Anti-Web Censorship Bill Protest from Our Perspective at OCFebruary 8, 2012 - by Donny Shaw
Last month’s flurry of Stop-PIPA & Stop-SOPA online protests were an apex of activity for OpenCongress. Not only was January 18th, 2012 the single-highest day of traffic on OC since our launch in February 2007, but also the stop-PIPA action was in many ways the height of user engagement with active legislation in the U.S. Congress.
The huge “Internet blackout” event on January 18th was OC’s single largest day of traffic, with over 250,000 visits and more than half a million pageviews (and likely would have been much higher if we could afford more servers and cloud-scaling ability to handle the traffic rush).
- Referrals to OC pages on PIPA from Craiglist, Reddit, Mozilla, and many others dwarfed the usual primary source of site traffic – viz., search engine queries for bill numbers & campaign donation data.
- This tops our previous record of most-visits per day by 67% – that was in late March 2010, 150k visits around the signing of the major health care reform bill.
- Together, the bills were the least-popular legislation with our user community in the past year, with less than 1% approval rating.
- SOPA: over 500 user comments; PIPA: over 150.
- In total, visitors racked up more than 260,000 pageviews of SOPA/PIPA content during the January 18th SOPA-strike event alone. This includes all the data aggregated by OpenCongress: official government information, actions & votes, bill text, news & blog coverage, campaign contributions, issue group analysis, videos, public comment forums, and free & open-source tools for users to email their members of Congress.
- Since Nov. 26, 2011 – American Censorship Day – pages with SOPA info on OC have received over 700,000 views and PIPA over 250,000 — totaling over a million pageviews combined.
- Since its introduction on 10/25/11, SOPA info has received over 850,000 pageviews; PIPA info, since 5/11/11, approx. 350,000 pageviews; totaling 1.2m pageviews on OC.
Users sent more than 8,000 emails, overwhelmingly in opposition to PIPA & SOPA, to their members of Congress during the Jan. 18th strike via OC’s unique Contact-Congress feature.
- In the past week, users sent over 15,000 emails on both bills; since American Censorship Day on Nov. 26, 2011, users have sent over 40,000 emails on the two bills. (link to letters index page)
- In total, over 50,000 emails have been sent via OC on SOPA & PIPA alone.
The wiki community project to Whip Count on PIPA exceeded our wildest expectations: it was viewed 40,000 times, with about 4,000 people clicking through to our Contact Congress tool to write their members of Congress and nearly 5,000 clicking through to a sheet of tips on how to effectively call Washington.
- An impressive 12% went to the tips on calling page, which were optimized to provide the most effective communication & more-positive user experience in calling a Congressional office with opposition to a bill & request for more info.
- Built on open-source semantic MediaWiki, we seek to bring over a similar whip-count form & accompanying materials to every pending item of legislation on the site for Groups to organize around.
- The drop-down form on the wiki whip-count included eight nuanced position options, e.g. “leaning no – verbal”, to express different strengths of statement.
- Documented position statements included links to THOMAS.gov (offiical list of bill co-sponsors), state newspapers, press releases on official government websites, verified social media accounts, and occasionally on Contact-Congress permalink letters on OC.
The mobilization of a vast number of citizens contacting their members of Congress is only half of the story of how the Great SOPA Showdown of 2012 shows that the Internet is changing politics. To be sure, the calls deluging congressional offices were the decisive factor in the bills’ defeat, but the use of free & open-source Web tools for online activism marked this as the first substantial case of the conversation between citizens and elected officials to happen in full public view. At OpenCongress, we built two tools that helped make this possible.
Grassroots campaigns to influence Congress have typically picked an upcoming vote or bill and asked citizens nationwide to call or email both their senators and/or their representative. The more sophisticated versions might only target citizens who live in the district of the members of the particular committee hearing a bill or pre-fill a letter in a webform that people can amend (or not) and send with a click. Constituents may receive a call or email back, but that usually concludes the conversation.
What made SOPA different was that the exchange between constituents and officials was being posted online, thus merging many private one-to-one conversations into a massive one-to-many conversation. And the back-and-forths between different citizens and the same senator thus changed from iterations of the same query-and-response into a continuing discussion between that senator and the public at large.
It might have ended there, but citizens started using social media to track the conversations and coordinate responses. Some top-voted threads on Reddit posted the defections from the bill and senators took to their Facebook pages to announce their opposition to the bill, which were promptly commented on, liked and shared on the personal pages of constituents at volumes many times the average post.
What transformed these public conversations from an effective way for people in any state to influence their senators into a way for the people to influence the senate as a body was the adoption of a common lobbyists’ tool: the whip sheet.
Whip sheets are simple lists of every member of the House or Senate with their current position on a bill. Well-funded lobby shops will chop up the list and send delegates to buttonhole each member and then target and re-target the members opposite their position until the get the necessary number of votes to win. They are even used by congressional leaders to make sure they have the votes to forward their party’s agenda.
SOPA Opera was the first effort to put a people’s whip sheet online. It used congressmen’s sponsorship of SOPA/PIPA or votes on previous, similar bills to make a rough prediction of where the current vote stood, which staff then augmented as more of them made public positions on the bills. Then OpenCongress posted the Protect IP Act Senate Whip Count, a user-editable form with every senator’s phone numbers, email contact forms, last known position on PIPA and a call log for users to record the date, time and content of their communications with Congress.
Using the Whip Count, citizens were able to pin down the position of each and every Senator (though for 23 of them, that position was “undeclared”). The call log shows that users contacted those senators more who were undeclared or supported PIPA, exactly as a lobbyist would pressure those senators on her whip sheet who had noncommittal or undesired positions. The Whip Count exceeded our wildest expectations: it was viewed 40,000 times, with about 4,000 people clicking through to our Contact Congress tool to write their members of Congress and nearly 5,000 clicking through to a sheet of tips on how to effectively call Washington.
Open Congress visitors used a number of other tools, including our money-in-politics analysis, supporter and opposition list, bill version tracking and user-marked-up text of the bills. In total, visitors racked up more than 260,000 pageviews of SOPA/PIPA content during the January 18th strike event.
Our Contact Congress tool was also a special point of pride for us. Visitors used it to send more than 8,000 emails to Congress. Contact Congress bypasses the clunky webforms on individual congressional webpages, letting users send emails to their representative and senators from one place and to include information like campaign contributions they received from industries involved in the legislation.
Part of what makes Contact Congress particularly useful from a social perspective are its fidelity and sharing features. Users have the ability to make a letter as publicly viewable, which enables them to share not only their letter but also the response from their senator or representative. Because the letter is routed through OpenCongress’ system, others can trust that the response has not been altered and it now becomes a public, verifiable source for a congressperson’s position on a bill. Because this was largely a one-day campaign, our users didn’t have time to receive many responses to post, but here’s a great example from one senator.
SOPA and PIPA showed that citizens can overwhelm Washington with public sentiment, at least when prompted to by the highest-traffic websites in the world. Short of such likely rare events, however, it is the adaptation and adoption of traditional lobbyist tools like vote counting – through whip sheets – and coordination of communications – through social media and tools like Contact Congress – that will help level the playing field between the body politic and the lobby.
Looking forward, we at OpenCongress are seeking to improve features like Contact Congress and to adapt the whip count tool so it is available to any group of citizens concerned with any bill. However, we don’t take any corporate or government funding, so we depend on public contributions to make that happen.
This post was co-written with OC Executive Director David Moore and OC Wiki Editor Conor Kenny.