Can This Googler Impact the Fight Against SOPA?

With Congress reconvening in the next two weeks, efforts to quash what many see as overreaching anti-piracy legislation, Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), are heating up online.

For one thing, Web activists are beginning to vote with their pocketbooks. After Congressman Paul Ryan issued a statement that some interpreted as supportive of the bill, critics used the social news site Reddit to launch an online campaign that led to roughly $15,000 in campaign donations for Ryan’s Democratic opponent. (Yesterday, Ryan pledged to vote against SOPA.)

Others are working hard to turn Web users into activists against the bill, including Hunter Walk, a director of product management at Google.

Yesterday afternoon, Walk began asking people to protest the bill by changing their Twitter profile picture to “Stop SOPA,” using, a site created by Walk and Googler-turned-entrepreneur Gregor Hochmuth. In the roughly 24 hours since, about 3,800 people – some with millions of followers – have done exactly that, with more signing up every minute.

The question now is whether Walk can turn the caper into a widespread campaign. I talked with him this afternoon to see what he has up his sleeve.

SOPA was introduced in the House last October. Why suddenly launch this Blackout SOPA movement yesterday?

Like a lot of people in the tech community, I was aware of the debate around SOPA and [Protect IP Act, or PIPA, another controversial copyright bill that lawmakers will soon decide on]. But this weekend, reports emerged that major TV news outlets associated with the corporations backing SOPA have been systematically underreporting the debate. Meanwhile, this is a topic that deserves good, open debate, with lots of rights holders whose needs have to be balanced. In fact, more than the bill itself, I was frightened there wasn’t going to be that debate. So I thought: maybe we can get folks to “black out SOPA” to keep it top of mind.

I realize that changing Twitter avatars doesn’t change policy, but if you give people a chance to unify, that can lead to interest, then education, then action.

Yesterday, you were hoping that 10,000 people would join your protest by week’s end, but you’re already creeping up to that number quickly. Have your aspirations for this campaign changed?

Yes, potentially millions of people are seeing the badges in a persistent and intimate way. It’s already exceeded my expectations. In fact, we had to fix a number of things to keep the site live yesterday.

Now, I’d really like [the movement] to cross out of the tech community and get out to independent artists. This bill isn’t just important for major bands or film producers but also for independent artists, so I’m [trying to figure out]: how can I increase awareness among photographers and musicians and people whose careers are behind the camera.

MC Hammer, with his more than 2 million followers, just joined BlackoutSOPA, and he really does travel between these two worlds as an entertainer and someone active in the tech community. But we need more people like him.

What happens if this small fire you’ve lit crosses into the mainstream? What’s next?

[I’m figuring out] what do I do with that energy. How do I turn it into a message that politicians can hear? When we hit milestones, how do I turn them into a statement [on behalf of the community] as a whole? I feel a sense of responsibility to ensure that people’s energy is used [in as an impactful way as possible].

What about organizing donations to support candidates who say they’ll vote against SOPA, a la Reddit?

Certainly, at the end of the day, you vote with your feet and your wallet and everything else is just talk. But if we do that, I want to ensure I get broad participation, [versus] single donors with deep checkbooks.

How does Google feel about your focusing so much attention on BlackoutSOPA? Are you getting any work done?

[Laughs.] This is a side project. I’ve read a great Google+ post from Sergey Brin, who signed an open letter to [Washington in opposition to SOPA, one that investor Marc Andresseen, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and numerous other tech heavyweights also signed]. But this is a personal statement. When other Googlers are changing their avatars, they’re doing it as a personal statement as well.

Have any corporations publicly backed your efforts yet?

I have noticed that it’s people joining SOPA, meaning largely individuals. I’m looking to see if anyone might change their corporate account; that would be really cool. What is it Romney said?  That corporations are people?

Something like that.

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