Occupy SOPA: Inside the New York Protests
Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian rails against SOPA before hundreds of demonstrators in New York City
CREDIT: Sean Captain
UPDATE (1/19/12, 7:20 AM EST): After the rally, organizers estimated a crowd of "over 1000 people."
NEW YORK – "What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like," said Andrew Rasiej, roughly and somewhat flatly quoting the most popular chant of Occupy Wall Street. Rasiej is chairman of the New York Tech Meetup, an association of the city's powerhouse tech entrepreneurs, developers and investors. He was addressing a crowd of perhaps 500 people ranging from hard-core techies to clothing designers.All were decrying New York's two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, for sponsoring PIPA, the lesser-known sibling of the largely reviled House SOPA antipiracy legislation.
Techie opposition to SOPA/PIPA is hardly news. It's probably universal, judging by the prominent website blackouts and protest pages put up today (Jan. 18). But today's protesters had two interesting angles.
First, they argued that the laws would kill the very creation of innovative consumer tech sites by scaring away investors. And if the laws already existed, they said, some of today's most popular sites, including fast-growing blog community Tumblr (where even Barack Obama has a page), might never have been.
"The entrepreneurs who create those companies and create those jobs would now not just think twice, but we couldn't blame them for not trying to create or innovate at all," said Nate Westheimer, the executive director of the Tech Meetup.
The protests went well beyond esoteric tech arguments about "breaking the DNS system"or hurting the tech business.
"I'm just sort of a daily user," said 72-year-old Joan Boyle, a freelance researcher for nonprofit organizations. She fears the broadly written law would promote censorship that would prevent her from doing her job researching for and supporting these organizations.
Boyle said that she wasn't a good person to talk about the Stop Online Piracy Act, since she isn't a big techie. But that's exactly the point: She is a "regular person" concerned about her regular online life. "I want to make sure we keep the Internet as it is."
The protest largely became a defense of the First Amendment. "I am opposed to any law – especially very badly written laws – that infringe on our country's basic rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press," said Naomi Reyes, a fashion design student. She sounded remarkably like an Occupy Wall Street demonstrator. Reyes said she is not involved in Occupy but has a close friend who is, and "I think it's good that we have that movement."
Reyes is a student at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. Despite the school's name, it's not a techie haven in the typical sense. Reyes fears that PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) and SOPA would extend beyond digital copyrights and allow big designers to quash rivals and critics.
"There's been a lot of flak about copyright infringement in design," she said. "If somebody said something about a designer on their blog or used a brand name on their blog, the wording [of the act] is so vague that private companies can use that to do all kinds unreasonable takedown and cease-and-desist orders."
Maybe most telling, the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement, like Occupy Wall Street, is leaderless. "This is not a movement that has leaders. This is not a movement that is top-down," said Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of radical discussion site Reddit, which went black today to protest SOPA. "This is a movement that started organically on the Internet by American citizens." The Occupy buzz spread on Reddit over the past summer, long before the first protests and mainstream media coverage.
Westheimer says he doesn't see a clear link to Occupy. Still, both protests touch on freedom of speech and toppling the power elites. One of today's anti-PIPA/SOPA chants was: "Schumer and Gillibrand. Eating from the corporate hand." Radical campaign finance reform is a cornerstone of Occupy Wall Street.
The toppling of old regimes is another theme of both movements. "This is like the future vs. the last dying gasp of old media. And unfortunately the future doesn't have as good a lobbyists," said Eli Pariser, founder of left-leaning organization MoveOn.org, which has intimately associated itself with Occupy Wall Street.
Coming from the other direction, SOPA is also a huge issue for Occupy activists, especially those who associate with the hacktivist collective Anonymous. "STOP #SOPA. STOP #PIPA. SAVE THE INTERNET," tweeted CabinCr3w, an Anonymous group famous for publishing incriminating documents of political enemies.
But it would be incorrect to link the anti-SOPA protest and Occupy too closely, because the resistance to SOPA goes beyond typical political protest. "I don't want to cloud the issues here" with politics, said Andy Pearson, a Web developer, at today's gathering.
In addition to covering the tech industry, TechNewsDaily Managing Editor Sean Captain has extensively covered the Occupy Wall Street movement since its inception. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.com