In a recent presentation before the Personal Democracy Forum, Yochai Benkler, the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, discussed the media surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) as a case study for the evolution of networked discourse and activism.
Benkler argues that, contrary to a perception in the 1990s that the internet was too “weak, polarized, and ineffective” to uphold a Jeffersonian model of democracy, networked discourse from tech media and individual blogs drove public perception on SOPA and PIPA. Over the course of eighteen months, ten thousand such stories were able to bring down legislation supported by the three most powerful lobbies in Washington, D.C. and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Benkler underscores the role of Techdirt, Public Knowledge, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in acting as information clearinghouses. These groups were able to relay to the public periodic expert input on the legislation that would not have a place in traditional media. He highlights a technical paper put forth on infojustice.org that addresses how PIPA requirements could threaten internet security, as an example of how networked discourse and online activism created a carve-out for expert opinion, not found in traditional media.
Another part of the success of activist groups lay in their ability to change the framing of discourse from one centered on intellectual property, a field largely opaque to the public at large, to an emotionally-charged one based upon the idea of censorship. While supporters of the legislation also attempted to participate in this discourse, their messages were less successful in rousing public sentiment and, consequently, did not receive the same level of amplification.
Ultimately, the “tapestry of diverse discourse” surrounding the two bills successfully shaped an attention backbone that could not be subverted by those with money or political clout, drove the public to action, and rerouted the opinions of political leaders in Washington.