In the past 48 hours there has been some criticism of tomorrow's planned web blackout to protest SOPA and PIPA. The most widely reported was Twitter CEO Dick Costolo's "that's just silly" tweet, which members of the press, eager to report a controversy, took out of context. In fact, Costolo was responding to the accusation that Twitter lacked the "cojones" to take a stand, and was clarifying his organization's view on what sort of stand was appropriate.
However, there has been some real criticism of the anti-SOPA protest. Paul Levinson thinks that "Wikipedia should not shut down on Wednesday... [they] could make the same point by putting up a page about SOPA which everyone who goes to Wikipedia would see... it is a wrongheaded, unnecessary move, and SOPA will be defeated without it."
Lauren Weinstein goes further, writing a post that advocates using splash pages instead of shutting sites down, and then later on posting this update which questions the value of the entire protest:
I might add that apart from the discussion above, history suggests that this type of protest -- likely to flood Congressional phone lines for a day or two -- is among the least effective, almost certainly to be relegated to the category of mass mailings and other directed protests. Personal letters and other unscripted communications with Congressional representatives can most definitely have a positive impact, but politicians have learned over the decades that the high volume, organized, "call your congressman" protests tend to be the least meaningful.
It is wrong to dismiss the importance of the web blackout to protest SOPA. The purpose of the protest is not merely to generate a flood of telephone calls to representatives. The purpose is to make the American people aware of the issue and of the Internet community's concerns.
It is not a coincidence that backpedalling on SOPA from Lamar Smith, Patrick Leahy, the House Majority leadership, and the Obama Administration, as well as the first in-depth television news coverage of the issue on MSNBC, came a few days before this protest. Heretofore the mainstream television news media had done almost no reporting on SOPA, and it was easy to dismiss the opponents as a small but vocal group. After the protest that will no longer be possible, so all of a sudden people are starting to distance themselves from the bills. This is a significant set of victories.
Wikipedia's participation is hugely important as it is one of the most prominent sites that chose to participate, and it reflects a community consensus rather than the opinion of a single business owner. Wikipedia's stance is likely to be noticed by non-technies more than any other site that has thus far announced that it is joining in the protest. It is unlikely that the mainstream news media will be able to avoid reporting on the protest with Wikipedia's participation.
There is a reasonable argument that splash pages or black backgrounds might have been just as effective. However, the first thing that people are going to do with a splash screen is to hit that little "X" in the corner and close it. The web is full of interstitial advertisements that people ignore and dismiss in order to get down to the information they want. On Wednesday, that information will not be available. That is more than just a statement - it is an action. It has a greater impact, and the importance of that impact in forcing people to think should not be dismissed.
I believe that the leaders who have backpedalled on this issue in advance of the protest are doing so in order to hedge their bets. Nothing since the passage of the Communication Decency Act in 1996 has garnered such strong opposition from the Internet community. Once the American public learns that their government plans to create a censorship infrastructure in the Internet, I think they will oppose it too. However, the MPAA and the other supporters of SOPA will try to influence their opinions.
The mainstream news media will provide "balanced" coverage, wherein SOPA supporters will have the opportunity to repeat the canard that SOPA only impacts foreign sites that are dedicated to criminal activity. SOPA opponents will be accused of being misled or confused about the issue. We better have our talking points ready, and we better represent well on television. The people that we're going up against are masters at manipulating public opinion through television.
If we fail, and the American people don't get it, all of the politicians who have expressed caution in the past few days will reverse course, and we'll be back where we started again. Our government does things that are unpopular. And, they believe in this.
The MPAA has shown Congress the Torrent links on Google for popular movies, they have complained that they cannot take the hosting sites down because of the jurisdiction that those sites are in, and they have connected the consequences to jobs in the movie industry. Unions have written long position pieces explaining that they need SOPA/PIPA to keep their members at work. With an extremely weak economy in the wake of a housing crisis, there is nothing that American politicians want right now more than jobs. Jobs will strengthen the economy. Jobs will increase demand for houses. Jobs will get the President reelected.
The MPAA is offering them quite a package - just pass this law, and you can have those jobs.
This is the devil offering a contract on the soul of this country. We all know that our First Amendment rights are too high a price to pay. After living with the DMCA for the past decade, we all know what the long term negative consequences are going to be.
We all know that it is pretty unlikely that blocking a few downloading sites is going to cause a massive windfall for the movie industry, and it is even more unlikely that such a windfall would spark a significant increase in investment. People who can afford Netflix don't bother with torrents.
Meanwhile, legitimate sites will be shut down on a regular basis based upon thin allegations made by people with ulterior motives. Small sites will be pushed out of business as they are forced to police content. State legislatures across the country will start adding sites to the official government Internet blacklist and only constant court battles will keep them at bay. Computer security researchers will be targeted for explaining how to access websites that are filtered. It will become impossible for Americans to assist people in other countries who are fighting their own Internet censorship regimes.
We all know that SOPA is a bad idea, but we must not underestimate the strong desires that are driving our leadership in this direction, nor how difficult it will be to talk them back from this ledge. So far, nothing has had a greater impact than this protest tomorrow. For everyone who cares about the long term future of the Internet, this is our moment.