In protest of SOPA and other pending legislation seen (quite rightly) as detrimental to Internet freedom, a number of prominent websites — including Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, and Craigslist — are going dark today (the wikipedia pages on SOPA and the politics of it are one exception; they remain available today). On the merits of the legislation, I completely agree with the concerns of the websites (see this Sullivan post for some entry points to relevant writing). On the merits of going dark for a day, I’m much more torn. In fact, I think it’s probably a bad idea in the long run.
On the one hand, it seems like the perfect protest maneuver: lots and lots of people use Wikipedia on a daily basis, and when they try to access it today and instead get a blank screen and a message to call their Representatives , I would imagine that quite a few phones are going to be ringing on the Hill. And that’s just Wikipedia and some other huge but not enormous sites. Imagine if Google decided to take part? The potential leverage seems incredible. So in the immediate sense, this is direct action at its finest, and even raises the spectre of the long-mythologized general strike. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the participation of Google and Facebook and Amazon in something like this could actually credibly threaten to hinder the U.S. economy.
But that’s kind of the problem. Everyone sort of understands that the Internet is a game-changing technology, and that those with a lot of clout on the Internet have quite a bit of latent political power in their hands. But that’s the key: so far the power has really been latent; the main political uses of the Internet to date have been to lower transaction costs for private political organizing — like-minded people using it to find each other and discuss politics, political parties and candidates using it to raise money and get their message out, and government and private groups using it to disseminate information about policies, pending legislation, and political news. In other words, right now the Internet is serving only as a passive conduit for political, as well as commercial and social activity. It is a stable platform on which people engage in other activities; a playing surface on which to perform or a canvas upon which to create. It is a wonderful tool of politics and commerce, but it’s core state of being has, thus far, not in and of itself been recognized as political.
That is to say, what has not yet happened to a significant degree is the use of the Internet itself as a political or commercial weapon. Until today. The problem I foresee is that direct action of this type by major websites is almost inexorably going to start us down the road toward government regulation of the core Internet sites as public utilities. In fact, it’s almost baked into the cake: if there’s any political value in Wikipedia going dark for a day, it’s directly correlated to how vital Wikipedia is to our daily existence as a nation. But that very vital-ness will be the basic argument for significant public regulation of the sites. In fact, I would suspect that this might be one reason Google is not participating; a day without Google would almost surely upend the Internet enough to get the attention of Congress; unfortunately, I don’t think the only, or even most likely, congressional response would be to bag SOPA. Instead, what I think you are likely to see is calls for public control over the core functions of the Internet, beginning with the very idea of search, with all the calcifying and anti-entrepreneurial effects that flow from the bureaucratization of a previously organic ecosystem.
I also think the major websites are deluding themselves if they think they will automatically hold the high road in a political fight after they begin down the direct action road. I don’t think a battle between the websites and the government will come off as a worker – management dispute; the labor strike is a bad analogy. One might try to analogize today to the early railroad workers’ strikes in the 19th century. But the workers aren’t on strike; this is more like if the railroads themselves went on strike. The correct analogy is probably J.P. Morgan or other financiers bargaining hard with the government over bailouts in the late 19th century. That’s type of power play is not something that particularly bothers me — in fact, I think this move by the websites is a brilliant tactic in the short-term. But I know that it will bother a heck of a lot of people, and I can relate to the fear it presents; there’s something slightly unsettling to the idea that a handful of companies hold the keys to the smooth flow of internet commerce. And I don’t think it’s much of a limb to go out on to say that there’s no lack of a potential audience for a political movement against powerful evil companies. And make no mistake: when the regulations come, that is exactly how it will be portrayed.
And look, I’m a libertarian. I want the Internet to remain as free and private and as far outside the reach of public regulation as possible, forever. Part of doing that is stopping SOPA. But part of doing that is also being careful about exposing the political power that resides with the major Internet players. Taking down websites is certainly the right of any website owner, and I’m 100% against anyone who claims they do not have the right to do so. But just because you have the right to do something does not make it a wise thing to do. One the veil is removed and you are recognized as a political actor, you are likely to be treated like one. And I’m very concerned that whatever victory is earned today will be Pyrrhic; the dawning of the political power of the Internet is going to bring a governmental response, one way or another. And that is almost certainly a negative for the future development of the Internet.