As the year draws to a close, EFF looks back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2012 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.
Coming into 2012, the Internet community was looking down the barrel of very dangerous legislation that would have created legal structures to silence legitimate speech in the name of curbing online "piracy." A House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), had been debated, amended, and looked to be on the fast track for legislative approval.
That all changed on January 18. An historic "Blackout Day" protest, loosely coordinated by a coalition of public interest groups, startups, tech companies, and thousands of different websites, resulted in millions of emails and tens of thousands of calls to legislators. As sites across the web turned out their virtual lights at once, an important but otherwise arcane copyright bill became front-page news—and impossible for the content lobby and their favorite legislators to sneak past the public.
There were plenty of reasons to be concerned. After all, Congress has passed 15 laws aimed at stopping "piracy" over the last 30 years—an impressive record given the general absence of actual facts about the problem or the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. And even after an earlier protest, held in November 2011, resulted in nearly 90,000 calls to Congress in one day, SOPA's author (and Judiciary Committee chair) Lamar Smith seemed intent on pushing the bill through, dismissing the complaints as not being "legitimate."
But support for the bills began to crumble when met with the magnitude of the blackout protests. Over the course of January 18, people sent nearly a million emails to their legislators through the EFF's action center alone, and many million more through other sites. Some of the most popular sites on the Internet, like Google, Reddit, and Wikipedia, were among over 100,000 pages dark in protest.
It worked. Angry supporters of the bill may have derided the grassroots action—MPAA chief Chris Dodd called it "dangerous" and a "gimmick," while RIAA CEO Cary Sherman said it was based on "misinformation" and, strangely, a "misuse of power"—but legislators got the message, and began jumping ship from SOPA and PIPA almost immediately. Within a month, the bills were effectively dead.
The defeat of SOPA and PIPA marked an important victory in an ongoing struggle for copyright policy that's based on actual facts and real evidence. The January 18 protests, too, served as a template for a new era of online activism. In 2012, we've already seen similar battles play out all over the world; in 2013, we're sure to see even more.