January 31st, 2012
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) have been items of hot debate in the tech world this month. According to Christina DesMarais of PC World, this may “possibly be the most contentious uproar seen on Capitol Hill and in the tech world ever.”
Originally, the bills provided a primary means of fighting online piracy. By forcing service providers to block infringing domain names, it would be more difficult to access file sharing hubs or other copyright violating websites. Furthermore, according to Jared Newman of PC World, the bills would seek court orders “requiring payment providers, advertisers, and search engines to stop doing business with an infringing site.” Although this may hinder many online pirates from downloading with ease, it would also open the door to a new type of online censorship. Governmental control over Internet access could snowball into general censorship over opinion, content creation and social media. After public discovery of SOPA and PIPA, protests flooded many blog sites, Twitter, Facebook and news channels as technophiles around the world voiced their opinions. The uproar culminated into a 7,000-site blackout on January 18, 2012 and support from the Internet hacktivist group Anonymous.
What specifically caused the commotion and how it could have been handled differently? I believe that there were two core fallacies behind SOPA and PIPA that created a whirlwind of bad press. These fallacies could have been easily fixed by applying very basic PR principles.
Communication Failed From the Top Down
Those of us in PR know how quickly opinions can sour if communication is not handled in a professional way. SOPA and PIPA supporters were at a loss with communicative explanations for the bill and its intended purposes. Mel Watt (D) North Carolina, ranking member of the Intellectual Property Subcommittee stated that he was “not a nerd and didn’t understand a lot of the technological stuff.” This sentiment was soon followed by Zoe Lofgren (D) California, Darrell Issa (R) California and Jason Chaffetz (R) Utah, who all stated that they were not enough of a nerd to understand the issue. One step that could have helped mitigate the social upheaval would have been better communication with stakeholders. Obviously, congressional members had spoken with lobbyists from Hollywood’s powerhouses, but hadn’t discussed the issues with bloggers, online journalists or the technology industry at large. Worse yet, congress retaliated to the protests with public name-calling. The generalizations were astonishing. Apparently, all those in the technology industry, anyone who publishes online content, as well as general Internet end-users are, for all intensive purposes, “nerds.” Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show and news comedian, stated it perfectly when he responded, “Really? Nerds? You know, actually, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘experts.’” Communication is key. Communicating professionally, early and often could’ve alleviated this issue.
Research Didn’t Exist
Another PR101 lesson that would have helped the SOPA and PIPA bills would have been better understanding of the dialogue and audience. Had the congressmen understood the terminology in the bill and read the bill as a whole, they would have better grasped the consequences and the possible infringement on the 1st amendment it could cause. One of the first lessons learned in PR, either in school or on the job, you must understand what your client does. How can you represent your client if you don’t understand what they do? How can a congress represent the citizen-base if they don’t understand what we do? Lack of research and comprehension can be devastating in any field.
Through research, shared vision and communication SOPA and PIPA could have helped prevent the expansion of online piracy, along with protecting the rights of online content creators. According to Eugene Lee, the CEO of Socialtext, SOPA and PIPA identified and targeted the wrong side of the issue. Lee asks, “how would we solve the problem if it were analog? Would we shut down video stores if an independent film company made a movie that violated copyright? We need to start with a rational assessment of the problem and propose solutions that make sense for both the protection of copyright and the protection of innovation.”
With thorough communication around the issue and research backing the solution, PR basics (and a little common sense) can make problem solving more effective in any field.