Internet freedom isn’t free: five years after the SOPA PIPA blackout

Internet freedom isn’t free. While it was built with many important ideals that helped it grow and thrive, there is no internet Constitution that protects its unique and important characteristics. Instead, it’s up to every internet user to stand up for what makes the internet great, and make sure it remains such a powerful tool of communication, connectivity and creativity.

On the fifth anniversary of a battle to preserve Internet users’ most fundamental rights, it is incumbent on us all — regardless of political persuasion, ideology, or technical background — to recognize that these freedoms are fragile and constantly under attack. To preserve them, we must keep watch. To stay free, we must constantly fight for the Internet’s fundamental tenets.

{mosads}In 2011, a grassroots group of Internet activists and outlets (like ours, Techdirt) banded together to raise the alarm over a pair of destructive efforts to curtail Internet Freedom that were rolling through Congress.  At the time, we were operating in a realm without much precedent. The Internet’s capacity to defend itself, and to rally activists, was unproven.

The pair of bills — SOPA and PIPA — were a direct attack on the very principles of an open internet. These bills weaponized copyright law, enabling private industry and government bureaucracy to join forces and strangle new platforms and modes of creativity and connection online. Dozens of outraged voices became hundreds of websites, which became thousands of mobilized activists, which became the largest show of force in the Internet’s young history.

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, websites all over the Internet went dark to highlight the existential threat the Internet faced. Google, Wikipedia, Amazon and Craigslist joined more than 50,000 sites in an unprecedented web blackout. We prevailed. No one thought it was possible, but the victory was undeniable. The Internet learned it could win.

Anyone familiar with the basic history of new platforms and the nature of disruptive innovation could predict what happened next. This victory did not stem the flood of new, multifaceted threats to Internet Freedom. From increasing mass surveillance to attacks on privacy and attempts to undermine Net Neutrality (not to mention the threat Techdirt is currently facing), threats continue to appear which would curb users’ rights and fundamentally change much of the Internet’s core free and open architecture.

The last five years have been an ongoing, but important, fight. So what’s in store for the next five years? And how can we keep watch to ensure the Internet we know and rely on stays free?

Long gone are the times when “The Internet” and “Everything Else” were seen as separate, stand-alone concepts. Connectivity, speech, retail, art, activism — the line between our existence in these online and offline senses is essentially gone.

The activism required to fight back against new threats will blend throughout these online and offline spaces without distinction. What happens in Washington is inextricably linked to how freedom of expression and innovation unfold in the coming years.

The lessons SOPA/PIPA fighters learned are instructive to us again. And at a crucial time in the Internet’s evolution — as a platform for creativity, communication and culture — we must lift up new voices into a conversation whose participants must be as diverse as the interests and the futures the Internet represents.

All that is to say: this is about all of us. Each and every Internet user’s rights are not secure, and will not be secured without our active participation.

We celebrate the anniversary not out of a sense of nostalgia, but out of a need to prepare for the future by revisiting our history. The Internet can prevail again, but we must keep watch. That is the only way to stay free.

Mike Masnick is CEO and Founder of Techdirt.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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