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Blackouts, Boycotts and Regressing From Progress

A couple of weeks ago, the United States, and in fact, the world saw the internet grow up. Namely, through the use of blackouts – a previously unused tactic of protest and grassroots organizing – we saw the evil Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and it’s evil twin Protect IP (PIPA) anti-piracy legislation fail in what seemed like an instant.

Back in December, it became clear that Congress would hearken to their corporate sugar daddys and shove these two pieces of legislation through the Congress without so much as a minimal amount of input from the technology world that would be devastated by their provisions. After votes on these bills were delayed until after the new year, the Internet – led by Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist, and hundreds of thousands of other sites, including this one – self-organized a protest that would involve “blackouts” of sites (and in some cases, very pronounced messaging in he case where blackouts were not feasible.

Despite defensive posturing by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and others who served to benefit from the legislation, Congressmen and Senators began fleeing the bills en masse. We had successfully made our mark on Washington.

But then a funny thing happened. Twitter made some changes to it’s infrastructure to make it possible for them to operate transparently and legally inside countries that have stricter laws on free speech. It’s a necessary problem that companies have had to face for decades in places like China where speech is censored. I’ll let you read their blog post on the topic.

A small portion of the internet cried foul, claiming censorship. They looked at Twitter as anti-free speech and attempted – unsuccessfully – to self-organize a boycott of Twitter. It failed.

A very specific truth is at play and this is the crux of things. We matured on SOPA blackout day. We decided we wouldn’t be independent and fractioned, which is our nature as independent organizations and people. We had a desired goal (the defeat of SOPA/PIPA) and very specific actions and messaging that needed to happen.

The Twitter boycott (and most boycotts like it) cannot be effective in the same way. The Twitter boycott was a regression in our maturity. We didn’t have the same goal with surgical precision. We didn’t have any ground-swell of support. We had no stated goal or desirable outcome. We can’t use the same tactic every time. We regressed.

And by we, I don’t mean me. I knew it would be a failure.

Grassroots organizing is important and there will be other necessary flexing of muscle. But we can’t just cry foul because we don’t like a decision a company has made. We need to be selective about the fights we engage in and do them tactfully, strategically and surgically. That is maturity.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

2 thoughts on “Blackouts, Boycotts and Regressing From Progress

  1. I was really glad to see that grassroots organizations are being more successful in recent history – partly the efforts to stop SOPA, and more recently the efforts to support Planned Parenthood. I think that these successes are bringing more hope to the younger generation that they really CAN make a difference.

  2. Hi Aaron. I was impressed with the effectiveness of the SOPA and PIPA boycott, but I have to admit that I was a little conflicted. I live in Nashville and about 1 in every 3 people I know are in the music business. They were loudly championing these bills, in desperate hopes of stopping illegal downloads and copying of their music. I believe that we already have good laws in place to help the musicians and they just need to be enforced and publicized. But it was hard to be against SOPA and PIPA without catching a lot of heat from the music business people.

    I believe it not is completely dead, either. I was told it went back to committee for reconsideration. I have not heard a peep about it since and wonder if they are really going to make some changes and then try to push it through again? I hope not.

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