The Internet Goes Nuclear

Why the anti-SOPA blackouts are working—and why they should never happen again.

Twitter didn’t actually call Wikipedia “foolish” for its decision to go dark Wednesday in protest of a proposed anti-piracy law, as some breathless blogs reported. What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo actually said is that it would be foolish for his own company to do the same. Pressed by a journalist on whether he would have the cojones to follow Wikipedia’s lead, he said, “That’s just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish.”

He’s right. That’s why you won’t have any trouble logging on to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or Facebook today. Sure, they all have huge objections to the Stop Online Piracy Act, a House bill that would censor and potentially even shut down legitimate websites in a ham-handed attempt to get a handle on Web piracy. But for a big corporation, shutting down your services is the nuclear option. The collateral damage is huge, and it starts with your own revenues and reputation. Besides, it would be counterproductive. Google, Twitter, and Facebook are the best weapons SOPA opponents have in the fight to convince Congress to drop the misguided legislation.

For Wikipedia, the move makes sense. The online encyclopedia is not a global business. Rather, it’s a project of the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit whose declared mission is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content … and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” For Wikimedia not to take a public stand against a law that threatens the free flow of information would be a dereliction of its values.

Other websites that censored themselves Wednesday had their own good reasons for going nuclear. Reddit and Boing Boing are niche sites with loyal, tech-savvy users who are likely well-versed on SOPA’s evils. For those outlets, a blackout not only advances a worthy cause but generates publicity and lends them the online equivalent of street cred.

What’s remarkable about this protest is not that companies like Google aren’t doing more—it’s that they’re doing as much as they are. Google has blacked out its logo, an image that’s seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide every day, all to exert some indirect influence over how a handful of legislators in Washington handle a single bill. It’s not quite the nuclear option, but it’s a huge display of force for such a narrow target.

And it’s working. By now, about the only people unaware of the bill are those on camping trips in the wilderness. Washington is starting to get the message too. A hearing originally scheduled for this Wednesday has been put off indefinitely. The White House responded to anti-SOPA petitions with a blog post on Saturday saying it wouldn’t support the bill in its current form. And House majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has reportedly assured colleagues that the bill won’t come to a vote until there’s consensus.

The Internet industry’s shock-and-awe campaign has left the entertainment industry stunned. SOPA is the tool Hollywood has craved for years to plug the holes in digital-copyright law that allow Internet users to get for free what artists, studios, and record companies produce at great cost. They thought they’d done everything right, outspending the tech industry 13-to-1 in Washington lobbying and wooing key players such as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The frustration of the bill’s backers is obvious in their spluttering responses to the online anti-SOPA campaign. Blackout-style tactics are a “gimmick,” albeit a “dangerous” one, asserted senator-turned-lobbyist Chris Dodd, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. He cried that Internet businesses are “resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into corporate pawns.”

What Dodd really means is that the tech companies didn’t play by the established rules of the Washington game. Companies aren’t supposed to broadcast their complaints and turn the public into corporate pawns. They’re supposed to use lobbyists behind closed doors to turn legislators into corporate pawns. That’s how it’s always been done.

There’s actually a good reason to do things the old-fashioned way. As delightful as it is to see Google and other powerful tech concerns turn Washington on its head, direct appeals to the public are a terribly inefficient way to influence federal policy. Bills like SOPA and its Senate counterpart, PIPA, are dizzyingly complex, and attempting to explain their ins and outs to the voting populace—let alone to make them care—is a massive undertaking. The reason that Wikipedia, Reddit, et al. have gone nuclear, and that Google is taking unprecedented steps, is because an emotional, smack-in-the-face appeal will always get attention even if it doesn’t promote understanding.

Today’s blackouts will succeed in steering public opinion. That doesn’t mean, though, that we’ve seen the dawn of a new type of corporate lobbying. There’s a reason companies don’t just go on strike, Atlas Shrugged-style, every time they’re concerned about a new piece of legislation. Even the most well-regarded businesses can temporarily withdraw their services in protest only so many times before people lose patience and start to look for a permanent alternative.

Besides, the only reason the tech industry had to go nuclear is that they didn’t play the game well enough from the beginning. If tech lobbyists had been able to elbow their way to the table when SOPA and PIPA were being drafted, the laws would never have been so badly written. This guerilla anti-SOPA campaign surely wasn’t Plan A—it was an option of last resort, taken because the well-connected entertainment industry had the tech industry boxed out in D.C.

Now that the geek lobby has awoken, that probably won’t happen again. The big tech companies realized several years ago they could no longer afford to eschew the rough-and-tumble political game, and this experience will surely prompt them to ramp up their Washington lobbying operations more quickly. The next time a law arises that threatens their business, they won’t have to black out their sites to get the world’s attention.