“This is how you defend the internet”: Holmes Wilson from Fight for the Future at MIT Center for Civic Media

Liveblog: Holmes Wilson, a co-founder and co-director of Fight for the Future was speaking at the MIT Centre for Civic Media on internet activism. Fight for the Future was one of the driving organising forces behind the SOPA/PIPA protests. In this talk, Wilson discusses the strategy and challenges of organising the protests, and the potential that the huge energy accompanying the protests can be channeled for future campaigns.
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Wilson’s main point is that internet activism is hard, but not that hard – that the successes of the SOPA/PIPA protests can be replicated. He starts from the position that the internet gives people a massive new power of freedom of expression, but that power is inherently fragile. He then argues that in order to succeed in defending the internet, we need to make everyone an activist. Wilson is hopeful that it is not difficult to do this because “people are on our side”.


Wilson starts from the premise that congress does not realise the impact of seemingly innocuous legislation. In the recent SOPA / PIPA campaign, for example, the threats were masquerading as seemingly minor, reasonable changes to the law. The threat was that any copyright owner could take down any website, and sites would have been required to aggressively police their users. The worst part is that most of the harm would be invisible – in terms of the sites that are not possible to create or invest in given the threat (e.g. YouTube could not have come into existence under SOPA). The is true of CISPA – it’s a straightforward argument that makes sense to congress, that businesses should be helped to secure their networks. The effect, though, would be turn websites into legally immune government spies – agencies able to access massive sets of information without a warrant. They are effectively “declaring martial law on the internet”.

Wilson is then concerned that our ability to access websites without being blocked, and our ability to express ourselves privately, are both under attack. Because “the scales could tip at any moment”, “the only way we can defend the internet is to make everyone an activist [sometimes]”. The power that the internet gives people to express themselves is a direct threat to old-school hierarchical institutions, so opposition is strong. Because the benefits of the internet, on the other hand, are distributed, the resistance (responsibility and political action) also needs to be distributed. This is an argument about externalities. There are a few companies who receive a larger fraction of the benefits – Google – but there is no single actor that is adequately motivated to protect the decentralised benefits of the internet.

Wilson argues that creativity is on our side – creative campaigns (Free Bieber) can totally change minds. The “SOPA will kill the internet” campaign, with video and infographics, had a very big effect: “there’s an amazing power you have as an activist” to set the way people are talking. Wilson explains FFTF’s thinking when they realised that SOPA would likely pass: they needed to do something really big to avoid the foregone conclusion. They wondered how they could make ordinary people feel the disgust that they felt when they considered the blocking effects of SOPA. The blackout campaign was designed to evoke reaction from a simulated blacklist filter. The campaign started as a small circle of friends and activists, then really picked up steam. It went viral through Tumblr, and they started to get a lot of incoming traffic. On the day, there were a huge number of sites participating, including organisations that do not normally get involved in technology advocacy. Tumblr was the most powerful ally; they blacked out internal dashboard pages, and routed people to a telephone callback system to contact their representatives – leading to ~80,000 calls through Tumblr that day. Overall, there were approximately 3000+ printed letters, 6000 sites signed up, 1,000,000 emails to Congress.

The problem is that FFTF knew that they would need to do this again. PIPA was a fallback, a bit more reasonable, a bit less extreme. SOPA was designed to catch the flak, and then PIPA could pass as a compromise. FFTF needed to ensure that the protest was not perceived as a flash in the pan.

The process for organising the campaign was inherently decentralised. A FFTF intern wrote a post on Wikipedia’s village pump, starting a long discussion that, over the course of weeks, eventually enabled Wikipedia’s participation. Wikipedia’s participation was extremely effective. Facebook’s letter was relatively minor, Google’s petition was well publicised but perhaps not that effective. Wikipedia, an organisation that had comparable traffic (top 5 website) sent everyone to representatives web pages with contact numbers – effectively DDoSing representative websites, showing a flood of interest. The Reddit organised boycott of GoDaddy also had huge ripple effects. The campaign wasn’t very strategic in the traditional political sense, but the GoDaddy boycott had a very large political effect on republicans in particular – as the sponsoring member from Arizona in particular felt the tangible blowback. FFTF organised ~50 meetings with Senators during the recess, enabling distributed individuals to raise issues on centralised talking point. The crescendo about SOPA became enormous – people talking everywhere about it. Eventually, FFTF couldn’t direct or control the campaign – they could only make some memes and try to ride the wave.

Right up to the day of the blackout, there were only 6 Senators against PIPA. By the next day, there were 101 opponents on record, but still many undecided. Finally declared victory when Reid announced that the Bill was dead.

This is how you defend the internet: grab hold of the framing, make it clear to everyone what is happening, make simple tools to turn people into political actors, organise people into something amazing that they can do together – something that they will feel sad or ashamed not to have been a part of. If that goes well enough, it turns into something that you can’t stop or control. This is how you can do it.

Wilson notes that this level of engagement has never happened before, but fundamentally, it isn’t really that hard, for two reasons: 1. the internet is extremely important to people – “if you are growing up now, the internet is your everything”; 2. everybody already knows what we know: that the internet provides amazing power but is fragile and needs to be defended. There is a palpable sense “that the internet is amazing, it’s all we’ve got, and the Government and corporations are trying to take it away”. The sky is the limit once we begin from this perspective.

The caveat is that memes constrain the scope of creativity but massively enable the depth of creativity. The problem is, that with politics, to get the ball rolling you need to understand mroe about the political context – how to be understood. There is a deep interdisciplinary knowledge that crosses poltiics and culture – and you need to pull these things together to have a strong impact. Successful advocacy requires bridging these domains, bringing people with different knowledge together. “We need people who can do that – we need people to take this on.”

Q: With regard to CISPA. There are things that have changed in the past year. Are we going to see something similar – how does the organisation around CISPA look different this time?

A: There’s a difference that we don’t have as many people with something to lose. SOPA really reached investors, for example. People could really understand the before and after scenarios. Spying is different – it’s more insidious – things don’t disappear, but it imposes a long term pressure. CISPA is particularly hard to oppose because it’s “voluntary” – although in reality there will be very strong pressures to comply. Fighting privacy is different to fighting blocking, and because of that the message is much more complex (and therefore potentially less powerful). FFTF are planning on organising a large day of action, and thinks that there are enough participants to make it work – although it is unclear whether the wikimedia community will participate again. They need to find a strong message – “we care about our privacy – it’s important”.

Q: Pushing back on the internet exceptionalism. There’s a really nice narrative about SOPA/PIPA that it’s a grassroots movement that people care about. At the same time, the role of centralised media organisations – tumblr, google, reddit, wikipedia, etc etc – was very important in picking up and amplifying the message. It seems like they were necessary for the success of the campaign.

A: Part of the answer is that many of these organisations are themselves distributed. The internet creates lots of distributed speech, but also lots of centralised, powerful institutions. One of the examples – Google – is a big corporation; Tumblr is a ‘speck’ compared to Google. Wikipedia is a user-run nonprofit that doesn’t accept ads; in order to take the action that it did, they had to go through huge internal consensus building processes. Wikipedia was by far the most important. Even Reddit, which is a huge site, they’re off in a corner of Conde Nast. The value of Reddit is in their decentralised user community, not the centralised management; the reason Reddit got involved was user backlash. So the question: was Google part of the lobbying to stop SOPA? Totally; there was money there, there was money at stake. Ultimately, that sophisticated insider lobbying was liable to get demolished by more sophisticated lobbying from Chamber of Commerce and other interest groups. So the decentralised movement was very important.

Q: Follow-up – what is “The Internet”? The Internet is many things, but in campaigns we can talk in terms of “saving the internet”; this very powerful idea evokes human rights, but when it comes down to defending specific things, we start to run across these divisions. How do you see the connection between “save the internet” and mobilising specific constituents?

A: The internet is a very abstract public good. It has been built in a very abstract, multipurpose way; so the value is itself abstract and multipurpose. The name for that value is “The Internet”; this can capture a core unifying thread, broader than freedom of expression to include many other values to society of open communication networks that provide unfettered ability to communicate to diverse actors.

Q: So far, most campaigns have been reactionary. How optimistic are you about a positive reform agenda?

A: Answer in two parts: 1. we have to really value what it means to stop bad laws going through — and get better at that; 2. as far as being able to pass positive reforms, we’ll keep trying, but we’ll get there, but not immediately: it’s a function of how many people care, how many people are online.

  1. If Wilson’s entire life is spent battling bad legislation, and he succeeds, it will be meaningful. The backdrop is that the internet is snowballing and becoming more and more engaging; he’s just making sure that that never stops. So living a life of constantly blocking things that could harm the internet is actually a highly creative, constructive, and valuable enterprise.

  2. We can put forward laws; we just need to reach the next threshold of internet adoption or internet power or awesomeness. Each election cycle, we see the effect of the internet grow. Something similar is happening with internet activists’ engagement with the political process: we used to be able to make the papers with funny stuff. Then, it got to the point where we could be good gadflies; with SOPA it was the first time we were able to block something.

With congress, it is much easier to stop things than get things through. This is what was working in our favour with SOPA. Aaron’s law is a great example – there’s a million things that can go wrong – a million enemies. For example, large institutional employers rely on CFAA to go after rogue employees. It gets really complicated – you end up getting sandwiched; do you draw compromises and exemptions for these interests – at the risk of alienating hard line civil liberties organisations? There’s a million tings that can go wrong. The same thing is happening with DMCA exception for cell phone unlocking – it looks like it will pass, but it will be a really narrow law.

We need better stories – explaining why copyright law is problematic. Elaborating on that is important – people need to step up and fill the role of thought leaders.

Q: Much of the success of this movement was in providing a sense of an issue that was actually very underdeveloped, but very blunt. This framing would annoy academics, who care about the subtleties. What can you say about the political necessity of glossing over complexities?

A: Your ability to really mislead people online is pretty limited if you’re not powerful already. If Techdirt, for example, calls the campaign out – that would be really damaging.

“What you would call blunt instruments I would call really concise ways of framing the issue.”

Any successful campaign requires engaging the audience – and this means using concise knowledge. People are fundamentally motivated by their friends and the things they feel – so in communicating with people, trying to treat the relationship as rational analyzers first and instinctive beigns second is ineffective. We are social animals – which means that campaigns need to work on social messages.

The other thing is that the machinery for expanding on the issues, providing subtleties, is very important; techdirt, mashable, everyone else is able to provide the complexity. Activists need to be aligned with the people who can back up and explore the details.