Protesting Government Digitally

There’s been a long debate over digital technology. Does it help or harm the cause of liberty, individualism and human rights? People who say it has hurt point out that government has been able to use the products of private innovation for its own purposes. The government can watch us as never before. It assembles data on the population as never before. It can spy, intimidate, tax, regulate, control trade and even inflate ever more efficiently using the tools of the digital age.

All of this is true. But what Black Wednesday demonstrated is exactly the opposite point. Major parts of the Web withdrew their consent in protest against legislation in Congress that would have a devastating effect on how the Internet functions. Instead of being a sanctuary from power and control in which information is freely produced and distributed, it would become a delivery system for government/corporate-approved content not unlike the radio of 1930s or the television of the 1950s.

This legislation would transform our lives. The Internet declared its opposition with conviction. The institutions rose up by posting blackout notices, banner ads and messages of open defiance. It was a peaceful protest not unlike those of the past, but with a gigantic difference. Instead of being limited by geography and, therefore, easily ignored or broken up by police, the digital protest was global, impossible to ignore and could not be stopped. It applied to the English-speaking world, but all language groups become involved because the effects of the legislation would be truly universal.

It is always a risky venture to stand up to power. You face loss of commercial traffic. You face the possibility of reprisal, even violence. You face the real possibility of losing the fight and, therefore, not being declared a hero, but rather a fool. And if we look at the sweep of history, we can easily see that the odds of winning against power are extremely low. Liberty is a rarity in history for a reason. Despotism has ruled the day in most times and most places. People who chose to fight the power have to begin with this understanding.

It is only when a few people of conviction stand up to power and their protest is backed by some level of public consensus that the difference is made. It has happened rarely, but look at the effects. The liberty won through withdrawing consent built the modern world. Everything we use to better our lives is a product of this liberty. Our health, education, material prosperity, arts, faith, music and philanthropy all owe their greatest debt to liberty, not to government.

A convenient marker to signal the beginning of the digital age is the invention and popularization of the Web browser in 1995 — at least this is the way I tend to think of it. That means that we’ve had 17 years of seeing what free information flows can produce, and it is nothing short of astounding. We take it all for granted day to day, but when you step back to look, the transformation seems like miracle.

Anyone can communicate in real-time video at a near-zero price with anyone else in the world. At our fingertips, we have all the world’s great literature, music, poetry and science. It is the key to our social networks, to educational efforts, to healing and cooking and every other life activity you can think of. And it all traces to that amazing thing: the ability to share and exchange ideas in whatever form.

Most of the time, people take for granted the products of freedom once they come into being and never stop to imagine an alternative. People go about their daily lives enjoying amazing blessings unaware of what made them possible, and they do not imagine a world in which it could all be taken away.

Even today, in former socialist countries, the young generation has little appreciation of the fact that only a generation ago, the shelves were empty and the life was grim and without hope. In the U.S., we just expect and anticipate — almost as a human right — the newest digital toys, the latest upgrades, the ever-more bug-free environment of software lives. We saunter around stores and pick and choose from among the world’s bounty and think nothing of it.

This is a serious problem because liberty requires awareness of its blessing to survive. Somehow, and against all odds, the debate over the technical details of the enforcement of intellectual property has sparked some degree of awareness. The protest has been cast as one against censorship, and it is indeed that. It is good to think about the counterfactual reality of a world of information gone dark.

But actually, there is more at stake than that. Information is the essential building block of what we call civilization, of all the things that improve the human condition. It is about more than what we can see and what we can read; it is about the human right to share and exchange ideas that makes progress itself possible.

The anti-SOPA movement has been one of the most exciting protests I’ve seen in my life. It seemingly came from nowhere. It was built over the course of just a couple of months. The tipping point came when Wikipedia announced that it would join the protest. Then it seemed like everyone got involved, and over the course of just a few days. Programmers wrote applications to block out websites. Millions changed their Facebook profile pictures (hey, it’s a lot easier than a hunger strike!). Congress was flooded with messages of opposition as never before.

And who and what started all of this? Strikingly and notably, it was the “conservatives” — or even the “libertarians” — who continued to be oddly confused by the whole topic. It was the “civil libertarians” and people associated with what is commonly called the “left” that became the machine behind the protest. This is a beautiful demonstration that you never really know for sure where to find the true friends of liberty.

People have asked for my speculations on the future of this legislation. My guess is that this protest will effectively kill the current versions of the bills in Congress. They will be tabled, and the corporate interest groups pushing them will quiet down. Then in the summer and fall, it will all start up again with less-objectionable legislation that claims to remove the offending powers, but, in reality, does largely the same. Will the protesters sit this one out, or will they see that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty? In the end, the freedom of the Internet can be guaranteed, not just by stopping new legislation, but by repealing old legislation. In this respect, this protest represents not an end, but a beginning.


Jeffrey Tucker
Executive editor,
Laissez Faire Books