NEW YORK--Perhaps as many as two thousand people gathered in Midtown Manhattan today to protest antipiracy legislation being considered by Congress, legislation that they say will silence the Internet.
"What does democracy look like?" organizers shouted to the crowd.
"This is what democracy looks like," came the response.
Indeed, those that gathered were part of a new tech-focused twist on the democratic process. Internet companies across the country flexed their political muscles today, rallying Web users to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act.
Not only was the crowd largely informed of the protest via e-mail and online news sites--so was a large chunk of the general public, whose introduction to the debate came largely via major Web sites that either went dark as part of the protest or posted messages of opposition on their front doors.
The Web sites implored users to contact their representatives in Congress and voice their opposition to the bill. Lawmakers are seeing first hand the power of Web companies to influence the public and generate political support.
SOPA and PIPA would give the government the ability to cut off access to foreign-based Web sites accused of piracy and to force credit-card companies and online advertisers to cut business ties to the accused--largely without due process. Supporters say that piracy is costing America jobs and hurting creators.
As part of the offline protest, PIPA opponents called a gathering in front of the New York offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who support the bill. Police ushered the crowd behind barricades and multiple leaders in the New York technology scene as well as national tech-advocacy groups made speeches condemning SOPA and PIPA.
"So glad you could come out today on behalf of the future," said John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that promotes issues that benefit tech companies and Web users.
The speakers derided the lack of tech expertise possessed by lawmakers. They charged that Hollywood film studios and big record companies have donated money in an effort to sway the votes of lawmakers. They continued to argue that SOPA and PIPA would lead to censorship of the Web, strip the justice system of due process and hurt innovation.
It's hard to measure what kind of affect the protests had on the New York senators. Protest organizers had asked that people call Schumer and Gillibrand's offices but Rasiej accused the senators of taking their phones off the hook.
There's no doubt that the grassroots protest organized by Web companies was taking a toll on congressional support for the bills (read about that here.)
PIPA and SOPA supporters, however did not give up. They sent thousands of e-mails to journalists and issued numerous press releases playing up the support that the bills still have.
This public relations battle will likely go on like this at least until Tuesday when the Senate is due to vote on PIPA.