The Internet's most popular destinations, including eBay, Google, Facebook, and Twitter seem to view Hollywood-backed copyright legislation as an existential threat.
It was Google co-founder Sergey Brin who warned that the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act "would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world." Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman argue that the bills give the Feds unacceptable "power to censor the Web."
But these companies have yet to roll out the heavy artillery.
When the home pages of Google.com, Amazon.com, Facebook.com, and their Internet allies simultaneously turn black with anti-censorship warnings that ask users to contact politicians about a vote in the U.S. Congress the next day on SOPA, you'll know they're finally serious.
True, it would be the political equivalent of a nuclear option--possibly drawing retributions from the the influential politicos backing SOPA and Protect IP--but one that could nevertheless be launched in 2012.
"There have been some serious discussions about that," says Markham Erickson, who heads the NetCoalition trade association that counts Google, Amazon.com, eBay, and Yahoo as members. "It has never happened before." (See CNET's SOPA FAQ.)
Web firms may be outspent tenfold on lobbyists, but they enjoy one tremendous advantage over the SOPA-backing Hollywood studios and record labels: direct relationships with users.
How many Americans feel a personal connection with an amalgamation named Viacom -- compared with voters who have found places to live on Craigslist and jobs (or spouses) on Facebook and Twitter? How would, say, Sony Music Entertainment, one of the Recording Industry Association of America's board members, cheaply and easily reach out to hundreds of millions of people?
Protect IP and SOPA, of course, represent the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet providers, and other companies forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish, a kind of Internet death penalty.
There are early signs that the nuclear option is being contemplated. Wikimedia (as in Wikipedia) called SOPA an "Internet Blacklist Bill." Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has proposed an article page blackout as a way to put "maximum pressure on the U.S. government" in response to SOPA.
The Tumblr microblogging site generated 87,834 calls to Congress over SOPA. Over at GoDaddyBoycott.org, a move-your-domain-name protest is scheduled to begin today over the registrar's previous--and still not repudiated--enthusiasm for SOPA. Popular image hosting site Imgur said yesterday it would join the exodus too.
Technically speaking, it wouldn't be difficult to pull off. Web companies already target advertisements based on city or ZIP code.
And it would be effective. A note popping up on the screens of people living in the mostly rural Texas district of SOPA author Lamar Smith, Hollywood's favorite Republican, asking them to call or write and voice their displeasure, would be noticed. If Tumblr could generate nearly 90,000 calls on its own, think of what companies with hundreds of millions of users could do.
If these Web companies believe what their executives say (PDF) about SOPA and Protect IP, they'll let their users know what their elected representatives are contemplating. A Senate floor debate scheduled for January 24, 2012 would be an obvious starting point.
"The reason it hasn't happened is because of the sensitivity," says Erickson, "even when it's a policy issue that benefits their users." He adds: It may happen."
Or it may not. It would change politics if it did.