Results tagged “protest”

The History, and Future, of Web Protest

January 18, 2012

This week, many of the web's most popular sites shuttered their doors in protest of SOPA and PIPA, the pair of bills that had been winding their way through congress with the stated intent of fighting piracy and the unfortunate side effect of fundamentally threatening the web. After this concerted outburst of activism from the web community (which even extended to a first-of-its-kind offline protest by the New York Tech Meetup community), the sponsors of the bills have withdrawn their support, many undecided or former supporters of the bills changed their positions and in all, people who love the web are claiming a victory. Hooray! And it's still not too late to express your displeasure to your elected officials if you'd like to make sure they know how you feel.

But. There are a number of unanswered questions about this victory, and some important questions about what it means going forward, not just for web freedom, but for the technology community as a driver of public policy and legislation. We should start, as always with a brief look back.

Blogs Were Born To Do This

The entire modern social web was born from the blogging movement, and social activism has been part of the blogging medium since its birth. But ironically, the most common form of protest for our young medium has been self-censorship.

  • One of the inarguable pioneers of blogging, Dave Winer, started his first blog as the news page of the 24 Hours of Democracy campaign. What was that about? Well, it should sound familiar — the leading voices and sites of the social web spent 24 hours protesting onerous potential legislation that they thought would significantly curtail free speech on the web. SOPA? Nope! It was the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which unified the nascent personal web sixteen years ago, and the protests that accompanied the 24 Hours of Democracy included the Blue Ribbon Campaign and the Black World Wide Web shutdown, which climaxed in an estimated 7% of all active U.S. websites changing their background colors to black in protest.
  • Just a few years later, my late, lamented friend Brad Graham, who coined the word "blogosphere", also created one of the first blog-specific protests when he launched the Day Without Weblogs in 1999 in observance of World AIDS Day. Patterned after the Day Without Art, and named "Day Without Weblogs" because the word "blog" was not yet in common usage, this moving demonstration was an annual tradition for many years (eventually evolving into a more information-oriented project called "Link and Think") and carried on the social web's deep tradition of drawing attention by shutting itself down and forcing users to confront a black page. Sadly, it seems much of the early record of Day Without Weblogs has been lost since Brad's untimely passing.

Just at a cultural level, it's fascinating to me that our medium finds that the most powerful thing we can do is deny the rest of the world our voices and creations, and that this almost invariably takes the form of a black screen confronting unsuspecting, perhaps uneducated, and certainly confused non-geeky users.

How It Works

Does this form of protest work? It's hard to say — most of the CDA protests from 1996 took place after the law had already been signed. But we have some feedback on the more contemporary protests:

When Rupert Murdoch dog whistles "terror" about a topic, he's saying he wants some people illegally detained and tortured. So that's a good sign we had some impact.

This is a particularly stunning turn for a few reasons. First, as Bijan Sabet noted, congress members had considered SOPA and PIPA a done deal. Not "likely to pass", but "such a sure thing that I should sponsor it, even though I haven't read it and don't really understand it, so I can have my name on successful legislation".

This is especially remarkable because the tech industry sucks at 1. understanding how legislation happens 2. how legislation can impact their businesses and 3. actually responding to these issues before it's too late. John Battelle discusses this in depth, explaining "[T]he fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money." Marco Arment continues, correctly, by stating that SOPA will keep coming back, over and over, in some form until it passes. Does that doom us to recurring bouts of black page syndrome? Maybe not.

The Infrastructure

One of the most unheralded successes of this week's SOPA and PIPA victories was the role that pioneering open government and government transparency efforts had in enabling the protests to take off. Just a few weeks ago, few online had heard of either bill, almost no one could understand their potential impact, and even fewer had read the actual bills.

But thanks to efforts like OpenCongress, which routinely creates valuable resources like this look at the money behind SOPA through its support from the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, the web was able to see who was helping pay for the law. Giving that information a place to live on the web was a fundamental step that enabled powerful demonstrations like the GoDaddy protests in which thousands of users moved their business from the company in protest of its support of SOPA. (I have some misgivings about the tactics and effectiveness of that particular protest, but overall as a first example of the organization and focus of those who would object to SOPA, it was inarguably powerful.)

Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics powered detailed look at lobbying dollars which drove the bills, which organizations like MapLight could use to create a clear picture of how SOPA and PIPA were purchased.

Of course, I've got a dog in this fight; Expert Labs was founded specifically to conduct experiments about getting people on social networks to organize in ways that would allow them to impact policy makers. And we had some amazing successes in unexpected ways — Clay Johnson on our team educated hundreds of thousands of people on how techies can effectively engage with the policy-making processin his piece "Dear Internet: It's No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works". And despite her well-earned misgivings about having a disproportionately large social network, Gina Trapani demonstrated the best potential of that network with a result that is best illustrated in a single tweet:

That's the CTO of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, directly thanking Gina for her honest, forceful feedback about SOPA and linking to an official White House response to a petition asking for a veto of SOPA. Despite the well-intentioned skepticism of folks like Felix Salmon in response to my admittedly optimistic visions of "#OccupyWhiteHouse", the idea that this sort of direct online feedback could have a meaningful impact was validated by none other than the Director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement:

Still, amidst the web-nerd triumphalism, it's worth noting: This isn't how I thought it would work. While I've always believed in the potential of the open government and transparency movements, I predicated our work at Expert Labs on the idea that the type of large-scale, effective, (relatively) well-organized demonstrations we've seen against SOPA and PIPA online were unlikely to happen. I was, perhaps, too willing to assume that change would only happen through more traditional channels. While we've made an amazing tech platform in ThinkUp, I was trying to push it to conform to the lobbyists-and-big-dollars world of D.C. today, and this week's victory gives me hope that I was wonderfully, delightfully, completely wrong about that decision.

So Now What?

What we've gotten so far, with our SOPA and PIPA demonstrations, is a first, rough beta test of the power to impact policy online. What we don't have is the way to use this power effectively. We are missing a few key things:

  1. The ability to organize for issues that aren't life-or-death for big tech players
  2. The ability to clearly and quickly form communities of interest around particular issues that are complicated
  3. The desire and willingness to stand up for issues that aren't simply about the self-interest or self-preservation of technology experts

This final point is my biggest concern and greatest wish for our industry. We now know we have the power bend the law to our will, and to make legislators respect our values, if we can just coordinate our efforts and focus our attentions. But there are many issues which have to do with the soul of our nation that may not galvanize a redditor who's only concerned with legislation that might interfere with watching movies online.

Google Waterboarding

We have discovered that our biggest companies, our most popular sites, or most passionate communities on the web are willing to stand up and have a powerful impact on the laws that govern our country. But we're on the fence. Google's spending somewhere around $10 million dollars on old-fashioned lobbying this year. Maybe that's useful — as Clay said, we need to know how the old system works before we can reform it.

But maybe we should be darkening our sites for deeper, more profound issues. We have the ability to affect marriage equality and reproductive freedom and immigration reform and many other issues where those of us who love technology tend to have similar values regardless of which of the traditional political parties we list on our voter registrations.

This is the power we were promised the web would give us. Let's use it.

Make The Revolution

September 28, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell gets started with "The revolution will not be tweeted" in this week's New Yorker, condemning social media's ability to enact real cultural change with an argument he sums up early in the piece:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

Who are the "they"? It's not really clear. But even as someone who's had an "evangelist" title in the past, I don't come to refute Gladwell's strawman argument. His point is that today's social networks are fundamentally unable to drive the sort of social change that fueled upheavals like the civil rights movement. I agree; As I said last year, Facebook often enables politics of the sort that convinces college kids that changing their middle name on a website is a form of activism. And the idea that the uprisings in Iran were driven by Twitter or any other social media is clearly refuted by realities such as Hossein "Hoder" Derakhshan, the father of the Iranian blogosphere, being sentenced to nineteen years in prison. The traditional method sit-in and picket-in-the-streets form of protest is clearly a failure online.

Take A Bath, Hippie

The problem with Gladwell's premise, though, is that it's wildly anachronistic to think that the only way to effect social change is to assemble a sign-wielding mob to inhabit a public space. I cringe in anticipation of the day when the Tea Party realizes their protest marches will be as ineffective as the even more massive anti-Iraq war rallies were seven years ago. People who want to see marches in the streets are often unwilling to admit that those marches just don't produce much in the way of results in America in 2010.

However: There are revolutions, actual political and legal revolutions, that are being led online. They're just happening in new ways, and taking subtle forms unrecognizable to those who still want a revolution to look like they did in 1965. Gladwell is absolutely right to say that political action today takes place in the form of many smaller, simpler steps than it did when one used to have to put livelihood, liberty, or even life on the line to make change happen. That doesn't mean it's ineffective, just that it's a million small protests instead of one visible act. For me, it's a form of protest that feels much more Asian in its methods, with a steady trickle of small rebellions instead of the traditional western model of the visible, violent, aggrieved uprising. The evolution in the tactics of social change is what inspired the question I was trying to ask earlier this year:

Imagine if half a million people marched on Washington, collectively broke federal law, did it in plain sight of the world's leaders and traditional media, and yet we all barely noticed? What if political leaders didn't even see it as a political act, but instead as some sort of funny stunt?

We have had an enormous and concerted act of social disobedience play out over the past half-decade, where millions have decided that the present regime of intellectual property law and corporate control over the way we communicate is no longer tenable. So, every day, with the click of a button, people from all walks of life are ignoring the law and protesting in public, simply by uploading content to YouTube or Facebook or anywhere else.

The disobedience is not just online. This past weekend, at the same venerable fairgrounds that hosted the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, Maker Faire finally found its way to New York City, after phenomenal events in California, the U.K., and Texas. Maker Faire (and Make magazine) were founded by the mild-mannered Dale Dougherty, whose quiet demeanor suggests he's anything but a radical, and whose own statements would, I'm sure, insist that he's just having fun, not doing anything political. The reality, though, is that Dale Dougherty is the man who coined the phrase "Web 2.0" (a concept potent enough that "2.0" has been applied to every discipline from sex to, yes, civil rights). He's got a knack for identifying where society is headed. And he's in a community that's doing a great job of getting organized.

The Maker Party

Today, Dale Dougherty and the dozens of others who have led Maker Faire, and the culture of "making", are in front of a movement of millions who are proactive about challenging the constrictions that law and corporations are trying to place on how they communicate, create and live. The lesson that simply making things is a radical political act has enormous precedence in political history; I learned it well as a child when my own family's conversation after a screening of Gandhi turned to the salt protests in India, which were first catalyzed in my family's home state of Orissa, and found out that my great-grandfather had walked alongside Gandhi and others in the salt marches that followed. Today's American Tea Partiers see even the original "tea party" largely as a metaphor, but the salt marches were a declaration of self-determination as expressed through manufacturing that took the symbolism of the Boston Tea Party and made it part of everyday life.

To his last day, my great-grandfather wore khadi, the handspun clothing that didn't just represent independence from the British Raj in an abstract way, but made defiance of onerous British regulation as plain as the clothes on one's back. At Maker Faire this weekend, there were numerous examples of clothing that were made to defy laws about everything from spectrum to encryption law. It would have been only an afternoon's work to construct a t-shirt that broadcast CSS-descrambling code over unauthorized spectrum in defiance of the DMCA.

And if we put the making movement in the context of other social and political movements, it's had amazing success. In city after city, year after year, tens of thousands of people pay money to show up and learn about taking control of their media, learning, consumption and communications. In contrast to groups like the Tea Party, the crowd at Maker Faire is diverse, includes children and adults of all ages, and never finds itself in conflict with other groups based on identity or politics. More importantly, the jobs that many of us have in 2030 will be determined by young people who attended a Maker Faire, in industries that they've created. There is no other political movement in America today with a credible claim at creating the jobs of the future.

Making A Revolution

The debate now is whether the leaders of today's political movements with the most potential for exceptional change will accept the mantle of simply being political leaders. Because they're already having enormous impact, and earning recognition from the President himself. President Obama's acknowledgement came early, right in his inaugural address:

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

It wasn't the birthers or the truthers who earned the nod for helping shape America's future: It was the makers. Their protests, their sit-ins, take the simple form of making things and sharing them with each other, online and off. The quietness of their ways, the heads-down determination of the scientist instead of the chin-jutting attitude of the street fighter, might make them easy to overlook. But that doesn't mean that it's not a significant and enduring movement. it doesn't mean the will of these millions of people doesn't count, simply because it's expressed in a way that doesn't look like protest did five decades ago.

Best of all, the people who actually make these things happen aren't just sitting around clicking "Like" on things online. As has been true since the earliest days of the blogosphere, the best minds in social media get together in person to help plan the future. One such event that you can visit this weekend? The venerable ConvergeSouth. It takes place at NC A&T State University, the proud home of the freshmen students who in 1960 held that first sit-in at Woolworth's.

Update: A year later, Recognizing the Maker Movement, an interview with Dale Dougherty revisiting many of these ideas.

Pusateri's Pluto Planet Protest

August 30, 2006

Uranus Is Next! There's been a great hue and cry about the debate over the definition of the word "planet", and Pluto's recent change in status. Frankly, I think the whole thing is silly -- like a lot of words, "planet" means different things to scientists than to lay people, and that's where the drama comes in.

But the uproar has inspired something pretty amazing. Mike Pusateri, proprietor of the venerable blog Cruftbox, organized the Pluto is a Planet Protest.

Mike's protest was inspired, enlisting the help of his children and his friends to raise awareness of the cause and culminating in the creation of an amazing video over on Vox. I had been unmoved by the debate thus far, but now I'm convinced of the danger -- Uranus is next!

1