While web juggernauts Wikipedia and Reddit participated in an Internet blackout to protest controversial copyright bills SOPA and PIPA, others took to the streets.
This afternoon, New York Tech Meetup, a group of roughly 18,000, held an emergency meeting at the doorsteps of New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of whom are sponsors of the PIPA bill. The event, which started at 12:30 p.m., filled most of the plaza outside of 780 Third Ave, where both senators have their city offices, with 1,635 committed to the official meetup, and others showing up.
In an effort to combat piracy -- which we would all like to minimize if not outright eliminate -- Congress, at the behest of money and special interest-representing, copyright-holding industries, is proposing a redesign of the Internet that is detrimental to our industry and detrimental to the open Eeb, said New York Tech Meetup leader Andrew Rasiej in an opening address to the hundreds assembled outside of the senators' offices.
Rasiej then asked the crowd, What does democracy look like? and the crowd responded with a bellowing, This is what democracy looks like!, a call-and-response chant that was borrowed from Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements.
For the first time, it's very clear that legislation could have a direct impact on the industry's ability to do business, said the managing director of the New York Tech Meetup, Jessica Lawrence, who was also one of the organizers for the meeting. She later added, This is even bigger than us, referring to how the SOPA and PIPA bills will affect more than those in the tech community.
In addition to the event hosts, several guest speakers made appearances, many of them representing their New York-based tech companies. Andrew McLaughlin, the executive vice president of Tumblr, spoke briefly.
It's very significant that we're a Meetup here today, not just a protest, but we're actually a tech meetup, and what you do at Meetups is you demo things, said McLaughlin. And effectively what we're doing as a community is demoing the Internet for Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand.
McLaughlin elaborated on his view of the importance of the Web: The Internet works because it's a democracy. The Internet works because it's voluntary people working together to make the Internet flow.
In 150 years, when our grandchildren are looking back on this time, they're going to see the Internet as the great creation, the great contribution of our era to the history of human progress, McLaughlin added. It's that important.
Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit and outspoken opponent of SOPA and PIPA , also made a brief appearance before heading to interviews at several major news organizations [raw video of speech below].
We are doing the things that will get this economy and America going again, and yet, we have legislation that threatens to stop that, said Ohanian. How is it possible that bipartisan legislation could do so much destruction to this industry and Congress could be okay with it? Why is that when there are more serious problems -- like the deficit, like unemployment, that Congress cannot agree?
Ohanian was particularly critical of Congress bending to the will of lobbyists, which is a motif that was highlighted a few times among the guest speakers: But yet, when Hollywood lobbyists show up with $94 million, as they did last year, Democrats and Republicans sign up to co-sponsor a bill that everyone can agree on. That doesn't seem right.
Other special guest speakers at the Emergency New York Tech Meetup included the chairman of MoveOn.org, Wes Boyd, Brad Burnham from Union Square Ventures, co-founder of Girl Develop It Sara Chipps, executive director of Demand Progress Aaron Swartz and more.
It was evident that many employees of New York startup companies were encouraged to head to the rally to show their support in opposition to the SOPA, PIPA and other bills that many in the Internet community consider a form of censorship.
Most of us in the office took off a couple hours of the day, said a gentleman hanging out near the back of the large crowd, Thomas Daly, project manager at Boxee, a media center software company. It's a very expensive moment here, but it's important to make sure our voices are heard and join forces with our brothers and sisters in the New York tech community.
Others in the crowd echoed many of the same concerns that were addressed throughout the event: I work with a lot of sites that want to be their own video destination sites, said employee of Encoding.com, Meg Whitney. [SOPA and PIPA] obviously affects my clients, and therefore, my income. I'm also a DJ. I use Soundcloud, Dropbox, and other sites that can be affected by the SOPA and PIPA bills. This affects me both creatively and professionally.
In an e-mail sent to the International Business Times just moments before the protest began outside of their offices, Gillibrand and Schumer released a joint statement:
After constructive dialogue with many in the technology community, we have worked to make an important change in the bill regarding DNS [domain name system] provisions. We will continue to work with our colleagues to ensure a proper balance between stopping the theft of intellectual property and copyright infringement, and doing so without the unintended consequence of stifling or censoring the internet, which we strongly oppose. We have worked to make sure there are due process protections to ensure that legal activity over the Internet is not disrupted and that the web continues to be a place of innovation, intellectual freedom, and an unrestricted platform for the free exchange of ideas -- and we welcome additional suggestions. While the threat to tens of thousands of New York jobs due to online piracy is real and must be addressed, it must be done in a way that allows the Internet and our tech companies to continue to flourish. - U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand