Stop Online Piracy Act—A Political Battle between Old and New Media
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, along with a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). If passed, SOPA would give the owners of film, music, or other intellectual property new tools to protect themselves from online piracy or theft. They could sue to force Internet service providers, search engines, payment processors, and advertisement networks to block or stop doing business with websites linked to online piracy. Business was split on the proposed law. The Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—considered “old media”—supported SOPA. But online companies, such as AOL, Twitter, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, eBay, and others—the “new media”—opposed it. As one blogger remarked, this could become “the biggest controversy in 2012.” Old media proponents argued that the SOPA legislation was needed since rogue websites steal America’s innovative and creative products by attracting more than 53 million visits per year, leading to unauthorized downloads of music, films, and books and threatening more than 19 million American jobs in creative industries. More than 400 businesses and organizations, many from the entertainment or publishing industries, collectively contributed $91 million to congressional lobbying efforts in support of SOPA. This was the most the entertainment industry had ever spent on a lobbying effort. Other supporters turned to social media and sent out tweets advocating the necessity of SOPA. Opponents of SOPA, by contrast, argued that “the bill, as drafted, would expose lawabiding U.S. Internet and technology companies to new uncertain liabilities, private rights of action, and technology mandates that would require monitoring of Web sites,” according to a letter sent to members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees by Goggle, Facebook, Yahoo!, and eBay. Several Internet companies proposed an alternative bill that would punish foreign websites that engaged in copyright infringement through international trade law. “We have a chance to reset the legislative table to find out what kind of legislation is needed,” said Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, a trade group comprised mostly of Internet companies. “We have an opportunity to step back, recalibrate and understand what the problem is.” Google’s director of public policy added, “Like others, we believe Congress wants to get this right, and we know there are targeted and smart ways to shut down foreign rouge Web sites without asking U.S. companies to censor the Internet.” The new media organizations introduced novel political strategies to combat the act. Critics created a “Censorship US” day and its website encouraged political protest using social media tactics. In January 2012, Reddit.com, a social news site, was joined by other Internet sites, including the politically oriented MoveOn.org, the popular technology and culture blog BoingBoing, and the Internet humor site Cheezburger Network, for a daylong, sitewide blackout to protest SOPA. Wikipedia, the world’s free online encyclopedia, was dark for a day except for a short paragraph urging users to protest SOPA on the ground it could “fatally damage the free and open Internet.” (Google, Facebook, and Twitter declined to participate in the blackout, despite their public opposition to SOPA. Some criticized the companies, accusing them of being unwilling to sacrifice a day’s worth of revenue.) The critics of SOPA also undertook more traditional political efforts, such a letter writing campaign, sending of e-mails, and making telephone calls to various influential members of Congress. Facebook hired former a White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, to push the company’s opposition in Congress. Goggle reportedly spent $5 million in the first quarter of 2012 to combat SOPA (a 240 percent increase from Google’s lobbying spending in the first quarter of 2011), with Microsoft spending $1.8 million, and Amazon and Apple $500,000 each during the same period. The Stop Online Piracy Act “awakened the entire world,” said a Harvard law professor. “They are realizing just how big this fight was becoming.” In response, many in Congress reversed their initial position in support of SOPA. “Thanks for all the calls, e-mails and tweets. I will be opposing #SOPA and #PIPA,” tweeted Senator Jeff Merkley. Later, Senator Grassley, a senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, withdrew his support for a bill he helped write. Political analysts commented that the new media’s protests seemed to have worked. Initially 81 members of Congress supported the bill, compared with only 25 legislators opposed (the rest were undecided), but crumbling support may have contributed to Senator Harry Reid’s announcement in January 2012 that the Senate’s vote on the SOPA counterpart, PIPA, would be delayed. The House quickly followed, announcing that the House Judiciary Committee would postpone consideration of the legislation “until there is wider agreement on a solution.” The committee’s chair, Lamar Smith, commented, “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem on online piracy.”
1. Which of the political tactics discussed in this chapter are evident in this case?
2. Why were the political tactics used by the “new media” so effective in this case?
3. Would the effectiveness of these tactics vary, depending on the political issue at stake?
4. What can traditional companies learn from the new forms of political activity described in this case?