When Wikipedia and other websites shut down Jan. 18 to protest two anti-piracy bills, was it a stunt? Sure.
Were those blackouts an abuse of power and a dangerous gimmick? Hell no.
But don't tell that to Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former U.S. senator from Connecticut. He lashed out at websites that went dark to protest two bills - Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
As a journalist who once covered Connecticut government and politics, including Dodd, I was surprised to read his harsh language. Sure, the motion picture industry and other content creators want to protect their intellectual property, but they should not bully America's digerati.
Wrote Dodd on MPAA's blog: "A so-called 'blackout' is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals."
Dangerous for whom?
Dangerous for anyone who fails to respect the rights of individuals to protest, albeit virtually, and earn the attention of lawmakers?
Dangerous for anyone who fails to understand the new dynamics of communications, collaboration, and advocacy?
Google, Craigslist, and other SOPA-PIPA critics insist the proposed legislation instead would be dangerous for digital business. While they say they support efforts to crack down on piracy, they fear the measures - as written - would be expensive and difficult to enforce and thus hurt innovation in the United States. They also contend these measures would force the removal of legitimate content, resulting in censorship.
While thousands of sites reportedly went black for the day, others continued to operate and support the protest in other ways. Google, for its part, blacked out the logo on its home page and referred visitors to a microsite, google.com/takeaction, that permitted people to leave their name, Zip code, and email address for use in a petition to Congress.
To their credit, SOPA-PIPA critics avoided decades-old jargon about unfunded government mandates. Instead, they delivered simple and powerful messages to their communities and "constituents" and understood how online channels can be used to share and amplify messages.
"End Piracy, Not Liberty," read Google's call to action. In a thank you email, Google said yesterday the petition form was filled out 7 million times.
"Imagine the world without free knowledge," began Wikipedia's note explaining its opposition to the proposed legislation.
And, advocacy group Fight for the Future shared HTML code that made it easy for SOPA critics to black out their websites for 12 hours on Jan. 18, add "Stop SOPA" on their Twitter image, and post "Strike Against SOPA" to their Facebook Wall.
SOPA-PIPA supporters, for the most part, are old guard content producers such as CBS, NBC Universal, Macmillan, News Corp., and Sony Music, along with Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Another fascinating twist: the battle has also been portrayed as a struggle between L.A. and Silicon Valley.
What's remarkable about the SOPA-PIPA protests? Other events in the Internet's history have been more significant from a technology or business standpoint, such as the first web browser, the first commercial transaction, the first banner ad, and the first video.
However, this week's protest represents a highly effective use of instantaneous communications around a single cause in the United States.
Before this, special interest groups in D.C. bought influence and access to legislators - via campaign contributions, by hiring former lawmakers as lobbyists and more. But this week's protest shows that social networks have helped to make democracy a participatory process in the United States, too, and not just in Arab nations.
And legislators are listening. Several, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, removed their names from the bills. "Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences," he explained in a post on Facebook.
Sorry, Senator Dodd. Politicians, lobbyists, and other special interests inside the Beltway are seeing their influence and power erode, tweet by tweet.
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Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.
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