So it has begun. In the coming hours, lights will be switched off at an estimated 7,000 websites across the Internet as the web protests SOPA, an oppressive act that threatens to disfigure the Internet as we know it.
While the spotlight is only now really focusing sharply on this badly-written law, SOPA first attracted criticism months ago. Back in November, a letter [PDF] was sent to four high-seated U.S. politicians in the Senate and House of Representatives. It was signed by nine Internet behemoths: AOL, Google, Facebook, Ebay, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo!, and Zynga. In said letter, the companies said they “were concerned that [measures proposed by SOPA] pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job creation.” They wanted SOPA to be pulled down. They saw it as ham-fisted and harmful, and they were prepared to speak out about it.
Many of us found the united stance of these companies heartening. The Internet’s meanest gunslingers had rode into town to help the little guys. So why, as we enter SOPA Blackout Day, have so many of those outspoken tech firms delivered such limp-wristed protests?
Check the sites of those who signed that November 2011 letter, and anti-SOPA sentiment is all but invisible. AOL, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Zynga, Ebay: at the time of writing, none of these have a single syllable about SOPA anywhere on their front pages. Twitter also skirts the issue, with CEO Dick Costolo even calling the shutting down of sites “foolish.” Mozilla does mention SOPA in a blog post linked on its front page, though it’s well below the fold. Next to all of these, Google’s response – an anti-SOPA Google Doodle and a link to a petition addressed to Congress – looks positively revolutionary.
Tellingly, Wikipedia (which didn’t sign the aforementioned letter, and hey – doesn’t answer to shareholders) is the only online giant to stage an effective protest, blacking itself out for 24 hours. It’s a powerful move from a site that remains the fifth most popular in the world, and it will have an effect. It is joined by Reddit, and then a further clump of middle-sized sites and companies, such as BoingBoing and the Cheezburger network. The gesture is appreciated by opponents of SOPA, but there’s a nagging feeling that the big boys, the heroes who signed that November letter, have let the side down.
There’s another reason the relative inaction of bigger sites is disappointing. Sites such as Reddit and BoingBoing are far more likely to be visited by educated readers, people who already know about the sinister SOPA. Temporarily closing a site like Reddit or BoingBoing is a ballsy move, and will justifiably win admirers, but it feels like these few bold sites are preaching to the choir.
I am convinced more courageous action from the Internet’s big players could have shut SOPA down for good. Imagine if Facebook had closed its doors: 800 million users shut out in an instant. Imagine if sites like Yahoo!, AOL, and Twitter had yanked the shutters up. More intriguingly, imagine the complete storm if Google had shut up shop for just a few hours. The coverage would be immense, surely a billion more people would be educated, and the signatures would weigh in the tens of millions. SOPA (and its ugly sister PIPA) would be dead in the water. All in return for a few hours of downtime.
As it is, the pusillanimous reaction of these big sites means SOPA will now be able to retreat to the shadows and bide its time. It will be tweaked, refined, and will likely return in the future, insufficiently diluted. SOPA Blackout Day was an opportunity for the web to truly stand as one and deliver the killing blow to an unreasonable, poorly conceived law. SOPA will be back. Next time, let’s hope a few more giants deliver actions as well as words.