February 6, 2012

How SOP Was Undone By SOPA: The Political Maturing of the Net

            In the mid-1970s cable television viewers in San Diego often saw a message like this on their screen:
                       This program is being blocked by order of the Federal Communications
                       Commission. Please write your Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, U.S.
                       House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. 20515 and tell him you
                       want more television choices.
            The recent headline-grabbing dustup between Hollywood and the Internet community over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is the reincarnation of the same battle 40 years later. The underlying issues are strikingly similar, but the way in which they were fought has certainly changed.
            In the early days of cable television a cabal of Hollywood and broadcast interests combined to convince the Federal government to deny cable its competitive advantage of more channel choices for consumers. Corporate lobbyists told Congressmen and Senators how cable would mean the end of "free TV" unless it was stopped or controlled. Then these same groups recruited real people - the so-called "grassroots" - to back up their claims.
            Such lobbyist-organized grassroots efforts were the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of political organizing - I know because I used to do it. Last month, however, everything changed. The opponents of SOPA harnessed the network the legislation was trying to constrain to produce an outpouring that blindsided SOPA's supporters and derailed the bill. The vox populi of the Netroots overwhelmed the organized grassroots. With the SOPA debate the Internet came of age politically.
            Backed by Hollywood and others whose business model requires controlled scarcity of product, SOPA in many ways echoed the cable fight of 40 years earlier. The policy matter is not whether copyright holders should receive recompense for their products (they should), but whether legislation to protect that right is aircover to perpetuate old practices at the expense of new networks. There is no doubt there are honest-to-God Web pirates operating in China, Russia, and elsewhere who are stealing copyrighted product. These pirates should be stopped. But SOPA’s effort to accomplish this – which also just happened to strengthen the hand of content companies in other regards – applied concepts more applicable to the command and control networks of yesterday than to the open access networks of today. The result was an unparalleled protest and a political train wreck.
            The power of the Internet is its lack of centralized control. Its distributed architecture means the network functions at the edge rather than at a central point. That edge activity, in turn, creates what the SOPA supporters were trying to constrain: access they can’t control. While its goal of stopping piracy is laudable and important, SOPA’s practical effect was to restructure through law the functionality of the Internet.
What seemed to catch everyone by surprise was how the distributed nature of the network means anyone can use the Net to express themselves and discover others of a like mind. This open-sesame for self-initiated action unleashed the real vox pop.
            The old political structure operated like the network itself - a centralized system of control. Convince the right representatives and gin up the right groups to support your position and legislation was enacted. The new political structure, as demonstrated by the SOPA experience, also operates like the network. But it is a new distributed network. With the Net anyone with access to the network is now an editorialist and a political organizer. What's more, the Net aggregates previously isolated individuals into a coherent self-organized mass.
            One hundred seventy-four years ago a New York painter named Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated his electromagnetic telegraph to the Congress. It was the first electronic network and the binary precursor to the Internet. The idea that messages could move via electronic current was a revolution that was literally beyond the comprehension of many who witnessed it. “The world is coming to an end,” one congressman commented as he left Morse's demonstration.
            The awe-struck congressman was right, of course. The comfortable world of doing things the way they had always been done was coming to an end. By definition, new networks always change the status quo legacy of the previous network. In Morse's time that legacy communications network was the Post Office.
            Morse tried to co-opt the Post Office by offering to sell it his invention. Unable to conceive of why messages moving at the speed of light were better than messages moving at the speed of horses, the Post Office spurned the offer. The result was a precedent that echoed again in SOPA: relying on political muscle to stop that which technology enables always fails. What was interesting about the SOPA fight was how fast it failed. The heir to Morse’s racing electrons sped information across a ubiquitous network to shatter the political SOP and create a new political reality.
            The on-screen message in San Diego 40 years ago was revolutionary in how it used a new network to defend itself. The problem was that it was still a top-down effort. This time the speed and ubiquity of the Internet created a self-organizing, bottoms-up capability that changed the nature of the debate. The Net spread the word from a few watchdogs to everyone who would potentially be affected. Then, the network allowed the affected to organize and deliver their messages in the other direction – to the elected officials – telling them to keep their hands off.
            Those messages weren’t just email equivalents to the letter asked for in the San Diego situation. Activity at the edge of the network means creativity at the edge of the network. A seemingly limitless number of individuals were able to undertake their own creative response. Not only did collaborative sites such as Wikipedia shut down in protest, but also anyone with an Internet connection had a soapbox and a media studio. The messages from the edge soon overshadowed the muscle being applied in the middle. 
            I was a part of the battle for network change in the 1970's. It was a long and bloody uphill battle that ultimately prevailed. Watching the Netroots organizing around SOPA, I could only stand in awe - if only such a capability for the people to speak out had existed in the 1970s! My sense, however, is that there was a lot more to the SOPA action than SOPA itself. Centrally structured and controlled political grassroots have become distributed and open Netroots. The results echo the reaction of the 1838 congressman to seeing his first electronic network. Things will never be the same again.


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