SOPA, PIPA, ACTA – if you haven’t lived under a stone lately then you should have heard these terms as symbols of a growing conflict between the established political elites and the ‘web-citizens’ of the world. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy ACT) and its conceptual ‘sibling’ PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) is (or actually was) a bill that was about to be adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the Senate until something happened: The web stood up against it and defeated both.

Both proposed legislative approaches were meant to protect the right of copyright owners. So why does the web-citizen of this world think that brands like Oakley or Apple shouldn’t have the means to fight copyright infringements? Why should they simply accept that dodgy guys with even dodgier ideas sell counterfeits online? SOPA and PIPA allegedly were there to prevent that from happening…well, if actually they didn’t at all.

Problem 1: neither of these bills was able to prevent criminals from doing what they’re doing. They could have easily circumvented the technical barriers created by any of both bills. Problem 2: the democratic collateral damage of passing these bills would have been immense. Both bills would accept a copyright owner to simply ask a judge to switch off a website or online service which then had to prove innocence. Annoying for platforms like YouTube, impossible to handle for smaller platforms like Vimeo and Etsy. SOPA and PIPA would have had the potential to end the social web – it simply would have been too dangerous for any platform to stage user-generated, user-remixed content or even allow users to interact freely.

Why am I writing about this? Because brands were and still are part of bills like PIPA, SOPA and – its European sibling – ACTA. Particularly in the U.S. where major brands massively interact in the political process and have become extremely influential. More than a hundred mainstream brands supported SOPA and PIPA. But the more the public realized how harmful both bills were, the higher the chance for a major PR disaster.

More than a hundred mainstream brands supported SOPA and PIPA

That’s exactly what GoDaddy.com went through: Around Christmas 2012 social network Reddit.com organized a boycott against the world’s largest Domain Registrar because of its support of the SOPA bill. For an intense two weeks the platform lost thousands of domains on a daily basis and with that quickly lost its reputation as a credible brand in the digital society.

GoDaddy.com was just one of many brands that tried hard to get the Political Genie back into the bottle. While public support for SOPA and PIPA finally led to the end for both bills most engaged major brands were primarily focused on evasive PR maneuvers to explain their support to their rightfully outraged customers. The easily accessible list of B2C brands became a major problem. Some brands like L’Oréal or Oakley were listed as individual sponsors. Others like Microsoft or Apple were part of larger industry associations supporting either one or the other bill. In other words – the same companies that allegedly celebrated the fruits of a more open, digital society on their Facebook pages supported bills that many observers described as censorship.

Most of the brands that supported the SOPA and PIPA did probably not foresee what they supported. Fighting against copyright seems a righteous cause, but the bills simply kill the freedom of the web by threatening free interaction of users all over the world. Many brands simply accept that. Even brands with slogans like ‘Think Different’ or ‘Live to Ride’. Counter-culture? That was in the 70s, baby.

Counter-culture? That was in the 70s, baby

The struggle between an old and a new world is persistent. No matter whether we talk about business models, copyright infringements, or the Arab Spring: The web has changed everything. But what it has also changed is the question whether brands can actually stay unpolitical when it comes to shaping this brave new world. You cannot preach to ‘think different’ anymore and at the same time accept a bill that might help you save a couple of bucks but damages the free web as a whole. Sustainability is not just a concept to save the whales. Brands from now on will also have to act sustainable on behalf of the free web. We are the web-citizens in this new world. And we will buy from brands that help make our web a better place.