It’s easy to take the Internet for granted. What is it even? It just sprang into existence, this giant intangible bulletin board where anyone on the planet can stick whatever they like for everyone else to see. It really is a free place. As it is now, no content moves faster than any other; your grandma’s blog loads as quickly as Netflix. But this level playing field is being threatened with a move by cable companies to create fast lanes and slow lanes, fast for those who pay extra of course and slow for those who don’t. It’s a scary prospect because generally cable companies don’t get anything right, and the situation is described brilliantly and hilariously here by John Oliver.
My friend Holmes Wilson has been working for years on various campaigns to keep the internet the way that we like it, free and sprawling. He was part of the huge campaign back in 2011/2012 that stopped Congress from passing a bill that would have allowed sites to be shut down for minor copyright infringements. His gang were behind the “free bieber” meme, that posed the notion that Justin Bieber could be jailed for performing songs by other artists. Right now his team is working on Battle For The Net to stop the cable companies’ attempted shake down of the Internet. I interviewed Holmes about what it was like to take on and ultimately win a fight that at first seemed unwinnable, and about the state of the current battle. (If you haven’t got time to read this whole thing and don’t want a cable-regulated Internet, go direct to battleforthenet.com and sign the petition, or better yet let the site set up an automatic call to your senator, it’s not hard and calls count for more.)
Khaela: So, Holmes Wilson, I wanted to interview you about what it’s like to do something, especially in the face of forces that seem overpowering. Can you talk a little bit about the big thing you accomplished a couple years ago?
Holmes: Well, the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life was in fall 2011/winter 2012, working on the team of FightForTheFuture.org. The short version of the story is: lobbyists for the biggest media companies were trying to pass a law in the House called SOPA. The bill would have let any copyright holder (including these media companies) effectively shut down or block any site on the Internet over small amounts of copyrighted material. The Senate version was called PIPA.
Khaela: Which would have made the internet a lot more boring.
Holmes: Yeah. “Copyright material” means, not just Game of Thrones episodes, but anything. An image. A collage. An anigif. A sample of a beat. A cover song. Etc…
Khaela: And what is so interesting about the Internet is its potential for strange overlaps and meldings.
Holmes: The biggest problem with the law was that it applied to stuff other people posted on your site. So, if you let people comment on your blog, or if you’re an open publishing platform like tumblr, you could’ve gotten blocked for stuff users posted. SOPA was most dangerous to all those spaces on the Internet that let people express themselves. Which again, are the most interesting parts.
Khaela: And it sounds like it was kind of a tool which could generally be used to shut down content in all sorts of ways.
Holmes: There was huge potential for abuse. If you irritated somebody powerful, they could find something copyrighted on your site, and take you down. So, in short, this law sucked, but it had almost every powerful political force in America behind it. The biggest media companies, drug companies, the Chamber of Commerce, even the AFL/CIO was behind it, because the Hollywood unions pushed it through.
Khaela: So, when you started working on Fight For the Future, was there already a sense that it would really be possible to do something about this bill? I’m curious about what it looked like when you guys were first starting out. I mean, as an opponent of this potential law you were basically up against the forces that control our country, and who have a lot to do with creating the image of what the world even looks like to the average person. The Internet is a place to see alternate images of what the world is. And that’s what you were fighting to protect, as I understand it.
Holmes: Yeah. We started Fight for the Future because we were pretty sure that there were huge numbers of people who could start caring a lot about the Internet as a political issue, and who nobody was trying to organize or speaking to in a real way.
Khaela: How was it started?
Holmes: Well, back in like 2003, a close friend and I started a project about the Internet and the music business, and it ended up going well and opening up this whole world of issues. That’s what I was working on when I first saw you perform, at the Dirt Palace (in Providence).
Khaela: Ah right.
Holmes: This was straight up activism. We just worked on it 24/7 because we were psyched about it. And because it seemed to be working. We were two dudes with a cellphone and days after we put up our first site we were getting quoted in major national newspapers.
Khaela: What issues were you working on back then?
Holmes: It was similar. It was about how the Internet was changing the music business, making it more open to bottom-up hits and less about top-down editorial & financial control by the labels. But it had a lot to do with the politics around technology too. Anyway, that’s sort of how I got started.
Khaela: So were there proposed bills that you were fighting at that point as well?
Holmes: Actually there were. But the weird thing that happened was, at some point we decided that as activists we could have an even greater impact on the things we cared about by building tools (sites & apps) that created the world we wanted to see. That was in 2005…And from that point on, we started working on this: getmiro.com. The goal was to make something like Youtube (Youtube didn’t exist yet) but without any dependence on any single company.
Khaela: Ah, this site is great, because itunes makes me want to shoot myself every time I open it up. Or shoot someone in Cupertino.
Holmes: Hah. We also started making this: opencongress.org, where the goal was to make it easier for people to participate in legislation directly. Yeah. Miro was open source, and totally decentralized. And the organization behind it was a nonprofit. All of this is super hard to do. And it went well enough, but I ended up leaving the project in the capable hands of some friends and working on other things. But the cool thing is, in 2011 I had a chance to get back into the kind of pure activism we started with.
Khaela: So this was like your warm up activity to what came later.
Holmes: Well it was sort of a return to my starting point. 2003-2004 organizing protests on the internet. 2005-2011 making public interest software and other stuff. 2011-now organizing protests on the internet.
Khaela: Right, I totally understand that. I feel like just now I am getting back to the kind of performance that you saw me do in 2005 in Providence (Blue Sky versus Night Sky).
Holmes: Oh man. If you are, when can I see it?
Khaela: I’ll keep you in the loop. I find that it takes so much time to really dial in what you are doing, and it takes years of working with these other elements that may seem like a digression but are actually strengthening the whole of what you are trying to accomplish. Especially if what you are working on is something for which you don’t have a model.
Holmes: But yeah, it’s funny right? I mean, you must have realized at the time that you were blowing all our minds and doing something totally new. And then you moved in a direction that continued to be excellent and successful, but was more in line with what other people were doing (being a band).
Khaela: No, I was just doing what came naturally, and when people in Providence were so into it I was like, “I have found my people!”
Holmes: That show was amazing. I still think about it and count it among the best experiences of my life.
Khaela: Oh, wow. Thanks. Yeah, it was a moment of lucidity for me as too. After doing it I kind of veered off more into music in order to pick up the tools of the mainstream so that I could eventually bring the weirdness to a broader platform. I think really you kind of just have to follow your instincts, and trust where they are leading you, even if the territory is kind of strange (and by strange I mean poppy or glossy or industry based).
Holmes: That’s kind of what happened with us and software. I wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done as FFTF if I hadn’t spent a bunch of time building apps and sites in the interim.
Khaela: Exactly, but for a minute you might have thought it was a weird diversion.
Holmes: I totally thought it was a diversion. And in those years I wondered if I’d ever do anything as awesome in my life as the stuff I did when I was first getting started.
Khaela: So back in 2011, how much hope did you have that you could actually stop the SOPA bill from becoming a law?
Holmes: Well, as an activist you’ve gotta be super realistic.
Khaela: I TOTALLY RELATE TO THAT.
Khaela: Tell me about the landscape in 2011, and what it meant to be realistic. How did it feel?
Holmes: So, we were being told…that the odds of SOPA passing were very high, conventional DC wisdom was “guaranteed to pass,” and oddly this continued up to the last moment. The way we took that was, “If this plays out the way it usually plays out, we lose.” Or “If we want to win, we have to do something that goes way beyond what people have done before.” With activism, that’s not always the case. On some things you need to just keep it simple and familiar, and you totally kick ass. But this wasn’t that. So, we had some different campaigns in the works already.
Khaela: Right. You needed, what we call in pop music, “a hook.”
Holmes: …We were making a good explainer video about the senate version of the bill, and we had a more creative campaign that called out legislation which later became part of SOPA: http://freebieber.org/
Khaela: That was the hook? It was a hit, in fact, right? Everyone started talking about it.
Holmes: It was. But oddly, it wasn’t that exactly…the real moment happened later. (The Bieber campaign went crazily well in its own way, where we actually got Justin Bieber to speak out and say the Senator behind the bill should be thrown in jail.)
Khaela: (You’re lucky Justin Bieber was still cute and likable at that point.)
Holmes: Ha. Yeah, so when the text of SOPA (the house bill) came out it was way worse than the senate billand people were still saying “guaranteed to pass” so it was that nightmare feeling of knowing something bad was happening, and then realizing it just got much worse.
Khaela: Which makes a lot of people just shut down and go watch some Game of Thrones.
Holmes: It was actually my wife’s birthday, and we’d gone away for the night and had dinner. And I was telling her how much it sucked that we were (by all accounts) about to get our asses kicked and sort of talking it through, how much it would suck when.. this bill passes and we wake up and several sites we go to every day have this stupid message from the government saying…”Sorry, you can’t visit this site anymore because you’re in the US” and how we’d just be living with that. Ugh. So, that was the hook. We decided the campaign would be about giving websites a little bit of code that would simulate a message from the government. “This site has been blocked,” and would in that moment ask every visitor to email their member of Congress right now (so that the bill wouldn’t pass).
Khaela: Right! And you asked people to block their sites with the message for one day. I blocked this site.
Holmes: The other key piece of this is that, over the years, we’d made tons of friends. We were friends with folks from Boingboing, from Mozilla (they make Firefox). There was another wrinkle, we didn’t get there all at once. It took a few phases. One phase was totally organized by us. We called it “American Censorship Day.” The biggest site that participated was Tumblr. They went really big, they redacted all the text on everyone’s dashboards, then they drove all the traffic to phone calls to congress, not emails.
Holmes: Yeah, 80,000+ phone calls. We didn’t even know they were doing it until David from Tumblr called us up and said “we’re about to send a ton of traffic your way.” But anyway, that first phase was a super organized thing. We put out the call, we approached the friends we had, we got a few pretty big people on board so people would know it was real. But then, the second phase, which happened a few months later, that was something totally different. That was, like, everybody & and nobody was in charge. It was like the collective consciousness of the internet was just rising up.
Khaela: Not just the little Internet but the big one that has presence in the physical world as well, which is a huge matter. I am imagining it as a giant wave.
Holmes: Yeah. Or a snowball.
Khaela: How did that transpire?
Holmes: Well, there was this awkward middle moment where we knew we’d kicked ass with the first protest, the American Censorship Day one, and DC folks were saying that the momentum had shifted. And there were some other awesome moments along the way- tons of people were watching the hearing about the bill on CSPAN streaming and just getting infuriated by how ignorant members of congress seemed.
Khaela: Ha. I bet they have aol email addresses.
Holmes: It built up as a sort of crescendo on Reddit, but we were just scraping by to get phone calls and emails in to congress. Then things started to take on a life of their own and it was actually a struggle to keep up. When stuff starts moving on the Internet it moves fast. And when stuff gets loud it gets loud. So at certain moments we wanted to be like “we need to do this over here guys!” except it was hard to get that message out. But then it got to the point where the hive mind or whatever you want to call it was doing the exactly right thing. And we just needed to do the best we could to support it. But it worked out. There were just too many good & smart people who cared.
Khaela: Did you feel at a point that the momentum could swell into a chaos that would work against your specific goals?
Holmes: No. I never had that feeling. When tens of millions of people want the same thing you want, you have to switch gears and have faith, I think.You’ve already won the important part, and nitpicking at that point is counterproductive. Also, the funny thing is that there were specific examples of people doing things that at the time seemed to me totally unstrategic but when the dust settled, stories came out about how those things totally helped. You never know what’s really a waste of time, or what will work, so all energy is good energy.
Khaela: Right. I think what it really interesting to me is the journey from a state of mind in which you think something is almost absolutely impossible to a state in which it’s not, where you are getting the thing that you wanted.
Holmes: Yeah, the funny thing though is that..we still thought we were in dire straights. We still thought they might ignore everyone and push it through, even the say after the blackout. Like they did with the Iraq war. Us and Demand Progress were planning this amazing spectacle in Congress where somebody would be filibustering, but with live-printed note cards submitted from the Internet, like cat pictures and ridiculous graphics.
Khaela: Oh that would have been a good performance. Describe the cat, talk about his paws.
Holmes: It was like, “If we’re going down, we are going down swinging!” In flames. Basically, we were going to run a live contest that was like “What’s the most awesome and ridiculous thing this senator could say now,” and go live with the winners. Anyway, sometimes when you’re winning you don’t even know it. In the end, the sheer number of phone calls and the idea of every site on the Internet putting an electoral bulls eye on their heads scared Congress away from the bill.
Khaela: So even on the last day you, after this huge swell of awareness and activity, you still didn’t feel sure that you could accomplish the goal?
Holmes: Yep. We were still in battle mode. It was a few days before SOPA was definitively shelved.
Khaela: So, democracy actually sort of worked.
Holmes: It did.
Khaela: Crazy. Who would have thought.
Holmes: If you’re cynical, you could say the exception proves the rule. That you needed the number one trending meme ever to stop a bill with power behind it. But…at some point the principles the system is supposed to work on do kick in.
Khaela: I like to look at it as the magic of actually trying. You guys could have been like fuck it, and just cared about your local produce and some cool comics and not gave it a shot.
Holmes: Yeah, but then we wouldn’t have had the best experience of our lives.
Holmes: Visit: battleforthenet.com. (I mean, your readers should)
Khaela: (I am doing it now.) This bill in a way is even scarier to me.
Holmes: Yeah, this is worse.
Khaela: Do you have a good one sentence descriptor for what is up?
Holmes: This is America’s cable companies imposing their ridiculous prices, crappy customer experiences, top-down power, and lack of choice on the Internet, our last refuge. They’re lobbying the FCC to give them the power to slow down any website that doesn’t pay special arbitrary fees. They want to be able to shake down the Internet, and extinguish the parts that compete with them. It’s a mafia move, essentially. “Pay us or we’ll fuck with your site.”
Khaela: They want to regulate the Internet, right? Which is at this point an open frontier. I mean, it’s so hard to even think about what the Internet really is. It’s this vast resource of space that we recently invented, or discovered, and everyone wants to be there. So of course people want to try and take as much of it as they can, like humans have done with all the other resources on the planet. So, how do you feel about the possibility of not having this happen, at this point?
Holmes: Well, the stakes are super high. If the cable companies win, the Internet will start looking a lot more like cable TV, and less like an open space for expression.
Khaela: Cable TV is another thing that makes me want to shoot myself.
Holmes: Yeah. We’re in a pretty good position here. People are pretty aware of this issue now, way more than they were aware of SOPA, say (when we were getting started). A ton of great work has already been done. The big question will be, how much do people thrown down? That is, how much time and energy and attention can people who care about this devote to it? Depending on where you sit, there are lots of different things you can do, starting with filing a comment to the FCC: http://battleforthenet.org/ … either using our form letter or (and really this is much better) writing a personalized one. We need more art and design about this. More images to share, more phrases, more videos.
Khaela: Are you guys working on a campaign on this one? Writng the refrains that you can inspire others to sing along?
Holmes: Yeah. battleforthenet.com is the start. And one of the main places the fight will happen is in Congress…The FCC decides, but pressure from Congress matters. And whatever the FCC decides (if we win, or if we lose) Congress can undo it, reverse it. So, we’re looking for activists who can help us hold these people accountable.
Khaela: Have you guys been a major consolidator of comments on this?
Holmes: Yeah. There were about 1M comments filed before the first deadline, and we filed over 100,000 of those. (And the site was just up for the last week of the months-long comment period.)
Khaela: When this issue came up, were you guys like, “ok we are ready for this after doing the other one already”?
Holmes: It’s tough to keep up your energy and focus. There have been a lot of things lately. We spent the past year mostly working on the Snowden stuff. That in itself was a hugely energetic & emotional lift. Talk about insanely good activism. And our major campaign on Net-Neutrality is here: resetthenet.org
Khaela: Rad. Well maybe this is a good place to wrap up, with all the possibilities for things we could take on and a sense of some of the triumphs of what we’ve gotten done already. Big wide internet.
Holmes: So many opportunities to be awesome, in so many ways. And how hard that is to sort through, sometimes.
Khaela: It’s endless.
Holmes: And by “opportunities to be awesome” I mean “opportunities to give your greatest gifts to the world”.
Khaela: Yeah, how can you really be yourself in the most expansive possible way. To show up and explode.
Holmes: Yeah. It’s a place where we can all do that for each other. The flip side is, that’s what sucks so much about censorship and control. You’re robbing people of the joy of giving their gifts.
Khaela: Well let’s not let it happen.