A group of activists have banded together to protect the Internet from what they see as bad legislation, with a focus initially on copyright enforcement proposals.
Members of the new Internet Defense League hope they can harness the online activism against controversial copyright bills the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), when tens of millions of Internet users and thousands of website publishers protested the two bills earlier this year.
The new group, with a broad range of supporters including Reddit, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tea Party Patriots, plans to issue alerts to websites when members spot government actions that may be detrimental to the Internet. The group will send out alert codes, called "cat signals" after the cute Internet cat memes, to websites and users.
The group will announce its arrival with cat-themed spotlights in the sky Thursday evening in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Members of the league want to turn recent Internet activism in opposition to SOPA, PIPA and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) into a "permanent force," said Tiffiniy Cheng, co-founder of digital rights group Fight for the Future and an organizer of the Internet Defense League.
Members of the league won't be able to outspend big companies on lobbying, but will be able to make their voices heard through grassroots activism, she said.
"Having a network in place means that, from here forward, as the Internet creates values, as websites reach tremendous numbers of people and when users feel passionate attachment to the sites they use every day, we'll be able to leverage all of that to defend the Internet from threats," Cheng said. "From today onward, if there's another terrible bill that would hurt the Internet, we'll be ready."
In addition to several websites and digital rights groups, the league signed up support from U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Representatives Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat. Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, is also a member.
The league is important because efforts to regulate the Internet to protect copyright holders "are not behind us," Moran said during a press conference. "These tech issues are ones that many members of Congress don't have a complete understanding of," he added. "If [the Internet] is overly regulated, the ability to innovate in this country disappears."
SOPA and PIPA were "wake-up calls" for many lawmakers that users of the Internet can be a political force, Polis said. Lawmakers are "more wary than ever about overstepping their bounds," he said.
Spokeswomen for Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chief SOPA sponsor, and Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chief PIPA sponsor, declined to comment on the new group. A representative the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a strong supporter of SOPA and PIPA, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Motion Picture Association of America, another support of the two bills, said it agrees with the league about the need for a healthy Internet.
"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 MPAA said in a statement. "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 group will initially focus on copyright enforcement bills, but it will also use online tools to mobilize in response to other government proposals affecting the Internet, organizers said.
An Internet blackout in January protesting SOPA and PIPA "really showcased what democracy is supposed to look like in the digital age," said Rainey Reitman, activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It showed how engaged, politicized Internet users from all over the political spectrum could speak out, not in one voice, but in a whole range of voices."
Except for "a few notable exceptions," the U.S. Congress isn't keeping up with technology issues, she said. "That's incredibly dangerous. It's dangerous for the future of this country."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]