Web activism grows up, but beware its narrow focus

Mafalda joins fight against SOPA

As Wikipedia goes silent today in protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and as other Internet giants unite their voices against the proposed legislations, we could really say that Web activism is starting to become a force to be reckoned with. Undoubtedly the rise of social media has made it more difficult for controversial treaties and laws to be passed without the knowledge of significant number of people.

Internet activism is becoming more powerful and sophisticated. Just last month, hosting firm GoDaddy had to drop its support for SOPA when it became clear that they faced mass migration from influential clients because of this single decision. A web petition forced the White House to make a negative statement against SOPA, and voices all over the world have been clamouring against this misguided solution for piracy. For the moment opposition to SOPA has managed to at least put the law on hold. Similarly, strong and vocal opposition in the UK to the Digital Economy Act almost managed to defeat the law. This is all very good, and I strongly believe that we are better for it. Imagine if social media had been prevalent at the time of some other controversial pieces of legislation such as the DMCA.

However, as much as I welcome the rise and rise of Web activism, I cannot help but to be just a little bit worried by what I believe is a very narrow focus, both thematic and geographic. Undoubtedly, this has to do with the continuing global dominance by the United States when it comes to the Internet, so we are in danger of becoming focused on things that matter to a portion of the U.S. population, in detriment of almost anything else. Web activism then has become mostly concerned with anything that might affect white U.S. middle class web users, so we end up getting worked up about SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and net neutrality. I am not trying to say that no other problem gets through the Net’s collective psyche, but it seems clear that the netocracy mostly is concerned with the copywars.

The reason for this is something that I have talked about before in these pages. There is a growing global anglophone wired techno-elite that shares a common language of technology, are fluent in memes, and hang out in Reddit, BoingBoing, TechCrunch and similar blogs and forums. This global class has technical sophistication that usually puts them at odds with those who do not share the technical environment. They tweet, blog and facebook (decreasingly, as FB is no longer cool), and are capable of using mass media in ways that we could only dream of in the past. This class is not only global, but it tends to replicate at a local level anything that is posted in BoingBoing, so each country has its own elite of top tweeps and bloggers concerned with anything that Cory and Xeni think is relevant. This to me explains the growing concern for net neutrality in countries where connectivity is still the most prevalent concern, or the current interest given to SOPA. While it is true that SOPA as written could have nasty extraterritorial effects, the level of concern and sometimes outright fear-mongering that is being shared online is quite simply out of proportion to the actual threat. SOPA will outlaw streaming! SOPA will create a global firewall! SOPA will come into your house, sleep in your bed and eat your porridge!

Web activism is proving its power. While the Internet’s role in the Arab Spring is still disputed, there is little doubt that at least social media was used successfully to pass information around. We just need to give emphasis to the things that really matter, and be a bit more sceptic about sources.

Having said this, I am heartened by some other signs of change. The #occupy movement is almost a direct result of the 15-M movement in Spain (and to a lesser extent due to Tahrir Square), and the Indignados were able to export their brand of public space occupation and social media use. Let’s hope that Web activism continues to grow outside of the narrow concern of certain popular blogs.

Now, how do I fact-check this entry without Wikipedia?

ETA: Almost to prove my point, I just read on Twitter that the English managing editor of BoingBong got interviewed by Al Jazeera about SOPA. No comment.

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