In a powerful show of strength for social media and technology leaders, the online community derailed, at least temporarily, major legislation that had garnered significant support among Washington politicians and lobbyists.
Last week, Congress was scheduled to vote on two bills aimed at combating illegal downloading and streaming of movies and TV shows on the internet-the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA). However, bloggers, Twitter users and social media giants like Google united against the bills because of fears the legislation would give media companies too much power and constitute internet censorship. The online pressure was so strong that despite efforts from 115 companies and organizations that had lobbyists working on the bills, both houses of Congress announced on January 20 they would postpone the legislation.
For the week of January 16-20, the protests over the piracy legislation was the No. 1 subject on both blogs and Twitter, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. And on both types of social media, there was overwhelming agreement that the bills would be detrimental to freedom on the web. In a related finding, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that nearly one-quarter (23%) of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 followed the SOPA battle more closely than any other topic last week, making it a bigger story among that youthful demographic than the presidential race.
That level of interest was in full display online. A massive online protest was staged on Wednesday, January 18, with Wikipedia taking its site down for the day and thousands of other sites following suit. At the same time, millions of individuals signed online petitions and voiced their opposition to the bills.
The relationship between the protests and the reaction by Congress was seen as a clear and crucial victory for online activism.
As Columbia Professor Tim Wu told the New York Times, "This is the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover...The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first."
The Argument Against the Bills
Supporters of the SOPA and PIPA bills claimed the intent was to give media companies recourse against websites that host pirated material, even if the website was not responsible for producing or posting the content. On social media, however, there was widespread concern that the legislation would do more harm than good.
"The way it's written - which is not very well - makes it so that the people creating original content (the studios, etc.) have far-reaching, unbridled, free reign to take out anyone who they have a ‘good faith belief' is stealing their stuff," explained Bobby Hundreds at Hype Beast. "The Internet, for all its benefits and burdens, is built upon freedom - free information, free thought, free expression - and...SOPA falls nothing short of censorship."
Many believed the bill would alter the nature of the internet forever.
"These two poorly worded bills are a futile attempt to crack down on piracy on the web in the US," wrote Amy E. Boyte. "If the legislation passes, it will ruin social sites. Can you imagine a world without Twitter, Google, Facebook and YouTube? There is no way that all these sites can successfully police their content 24/7. We will be forced into a world without free knowledge."
"SOPA basically means that anyone (read: Hollywood) can accuse anyone else (read: small businesses like yours and mine) of copyright violation, and punitive action will be taken (read: our sites will be taken down indefinitely) with no recourse, no chance for appeal, and with a ‘guilty until proven innocent' mentality that is completely antithetical to Western democracy," warned Danny at Firepole Marketing in an email posted on Social Caffeine.
The January 18 protests were massive. Large sites such as Wikipedia, Reddit and Moveon.org went dark for the day.
"The freedom, innovation, and economic opportunity that the Internet enables is in jeopardy," read the Reddit blog explaining their move. "There are powerful forces trying to censor the Internet, and a few months ago many people thought this legislation would surely pass. However, there's a new hope that we can defeat this dangerous legislation."
"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history," explained Wikipedia. "Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."
Google organized an online petition that generated signatures from at least 4.5 million people.
"Members of Congress are trying to do the right thing by going after pirates and counterfeiters but SOPA and PIPA are the wrong way to do it," declared Google.
On Twitter, an informational page on Wikipedia which included talking points for opponents was widely disseminated.
According to a project called Fight for the Future, a non-profit organization leading opposition to the bill, the protests included more than 115,000 distinct sites, more than 2 million mentions on Twitter and 10 million petition signatures in total.
Calls to action for contacting representatives or signing petitions were ubiquitous.
"You may feel like you're one person with one vote, small and unheard. If these bills pass you will be unheard!" determined Itchin' Stitchin'. "These are some links with more information and some petitions."
"You can't just complain about it. If you just sit there and get outraged, discuss it with your friends and family, ‘rally' behind all the sites going dark, and dedicate your Facebook for a day by making a meaningful post about it," pleaded Becky Bean at The Blog of Becky.
Even many people who usually stayed away from politics and technological advances got involved.
"While generally I do like to be political, I try to avoid all of that here. This is a beer blog. But on one particular issue I can no longer stay neutral," wrote the author of the blog I'll Have a Beer. "Today, in support of the protest of SOPA and PIPA, I'll Have a Beer will be blacked out for 24 hours. Please contact your Senator or Congressman to ensure that this attack on civil liberties is put to a stop."
And in an unusual moment of unanimity, even those questioning the form of the protests agreed the bills should be stopped.
"Quite a few sites...are ‘going dark' in protest of the proposed SOPA and PIPA accts...I won't, because of my distaste for the sanctimonious political theater the Left is so fond of," described Public Secrets "However, this issue is one of those rare ones that brings both Right and Left together...So, while I won't be draping this site in black, today, I do urge you to contact your senator to urge the withdrawal or defeat of PIPA."
"I agree; SOPA and PIPA need to be stopped," shared Steve's Blogspot. "I'm unimpressed with the going dark thing, however. Seems a bit like giving up your guns to protest a gun ban."
Impact on the White House and Congress
Even prior to the January 18 protests, the White House responded to earlier online petitions by announcing on January 14 that it would oppose the SOPA and PIPA bills.
The focus of the online organizing became members of Congress-and the efforts to influence lawmakers were successful. On January 18 alone, 19 senators announced their opposition to the bill including seven who had initially co-sponsored it.
One co-sponsor, Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) published a tweet in response to the pressure: "Unfortunately, Sen Leader Reid disregarded those concerns & is pushing forward w/ a flawed bill that still needs much work."
By Friday January 20, the main sponsors of both the House version and the Senate version announced they would postpone further action on the bills. While the legislation was not completely dead, their passage had been thwarted for the time being.
On Twitter, many people followed the Congressional positions closely as numerous tweets linked to a tally on TechCrunch of the supporters and opponents of the bill and how the support had fallen due to the protests.
While the online community applauded the apparent victory, some warned the conflict was not over.
"While the activism got a lot of sponsors of the bills to switch positions or agree to rethink their strategy, the fight is not yet won. SOPA will be reintroduced next month," noted Corey Blake. "You can write Congress...I also highly encourage calling your representatives, as that type of input can make the biggest difference."
"Having tentatively won this first round, though, we can only hope that the Internet remains vigilant against similar legislation in the future," warned Shawn Musgrave at Dig Boston.
The Rest of the Week's News on Blogs
In addition to the controversy over internet legislation, most of the other top stories in blogs last week involved politics and technology.
The No. 2 subject involved Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the process aimed at improving the visibility and presence of a web page. Bloggers linked to two blog posts with recommendations of how to improve the visibility of one's website. This is the third straight week that the subject has been among the most popular in the blogosphere.
The presidential campaign was the third-biggest topic as bloggers focused mostly on news that Jon Huntsman had dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination and was endorsing Mitt Romney.
A blog post by the Public Editor for the New York Times, Arthur S. Brisbane, asking readers whether journalists should challenge questionable "facts" asserted by newsmakers was the fourth most popular link. Brisbane encouraged readers to weigh in on a philosophical question related to the role of modern-day journalism: can journalists be objective and fair when identifying falsehoods repeated by newsmakers? Many in the online community criticized Brisbane for asking a question-which they framed as: should journalists try and report the truth?-that they thought had a very obvious answer.
And speculation that Apple is going to announce new products related to digital textbooks which would expand the ease of receiving books on iPhones and iPads was the No. 5 topic.
The Rest of the Week's News on Twitter
Elsewhere on Twitter, the most popular subjects included pop culture references, internet attacks and a clip of a singing Commander-in-Chief.
The popular Korean boy band Super Junior continued to be a popular subject on Twitter as tweets from the group were the second most linked-to subject last week. This marks the fourth time in the last five weeks that the group has been among the most popular subjects on Twitter.
In another story related to the question of internet freedom and online piracy, news of cyber attacks conducted by the group Anonymous was the No. 4 subject. Following the government's bust of the website Megaupload for hosting pirated media, Anonymous, a group of individuals who promote internet freedom by hacking public websites, protested by taking down a number of prominent pages including that of the U.S. Copyright Office and the Recording Industry Association of America.
For the second week in a row, the January 13 Costa Concordia cruise ship tragedy dominated the news videos on YouTube, as three of the top five videos were on the subject.
The luxury cruise liner, carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew members, ran aground off the Tuscan coast after the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, made an unapproved deviation from the correct course. So far, 16 bodies have been recovered and about 16 remain missing.
Two videos posted by Russia Today that were among the top news videos for the previous week were still among the most popular. The video showing the Costa Concordia lying on its side with a 160-foot gash in its hull became the most viewed news video and the amateur video showing the dramatic evacuation of passengers on lifeboats remained at No. 5.
The No. 4 video, posted on January 17, was a scratchy audio recording of the conversation in Italian between Schettino and the captain of the Italian coast guard, Gregorio De Falco. The clip revealed that De Falco ordered Schettino to return to the ship multiple times after he had allegedly abandoned the people remaining on board.
Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube
For the Week of January 14 - 20, 2012
1. Footage from Russia Today showing the Costa Concordia with a gash in its hull after running aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio
2. A Spanish-language video showing a clown from the Platanito Show apologizing for a controversial video
3. A video of Ricky Gervais's 2012 Golden Globes opening monologue
4. An Italian-language audio recording of a telephone conversation between the captain of the Costa Concordia and the Italian coast guard captain
5. An amateur video of passengers being evacuated on lifeboats from the Costa Concordia
The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the news agenda of social media, with a focus on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. These platforms are an important part of today's news information narrative and shape the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. Through this New Media Index PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compares with the narrative in the traditional press.
A detailed description of the NMI methodology, which was recently modified in August 2011, is available here.
*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from online postings.
By Paul Hitlin and Sovini Tan, PEJ