This post appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on January 29, 2012
by Larry Magid
Many people are celebrating the “people’s victory” that derailed, at least temporarily, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate.
These controversial bills would require websites to refrain from linking to any sites “dedicated to the theft of U.S. property.” The bills would also prevent companies from placing ads on the sites, and would block payment companies like Visa, MasterCard and PayPal from transmitting funds to the sites. The bills could even give the U.S. attorney general power to seek a court order to block the domain name server (DNS) records, effectively cutting off access to the entire site.
Derailing the bills was indeed a big victory, but was it “people power” or a new form of corporate lobbying? The ability of Google and the nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation to drive people to sign online petitions is indeed impressive. But it’s also a little scary.
In this case, I think they were on the right side. But while I applaud the intention behind the anti-SOPA campaign, I worry a little about the precedent it set.
A number of advocacy groups — including Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Center for Democracy &Technology — had been working to stop the bills for months. But it wasn’t until Google and Wikipedia famously joined the fight that SOPA and PIPA became household words and millions of people were activated to express their opposition.
When people went to Wikipedia on Jan. 18, they weren’t able to get to whatever article they were looking for, but they did see a big banner that included links to help visitors reach their members of Congress. Google didn’t go dark in protest to the bills, but it did black out its logo and — more importantly — placed a link to an online petition against them which, so far, has garnered more than 7 million signers.
Google, which is a $185 billion company, has an enormous reach that dwarfs that of any of the world’s major media companies. Google.com is the most trafficked site on the Web, with more than 12 billion search queries in December, according to comScore. Wikipedia is the world’s sixth-most popular site, according to Alexa. Google occupies three spots on Alexa’s top 10 list. Google.com is No. 1, YouTube is No. 3 and Blogspot.com is No. 7.
Tech companies flexed their muscles Jan. 18 and we found out that they’re a lot more buff than many had thought. We all know about the power, money and influence flowing out of Hollywood, but even though traditional media companies influence a great many people, they don’t have the same ability as tech companies to offer links to places where citizens can take immediate action.
I am starting to worry about the concentration of media power into the hands of a relatively small number of very high-traffic Web companies. It’s similar to the concern people have raised for decades about the power of the news media. But instead of fearing the power of TV networks and newspapers, we now need to be concerned about the power of online media companies, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, China’s Baidu, Wikipedia, Twitter and Amazon.
For the most part, these sites stay out of politics. Google’s search algorithms are ideologically neutral and Amazon is happy to sell stuff to people, regardless of their ideological bent. Wikipedia’s editors had a big debate over whether to go dark Jan. 18 because some felt that it impinged on their neutrality. What the foundation finally decided was to take a stand on SOPA and PIPA, arguing that these bills “would put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites.”
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted, “The encyclopedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened.”
One reason to worry about the power of online companies is because — like Hollywood — they too have lobbyists in Washington and plenty of reason to flex their own political muscles. One difference between Hollywood and Silicon Valley — for now at least — is that Silicon Valley is on the defensive while Hollywood is often on the offensive. Hollywood is seeking strong government laws to protect its assets while much of Silicon Valley’s lobbying is focused on getting the government off its collective back.
In 2012, there will be plenty of legislative and regulatory actions that will affect the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as Amazon, which is fighting a losing battle to keep states from collecting sales tax from its online customers. Of course, these companies have a right to try to protect their interests, but let’s hope that they don’t abuse their online presence to enlist support with a level of reach that’s gargantuan compared to that of most people, organizations or even companies.
So, while I join the celebration over the apparent demise of PIPA and SOPA and appreciate the help the movement got from big tech companies, I also worry about giving these companies too much power and influence.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Google, Facebook and other Internet companies.