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Small Worcester group plays large role in online protest

Fight For The Future’s codirector Tiffiniy Cheng is flanked by organizers Donny Shaw (right) and Douglas Schatz. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

Last week’s Internet protest over proposed antipiracy laws, which pit the likes of Google Inc. and Wikipedia against Hollywood titans, got a big boost from a tiny group in Worcester.

A four-month-old online advocacy effort called Fight for the Future, with a staff of five, helped orchestrate the national Jan. 18 blackout of 115,000 websites to protest two congressional bills giving the government new powers to regulate the Internet. Opponents of the legislation said it would hinder freedom of speech. Backers said tougher laws are needed to halt the illegal downloading of music, movies, and other content.

The blackout attracted worldwide attention and had an immediate impact: The antipiracy legislation was promptly shelved, at least temporarily.


Fight for the Future came up with the idea of an online demonstration more than two months ago, which evolved into last week’s event. It is also credited with helping to organize businesses and Web users against the legislation, which until then appeared to be speeding through Congress. It also built some of the software that allowed websites to go dark.

The group “helped mobilize the community of technology companies and public interest groups and ensured our collective focus was on informing the legislative process,’’ said Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla darkened its popular Firefox browser for 24 hours last week Wednesday, as did Wikipedia, Tumblr, and thousands of other sites.

Fight for the Future, Fowler said, helped make it “a watershed moment for online advocacy and public policy.’’

Jay Walsh, spokesman for Wikimedia, whose foundation operates Wikipedia, said, “We were listening to what they were saying.’’ Ultimately, it was up to Wikipedia editors to decide whether to take down the English version of the site Jan. 18, Walsh said. When it became clear that they favored such an action, the day of Web activism was launched to a higher level.


“I’m in awe that it happened,’’ Tiffiniy Cheng, 31, Fight for the Future’s cofounder, said of the protest. “But I’m not surprised people got involved. It was obvious to us that this was an issue that Internet users cared about.’’

Groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, two major backers of the bills now stalled in Congress, say they are frustrated by the position of online-advocacy groups such as Fight for the Future.

“We have been told repeatedly that the tech community agrees that something needs to be done,’’ Cary Sherman, RIAA’s chairman, said in a statement. “We take them at their word, and continue to hope that we can sit down with responsible leaders from that community to devise a solution that will address counterfeiting and theft and, yes, bring the rule of law to the Internet.’’

Fight for the Future certainly did not go it alone in bringing about last week’s demonstration. A coalition of grass-roots online organizations, tech companies, and advocacy groups has been working to oppose the two bills - the House of Representative’s Stop Online Piracy Act, and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act.

But the Worcester organization was a key participant in the one-day revolt, building much of the technology that made it possible, according to Elizabeth Stark, Internet activist and visiting lecturer on the future of technology at Stanford Law School.


Its most significant contribution to the effort may have come during a Nov. 9 meeting about the antipiracy legislation that was held at the Mountain View, Calif., headquarters of Mozilla. Taking part that day were tech companies, advocacy groups, and academics about the antipiracy legislation.

Cheng and the group’s other cofounder, Holmes Wilson, 32, said they called in to the session to pitch the idea of a Nov. 16 protest, which also called for companies and organizations to close down their websites.

“No one knew how quickly these bills were moving through Congress,’’ said Cheng. “It wasn’t on most people’s radar, and that phone call helped get the engine running.’’ Tumblr and Boing Boing, and about 6,000 other sites, took part in the November demonstration that led to 84,000 calls to Congress, according to Fight for the Future.

“We went from frighteningly low awareness in the tech community [about the antipiracy bills] to broad awareness,’’ Wilson said.

Fight for the Future’s founders said they are considering the young organization’s next steps, such as how to keep Internet users focused on copyright issues.

It is familiar territory for Cheng and Wilson. Between the two of them, they have created about a dozen websites and worked on software meant to aid the unrestricted flow of music, videos, and information online. They do not explicitly advocate criminal activity, but Cheng and Wilson are against strong copyright laws for corporations, and are wary about attempts to restrict use of the Internet.


They met in Worcester while attending theMassachusetts Academy of Math and Science, a school for some of state’s brightest 11th- and 12th-graders. In 2005, they formed the nonprofit Participatory Culture Foundation along with another Worcester resident, Nicholas Reville. With support from Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, it has created an open-source video and music sharing platform.

Fight for the Future got off the ground last fall with a $300,000 grant from the Media Democracy Fund, which supports public interest organizations that focus on digital rights. Its director, Helen Brunner, said the fund is finalizing another $759,000 grant for Fight for the Future.

Brunner said there are not enough groups mobilizing Web users for political and policy issues such as copyright law. Fight for the Future fills part of that void, she said.

And while the subject of Internet freedom is a serious one, Fight for the Future sometimes lightens the mood to get its message across. For instance, its first project last year was FreeBieber.org, a satirical site that took aim at Senate legislation, which it suggested would make it a felony to perform copyrighted material in online videos. They used Justin Bieber, who gained attention by singing Chris Brown songs on YouTube, to make a point about what the bill could mean to aspiring artists.

“Using humor is a good way to approach these issues, because it’s more interesting and compelling and it’s not someone lecturing you about what’s wrong with the world,’’ said Wilson. “It contributes to the debate in a new way.’’


Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com.