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A strange thing has been happening lately. On political, commercial and social issues where people on the Internet are broadly united, the Internet is forcing opponents to back down.
Has the Internet become invincible?
Hardly. But as a force in the world, the Internet seems to be getting more powerful, thanks to the growing popularity and use of social networks.
Fifteen years ago, everybody used to say that the Internet was a powerful medium that could mount unstoppable opposition to big governments and corporations. It wasn't really true back then. But it seems to have become more true recently.
The Internet Defeats a Government
The most recent and stark example of this power is the whole SOPA and PIPA conflict.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) were broadly favored by Congress. These measures would have essentially given the federal government the ability to apply economic embargos on web sites accused of infringing copyright and also force ISPs to block access to those sites.
Normally legislation with this much backing in Washington would sail through to become the law of the land.
But a broad consensus formed on the Internet against the bills. The online protests and criticism of them grew so overwhelming that Congress actually backed down. So did a range of companies that initially supported the bill, including domain registrar Go Daddy.
The Internet Defeats a Corporation
A similar thing happens when the Internet is united against corporations.
Back in November, a researcher discovered facts about software sold by a company called Carrier IQ installed on many smartphone handset models that suggested the company was logging user actions and even keystrokes. The company sent a nastygram to the researcher threatening to sue.
Online outrage over the scandal forced Carrier IQ to drop their lawsuit and apologize to the researcher. It also caused the handset industry to disavow any relationship with the company and carriers like Sprint to announce that they were dropping the company like a hot rock.
The Internet Defeats a Non-Profit
Even non-profit organizations are not immune from being smacked down by the Internet.
A non-profit called Susan G. Komen for the Cure is the most well-known organization fighting breast cancer. Last month they cut funding to Planned Parenthood that paid for lower income women to have anti-cancer screenings. Many believed the reason was Planned Parenthood's inclusion of abortions as part of its range of reproductive healthcare services. The person most closely associated with the decision was Komen vice president Karen Handel.
Handel claims the decision to stop funds to Planned Parenthood resulted from a policy to not fund organizations facing criminal investigation, and not because of the abortion issue.
Regardless, Internet bloggers and social media users broadly denounced the move, and mounted incredible pressure against the organization and its vice president -- until they reversed their decision and Handel was forced to resign.
What's going on here? Has the Internet become an unstoppable force that wins all battles?
The answer is no, not exactly. However, when the right conditions are met, the Internet is becoming a serious force to be reckoned with.
Where the Internet is Powerful -- and Where It's Not
I believe the SOPA/PIPA issue and the Carrier IQ scandal are good examples of issues where the Internet decisively focuses attention and pressure and wins the argument. And I believe the Susan G. Komen for the Cure controversy is not an example of this phenomenon.
First and foremost, the Internet is made out of people. So on any issue that's left or right, liberal or conservative, the Internet won't prove decisive because both sides are using it. They cancel each other out. And this is true of any issue with two sides well represented online.
The most likely issue areas where the Internet can force the outcome in its favor are those involving the Internet itself, or user privacy -- that sort of thing.
Internet users would have been affected directly in their Internet use by SOPA/PIPA, and so there was both intensity and consensus against the bills.
Likewise with Carrier IQ. People broadly oppose being "tracked" or "monitored," and so the overwhelming opinion was strongly in opposition to Carrier IQ.
Both these issues are the kind that normally exist in the shadows of public awareness – obscure legislation and unmentioned, hidden software designed to monitor system performance. Only online influencers are going to hammer away on such issues until everybody gets worked up about it. The mainstream media would, if anything, cover it once and move on to more sensational, salacious or visceral topics.
Another key factor was the fact that politically, neither SOPA/PIPA nor Carrier IQ issues were left-right political issues, with liberals on one side and conservatives on the other. Both supporters and opponents of SOPA and PIPA, for example, were to be found on both sides of the isle.
That the Internet forced the outcomes to the SOPA/PIPA and Carrier IQ issues is clear, given that the mainstream media barely covered these issues in comparison with how ubiquitous coverage was on blogs and social networks.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure scandal was different. This was theoretically, at least, a left-right issue. But the particulars of this case would have led to the same outcome with or without the power of the Internet. The TV news channels covered it heavily, as did the newspapers. The Internet merely mirrored what was happening on other media.
So it's clear to me that, within the United States at least, the Internet is narrowly and potentially powerful or even unstoppable, but only in the following conditions:
1. The issue is related to Internet usage or privacy
2. There is a broad consensus on the issue online
3. It's not a left-right political issue
What we don't know is if the same mechanism works internationally. The big test for this is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is essentially a treaty that has been signed by the US, the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. ACTA has been compared with SOPA and PIPA, and is broadly opposed online.
If online opposition to this treaty continues to grow as it has, it's possible that the power of the Internet could help opponents overturn the treaty. We’ll see.
Either way, governments, corporations and other organizations need to be aware that there’s a new sheriff in town. They need to be especially careful when advocating something that hits Internet users directly – or suffer humiliating and sure defeat.