The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bad law. It gives too much authority to the government and to powerful industry associations. It is too open to abuse. It would require significant changes in how the Net works. And it is unlikely to accomplish its goals.
But that’s not why it felt oddly good to black out my little site yesterday. The blackness of the thousands of pages that protested the law on January 18 said more than “This site opposes SOPA.” I read two clear messages in the blackness.
First: This is our Internet, not yours. We built it. We built it for us. It is not a medium that someone else provided, and that we then filled with content. In fact, the Internet is not a medium. A medium is that through which messages pass. But when messages pass on the Internet, it’s because you and I are passing them along to others who may choose to pass them further. We’re forwarding links, attaching graphics, uploading videos. In the most literal sense possible, we are the medium, not the Internet.
Because the Internet is ours, we understand it better than do the regulators and the old content industries they listen to. In fact, SOPA shows just how poorly law-makers in general understand the Internet. If the Net needs to be tuned or tweaked, traditional law-makers are just about the worst people to be doing it.
That I think is the first message we should read in the blackness: the Internet is of us and by us. It is ours.
There’s a second message as well: There is a growing “we” on the Net. The “we” consists of the people who provide the Net’s value by innovating, collaborating, sharing their work, and engaging with one another.
This “we” has a better vision of what the Internet can be because we are inventing it. We also have a better understanding of what culture is and how it will work – how it is already working – on the Net. We remember that culture is what we have in common. The exclusion of ideas and works from this open, shared Commons is harmful to culture, even if it is sometimes justified.
The blackness of January 18 was a signal to one another that we have more power than we think. An idea that began on Reddit.com, a site marked by adolescent jokes and concerns, spread across the Net, reaching the mainstream media, and even our President. Politicians are beginning to pay heed, and if they do not, we will organized against them. We may lose, but with the blackness we have stated clearly: You are for or against the Internet. Choose.
Of course it’s not that black and white. The “we” of the Internet is extremely loose. It does not span all cultures. There are important differences within the “we.” And we aren’t nearly as smart and as pure as we may sometimes believe. Nevertheless, yesterday’s blackouts were the self-assertion of the Internet as a political force not to be ignored.