Twitter, Facebook fuel SOPA protests

Social networks are used by Internet companies and users to spread opposition to anti-piracy bills in Congress (See video below)

Several major Internet companies and thousands of concerned users are successfully lighting up social networks to spread opposition to controversial anti-piracy bills now under debate in the U.S. Congress.

"This is huge," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "[Social networks] pretty much drove the mass objections and stopped this bill from becoming law. I think we are actually seeing the beginning of a huge change in the political process worldwide that [has] social networks at the core."

All eyes yesterday were on the Internet companies that either shut down their websites or used them to launch other protests against the two primary online piracy bills -- the Stop Online Piracy Act that's under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act that's being debated in the U.S. Senate.

For example, the Wikipedia website went dark today and Google draped a black banner across its home page while posting information from opponents of the bills.

A lot of the interest and concern about the protests germinated from a flood of tweets and status updates in recent weeks on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other social networks. Multiple Internet companies, along with everyday users, took to various social networks to spread the word and build opposition to the bills.

The online protests appear to be working.

The New York Times reported today that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) this morning pulled his support for the anti-piracy legislation that he co-sponsored.

And Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told his Facebook followers that he no longer supports the anti-piracy bills as written.

"Better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong," Cornyn posted. "Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the Internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time."

Politicians like Cornyn are just some of the people using social networks to communicate their thoughts on the legislation.

Twitter executives are voicing their opposition to the piracy bills via tweets, fittingly. And Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg used his own site to make his opinion on the legislation known.

Everyday users of social networks have also been flooding those networks with criticism of the legislation.

"Would love to see a single credible person/entity in support of SOPA," tweeted a user called ryan. "Genuinely curious how they refute the folks who built the Internet."

And ericajmoss tweeted, "I just signed the anti-SOPA petition. Will you?"

Social networks, according to Andrew Frank, an analyst at Gartner, are well set up to handle this kind of widespread protest.

"Social networking sites are clearly positioned perfectly to amplify the dialogue and create awareness and engagement with topics," he added. "While grassroots protest movements have been effective before social networks, these networks are bringing public participation to new heights."

The role of social networks in protesting the anti-piracy legislation echoes their role in helping to topple Egypt President Hosni Mubarak early last year.

And last summer, social networks were used to help clean up after the riots that rocked the U.K.

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said sites like Twitter and Facebook are major players in this week's protest against the anti-piracy bills in the U.S.

"The big sites lit the match," said Gottheil.

"Let's say the social networks [are] spreading the message. Some in my network were talking about it months ago, but it hadn't reached critical mass. It's a hot topic now. Online discussion will subside, but I think they've built a constituency that will pay attention to the next set of proposals," he added.

About 200 people in San Francisco railed against legislators for considering SOPA and PIPA. Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, echoed the feelings of the crowd-- that if they pass, SOPA and PIPA would shut down websites within Silicon Valley.

See more on the controversy over SOPA.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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