Is This Activism?

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Hundreds of websites (TechCrunch included) have gone dark or visibly changed their appearance as a protest against the Stop Online Privacy Act and its Senate doppelganger, the PROTECT IP Act. It’s a powerful statement and many are saying that it is already producing effects: Senators are changing positions, awareness is rising, and the opposition is becoming a dinner-table topic.

But is this activism?

I’m not asking whether it’s a good thing (it certainly is) or whether it is effective in guiding policy (it certainly might be), but whether it is right to call it activism.

It’s not just a question of semantics; the distinction is material. Activism is like-minded individuals working to support or oppose a cause. What we are seeing today, in large companies and organizations acting together to sway an outcome, might better be termed collective bargaining.

It just seems a bit strange that after months of outrage by individuals, what seems to cause notice is action by larger units: Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and the like. Although we as individuals may have contributed to their decisions, ultimately the choice was theirs. And while we are all thankful to these organizations for doing what they feel is appropriate to signal their disapproval, it’s significant that we individuals are largely without means of effectively banding together online.

I wrote before that “people, not things, are the tools of revolution.” I know this to be true. But things, and means, are also important. Do we have the means to affect our country’s policies and decisions via the internet?

One thing that this whole SOPA issue shows (and COICA before it, and others before that, and surely more to come) is the complete disconnect between the informed, online community and the legislative and governing bodies. The incredible increase in our capability to propagate and discuss issues and events has not been matched by a corresponding receptive capability on the part of our representatives and officials. This must change.

The state of feedback between the governed and the governors is deplorable. Very little of the innovation driving internet companies is being applied to this problem, and as we have seen, it is a very serious problem.

There is much to be said about the whole Washington ecosystem of lobbyists, career politicians, favors, vendettas, and all that. What is relevant to us right now, however, is not the vagaries of a representative democracy, but creating a reliable, official, and secure means for citizens to make their opinions felt by those in office. We may discuss and blog and comment and promote all we want and our senators might be none the wiser. We need something other than votes and campaign contributions that will make these people hear what their constituents are saying. The internet has very little that can be called activism.

We can consider today, with its blackouts and wide visibility, a success. But it doesn’t seem to me that we can call it activism when so much of it has to do with powers outside our own making choices that just happen to coincide with ours. The internet is a powerful tool for communication and advocacy, but right now it is divorced from the decision-making process. The best we have is things like White House petitions and automatic email systems for contacting your senators. The level of engagement is wholly inadequate. As citizens we should expect more, and as evangelists of technology we should be making the tools to take the next step.

[Hat tip to this article at GigaOm, which set me thinking)