Internet Blackouts: A Reliable Activist Strategy?

stop cispa blackout

Earlier this week, internet freedom activists and privacy advocates (led the group Anonymous) launched a blackout day to raise awareness about the CISPA bill in the US Congress. Officially named the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, this bill would have allowed commercial entities and the government to share private user data for the ostensible purpose of fighting international cyber attacks, while raising Big Brother-like concerns about the expansion of internet surveillance. While the current bill has apparently died in the Senate after passing in the House, the issue will likely continue to be debated contentiously in the coming years. Meanwhile, the news media has labeled the Stop CISPA blackout a flop, failing to catch on virally in the way that the Stop SOPA and PIPA blackout did so famously last year. Despite the fact that the bill has now been shelved, the efforts of Anonymous and other internet freedom activists to make CISPA the new SOPA seem to have fallen short.

This raises the question – are internet blackouts a reliable strategy for online activists moving forward, or was the success story of Stop SOPA and PIPA a fluke? An obvious issue here is the amount of websites who agree to participate – after all, who is really going to notice if only a relatively small fraction of the internet goes dark? While the SOPA blackout effort last year inspired over 50,000 websites to shut down completely, only 917 sites participated in the CISPA blackout earlier this week. In addition, the CISPA blackout didn’t get any heavy-hitters on board, whereas the SOPA/PIPA blackout famously included Wikipedia – one of the highest-trafficked websites in the world. While this may suggest that the issue of internet privacy simply does not get people as excited as restrictions on copyrighted material, there also appears to be a degree of blackout fatigue here as well.

One of the most remarkable things about the Stop SOPA/PIPA blackout was how unprecedented and surprising it was – people were absolutely shocked to see major sites like Wikipedia and Reddit go dark as an act of political protest. In other words, the impact of the blackout appeared to have a lot to do with its novelty value. Perhaps we should not expect websites to pull the plug every time a piece of controversial internet legislation appears before Congress, as such an act may quickly shift from shocking to merely annoying. Calling for such a protest on a regular basis (as Anonymous seems to be doing) may therefore not be a successful strategy in the long run. It will be interesting to see if they try it again, and what the level of participation and public impact will look like.

In the meantime, check out TechDirt‘s infographic about the runaway success of the SOPA/PIPA blackout. It’s a hard act to follow…

372006-infographic-internet-freedom-day

Laughing Off the Threat: “The Internet” Takes on Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 1

In the past few weeks, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been dominating international headlines with his repeated saber-rattling, and the story has gone on to inspire a vast amount of internet parody memes. Buzzfeed recently published a big roundup of the funniest examples, while Know Your Meme has been tracking the “Hungry Kim Jong-un” set of memes for a few months now.

Kim Jong Un Parody Buzzfeed 2

The title of the Buzzfeed article, “The Internet is Really Not Afraid of Kim Jong-un,” is particularly interesting from my perspective. Here, “the Internet” is framed as a singular entity – one that is characterized by the derisive humor of Reddit-style meme culture. Obviously, this sort of activity only constitutes a small fraction of the online discourse that is currently taking place around the North Korea issue (some of it “high-minded,” some of it “low-minded,” and much of it in between), and yet somehow it comes to stand in for the whole. Of course, humorous memes are the bread and butter of a site like Buzzfeed, so it’s unsurprising that they would focus on this specific facet of what the internet has to offer. It just seems to me that this sort of reductionist talk about “the internet” is becoming more and more common as of late (as in the AV Club’s “Great Job, Internet!” feature), and it would be wise to take a step back and appreciate the breadth and variety of online political discourse. After all, “television” is not just late-night comedy monologues (the obvious precursor to these sorts of memes), so why is “the internet” so often painted as merely a factory of flippancy?

That being said, I would refrain from labeling the Kim Jong-un memes as “bad” discourse, political trivialization, etc. As scholars of mediated political satire like Jeffrey P. Jones have shown, this sort of seemingly-frivolous humor can enliven the public sphere and bring new entrants (particularly young people) into the realm of civic participation and citizenship. Indeed, it is rather heartening that the meme-spreaders of “the internet” are tackling the latest developments in international politics in addition to the usual repertoire of cute cats and celebrity gossip. While it might be merely laughing in the face of serious global tensions, these memes are getting people to think and talk about issues that they may have otherwise ignored. Great job, internet, indeed.

– Joel Penney