01.18.12

Battle for the Internet’s Soul: Google, Wikipedia Stage SOPA Protest

Shutdowns, blackouts—Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, and a host of other websites are staging a protest today against two ambitious anti-piracy bills, SOPA and PIPA. Organizers from Reddit and Cheezburger share their battle plan with Brian Ries.

Ben Huh is fired up.

The 33-year-old Internet entrepreneur, who oversees a popular Seattle-based network of cat-heavy comedy blogs known as Cheezburger, is hours away from the biggest day of direct action in his life.

On Wednesday, Huh’s sites, to be joined by Google, Reddit, Wikipedia, WordPress, MoveOn.org, and hundreds more, will participate in an online protest—a strike, no less—that aims to call attention to two bills snaking their way through Capitol Hill.

Some sites will shut down. Others will black out, redirecting users to a landing page with resources to learn more about the bills and contact an elected representative. Google, for its part, smacked a big black bar over its logo on the U.S. homepage.

By doing so, the participating websites hope to send a clear message to the millions of users who rely on them every day. “We want them to understand how this could impact their rights and free speech, and how this is going to kill jobs in one of the few bright spots on the economy, which is the Internet,” Huh explained to me excitedly over the phone from his Seattle office on Tuesday afternoon. “And we want them to call their senators and tell them to vote no on PIPA.”

The bills at the heart of the protest, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), have raised the ire of the tech community for what’s being criticized as their broad, irresponsible language written, opponents say, by politicians hoping to please deep-pocketed copyright holders.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) initially introduced the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate in May 2011, which would give the Justice Department the power to take down copyright-infringing websites. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) then followed that up with SOPA on Oct. 26, 2011, for the House, also introducing sweeping anti-piracy legislation intended to empower the U.S. Department of Justice—-and copyright holders-—to fully crack down on websites that are suspected of hosting their copyrighted material. 

The two bills’ various provisions, however, have since become lightning rods for critics who claim they ultimately would provide the tools for corporations to censor the Web. “Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet,” Google said in its statement opposing the legislation.

“What we’re looking for is a diversity of responses. We need some people to shut down. We need some people to freak somebody out.”

Gizmodo provides an example: “If Warner Bros., for example, says that a site in Italy is [illegally sharing] a copy of The Dark Knight, the studio could demand that Google remove that site from its search results, that PayPal no longer accept payments to or from that site, that ad services pull all ads and finances from it, and—most dangerously—that the site’s ISP prevent people from even going there,” the tech blog explains. A full-on blackout.

Responding to criticism of SOPA, and news that it’s been shelved until next month, Smith reiterated his commitment to the bill in a statement Tuesday. “To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and members to find ways to combat online piracy,” he said. “I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.”

Still, if opponents of the bills are to be believed, SOPA and PIPA would, essentially, threaten the existence of the Internet as we know it, which makes this fight a battle for its soul. And so the fight is on—with stakes far higher than a comedy guy like Cheezburger’s Huh can laugh at.

“We actually try and stay out of politics,” Huh said of life at his company, a network of humor sites that attracts upward of 17 million monthly readers, in search of far more puppies than policy.

“Surprisingly, people don’t like politics mixed with their humor,” he said. “We try to make sure we don’t sour their daily five minutes of happiness by throwing politics in there.”

So what changed? “The severity of the threat,” said Huh. “It was very clear that as this legislation started coming to light that this is going to undermine the very foundation of how the communal Web works.”

Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, is hoping to convey a similar message when his site joins the protest on Wednesday. “I want them to remember that lawmakers and lobbyists who don’t understand the Internet have no business trying to regulate it,” he told the Beast, speaking from Reddit’s headquarters in San Francisco.

For both Martin at Reddit and Huh at Cheezburger, Wednesday will bring the culmination of weeks of work, spurred into action after watching members of Congress slam Google as pro-piracy at a SOPA hearing in November.

Martin said his co-workers got “really ticked” after seeing lawmakers on the Hill feign Internet expertise. When they then read the bills, “we wanted to do as much as we could and have as big as an impact as we could.”

Then, in late December, both Sen. Dianne Feinstein (“one of the senators for Silicon Valley and the heart of the Internet”) and SOPA sponsor Rep. Smith claimed ignorance about any objections to the bill, frustrating Martin. “It’s like, ‘really?’” he said of the lawmakers. “You don’t realize there are any objections?

“So it’s like, OK then. I guess we’re going to have to speak a little bit louder.”

The same goes for Team Cheezburger.

“Watching the SOPA debate with Google as the punching bag was a farce,” Huh said of the December hearing. “And I think that angered a lot of people. Watching that debate, people were so upset that basically it was a stacked deck against the Internet, that they decided to act.”

For Huh, getting others on board was a grassroots experience.

“There’s an email list I’ve created,” Huh says of his action plan. “So we’ve actually organized, and the list grew and grew, so this came about very organically.”

Reddit, meanwhile, started considering a protest after its users began floating the question. “It felt like the community was really behind doing a blackout, so there were rumblings,” Martin said. “Other people were doing it, so we just kind of said, ‘Hey, I think we’re in a nice position, just happen to be because we’re big enough so that us saying we’re going to have a blackout, that it means something. But we’re small enough that doing it and picking a date is not as difficult as it might be for some bigger companies.’”

The site is small enough that it takes only 11 employees to run Reddit, but big enough that in December it welcomed 35 million unique users, who tallied more than 100 million monthly page views per employee. That’s pretty economical.

As for any more big-name supporters joining the protest Wednesday, Huh wouldn’t offer details. But he promised that if they join, they are household names we will recognize. He’ll be working the phones, fielding emails, and encouraging those whose support may be wavering.

The Reddit staff may go visit an anti-SOPA protest in San Francisco—more than 1,000 people are expected at City Hall, Martin points out. But it’s far more likely the staff will be right at their computers, where they’ve been all along, making small updates, some tweaks, and dealing with press.

“I’ll be here in headquarters hunkered down,” Martin said of Wednesday’s plan. “I have interviews starting real early tomorrow morning, so it’s going to be a long day.”

“I want people to understand,” Huh assured me. “We’re not here to turn off the entire Internet. What we’re looking for is a diversity of responses. We need some people to shut down. We need some people to freak somebody out.

“What we really want to do is shock and awe. We want to wake up the public that had no idea this was going on so they can call their senators and say ‘No on PIPA.’”