Cary H. Sherman has written a provocative Op-Ed piece, “What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You”, arguing in favor of the SOPA and PIPA bills that were recently withdrawn after an unprecedented uproar spurred by the protests of Wikipedia, Google, and other websites. Sherman, CEO of the Recording Industry of America, accuses the bill's opponents of propaganda. He writes that the sites that participated in the so-called Internet blackout are guilty of “an abuse of trust and a misuse of power” for producing what Sherman calls “hyperbolic mistruths” about censorship.
It is no secret that the entertainment industry spends millions of dollars on lobbying Congress; information giants like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, also have large and active lobbying budgets. However, in this case, the Internet companies did not deal with Congressmen behind closed doors to secure legislation that would have been beneficial to their business. Instead, the digital world appealed to the people who depend on their technology every day – and it worked. By educating Internet users and voting citizens, the sites empowered people so that they could make an informed decision about how to act.
Sherman worries that the latest protest raises “questions about how the democratic process functions in the digital age.” He is right. It certainly does presage an era in which it is much easier to distribute information and activate a body of concerned citizens, something that offers great possibilities for democracy. He is also right that many of those who contacted their congressman had heard only one side of the issue and likely had only a tenuous understanding of what was complicated legislation. But how different is that from any protest or action by large groups of citizens? While mass democracy carries risks and is unpredictable, the “digital tsunami” that Sherman fears also points toward the potential for a more direct and interactive democracy—something along the lines of the “liquid democracy” promised recently by the Pirate Party in the Berlin government.
We should not underestimate the risks of allowing complicated decisions to be heavily influenced by mass protests. However, the reality is that this risk poses the greatest threat to those used to a democracy in which elections are bought and sold and in which a cadre of paid lobbyists has inordinate influence over the writing and passage of legislation. Sherman takes the party line on online piracy and copyright infringement, asking, “When the police close down a store fencing stolen goods, it isn’t censorship, but when those stolen goods are fenced online, it is?” A valid question; the digital age does pose problems in terms of traditional copyright law, and these problems must be addressed. Equally important, however, is that we as citizens take back our government from lobbyists and other power brokers. Perhaps Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit, expressed this frustration best:
Why is it that when Republicans and Democrats need to solve the budget and the deficit, there’s deadlock, but when Hollywood lobbyists pay them $94 million to write legislation, people from both sides of the aisle line up to co-sponsor it?