-emerge like a phoenix from the ashes in other forms, and when that time comes let’s hope that the tech community can do more than boycotting, but chip in and help those congressmen (many of whom are old enough to be your grandfather) figure out something that actually works.

Democracy in America is still pretty hopeless, but occasionally a faint stray beam of light streams in and that should bring the starry-eyed idealist some temporary comfort.


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