The Power of the Crowd

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Edmund Burke

When diktats come down from the high up, i.e., the corridors of administrative power, and these are not helpful to society at large, does the crowd, i.e., a mass of people, mobilized through technology have the power to change these diktats. We would like to believe yes … technology gives the power to mobilize at the grassroots level, amplify your and my voice without big wallets to buy influence, and ultimately to reverse changes that affect us negatively. Let me restrict my scope to liberal democracies of the west and see how the evidence stacks up.

I am going to focus on more substantive matters than personal preferences about how some software we are familiar with, is changing. Thus, the recent kerfuffle over the change to the Skype interface is out of scope. Rather, I am going to look at policy changes that affect more deeply how we live and work.

One prominent item in the victory column is the the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which were introduced in Congress in 2011. These were bills that were ostensibly meant to crack down on copyright infringement by restricting access to sites that host or facilitate the trading of pirated content. Since many pirated content hosting sites are located outside the borders of the US, the act sought to block access to them through requiring U.S. search engines, advertising networks, and other providers to withhold their services. This meant search engines like Google would not show such sites in their search results, and payment processors like PayPal could not transmit funds to them. So far so good … and most of us would applaud this sentiment. But this was a law set up as the king of unintended consequences, censorship being the overall umbrella for such consequences.

US-based companies would have been liable under SOPA if it provided services to any of the copyright infringing sites, such as, showing it in Google search results. A complaint may be filed with the US company by just about anyone that one of its customers is an “Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property.” Once the company gets a notification, it is required to cut off services to the target site within five days. So “shoot first and ask questions later”, which is not exactly the recipe for a free exchange of ideas.

Google_Doodle_Censored_2
Google homepage where the iconic logo was blacked out in protest against SOPA-PIPA and clicking on that blacked out content took you to a petition

Anyway, the general public was mobilized, and understood the important nuances of what was quite a complex piece of legislation. Google had a signature campaign linked off its home page, the top visited site on the web, and that drew more than 7 million signatures. Prominent sites like Reddit and Wikipedia went offline for hours as a sign of protest and in a telling acknowledgment that digital protest has to be backed up by boots on the ground protest, there were demonstrations held on the streets of major US cities. And in January 2012, the bills were shelved. So in 3 short months for SOPA (Oct-Jan) and 8 months for PIPA (May-Jan), these bills had gone from bipartisan support in Congress to dead. Wouldn’t you say that the crowds could be roused, even when it is not an immediate gut reaction issue? To me that is a big victory check mark on the right side of history.

Internet freedom revisited: 2017

History as we know does tend to repeat in cycles. So it is now in 2017 we find ourselves faced with a piece of legislation that has some worrying implications for the freedom of the Internet – the move to repeal Net Neutrality being brought forward by the FCC and championed by its chief, Ajit Pai. There are lots of well written articles going into the details of the Net Neutrality debate, my favorite ones being these from The New York Times (more readable), from the Verge (more technical), and from Forbes (almost lyrical in its rhetorical flourishes). If this bill comes to pass, then put in the words of the Forbes writer, what will happen is:

“… it would allow internet service providers to block, throttle and fast-lane various parts of the internet at will, potentially regulating and censoring your entire web-surfing experience and forcing you to stick to the destinations that pay protection money to these cable and broadband companies. It would effectively lead to the monopolization of a free institution that since the 1980s has served as the freest and most democratic source of unbridled information.”

This movement of the crowds is also being helped along by a curious conglomeration of companies, many household hi-tech firms (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Reddit, AirBnB, Twitter and Snapchat) and a few hopefully not household names (dating site OkCupid and porn site PornHub). A symbolic, but very visible, action was these websites deliberately throttling their bandwidth on July 12 to give us users a taste of what a slowed-down internet will feel like. More than 10 million comments were posted to FCC and I bet the overwhelming majority were in favor of preserving net neutrality. As a sideshow, this has brought up trust concerns with digital petitions with both sides claiming that hundreds of thousands of comments were forged and posted by spambots.

One key difference in this movement of the crowds is who will sit in judgment at the end? With the SOPA-PIPA victory, it was the Congress, which is answerable to its electorates and thus the power of the crowd has a way of swaying them. In the case of the current repeal of Net Neutrality, the judge, the jury, and the executioner will all be the FCC commissioners who are not answerable (directly) to the crowds because they fall outside the pale of democratic elections. Once the FCC is at full strength, i.e., after the current nominations are confirmed, it will have a makeup of 3 Republican (including chair Ajit Pai) and 2 Democratic members. The way winds are blowing they will vote along party lines and that will mean Net Neutrality will get repealed. But winds have been known to change, and change fast, in the face of determined action by determined many.

The Open Question

So this is a great test for the power of the crowd — will the millions of voices rising up in defense of its right to watch whichever movie it wants from whichever site it wants, or less flippantly, its right to consume content without undemocratic policing, be able to make a change for the right side of history. Note that in both the campaigns that we have discussed, big firms have played an important role in marshaling the campaigns. Another important question is can the crowds organize organically to assert its influence for the collective good? In the political sphere, there are several heart-warming victories, but in the tech world, I am waiting to hear if there has been one.

Regarding the Net Neutrality question of the power of the crowd, stay tuned for the decision from the FCC which should happen in late Fall.

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