The Reason SOPA and PIPA Protests Were So Successful

According to The Star Online, over 4.5 million people signed Google’s online petition to Congress against SOPA and PIPA, more than two million people tweeted against the legislation, 162 million people visited Wikipedia’s blackout landing page, and eight million in the U.S. looked up their congressional representative to protest SOPA and PIPA. Millions of citizens engaged in their communities and protested the bills that are defeated for now, this week in the U.S. House and Senate. Collective action ranged from people censoring their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter, posting statuses, links, and pictures against the bills, and calling their congressional representatives to halt these bills.

Why such an unprecedented level of online engagement? What about SOPA and PIPA caused such an impassioned flurry of unequivocal outrage across the U.S. and abroad?

Simply put, people had a lot to lose if those bills became law. The biggest lesson learned from anti-SOPA protests (specifically on January 18 when Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, and 75,000 other websites temporarily went black in protest) is that people act quickly when they realize they have something at stake. Following the basic economic principle of self-interest, people need an incentive and justifiable reason to expend energy, time, and money into something. In this case, the potential consequences that the passage of SOPA and PIPA would have on ordinary people served as a strong enough incentive for people to take action. By protesting these bills, people found something they could gain from the bills’ failures.

Just the sheer number of people who protested SOPA/PIPA demonstrates the enormous power and influence that collective action can have on our government. Corporations and their interests were not the only groups who had a stake in the passage or failure of these bills — anyone with a remote connection to the Internet could face its potential repercussions.

Additionally, the collective support and action witnessed on January 18 and the days surrounding heightened discussion about the bills are the same kind of solidarity and commitment to common good that arose after 9/11 and during the international Occupy movement. Similarly, the protests that have been successful, such as the petition against Bank of America’s five-dollar debit card fee also showcase broad public support.

 Affecting the majority, people had a vested interest in the outcome of these bills — consequences they could potentially immediately face given the nature of the provisions in the bills. Here lies another key distinction between rallying for the passage or failure of a different congressional bill and protesting SOPA/PIPA: SOPA and PIPA’s consequences can be felt by the mundane citizen. An ordinary user using Wikipedia is targeted in the same manner and subject to the same laws and regulations governing alleged internet pirates. 

Other issues that received considerable public outcry but failed to receive as much attention as SOPA were the passage of the NDAA and the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Here, only select groups of people were affected. Though the NDAA had implications for ordinary citizens, indefinite detention was not as likely a scenario as is prosecution for piracy. Same with the Keystone pipeline — though there are potential environmental risks associated with building the pipeline, those repercussions are not felt immediately. SOPA and PIPA affected the majority of people, causing people to mobilize and ardently disagree with the bill. When the majority of people decide to speak out against a perceived injustice, actual change reverberates throughout.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons