Game Change?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  May 30, 2012

And this is where Benkler's skeptics focused in the question-and-answer session that followed his talk. Weren't Google and Wikipedia essential to the defeat of SOPA? And can online activists — focused on abortion or the environment — really expect to replicate the anti-SOPA energy without those powerful companies amplifying their message?

Benkler acknowledged it is an open question. But he argued that the tools developed for the anti-SOPA fight are more likely to be harnessed for general use than to wither away.

"When I started writing about free and open-source software 13, 14 years ago," he said, "the core response from economists was . . . 'Software programmers are a really quirky tribe, so you can't learn anything from that.' And my sense was, 'Actually, no, they just live five to 10 years ahead.'"

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THE COALITION

Of course, the participation of the tech sector was not the only unique element of the anti-SOPA coalition.

The cause spawned a rare left/right alliance — progressive groups like Demand Progress and conservative organizations like Don't Censor the Net, run by former Bush-Cheney campaign webmaster Patrick Ruffini, both got involved from the early stages.

The role of the advocacy groups was crucial; they'd spent months or years building the networks, arguments, and trusted brands that were crucial to the victory.

But if the backbone of the anti-SOPA campaign was this unusual political alliance, can it really be viewed as anything more than an aberration?

Advocates have a few answers to that question. First, they say, the importance of Internet freedom as a political issue, going forward, should not be underestimated: the Web, after all, is the most important free speech tool of our time. And Internet freedom activists are undoubtedly in a stronger position post-SOPA.

They've scared Washington, collected millions of names for use in future campaigns, and learned important lessons about mobilization that could have broader application; the gameification of activism — click here to restore your redacted content and get involved — seems an important development.

Moreover, if you spend any time talking with the progressive and conservative activists who collaborated on the anti-SOPA fight, you quickly learn there are other areas of common concern, like civil liberties and crony capitalism.

The two sides may be hard pressed to unite behind a common, proactive agenda in any of these areas, but it's not hard to imagine them coming together to oppose legislation.

David Segal, a former Rhode Island state representative who serves as executive director of Demand Progress, wonders if the alliance that formed over the last year might have been able to block the bank bailouts of 2008. It's an intriguing question.

Still, there's reason to doubt that the more traditional, partisan campaigns that dominate the political landscape can create the kind of broad enthusiasm engendered by the anti-piracy battle.

Indeed, some activists are concerned about overheated expectations in the wake of the anti-SOPA campaign; the netroots, Segal warned, has to be leery of appearing a paper tiger.

That said, there's some evidence that the SOPA model — advocate-driven organization combined with an explosive and unpredictable Web — can have a real impact on ideologically driven campaigns.

Just a couple of weeks after the piracy bills died, a massive online protest helped pressure the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation into restoring breast cancer screening funding for Planned Parenthood.

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