The unlikely coalition of companies and consumer groups that last week helped quash antipiracy legislation on Capitol Hill is now weighing the future of what might be called lobbying 2.0. Can the Internet industry, along with legions of newly politicized Web users, be a new force in Washington? And if so, what else can they all agree upon?
If labor unions once amplified the legislative agenda of certain American industries, the antipiracy fight showed the potential power of a different force: young Americans who live and breathe the Internet.
A Pew Research Center poll this week found that the antipiracy legislation was the most closely followed news topic among Americans under the age of 30; even news of the presidential elections failed to get as much attention in this age group.
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 deluged with messages from citizens opposing the bills. Soon even sponsors of the bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and Protect I.P. Act, or PIPA — had 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 Facebook’s behalf.
“The lesson here is not that the tech industry has millions of people blindly doing what it suggests,” said Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn.org and now a member of its board. “I don’t think Google will be able to count on all the people who took action on SOPA not to challenge Google when it does something that feels counter to the ethos of the Internet.”
The scruffy nature of the digital protests was summed up by one of their informal spokesmen, 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 not unlike many in his generation. He grew up in Maryland, but had not been to the Capitol until last November, when he met with members of Congress as part of a tech lobby against the antipiracy bills. He studied history in college, he voted and he consumed political news mostly through “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” — and of course, he read what bubbled up on Reddit. “My focus was on building technology,” he said. “I was not engaged.”
That changed last fall. Friends alerted him to SOPA. They were starting a Web site, americancensorship.org. “I thought, O.K., let me see how can I help.”
Mr. Ohanian turned to Reddit users to find out what to say to members of Congress. To his surprise, Congress listened. “I’ve come out of this very optimistic,” he said. “Americans still do run Washington, not lobbyists — at least in this case.”