The Internet Blackout: A Visual Way to Frame Policy Protest

Yesterday, as many of us were browsing the web, we noticed a number of strange things. There was a black box over Google’s colorful label, a Wikipedia “blacking out”, and a service error on the popular technology blog Boing-Boing.  All of these major companies took part in a “black out” protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).

The use of the “black box” as a visual framing cue was intended to bring attention to the threat of internet censorship that these bills pose. Proponents of the campaign, such as, state that these bills could be used to censor information and stifle the production and sharing of knowledge on the Internet. The “black box,” then, is a protest symbol used by Google and Wikipedia, two sites known for the production and dissemination of online knowledge, to denote that they too could be impacted by these policies.

What did the opponents of the campaign have to say about these tactics? Christopher Dodd, the former senator and now Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America said in a PC Mag interview, “A so-called “blackout” is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals.” Dodd continued, “It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this ‘blackout’ to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.” And Rep. Lamar Smith, who authored SOPA, notes that, “This publicity stunt does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts.”

In this case, the “black box” visual and the blackout tactic appears to have shifted the tide of public support against SOPA and PIPA. USA Today reported that, “Bowing to the power of the Internet, several key lawmakers withdrew support for anti-piracy legislation after a 24-hour blackout by thousands of websites Wednesday, likely quashing any chance the bills would pass in their current form.”

Using visual frames is an important part of any movement framing repertoire. This creative campaign  successfully put these issues on the forefront of the public agenda and stemmed the passage of these two bills in a very short period of time. It is likely, however, that the entertainment industry will propose another version of these bills in the near future. It will be interesting to track the innovative ways that this growing movement of supporters who believe in a free and open Internet will communicate their cause for continued public support.

To learn more about the role of visuals in framing, watch our “Visual Images and Message Framing” webinar.



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