UN Internet Conference: The SOPA That Wasn’t

World Conference on Internet Telecommunications in Dubai — Proportion of posts (Opinion Analysis) from 12/1/12 to 12/12/12

When it comes to Internet outrage, this was no SOPA.

For the past couple of weeks, Google and other Internet companies have protested a United Nations conference over concerns that a new treaty will lead to censorship of the Web. Despite their campaigns, they weren’t able to drum up the kind of widespread indignation that elevated the Stop Online Piracy Act to national prominence earlier this year, according to studies of online discussions commissioned by Bloomberg.com.

For the SOPA blackout on Jan. 18, as any proud netizen will recall, Google self-censored its logo, and Wikipedia obscured its encyclopedic entries. Other companies published blog posts opposing the proposed anti-piracy legislation. The gestures resulted in a firestorm that included 5.1 million Twitter messages during the week of the blackout, according to Topsy, a social-media research firm.

Compare that to the 65,300 tweets — containing terms related to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai — posted during the first week or so of the UN event. Even SOPA, nearly a year after the protests, is getting more attention, with 87,073 tweets during the same time period, according to Topsy.

Discussions about the UN treaty were less polarizing because they are at a very early stage and don’t currently present a direct threat to tech companies, said Mike McGeary, a senior strategist for Engine Advocacy, a group that represents tech startups in Washington. The “naked alarmism” from some opponents was met with a “nonevent,” he said.

“It’s not like we’re looking down the barrel of a gun,” McGeary said. “SOPA was an instance where it was ‘an all hands on deck; we’ve got to do this; let me help you find your pitchforks and torches.’ There will be fewer of those.”

Online discussions have increased this week but not substantially. As of Wednesday, a total of about 100,000 English-language tweets referenced the UN event, according to Crimson Hexagon, another research firm. Early last week, the discussions were largely driven by Google and its executives, the research firm said. The conference ends today.

Google and Mozilla didn’t veer far from the SOPA playbook in their protests of the conference. A coveted spot on Google.com’s home page below the search box linked to a page urging visitors to “pledge to support a free and open Internet,” and Vint Cerf, “father of the Internet” and a Google executive, wrote a blog post. Mozilla put up a post of its own calling UN governance a “bad idea.”

Google declined to comment on the effectiveness of its campaign. Harvey Anderson, Mozilla’s general counsel, said the campaign successfully affected the discussions in Dubai.

“Mozilla joined a coalition of organizations from around the world who want citizens to have a say in the future of the Web,” Anderson said in an e-mailed statement. “Our shared campaign put a spotlight on the ITU and its proceedings. As a result, the debate has changed and a growing number of member states now stand behind the notion that the ITU is not the right place for Internet governance.”

The Internet giants did win a partial victory as several major nations, including the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia, declined to sign the treaty, which would allow governments the right to access Internet infrastructure and block spam.

“We stand with the countries who refuse to sign this treaty and also with the millions of voices who have joined us to support a free and open web,” Google said in a statement.

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