American apathy and naivete undermines SOPA defeat

Eli Watson

This past week saw the defeat of two controversial bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The two bills, both of which are aimed at curbing illegal music, movie and software sharing, have been criticized for violating free speech laws, and placing burdens on less harmful websites such as blogs and social media outlets. Websites such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Tumblr and Google, participated in a scheduled “Internet Blackout,” an online protest that resulted in outcry against the bills from their users. The websites persuaded users to petition and research the bills; some websites even provided petitioners with their representatives’ contact information.

Due to the opposition, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid shelved SOPA and delayed the PIPA vote. Politicians, musicians and Web developers alike have expressed opposition to the bills, fearing that they will give the U.S. Attorney General unprecedented powers of censorship. The Obama administration spoke against the bills, saying they “reduce freedom of expression,” while Facebook developer Mark Zuckerberg took to his Twitter account, saying the bills would “hurt the Internet.”

Although the victory against the United States government shows how the Internet can be a catalyst for protest, it has also shown American shallowness and how unaware we are with domestic issues that affect us. SOPA and PIPA have been around since October of last year, yet the momentum to fight against it just recently came to fruition. It can be argued that most people do not use the Internet to be informed, but rather entertained, and SOPA and PIPA are evidence of that.

Only when Wikipedia, Reddit and Google blacked out their sites did opposition come from a flurry of users. According to digitaltrends.com, over 4.5 million people signed Google’s petition, and an estimated 162 million observed Wikipedia’s blackout page. These outstanding numbers do not begin to compare to the relatively small number of people who took things further; out of the 4.5 million people who signed Google’s petition, only 35,000 people sent letters to their representatives, and only 8 million out of Wikipedia’s 162 million viewers actually used the Web site to find the contact information of their representatives.

The fact that not even half of Google’s petitioners sent letters to their representatives is an indicator of American apathy. With a cut-and-paste mentality, online petitioners recycled and shared the petition on their social media outlets, not providing any background on the SOPA and PIPA bills, and only adding a note of support in contributing to the petition. “Just do it,” and “If you don’t want your freedoms taken away from you, do this,” were some of the messages that accompanied the shared links on people’s Facebook pages. Others took to their Tumblr and Twitter, blacking out their pages, and creating hashtags related to the two bills. But what are their reasons for doing so? Would those same people who signed a petition and blacked out their Web sites be the same people who would travel to their representatives’ office? The statistics seem to show otherwise.

Here is where the problem lies: in signing the petitions and sharing them through the many social media outlets we frequent, the battle is only half completed, as SOPA and PIPA may return. Congress has already followed up these bills with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an agreement between countries including Japan, Canada and others, that is aimed at imposing new criminal sanctions and online censorship in the name of copyright. Similar to SOPA and PIPA, ACTA would focus heavily on copyright infringement, putting websites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and many others, under surveillance.

Yet this legislation is still going unnoticed, its passing similar to the National Defense Authorization Act we experienced this past year. The NDAA, a law that could imprison any American citizen without charge or trial, was passed, and there was no public outcry similar to what SOPA and PIPA experienced. Online petitions for the NDAA reached a maximum of 39,214 petitioners according to change.org, nowhere near the amount of petitions SOPA and PIPA received.

The way these bills were presented to the American public were totally different. No large Web site or company protested the NDAA. The only protest that came was during last year, and the fervor dwindled shortly thereafter. The way these bills were brought to our attention is supported by the fact that the NDAA never had any real opposition when it was presented.

America’s aloofness is all too apparent, and this is proof of that. If we see the Internet as such an important collection of information that we can use to our benefit, why are we unaware of these problems, and why do we become aware of them so late?