A View From New York City’s SOPA/PIPA Protest

Portent Staff Jan 18 2012

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian speaks out against internet censorship

January 18th was a big day in the fight against Internet censorship legislation. As you may have noticed, major websites like Wikipedia and Reddit took their content offline to protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two pieces of legislation would make dramatic changes to the Internet, allowing media companies to block access to sites that host copyrighted material.

In New York City, I was able to attend a large rally outside the offices of New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand protesting the two bills. In an industry known for its workers being chained to their computer screens, I was curious to see how this offline gathering of techies would turn out.

I arrived to find the crowd in good spirits, as organizers handed out Starbucks lattes (of course) and openly discussed the finer points of the proposed legislation. One woman held a sign saying: “This introvert is extrovert-ing to protest Internet censorship,” which no doubt encapsulated the position of many of those gathered.

Free speech in jeopardy?

When the speaking portion got underway, the crowd listened to several leading members of the NYC tech community give their thoughts on the SOPA and PIPA. Andrew Sireij, the lead organizer for the event, explained that lawmakers do not understand of the impact of their proposed actions, saying “congress doesn’t know the difference between a server and a waiter.”

Another lead organizer Clay Shirky said SOPA should instead be called “the First Amendment Sunset Act,” as it would signal the beginning of an immense crackdown of free speech in all areas of the web.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian drew cheers and applause when he described the crowd as “the geekiest, most rationale, reasonable protest in the history of NYC.” Ohanian also pointed out that SOPA and PIPA may irrevocably harm the beauty of the online landscape. He described the Internet as a level marketplace where the best ideas rise to the top, and that “all links are created equal,” a concept that is near and dear to the hearts of white-hat Internet marketers.

“Innovation, not legislation”

A common refrain among all the speakers was that the Internet industry is vibrant and creating jobs right now all over the country, and passing SOPA and PIPA would only harm business and halt hirings. Intriguingly, supporters of the legislation make a similar argument when defending their bills: they say that without regulations, jobs will be lost in the industries that create the intellectual property that’s being pirated online.

Of course, nobody was making the claim that pirating content was acceptable. But it is clear that this bill may go too far in damaging a free and open Internet world that has vastly improved the way human beings communicate, share, and follow their interests.

In reaction to today’s protests, several politicians have retracted their support for the bill, citing the need for more time to establish the proper course of action on dealing with online piracy. Perhaps congress and Hollywood should follow Ohanian’s suggestion of allowing the tech industry to have input on a solution, establishing a goal of “innovation, not legislation.” And if there’s one thing the tech industry is always willing to do, it’s innovate.