February 03, 2012, 12:54 PM — Some critics have blamed Silicon Valley tech firms for the massive online protests last month against two controversial copyright bills. Other groups have trumpeted the grassroots nature of the protests.
The first narrative, that giant tech companies drove the uprising, has little basis in fact, according to several people who helped organize the protest. The second storyline, that the protests bubbled up from regular Internet users, comes closer to explaining the phenomenon, but reality is more complicated, participants said.
The protests were a combination of independent decisions by websites including Wikipedia and Reddit to go black on Jan. 18, behind-the-scenes organization by a number of groups, and grassroots response to the blackout and other online efforts, participants said.
The reason it's important to explain what happened is to show that it's possible to again organize large-scale online protests in the U.S., participants said.
"What we're seeing here is this integration of the organizations with [Washington] expertise, and these organizations that are very plugged into these user-driven social networks," said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, one of several groups that worked behind the scenes on the protest. "Multiply all of that across a community that is used to figuring out ways in which people can use these technologies for social interaction very quickly."
Fight for the Future, a fledgling group started in late 2011, plans to build on the SOPA protest model to draw together a network of websites to form an "Internet defense league" to contact Congress about future bills that threaten Web freedoms, said Tiffiniy Cheng, cofounder of Fight for the Future and OpenCongress.org, a congressional watchdog site.
Cheng said she was less surprised with the level of protests against SOPA and PIPA and more "in awe of experiencing a moment of political activism that turned out so well -- having seen a bill get shelved so quickly."
Last October, the group worked against a bill that would make the unauthorized online streaming of media content a felony -- an idea that would make it into SOPA -- and saw how a campaign could spread across the Internet through word of mouth, she said.
Fight for the Future counted 10 million petition signers during the SOPA protest, 8 million attempted calls to lawmakers and 4 million emails sent. More than 115,000 websites participated in some way in the protest, the group said. Dozens of lawmakers voiced opposition to the two bills during the week of the protest, with several withdrawing previous support.
Those numbers "seemed very fitting for our time," Cheng said. "This is a struggle for free speech and is at the center of why people use the Internet and why they care about it."