Website Blackouts As Social Protest Tools


The internet as it exists today is the living embodiment of a libertarianism/near-anarchy that Americans sometimes dream about, a land as open and free as the wild west, only without that pesky native problem. Still, others want to impose their own laws on citizens of the web. Unsurprisingly, the internet is fighting back.

Free speech advocates and civil agitators around the globe regularly emphasize how internet access opens up opportunities for dissent. Voluntary service disruption by internet companies is a wholly new method of dissent, this time from the world of business, who don't typically use populist tactics to achieve their aims. Let's call it what it is: wikipedia, reddit, and all the rest, have basically just gone on strike.

Digital disruption seems like the apotheosis of civil disobedience, despite the fact that the companies involved are not breaking any laws or physically challenging anyone.

They are corporations who are refusing to provide a service, in the name of a cause. If corporations are people, then they damn well have the right to act like people, to draw attention to their causes and to even cause disruption.

The fact that this disruption occurs in a realm that was practically fictional until a decade ago seems both climactic and anticlimactic. Universally disruptive protest now is in the areas that we resolutely can live without, and in fact did live without for centuries. Will the wikipedia blackout lead to worldwide starvation or even civil inconvenience? Certainly not. A few thousand high school students will be at a loss for whom to plagiarize.

And yet, this form of protest seems the literal definition of "hitting them where it hurts." You can occupy a dozen Zuccotti Parks, you can challenge inumerable City Halls, but in each instance, you're only affecting the local area. For whatever reason, we have all opted into this ridiculous airy-fairy wireless internet space, and so we are all affected by its vagaries. And have we really been exposed to its whims and fancies until now?

These blackouts are partially a victory for Anonymous. They may not be an organization to praise, but their extremist position has forced many neutral entities to take a stand of one kind or the other. They proved, to the surprise of many, that you can disrupt real lives simply by shutting websites down. For every social network that sells itself out to dictatorial governments, for every currency exchange that bows down to illegal censorship, there are dozens of companies fighting for free speech, if only to protect their own right to exist.

Hegemonic websites like Wikipedia are aware of their power in people's lives. In a rare event, these anarchic internet behemoths are on the same side as the people, against even larger media corporations who are looking only to protect their status quo. So what happens when other web companies start protecting their own interests in this manner? How about if WebMD goes down to protect women's right to choice? Or Gmail blacks out in protest of the Patriot Act? These are powerful political tools, and the government has no legal basis to force these companies to resume service.

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6 Responses to “ Website Blackouts As Social Protest Tools ”

  1. Question: what are all of us without US citizenship supposed to do about this? Write a strongly worded letter to the president? I guess maybe it's technically impossible to block only US people and politically probably a good idea to remind people in all countries of the problems of internet censorship, but does it just stir up anti-american sentiment (e.g. 'oh look, wikipedia just told me that the evil americans are once again ruining everything and we are powerless to stop them') without actually gaining anything useful?

    Possibly actually international embarrassment is a more powerful tool to persuade a government than strongly worded letters, no matter their number, so probably on balance it IS a good idea to block it for everyone after all. Hmm.

  2. As a non-US citizen, I have a 'Stop SOPA' badge on my blog. I can't call a congressman, but can raise awareness for anyone visiting my blog who has that capability.

    As for websites going dark, the feeling seems to be that this action is being taken because these bills could fundamentally change the way the internet operates, effectively outlawing linking: by going dark, the sites in question are raising awareness by showing visitors what could happen if SOPA/PIPA succeed. Certainly that was why Flixist - and every site on the Modern Method network - chose to go dark yesterday, anyway. I think sites blacking out for issues unrelated to the web would be seen as needlessly frustrating users for the sake of the site's politics and rapidly compromise any credibility their cause might have.

  3. Tom G, as I understand it, other countries worldwide have considered (and if not will at some point) similar laws on their books. If only to show them that the people who live in the world, the same ones who use this global internet, are not ready to take such laws lying down it is good that they spread these protests further. You may not be able to directly call a congressman in the US with your complaints, but you have your own leadership to talk to, to make sure the same idea isn't propagated there, as well.

    That's the reason the English Language Wikipedia community voted to shut down that section of the site, to make a statement to American lawmakers and ones in other English speaking countries.

  4. I see your point about issues unrelated to the web, but the whole point of protest is to frustrate users and to compel them to put pressure on lawmakers/businesses. Certainly, wikipedia led to the absolute flooding of congressional offices with phone calls.

    One can no longer deny that businesses are political actors, I'm just surprised to see them engaging with tools traditionally associated with the political left.

  5. Well it's not really "evil Americans," is it. I'd go so far as to say that the actions and tactics of the MPAA and RIAA are directly anti-American, as they are anti-capitalist, anti-free market and ask for special considerations from the government that no other business (apart from agriculture) would dare ask for.

    As Peter said, the point is that the laws on the books are very similar to laws already in place in Europe and Asia. So it's about awareness of your own local laws as much as anything else. Make no mistake. The UK and EU already have a version of these vile laws.

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