Last year, the Internet briefly upended everything we know about American politics.
It was January and a pair of bills designed to squelch online piracy of movies, music, and pharmaceuticals — known by the acronyms SOPA and PIPA — seemed poised for passage.
Hollywood had put its considerable political muscle behind the legislation. And it enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.
But Silicon Valley and Internet freedom activists feared the legislation was so blunt, so poorly written, that it would cripple the web's open architecture and stifle innovation.
And when big Internet outposts like Google and Wikipedia staged an Internet blackout and urged a public revolt, a long-building netroots movement exploded — smothering Washington with tweets, emails, and phone calls that killed the bills.
Somewhere near the center of that movement was former Rhode Island State Representative David Segal, who co-founded advocacy group Demand Progress with the late Aaron Swartz after leaving Ocean State politics.
Segal, along with Internet activists David Moon and Patrick Ruffini, has edited a new book on the uprising titled Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.
At the heart of the book: essays by big names in the Internet freedom space, including Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, novelist Cory Doctorow, and former Congressman Ron Paul.
There are also essays from a musician, the co-founder of Reddit, and Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this year amid charges that he'd illegally downloaded millions of academic articles with the intent to disseminate them for free on the Internet.
I spoke with Segal this week about the forthcoming book, available for pre-sale at hackingpolitics.com (in keeping with the editors' Internet freedom ethic, readers can pay what they'd like for the e-book version). The interview is edited and condensed.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING TO DO WITH THIS BOOK? Nobody's really done a comprehensive accounting of [the] effort, which is pretty ridiculous. I think it is safe to say that it is the single [biggest] narrowly directed activist effort — non-electoral. It's not something like the civil rights movement as a whole. [But] to have 20 million people engage around the passage or defeat of a piece of legislation I think is literally unprecedented, at least on such a narrow timeframe.
Right after the blackout, there were a series of articles that looked at that on kind of a two-week horizon — what came before. But [the push to defeat the legislation] was at least an 18-month to two-year effort. And of course, that work was only achievable because of infrastructure that had been put in place over the course of the previous decade or two by activists and organizations.
So it's really this flourishing of this issue space that had been maturing for 10 years or 20 years — and represents this coming-of-age for the Internet public and politicization of Internet issues as Internet issues, not just as vehicle to facilitate contacts around other issues.
SO WHAT EMERGES FROM THIS COMPILATION YOU'VE PUT TOGETHER? WHAT WILL WE LEARN HERE THAT WE DON'T KNOW ALREADY? There's still this dynamic on Capitol Hill where people want to fit this into their pre-standing paradigms: the notion that this was Google vs. Hollywood. That just demeans the real organizing that groups like ours — which has never received a penny from Google — were doing to pull this together. Google didn't intervene in a serious way until the very end of the battle.