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A 'bat signal' to defend the open Internet

John D. Sutter, CNN
The Internet Defense League aims to mobilize the Web on legislative issues.
The Internet Defense League aims to mobilize the Web on legislative issues.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Internet Defense League aims to mobilize Web activists
  • The group says it is a "bat signal" for the Internet
  • Web companies helped defeat anti-piracy legislation earlier this year
  • A group called Fight for the Future is behind the campaign

(CNN) -- Remember earlier this year when Wikipedia went black in protest of anti-piracy legislation moving through the U.S. Congress?

Yeah, well, that may be nothing compared to this.

A group called the Internet Defense League, borrowing a page from Batman, is trying to create a "bat signal" for mobilizing open-Internet activists against similar legislation.

The group's tagline: "Make sure the Internet never loses. Ever."

Technically, it's more of a "cat signal," since the group's website, which launched a couple weeks ago, features a picture of a cat's face being broadcast into the sky.

"It's a cat signal because we see the cat as the symbol of the Internet," said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-director of the nonprofit Fight for the Future, which helped organize recent piracy legislation protests and is behind the new site. "There's this academic theory ... that talks about if you ban the ability of people to share cat photos, they'll start protesting en masse."

She added: "The idea is we're building the infrastructure to put up this cat signal or this bat signal all over the Internet at a moment's notice, with the click of a button."

The Internet went haywire in January when Congress was considering two pieces of legislation -- nicknamed SOPA and PIPA -- that aimed to help the government crack down on the online distribution of pirated content.

The English-language version of Wikipedia shut down for 24 hours in protest of the proposed legislation, which died after the digitally based protests.

Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, supported the legislation, along with several movie and music industry groups.

The Internet Defense League says it is targeting two upcoming pieces of legislation, ACTA and CISPA, which take different approaches to regulating pirated content.

The group also will seek promises from U.S. presidential candidates on the subject of Internet openness and legislation, according to Cheng.

"For the past 10 years at least, tech policy has not been based on what's good for the public interest," she said.

The group says it has the support of some big names on the Web, including WordPress, craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Reddit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Cheezburger Network, which owns several humor blogs.

Cheng declined to comment on whether larger commercial websites like Google and Facebook would consider supporting the effort.

Pundits have wondered whether this is the dawn of a new era for Internet activism, especially from tech and Web companies that, in the past, have been less political.

"This is the first real test of the political strength of the Web, and regardless of how things go, they are no longer a pushover," Tim Wu, from Columbia Law School, told the New York Times during the Web protests in January. "The Web taking a stand against one of the most powerful lobbyers and seeming to get somewhere is definitely a first."

The Internet Defense League aims to expand on that energy, alerting supporters to new threats to "Internet freedom" when they arise.

A co-founder of the group, Reddit's Alexis Ohanian, explained the idea to Forbes this way:

"You can only cry 'Oh my gosh, they're going to shut down the Internet' so often. We've scared (Congress) from doing anything as egregious as SOPA and PIPA again. But the new challenge is this endless series of smaller bills that try to unravel Internet rights."

On its site, the group pitches its battle against anti-Internet legislation as a sort of duel between all-knowing geeks and uneducated or "confused" public officials:

"Internet freedom and individual power are changing the course of history. But entrenched institutions and monopolies want this to stop. Elected leaders often don't understand the Internet, so they're easily confused or corrupted."

It adds: "With the combined reach of our websites and social networks, we can be massively more effective than any one organization."

The Internet Defense League site lets people donate money to the cause and, perhaps more powerfully, rally people for or against certain pieces of legislation.

When there's an Internet "emergency," the group says it will send out snippets of code that will help websites participate in the protests. Cheng said participating companies or bloggers can choose to have messages displayed on their sites automatically or to field the messages on a case-by-case basis.

By creating the code for Web developers to use, Cheng said it become much faster to mobilize people online. That's what made the anti-SOPA Web blackouts so effective, she said.

"The tool was easy to use. It was a low bar to being used," she said. "That was a turning point because the form of protest was very stark and clear and was an example of what Internet censorship could look like.

"And these tools allowed us to reach millions of people very quickly."

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