Benkler on SOPA, PIPA and the moral authority of a networked commons

In a guest post on TechPresident, Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler, aYochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and author of The Wealth of Networks and The Penguin and the Leviathan.

Seven Lessons from SOPA/PIPA/Megauplaod and Four Proposals on Where We Go From Here” is a compelling read, exploring what we’ve learned about the power of a networked commons in the last week and making substantive suggestions about a way forward.

“We need to be thinking not about what compromises to make around SOPA/PIPA and the OPEN Act, but about what the architecture of freedom in the networked environment requires of copyright law more generally,” writes Benkler. He offers readers recommendations for a way forward for free expression and copyright in the 21st century, not simply more opposition to the proposals contained in Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which, for the moment, remain indefinitely delayed in Washington.

I found the most powerful lesson from Benkler to be his final one, however, where he highlights the “moral authority of the networked citizenry vs. the power of money.”

“The power we saw in the hands of networked people is a fundamentally more legitimate source of power than corporate money. Democracies are by and for the people. We believe in one-person, one-vote; and while corporate organizations are enormously useful, and can make us more effective in the pursuit of our life plans and dreams, at root it is us, human beings, flesh and blood, who are the foundational constituents of a democracy. That is why Wikipedia played such a critical role: unlike all the other major sites that shut down. Wikipedia is not a company; Wikipedia, for this purpose, functioned as a mini-democracy within a democracy, where people who continuously volunteer for the public good came together to do something new for the public. *Wikipedia represents a moral force that no commercial site can ever hope to replicate.* Some sites, like Reddit, are sufficiently based on users that they can structure their future protest actions as democratic debates, letting users decide. Extending the debate and collective decision-making feature of the Wikipedia decision to other platforms should play an important role in the future, and will also help to solidify the alliance between networked citizenry and the companies that provide the infrastructure of networked discourse. If the technology industry wants to continue its battle with Hollywood as a battle among paid lobbyists, it may do so, likely at its own peril. But if the industry wants to be able to speak with the moral authority of the networked public sphere, it will have to listen to what the networked public is saying and understand the political alliance as a coalition.

“*The greatest hope from the events of the past two weeks is that we are beginning to see a re-emergence of the possibility of a truly engaged citizenry after decades of the rise of lobbying and money.* I suspect that it is too soon to go after legislative changes that target that ambitious goal directly, as Micah discussed yesterday (“After SOPA/PIPA Victory, Tech is Thinking of Tackling Political Reform.”) But if we can use the enthusiasm and focus to make significant inroads in this narrow and specifically actionable item, perhaps we will also begin to hone a more general a new model of democratic participation for a new generation. A model of citizen participation that is as far from the couch potato’s passivity as the Internet is from broadcast.”

For more on the open Internet Benkler and why this matters, watch our interview from last year’s eG8 Summit, where 20th century ideas clashed with the 21st century economy.

Benkler’s peroration eloquently captures the strong sense I felt last Friday that something had changed last week, when I wrote about the Web changing Washington. I wrote then and believe now that what we saw in the beginning of this young year will reinvigorate the notion that participating in the civic process matters.

As I said then, we’re in unexplored territory. We may have just seen the dawn of new era of networked activism and participatory democracy, borne upon the tidal wave of hundreds of millions of citizens connected by mobile technology, social media platform and open data. If so, that era will also include pervasive electronic surveillance, whether you’re online and offline, with commensurate threats to privacy, security, human rights and civil liberties, and the use of these technologies by autocratic government to suppress dissent or track down dissidents. These issues go straight to the heartwood of Rebecca Mackinnon’s compelling, important new book, “Consent of the Networked: The Global Struggle For Internet Freedom.” Finding a way for forward will not be easy but it’s clearly necessary.

In that context of those concerns it’s hard to feel aglow with optimism about what comes next. What we’ve seen so far in 2012, however, has left me feeling more optimistic about what’s happening in the intersection of citizens, open government and the Internet than I’ve had in some time. All that said, I’m heartened to read that Benkler wrote about “hope.” Traditionally, hope has been one of the most powerful forces for positive social change throughout our shared history.

That optimism, however, must be tempered with realism. Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies and webmaster at Washington Watch, shared two other important commentaries on the week in his post considering whether on the networked activism over SOPA and PIPA is a harbinger of things to come or an aberration:

He’s not unrestrained, but Larry Downes sees the remarkable downfall of legislation to regulate the Internet’s engineering as a harbinger of things to come. Jerry Brito, meanwhile, tells us “Why We Won’t See Many Protests like the SOPA Blackout.”

They’re both right—over different time-horizons. The information environment and economics of political organization today are still quite stacked against public participation in our unwieldy federal government. But in time this will change. Congress and Washington, D.C.’s advocacy and lobbying groups now have some idea what the future will feel like.

So far, it feels pretty darn interesting. The future, as cyberpunk noir writer William Gibson has famously said, is already here: it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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