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As any high schooler with a paper due recently could tell you, Wikipedia went black for 24 hours last Wednesday. The shutdown was part of an internet-wide protest against two anti-piracy bills–the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. (For more on these two bills and the debate surrounding them, see Brandon Trout’s November 2011 post on SOPA and its opposition generally and Sophia Behnia’s post from last week about the House’s removal of a Domain Name System blocking provision from SOPA.)
The conflict over SOPA pits the tech industry against lobbying giants like the Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America, representing, as the New York Times called it, “a political coming of age for a relatively young and disorganized industry that has largely steered clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington.” As one might expect, the tech companies and websites that oppose the legislation took a non-traditional approach to influencing Congress, using their online presence to appeal to voters and encourage them to speak to their representatives, rather than going directly to lawmakers. Many websites, like Google, for example, directed visitors to pages that provided information about the bills, explained the tech industry’s opposition to them, and linked visitors to avenues by which to contact their representatives. Constant innovation has been the key to success in the tech world, and this new “lobbying” indicates that tech companies will bring the same creativity into their political battles.
While they have created quite a stir, it’s still unclear how effective these efforts will be in the long-run. Some argue that the SOPA battle is a big step for internet companies and an important manifestation of the influence they wield. David Binetti at TechCrunch argues that the debate over the bill is an important demonstration of tech companies’ rising power, speculating that “four years ago, a bill like SOPA would have sailed through Congress, particularly because it’s a media-related issue, the mainstream media would have likely avoided shining a spotlight on the issue.” The debate and the concerns voiced by tech companies have given many legislators pause, with some even announcing that they no longer support the bill.
But does the debate over SOPA really signal a major shift of political power to tech companies, or are the obstacles the bill now faces just a product of legislators treading carefully as new issues arise?
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