“Alexis Ohanian, the 29-year old founder of social news site Reddit, has partnered with the online advocacy group Fight for the Future to create what they’re calling the “Internet Defense League.” Ohanian describes the project, which they plan to officially launch next month, as a “Bat-Signal for the Internet.” Any website owner can sign up on the group’s website to add a bit of code to his or her site–or receive that code by email at the time of a certain campaign–that can be triggered in the case of a political crisis like SOPA, adding an activist call-to-action to all the sites involved, such as a widget or banner asking users to sign petitions, call lawmakers, or boycott companies.
“People who wish to be tapped can see, oh look, the Bat-Signal is up. Time to do something,” says Ohanian. “Whatever website you own, this is a way for you to be notified if something comes up and take some basic actions…If we aggregate everyone that’s doing it, the numbers start exploding.”
The embedded code on participating sites might do more than just display a mere banner ad, says Tiffiniy Cheng, co-director of Internet-focused political advocacy group Fight for the Future, and could even go as far as the blackout technique that Web activists used to successfully turn the tide against SOPA. “We’ll invent something at the time, and it will be some really unified and shocking action,” she says, hinting at techniques that would temporarily take over the entire appearance of willing sites. ”We’re creating the tools and the forms of protest that allow for viral organizing. That’s how the SOPA protests were able to get started and grow to the level they did.”
So far, Cheng says Reddit, imaging hosting site Imgur, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, viral content company Cheezburger Network, Mozilla and the non-profit Public Knowledge have all signed up. The group hopes that eventually thousands of sites–including those as small as a single user’s Tumblr page–will join the project.
Fight for the Future and Ohanian have both been focused most recently on defeating CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protect Act. The bill, originally designed to allow sharing of information between the private sector and government agencies like the National Security Agency for cybersecurity purposes, was amended just before being passed in the House last month to allow companies to hand over any user data they wish to the government without regard for existing privacy laws, for reasons as vague as preventing computer “crime,” or “the protection of individuals from the danger of death or serious bodily harm.” One of two Senate versions of the bill is expected to come up for a vote in early June.
Fight for the Future last week launched an anti-CISPA site, Privacy is Awesome, asking users to call their senators and demand meetings to discuss the bill. And Ohanian has spoken out against the legislation as well, asking investors not to buy shares of Facebook’s newly-public stock to protest the company’s support for CISPA.
But CISPA protests have yet to match the fever pitch of anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA protests in January that led to boycotts of SOPA-supporting Web host GoDaddy, attacks by Anonymous against the Recording Industry of Association of America and the Motion Picture Assocation of America, and the blackout protests that included sites as popular as Reddit and Wikipedia. Most of Silicon Valley continues to support CISPA, including Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Oracle and Symantec, with Google refusing to take a stand on either side of the issue.
Ohanian argues the challenge in maintaining political vigilance against laws that would harm the Internet is long-term endurance, rather than the ability to defeat any one piece of legislation.”You can only cry ‘Oh my gosh, they’re going to shut down the Internet’ so often,” he says. “We’ve scared [Congress] from doing anything as egregious as SOPA and PIPA again. But the new challenge is this endless series of smaller bills that try to unravel internet rights.”
The answer, Ohanian believes, is to foster a new level of engagement between Internet users and Congress that emphasizes digital rights and either educates ignorant lawmakers on Internet issues or helps to push them out of office. He cites an idea that he attributes to Cheezburger Network chief executive Ben Huh, that every Internet user should have their legislators’ phone numbers saved on their cell phone and ready to use on a regular basis.”