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After PIPA and SOPA, it’s back to ACTA

2012 January 26
by breyan

On January 18, websites across the world blacked out to draw awareness to the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Among the blacked out sites, Wikipedia certainly attracted most attention as did Google’s link exhorting users to contact their representatives. The protest proved successful in generating worldwide awareness and convincing politicians to withdraw the controversial bills (although the issue is likely to reappear in another bill).

Interestingly, the protest wave carries on since. The target has shifted from the US to the EU as 22 member states signed the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) today. The pressure is now on individual member states and, as usually in EU politics, on the European Parliament that can accept or reject the treaty. ACTA has been an issue of dispute since its secret negotiations were leaked to the public in 2008 via Wikileaks.  It is thus not surprising that activists try to leverage the anti-SOPA and PIPA fervor that still resonates with many internet users. It has been difficult to raise broad awareness on the issue in the past. Will activists succeed this time?

For Yochai Benkler, the SOPA/PIPA protest marks the success of a “new model of politics” – what he refers to as networked publics – that has won over the power of resource-rich buisnesses such as the US entertainment industry. The ACTA protest provides further insight into how global these movement has become (an argument discussed in my dissertation). Will the ACTA campaign be as successful as the SOPA/PIPA one? There is evidence that things are moving on ACTA: Demonstrations took place in Poland. The European Parliament’s website itself has been attacked by Anonymous this morning. The attack was vehemently opposed by La Quadrature du Net and Telecomix campaigners, who know that the EP is their only chance for influencing European politics. (An anonymous tweeter later on complained about DDOS attacks on the LQdN’s website!).

But why do some campaigns attract global attention and are more successful than others?

1. A clear issue, message and target

The SOPA/PIPA protest resembles the 2005 “No Software Patents” campaign that succeeded in lobbying Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to reject a directive aiming at introducing software patents to Europe (also marked by an internet blackout by the way). Compared to other campaigns (e.g. the Telecoms package reform of 2009, composed of five directives), the software patent issue was clearly limited in scope (one issue = software patents) and the opponents were well known (big software giants such as Microsoft). The SOPA/PIPA bills were similarly focused on a single issue (copyright/intellectual property rights) and the opponents were old adversaries from previous copyright wars (Yu, 2003).

ACTA might be more complex to analyse. Its focus is on counterfeiting and trade, the digital measures are only one part of the broader treaty. Additionally, the procedure for international trade agreements is far more obscure compared to national policy processes. After years of hidden negotiations and leaked documents, the message today is: “yes, the EU has signed but that’s just the beginning. Please call your MEP now!”. Not as convincing as “save the internet, call your congressman today!”. Convincing others to join this effort is not always easy as attests a twitter post from this morning:

OMFG Getting #Anonymous on IRC to read… & phone their MEP is like trying to explain @PascalNegre [the president of Universal Music France] why sharing is good !

Achieving policy impact requires effort. SOPA and PIPA have not been rejected simply because internet users blacked out their webpages or tweeted about the issue. This is one part of the story – or of the wider “ecology of protest” (Treré, 2011) consisting of various technologies and platforms used by activists. Effort means a threshold for recruiting new participants and forming a broad alliance.

2. Broad alliance – legitimacy

Next to concerned citizens, the SOPA/PIPA and also the “No Software Patents” protests involved a broad constituency including industry partners.The debate around SOPA/PIPA gained in momentum when Wikipedia decided to black out its site, a clear use of leverage politics (Keck and Sikkink, 1998) that allows weaker (or less visible) actors to call upon powerful actors to weight upon a particular situation.

For the “no software patents” campaign, small and medium sized free and open source software companies opposed US companies that didn’t enjoy good publicity at the time in Europe. The “David against Goliath” image was media-savvy and convinced many MEPs to change sides. Having industry actors involved allows to broaden the range of frames from civil rights and democratic procedures to economic and business-oriented claims. Arguments politicians love to hear, as I argued here. Sillicon Valley businesses did play a role in the SOPA/PIPA issue and immensly benefited from having civil rights arguments and the “moral authority” of citizens on their side. It’s all a question of legitimacy in the end. However, without industry involvement would both campaigns have had a similar outcome?

3. Online and offline

Finally, online protests alone are not sufficient for changing policies. Here, I’d like to come back to the notion of effort mentioned earlier. Internet activism suffers from recovering includes many forms of action, some of which require more involvement than others. Some forms allow to attract attention to an issue, for example petitions or a blackout. But for many activists and decision-makers, they are simply not sufficient to make a change. For complex policies such as the ones we are talking about here, institutional lobbying is generally required. Public concern is not sufficient for policy-makers, they need specialised input even more so when the issues are complex and interwoven as is the case of many internet topics. The necessity to provide expertise, collaboratively generated online, can lead to tensions and divisions within the movement (as shows the anonymous example at the beginning of this post) and the emergence of a few central hubs within campaigns. Organisational dynamics of online campaigns will be the object of the next blog post.

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