The SOPA blackout protest last week was an unprecedented event. Its massive success — with dozens of members of Congress switching their stance in one day under the withering intensity of thousands of phone calls — surprised even the activists who spurred the protest. So does this mean that we are entering the much-heralded era of Internet-powered citizen democracy?
The answer is yes. And no. The SOPA episode, like the Arab spring, demonstrates that the Internet can be leveraged to mount wide-spread political support for a cause. But it probably also shows that it will only happen when the stars perfectly align.
Two concepts from the economic study of politics — rational ignorance and collective action — can help explain why the SOPA protest worked, and why it’s not likely we will see many repeat performances on other issues. Rational ignorance is the idea that citizens in a democracy can’t possibly educate themselves about every issue sufficiently enough to make an informed decision. Doing so would cost more than the benefit one would gain, so we make the rational decision to remain ignorant on most issues.
For example, how do you feel about the Interagency Personnel Rotation Act of 2011 that’s now before Congress? (I picked that bill at random and know nothing about it.) If passed, it would cost each household three cents, but educating yourself about it in order to decide whether to call your members of Congress would cost you more than three cents worth of your time.
Yet on the other side of that equation are the folks who would benefit from an act’s passage. Say your share of a “Bridge to Nowhere” might be five cents — much less than even the postage needed to write your member of Congress — but the contractor and the local community that are getting the bridge stand to gain millions. That pays for lots of stamps.
The few who will benefit from a bill have an easy time organizing to lobby for it, while a group as large and dispersed as all taxpayers face what economist Mancur Olson called a collective action problem. That is, the costs of organizing large groups are greater than the possible gains.
Here’s the good news: The Internet demolishes the costs of learning about an issue, and it makes taking action so easy that it’s worthwhile for an individual to act.
If you were confronted with a blacked-out screen when arriving at your favorite website, learning a bit about SOPA was only a click and scan a way. On this front, efforts by transparency advocates to make the workings of Congress and the federal government accessible online are invaluable to overcome rational ignorance.
The Internet also lowers the cost to individuals of taking part in collective action. Signing a petition now takes a minute. Finding your congressman’s contact information is easier than ever – a single click will even connect you directly.
Social media in particular has pushed down, and continues to push down, the cost of organizing and taking action. If the cost can be pushed down far enough, then a group as big and dispersed as all Internet users, might individually find it worth their while to work at counteracting the influence of a small and concentrated group like the content industry. That’s what we saw with SOPA, and it was phenomenal.
Now for the bad news.
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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.