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…



4 thoughts on “Internet Blackouts: A Reliable Activist Strategy?

  1. CISPA’s lack of blackout coverage was a promotional failure. I didn’t hear about it until right before the event, whereas for SOPA/PIPA I recall hearing about it for quite awhile. For SOPA/PIPA there were a ton of resources available from a censor bar generator for twitter avatars (that applied instantly through Twibbon, I believe) to easy-to-apply codes for pretty much any website. Without prep time and a solid plan it’s impossible to get traction or convince larger sites to participate – the big thing about SOPA’s blackout was that it covered so much of the internet. The minds behind SOPA/PIPA’s blackout really made a difference, I think. People came together and made it easy to participate and be informed. There were multiple vectors it worked on. It didn’t matter where you were on the internet – social network or community website, you knew about it.

    Whereas with CISPA, I recall a friend trying to find a script for his site and coming up dry. The resources just weren’t there. People want to help, but without any direction or any resources easily at hand, you can’t show a unified front.

    Another thing to take into account is that a blackout absolutely made sense for SOPA/PIPA. SOPA/PIPA were going to result in censorship. Whereas that connection was less immediate for CISPA, which has more of a surveillance/arrest threat. A script to put a camera on someone’s website that watched the cursor, or maybe cell bars over your social network avatar via a twibbon, would have been a good idea because it would have gotten the message across. These are just toss-out ideas. Someone could have come up with something better, but that needed to be at least a month before the day of action for CISPA, so that all the resources could have been there and everyone would have had prep time. Prep time is important for large websites that need to load test or work around caching systems, so it’s absolutely necessary if you want any heavy hitters on board. It’s good to give some guidelines that make the campaign seem coordinated, but can still make the campaign fit in with the needs/structure of their site.

    Sometimes a smaller campaign is the way to go if you can make it effective – how many people turned their avatars green during #seaofgreen, or red/equal signs during HRC’s recent campaign? That spread a lot of awareness and had an impact, and the reason both worked is because they were simple and noticeable enough to grab everyone’s attention and get some crowd motion into it. SOPA/PIPA’s blackout was big enough to get media attention, yes, but that blackout worked because it was coordinated, planned for larger sites, and easy to implement for smaller sites. Any single user could be a part of it with ease. That just wasn’t there for the CISPA efforts.

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