When popular websites like Wikipedia and Reddit decided to blackout their pages last week in protest of SOPA, otherwise known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, the controversial bill got thrown to the forefront of public discussion.
The problem was, as ProPublica's Dan Nguyen soon realized, it was extremely difficult to find information on where members of Congress stood on the bill.
"When I set out to look up information I was disappointed at how hard it was to really find much," Nguyen said. "Part of it is just the way information in general is organized for our government. It's not like there's some central site where politician A and B can just say, 'Here's my position on this,' and it's easy to find."
Lucky for us, Nguyen was inspired to independently research this information and mapped out his results on a news application he called SOPA Opera. In this week's podcast, he explains what SOPA and its Senate equivalent, Protect IP Act (PIPA), entail; how he came to create the news app; and his reaction to SOPA Opera going viral.
Read the full transcript below and subscribe to all of ProPublica's podcasts on iTunes.
Mike Webb: Hi, I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica Podcast. Last week, a passionate battle took place over a proposed bill in the House known as SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and a similar bill in the Senate called PIPA, the Protect IP Act. On one side were Hollywood entertainment companies who believe SOPA will curb the illegal distribution of movies and music. On the other side were online companies like Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia who were concerned that the bills would be too difficult to implement and tantamount to censorship. So what was true and what wasn't? That's what ProPublica news application developer Dan Nguyen wanted to know.
To find out, he created an online resource on his personal website with details about the bill and info on who was for SOPA and who was against it. When the staff at ProPublica saw it, we asked him to move it over to our site and it turned out to be one of the most viewed pages in ProPublica history.
Joining us in the storage closet studio to talk about the project is Mr. Dan Nguyen. Welcome to the podcast.
Dan Nguyen: Hey, Mike. How are you doing?
Mike: All right. Dan, what would SOPA actually do if it were enacted?
Dan: SOPA is trying to go after what it calls "foreign rogue websites," and these are websites that are not on American soil that are distributing the latest Hollywood movies or music and the U.S. system can't go after them as it stands now. The law would provide this legal framework in which companies like Google would be asked to de link these foreign sites that are sharing illegally pirated material. From the American perspective, it's still illegal for you to copy your movies and send them around, but, of course, the police here can come after you. They can't really do that for an overseas site, so this is one way to stop the spread of illegally pirated material from coming outside of America into America.
Mike: The online companies were against it because they didn't want to be held responsible?
Dan: Yes. They argue that this would create an undue burden on their operations. If they are already hosting pirated content because a user uploaded it to them, they have the responsibility once they're notified to remove it and they saw SOPA as increasing that burden to a degree that they couldn't follow. That was their interest in this whole thing. The fight over SOPA and its Senate version, Protect IP, has been going on for a while, actually. I briefly read about the bills, and in most of the major online forums it's been highly talked about for months. To be honest, I didn't really pay that much attention to it but over the holiday break I think the news was that this was an imminent thing as far as it progressing through Congress.
I just wanted to know more about the bill. I also thought, judging by the volume of controversy that it had generated, at least online, that this was like the healthcare bill in the way that every politician would have said something by now on it. When I set out to look up information I was disappointed at how hard it was to really find much.
Part of it is just the way information in general is organized for our government. It's not like there's some central site where politician A and B can just say, "Here's my position on this," and it's easy to find. The easiest thing to do is go on their Facebook page. Then during the Congressional recess not many politicians had taken a stand besides the many cosponsors, of course, and a couple of dozen politicians, mostly centered in the Bay Area, who obviously have constituents who are highly against it.
Otherwise, it was really, for me, just like looking up as many Congress members as I could. It really wasn't something that was high on anyone's list beyond the people who are deeply involved in authoring and pushing the bill forward.
Mike: Who had a stake. Everything was under the radar. You wanted to figure out what was what.
Dan: Like programming. Sorry, I should say that sometimes it's hard for me to get into programming, but when I have something like a goal in mind that I can make something useful to other people while practicing programming, that's always a good incentive. Yeah, I was annoyed at how hard it was to find this information. For me, the app wasn't really that complicated. It's pretty straightforward display of who was saying what about SOPA.
Mike: Was the hardest part trying to figure out where everybody stood on the bill?
Dan: Yeah. Trying to find that information was difficult because, again, not many people had said much about it. It wasn't even that you could just visit everyone's official page. Like everyone has a different kind of way they run their official Congressional page and some of them barely update them, some of them don't have a press releases section.
Mike: Did you go to each individual page to put it all together?
Dan: Yeah. There are a good number of legislative resources that non profits like govtrack.us and opencongress.org and the New York Times, they've got pretty good repositories of the official information, so finding the sponsors was easy, obviously. Then it was just basically going to Google, Google News, typing up some congress member's name and typing in SOPA and seeing if anything came up. Usually the answer was no. Yeah, I guess I wanted to show everyone in Congress and when I first put it up it had less than 100 people on it and that was just through a ton of research. Finding stuff like the hearings and all that is not at all straightforward.
Mike: Yeah. You did it all on your own, right?
Dan: Yeah. There's one hearing on SOPA and it's in this archaic Windows web format that I had to pull out an old laptop to try to get it to view. There was no printed transcript from what I could see and then the Senate site's completely different structured. When I made the site the initial response that I got from people was, "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe Senator Franken is for this bill." Actually, that was the most common name that I saw. I think people associate his neutrality stance as being one that would also be against SOPA or Protect IP and, in fact, he's one of the most fervent defenders of the law.
Mike: Because he probably has a stake as an actor.
Dan: Yeah, you can say that he was in the industry and so has a different take on it. Even after the entire blackout thing many senators, many cosponsors, backed off. I think last Friday he wrote a pretty long blog post telling people tough luck. He feels very passionate about this. So anyway, when I was making the app the initial response from people was like, "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe it has this much support," or, "I can't believe that this many Republicans are against it." Because, again, I think people automatically assume that one party or the other is trying to regulate things. And I think probably one of the most useful things my app did I mean, there are a lot of great resources out there. But I think one thing mine did well was to show right away, "Oh, there's a lot of red and blue here on both sides. This is a bipartisan issue."
And that's what the backers would say, too, is, hey, that's one thing you can say about his bill, it's united a lot of people for it. And so their reasoning is, "Oh, that must be a great bill."
Mike: I think the visual aspects is what made it so appealing. You can see who's for and against it right away. So you were getting decent traffic at your site, but then you moved it over to ProPublica. Why was that?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, that was always kind of the goal. I told my boss, Scott, that I just wanted to kind of demo it on my own. Since I was doing it on my own time, I don't have the time to make sure all my I's were dotted and all that. It was good to put it out there and see what kind of criticism I would get. For the most part it was all very positive in terms of people who were trying to find out information. I always thought that ProPublica was a natural place for it, because we try to make transparent these kind of issues. You could say we could do this for any law, but SOPA was kind of the talk of the town at that point.
And so, yeah, I knew it would get bigger exposure at ProPublica. It was getting pretty good traffic from Reddit and all that. But, yeah, I had also seen that very few mainstream news organizations had really spent much time covering this, so I thought we could be one of the first out the gate. So it worked out well for everyone.
Mike: It seemed like the hardest part was sort of keeping it up to date, because so many politicians were changing positions on the law.
Dan: From that point on, when I had gotten to work I was typing out emails as fast as I could to people who were sending me in updates. I literally would be typing an email and two more would come in. So people really engaged. Obviously having Craigslist and Wikipedia and all those other sites draw attention to it. Having Craigslist link to us, and Reddit, and various other sites. Yeah, people were very interested in getting as many people and telling us about what their legislators were saying. And telling us, "Oh, I called my legislator and this is what they said."
So, yeah, it was very difficult to keep up with that, but also very gratifying to see people take such an active stance on civic issues.
Mike: Do you think people really understood what was in the bill? Or some of the fears kind of coming from the online companies?
Dan: I think as with any big piece of legislation, things are simplified. And so the way to sell people on opposing this bill is to say, "Oh, it amounts to censorship." And of course the people who back it wouldn't I mean, there's actually language in there explicitly saying, "Hey, this isn't about censoring." But what the companies are arguing is it's tantamount to it, because if you put these kinds of penalties and responsibilities on the online company, they're going to move forward with their own corporate policies that dampen speech on their networks.
And so is that going too far that that's censorship? Obviously it depends on what side of the coin you are. Of course the people who back the law talk about it in very black and white terms of how this all about stopping piracy and protecting content creators. And of course it's not that simple as well.
Yeah, it's hard to say. And much of the law was still under discussion. It was supposed to go the before the holiday recess, they were still in the middle of amending it and they didn't get through it. And they were going to jump right back into it until this blackout happened. There was a lot of moving parts.
But, yeah, I don't think it was a very easy to understand law by anyone, either by the supporters or the opponents.
Mike: Why don't you tell us a little bit about the before and after visual you created? How you put that together.
Dan: Sure. For me, that took about a minute. And it was an obvious thing to do, because I know one constant thing I heard since making this was like, again, "Oh, my gosh, look at how many people are for this versus the people who are against it." It was like 80/30 before the blackout, and then afterwards it was 60 some to 130 or so, something like that. And that was even me being way, way behind on updates. This was like way past midnight too, so I didn't get them all in. But I know, for me, it was just cool to see, again, before the blackout it was hard to find anything on record from politicians about this, and then during the blackout apparently a lot decided to jump on the bandwagon. So I knew it would be a strong visual to see what one 24 hour day of activism can bring out with hundreds of thousands of calls pouring in to our legislator's offices.
Mike: What's the status of the bill now?
Dan: It's pretty much dead in the water.
Mike: Are they going to try to rewrite it?
Dan: Protect IP was a different law. A year ago, again, proposed by Senator Leahy and blocked by Senator Widen, who's also the principle opponent in the Senate against Protect IP. So, yeah, the backers who are behind it are very much still behind it. Senator Franken, again. So they probably will rewrite the bill. From their own admissions it sounded like they had tried to tackle too much at once. They were obviously clearly unprepared for the backlash by the online community. But, yeah, there was nothing, as far as the hundreds of statements that I looked at, there was nothing that was contrite in that. Like, "Oh, we should never have even thought about this." It was more like, "Oh, we obviously need to think about... We, the legislators still care very much about stopping online piracy, so we're going to go about it in a different way. Try to come up with a better law that meets everyone's needs."
So, yeah, this is clearly something that's going to be fought repeatedly over and over again in the future.
Mike: All right. Thanks for joining us, Dan.
Dan: Mm hmm.
Mike: For more information about SOPA and PIPA and to see Dan's work, visit Projects.ProPublica.org/SOPA. And now for our Officials Say the Darndest Things Tumblr Quote of the Week. "After the Wikipedia blackout, somewhere a student today is doing original research and getting his or her facts straight. Perish the thought." Who said it? Jonathan Lamy, senior vice president of the Recording Industry Association of America, regarding Wikipedia's blackout in protest of SOPA and PIPA.
OK, that's it for this week's show. Thanks as always to Minhee Cho for producing this podcast, and a long overdue offer of appreciation to our editor, Colin Tipton, who makes this program more listenable for you. Thanks you checking it out. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll catch you next time.
Transcription by CastingWords