Here are my notes from Wednesday's nerd-centric rally, some of which were used for this piece by my excellent colleague Ted Johnson and myself. Ted's folo, chronicling the bill's delay, can be found here.
Hundreds of protesters turned out Wednesday to cheer on speakers from Silicon Alley outside the Midtown offices of New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, where techies and well-wishers chanted anti-SOPA/PIPA slogans. The controversial antipiracy bills (sponsored by the pair, among others) are now wending through Congress, but petitions and protest strikes by sites like Wikipedia have created so much antipathy to the proposed laws that compromise legislation is being drafted as of press time.
The Gotham event was a far cry from the raucous crowds that gathered a few months ago for the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. A sense of calm prevailed, with protesters mostly refraining from chanting too loudly, and a few police herding compliant onlookers into well-maintained protest zones. Third Avenue was blocked off between 48th and 49th streets to allow for the protest.
The speeches, however, were rousing: “The Stop Online Piracy Act will not actually do much to stop online piracy!” said NYU teacher and “Cognitive Surplus” author Clay Shirky, who proposed that the name of the legislation be changed to the First Amendment Sunset Act. “You can’t just shut people up if you don’t like what they’re saying!” he told the cheering aud.
Hollywood took its lumps at the rally, organized by the networking org New York Tech Meetup. One placard read “Pander to the people, not Hollywood;” another had a picture of a cat holding the Bill of Rights and the slogan “I can has freedom?”
“When Hollywood lobbyists show up with $94 million as they did last year, both Democrats and Republicans line up,” said Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. MoveOn.org’s Eli Pariser was even more adamant: “You have groups like MoveOn all the way over to groups like (conservative coalition) Red State who think this is a bad idea,” he said. “The only people who think this is a good idea are the crumbling old legacy media who want to go back to VHS tapes and CDs and congresspeople.”
Despite a generally laid-back vibe, some speakers couldn’t resist a little OWS-style rabble-rousing. Meetup CEO Scott Heiferman introduced each speaker by asking the aud “What does democracy look like?” and getting back a chorus of “This is what democracy looks like!” — more or less the same chant from the Occupy rallies late last year. Wednesday’s protesters cast themselves as innovators trying to move forward, while a conservative government protected antiquated technology in order to keep its pockets lined. Particular scorn was reserved for media companies that spent decades or centuries profiting the same old material. “Copyright-holding organizations have been gaming the system for decades,” said Meetup chairman Andrew Rasiej.
Many protesters saw a connection between the Occupy movement and SOPA/PIPA. “I’ve watched everything that’s led up to this,” sighed Joan Boyle, a freelance researcher who relies heavily on the web and came to the rally to show her support. “Income inequality, Citizens United, that whole raft of things that have happened over the last few years.”
Still, there weren’t many venture capitalists at OWS. Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures criticized the both the legislation and the entertainment industry, which he saw as its proxy creator. “They’re very, very broad, they’re very poorly worded, and they’re designed to suck as many companies into them as possible,” he said of the two bills. And Hollywood? “The entertainment industry thinks of users as either customers or crooks,” he said.
Of all the speeches, it was Shirky’s final line that earned the most applause: “What they’re saying to us is this,” he said of Schumer and Gillibrand, “‘Everyone’s got a choice: the Internet, the First Amendment, corporate control of public speech. Pick two.’”