Internet freedom: the new civil rights movement?

Nearly half a century ago now, the civil rights movement was fundamentally changing politics and values in the United States.  It was stunningly successful, largely non-violent, and the U.S. and the world are hugely better places for it.  And in the decades since, all social movements have, at least to some extent, been judged according to its example.

All of which helps set the recent uproar over copyright and Internet freedom in some context.  Back in January, huge online protests in the U.S. derailed two proposed copyright laws, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Opposition to SOPA and PIPA focused on the dangers those measures created for the free and open Internet, but there was a broader complaint as well — that copyright had gone too far, and, rather than sparking new creativity, was inhibiting access to creative works, and preventing the production of new creative works, especially online.

And then almost immediately the action moved to the other side of the Atlantic, with massive online and physical protests (some with as many as 50,000 participants) against adoption of the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  The ACTA protests ended with the European Parliament voting overwhelmingly against adoption of the treaty. And as with the SOPA/PIPA debate, the conversation in the EU around ACTA quickly grew into a broader assault on what opponents of the new treaty see as over-zealous copyright enforcement online.

The point of this post is not to get into the specifics of that debate.  (This is something we discuss in some detail in The Knockoff Economy.) Rather, we want to ask whether the debate around copyright, patent, and Internet freedom is about to cross over from a subject that has thus far been fought out largely among the content industries, techies, and lawyers, to one in which ordinary people feel they have a stake.  That may be what we’re beginning to see in the SOPA/PIPA and ACTA debates. And we may be seeing it now in a new effort by Kim Dotcom, the head of Megaupload, to fight back against U.S. criminal charges against him and his business. Dotcom has a new website,, which he’s using to try to spark an ACTA-style protest movement on his behalf. For reasons we’ve explained before, the U.S. criminal case against Dotcom is, at best, complicated. Now Dotcom is trying to link his fate to that of the wider movement for Internet freedom. And he’s even got a music video, Mr. President, in which he croons (or really, sort of chants) his case to the world.

So, are we seeing the birth of a new civil rights movement?

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