Wikipedia’s SOPA Blackout Is a Brilliant Tactic That It Should Never Use Again

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Jan. 18 2012 3:49 PM

The Internet Goes Nuclear

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

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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.

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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.

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