SOPA, PIPA and some truth about activism

As folks start to claim they saved the Internet and rally for alleged ways to keep the Internet open for all, I want to call out something Rep. Issa said at Stanford in April. Step one, and to me the but-for moment, in stopping SOPA and PIPA was the security and CS community speaking (which was rare) about just how dangerous (“A potpourri of dumb things” – Issa at around 8:15) the bills were. Without that the activism probably could never have gotten in place. Furthermore, as I noted elsewhere, science can shift. Science is, by definition, amoral. If you build it, it will work. So expect the copyright industry to demand new things. Expect them to hire and fund studies about how to get what they want without going using “A potpourri of dumb things.” And note that Google’s recent shift in approach regarding links and alleged pirate sites shows that things change.

This is not an apolitical moment. It is deeply political, but pretends that it is not about a power shift. When Internet and tech companies swear they are there for you, be skeptical. In some senses they are. Many folks I know at Google really are interested in serving users. Many are also scientists who will pursue, as they should, the truth of what is possible. The current bus-stop tour by Reddit’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian is political. Per the Washington Post, for him, “[T]he key issue is getting Internet openness on the minds and into the talking points of politicians in this election.”

What does openness mean? What are the politics of openness? Why do Facebook, Google, Reddit want openness? South by Southwest looks like it may have panel on disrupting DC. The description reads like an evangelic rally (a good tip that thought is replaced by faith). But to its big credit (except for saying the questions will be answered), the panel looks at some decent issues:

1. The Industrial Revolution brought about a political realignment that created the existing party system. Can the Internet do the same?
2. Beyond “openness,” what are the essential characteristics that define the Internet’s political identity? Market oriented or socially conscious? Libertarian or progressive? (Or all of the above?)
3. Politically, does the Internet most resemble an interest group (like big business or labor unions), a movement, or something we haven’t seen before?
4. Is Internet culture weakening partisanship — or making it worse?
5. Technology drives growth, but some say it also kills jobs. How do we make sure that the benefits of the Internet are widespread? Is there a consistent political viewpoint here among Internet activists, or does this break down along typical political lines?

I doubt one panel can tackle all these questions. Much will depend on the panelists and whether the panel is really open in that it has voices other than those who all agree. Nonetheless, one thing that is missing is a deeper look at the power structures and history that inform the issue. For example, the idea of realigning parties still relies on parties. And, there is an essentialism to Internet identity that is ironic at best and willfully blind and lacking irony at worst.

Have I abandoned my Google brothers and sisters? Oh perhaps, but I don’t think so. These questions were ones I raised while there. Some disliked them. Some took them seriously. The people I respected and loved the most pushed me to dig into these points. Like society, Google has many people with many views and agendas. That’s the point. With all companies and all people asserting truth, administer several grains of salt, reflect, (maybe add some lime and tequila first). For those wishing a good book on the problems with saying we know where we are going, check Professor Wendy Brown’s work, especially Politics Out of History.

One thought on “SOPA, PIPA and some truth about activism

  1. There was SOPA opposition from many different groups, each for their own reasons. We’ll never really know if it was a coalition which mattered, or if everyone else merely rode on Google’s coattails (I cynically tend to think it’s the latter, but I’m bad at politics). Even if the people who do know the truth tell us, it’ll be nigh impossible to sort it out from all the hype.

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