Distributed Denial of Statute: How the Internet Killed SOPA/PIPA

In the fall of 2011, the Internet began buzzing about recently proposed bits of legislation that threatened the basic tenants of the Web.  SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate together formed the government’s newest approach to enforcing intellectual property protections online.  Supporters of the bill insisted that drastic measures were necessary to combat rampant, often foreign, disregard for copyright protections.  Opponents, on the other hand, pointed out that the letter of the legislation could actually cut off legitimate speech and destroy legitimate businesses.

Supporters of the bill, unfortunately, outweighed opponents.  The bills had bipartisan support in Congress, and several lobbying heavyweights in the entertainment industries come out vocally in favor of it.  The opposition consisted of a broad collection of Internet corporations, websites, and users, including Google, Wikipedia and Reddit.   While these companies are central to most Americans’ Internet experiences, they were by no means an established coalition.  Up against the experience and money of more established political players like the MPAA and the RIAA, it was unsure whether the Internet would have its objections heard.

Yet, by January 20, 2012, the bill had been shelved indefinitely, essentially a death sentence in Congress.  With nearly 230 million Americans online according to the most recent consensus, how did such a broad swath of the population find enough in common about the way they value the Internet to come together and fight for it?  This paper explores the role of Internet memes – image macros, Twitter hashtags, informational videos – in developing a unified coalition of opponents and leveraging their voices to effect change in Congress.  Understanding this process is a crucial step in understanding whether “the Internet” actually means anything as a political faction, and how the unconventional corners of the digital public sphere are reshaping traditional power structures.


Michelle C. Forelle is a second year master’s student in NYU’s Media, Culture and Communication program. Her research focuses on the ways emerging digital media and mainstream politics are influencing one another; that is, how the discussions being had via tweet, image macro, or viral video are influencing the discussions had on the floors of Congress or in the Oval Office. Previous to coming to NYU, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Film Production, and spent many years working in the field and blogging about her first love, music videos.