SOPA Opera

They Work For The Internet: Behind Silicon Alley All-Stars’ Marathon Coding Session at Tumblr to Fight Against Congress

The SOPA standoff puts politics in Silicon Alley's sights. Will they succeed?
i work 1 They Work For The Internet: Behind Silicon Alley All Stars Marathon Coding Session at Tumblr to Fight Against Congress

Silicon Alley hits the political presses, snazzy logos and all.

This potential for this to go wrong in other ways, it should be noted, could hit Mr. McLaughlin’s new home especially hard. “[SOPA] has real implications for, let’s say, Tumblr, where we’ve got 35 million blogs, every single one of them has a unique third-level URL under Tumblr.com. Under the bill as it’s written, the threat is that one bad apple means they could get cancellation of Tumblr.com the domain name, killing everyone’s blog. We don’t think that’s what people intend, we don’t think that’s what they want the result to be, but we look at the language of the bill…and the use of this very clumsy tool of domain cancellation, that’s what we see as a possibility.”

But why shouldn’t domains be responsible for their content? After all, Hollywood and what it produces is, over the last century, one of America’s most consistent exports. Mr. McLaughlin volleys this back without thinking: “[Domains] aren’t engaged in the infringement. They’re not doing it. They’re not the criminals. If two people plan a crime using the telephone system, you don’t indict the phone company for connecting the call. If you want these platforms to thrive, you can’t impose liability for every one of the literally billions of transactions that runs over their system every day,” he takes a breath, and then drives again:

“The second point is this justice point, which is just simply: They’re not doing the infringement. When you put those two together, it just so happens, the traditional techniques of law enforcement are what we should be using. The number of kind of like commercial scale copyright infringement mills is—by Hollywood’s own estimate—somewhere in the low tens. To inflict an entirely new liability regime and to break secure DNS to go after a couple of dozens of sites is crazy!”

The other two sites—Trust Nerds, which advocates against the dismantling of DNS upgrades that would be waylaid by any stripe of Internet Kill Switch and attempt to circumvent it, and American Censorship, which advocates against the potential for SOPA to be abused by redaction-happy corporate or bureaucratic forces lacking the best intentions—make up the remainder of the political tech power push. “When it became clear that those were the three narratives to hit,” Mr. Karp concludes, “we decided to go with ‘Fight for the Future,’ which was the original SOPA setup, and then decided to make that the hub for all the stuff we now use to host that call to action.”

And on Monday, it was done…With exception to a few coding errors, of course, the likes of which received personal adjustment from Mr. Karp after reading about them on Hacker News boards. For a first foray into political activism by Silicon Alley at-large, it’s undeniably coherent and impressive, regardless of what some may think of the message (it certainly stands in stark opposition to that other viral political movement, Occupy Wall Street, whose criticisms of ‘But what does it stand for?‘ have all but been totally answered herein, and then some).

Yet, if strong national opposition to the face-value injustices of Wall Street banks experiences news-cycle setbacks in the simple dismantling of sit-in protests, are the lofty ambitions of fighting SOPA realistic? In other words: If you can barely get someone to call their representative for that, is all this effort be for naught?

“We’re not under any illusions. I’ve been around D.C. long enough,” Mr. McLaughlin says, sounding like someone who has, in fact, been around D.C. long enough. “We’re not under any illusions that this isn’t some magical counter to decades of investment and relationships and political campaigns and lobbyists and so forth that pro-SOPA people have made. It’s not like this is, you know, a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington-moment where lots of calls come in and suddenly everyone drops what they’re doing and we magically win the debate. We’re not that grandiose as to think this is going to work like that.” He concludes that this is the kind of fight those with dogs in it—and those who want to help—we need to get used to, and now is as good a time as any to start:

“For this battle and for future battles down the road, people who care about the Internet need to get in the habit of letting their representatives know they care about the Internet. The Internet isn’t just a force of nature that happens, it’s something that’s built. It’s built by humans and regulated by governments, and the people who care about it need to be sufficiently vocal.”

“Maybe,” he says, “some good will come out of it.”

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek

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