How do you fight Hollywood? In the heated debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act, tech start-ups and giants are leveraging their Web dominance to get their message to the masses.
(From Left) Al Gore, Justin Bieber, Jimmy Wales, Ashton Kutcher
It's a battle made for the big screen: Silicon Valley tech stars versus Hollywood heavyweights.
The fight is over a piece of legislation called the Stop Online Piracy Act, which aims to expand the ability of government agencies to police websites for copyright and intellectual property violations. Introduced in the House of Representatives in late October, Congress plans to resume the debate this month after the winter recess.
Supporters of the bill are largely movie and music groups, The Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Assosiation of America, for example. RIAA senior executive VP Mitch Glazier wrote in a recent blog post: "Every day that [rogue] sites operate without recourse can mean millions of dollars lost to American companies, employees, and economy, and an ongoing threat to the security and safety of our citizens."
But the tech world claims bill could not only fundamentally change the way the Internet works, but also stifle innovation.
"This could obliterate an entire industry—a job creating industry," says Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, a user-generated news site. "Congress doesn't understand how significant the Internet infrastructure really is. This bill wouldn't even solve the issue of online piracy."
"Congress says this bill isn't intended to hurt the tech industry, but that's not what the words actually say," adds Parker Higgins, a spokesperson for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil-liberties group. "The bill is too broad, and we can't just bank on 'intentions' being properly followed."
With no compromise in sight, here are a few ways the tech world is leveraging its most powerful asset: Access to millions and millions of eyeballs—those of their online users.
App attack. This week, students at the University of British Columbia launched No More SOPA, which is a free Android app. Users can scan a barcode and immediately see if a company supports or opposes SOPA, according to Forbes. The app also covers parent companies or subsidiaries of companies.
The "nuclear option." Last week, a jaw-dropping rumor surfaced online that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a handful of other major tech companies were considering simultaneously going dark, causing an Internet blackout. The move would, no doubt, irk millions of users, but opposers of the bill say it would essentially be a taste of things to come should the bill pass.
"It's not confirmed, but it's something I've certainly encouraged," says Ohanian. "We're hoping to avoid that option, but even a black out of an hour or so would get our point across." Higgins agrees. "This legislation is not a small thing for these companies," he says. "It's a line in the sand, and once it's crossed, it will be too late. So they will probably do everything they can now, even if it seems drastic."
"The SOPA Bill is trying to prevent intellectual property piracy, which is a legitimate goal, but the way it is going about it will break the Internet and may cause economic calamity," he wrote.
Former vice president Al Gore reportedly spoke out against the online piracy legislation during a speech earlier this month, a video of which was posted to YouTube. (The video has since been removed by the user, according to CNet.)
And, in one of the earliest celebrity SOPA slams, pop singer Justin Beiber—who owes his rise to fame largely to YouTube—told a radio show that supporters of this bill should be "locked up—put away in cuffs."
Super-fast rich-information sharing. As most anti-SOPA companies dominate the Internet, it's no surprise that these companies are using their own platforms to spread the message.
Google has a Google Doc, which contains a spreadsheet of all the companies currently supporting the bill—and shares their contact information.
Reddit also has a unique URL for messages and links regarding the fight (sopa.reddit.com), and Facebook hosts a page called Against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which currently has 10,000 "Likes."
Boycott and peer pressure. In mid December, domain hosting service and SOPA-supporter GoDaddy.com found itself the center of public outcry.
It all began on Reddit, when GoDaddy customers started a thread to declare that they were taking their business elsewhere because GoDaddy supported the bill.
Soon, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted a threat of moving his domains. In the face of a mass exodus and peer opposition, GoDaddy's CEO Warren Adelman changed his mind, saying in late December the company now opposes the legislation. GoDaddy reportedly lost 70,000 domains during the incident.