Hegemony, Power and Representation – The day the Internet went dark

In May 2011 the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) bills were introduced by US Congress as a solution to protect the content producers from internet piracy and breaches of copyright law. The bill would help the Justice Department shut down websites that were accused of breaching copyright laws. The bill was backed by some of the most powerful and well-resourced groups in the United States, including Hollywood, the recording industry and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Seventeen months after it was introduced, on the 18th of January 2012 hundreds of sites including Wikipedia, Reddit and BoingBoing took part in the ‘first internet strike’ to oppose the SOPA/PIPA legislation. While Google’s landing page remained operable, it offered a link to its “End piracy, not liberty” petition page. The protest was a mock censoring to demonstrate to users what the internet would look like should the bill be passed.

The front page of Wikipedia read “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge. For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” and included a link encouraging users to contact Congress.

Image: Wikipedia

That day, several million people phoned or emailed Congress to protest the bill in an unprecedented outpouring of opposition. The work that follows aims to examine this case and contribute to the discussion of the key roles that Hegemony, Power, and Representation play and contribution of the media to our lived experience of society.

In this century we create and distribute meaning primarily through mediated channels. Sharing links to friends, creating status updates and posting photos are all ways of distributing meaning. Meaning is created when we negotiate to create social relationships, institutions and shared ways of life (Carah & Louw 2015). These same meanings help us to perceive the world around us so understandably the capacity to control meaning-making in any human society is an effective way of making and maintaining “power”.

In this context, we can consider the way that the SOPA/PIPA legislation was presented to a wider audience. There was little public awareness on its release and without understanding the impact it would have on the architecture of the internet you would assume simply that it was created to curb online piracy. To Aaron Swartz, it was a massive overreach that would threaten the integrity of the internet itself. He said, “This isn’t a bill about copyright, it’s a bill about the freedom to connect” (Knappenberger et al., 2015).

If passed, the legislation would allow a company to cut off finances to entire websites and even force Google to exclude links to their website simply by lodging a single claim of copyright infringement (Knappenberger, B. et al. 2015). In this way, it can be seen that the legislation was enabling a greater power for the content producers against piracy but Swartz argued it was without due process and restricted the freedom and openness of the internet.

In an effort to host a discussion on federal justice issues such as the SOPA/PIPA legislation Swartz founded a website called “Demand Progress”. Although it appeared to cause little stir initially, the more powerful and well-resourced groups in the content production industries responded by pouring millions into marketing strategies supporting the bill. At this point, it is clear that the content production industries held the position of power through their control of how meaning on this subject was received by a much greater intended audience.

The alliance between the content producers and the creators of the SOPA/PIPA legislation is a clear example of the theory of Hegemony and the argument that powerful groups create alliances to maintain their dominance within society. Hegemony argues that dominant groups are in a continuous struggle to create and maintain power by employing a mix of violence and the legitimisation of their ideas (Carah & Louw 2015). A simple example of this would be shoplifting. If you steal from a shop you will be put in jail (violence) and we consent to this law as set by our government (the idea is legitimised).

The initial hegemonic structure, in this case, is clear but we can explore how this changed when the message of “internet censorship” was spread by the activists. Aaron Swartz aligned himself with top technology companies which increased the reach, strength and power of their message. These alliances also increasingly legitimacy of the message they were sending in the eyes of those receiving it.

On the 18th January 2012, a combination of online communities and corporate websites initiated a massive online protest against the SOPA/PIPA legislation known as the day “the internet went dark”. Before the protest, the legislation had 80 publicly declared supporters and 31 opponents, but by the next day, the bills had 65 supporters and 101 opponents. The following day the legislation was shelved by Congress.

The protest illustrates quite a delicate play between authoritative agenda setting and of broad community consensus (Oz, A. 2012). There was no illustrated threat of violence from the activists or Aaron Swartz as Hegemony would argue but the shift in hegemonic power and the success of their movement was achieved by the building of alliances and through particular representational moves.

The day “the internet went dark” was the activists’ way of illustrating the changes the legislation proposed to their users. For the entire day, any content that could be considered ‘copyright infringement’ under the new bill was blacked out from each participating site and users were encouraged to contact Congress and contest the bill. That day, several million people phoned or emailed Congress and many believe it is that unprecedented surge of mobilisation that forced Congress to retreat from the proposed legislation (Benkler et al., 2015).

There is a great deal of meaning behind messages such as “the freedom to connect” or “free internet” that were used quite skillfully by the activists to transform potentially interested, fluid individuals into engaged and active participants (Sell, S. K. 2013). This representation spiked the interest of millions of people who were now participating in the discussion and protesting to their government.

In the lead up to January 18, there were a great many groups playing diverse roles in diagnosing the problems with the bills, reframing the public debate from the content producers “piracy that costs millions of jobs” message to the activists “Internet censorship” message and in organising action. It was a highly dynamic, decentralised and experimentation-rich public sphere (Benkler et al., 2015).

In an episode of Decode DC called “The future was now” Andrea Seabrook examines the boycott of the SOPA/PIPA legislation and calls it “the first large-scale, powerful and enormously successful political action entirely on the internet” (Seabrook, A. 2013). It is well known and highly regarded as having changed the way we view and engage with the internet today.

The case of Aaron Swartz and the SOPA/PIPA Legislation demonstrates many of the theories that attempt to model the correlation between Media and Society. Though we live in a democracy it is through the lens of Hegemony, Power and Representation that we can critically review the democratic process which can be seen as ‘sullied’ when particular powerful groups put a lot of time, money and representational focus into ensuring decisions are made that align with their interests.

Benkler, Y., Roberts, H., Faris, R., Solow-Niederman, A., & Etling, B. (2015). Social mobilization and the networked public sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA debate. Political Communication, 32(4), 594-624.

Carah, N., & Louw, E. (2015). Media & society: Production, content & participation. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Knappenberger, B., Else, L., Sinkler, S., Storkel, B., Witten, M., & Dragonetti, J. (2015) The
Internet’s own boy: the story of Aaron Swartz.

Oz, A. (2012). Legitimacy and efficacy: The blackout of Wikipedia. First Monday, 17(12).
Seabrook, A. (2013) Episode 6: The Future Was Now. DecodeDC. E.W. Scripps Company

Sell, S. K. (2013). Revenge of the “Nerds”: Collective action against intellectual property
maximalism in the global information age. International Studies Review, 15(1), 67-85.

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