Lessons from an Internet Uprising

After a failed Congressional bid in 2010, former Rhode Island State Representative David Segal joined with digital prodigy Aaron Swartz to form lefty advocacy group Demand Progress.

The organization went on to play a central role in the remarkable Internet uprising last year that killed a pair of bills known as SOPA and PIPA. The bills aimed to rein in online piracy of music, movies, and pharmaceuticals. But critics though the legislation so blunt, so ham-handed that it would threaten the web's open architecture and stifle innovation.

The Internet revolt was remarkable for a number of reasons: it spiked legislation that seemed destined to pass, with powerful Hollywood backing and broad, bipartisan support in Congress; it brought together an unusual coalition of tech giants (Google, Wikipedia), progressives, and libertarians; and it caught Washington completely unaware.

Segal has joined with two other Internet activists, David Moon (of Demand Progress) and Patrick Ruffini (a Republican strategist and blogger), to edit a forthcoming book on the fight titled Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet.

It's a collection of essays by heavyweights in the Internet freedom space, from Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig to former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. There's also work from Swartz, whose suicide earlier this year kicked off a national debate about Internet freedom and prosecutorial overreach.

In this week's Phoenix, I'll have a portion of a Q&A with Segal about the book. Here, the portion of our chat that didn't make it into the paper.

I asked Segal, among other things, what sort of lessons the SOPA/PIPA fight might teach us about a shifting American politics. Below, some of what Segal said. This portion of the interview is edited and condensed.

 SEGAL: [The book] speaks a lot to these moments where there's the possibility of building left-right ideological coalitions, where you get ideologues - as opposed to partisans - on both sides of the aisle who agree fundamentally on a lot of issues like civil liberties, Internet freedom, the drug war, anti-war work, to some extent, anti-corruption, money-in-politics reform kind of work. Where there's this possibility of breaking out of the two-party system and not achieving the sort of middling compromise that's fetishized by the Sunday news shows, but where you actually have people working in solidarity because they actually agree about the issues at hand. The issues where you're able to do that yield this pretty dynamic space - one of the few spaces where it seems like organizing against the DC establishment is still possible.

THE PHOENIX: Do you see any issue on the horizon, in the short term, where that coalition could have a real impact? What's the next fight that could even approach the anti-SOPA/PIPA fight?

SEGAL: I think the Internet space in general. I was just in a meeting with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that's in opposition to the proposed expansion of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act [used to prosecute Swartz for allegedly downloading millions of academic articles from a private database to disseminate for free on the Internet].

We have a coalition that includes Americans for Tax Reform and all these right-wing groups that have been on the right side of that in the past. So I think we'll see it in the Internet space to varying degrees, though you'll only get to that order of magnitude - the SOPA sort of thing - where you're dealing with a real threat to negative liberties, where the question in the end is whether or not you're going to be able to share information freely online. You won't see that when it comes to privacy. Corporations [like Google that helped power the anti-SOPA fight] don't have an interest in maintaining privacy. It's not part of their business model. If anything, their business model is predicated on decreasing privacy. [But] you will still see the same sort of civil society institutions on the left and the right coming together around those issues.

And then more broadly, I think there's a lot of opportunity in the drug reform space right now. Marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana - [the government] is way behind where public sentiment is on that issue. I think there's kind of an arbitrage moment there where I think the right coalition of groups could come together and really force political actors to understand how far behind the times they are.

You look at an issue like money in politics and two-thirds of conservatives say that they agree with people on the left that money is having a corrupting influence upon our politics. The problem there is that the gatekeepers, the institutional actors on that side of the aisle, very much disagree with the sentiment of the rank-and-file. But I think there's some opportunities there.

I don't want to say it would have stopped the Iraq War. But I think if the Internet had been as robust back then, I think the debate would have been very different. You would have seen skepticism more legitimized than it was.

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