Rumors have come to my attention—okay it was splashed all over Twitter—that an event was held yesterday called The Untold Story of SOPA/PIPA. “Defeating SOPA/PIPA didn’t happen overnight,” says the EFF’s promotional page for the event. “Advocacy groups like Public Knowledge fought long and hard for years to raise the alarms about these censorship efforts.”
Where does one begin? By commenting on the offensive or the pathetic? Perhaps the most poignant and direct offense speaks for itself. Because just this morning, I happened to see the following post by a Facebook musician friend:
So our new album, which was just released Monday and cost us tens of thousands of dollars to make and promote (which was borrowed), is already on “file sharing” sites…
Online piracy, including by foreign actors, even almost a decade since the great defeat of SOPA/PIPA, is still a major problem that still costs thousands of independent creators their livelihoods. But don’t let that spoil the party being thrown by a bunch of ivory-tower “activists,” who were in the trenches in 2011 working their index fingers raw, Tweeting and sharing batshit crazy memes and other disinformation about those bills. Or don’t forget to say a prayer for the digital-age powder monkeys of 4Chan who helped spread the word. And as for investments! Well, what about the money (whose money?) spent on SPAM bots to spread the word that SOPA/PIPA would break the internet? Sock puppets have to eat, too, y’know! (Actually, no I guess they don’t.)
The tragedy is that the real “untold story of SOPA/PIPA” is that the public was lied to about how those bills actually worked; lied to that the bills’ opponents “were all for stopping piracy, but not this way;” and lied to about how organic and grassroots the effort was to defeat the bills. Does anyone today actually believe it was a coincidence that the Internet Association was founded concurrently with the fight against that legislation, or that Google’s lobbying expenditures went from negligible to record-setting during the same period?
Stop SOPA was one of the most successful and well-funded disinformation campaigns in internet history and, as I have said many times, it scared the hell out of me. And not because of the piracy problem. That was just an unfortunate failure for people like my friend quoted above. No, the scary part about the manner in which the legislation was defeated were the lessons the campaign taught to other powerful institutions. It was clear by the mechanisms employed that anyone with enough money could alter the course of history with a few simple lies and mediocre graphic design. I know, right? What was I thinking? That rampant disinformation might threaten democracy itself? Just my hysterical nature, I guess. Because let’s be clear: SOPA/PIPA was not defeated with information or, heaven forbid, debate in Washington. Those bills were defeated by this:
I come from an advertising and marketing background, and that right there is advertising. Very effective advertising. Plenty of my friends shared memes like this one for weeks leading up to the defeat of SOPA/PIPA. But when advertising is designed to frighten the consumer, it should be confronted with skepticism—critical thinking that social media seems especially well designed to weaken among users. How many of my friends read or had the background to understand the legislation? Almost none.
And, yeah, I know. There were articles written about those bills, too. And you could hardly see the puppet strings of collusion despite the uncanny consistency in the language being used—generalized, ominous, and populist, without bothering to mention that the key mechanisms proposed already existed in the law. Like the tweak to injunctive power against foreign piracy sites, which would not have had any effect on the ordinary function of internet activity. And since 2012, SOPA-like enforcement measures (e.g. site blocking) have been implemented in markets around the world, and still no breaking of the internet has occurred.
But I think the most galling aspect about this sad attempt to relive the glory day of January 18, 2012 (you probably forgot, right?) is that nothing about the Republic-shattering events of the last several years has chastened the “free speech” rhetoric of the EFF, Public Knowledge, Sen. Wyden, et al. That they are still eager to call SOPA/PIPA “censorship bills” with straight faces is astounding. Never mind that piracy is not a form of protected speech; but have these organizations learned nothing since 2016? Did they miss the giant sticky note that says the laissez-faire approach to platform governance has been an abysmal failure worldwide? Specifically, do they lack the introspection to recognize the methodological similarity between …
… and this?
If Russian troll farms didn’t read the Stop SOPA Playbook as the ultimate guide to manipulation through social media, they certainly could have. But, again, don’t let events like the U.S. Capitol assault of January 6th ruin all the self-congratulatory fun being had at EFF and Public Knowledge. Though I do have to ask why March 17, 2021? Why the nine year and two-month anniversary of the defeat of SOPA/PIPA? Odd no? Maybe not. Are EFF and PK trying to send a signal to the IP Subcommittee that if it tries to update the failed notice-and-takedown provisions of the DMCA, they will unleash Godzilla once again? Can’t say for sure. Maybe they just couldn’t get hold of any St. Patrick’s decorations and decided to have a different kind of party.