Ellen Miller responds


Sunlight Executive Director Ellen Miller responds to this guest post by Mike Godwin:

There is little in Mike Godwin’s response that we disagree with. As he writes, the debate over SOPA and PIPA was changed not by “politics as usual” or a late infusion of interest group lobbying cash, “but the participation of the online community, including Wikipedia, Reddit, and others, to let policymakers know about their unhappiness with the direction and process of the legislation.” Amen to that. Our blogger, Lee Drutman, did not argue that this was not grassroots or that it was solely organized by Google or other tech lobbies. What he did write was, “Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and tens of thousands of others changed the scope of conflict in a flash. Harnessing the unique megaphone they had built as content providers, the online companies generated as many as 3 million e-mails to Congress, 7 million signatures and 3.9 million tweets. It was enough to cause many in Congress to wonder whether they had unwittingly kicked a hive. [Emphasis added]

And Drutman took care to note that something indeed had changed in the wake of the SOPA/PIPA fight: internet content providers on their own had managed to mobilize public attention. Drutman wrote:

It used to be the case that for this to happen, the mainstream media had to be involved in calling attention to the travesty. Those days are disappearing, and this is generally a good thing. By lowering the barriers to entry, the Internet has the potential to make political activism more democratic than ever before, and the SOPA turnaround is proof that it can work politically to engage a broad crowd in short order.

Where perhaps there is some disagreement between us and Godwin, whose work with EFF and Wikimedia we greatly respect, is on which sy-LA-byll to put the em-PHA-sis. Godwin argues that the campaign contributions and lobbying spending by tech companies was a minor or unimportant factor in the contours of the SOPA/PIPA fight; Drutman wrote that it could not be ignored and that the reality of the dynamics of power in Washington hadn’t changed quite as much as some would hope. Indeed, consider this counterfactual: last year, when Google cut its deal with Verizon and the FCC over “net neutrality,” there was also a howl of online protest, but that time nothing changed. The big money players were aligned instead of being divided, and grassroots opposition alone was not enough to prevent the deal from happening.

That said, we agree with Godwin that something else is also going on here that ought to cheer all fans of small-d democracy, of which we count ourselves. Because of the open, two-way nature of the Internet, as well as its large non-commercial sector, the SOPA/PIPA fight may mark the emergence of the networked public sphere as its own interest group. While some big tech companies joined the fight against the bills on their own, internet users rallied themselves too, and then pushed the bigger companies to join in, or risk losing their users’ allegiance and business. In that case the story is not the traditional clash of narrow private interests, but the rise of a networked public sphere that has its own “lobby” that isn’t just a business interest but more of a real public interest.