A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that major media firms hate technology. They certainly fear it. Since Jack Valenti, the legendary film industry lobbyist, said in 1982 that the VCR was like the Boston Strangler, preparing to murder the innocents of Hollywood, they have viewed such advances as a Godzilla creature rising from the sea to threaten their existence.
In the past 30 years in the US, they have lobbied for 15 pieces of legislation aimed at tightening their grip on their content, as technology has moved ever faster to prize their fingers open.
In this seemingly never-ending battle, Jan. 18 this year was a defining date, a day when the Internet hit back. Mike Masnick, founder of TechDirt and one of Silicon Valley’s most well-connected bloggers, remembers running through the corridors of the Senate in Washington, laptop open, desperately trying to find a Wi-Fi signal.
Around him was chaos. Amid a cacophony of phones, political interns were struggling to keep up with the calls and e-mails from angry people across the US and the world claiming Hollywood-backed legislation was about to break the Internet and end its open culture forever. In an unprecedented day of action, Wikipedia and Reddit, a social news Web site, had gone offline in a protest organized by their communities of editors, and backed by thousands of other sites, large and small. Google had blacked out its logo in protest. Students around the world were bitching on Twitter that they couldn’t get their homework done without Wikipedia. Even Kim Kardashian came out swinging.
One senator’s office that Masnick visited calculated they had taken 3,000 calls. Within hours of the unprecedented assault, SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was dead and a sister act, PIPA, a neat acronym for the tortuously titled PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) was sunk too. In Europe, the action buoyed up opponents of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the US-backed international copyright treaty that has sparked protests across the continent. Countries including Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia have all refused to sign, arguing that ACTA endangers freedom of speech and privacy, and the bill has stalled. But for how long?
“The industry has this down cold,” Masnick says.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Valenti’s old stomping ground and one of the most powerful lobbying bodies in Washington, has emerged bruised from the battle, but few doubt it will rally.
There is widespread anger among leading media companies about the way the SOPA fight played out. The protest had many voices, but there was no doubting whom the media executives blamed — Silicon Valley in general and Google in particular. US President Barack Obama had “thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters,” according to Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp empire includes the Fox studios.
“Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells advts around them,” Murdoch wrote on Twitter. “No wonder pouring millions into lobbying.”
However, trying to blame Google or even to cast this as a battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood is to misrepresent a major shift in the media landscape, those pushing for a more open Internet say.