The Day the Internet Beat Congress

On this day in economic and financial history...

Jan. 18, 2012 was a rare day in Internet history. That day, more than 7,000 major websites banded together in protest over the controversial antipiracy legislation known as SOPA-PIPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate. The two bills were intended to strengthen and expand the ability of American law enforcement to prosecute copyright infringers and other intellectual-property violators. Critics took issue with the laws' overly broad provisions, which they claimed would stifle free speech and innovation by widening the censorship net to trap legitimate and wholly unrelated enterprises. The protest, which took the form of a mass website blackout, became the largest such coordinated online effort in history, with some truly eye-popping numbers:

  • 10 million petition signatures.
  • More than 8 million calls placed to elected representatives.
  • More than 4 million emails sent.
  • Nearly 1 billion attempted visits to sites were restricted by the blackout.
  • More than 115,000 total sites participated, including 45,000 Wordpress blogs.

Only one senator opposed the Senate's PIPA bill two days before the blackout, but by the end of Jan. 18, 36 had come out in public opposition. Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) was the largest public company to change its homepage in opposition to SOPA-PIPA, which was almost entirely backed by small, private online companies and nonprofits.

In the months leading up to the blackout, Google had banded together with several large tech peers to publicly petition Congress to drop the bill. The November prior to the blackout, AOL, eBay, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) , LinkedIn, Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo! (NASDAQ: YHOO  ) , and Zynga all collaborated on a letter to Congress expressing concern with the bills' draconian wordings and offering to help collaborate with legislators to create better solutions. This set up a quiet tech-industry war against the Business Software Alliance, to which Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) , Apple, Adobe, Dell , Intel, and Symantec all belonged, and in which Microsoft was a driving force. By the time of the blackout, the BSA had long since withdrawn its support for the legislation, giving the Internet-centric companies a major victory over their more offline-focused brethren.

The blackout protest was an unqualified success. Two days after the protest ended, both House and Senate leaders announced that they would postpone the bills. Congress, apparently having learned nothing from this public rebuke, attempted to pass another hated bill that appeared to step on the constitutional rights of Internet users. CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, passed the House at the end of April, granting the government wide prosecutorial latitude and a high level of control over the Internet, all to defend against "cyber threats." This bill was filibustered into oblivion in the summer of 2012, allowing Google and its peers to again claim victory in the fight for an open Internet.

Nearly a year after SOPA's defeat, antipiracy company ScanEye released a damning report stating that dozens of House staffers used BitTorrent -- a popular illicit file-sharing program -- to download a wide variety of copyrighted content, particularly popular film and television programs. While Congress may have been defeated by public outcry in the SOPA fight, it's clear that they don't always practice what they preach when it comes to copyright infringement.

The crash nobody cared about
In most years, a drop of more than 5% in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) would be an eye-opener. However, a drop of 5.2% on Jan. 18, 1932 was met by the press with a shrug of the shoulders. By this point the Dow had already fallen 79% from its 1929 high point and endured several years of rising volatility. By the time trading ended on Jan. 18, the Dow had already seen an average daily change of 3.5% for the first few trading days of 1932.

The New York Times greeted the drop with a yawn: "The expected reaction in prices for stocks and bonds, not having occurred at the weekend, put in its appearance yesterday." Think about that. Today, if the Dow drops by more than 1%, you'll see frantic headlines screaming about how stocks were obliterated, devastated, annihilated, crushed, pulverized, or, occasionally, ground into a fine powder. By 1932, market watchers had already seen so many wild swings that a 5% drop was essentially just another day at the office.

That year set a record for volatility that has never been matched since, with more than 150 days posting either a gain or a loss in excess of 1.5%. The average daily change for all of 1932's trading days was 2.6% when all was said and done, but enough of these swings were negative for the Dow to end the year with a 23% loss. When you worry about volatility, remember 1932, the year the news writers couldn't even feign interest in a 5% drop.

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