Because our fight for a people-powered democracy and an economy that works for all Americans depends on a free and open Internet, OurFuture.org today is standing in solidarity with the many websites that are protesting two bills pending in Congress that are direct and profound threats to that freedom.
Many of these websites, including the reference site Wikipedia and MoveOn.org, have decided to "go dark" today to symbolize what could happen if the draconian measures in these bills are put into effect. The organization "Fight for the Future," which bills itself as a nonprofit defending "online freedom," calls today's action "the largest online protest in history."
The bills are the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House. The bills are ostensibly intended to crack down on copyright infringement, but both bills contain clauses that allow copyright holders to launch legal actions that would shut down an entire website, and the Department of Justice could demand that Internet service providers, search engines and social networking sites block access to the site. The Senate bill would allow a website to be blocked before the owners of the targeted site could defend themselves in court.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in its online campaign, says the legislation "invites Internet security risks, threatens online speech, and hampers Internet innovation." It would "would grant the government and private parties unprecedented power to interfere with the Internet's underlying infrastructure," would "give corporations and other private parties new powers to censor foreign websites" and "every incentive to create unofficial blacklists of websites, which service providers would be under pressure to block without regard to the First Amendment," and would force service providers "to monitor and police their users' activities."
The laws would have a chilling effect on sites such as ours, which link to content from a broad range of sources in the course of our political education and advocacy. We would end up spending a considerable share of our resources either avoiding or fighting lawsuits. Imagine the toll on sites devoted to challenging corporate power and right-wing orthodoxy.
MoveOn.org, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and DailyKos are also among the organizations launching online campaigns against the bills. The Personal Democracy Forum is staging a protest at the offices of New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom are co-sponsors of the legislation.
It is true that progressives and conservatives can be found on either side of this issue. People who create and market content on the Internet have legitimate concerns about piracy. And some progressives are legitimately leery of the motives of corporations such as Google, which have amassed considerable market power not always used in benign ways. As Micah Sifry, president of the Personal Democracy Forum, admits, this is "complicated." But legislation that could become a tool that big corporations or the government can use to shut down websites that they disfavor, using a link to allegedly pirated content as a pretense, is a threat to democracy that must be challenged. So, as Sifry concludes, "today we are all fighting together to save the public Internet. And that is unprecedented and good."
In fact, the mobilization in preparation for today's protest has had a positive effect. After months of silence, the White House issued a statement a few days ago that "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet." And Politico reported Tuesday that the Motion Picture Association of America is backing off one of the provisions of the legislation that opponents found most offensive.
As millions of people are exposed to today's protest, and as thousands of them on turn write their members of Congress, it is possible that a bill that just a few weeks ago would have passed with little debate will have to be rewritten to address the concerns of the people who use the Internet every day to fight for change, earn extra change, entertain or be entertained.
What's needed is a free and open Internet, that protects intellectual property and freedom of expression, that allows companies to grow big and powerful through the quality of their services but does not allow them to then use legal weapons to terrorize the competition.