It was Google co-founder Sergey Brin who warned that the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act "would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world." Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Twitter co-founders Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman argue that the bills give the Feds unacceptable "power to censor the Web."
But these companies have yet to roll out the heavy artillery.
When the home pages of Google.com, Amazon.com, Facebook.com, and their Internet allies simultaneously turn black with anti-censorship warnings that ask users to contact politicians about a vote in the U.S. Congress the next day on SOPA, you'll know they're finally serious.
True, it would be the political equivalent of a nuclear option--possibly drawing retributions from the the influential politicos backing SOPA and Protect IP--but one that could nevertheless be launched in 2012.
"There have been some serious discussions about that," says Markham Erickson, who heads the NetCoalition trade association that counts Google, Amazon.com, eBay, and Yahoo as members. "It has never happened before." (See CNET's SOPA FAQ.)
Web firms may be outspent tenfold on lobbyists, but they enjoy one tremendous advantage over the SOPA-backing Hollywood studios and record labels: direct relationships with users.
How many Americans feel a personal connection with an amalgamation named Viacom -- compared with voters who have found places to live on Craigslist and jobs (or spouses) on Facebook and Twitter? How would, say, Sony Music Entertainment, one of the Recording Industry Association of America's board members, cheaply and easily reach out to hundreds of millions of people?
Protect IP and SOPA, of course, represent the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore sites such as ThePirateBay.org. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet providers, and other companies forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish, a kind of Internet death penalty.
There are early signs that the nuclear option is being contemplated. Wikimedia (as in Wikipedia)called SOPA an "Internet Blacklist Bill." Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has proposed an article page blackout as a way to put "maximum pressure on the U.S. government" in response to SOPA.
The Tumblr microblogging site generated 87,834 calls to Congress over SOPA. Over atGoDaddyBoycott.org, a move-your-domain-name protest is scheduled to begin today over the registrar's previous--and still not repudiated--enthusiasm for SOPA. Popular image hosting site Imgur said yesterday it would join the exodus too.
Technically speaking, it wouldn't be difficult to pull off. Web companies already target advertisements based on city or ZIP code.
And it would be effective. A note popping up on the screens of people living in the mostly rural Texas district of SOPA author Lamar Smith, Hollywood's favorite Republican, asking them to call or write and voice their displeasure, would be noticed. If Tumblr could generate nearly 90,000 calls on its own, think of what companies with hundreds of millions of users could do.
If these Web companies believe what their executives say (PDF) about SOPA and Protect IP, they'll let their users know what their elected representatives are contemplating. A Senate floor debate scheduled for January 24, 2012 would be an obvious starting point.
"The reason it hasn't happened is because of the sensitivity," says Erickson, "even when it's a policy issue that benefits their users." He adds: It may happen."
Or it may not. It would change politics if it did.
Other predictions for 2012:
Privacy from above
A few years ago, it would have been something that only the military could afford, but for $300 or so, you can buy Parrot's remarkable AR.Drone quadricopter. In addition to being a technological tour de force that will enrapture any child, it's an iPhone-controlled spy cam and capable airborne surveillance platform.
Which means it and similar aircraft are capable of invading privacy in novel ways -- don't be surprised if the Ed Markey set concocts proposals to somehow regulate or license them. On the other hand, they also offer novel ways to advance government and police accountability.
Journalists and activists are already starting to do just that. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is taking footage of Japan's whaling fleet; Occupy Wall Street has its "occucopter"; CNNhas shot aerial footage with a drone. Your 12-year old neighbor won't be far behind.
Obama fails privacy test
In 2011, the surveillance enthusiasts at the U.S. Department of Justice firmly opposed a proposal from Internet companies and civil liberties groups to enhance the privacy of anyone who owns a mobile device or uses Web-based email. (Cloud computing users currently are second-class citizens: they have more privacy if they store documents on their own hard drive at home.)
The Justice Department's announcement might come as a surprise to anyone who voted for candidate Obama based on his campaign promises at the time. He told CNET in 2008 that: "I will work with leading legislators, privacy advocates, and business leaders to strengthen both voluntary and legally required privacy protections."
Which has yet to happen. If pro-privacy legislation introduced this summer advances, Obama will get to choose between honoring his civil liberties pledge or siding with the surveillance-industrial complex. Given his poor record in this area so far, this is one privacy test he's likely to fail.
Antitrust on the rise
It tends to be far cheaper to pay lobbyists to cripple your rival than compete in the marketplace. A decade ago, Sun, Oracle, and Netscape teamed up to convince the solons at the U.S. Justice Department that arch-enemy Microsoft needed to be lopped off at the knees.
Now Google is a primary target, and Microsoft and its allies are the ones lobbying for some impromptu axe-wielding. The latest round came this week when the Wall Street Journalreported: "Competitors say Google is abusing its power in Web search to gain sway over the $110 billion online travel business."
There's no evidence that Google's Flight Search is harming consumers, which is supposed to be the modern requirement for an antitrust violation. Or that Facebook Credits somehow violates antitrust law, which some activists have claimed. But because bureaucrats build careers on high-profile prosecutions, don't expect that to stop the antitrust aficionados in the U.S. government in 2012.
Anonymous takes on politicians
If 2011 was the Year of the Hackers, 2012 may be the Year the Hackers Upset the Political Establishment.
The obvious 2012 election-year target: politicians, especially ones supporting SOPA. Sarah Palin's e-mail was hacked in 2008, revealing nothing especially interesting, but the Twitter account of threesome-loving ex-congressman Anthony Weiner proved to be an entertaining read. A recent Reddit thread says it's time to "destroy" a pro-SOPA politician, and suggestions of dubious legality are already surfacing.