Looks like Reddit’s hopes of getting other tech heavyweights to participate in its protest against the House’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and its sister in the Senate, PROTECT IP, are coming to fruition in a big way, offline in the Big Apple.
NY Tech Meetup, an 8-year-old trade organization made up of 19,000 plus members of New York’s thriving technology industry (aka Silicon Alley), took the unprecedented step on Friday of emailing every member in its contacts list calling for them to all show up outside the Manhattan offices of New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand on Wednesday, January 18, to protest the Democratic lawmakers’ co-sponsorship of the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
“The future of the NY tech community is in jeopardy,” the email and a corresponding website reads. “We are writing to call you to an Emergency NY Tech Meetup in New York on January 18 so that we can publicly demonstrate our collective dismay at the unprecedented attack currently being made on the Internet and our industry.”
That same day, the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on DNS and search engine blocking — which both bills would give the U.S. government the power and obligation to do to websites accused of linking to pirated content hosted in other countries.
Technical experts and prominent critics of the bills, including Reddit’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian, have been invited to testify at this hearing. Members of Reddit, the popular social news website, have expressed an increasingly vocal opposition to SOPA and PIPA, and earlier this week, the website’s administrators announced that website would go dark on Wednesday in protest of the bills.
Asked whether the NY Tech Meetup website or any of its members sites would follow suit and join the proposed online blackout, NY Tech Meetup’s Chair of the Board Andrew Rasiej answered in the affirmative.
“I’m sure we’ll be participating in any online activities along with the rest of the online community against this legsilation,” Rasiej said in a telephone interview with TPM. “I’m sure lots of other members will participate online in some way, also.”
However, Rasiej said that NY Tech Meetup’s elected board members unanimously agreed that they needed to call for a physical protest in front of the New York Senators’ offices after they learned that the full Senate was scheduled to vote on PIPA on January 24.
“The speed at which this bill is being rushed to vote indicates to me that the proponents of this bill — the copyright holder organizations — are sensing that the opposition is growing and that they are trying get the horse out of the barn before the doors slam closed,’ Rasiej said.
Indeed, while Hollywood and the recording industry remain the staunchest supporters over SOPA and PIPA, opposition to the bills has accelerated in recent weeks, with Reddit leading the charge, calling for a boycott of SOPA-supporting domain registrar company GoDaddy.com and the ouster of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) in the 2012 election. Both the company, which was originally a SOPA supporter and actually worked with legislators to help draft the legislation, and Ryan, who hadn’t yet taken a stance on the bill, ended up coming out against it following the Reddit furor.
Rasiej told TPM that NY Tech Meetup leaders as members of the group attempted to engage in discussions with both Senators before his group even began contemplating a physical protest, but to no avail.
“We entered into extensive discussions with the staffs of both Senators,” Rasiej explained, “But after having those discussions, we came to the unfortunate conclusion that we were not going to get them to drop their sponsorship of the bill or publicly state under what conditions they would support the bill, even after hearing our concerns. At that point, we realized the only effective way to express our dismay would be to appear in person.”
Rasiej said that he expected all of the NY Tech Meetup board and many of the group’s members to show up outside the Senators offices on Wednesday as well as other organizations in the city who shared their view. He confirmed that NY Tech Meetup was in communication with the broader coalition of some 70 tech companies and advocacy groups that have been fighting SOPA and PIPA for the past six months.
“This is existential to us,” Rasiej said, “This legislation would have a chilling effect on innovation. It could drive people out of business, but more importantly it could stop people from starting businesses and investing in promising startups over uncertainty over whether or not they’ll be able to work due to a badly crafted law.”
To that end, Rasiej said that NY Tech Meetup doesn’t support SOPA or PIPA whatsoever, not any provision of the bills. In fact, they don’t think that any such legislation is needed, as piracy could be better dealt with using technical solutions in the private sphere, such as those used to restrict online gambling.
Rasiej said that NY Tech Meetup members had met with the copyright holding and content industries that support the legislation about working together on such technical fixes, but they refused to even consider the idea.
Rasiej did say that NY Tech Meetup would grudgingly support the rival OPEN Act proposed by SOPA/PIPA-critics Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), “barring the complete removal,” of SOPA and PIPA, which is NY Tech Meetup’s end goal.
The NY Tech Meetup group, it should be noted, also includes such successful and notable tech entrepreneurs and investors as Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, David S. Rose, the founder of founder and Chairman of New York Angels (an investment group) and Anil Dash of Expert Labs. It’s also sponsored by Microsoft, Google and Tumblr.
The group hosts ticketed monthly speaking events to nurture the New York tech and startup community, giving entrepreneurs the chance to pitch to angel investors. The events, which regularly sell out, are coordinated on popular events-organizing website Meetup.com, and Meetup.com founder and CEO Scott Heiferman was the first NY Tech Meetup organizer.
“We all agree piracy is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Rasiej told TPM, “But the cure that’s being proposed by the copyright industry is worse than the disease.”