Law in the Internet Society

The power of Reddit: Online political engagement in response to SOPA

-- By SamSalyer - 12 Jan 2012

Meet the players


The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), H.R. 3261, is a piece of proposed legislation that would give copyright holders expanded powers to prevent online sharing of their intellectual property and to punish websites that share copyrighted content or that enable or facilitate sharing by others.

Powerful and prominent interests have lined up both in support of and opposition to SOPA and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act. Industries based around selling content, most notably the film and music industries, claim the Act is necessary to protect them from the revenue and job loss that accompany internet piracy – despite evidence to the contrary. A wide coalition of companies and advocacy groups opposes the bill, ranging from web-based companies, to human rights and libertarian organizations. In recent days, however, the most effective anti-SOPA activism is being marshaled and directed on the user-generated news site Reddit.


Reddit is both a news site and an online community. Users submit links to articles, videos, or their own commentary. Other users then can then vote on an article, essentially giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The most popular articles are promoted, making them more visible to other users. Users may also subscribe to news feeds on specific topics of interest. By putting end-users in control of what news the site prominently displays and by having virtually no restrictions on the types of content which may be submitted, Reddit has developed a very strong sense of community and ownership among its users. By also using its user-controlled ranking system to order the user comments left on each article, Reddit promotes engagement among users and has a strong tradition of the intelligent and civilized debate, discussion, and collaboration often lacking from news websites. Given the nature of the site and the interests of its users it is not surprising that the Reddit community would be interested in SOPA, and would mobilize to take action. Yet the speed at which Reddit has achieved results is impressive.


Reddit's boycott of GoDaddy?

In November, 2011 GoDaddy? .com, the world’s largest web registrar, filed a statement with the House Judiciary Committee expressing strong support for SOPA. Anger from SOPA opponents grew when, during a December 15 hearing on the bill, Congressman Jared Polis pointed out that GoDaddy was exempt from being subject to the sort of website shutdowns that the bill would authorize for other domains hosting copyrighted content.

On December 22 a Reddit user named “selfprodigy” created a post announcing that he would be transferring 51 domains he had registered with GoDaddy? to another web registrar based on the company’s support of SOPA, and asked the Reddit community “Who’s with me?” The post quickly shot to the top of the Reddit rankings and drew thousands of comments, many from other users pledging to move their domains from GoDaddy? to a competitor. Rapidly, GoDaddy? ’s competitors seized on the opportunity, announcing their opposition to SOPA and offering Reddit users steep discounts to switch their domain registration. Web organizations opposing SOPA also quickly joined in. Wikipedia among others announced that it would be transferring its domains away from GoDaddy? . While Reddit users began recruiting for a December 29 exodus, GoDaddy? lost over 50,000 domain registrations in three days.

GoDaddy? was particularly vulnerable to this sort of attack because of the type of service they provide. There are many companies offering essentially identical domain registration services at essentially identical prices. Indeed, GoDaddy? ’s market position is based more on a successful, if controversial, marketing campaign than the service it provides. Its customers, the IT officers at companies or individuals who maintain their own websites, are likely to be particularly interested in issues affecting the web and likely to participate in online communities like Reddit.

The company’s response to this threat was rapid. On December 23, just a day after the initial Reddit post, GoDaddy? announced that it “no longer supports SOPA.” When this announcement failed to stop customers from transferring their services, GODaddy stepped up its language, announcing on December 29, “GoDaddy opposes SOPA," and criticizing the bill. Other tech companies which had initially supported SOPA took note of the backlash against GoDaddy? and quietly withdrew their support.

Turning to politics

Turning their attention to politics, a group of Reddit members created Operation Pull Ryan, an effort to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan. While Rep. Ryan was not a cosponsor of SOPA (a fact that many Reddit users appeared to miss) he is a high-ranking Congressman who had not announced his position on the bill and had accepted nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions from SOPA supporters. In less than two weeks Operation Pull Ryan raised nearly $20,000 for Ryan’s 2012 challenger Rob Zerban (who emphatically announced his opposition to SOPA) and garnered publicity and momentum for Zerban’s campaign. On January 9, 2012, less than two weeks after the launch of Operation Pull Ryan, Rep. Ryan announced his opposition to SOPA.

The next steps

Most recently, Reddit has announced a site-wide blackout scheduled to take place on January 18, during which every page on the site will display information about SOPA. Other prominent websites, including Wikipedia, have expressed interest in joining the blackout.

What are the effects?

In addition to the interest, donations, letters to elected representatives, and boycott activity Reddit has spawned, it has played another, less obvious role. There has been a noticeable lack of media coverage of SOPA. While some of this (or perhaps more than some) is attributable to the fact that most major media companies are owned by conglomerates which are principle backers of the Act, it is also true that this is the type of complicated, non-partisan issue that the mainstream media tends to ignore. Instead, Reddit’s boycott, campaigning, and blackout have become a story itself, bringing information about SOPA to many more people who may not have otherwise been informed.

Analytically, this was a somewhat peculiar position to be taking. SOPA never mattered at all, because the House is merely the bat-shit crazy vestibule leading to the Senate. The only two documents that ever mattered were the MPAA wishlist and what the Senate would pass. So it was only PIPA that mattered, and PIPA represented the effort by Chris Dodd and Patrick Leahy to finance the Democrats' campaign to hold the Senate using Hollywood money in return for legislation that wouldn't pass in the end, but could be reintroduced (in return for more money) after the election. In the end, what was really important was the staggering extent of Google money that turned out to be deployable, was deployed, and was put at the service of the White House, which upended the Chris-and-Pat show, leaving Hollywood feeling pretty uneasy.

There were some subplots, mostly concerning Rupert Murdoch's effort to get other "content" companies to help him buy a Republican Senate, which they refused to do, leaving Murdoch bitterly tweeting about how everyone had surrendered to Google, which was pretty much the case.

So what had Reddit to do with it? Just providing astroturf for Google, as usual. Even if that wasn't apparent to you in January, wouldn't it have justified some revisions during the spring?


Webs Webs

r3 - 04 Sep 2012 - 22:02:26 - IanSullivan
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