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San Francisco Takes Lead on Web's Political Awakening

A day of darkened websites was backed by Mayor Lee and other city officials

SOPA Protest

The group gathered outside San Francisco's City Hall on Wednesday did not look like the usual crowd of Bay Area protesters.

There were no drum circles, and the sweet smell of a certain quasi-legal substance was noticeably absent. Instead, the 100 or so people who had gathered to protest a pair of federal bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, looked like computer programmers on a lunch break — which many of them were.

Many Internet users and technology companies have argued that the bills, which are aimed at stemming copyright violations and have the support of the recording and film industries, would stifle free expression online.

The group sported branded backpacks (Google, Mozilla), somber fleece jackets and relatively restrained facial hair. Signage was limited to a few handmade posters; nary a dreadlock was seen. There was no mic check, just a working microphone.

Ron Conway Speaks Out Against SOPA

Speakers at the San Francisco event included Ron Conway, an investor in more than 600 technology companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook; MC Hammer, the rapper-turned-website founder; David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; Craig Newmark of Craigslist; and Harvey Anderson, general counsel for Mozilla. Jay Nath, San Francisco's newly named chief of innovation, read a statement from Mayor Ed Lee condemning the proposed legislation.

The speakers' words differed but their message was consistent: with anti-SOPA actions, the Web had found its political voice.

"This is unprecedented in history. There's not one day that people have contacted Congress more," said Elizabeth Stark, a Stanford lecturer and founder of the Open Video Alliance. "It's amazing what the Internet can do."

It's likely that San Francisco will see more tech-driven political actions like this in the future, in response to both national and local issues.

"We need to keep building momentum," Conway said. "We have a lot to do at the grassroots level."

MC Hammer Speaks Out Against SOPA

After the coordinated blackouts by powerhouses such as Wikipedia, Mozilla, Reddit and others, along with anti-SOPA messaging featured prominently on Google, Twitter and Facebook, key congressional backers of the bills have withdrawn support.

Politico reported Wednesday that four of the initial 40 bill supporters in the Senate and two of the 30 sponsors in the House have reversed their positions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has vowed to filibuster the legislation. Over the weekend, the White House released a statement condemning the bills' current language.

Perhaps not surprisingly, San Francisco seems to be a bit ahead of the curve in uniting the worlds of technology and politics. Conway's name in particular has been in headlines for the past year, thanks to his public support of Lee and his donations to other local measures, like San Francisco's sit/lie initiative.

When asked about his political activity, Conway said that he had been on Atherton's City Council 35 years ago, but had only started taking an active role in San Francisco politics "for the last three years." Last week, he was present at Lee's unveiling of a new program, sfCITI (San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation), aimed at spurring civic-minded tech initiatives.

The main area of overlap for tech companies and cities? "Creating jobs," Conway said.

The array of speakers at the demonstration, with city employees like Nath and Chiu trading compliments with Web heavyweights like Conway, pointed to an increasingly cozy relationship between tech and politics in San Francisco. Lee was out of town at a convention of mayors.

Supervisor David Chiu Speaking Against SOPA

Many suggested that Wednesday's action could inaugurate a new era for online activism, in which the companies that make the platforms do more than just host content — they take a stand themselves.

"I hope the tech community stays more organized and awake," said Anderson, of Mozilla. He noted that many tech workers are "inherently apolitical," but said that could change.

For now, no one is threatening additional Web blackouts, which will be a relief to Wikipedia users. But San Francisco has struck a firm stance in support of its homegrown industry.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a resolution echoing Lee's condemnation of the anti-piracy laws. It seems likely to pass.

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