I like Wikipedia.

Before I’m barraged with angry e-mails from professors who believe that Wikipedia is the downfall of academia, let’s talk this out. Students here are smart enough to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to use Wikipedia for academic purposes. Trust me, you certainly won’t find Wikipedia in any of my research papers’ lists of works cited.

But like many of my peers, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Wikipedia blacked out last Wednesday for 24 hours in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act currently being considered in the House and Senate, respectively. Wikipedia’s blackout was part of a broader online movement in which Google, Reddit and thousands of other sites stood in solidarity against the proposed legislation.

I won’t delve into the convoluted history of anti-piracy legislation — if you’re interested, just (ironically!) Google it — but it’s worth noting that the bill was largely a product of lobbying on behalf of powerhouse media orgs like the Motion Picture Association of America, which hired former senator turned Hollywood lobbyist Chris Dodd as its chairman last March.

But with last week’s virtual protests, the animal that is the Internet, the very thing Dodd seeks to regulate, proved just how formidable an opponent it really is.

The Wikipedia blackout was beyond successful. It induced Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) to temporarily shelve SOPA. It provoked Dodd to essentially threaten blackmail against any politicians in Washington who don’t support the legislation while implicitly promising Hollywood-sponsored campaign funding for those who do.

But the most important success of last week’s blackout and the most important lesson to take away from it is this: a coordinated Internet protest has the power to send our government a message that can’t be ignored.

In an age of political gridlock and Congressional ineptitude, that’s pretty powerful stuff.

The SOPA debacle is simply the latest incarnation in the long-running tragicomedy that is Washington’s relationship with the American public. Congress is out of touch. If that much wasn’t clear pre-SOPA, it should be common knowledge by now.

So here’s what I’m thinking.

First, can we please finally start having a conversation about getting “corporate” needs specificity money out of politics? Or can we at least talk about permanently shutting that so-called revolving door between public service and private gain? Dodd went from being an elected representative of his constituents in Connecticut to being a hired lobbyist capable of using his political clout for the benefit of Hollywood producers. Is that all right?

Second, the Wikipedia blackout has me thinking about the potential good that concerted Internet protests might do in the future. Forbes reported that 4.5 million people signed Google’s anti-censorship petition. Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s lockdown compelled 8 million Americans to call their representatives and demand an end to the anti-piracy legislation. That, I think, is a good thing.

Perhaps these Internet giants did our democracy a favor. When was the last time millions thought it worthwhile to contact their elected leaders for a specific cause? I’d be hard-pressed to remember a time when so many Americans, particularly young people, cared this deeply about any political issue.

As long as people are aware of the absurdity that our political system so often seems to foster, let’s keep an eye on other political issues that might be blackout-worthy — like going to war, for instance, or indefinitely detaining American citizens without trial. You know, other important stuff that receives too little attention.

So thanks for the blackout, Wikipedia. We needed it.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu and follow him on Twitter at @DanielChardell.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *