Holmes Wilson, internet activism, and why we need you

(originally posted on Civic MIT)

Fight For the Future is known for its massive viral organizing campaigns that changed Internet history both nationally and globally. Faced with the passage of Stop Online Piracy Act/SOPA and the Protect-IP Act/PIPA — legislation that would have jeopardized the open Internet as we know it — Fight for the Future organized the largest and most visible online protest in history. Holmes Wilson has also co-founded Miro, OpenCongress, and Amara. He’s been at the forefront of a range of open internet and participatory culture projects and campaigns.

Holmes Wilson (foreground) and Dalek (background)

The internet delivers newfound powers of expression
The key thing about the internet that drives Holmes’s passion for it is that it gives us a new power, which ultimately translates to freedom of expression. But not in the conventional sense. The freedom of expression the internet enables isn’t just about speaking. It’s about making art, starting a business, overthrowing a government, building a new government, realizing dreams, and the ability to give your greatest gift to the world. When we think about expression this way, it’d be unthinkable to fail in preserving this medium. It would stifle human potential.

But that power is inherently fragile
The internet is fragile. The power that is being given to people is not necessarily stable and there are significant threats to it. The most present threat of the recent year is SOPA/PIPA. In some ways, these seemed like very small reasonable changes to the law. There’s a law that says sites aren’t responsible for content that users generate and this would make site owners responsible for users’ content. The consequence would have been that any copyright holder could have taken down any site where their content appeared and any site that is built with user generated content would have to aggressively police user behavior and contribution. Most of the harm would have been invisible. If SOPA was in effect when YouTube was first invented, we wouldn’t have YouTube.

CISPA, another seemingly straightforward law to members of Congress, purports to help businesses secure their networks by sharing vulnerability information. But the effect of this law is that it would effectively turn every website we use every day into legally-immune government spies. Every agency from the FBI to CIA to local police could access our communications online.

And that’s just in the United States. Globally, it gets much more complex and even more bleak, Holmes says. Most of the users coming online in the next ten years will do so in countries with no true internet freedom. Countries block websites, censor speech, and spy on users. All of these tactics trace back to an attack on our newfound powers of expression.

If we’re going to succeed in defending the internet, we need to make everyone an activist
Holmes doesn’t expect everyone to be an activist 24/7. The internet is extremely decentralized. And the enemies of an open internet are big and well-organized, from governments to corporations to entire industries. The power the internet gives people to express themselves is in many ways a direct threat to the power of the hierarchy of old school organizations.

The internet’s benefits are distributed, and so too much be the responsibility to protect it and take political action. Traditional organizations typically allot a proportional amount of their resources to support or defeat policies that affect them. Gathering the resources to defend open internet policies is far more complicated — there’s no single savior. So we need to push the ability to defend the internet out to the edges.

Show & Tell
The internet’s a wonderful platform for creativity, and we can leverage this in our campaigns. Holmes shows Free Bieber, a campaign against a bill that aimed to make it a felony to stream copyrighted material on sites like YouTube. It turns out that Justin Bieber got his start in celebrityhood by singing Usher covers on YouTube for the commercial goals of getting famous. The team Photoshopped Biebs into a variety of lockdown settings and gathered enough viral energy to get noticed by the Beliebers and eventually, the press. Bieber’s lawyers were readying to take down the site, but Justin himself stood up against the bill on the radio. The bill hit a wall, only to later be included in SOPA.

The first thing you want to do, Holmes says, is make some media that frames the issue in your terms and explains it to a mass audience. They’ve worked with videographers and inforgraphic designers to convey just how awful SOPA was to a broader audience. These visual materials traveled well, as bloggers sought a video or graphic to embed in their posts.

SOPA’s introduction to Congress was every other bill before it cranked up to 11. It extended who could shut down websites, increased penalties, and DC insiders told the campaign team that the bill was probably going to pass because everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO was aligned behind it. “It really made us sick to think about what this would be like” (in a post-SOPA world).

The activists knew they had to take a long shot approach in the face of this existential threat to the open web. And they wanted to make that feeling of disgust palpable to everyone online. This led to the now infamous “Website Blocked” notice that popped down on websites around the world as part of the American Censorship Day campaign. ‘Censorship’ was an easy concept for a mass audience to understand.

The team came up with a variety of options. Websites could block their entire site for the day, or redact their logos. An organizer of ROFLcon got to know other online movers and shakers, from Reddit to Cory Doctorow. They built an initial circle of friends with the hopes of getting the campaign to take off beyond them. Early traction was slow, but the campaign went viral the weekend before American Censorship Day on Tumblr.

Groups from the ACLU to Hype Machine to Mozilla signed on, including a number of organizations (like Mozilla) that don’t generally do activism. 4chan put up a giant banner on the site that Holmes thinks had all sorts of hard-to-measure ripple effects. The activism against the bill raised its profile enough to attract the support of several large progressive organizations.

Tumblr was one of the most high-profile examples of a supporting organization. They decided to redact all of the text on their internal dashboard pages. Everyone was emailing Congress, so Tumblr one-upped everyone and pushed users to call congressional offices. The results were astounding. Even members of Congress like Zoe Lofgren from California had their websites participating in the campaign.

They rushed to get out an infographic of the results:
Fight for the Future SOPA infographic

The groundswell of action started to take effect in Congress. Members began to distance themselves, and conventional wisdom shifted to

The strategy behind SOPA and PIPA was that SOPA would be the most aggressive possible stand on this set of issues, leaving PIPA well-positioned as the alternative that would become law.

The campaign took off on its own. Rather than scrapping to drive emails and phone calls, the organizing team found themselves trying to keep up with the internet’s lead.

An intern from the team started a discussion at Wikipedia’s Village pump, where Wikipedians had a long discussion about potential support for the campaign.

Meanwhile, domain owners everywhere began to boycott GoDaddy for the company’s support of SOPA. Moving to a different registrar proved to be a fun, easy, and concrete way to state your opposition to the bill. You could watch GoDaddy losing lots of money in real-time as thousands of domains got transferred. Holmes says this action proved politically meaningful.

People took it upon themselves to organize around 50 meetings with their representatives during the congressional recess. They organized by district and went together to express their opposition.

Holmes had a surreal moment of knowing the campaign was having impact when he went into a coffee shop in Worcester and heard some kids talking about SOPA / PIPA.

Holmes compares the campaign leadership to War & Peace, where Russians facing Napoleon were gathered to expel the French, but the leadership had a tenuous hold on its forces. The internet drove this, in many ways.

The campaign team continued building memes and actions for people to take. This led to the concept of an Internet Strike.

Amazon’s participation was half-hearted, and Facebook was barely able to generate a letter from Zuckerberg against the bill, but Wikipedia came out strong. They decided to black out the site for the day, which Holmes credits with having huge impact. The splash page brought users to their representatives’ contact forms at such rates that most of these pages went down.

Congressional offices typically manage constituent phone calls along the chain of command, depending on volume. According to some staffers, the day of the SOPA calls, everyone from interns to staff to senior staff were fielding a steady barrage of constituent calls. Senator Chuck Schumer faced huge crowds of protesters outside his office, a pretty rare event for tech policy.

A huge number of Congresspeople shifted their support to opposition between January 18th and 19th, but victory was not yet assured. The team was planning a filibuster with Senator Wyden involving meme-based visual materials when Senator Reid announced the bill would be shelved.

So here’s how you organize the internet
Grab hold of the framing, make media that makes it really clear what’s happening and sounds the alarm, make simple tools to turn people into political actors, organize people together for something so epic you’ll feel sad if you missed out on, and if that goes well enough, it turns into something so big you can’t even control, because everyone is in it and working in their own ways in the same direction.

If you’re growing up now, the internet is extremely meaningful. Holmes was at a roller derby in San Juan when he met a guy furiously tapping on his laptop. The guy showed Holmes a wide collection of anime movies and other media that’s never broadcasted in Puerto Rico. He’s learning Japanese and relying on volunteers to subtitle the films. This guy was incensed that SOPA would have taken away his entire culture. His entire identity, from his clothing to his friends to his entertainment, relied on an open web.

People understand that the internet’s different from the rest of the world. It’s on your side, not working against you. It’s amazing, and the last thing we’ve got. So of course the corporations and government are trying to take it away.

Memes work because they create constraints on creative output, and then everyone tries their hand at making a funny version.

There’s a type of interdisciplinary knowledge that crosses tech and politics and culture, and if you have these skills you can help take everyone to the next level of seeing how they fit in.

But we need more people like that. If we’re going to stop these crimes against expression, against our humanity, against people giving their greatest gift to the world, we need people to take this on.

Erhardt: How does the organizing against CISPA look this time?

Anyone here who wants to participate gets to decide how we kill CISPA. We don’t have as many people with something so concrete to lose. WIth SOPA, you had investors who could look at the bill and quickly realize that half the companies they invest in won’t be profitable.

Spying’s more insidious. You have chilling effects, not outright disappearance.

Last year, they launched DoYouHaveaSecret with the express goal of creeping people out and getting them to make phone calls. It worked, and helped stall the bill in the Senate. We’re back again, where CISPA has passed the House despite a veto threat from Obama. Emails, phone calls, and meetings remain important. Memorial Day is an opportunity before the vote on the bill where Senators will be home to meet with constituents. It’s always great to launch a barrage of phone calls a few times.

Many of the best ideas from the SOPA protest emerged from early talks with stakeholders, which the campaigners are leading now around CISPA.

If CISPA passes, websites will be forced to participate in one way or another. Amazon and Paypal shut off donations to Wikileaks simply at the government’s request, not legislation.

CISPA frees companies from any legal risks of sharing all of the data they touch with the government in real-time. The NSA sees the internet as a battlefield and open to attack, and would really prefer to be sitting on the wires. When the EFF successfully sues and courts find this spying to be unconstitutional, CISPA would nullify the ruling.

Yesterday, it became clear that the federal government under Obama is declaring martial law on the internet as far as surveillance goes. Holmes sees this development as a clear expression of the government’s vision.

Charlie asks about internet exceptionalism, and whether mainstream media played a major role, as it did in the Trayvon Martin story. Holmes points out that in Yochai Benkler’s Media Cloud analysis of the campaign, most of the major nodes in the network that stopped SOPA were web-native sites, from TechDirt to Tumblr to AmericanCensorship. [Indeed, this is a difference we found between the internet-discovered, internet-driven activism of SOPA PIPA and the broadcast-discovered, internet-and-broadcast driven activism of Trayvon Martin. Paper forthcoming.]

Ian Condry asks “What is the internet?” When you’re designing a political campaign, you can say, Save the Internet, and get more people to agree. But when you get more specific, you find more division. This makes it hard to apply these lessons to other movements, where the idea of “the Internet” doesn’t exist as a universal good.

Holmes responds that the internet is a very abstract public good, built in an abstract, multipurpose, so its value is similarly abstract and multipurpose. Investors call it permissionless innovation, human rights activists call it freedom of speech, but it does boil down to a core. If you broaden the idea of freedom of expression to include all types of instances of human brilliance and creativity to their fellow humans, that’s what everyone’s excited about. It allows you to excel. That can be criticized as a privileged, US middle class view of it, but I think it’s extensible.

Q: Most of these web activist movements have been reactionary. How optimistic are you about the ability to channel this energy into a more positive reform agenda around, say, copyright?
Holmes: I get this question a lot. My first response is: if my entire life is killing bad internet legislation, and succeeding, I will have lived well and meaningfully. Superficially, it’s only killing negative actions, but the backdrop for this work is that the internet is continously snowballing forward in creative, constructive enterprise.
The second thing is that we can put forward laws, we just need to reach the next threshold of internet adoption and power. Each election cycle, you see the internet’s power on the campaigns grow. Holmes sees a similar pattern within grassroots internet responses. We’ve evolved from occasionally getting something into the paper to being gadflies to being able to stop something. The rule of Congress is that it’s easier to stop something than push something through. They’re working now on Computer Fraud Act reform and Aaron’s Law, but when you’re proactively supporting something, you find out all the enemies of that progress. There are all sorts of side effects of legislation that rally other forces against your bill. Any Senator can stop you, and just put a hold on it invisibly forever.

It’s a function of how many people use the internet and how good we are at organizing them to protect it.

Saul: A recent Harvard Law School forum discussing law on the internet featured ESPN and other major broadcast powers. Their view of SOPA was that they had these really good laws to protect sports broadcasts from piracy until Google stepped in and killed it, but we’ll be back soon. Saul was amazed that no one at Harvard Law stood up to challenge them. You’re at a moment when Puerto Rican rollerderby fans have a better understanding of the law than Harvard Law students. It seems that the latter group might have greater impact over time. So the outreach could be improved.

Holmes: There’s a conference of IP fundamentalists and they are true believers. It is intense. But when they believe it, they ignore what is actually happening with the internet. It’s easy to convince someone of something when their paycheck depends on it. If you’re at a conference on copyright law, that saying probably applies to you.

Saul: The grassroots are not uniformly distributed. How do we infiltrate Harvard Law?

Holmes: There does need to be more thought leadership in the space. We need people making the case that copyright law is having all sorts of ill effects, like children around the world not having access to early learning reading materials.

Chris Peterson asks if the SOPA campaign was a blunt response that glossed over complexities.
Holmes: Your ability to distort your opponents’ point of view or mislead people online is pretty limited online. You can do it elsewhere if you show up with existing power. But if CNET and TechDirt started calling us out, it would really diffuse our energy. The blunt instruments / concise ways of explaining an issue must be totally consistent. People believed us because they’ve seen ten years of corporations taking down Napster, Limewire, and a string of websites being seized. There’s a pre-existing narrative of awesome stuff existing and then disappearing. The cool thing about concise messages online is that people can dive down to a far deeper level.

Adrienne: Are you alarmed that many of the tech organizations that stood up to SOPA are now in favor of CISPA?
Holmes: We campaigned to get users to ask these companies where they stand. You can go after them, or cancel out their lobbying work with grassroots work. It’s hard, but if you reach critical mass of hundreds of calls to a Senator, they listen. There are also Senators predisposed to oppose CISPA, unlike SOPA, where we were really starting from scratch.

Erhardt: What call to action do you want on this blog post?


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