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Annotated captions of F2C2012: Aaron Swartz keynote -

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AARON SWARTZ: So, for me, it all started with a phone call. It was September—not last

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year, but the year before that, September 2010. And I got a phone call from my friend

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is it?" I said. "It’s called COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting

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Act." "But, Peter," I said, "I don’t care about copyright law. Maybe you’re right.

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Maybe Hollywood is right. But either way, what’s the big deal? I’m not going to

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waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Healthcare, financial reform—those

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are the issues that I work on, not something obscure like copyright law." I could hear

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Peter grumbling in the background. "Look, I don’t have time to argue with you," he

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said, "but it doesn’t matter for right now, because this isn’t a bill about copyright."

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"It’s not?" "No," he said. "It’s a bill about the freedom to connect." Now I was listening.

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Peter explained what you’ve all probably long since learned, that this bill would let

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the government devise a list of websites that Americans weren’t allowed to visit. On the

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next day, I came up with lots of ways to try to explain this to people. I said it was a

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censorship. But I think it’s worth taking a step back, putting aside all the rhetoric

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and just thinking for a moment about how radical this bill really was. Sure, there are lots

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of times when the government makes rules about speech. If you slander a private figure, if

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you buy a television ad that lies to people, if you have a wild party that plays booming

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music all night, in all these cases, the government can come stop you. But this was something

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radically different. It wasn’t the government went to people and asked them to take down

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particular material that was illegal; it shut down whole websites. Essentially, it stopped

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Americans from communicating entirely with certain groups. There’s nothing really like

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an order requiring you be mute for the next couple weeks. They don’t say nobody can

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make any more noise inside your house. There’s a specific complaint, which they ask you to

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specifically remedy, and then your life goes on.

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The closest example I could find was a case where the government was at war with an adult

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bookstore. The place kept selling pornography; the government kept getting the porn declared

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that was eventually declared unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment.

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So, you might say, surely COICA would get declared unconstitutional, as well. But I

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knew that the Supreme Court had a blind spot around the First Amendment, more than anything

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else, more than slander or libel, more than pornography, more even than child pornography.

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Their blind spot was copyright. When it came to copyright, it was like the part of the

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justices’ brains shut off, and they just totally forgot about the First Amendment.

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You got the sense that, deep down, they didn’t even think the First Amendment applied when

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copyright was at issue, which means that if you did want to censor the Internet, if you

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wanted to come up with some way that the government could shut down access to particular websites,

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this bill might be the only way to do it. If it was about pornography, it probably would

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about copyright, it might just sneak through.

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And that was especially terrifying, because, as you know, because copyright is everywhere.

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If you want to shut down WikiLeaks, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that you’re

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doing it because they have too much pornography, but it’s not hard at all to claim that WikiLeaks

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is violating copyright, because everything is copyrighted. This speech, you know, the

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thing I’m giving right now, these words are copyrighted. And it’s so easy to accidentally

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copy something, so easy, in fact, that the leading Republican supporter of COICA, Orrin

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Hatch, had illegally copied a bunch of code into his own Senate website. So if even Orrin

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Hatch’s Senate website was found to be violating copyright law, what’s the chance that they

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wouldn’t find something they could pin on any of us?

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There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet

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in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent

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like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is

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reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing

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of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom

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This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate

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with each other over the Internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights. The freedoms

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deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out

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fundamental rights we had always taken for granted. And I realized that day, talking

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to Peter, that I couldn’t let that happen.

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But it was going to happen. The bill, COICA, was introduced on September 20th, 2010, a

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Monday, and in the press release heralding the introduction of this bill, way at the

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bottom, it was scheduled for a vote on September 23rd, just three days later. And while, of

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course, there had to be a vote—you can’t pass a bill without a vote—the results of

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that vote were already a foregone conclusion, because if you looked at the introduction

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of the law, it wasn’t just introduced by one rogue eccentric member of Congress; it

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other members, Republicans and Democrats. So, yes, there’d be a vote, but it wouldn’t

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be much of a surprise, because nearly everyone who was voting had signed their name to the

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bill before it was even introduced.

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Now, I can’t stress how unusual this is. This is emphatically not how Congress works.

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I’m not talking about how Congress should work, the way you see on Schoolhouse Rock.

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I mean, this is not the way Congress actually works. I mean, I think we all know Congress

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is a dead zone of deadlock and dysfunction. There are months of debates and horse trading

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and hearings and stall tactics. I mean, you know, first you’re supposed to announce

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that you’re going to hold hearings on a problem, and then days of experts talking

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about the issue, and then you propose a possible solution, you bring the experts back for their

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thoughts on that, and then other members have different solutions, and they propose those,

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and you spend of bunch of time debating, and there’s a bunch of trading, they get members

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over to your cause. And finally, you spend hours talking one on one with the different

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in endless backroom meetings. And then, when that’s all done, you take that, and you

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go through it line by line in public to see if anyone has any objections or wants to make

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any changes. And then you have the vote. It’s a painful, arduous process. You don’t just

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introduce a bill on Monday and then pass it unanimously a couple days later. That just

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doesn’t happen in Congress.

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But this time, it was going to happen. And it wasn’t because there were no disagreements

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on the issue. There are always disagreements. Some senators thought the bill was much too

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weak and needed to be stronger: As it was introduced, the bill only allowed the government

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to shut down websites, and these senators, they wanted any company in the world to have

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But somehow, in the kind of thing you never see in Washington, they had all managed to

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they could all live with: a bill that would censor the Internet. And when I saw this,

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I realized: Whoever was behind this was good.

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Now, the typical way you make good things happen in Washington is you find a bunch of

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wealthy companies who agree with you. Social Security didn’t get passed because some

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brave politicians decided their good conscience couldn’t possibly let old people die starving

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in the streets. I mean, are you kidding me? Social Security got passed because John D.

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pension funds. Why do that, when you can just let the government take money from the workers?

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Now, my point is not that Social Security is a bad thing—I think it’s fantastic.

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It’s just that the way you get the government to do fantastic things is you find a big company

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willing to back them. The problem is, of course, that big companies aren’t really huge fans

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of civil liberties. You know, it’s not that they’re against them; it’s just there’s

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not much money in it.

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Now, if you’ve been reading the press, you probably didn’t hear this part of the story.

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As Hollywood has been telling it, the great, good copyright bill they were pushing was

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stopped by the evil Internet companies who make millions of dollars off of copyright

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infringement. But it just—it really wasn’t true. I mean, I was in there, in the meetings

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with the Internet companies—actually probably all here today. And, you know, if all their

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profits depended on copyright infringement, they would have put a lot more money into

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changing copyright law. The fact is, the big Internet companies, they would do just fine

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if this bill passed. I mean, they wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but I doubt they would

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against it, like the rest of us, on grounds primarily of principle. And principle doesn’t

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have a lot of money in the budget to spend on lobbyists. So they were practical about

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it. "Look," they said, "this bill is going to pass. In fact, it’s probably going to

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pass unanimously. As much as we try, this is not a train we’re going to be able to

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let’s just try and make it better." So that was the strategy: lobby to make the bill better.

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They had lists of changes that would make the bill less obnoxious or less expensive

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for them, or whatever. But the fact remained at the end of the day, it was going to be

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a bill that was going to censor the Internet, and there was nothing we could do to stop

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it.

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long odds and little hope of success: I started an online petition. I called all my friends,

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and we stayed up all night setting up a website for this new group, Demand Progress, with

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an online petition opposing this noxious bill, and I sent it to a few friends. Now, I’ve

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done a few online petitions before. I’ve worked at some of the biggest groups in the

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world that do online petitions. I’ve written a ton of them and read even more. But I’ve

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never seen anything like this. Starting from literally nothing, we went to 10,000 signers,

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then 100,000 signers, and then 200,000 signers and 300,000 signers, in just a couple of weeks.

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And it wasn’t just signing a name. We asked those people to call Congress, to call urgently.

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There was a vote coming up this week, in just a couple days, and we had to stop it. And

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at the same time, we told the press about it, about this incredible online petition

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that was taking off. And we met with the staff of members of Congress and pleaded with them

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to withdraw their support for the bill. I mean, it was amazing. It was huge. The power

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of the Internet rose up in force against this bill. And then it passed unanimously.

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Now, to be fair, several of the members gave nice speeches before casting their vote, and

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in their speeches they said their office had been overwhelmed with comments about the First

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Amendment concerns behind this bill, comments that had them very worried, so worried, in

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fact, they weren’t sure that they still supported the bill. But even though they didn’t

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support it, they were going to vote for it anyway, they said, because they needed to

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keep the process moving, and they were sure any problems that were had with it could be

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fixed later. So, I’m going to ask you, does this sound like Washington, D.C., to you?

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Since when do members of Congress vote for things that they oppose just to keep the process

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moving? I mean, whoever was behind this was good.

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And then, suddenly, the process stopped. Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon, put a

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hold on the bill. Giving a speech in which he called it a nuclear bunker-buster bomb

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aimed at the Internet, he announced he would not allow it to pass without changes. And

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as you may know, a single senator can’t actually stop a bill by themselves, but they

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can delay it. By objecting to a bill, they can demand Congress spend a bunch of time

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debating it before getting it passed. And Senator Wyden did. He bought us time—a lot

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of time, as it turned out. His delay held all the way through the end of that session

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of Congress, so that when the bill came back, it had to start all over again. And since

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they were starting all over again, they figured, why not give it a new name? And that’s when

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it began being called PIPA, and eventually SOPA.

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So there was probably a year or two of delay there. And in retrospect, we used that time

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time. At the time, it felt like we were going around telling people that these bills were

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awful, and in return, they told us that they thought we were crazy. I mean, we were kids

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wandering around waving our arms about how the government was going to censor the Internet.

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It does sound a little crazy. You can ask Larry tomorrow. I was constantly telling him

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what was going on, trying to get him involved, and I’m pretty sure he just thought I was

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exaggerating. Even I began to doubt myself. It was a rough period. But when the bill came

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back and started moving again, suddenly all the work we had done started coming together.

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others involved. Everything started snowballing. It happened so fast.

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I remember there was one week where I was having dinner with a friend in the technology

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industry, and he asked what I worked on, and I told him about this bill. And he said, "Wow!

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You need to tell people about that." And I just groaned. And then, just a few weeks later,

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I remember I was chatting with this cute girl on the subway, and she wasn’t in technology

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at all, but when she heard that I was, she turned to me very seriously and said, "You

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know, we have to stop 'SOAP.'" So, progress, right?

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But, you know, I think that story illustrates what happened during those couple weeks, because

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the reason we won wasn’t because I was working on it or Reddit was working on it or Google

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was working on it or Tumblr or any other particular person. It was because there was this enormous

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mental shift in our industry. Everyone was thinking of ways they could help, often really

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clever, ingenious ways. People made videos. They made infographics. They started PACs.

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They designed ads. They bought billboards. They wrote news stories. They held meetings.

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Everybody saw it as their responsibility to help. I remember at one point during this

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period I held a meeting with a bunch of startups in New York, trying to encourage everyone

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to get involved, and I felt a bit like I was hosting one of these Clinton Global Initiative

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meetings, where I got to turn to every startup in the—every startup founder in the room

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and be like, "What are you going to do? And what are you going to do?" And everyone was

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trying to one-up each other.

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If there was one day the shift crystallized, I think it was the day of the hearings on

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SOPA in the House, the day we got that phrase, "It’s no longer OK not to understand how

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the Internet works." There was just something about watching those clueless members of Congress

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debate the bill, watching them insist they could regulate the Internet and a bunch of

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nerds couldn’t possibly stop them. They really brought it home for people that this

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was happening, that Congress was going to break the Internet, and it just didn’t care.

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I remember when this moment first hit me. I was at an event, and I was talking, and

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I got introduced to a U.S. senator, one of the strongest proponents of the original COICA

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bill, in fact. And I asked him why, despite being such a progressive, despite giving a

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speech in favor of civil liberties, why he was supporting a bill that would censor the

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Internet. And, you know, that typical politician smile he had suddenly faded from his face,

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and his eyes started burning this fiery red. And he started shouting at me, said, "Those

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just put anything up there, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them! They put up

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everything! They put up our nuclear missiles, and they just laugh at us! Well, we’re going

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to show them! There’s got to be laws on the Internet! It’s got to be under control!"

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Now, as far as I know, nobody has ever put up the U.S.'s nuclear missiles on the Internet.

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I mean, it's not something I’ve heard about. But that’s sort of the point. He wasn’t

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having a rational concern, right? It was this irrational fear that things were out of control.

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Here was this man, a United States senator, and those people on the Internet, they were

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just mocking him. They had to be brought under control. Things had to be under control. And

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I think that was the attitude of Congress. And just as seeing that fire in that senator’s

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eyes scared me, I think those hearings scared a lot of people. They saw this wasn’t the

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its citizens. This was more like the attitude of a tyrant. And so the citizens fought back.

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The wheels came off the bus pretty quickly after that hearing. First the Republican senators

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pulled out, and then the White House issued a statement opposing the bill, and then the

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could have a few further discussions before the official vote. And that was when, as hard

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as it was for me to believe, after all this, we had won. The thing that everyone said was

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impossible, that some of the biggest companies in the world had written off as kind of a

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pipe dream, had happened. We did it. We won.

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And then we started rubbing it in. You all know what happened next. Wikipedia went black.

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Reddit went black. Craigslist went black. The phone lines on Capitol Hill flat-out melted.

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Members of Congress started rushing to issue statements retracting their support for the

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bill that they were promoting just a couple days ago. And it was just ridiculous. I mean,

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there’s a chart from the time that captures it pretty well. It says something like "January

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14th" on one side and has this big, long list of names supporting the bill, and then just

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a few lonely people opposing it; and on the other side, it says "January 15th," and now

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it’s totally reversed—everyone is opposing it, just a few lonely names still hanging

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I mean, this really was unprecedented. Don’t take my word for it, but ask former Senator

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Chris Dodd, now the chief lobbyist for Hollywood. He admitted, after he lost, that he had masterminded

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the whole evil plan. And he told The New York Times he had never seen anything like it during

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his many years in Congress. And everyone I’ve spoken to agrees. The people rose up, and

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they caused a sea change in Washington—not the press, which refused to cover the story—just

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coincidentally, their parent companies all happened to be lobbying for the bill; not

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the politicians, who were pretty much unanimously in favor of it; and not the companies, who

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by the people, the people themselves. They killed the bill dead, so dead that when members

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of Congress propose something now that even touches the Internet, they have to give a

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long speech beforehand about how it is definitely not like SOPA; so dead that when you ask congressional

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staffers about it, they groan and shake their heads like it’s all a bad dream they’re

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trying really hard to forget; so dead that it’s kind of hard to believe this story,

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hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing, hard to remember how this

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could have gone any other way. But it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare; it was all very real.

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And it will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse,

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freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t

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been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp

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in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest

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Internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little

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competitors could get censored. We can’t let that happen.

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Now, I’ve told this as a personal story, partly because I think big stories like this

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one are just more interesting at human scale. The director J.D. Walsh says good stories

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should be like the poster for Transformers. There’s a huge evil robot on the left side

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of the poster and a huge, big army on the right side of the poster. And in the middle,

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at the bottom, there’s just a small family trapped in the middle. Big stories need human

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of the other part of it. But that’s kind of the point. We won this fight because everyone

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crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of

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to do. They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission. You remember how Hacker News readers

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spontaneously organized this boycott of GoDaddy over their support of SOPA? Nobody told them

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they could do that. A few people even thought it was a bad idea. It didn’t matter. The

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senators were right: The Internet really is out of control. But if we forget that, if

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we let Hollywood rewrite the story so it was just big company Google who stopped the bill,

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someone else’s responsibility to do this work and it’s our job just to go home and

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pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers, well, then next time

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they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.