SOPA and online social movements: Thinking transnationally, acting locally

Just noticed that Susan Sell, a big influence on my own studies – her Private Power, Public Law (online for free at the link!) was one of the starting points for my dissertation – has cited me in an article on the SOPA protests (h/t Sara Bannerman). This has spurred me to finally put said cited paper online. It’s something I presented at last year’s Canadian Communication Association meeting on the lessons of the 2007-08 Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook protests. In many ways the FCFC was a precursor to future social media-based protests, including SOPA, ACTA and even the Arab Spring. It was also one of the first of its kind in the world, and definitely the first in Canada.

It’s currently morphing into a journal article that uses the FCFC movement to think about how digital technologies have changed (or haven’t) the logic underlying social movements. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about the factors influencing the success (albeit not total) of the FCFC movement, feel free to check it out. I even plan to put it on SSRN one day, once I figure out how the registration system works.

As for Sell’s, if you can get past the paywall (a sad irony given the subject), hers is a very interesting article placing the SOPA takedown within a transnational, social-movement perspective, focusing on the ability of transnational networks to move rapidly from the domestic to the global.

It may be because I just got back from Mexico, where I was interviewing local Internet activists who convinced the Senate to vote unanimously against ACTA in 2011 (long before the SOPA and European ACTA protests), but it’s interesting that the transnational networks Sell highlights feature exclusively European and American actors. More than one person I talked with in Mexico has noted that the Mexican victory against ACTA is almost wholly absent from the ongoing copyright/IP/net neutrality discourse.

Beyond what this means for the structure of these networks (maybe they’re not so much transnational as Euro-American), the lack of attention to this case is a huge oversight, given the stakes for developing countries when it comes to intellectual property and building civil society.

I mean, I guess it’s nice to have the field to yourself, but anyone who’s studying developing countries and civil society, online activism, and engagement with international treaties (to name only a few subjects) should be all over this story.

I still wonder whether it makes more sense to think of the SOPA and ACTA protests as transnational protests with domestic aspects, or as national protests with transnational aspects. Theoretically, I keep coming back to Randall Germain and Michael Kenny’s (also paywalled) question about whether you can have a “global civil society” without having a “global state.” To get all jargony for a second, this is tied up Gramsican notions of hegemony, a key concept for Sell, who offers SOPA as a “hard case” of transnationalism as a “‘potential hegemonic force against vast material resources and state power’.”

I haven’t written up my results yet so these are just some unformed thoughts. In both cases, there’s no denying that there was some sort of transnationalism in play. How important is it? I have no good answer yet.

Anyway, the whole thing is definitely worth mulling over, and Sell’s article is a really helpful contribution to the debate.

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