Geeks Converge on NYC to Protest Anti-Piracy Bills

Thousands ditched their computers to protest anti-piracy bills outside the offices of New York senators Wednesday. Brian Ries reports on the fight for the future of the Internet.

01.18.12 10:35 PM ET

"Hello New York Tech Meetup!"

Those were the words that came booming through two generator-powered speakers to a 2,000-strong crowd gathered outside the New York City offices of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Wednesday afternoon.

The crowd cheered.

"We are gathered to protest an unprecedented attack on the future of our industry!"

New York Tech Meetup chairman Andrew Rasiej was the speaker. He was serving as emcee to a mix of startup founders, software developers, media, geeks, tech freaks, and passers-by who gathered in protest of two bills on Capitol Hill that, opponents say, threaten the very existence of the Internet.

The “emergency meetup,” as it was advertised on Twitter (through hashtag #nytmSOS) and other sites promoting the event, was coordinated in solidarity with Wednesday’s online strike that saw Wikipedia go dark, Google blacked-out, and other top tech companies highlight the negative impact the bills would have on the Internet.

The problem, the tech community has said, is in the broad language. Both bills—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)—would readily give the Justice Department and copyright holders sweeping power to yank the plug on any website simply suspected of hosting pirated content, without due process. Should they pass, both PIPA and SOPA would have a chilling effect on innovation.

The protests—both online and off—were meant to reach the ears of policymakers. If today’s news is any indication, it's working.

The New York crowd listened to an all-star rotation of New York tech luminaries, who were introduced between chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” Speakers included Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian in a full “lobbyist suit,” per a fellow speaker’s description, the cyberlibertarian activist John Perry Barlow in cowboy boots and a scarf emblazoned with black and white Jolly Rogers—a nod to the piracy, and NYU professor Clay Shirky, who recommended renaming SOPA, "the First Amendment sunset act." During the speeches news broke on the web that a bipartisan group of senators had announced they were dropping support of the Senate version of the anti-piracy bill.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), a Tea Party favorite and co-sponsor of PIPA, took to Facebook to ask Sen. Harry Reid to abandon his plan to rush the bill to the floor Wednesday afternoon. "We should take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides, and come up with new legislation that addresses Internet piracy while protecting free and open access to the Internet," he wrote. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) posted too, saying it is "better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong."

The protests in Manhattan were initially conceived as a way to pressure New York Senators Gillibrand and Schumer to do just what Rubio and Cornyn did—to come out and publicly drop their support of PIPA. Both, according to Jessica Lawrence, managing director of the New York Tech Meetup, were invited to take the stage and announce they would no longer support the bills—sure to be a crowd-pleasing moment. But it was not to be.

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“Both Senator Gillibrand and Senator Schumer were unwilling to change their position on the bill, and that’s part of the reason we decided to go forward with the protest today,” Lawrence told us, adding she doubted they even stuck around to hear the noise from the street. Another organizer quipped both had long taken their phones off the hook.

But despite the absence, event organizers are saying the gathering—described by Reddit’s Ohanian as “one of the geekiest, most rational protests in American history”—was an overwhelming success.

“This actually really surpassed my expectations,” Lawrence told us later on, well after the crowd had dissipated. “The fact that we filled up an entire city block with people who were here and, you know, with a really positive spirit—but a spirit about defending free speech and defending the Internet and defending the tech industry and trying to come up with better legislation that will deal with the piracy issue but not have all the negative side effects—it’s just awesome,” she said.

As we spoke, that spirit of free speech took on a new form, as two protesters climbed up on the then-vacated stage, grabbed a megaphone and began yelling, “Mic Check!”—that crowd-calling swoon of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Indeed, the two were Occupy Wall Street veterans. One of them, Edward Hall, said, “I helped start up Occupy Wall Street,” before adding, “This is really critical for all of us, in trying to create the future of civilization.” Hall called for the crowd to take action and join him on a march to Times Square. Many attendees quickly jumped on board—and they were off, with NYPD in tow, chanting a variety pro-Internet slogans.

We stuck with them—up 3rd Avenue, across Lexington, down towards 42nd and Broadway, and into the heart of Times Square. There, tourists and NYPD alike encircled the protesters who continued their chants of “What is it we want to get? Freedom of the Internet!” and “Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Digg, won’t be stopped by corporate pigs!”

The New York Tech Meetup’s Jessica Lawrence, back on Twitter, was quick to point out this offshoot we were documenting wasn’t a part of the official, city-sanctioned protest that had taken place just moments earlier. "The Times Square stuff isn't officially part of #nytmSOS,” she tweeted, using the official event hashtag.

But that’s the beauty of the open-source, down-with-the-copyrights movement that opponents of SOPA and PIPA so readily embrace. The people will do what the people will do, and it’s not our job to control the masses. It’s free speech, man. This is what democracy looks like.