Two years ago, it looked like online activists and tech companies were forging themselves into a Fifth Estate. Silicon Valley startups had disrupted and remade industry after industry, and now, they had set their sights on lobbying. Their protests one year ago against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act killed both bills dead. Tech companies like Google, Wikipedia, and others joined activist organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a day of activism. With Google dedicating its homepage doodle to the effort, the message had a reach that any campaign strategist would envy.
But, two years later, an attempt to repeat their success with February 11th’s “The Day We Fight Back” fell flat. Although 6,000 websites hoisted banners in support of the movement, and nearly 200,000 people sent emails to Congress, all that sound and fury seemed likely to have as much effect as the Change.org petition demanding Adelina Sotnikova’s gold medal in singles figure skating be revoked and awarded to Kim Yu-Na instead (currently just shy of 2,000,000 signatures).
So what went wrong for the netroots?
The SOPA/PIPA protests and blackouts were tightly focused. The tech groups and their supported wanted those bills voted down or vetoed. But, during The Day We Fight Back, the ask was much more diffuse. According to the press release, this was a “Day of Action in Opposition to Mass Spying, Honoring Aaron Swartz and SOPA Blackout Anniversary.” The email for participants to send to Congress was a little more specific; it urged them to pass USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361/S. 1599), but also to amend and strengthen it before passage. However, the push didn’t make reference to any specific amendments.
SOPA/PIPA also benefited from urgency. The activists were trying to stop something, and all they had to do was lock in enough “no” votes to succeed. But, in trying to pass a bill, the privacy activists ran straight into Congressional gridlock. The slow pace of recruiting cosponsors and votes doesn’t match the breakneck pace of mainstream media, who want to declare a win or a loss within 24 hours. It also saps the enthusiasm of the people making the phone calls and emails, who are hoping for a payoff a little more exciting than, “The bill became slightly more likely to go to the floor.”
It’s nearly impossible to script a bill and shepherd it to passage just from the grassroots. Activism without direct engagement with the usual suspects (Congresspeople, lobbyists, etc.) can look a little like Twitch Plays Pokemon—the anarchic, crowdsourced game of Pokemon that’s been running online for the last two weeks. Anyone with access to the channel can input text commands, which the player’s avatar will implement in the order received. (He’s been walking into walls a lot).
Twitch Plays Pokemon settled into quasi-stability when the game let players vote for the game to be run on one of two modes: anarchy or democracy. In anarchy mode, the game executes every move inputted, but, in democracy, the game’s avatar takes whatever step is currently most popular among users. The tech lobby needs to make a similar shift.
Silicon Valley and the privacy advocates they’ve allied with have already started funneling their mass enthusiasm into more centralized activism. In a December technology summit at the White House, meant to troubleshoot the HealthCare.gov shambles, technology leaders turned the conversation with the President to their concerns about surveillance.
The power of their grassroots (and the size of their market capitalization) bought these web companies a seat at the table. Now, in order to fight back, they’ll need to become just as adept at building old-fashioned, smoke-filled room social networks as they are at building casual ones online. The next time they organize a Day of Action, it might be to push through a bill their lobbyists helped draft.