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Not many of us actually fought on the Day We Fight Back

Not many of us actually fought on the Day We Fight Back


Protest turnout was never going to match SOPA's peak

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The Day We Fight Back
The Day We Fight Back

If you were casually browsing the internet on Tuesday, you may have noticed a big black bar. "Today we fight back," it read. It's more likely, though, that you saw an unobtrusive Ben Franklin image macro in a Reddit sidebar. Or nothing at all. As many have pointed out, organizers for the Day We Fight Back set a high bar by comparing it to the SOPA blackout of 2012, and the protest didn't come close to reaching that bar. TechCrunch collected a series of screenshots contrasting the two: Google and Wikipedia didn't mention the event on their home pages, and participating sites like Reddit and Boing Boing were relatively muted in their protest. About 6,000 sites participated in the Day We Fight Back, compared to an estimated 75,000 or more for SOPA. If you didn't know what to look for, you'd have been forgiven for not knowing we were supposed to be fighting back at all.

The anti-surveillance protest was always going to have a difficult time gaining traction. It attempted to focus general outrage into support for Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's (R-WI) USA Freedom Act and opposition to Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) FISA Improvements Act, a much more complicated task than just opposing a single piece of legislation. "We're pushing for something, not against something," said Matt Simons of ThoughtWorks before the protest. "I think often it's a lot easier to rally support against a bad bill than it is to build acceptance around a better one." And the Day We Fight Back was also supposed to address problems like weakened encryption standards and protection for non-Americans.

Congress doesn't care about Wikipedia

The protest has been roundly criticized, referred to as a "huge flop" by PolicyMic and "the day the internet didn't fight back" by The New York Times. Most coverage, however, has put a huge emphasis on online visibility — a metric that's ultimately less helpful than looking at direct action. Protest has to translate: Congress cares a lot more about angry constituents than whether it can read Boing Boing. The EFF reports that about 70,000 people placed calls to legislators, about 150,000 emails were sent to legislators, and roughly 200,000 signed a petition. The Times reports that "most" of these communications were directed to Senator Feinstein, whose office reported a higher volume of calls than usual. Update: David Segal of Demand Progress says that he has "no idea" where the Times report came from, and that Feinstein received an approximately proportional number of calls based on the population of California. Sina Khanifar, who worked with the campaign, has also rebutted a number of other claims from the piece.

Of course, these numbers don't make the protest look much better. It's hard to find definitive numbers for SOPA, but nonprofit Fight for the Future estimates that 10 million people signed one of several signatures, 8 million attempted or placed a call through Wikipedia's call lookup system or other protest sites, and at least 4 million sent emails (excluding messages sent through Wikipedia, which "wasn't even counting"). And Feinstein, an extremely powerful member of Congress, is one of the less likely candidates to be swayed by phone calls. International outcry, which didn't have a specific focal point, is a nebulous thing to measure.

No one I spoke to beforehand, however, expected February 11th to match the heights of SOPA. The surveillance protest movement has been fighting a drawn-out battle in Congress and the courts, and the Day We Fight Back is at least the third big-ticket effort to rally support. Rainey Reitman of the EFF compared it to American Censorship Day, a lower-profile anti-SOPA protest that preceded the blackout by a couple of months and didn't involve major sponsors like Google.

SOPA had millions of opponents. The NSA had thousands

Google, Microsoft, and the rest of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition officially joined the protest. But they were fairly quiet, even if Google published a blog post supporting the day and sent a mass email to people who had signed up for its advocacy updates. Once again, what companies say in public isn't the final word on what they do in the halls of Congress. Reform Government Surveillance has explicitly called for an end to bulk data collection — the subject of the USA Freedom Act — and its members can throw a lot of money towards lobbying. For right now, though, they appear to have reached a détente with the Obama administration after being allowed to publish more information about national security requests.

For real (if incremental) progress, we'll need to wait for Congress to consider Leahy and Feinstein's bills, see how the Supreme Court responds to challenges from lower courts, or watch the administration as it attempts the reforms that Obama promised in January. No matter what, change to the entrenched NSA apparatus will be slow in coming. SOPA taught us that the internet speaks loud, but if there's anything we should have learned in the last decade under the Patriot Act, it's that inertia is often more powerful than public outcry.