Online protests useful, but need end-results

Service blackouts to support causes such as those conducted by Wikipedia and Google provide "shock effect" but such acts need right motivations and produce tangible results, observers note.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Companies looking to advocate a cause by shutting down their online services need to make sure there is support from its user base and services made unavailable are non-critical ones, say analysts, who add that such acts produce a positive "shock effect" when done right.

Pranabesh Nath, industry manager of ICT practice Asia-Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, said that for companies looking to "blackout" their online services for the purpose of supporting a cause, their end-goal should not be to deny users access but to bring attention to the issue at hand.

He added in his e-mail that so long as the services made unavailable are non-critical ones, such acts would help bring attention to causes or issues that would otherwise go unnoticed by the majority of society. It would also lead to the increased popularity of organizations that supported and helped raise awareness of the particular issue, he said.

"A blackout of services provides a 'shock effect' that will force people to confront the issues and decide either way if they are going to support it or not," Nath stated.

Phil Hassey, owner of research firm CapioIT, likened such acts of support to labor strikes, saying that "nothing works better than a well-publicized stand to shut down services" as it provides visible and public benefits for the cause.

However, he did warn that such acts come with a risk, and companies need to decide carefully before going on such online strikes. Organizations that support the wrong cause or have shallow support might experience user backlash instead, the analyst noted.

"It is a parallel to labor strikes," he said. "If the strike is friendly, it will attract positive public sentiment. But if it's for greed or self interest, [the parties involved] will be rapidly found out and risk the negative sentiment."

SOPA "harms Internet"
Both analysts were commenting on the ongoing online strike by organizations such as Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Google in protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation currently being reviewed in the United States.

According to an earlier report by ZDNet Asia's sister site, CNET, SOPA would give U.S. officials the power to seek a court order against targeted offshore Web sites that allows piracy and intellectual property infringement. This court order, in turn, may be served on Internet providers in an effort to make targeted sites "disappear". "It's kind of an Internet death penalty," the report noted.

However, detractors of the bill have said that the legislation is against free speech, and might harm the Internet instead.

Wikipedia has been one of the more outspoken critics of the legislation, stating on its site that SOPA "actually infringes free expression while harming the Internet". To show its objection, it had shut down its English language site on Jan. 18, 12 a.m. Eastern time, for 24 hours, according to its Web site.

Similarly, Google had censored its logo and urged its users to petition against both SOPA and Protect IP Act (PIPA) on its homepage, while Mozilla Foundation will be joining the online movement at 8 a.m. Eastern time by blacking out the homepage of its Firefox browser.

Consumers support blackout, but conditionally
Most people ZDNet Asia spoke to expressed their support for the companies involved in the blackout movement.

Natalie Pang, a fashion writer, said she supports their actions since such acts were for a greater cause and is not a "life and death situation", while Bryan Wong, who is currently studying in the U.S., said these actions were justifiable.

"In the U.S., the First Amendment for freedom of speech and information is a big thing. As online companies are proponents of free flow of information, this is like a boycott of an illegal act that I feel is fully justified," he explained.

Yet, some felt that monetary or investment factors should be taken into consideration when shutting down services.

Civil servant Lin Surong noted that since Wikipedia is a free service, the blackout is fine. "I can't imagine if mobile companies decide to shut down their services for a cause, though, [as] it is not okay when people have paid for a service and they randomly shut it down."

Rhoda Wong, a public relations executive, felt that if such an act achieves its objectives, raises enough awareness of piracy and obtains something tangible out of it, such as getting 500 users pledging not to commit piracy acts for example, then it is considered a "good cause".

Yet, if organizations shut down their services and nothing happens or is achieved, the companies would be denying users benefits of their services for a day and "everyone loses", she pointed out. "If [companies] were to do this, they must ensure that they measure their results to prevent this from happening."

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