Thursday, June 14, 2007

Cyber Disobedience

A friend's son recently returned from a seminar at Warren Wilson College on the mechanics of protesting. His assessment was that many of the attendees wouldn't be effective protesters.

His point was that unless you are prepared to be arrested and taken to jail, you shouldn't go out to protest in the first place (and apparently many of the attendees weren't).

I agree that many wouldn't be effective protesters, but for a different reason. In my opinion, effective protesting has moved online.

Rest assured, I'm not someone who thinks the Internet is the be all and end all, but look at what's happened within the past few months.

1) A spontaneous protest against bone-headed DRM caused the HD-DVD hexidecimal code to show up on millions of websites. Angry consumers, fed up with being treated like criminals by the MPAA and RIAA, took action. They not only showed unequivocally that the emperor had no clothes, but commented on the inadequacy of his physique as well.

2) An attempt by the Sound Exchange (whose key members are the major record labels) to crush Internet radio with bankrupting fees was thwarted by an intensive and well-organized e-mail campaign that crashed the Congressional servers. Congress got the message, and legislation was hastily drafted to block the action (this fight isn't over yet -- but I'll save that for another post).

3) While not quite as world-shaking, fans of the CBS program "Jericho" were angered when the program was canceled, and their requests ignored. A "Nuts to CBS" campaign began which flooded CBS' corporate headquarters with bags of peanuts sent from all over the country. The program's been renewed.

The advantage of these cyber actions is that they're quantifiable, and impossible to ignore. One can frantically wave a placard outside the G8 summit, but the powers that be never see it -- and the news media seems to be less interested in covering protests, beyond the soundbite.

Congress knew exactly how many people e-mailed in to protest the Sound Exchange rates -- and the numbers were large enough for them to take action. CBS was shown in a way they couldn't ignore how many viewers "Jericho" had, and that number was more accurate than any Nielsen survey. The AAC, which developed the HD-DVD encryption key, threatened legal action against posters of the code, but when millions stood up to be counted, that threat didn't materialize.

While an Internet campaign won't work for everything, one that is focused can achieve real results. It's not as cool as getting arrested for unlawful assembly, but it can be much more effective. And isn't the real purpose of protest to change the system?

- Ralph

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