Saturday, January 28, 2012

What will Internet users and industry take on next?

SAN FRANCISCO: The unlikely coalition of companies and consumer groups that helped quash anti-piracy legislation last week on Capitol Hill is weighing the future of what might be called lobbying 2.0.

Can the Internet industry, along with legions of newly politicised Web users, be a new force in Washington? And if so, what else can they all agree upon?

 If labour unions once amplified the legislative agenda of certain American industries, the anti-piracy fight showed the potential power of young Americans who live and breathe the Internet.

The Bills in the House and Senate, backed by the entertainment industry, encountered a surprising defeat after a vast alliance of chip-makers, Internet service providers, rival Web companies and digital rights groups cast them as a means of censoring the Web.

Several sites went dark for a day in protest, and in Washington e-mail servers were flooded with messages from citizens opposing the Bills. Soon even sponsors of the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), and Protect IP Act (Pipa) backed down.

But if the Internet industry was buoyed by support from its users on this particular issue, they may find themselves on opposing sides in other cases.

Consider the prospect of Washington seeking to restrict the use of facial recognition technology, which Facebook uses to speed the process of adding the names of friends to photos. It is hard to imagine Facebook users lobbying on its behalf.

The scruffy nature of the protests was summed up by one of their spokesmen, Mr Alexis Ohanian, 28, a co-founder of the popular social news site Reddit. 'No one can predict what will catch on,' he said. 'If Sopa and Pipa are any indication, if it's something that threatens the Internet, I believe we can recreate this.'

Mr Ohanian is part of a flurry of online discussion about what to tackle next.

There are some who oppose a global treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which the United States and many European countries have already signed. Others want to block a Bill that would compel Internet providers to retain data on users' online travels.

In some ways, the Bills' defeat was the awakening of a generation that has come to rely on its right to digital freedom.

'What this did show is as a citizen in the Internet age, you have to add the Internet and your digital rights and liberties onto the list of things you need to be worried about if you want to retain your political freedoms,' said Ms Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation.