One topic bounced through my head was about the power of users — a community — forged against challenges thrust upon them. I’ll take a look at 19 moments in Internet history where users have fought back against ‘the man’ and have won (and for some, lost).
Who’s the man, you might ask? The man is the owner or a large overseer of a product or service. For television, that would be Viacom, Walden Media, NBC/Universal or TimeWarner. For the Internet, that would be Comcast, AT&T, AOL, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. For radio, that would be ClearChannel and CBS (Viacom). For print media that would be NYTimes or WaPo. (Though, I have my doubts that a newspaper can be labeled as ‘the man’ anymore.) So you get the idea of who the man is, now let’s look at some examples of it in action:
- Users vs. Digg — HD-DVD Decryption Key Revolt (Won)
One of the largest social news sharing Web sites, Digg, was found to be removing stories disclosing the decryption key for HD-DVDs. As more stories were pruned, the more it enraged users to post more stories with salacious content exposing the censorship and aligned focus against Digg for removing stories. Digg’s founder, Kevin Rose, responded to the revolt acknowledging their concerns and was transparent in disclosing the reason for the removal and effectively posted the key himself as an act of humility.
- SuprNova vs. RIAA/MPAA — P2P Torrent Tracker (Lost)
One of the first large Bittorrent trackers/search engine was Suprnova. After rapid growth, they received a number of legal threats and their Web host strongly advised the founder to take his service off and direct his efforts into another P2P effort, eXeem. Essentially, SuprNova’s loss resulted in The Pirate Bay’s gain.
- The Pirate Bay vs. RIAA/MPAA — P2P Torrent Tracker (Won)
The Pirate Bay quickly became the largest underground Bittorent tracker, hosted in Sweden. It became the epicenter for software, movie and music pirates to distribute their content. Later, after a raid of their servers and equipment, four days later they returned with 20% more curious visitors. To this day, they are online because they have numerous co-locations of their servers around the world making it difficult for authorities to prosecute. Currently to this day, they are fully operational with no anticipation of shutting down.
- Users vs. Scientology — Religion (In Progress)
A lot of folks who disagree with Scientology have organized in a group named “Anonymous.” They organized anti-Scientology protests around the world, and have a network of users who intend to perform routine Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks on official Scientology Web sites. Additionally, “Anonymous” has posted numerous anti-Scientology stories on various social news networks, and they get rated very highly. Currently, Scientology still exists, but the battle wages on in the digital frontier.
- Internet Users vs. AOL Usenet — Internet Service Provider (Won):
Back in the earlier years of the Internet, AOL’s massive growth spurt in subscribers resulted in a lot of novices floating around in Newsgroups, (aka USENET), and it became a substantial nuisance among Internet users. This is where a lot of negative reputations swirled from such as the “me too!” responses, as well as other examples of trolling. In mid 2005, AOL discontinued access for their subscribers and instead facilitate Message Boards for their users.
- Users vs. Facebook — Social Network (Won)
The popular social network, Facebook, ran into two major conflicts with users. Initially, it didn’t make clear how to manage privacy of buddy update feeds, and later the Facebook Beacon. After they didn’t make clear (at first) how restrict various types of syndicated content, users began revolting and exaggerating the risks of this privacy loss. The second incident happened when Facebook deployed a feature called “Beacon” which was used to post an update in your personal feed for your buddies to observe that your made a purchase or visited a website without explicit consent, or opting-in. After much hubbub, Facebook disabled this feature by default and allows users to opt-in to it. Facebook now sets the example for the social media industry in managing privacy and content syndication settings.
- Users (Sellers) vs. eBay — Internet-base auctions and sales (In Progress/Lost)
EBay changed two of their policies. First, they’ve effectively prevented sellers from chastising bidders with negative feedback. This was done in response to bidder’s complaints that if they left negative feedback, they would be receive negative feedback from the seller in retaliation. A handful of sellers have vowed to stop selling on eBay in response. Second, they revised the fees and it leads some sellers to pack up and seek auction services elsewhere. Ebay stands by both of these policies, citing they will provide the balance to the feedback system and the new fee structure saves sellers money.
- Users vs. Flickr — Online Photo Sharing (In Progress/Lost)
Flickr has been a point of enjoyment and contention for their users. When Flickr was purchased by Yahoo, there were concerns of a corporate influence and/or services revoked. Later, Flickr was censoring adult photos in Germany due to the varying laws regarding age verification. Recently, Flickr (a wholly owned subsidiary of Yahoo) received a massive negative user response since the discussion of a Microsoft acquisition, in the form of photos under the tag Microsoft. While not all is lost yet, Yahoo has not responded or officially acknowledged their user’s concerns on the Flickr service.
- Users vs. LiveJournal — Blog Host Provider (Lost)
A popular blogging service, LiveJournal, had good intentions when it wanted to “cleanup” alleged child exploitation blogs, but it was poorly executed. It resulted in a number of legitimate blogs to be suspended/deleted. This virally spread among other LJers and they protested LJ’s censorship and varied rules and enforcement. Six Apart, who owns LJ, stand by their decision to remove sexually explicit blogs, but acknowledges that it was not the best way to do it. Many LJ users who left now setup on InsaneJournal, Blogger and WordPress.
- Users vs. Communications Decency Act (Lost)
When the Internet was growing and pornography was becoming mainstream on the Internet, Congress drafted the Communications Decency Act (of which also contains Section 230) to prevent indecent and pornographic images being distributed on the Web. Many Web site owners joined together to change their Web site to be displayed in all black with information on the campaign citing that will happen if the CDA was signed in. While, unsuccessful, their message was picked up by the media.
- Kevin Mitnick Supporters vs. Department of Justice — Hacker held without trial (Lost)
Kevin Mitnick, once wanted by the US Marshals for allegedly wiretapping and stealing confidential documents, was arrested. Once arrested, he was held in solitary confinement without trial for four years. Many suspect this was a way for the government to control him and prevent further compromises by setting an example. He eventually had his trial and was sentenced to five years (four of which he served before). During the whole ordeal, many hackers and computer enthusiasts supported him with a large campaign, “Free Kevin,” which was to help inform other people about his story. Now, Kevin owns his own security consulting firm and uses his talents for white-hat deeds like educating people to prevent attacks.
- Users vs. Copyright Royalty Board — Board that governs royalties paid by broadcasters (Won)
A new threat among record companies is streaming audio on the Internet of copyrighted material, in light of this the Copyright Royalty Board proposed legislation that would prohibit streaming music for free, and raised the rates to be competitive compared to FM radio. This would effectively tune out any broadcaster online who couldn’t afford the fees. A massive “SaveNetRadio” campaign was launched to petition Congress to reject it. In response CRB had temporary suspended their request so they can re-evaluate another –fairer– plan for Internet broadcasters.
- Users vs. Internet Carriers (Re: Net Neutrality) — Internet Backbone Providers (In Progress)
User’s didn’t entertain the idea of tiered/specialized Internet access. In layman’s terms, it meant that AT&T could partner with YouTube and provide faster access for their customers, but those on Level 3 (or any other ISP for that matter), would receive lower speeds just because of the provider. Additionally, this would result in different costs of providing services for consumers. Many petitioned Congress to preserve Net Neutrality — and it worked. A new bill is in the works now which explicitly preserves Net Neutrality.
- Users vs. Pop-Up Advertising — Advertising delivered via Pop-Ups (Won)
One of the icons of the late 90’s was pop-up advertising. Many, many Internet users grew frustrated and eventually software came out to block pop-ups (aka, “Pop-up blockers“). Eventually Web browsers became armed with Pop-up blockers and that was when Pop-Up advertising folded under as consumers were provided tools to better manage their online experience.
- Users vs. Internet Advertising — Advertising on Websites (In Progress)
“You’re the 1,000,000th visitor. Claim your prize now!” shouts an online advertisement. Users have become “blind” to many internet advertisements. Almost literally blocking off 468×60 squares in their head, advertising traffic has fell recently, despite it becoming very lucrative. A recent report indicates half of all advertising clicks are wasteful, and no one buys anything. Users have become armed with tools to manage their online experience by means of add-ons like Adblock Plus and IE7Pro which block advertisements from being downloaded in their respective browsers.
- Internet Users vs. AOL (E-mail) — AOL’s proposed a fee-based whitelisting (Won)
One of the largest e-mail providers, AOL, has proposed a specialized whitelisting method (“Certified Mail/GoodMail”) where legitimate companies could pay an amount of money to assure delivery to AOL users. This brought a lot of controversy because of alleged claims that AOL censors competitors via e-mail (false); but a lot of the disagreement was over the fact you could pay money to reach one’s inbox. AOL continued to provide their free whitelisting service for senders, but effectively the negative attention stopped AOL from proceeding further with this paid service.
- Users vs. AOL (Journals) — AOL Journals Advertising (Lost)
A number of AOL’s 600,000 AOL Journal users were surprised one morning when they saw advertisements on their Journals with no warning or notice. As a result a large revolt occurred where about 200,000 users left to the likes of Blogger or WordPress. In response the company attempted to reason with users citing it is the path all companies on the Web are taking to generate revenue; but did add a disclaimer of text below the advertisement. It was suggested by users that pay for service that they to disable the advertisement, but later recanted that suggestion.
- Users vs. Gas Corporations — High Gas Prices (Lost)
What started as an e-mail urban legend became somewhat real. It proposed a boycott against purchasing gas on May 17th, 2007. It was later proven that even if everyone did not pump gas that day, it would not substantially hurt the revenues of the distributors. If anything, it would increase them. However, more focus was brought on finding cheaper gas prices by mashing up user-contributed data among the states allowing consumers to find the cheapest gas station located near them.
- Users vs. China (Censorship) — China restricts Internet usage from users (Lost) Socialist-Republic, China, censors any form of government protest. They extended their control into all the Internet providers going into China and demand Web sites providing services to Chinese citizens to restrict various subjects. In light of this, a lot of users have criticized Google and Yahoo in complying. Recently, a Chinese blogger was beaten to death because he attempted to film a protest between villagers and his government to post on his blog. At this time, all that can be done is Chinese bloggers must acquiesce to the restrictions implemented by their government.
What can we observe from these demonstrations? Well, as long as users aren’t positioned against the government or a Chinese regime, they can defeat the overlords who are obstacles in their way of information or service. Users have a knack for organizing and identifying themselves among each other with subversive material and can put pressure on a company.
While some battles have been lost, many have been won. So next time you read about those protests, go ahead and participate. Strength among users comes in numbers and sacrifice. Are you willing to part with “X” product or service and go elsewhere? Vote with your page views and advertising clicks.