This week, “call your Congressperson” is not just a cliché. It’s one of the most important things you can do to make your voice heard.
As Ars readers know, Wikipedia, reddit, Craiglist, and others are blacking out their sites today in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), antipiracy bills that protestors believe would give far too much power to rightsholders at the expense of the Internet as a whole.
Members of Congress are already backpedaling on some of the provisions in SOPA and PIPA, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said Tuesday that he expects to have more co-sponsors for his alternative (and much saner) OPEN Act “than SOPA has in the House.”
SOPA opponents say it is critical to block the bill now, because if it is turned into law, website owners will be at risk of having payments blocked, or forced into lengthy and expensive litigation even if they’re not trying to enable piracy or profit from it.
“Scribd could not have come into existence in a world governed by SOPA,” said Scribd co-founder Jared Friedman during a conference call yesterday. Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit (which shares a parent company with Ars Technica), said much the same thing about Internet entrepreneurs. “I’d hate to be the Congressperson who has to go back to his or her district and say, ‘You know what, maybe this is not the industry for you. Maybe you can try your luck in Canada.'”
Video hosting site Veoh found out the hard way what litigation can do to an Internet business, even when the law is on your side. Veoh was “litigated to death” before being finally cleared in a lawsuit filed against the site by Universal Music Group. “The lawsuit dramatically impacted our company,” said founder Dmitry Shapiro. “It cost us millions of dollars to litigate. It took up a tremendous amount of executives’ time. More importantly, it dramatically demotivated our 120 employees who were constantly concerned about what this meant and what would happen to them and their families.”
Veoh’s defense, that it was eligible for safe harbor protection under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, was upheld on appeal. But it was too late—Shapiro laid everyone off and sold the company in a fire sale.
Friedman said he’s grateful to Shapiro, because Veoh’s “success” in defending itself helped Scribd fend off its own legal threats. But SOPA would weaken safe harbor protections and give copyright owners a “private right of action” to go after money and ad networks, making it even more difficult for future Veohs to gain traction.
You don’t have to be a digital pirate to oppose SOPA, Issa added. “We don’t want people taking brand-new movies and putting them online and prospering while the actual creator of the art is denied,” Issa said. But OPEN, by focusing on the money supply through the International Trade Commission, would target the vast majority of abuses that SOPA intends to prevent without resorting to censorship, he argued. “We think we can do 80 percent of the good with almost no trauma.”
“It is a great time to contact your members of Congress, make sure they know there is an alternative, and that there is a reason to slow down and get it right,” Issa added.
Contact your senator or representative
Sending a message to our elected leaders’ underlings has never been easier. Old-fashioned phone calls count for a lot; they take effort to make, and so they indicate opposition in a way that a mass form e-mail never will. The official Senate site lists the phone numbers and links to contact forms for all senators, while the House has a handy tool that lets you search for your representative by ZIP code and state.
If you’re having trouble thinking of something to say, various anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA organizations can help. Public Knowledge has a form for sending letters to senators describing why PIPA is “overbroad … ripe for abuse … [and] speeds fragmentation of the Internet.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation is providing a similar service for contacting both senators and representatives, as is AmericanCensorship.org.
You can also sign several petitions. This one urges President Barack Obama to veto SOPA should it ever come to his desk and has more than 51,000 signatures; it led to the Obama administration criticizing portions of SOPA, saying that the administration “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”
Another petition backed by Craigslist and reddit is aimed at Congress and has 117,000 supporters. Want to go further and convince your fellow humans that SOPA is bad? If you’re already an expert on SOPA or PIPA, another site lets you volunteer to explain it to newbies on the phone or in person.
Black out your website
Many of you have your own personal websites. Just because you’re not as big as Wikipedia and reddit doesn’t mean you can’t join the blackout brigade or “SOPA strike,” as some are calling it. On GitHub, one SOPA opponent is providing HTML that can be used to change a website’s homepage to a black screen which lights up when you move your cursor over the middle, revealing a message of protest:
Liz Castro, an author of books on computers, writes in to tell us an easy way to redirect your site to Sopastrike.com is adding a short script to the site’s template (you can find it here). This method is particularly useful for Google Blogger sites, she says, adding that “it blacks out the whole site without changing a lot of the code and it’s easy to reverse (by deleting it).”
If you have a WordPress site, you can choose from several plugins to make your point, including one that lets you customize which dates the blackout message appears and whether users see it on only their first visit or on all visits. Widgets can also direct visitors to anti-SOPA or anti-PIPA petitions. For those who can’t or don’t want to go completely dark, there are “Stop PIPA” bars to put at the top of your site, while one “SEO-friendly” protest tool created by CloudFlare blacks out any word longer than five characters, making your site look like a redacted government document. Mucking with a site carries some danger of Google’s Web-crawling bots not seeing it properly, but luckily a Google employee has posted a handy guide on what not to do.
Boycott SOPA supporters
If you’ve contacted your Congressperson, blacked out your website, and are still itching for more protest action, you can identify SOPA supporters and take the fight to them directly—or boycott their goods and services. One extension for Google Chrome, called No SOPA, warns you when you visit the website of a company that supports the legislation. “Boycott? Nasty letter time? You decide,” writes the maker of the extension.
There’s also quite an extensive list of SOPA supporters on the website of chief SOPA backer Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). (GoDaddy was removed from this list after it was the victim of a successful boycott of the company.)
The Internet speaks
“This is the first time we’ve seen an Internet-based action,” Ohanian said yesterday. “There were no leaders of this movement.” But people from numerous political persuasions lined up in agreement that “this was terrible legislation that looked a lot more like lobbyist dollars at work. If you don’t believe this is an election issue already, it is already happening.” In fact, several “real life” protests and rallies are happening today in the streets of San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, and perhaps other cities.
Just because SOPA and PIPA have plenty of opponents doesn’t mean they can’t pass. The bills still have sizable support from music and movie industry groups. Former US Senator Chris Dodd, now CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, fired off a press release yesterday calling the SOPA blackout “yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals.”
If you’re among those who disagree with Dodd, what are your plans now that SOPA blackout day is upon us? If you have any interesting protest ideas, feel free to share them in the comments.