It’s unlikely we’ll see the type of action that we saw last week very often. The reason is that the SOPA issue has a unique set of characteristics that allowed it to take advantage of the Internet’s latent power to overcome rational ignorance and to facilitate collective action by large groups.
First, one needed to learn very little about SOPA to gain at least a superficial understanding of the issue and to form an opinion about it. That was especially true for the tech-savvy community at the center of the protest. Other issues will be much more complex and surmounting rational ignorance will not be as simple.
Consider the simmering issue surrounding ICANN’s decision to issue new generic top level domains. Trademark holders oppose this intensely, and have been lobbying Congress to intervene. This issue has major implications for the future of Internet governance, but it is so complex and esoteric, that most people will likely choose to remain rationally ignorant about it even though information is more than available.
Second, the question at stake with SOPA was whether to give yet more enforcement powers to the already-coddled content industry at the expense of free speech. As the anti-SOPA coalition demonstrated, saying “enough” to the RIAA and MPAA brings together folks from left, right and center. The same won’t be the case on other issues, such as net neutrality or online privacy. We will no doubt see Internet-facilitated collective action on those fronts, but not by as large a group as all Internet users. As a result, we won’t see the same intensity of the SOPA protest.
Finally, we can’t forget that the SOPA directly threatened the interests of the Internet industry, including not just Google and Facebook, but also Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, and others. Their participation was instrumental in the SOPA protest.
Without a concerted effort by this small special interest group, it’s unlikely the larger collective action would have happened. That raises the question: Will we ever see such action on an issue that doesn’t directly threaten this group?
The Internet — and social media in particular — lowers the cost of collective action, making political organization and engagement by large groups much easier. As a result, we’re likely to see a lot more of it. This is a double-edged sword, though. While it means that a group as large and dispersed as all Internet users can come together in action, it also means that smaller, but still very large, special interests can now also coalesce much more easily.
So while we can remain hopeful that the Internet will empower the many to defend themselves against the designs of the few, the more likely scenario is probably more of the same.
Disclosure: Time Inc. parent company Time Warner supports SOPA legislation.