One of the Internet’s most impactful protests, a decade later

Parker Higgins

Advocacy Director

Aaron Swartz addressing the crowd at a protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act

Aaron Swartz addresses a crowd rallying against SOPA in New York City on January 18, 2012.

CC BY 2.0, Maria Jesus V

Ten years ago this week, a powerful online activism campaign against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act stopped the bill in its tracks, much to the surprise of the lobbyists and legislators who had considered its passage inevitable. Led by grassroots organizers and civil liberties groups, sites big and small “went dark” for the day in a “blackout” designed to draw attention to the issue and direct calls to Washington.

That proposal — and its defeat — predates Freedom of the Press Foundation, but the struggle it represents is in line with the same speech battles we continue to fight today. As part of a panel of guest posts on Techdirt, we’ve published our retrospective marking the 10-year anniversary of the blackout campaign, examining the effect that such a public policy skirmish had on copyright’s role as an arena for broader speech questions:

[C]opyright proposals that had been proxies for regulating online speech more broadly have migrated to other areas of the law. Most notably in the past decade, these attacks have focused on section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In some cases, the overlap is almost comical, like when op-eds pushing for changes cite the wrong law, and the New York Times has to issue a correction. In other moments the effect is more depressing. Watching FOSTA/SESTA skate through to passage, despite all the organizing against it, was a low point for online speech.

In my work with journalists today, copyright continues to be a chokepoint for silencing unfavorable reporting, but it is only one arrow in the quiver of would-be censors. We see police officers attempting to limit the distribution of their statements by playing mainstream music in the background, or right-wing activists issuing takedowns for newsworthy photographs documenting their associations, but we also see frivolous SLAPP suits by elected officials, a dramatic rise in arrests and assaults on journalists, and existential legal threats to entire outlets.

Other panelists with posts in the Techdirt series include Mike Masnick on the continuing reverberations of the SOPA protests; Fight for the Future co-founder Tiffiniy Cheng on how they came together; David Segal on the role that Aaron Swartz and Demand Progress played; and Public Knowledge’s John Bergmayer on the ongoing efforts by some industry players to push for SOPA’s goals.

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