Some good causes undermine their own efforts with bad substitutes for real action

I was recently asked to consider signing onto an electronic protest against the US’ Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) recent suspension of a blogger who linked to websites that allegedly distributed copyrighted movies without license. A group called “Demand Progress” rightly complained:

Brian McCarthy ran a website,, that linked to various sites where you could watch online streams of TV shows and sports networks. A couple months ago, the government seized his domain name and on Friday they arrested him and charged him with criminal copyright infringement — punishable by five years in prison.

We just obtained a copy of the complaint (below) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made against him — and they don’t even allege that he made a copy of anything! Just that he ran what they call a “linking website” which linked to various sites with copyrighted material. Under that sort of thinking, everyone who’s sent around a link to a copyrighted YouTube video is a criminal.

This is another shocking overreach by DHS and ICE — a steamship-era department that’s proving once again that it doesn’t understand the Internet. We need to push back — and fast — before they try to lock up more Americans.

Demand Progress

Demand Progress raises good points and I think that linking to anything ought not be a crime, no matter what one links to. However:

  • the way Demand Progress collects petition signatures undermines their effort. Anyone may put in any name, email address, and zipcode into their website’s form and that address is sent feedback as if they were a signatory to Demand Progress’ petition. No verification is done to make sure the person who uses that email address wasn’t the victim of someone else signing them up for Demand Progress’ feedback (which. if unsolicited, could rightfully called spam). As a result of this any claim’s claims of petition popularity are suspect and dismissable. Nobody knows how many of the alleged signatures are actually people interested in supporting the complaint.
  • email is cheap. Handwritten letters, phone calls, and in-person support are all more meaningful. It’s easy to manufacture a large set of email addresses and make it look like a large group of people support your cause. It’s not easy to get people to send handwritten letters or postcards to their Congressional representatives, or phone into a Congressional representative’s office complaining about something and demanding specific action. In-person action is far more convincing than names in a spreadsheet. Marching in the street is, therefore, more convincing than a group of names, email addresses, and zipcodes.

As long as people think clicking a button is a good approximation for political organizing, the status quo wins. Political organizing is more about identifying and doing the legwork that needs to be done, not caving into someone’s objection that it’s too hard to catch someone else’s attention and settling for a self-selected poll.