How to Save the Internet—Again

On January 18, the Internet went on strike. Tens of thousands of Web sites—including Google, Wikipedia, and Wordpress—went offline or blacked out their interfaces to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Many feared the breadth of the proposed anti-piracy laws—which could force entire domains to shut down because of the actions of a small number of users—would be used to censor online content and chill innovation. Protestors sent millions of e-mails and placed calls. Organizers of the strike estimate that nearly one billion people were exposed to their message. PIPA and SOPA were tabled. It was, by all measures, an overwhelming success.

But the larger legislative battles over Internet privacy and freedom are by no means over. Next week, the Senate is expected to take up a version of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which passed the House in April. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, which dealt with intellectual property, CISPA and its associated bills (the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 and the SECURE IT Act) expand the ability of Internet companies to share user information when such information pertains to “cyber threats.” According to the ACLU, the bills could allow government agencies to collect and share user information for purposes other than cybersecurity. 

The “Privacy is Awesome” campaign, one of the leading anti-CISPA efforts, is banking on Congress’s Memorial Day recess to encourage constituents to reach out to legislators and voice their opposition. But compared to the massive campaign against SOPA and PIPA, the campaign has been anemic, with a mere 19,000 “likes” on Facebook compared with one million for the campaign against SOPA. This raises the question: Can the one-time groundswell of opposition to SOPA be mobilized for the long haul?

Fight for the Future, the organizers of “Privacy is Awesome” and a key force behind the January SOPA/PIPA blackout, says the strike wasn’t just a one-off event. Next week, Fight for the Future is set to launch the Internet Defense League (IDL), a coalition intended as a "permanent force for defending the internet, and making it better." “We’ve shown that the public can engage on the issue and do it really well,” says Fight for the Future Co-founder Tiffiniy Cheng. “We’re a force to be reckoned with.” 

The logo on IDL’s home page is a glowing “cat signal,” drawing on the popular “cute cat theory,” which posits that the same social-media tools that make pictures of cute cats go viral are also fertile ground for online organizing. Fight for the Future’s campaigns frame their political messages with tongue-in-cheek references to celebrities and savvy use of Internet memes, from the “Free Bieber” campaign—in which Justin Bieber is arrested under a proposed bill criminalizing certain copyright violations—to the anti-CISPA #CongressTMI hashtag, which Twitter users employ to protest domestic surveillance. 

Internet campaigns seem like a commonsense way to protest legislation like CISPA. Everyone who sees the campaign is online, and therefore has a stake in the issue. But the Internet has a short attention span. From Kony 2012 to Kickstarter, it’s easy for users to become disaffected about a cause—or simply stop noticing. Legislation winds its way through Congress over months or years (CISPA was proposed last November), while viral videos can lose steam after weeks or days. And it’s difficult to pack much nuance into a hashtag; one early problem with the campaign against CISPA was that it was branded as “SOPA 2.0” even though the two bills cover different ground. If IDL wants to turn internet opposition into a new veto point, it will have to prove that digital civil liberties have both the catchy popularity of a meme and the staying power of a movement.

One way to indicate such staying power would be to play offense instead of defense. To date, the massive public campaigns have all been organized around opposition to bills. But some organizations, like the DC-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), are working with legislators on the Hill to craft new bills and amend the most offensive parts of existing ones. This tactic can present its own challenges: In the CISPA fight, some organizations want to make sure the bill doesn’t pass, while others want to make sure that any bill that does pass contains amendments to better protect privacy. “It’s very easy to organize people around ‘no,’ says Leslie Harris, CDT’s President, “harder to organize people in a sustained way around ‘no, but.’”

Proactive efforts to amend or create legislation, though, may have a more lasting impact than a long series of negative campaigns. Part of the problem is that the existing legal framework is outdated and not all that favorable to privacy and Internet freedom. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), passed in 1986, was broadly aimed at extending privacy protections for data stored on and transmitted by computer. But changes in technology have made many of its provisions outdated. For instance: the 180-day privacy period extended to e-mail left on servers. The rationale in 1986 was that users downloaded e-mail from servers to their hard drives, so if e-mail remained on the server for months it could be considered abandoned. In 2012, though, popular email services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail are “cloud-based,” meaning that e-mail stays on the server indefinitely—and therefore could be subject to warrantless searches after six months. While some courts have indicated that this is a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy protections, there is no judicial consensus. 

Work being done to reform the ECPA hints at what proactive campaigns could look like. The Digital Due Process Initiative is one group agitating for ECPA reform, and it includes Internet giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft in addition to advocacy groups like CDT and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The coalition is impressive, but it needs a massive public-support campaign behind it. Advocates should sound the alarm judiciously, and aim for long-term gains. The Internet can’t go on strike every day.

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