They may be the Super Friends of the Internet: A group of prominent web companies including Mozilla, maker of the Firefox Web browser, the social news website Reddit and the blogging service WordPress have teamed up with advocacy groups and lawmakers to form the Internet Defense League (IDL), a coalition dedicated to rallying Web users against government attempts to take over or destroy the world — the world wide web, that is. And they want your help, too.
“The League is about its members fighting for the interests of the Internet,” said Tiffiniy Cheng, a co-founder of nonprofit Web freedom advocacy group Fight For the Future, which is coordinating the formation of the Internet Defense League, in a phone interview with TPM.
“This is a new 21st century battle for some of the same old basic rights like free speech, freedom to assemble, and the League is here to fight and to win and to help Web users stay engaged,” Cheng added.
To those ends, the IDL is first setting up a new Web-based alert system to allow members to warn of new legislation that they think will harm the Internet’s functioning, and is hosting launch parties Thursday night in San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC, London and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
The parties are timed to coincide with the theatrical release of the “The Dark Knight Rises,” the new Batman film. The IDL, which is using superhero imagery to promote its message, is collecting online donations to pay for cat-shaped spotlights that will be beamed into the sky and on buildings from its U.S. party locations. (Cats are widely considered the unofficial animal mascots of the Internet itself, thanks to the popularity of cat imagery and memes.)
There’s a certain irony, perhaps deliberate, to the IDL’s prominent reliance on a major Hollywood tentpole film to bolster its message, as its many of its members — including Fight for the Future and Reddit — are vocally opposed to the attempts by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to get legislation passed to crack down on online piracy of movies like “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But Fight for the Future and Hollywood may no longer be as opposed to each other’s advocacy work as they once were.
Asked if the MPAA or major Hollywood studios were invited to join the IDL, Cheng told TPM: “If they’re willing to play fair, then sure.”
And as Kate Bedingfield, MPAA spokesperson, said in a statement provided to TPM:
“We couldn’t agree more with the Internet Defense League that an internet that works for everyone is critical to both our economy and our national identity - and in order for the internet to work for everyone, we need to set balanced policies that help protect hard work while still encouraging the freedom to create. The creative community, like the tech community, is built entirely on ideas and innovation. The free flow of information on the internet is critical, but it can’t be promoted at the expense of creators and their rights.”
The IDL officially launched on Thursday morning and held a conference call with reporters, featuring some of its members, including three U.S. lawmakers — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jason Polis (D-CO), all of whom are opposed to the idea of new strict government regulation of the Internet.
“The Internet has managed to do the right thing without government regulation,” Issa said, “If government had been involved early on, the Internet today would look much more like a telephone system and much less like a system and economic engine that has driven so much productivity.”
Indeed, Internet-based businesses may account for as much as 4.7 percent of the enture U.S. gross-domestic product, or some $684 billion, according to a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, a business consulting firm. The study also estimates that the Internet will continue to grow as an component of the economy by about 10 percent every year through 2016.
At the same time, as the Internet has grown, it has seen more attempts by government officials, agencies and policymakers to regulate it and clamp down on its more freewheeling practices, such as file-sharing, which facilitate illegal activity. It’s these attempts that the IDL opposes.
Two such recent such instances of U.S. laws designed to crack down on online piracy specifically include the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), two bills that Congress was considering in late 2011 and early 2012. The MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America supported both bills.
Wyden, Issa and Polis were all among a small group of lawmakers that opposed the bills from their onset, but they were bitterly outnumbered for a while and the bills looked poised to pass.
SOPA and PIPA abruptly lost support in Congress and were scrapped after a massive online protest by Web users and websites on January 18, in which many sites voluntarily blacked-out their homepages to show the censoring effect they argued the bills could have. That protest, known as “Blackout Day,” was spearheaded by Fight For the Future and its allies.
Now those groups have formed the IDL in an effort to create a more permanent, and slightly more organized, campaign in the advent that future bills pop-up.
“The Internet Defense League recaptures a lot of the SOPA and PIPA momentum,” said Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, one of the major websites that has joined the effort.
Part of that effort includes a new alert system: An embed code, which is a few lines of HTML text that website owners can simply copy and paste onto their pages.
The code displays a message which will tell website users how to contact lawmakers or other ways to help protest against new Internet bills. The code also allows the message to be automatically updated or changed depending on the different types of bills that may be introduced in the future. The first message takes the form of a pop-up ad shaped like a cat’s head that invites users to enter their email address to join the IDL and receive future updates.
Dave Winer, a pioneering programmer, tech blogger, entrepreneur and the creator of the RSS feed system used by many websites today, tweeted his own displeasure on Thursday, saying: “Let’s start the Defense of the Internet from the Defense of the Internet League League.”
Winer expounded on his criticism of the IDL to TPM: “What it is other than a website and a bunch of orgs who throw parties I’m not invited to. Fair to say I’m not a fan,” he tweeted.
Correction: This post was updated to correct several typos: “The” at the start of the first sentence was changed to “They”; In the seventh paragraph, “IDL” was changed to read “Hollywood”; In the sixteenth paragraph “blacked-” was replaced to read “blacked-out.”