SOPA, PIPA and ACTA managed to achieve what would have been considered impossible just a few months ago: to raise public awareness to legislation dealing with highly technical issues. All around the world people protested, be it online or offline, against what they correctly perceived to be an unholy alliance between the corporate interests of the entertainment industry and state surveillance. On Jan 18th, an estimate of 7000 websites, including Wikipedia, went voluntarily dark to protest SOPA while Google collected 7 million signatures on a petition against it. On Feb 11th, between 150.000 and 200.000 people participated in rallies that united 200 European cities in a protest of unprecedented size.
What’s more, the public remains highly alerted to the fact that the battle isn’t over yet and that they will have to be on the look-out for those bills reappearing with slight cosmetic enhancements and that they will have to protest them again and again.
The protests caught both the political and corporate establishment off-guard. Mainstream media had been fast asleep on the issue for quite a while, and so had most political parties. And even so, the uproar happened, organized mainly on social networking sites and covered by blogs. The protesters where mostly people who would have considered themselves apolitical before – well, they aren’t anymore. They are a force that will have to be considered in the future, and, surprisingly, they are a well-informed force too, despite (or, more pointedly, due to) the fact that they don’t rely solely on traditional media for their information and thus are quite immune to the huge lobbying efforts of the entertainment industry. Quite a few of them have turned into propagandists for their own cause and proved that crowd-source lobbying on social media is highly effective.
While corporate lobbyists had successfully pressured the elected representatives of the people, the people themselves showed that they were neither impressed nor amused by their representatives secretive attempt to betray their interest. And it wasn’t the self- proclaimed watchdogs of corporate investigative journalism who rang the alert on what was going on behind closed doors: first, it was just WikiLeaks. In 2008, they published the 2007 discussion paper for the first ACTA draft, but no sizable mainstream coverage of this news resulted from it. It took many more leaks and considerable effort from organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU (just to mention some) to force this topic into the news. But, what really got it onto the front pages were the images of thousands of people wearing Guy Fawkes’ masks in the streets.
While politicians were still trying to paint hackers as some sort of terrorist menace to society, the Anonymous symbol had long gone mainstream, and – surprise – people did not perceive them so much as a threat but as an ally, since they had been winning the info- wars on channels no one had on the radar for quite a while, channels like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps, the most striking illustration of that fact was the picture of polish parliamentarians wearing the mask in their protest against ACTA on 26 January 2012.
And so, on the eve of the protests, the German government announced they would postpone the signature (in a desperate attempt for a last minute answer to the announced rallies). Now most established parties are shelving the drafts, are trying to whitewash themselves from any involvement with SOPA, PIPA or ACTA and are issuing statements saying they will revise them and not allow legitimate copyright protection to infringe on peoples right to free speech on the Internet. Really? While the bills have been largely described as being very unlikely to have a significant impact on piracy, they would have been a powerful instrument in legitimizing internet censorship and online surveillance. So we should be asking ourselves what the real purpose behind those bills was and not be too optimistic about their successors.
According to the german tech newsticker heise online, the protocols of the TRIPS- Council advising the EU- commission show that they are not overly impressed by the protests, which they called “misinformed statements of the net- community”, and that they plan to go on with the implementation as planned. A letter sent to EU- parliamentarians was leaked to the german blog Netzpolitik.org and it shows the 43 pro-ACTA signatures calling the protests “a co-ordinated attack against democratic Institutions like the EU- parliament and national governments” and accuses the protesters of trying “to silence the democratic process”.
So, the battle is far from over yet. It’s time to take it to the next stage and question what’s so “legitimate” about current copyright legislation anyway. One of the best quotes on this issue I’ve come across so far is from Cory Doctorow in The Guardian: “We can imagine a copyright system that either allows 5 Hollywood studios to make about 40 hours of film a year or allows hundreds of millions of people to make 29 hours of video per minute, which is YouTube.”
It’s your choice, but be ready to fight for it. The means to do it are still at our disposal and public opinion rarely mattered more than now.
Gabriele Müller is a world citizen, interested in promoting civil rights, transparency and justice. She may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. And at FaceBook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001412545539