The global fight over copyright control: Is David beating Goliath at his own game?

Anti-HADOPI march in Paris
Anti-HADOPI march in Paris, 2009. Image by kurto.

In the past few years, many governments have attempted to curb online “piracy” by enforcing harsher copyright control upon Internet users. This trend is now well documented in the academic literature, as with Jon Bright and José Agustina‘s or Sebastian Haunss‘ recent reviews of such developments.

However, as the digital copyright control bills of the 21st century reached parliamentary floors, several of them failed to pass. Many of these legislative failures, such as the postponement of the SOPA and PIPA bills in the United States, succeeded in mobilizing large audiences and received widespread media coverage.

Writing about these bills and the related events that led to the demise of the similarly-intentioned Anti-Counterfeiting Treaty Agreement (ACTA), Susan Sell, a seasoned analyst of intellectual property enforcement, points to the transnational coalition of Internet users at the heart of these outcomes. As she puts it:

In key respects, this is a David and Goliath story in which relatively weak activists were able to achieve surprising success against the strong.

That analogy also appears in our recently published article in Policy & Internet, which focuses on the groups that fought several digital copyright control bills as they went through the European and French parliaments in 2007-2009 — most notably the EU “Telecoms Package” and the French “HADOPI” laws.

Like Susan Sell, our analysis shows “David” civil society groups formed by socially and technically skilled activists disrupting the work of “Goliath” coalitions of powerful actors that had previously been successful at converting the interests of the so-called “creative industries” into copyright law.

To explain this process, we stress the importance of digital environments for providing contenders of copyright reform with a robust discursive opportunity structure — a space in which activist groups could defend and diffuse alternative understandings and practices of copyright control and telecommunication reform.

These counter-frames and practices refer to the Internet as a public good, and make openness, sharing and creativity central features of the new digital economy. They also require that copyright control and telecom regulation respect basic principles of democratic life, such as the right to access information.

Once put into the public space by skilled activists from the free software community and beyond, this discourse chimed with a larger audience, which eventually led many European and French parliamentarians to oppose “graduated response” and “three-strikes” initiatives that threatened Internet users with Internet access termination for successive copyright infringement. The reforms that we studied had different legal outcomes, thereby reflecting the current state of copyright regulation.

In our analysis, we say a lot more about the kind of skills that we briefly allude to here, such as political coding abilities to support political and legal analysis. We also draw on previous work by Andrew Chadwick to forge the concept of digital network repertoires of contention, by which we mean the tactical use of digital communication to mobilize individuals into loose protest groups.

This part of our research sheds light on how “David” ended up beating “Goliath”, with activists relying on their technical skills and high levels of digital literacy to overcome the logic of collective action and to counterbalance their comparatively weak economic resources.

However, as we write in our paper, David does not systematically beat Goliath over copyright control and telecom regulation. The “three-strikes” or “graduated response” approach to unauthorized file-sharing, where Internet users are monitored and sanctioned if suspected of digital “piracy”, is still very much alive.

France is an interesting case study to date, as it pioneered this scheme under Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. Although the current left-wing government seems determined to dismantle the “HADOPI” body set up by its predecessor, which has proven largely ineffective in curbing online copyright infringement, it has not renounced the monitoring and sanctioning of illegal file-sharing.

Furthermore, as both our case studies illustrate, online collective action had to be complemented by offline lobbying and alliances with like-minded parliamentary actors, consumer groups and businesses to work effectively. The extent to which activism has actually gone ‘digital’ therefore requires some nuance.

Finally, as we stress in our article and as Yana observes in her literature review on Internet content regulation in liberal democracies, further comparative work is needed to assess whether the “Davids” of Internet activism are beating the “Goliaths” in the global fight over online file-sharing and copyright control.

We therefore hope that our article will incite other researchers to study the social groups that compete over intellectual property lawmaking. The legislative landscape is rife with reforms of copyright law and telecom regulation, and the conflicts that they generate carry important lessons for Internet politics scholars.


Breindl, Y. and Briatte, F. (2013) Digital Protest Skills and Online Activism Against Copyright Reform in France and the European Union. Policy and Internet 5 (1) 27-55.

Breindl, Y. (2013) Internet content regulation in liberal democracies. A literature review. Working Papers on Digital Humanities, Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Bright, J. and Agustina, J.R. (2013) Mediating Surveillance: The Developing Landscape of European Online Copyright Enforcement. Journal of Contemporary European Research 9 (1).

Chadwick, A. (2007) Digital Network Repertoires and Organizational Hybridity. Political Communication 24 (3).

Haunss, S. (2013) Conflicts in the Knowledge Society: The Contentious Politics of Intellectual Property. Cambridge Intellectual Property and Information Law (No. 20), Cambridge University Press.

Sell, S.K. (2013) Revenge of the “Nerds”: Collective Action against Intellectual Property Maximalism in the Global Information Age. International Studies Review 15 (1) 67-85.

Read the full paper: Yana Breindl and François Briatte (2012) Digital Protest Skills and Online Activism Against Copyright Reform in France and the European Union. Policy and Internet 5 (1).

Online collective action and policy change: new special issue from Policy and Internet

The Internet has multiplied the platforms available to influence public opinion and policy making. It has also provided citizens with a greater capacity for coordination and mobilisation, which can strengthen their voice and representation in the policy agenda. As waves of protest sweep both authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies, this rapidly developing field calls for more detailed enquiry. However, research exploring the relationship between online mobilisation and policy change is still limited. This special issue of ‘Policy and Internet’ addresses this gap through a variety of perspectives. Contributions to this issue view the Internet both as a tool that allows citizens to influence policy making, and as an object of new policies and regulations, such as data retention, privacy, and copyright laws, around which citizens are mobilising. Together, these articles offer a comprehensive empirical account of the interface between online collective action and policy making.

Within this framework, the first article in this issue, “Networked Collective Action and the Institutionalized Policy Debate: Bringing Cyberactivism to the Policy Arena?” by Stefania Milan and Arne Hintz (2013), looks at the Internet as both a tool of collective action and an object of policy. The authors provide a comprehensive overview of how computer-mediated communication creates not only new forms of organisational structure for collective action, but also new contentious policy fields. By focusing on what the authors define as ‘techie activists,’ Milan and Hintz explore how new grassroots actors participate in policy debates around the governance of the Internet at different levels. This article provides empirical evidence to what Kriesi et al. (1995) defines as “windows of opportunities” for collective action to contribute to the policy debate around this new space of contentious politics. Milan and Hintz demonstrate how this has happened from the first World Summit of Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 to more recent debates about Internet regulation.

Yana Breindl and François Briatte’s (2013) article “Digital Protest Skills and Online Activism Against Copyright Reform in France and the European Union” complements Milan and Hintz’s analysis by looking at how the regulation of copyright issues opens up new spaces of contentious politics. The authors compare how online and offline initiatives and campaigns in France around the “Droit d’Auteur et les Droits Voisins dans la Société de l’Information” (DADVSI) and “Haute Autorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sure Internet” (HADOPI) laws, and in Europe around the Telecoms Package Reform, have contributed to the deliberations within the EU Parliament. They thus add to the rich debate on the contentious issues of intellectual property rights, demonstrating how collective action contributes to this debate at the European level.

The remaining articles in this special issue focus more on the online tactics and strategies of collective actors and the opportunities opened by the Internet for them to influence policy makers. In her article, “Activism and The Online Mediation Opportunity Structure: Attempts to Impact Global Climate Change Policies?” Julie Uldam (2013) discusses the tactics used by London-based environmental activists to influence policy making during the 17th UN climate conference (COP17) in 2011. Based on ethnographic research, Uldam traces the relationship between online modes of action and problem identification and demands. She also discusses the differences between radical and reformist activists in both their preferences for online action and their attitudes towards policy makers. Drawing on Cammaerts’ (2012) framework of the mediation opportunity structure, Uldam shows that radical activists preferred online tactics that aimed at disrupting the conference, since they viewed COP17 as representative of an unjust system. However, their lack of technical skills and resources prevented them from disrupting the conference in the virtual realm. Reformist activists, on the other hand, considered COP17 as a legitimate adversary, and attempted to influence its politics mainly through the diffusion of alternative information online.

The article by Ariadne Vromen and William Coleman (2013) “Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! Australia,” also investigates a climate change campaign but shifts the focus to the new ‘hybrid’ collective actors, who use the Internet extensively for campaigning. Based on a case study of GetUp!, Vromen and Coleman examine the storytelling strategies employed by the organisation in two separate campaigns, one around climate change, the other around mental health. The authors investigate the factors that led one campaign to be successful and the other to have limited resonance. They also skilfully highlight the difficulties encountered by new collective actors to gain legitimacy and influence policy making. In this respect, GetUp! used storytelling to set itself apart from traditional party-based politics and to emphasise its identity as an organiser and representative of grassroots communities, rather than as an insider lobbyist or disruptive protestor.

Romain Badouard and Laurence Monnoyer-Smith (2013), in their article “Hyperlinks as Political Resources: The European Commission Confronted with Online Activism,” explore some of the more structured ways in which citizens use online tools to engage with policy makers. They investigate the political opportunities offered by the e-participation and e-government platforms of the European Commission for activists wishing to make their voice heard in the European policy making sphere. They focus particularly on strategic uses of web technical resources and hyperlinks, which allows citizens to refine their proposals and thus increase their influence on European policy.

Finally, Jo Bates’ (2013) article “The Domestication of Open Government Data Advocacy in the UK: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis” provides a pertinent framework that facilitates our understanding of the policy challenges posed by the issue of open data. The digitisation of data offers new opportunities for increasing transparency; traditionally considered a fundamental public good. By focusing on the Open Data Government initiative in the UK, Bates explores the policy challenges generated by increasing transparency via new Internet platforms by applying the established theoretical instruments of Gramscian ‘Trasformismo.’ This article frames the open data debate in terms consistent with the literature on collective action, and provides empirical evidence as to how citizens have taken an active role in the debate on this issue, thereby challenging the policy debate on public transparency.

Taken together, these articles advance our understanding of the interface between online collective action and policy making. They introduce innovative theoretical frameworks and provide empirical evidence around the new forms of collective action, tactics, and contentious politics linked with the emergence of the Internet. If, as Melucci (1996) argues, contemporary social movements are sensors of new challenges within current societies, they can be an enriching resource for the policy debate arena. Gaining a better understanding of how the Internet might strengthen this process is a valuable line of enquiry.

Read the full article at: Calderaro, A. and Kavada A., (2013) “Challenges and Opportunities of Online Collective Action for Policy Change“, Policy and Internet 5(1).

Twitter: @AnastasiaKavada / @andreacalderaro
Web: Anastasia’s Personal Page / Andrea’s Personal Page


Badouard, R., and Monnoyer-Smith, L. 2013. Hyperlinks as Political Resources: The European Commission Confronted with Online Activism. Policy and Internet 5(1).

Bates, J. 2013. The Domestication of Open Government Data Advocacy in the UK: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis. Policy and Internet 5(1).

Breindl, Y., and Briatte, F. 2013. Digital Protest Skills and Online Activism Against Copyright Reform in France and the European Union. Policy and Internet 5(1).

Cammaerts, Bart. 2012. “Protest Logics and the Mediation Opportunity Structure.” European Journal of Communication 27(2): 117–134.

Kriesi, Hanspeter. 1995. “The Political Opportunity Structure of New Social Movements: its Impact on their Mobilization.” In The Politics of Social Protest, eds. J. Jenkins and B. Dermans. London: UCL Press, pp. 167–198.

Melucci, Alberto. 1996. Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Milan, S., and Hintz, A. 2013. Networked Collective Action and the Institutionalized Policy Debate: Bringing Cyberactivism to the Policy Arena? Policy and Internet 5(1).

Uldam, J. 2013. Activism and the Online Mediation Opportunity Structure: Attempts to Impact Global Climate Change Policies? Policy and Internet 5(1).

Vromen, A., and Coleman, W. 2013. Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! in Australia. Policy and Internet 5(1).