The Internet is a landscape with an endless horizon. Its vastness of information, ideas, sounds, and images is matched only by its constant growth and ceaseless change.
But one day, the Internet stood still.
On Wednesday, January 18, 2012, websites all over the Internet covered their homepages in a uniform message. Reddit, Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, Craigslist— giants of media and commerce — joined more than 50,000 sites in an unprecedented blackout. It was an act of protest so powerful and inspiring that it did something no one thought possible: It moved Congress.
The US Senate and House of Representatives had hoped to pass two severely restrictive online censorship bills quietly, without fanfare in the press or attention from the public. These bills were backed by the entertainment industry, and they would have fundamentally changed the Internet as we know it.
“It wasn’t that the government went to people and asked them to take down particular material that was illegal. It shut down whole websites. Essentially, it stopped Americans from communicating entirely with certain other groups.” — Aaron Swartz on SOPA/PIPA
The Day the Internet Went Dark was the final stand in a campaign that forced Congress to rethink its secretive and cynical attempt to undermine freedom and openness on the net. Reeling from a massive wave of emails and calls from constituents, Congress abandoned the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
What Made This Fight Powerful
Looking back from five years in the future, the defeat of SOPA/PIPA by an unlikely coalition of Internet activists, online communities, and huge business interests is even more amazing. The call to action didn’t fall along party lines. It brought together libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and Tea Party activists. It didn’t matter if you were a major corporation or an individual citizen. For one day, the line was drawn, and the fight for a Free Internet changed everything.
New Threats, Fragile Victories
But there wasn’t much time to rejoice in the defeat of SOPA/PIPA.
Later in 2012, Congress introduced the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) and sparked a debate not just about privacy, but once again about laws designed to allow unprecedented government overreach.
The following year, a key leader of the SOPA/PIPA victory, Aaron Swartz, took his own life while facing decades in jail for allegedly downloading too many articles from an online database. It was a tragedy that forced a hard look at the law used to prosecute Aaron, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Then in 2014, a new threat emerged. A lawsuit brought by Verizon struck down the FCC’s rules on Net Neutrality and gave telecom companies a window to push for new restrictions. After a massive wave of grassroots support, including an online action reminiscent of the blackout against SOPA/PIPA, the FCC finally proposed rules that would fortify the openness of the Internet and our right to access it.
In the last five years, Internet freedom has come to mean fighting against so much more than censorship.
As power changes hands in Washington this month, many questions remain unanswered about the future of the Internet as a space for innovation, creativity, and expression. Donald Trump’s administration includes two new appointments to the FCC who have previously spoken out against Net Neutrality and may try to roll back existing FCC rules as soon as this year. That’s why activists who fought against SOPA/PIPA and stayed vigilant over the last five years aren’t waiting for Congress to introduce new bills to encourage the public to activate. They’re urging action now, while appointments are happening that signal the fights ahead.
If the 2012 victory against SOPA/PIPA taught us anything, it’s that whether or not the Internet will remain a place that everyone can access reliably and affordably to share, connect, and create freely depends on us.
What We Can Do
If SOPA had passed, this piece of writing might not exist. In fact, all of Medium could be taken down if a single company found fault with a single post. And if a handful of individuals hadn’t sounded the alarm when SOPA was introduced, that’s exactly what would have happened to so many sites like this one.
So, at the dawn of a new era of leadership in Washington, what can we do to continue the fight?
Join us in rededicating yourself to the preservation of this beautiful, wild creation we call the Internet. Keep Watch. Stay Free.
This has been a collaboration featuring content from Access Now, Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Technology Association, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Engine, Fight for the Future, Free Press, Kickstarter, Lawrence Lessig, Public Knowledge, Taryn Southern, and Techdirt.