Unexpected alliances are possible when people look beyond “bi-partisan” confines and seek common ground, and this winter, unlikely allies re-formed to help save the Internet.
Conservative and liberal interests unified against Congress’s bills to regulate the Internet, reminiscent of an effective trend that grew out of the same dispute a few years ago.
Titled the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate, the bills would change the Internet from open access to a medium auctioned to the highest bidders. It would jeopardize “net neutrality” - the Internet as an open commons for all, which is how it developed, with all content having equal access, and phone and telecom companies supplying the physical routes for data to move but not permitted to favor or disfavor particular websites, data or applications.
The proposals would have required every website to become unpaid copyright cops for Comcast, Disney, Time Warner, etc., placing a big burden not just on Google and Facebook but any website where people post content or include links to other material.
Opponents like Wikipedia say the proposals would be censorship that would stifle innovation and also impose higher costs on consumers, and Congress recently backed off, essentially tabling the measure for now.
A progressive, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said, “While sites are already required to remove material that is determined to be infringing [intellectual property] under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, SOPA requires that sites in effect preemptively screen material for potential infringements. They risk having their whole site taken down for a period of time, in addition to paying damages to copyright holders.”
Conservative blogger Neil Stevens on RedState.com agreed, saying, “Restrictions of results provided by Internet search engines amount to prior restraint of free expression. Google and others, under SOPA, are told what they can or can’t publish before they publish it.”
Now, the Internet is still relatively available to various voices and many readers. For instance, comedian Louis C. K. last month offered the show “Louis C. K.: Live at the Beacon Theater” direct from his website. About 200,000 fans watched and the comic said, “NBC is this huge company and they have all these studios and these satellites to beam stuff out, but on the Web, both NBC.com and LouisCK.com have the same amount of bandwidth. We are equals.”
The threat happened before, and it took two strong women from widely different political positions to lead the opposition. In 2004, Joan Blades, a co-founder of MoveOn.org, worked with Christian Coalition communications director Michelle Combs in the Reuniting America coalition. They got support from conservatives from the American Legion, Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Christian Coalition; progressive groups MoveOn.org, Sierra Club and Common Cause, and moderates such as AARP, the National Council of Churches, and the League of Woman Voters.
By April 2006, a new Save the Internet Coalition also including Gun Owners of America, the American Library Association, National Religious Broadcasters, and Service Employees International Union was joined by bloggers of many types, including apolitical ones covering sports, technology and food. That Internet clampdown was averted, too.
Both Blades and Combs are optimistic about this overall approach.
Blades, the progressive, said, “When MoveOn shows up, people expect what we’re going to say. But when MoveOn and the Christian Coalition show up together, people think, ‘If these guys can agree on this, maybe it’s something I should pay attention to’.”
Combs agreed, adding, “I think it’s America at its best when you come together like this. Everyone wants to make a better country for their families, for the future. When we talk basic values, there’s a lot we come together on.”
We all should keep that in mind the next time Congress and corporate powerhouses target the Internet.
Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.