If you listen to the wails of certain record-industry and Hollywood types, the recent scuttling of SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) and PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) were the results of a coup. Their version of the story is that a small group of powerful internet players, including Google, Reddit and Wikipedia, ganged up on lawmakers by bending the will of impressionable internet users with scare tactics. What we all witnessed in January, they argue, was not a bunch of internet Davids vs. media-company Goliaths, but Silicon Valley superpowers trampling on the rights of content creators.
Fight for the Future, a nonprofit group ("working to defend online freedom"), says that more than 115,000 sites participated in the Jan. 18 Stop SOPA blackout, including 45,000 Wordpress blogs alone. Link-sharing site Reddit, which was among the highest-profile sites to go dark that day, is hardly part of some sort of Silicon Valley cabal. Founded in 2005 in Medford, Mass., by two 22 -year-old University of Virginia graduates, it's run as an open-source project. Though it was acquired by Wired magazine publisher Condé Nast in 2006, it now functions as an independent unit of Condé's parent company, Advance Publications.
Reddit operates as a sort of bare-bones utility (with exceedingly minimal advertising support) that has more in common with old-school dial-up bulletin-board systems than with the monetization-obsessed social-media sector. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the neglect of its parent company, it has become the internet's most vibrant and authentic grassroots community.
Reddit users were the ones who really ignited the Stop SOPA movement. Though the idea of a protest blackout originated with some Italian Wikipedia volunteers (Wikipedia, remember, is a decentralized nonprofit), the Reddit community popularized the tactic, and it was the first big site to announce a date, Jan. 18, that all other protesting sites ended up adopting. Nobody knew exactly what Google would do, or if it would do anything at all, until the 18th. (Instead of joining the blackout, Google placed a censor-style black bar over its logo and encouraged users to call their representatives.)
If the Occupy Wall Street movement had Zuccotti Park, Stop SOPA had Reddit. The comparison is particularly apt given that Zuccotti Park is a so-called privately owned public space, which is controlled by a commercial landlord, Brookfield Properties. Reddit may have a landlord of sorts in Advance, but Advance has no control over (and no apparent interest in) how Reddit users choose to use their time. Many spent the winter continuing to do what they normally do -- like posting pictures of adorable pets and making in-jokes about pop culture -- but a critical mass also rose up against what they saw as draconian legislation that would restrict their liberty and cripple the internet.
Unlike the Goliaths that back the MPAA and RIAA, Reddit doesn't pay lobbyists to ply the halls of Congress. But it does have plenty of Davids -- more than 34 million unique visitors per month -- and thanks to SOPA, they finally figured out how to use their slingshots.