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After SOPA/PIPA Victory, Tech is Thinking About Tackling Political Reform

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, January 24 2012

Illustration: Shutterstock

In the wake of last week's online uprising against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act, there's a fascinating dynamic starting to unfold as technology leaders and grassroots activists wrestle with the question: now what?

On one side, I'm seeing signs of a new willingness from tech leaders to not just engage Washington the old-fashioned way (by expanding their expenditures on lobbying and campaign donations) but by also addressing the underlying "pay-to-play" system that made it almost possible for one industry, the entertainment sector, to use legislation to impose its will on another industry, the Internet sector. Grassroots activists clearly are pressing in this direction. On the other hand, there's also clearly some reticence on the part of tech leaders to get more political or to take a more systemic approach.

To the first point, just read this blog post by John Battelle, co-founder of the Web 2 conferences (with Tim O'Reilly) and longtime author and journalist. "We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore," he writes.

Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington – for too long we’ve treated “Government” as damage, and we’ve routed around it.

The battle over SOPA and PIPA is a signal event in the history of our industry. ...But the fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money. Or, put another way, they’re withdrawing it. Go read this article to see what I mean:

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood Moguls Stopping Obama Donations Because Of President’s Piracy Stand: “Not Give A Dime Anymore”

Does this matter? Damn straight it does. In politics, money not only talks, it seduces, it cajoles, it forces, and it commands. And this is one of the boldest declarations of what’s wrong with our political system I’ve seen in quite some time. Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure to Finke’s widely read blog. But to call it displeasure is a disservice. It’s more like the tantrum of gods who have come to realize that no one believes their myths anymore.

He adds:

Many in our industry believe the way to tip the balance back our way is to simply play the same game, and out-donate the bastards. (Lord knows we have the money…)

But that sure as hell doesn’t sound very Internet-y to me. We have a problem on our hands, folks. In our own businesses, when faced with a problem, we find innovative solutions. We don’t just throw money at it. That’s the beauty of our industry.

There’s got to be a better way. And as I said at the Stanford conference, I for one am committing myself to helping figure this out. My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption.

Suggestions are bubbling up. One comes from Joel Spolsky, who writes the popular Joel on Software blog and launched the Stack Overflow programmer question-and-answer hub. On January 21, he wrote on his Google Plus page:

The dismal corruption of congress has gotten it to the point where lobbying for legislation is out of control. As Larry Lessig has taught us, the core rottenness originates from the high cost of running political campaigns, which mostly just goes to TV stations.

A solution is for the Internet industry to start giving free advertising to political campaigns on our own new media assets... assets like YouTube that are rapidly displacing television. Imagine if every political candidate had free access (under some kind of "equal time" rule) to enough advertising inventory on the Internet to run a respectable campaign. Sure, candidates can still pay to advertise on television, but the cost of campaigning would be a lot lower if every candidate could run geo-targeted pre-roll ads on YouTube, geo-targeted links at the top of Reddit.com, even targeted campaigns on Facebook. If the Internet can donate enough inventory (and I suspect we can), we can make it possible for a candidate to get elected without raising huge war chests from donors who are going to want something in return, and we may finally get to a point where every member of congress isn't in permanent outstretched-hand mode.

Spolsky's post struck a nerve, with nearly 3000 "plus one" endorsements and 2000 shares on Google Plus. And here's a post from Marco Arment, the creator of Instapaper, also arguing that techies should support reforms that reduce the role of big money in politics.

On the other hand, there's this fascinating exchange over on Jimmy Wales's talk page on Wikipedia, where members of the community have been asking him to get behind a post-blackout initiative to support public financing of elections. Wales starts out by saying that he wants to keep the Wikipedia community focused on "the very narrow scope of our mission."
A user named Selery responds:

Do you think that the worsening fundraising demands on congresspeople's time is the cause of greater lobbyist influence which allows bills like SOPA/PIPA to gain so much traction? "MPAA Directly & Publicly Threatens Politicians Who Aren't Corrupt Enough To Stay Bought" (Techdirt) This proposal, unlike the several constitutional amendments recently proposed in response to Citizens United, would not limit freedom of speech in any way. It would simply eliminate the necessity for candidates to spend so much time fundraising.

Wales responds:

Well, as I say, my personal views on campaign finance aren't really of particular interest here. My point is that the issue is complex and has many different parameters and many people of good faith can come down on many sides of that issue. It isn't core to our mission, so I think that we as a community would not be able to find consensus on the question, nor should we even try.

Wales is known for trying to keep Wikipedia out of politics (see his conversation at PdF 2010, where he refused to take a position in support of net neutrality), and a core value of Wikipedia is that it strives for neutrality. So Wales' comments here are not surprising. But the fact that he is being pressed from within Wikipedia to take a more aggressive approach to defending the free and open internet is important. And as Wikimedia's executive director Sue Gardner wrote in a blog post announcing Wikipedia's anti-SOPA blackout, "We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them." She added, "But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not." (By the way, for anyone who thinks that large numbers of people can't collaborate effectively, consider that 1800 Wikipedians participated in the crafting of that decision.)

The SOPA fight has cracked open a question in lots of minds, though. To what degree should the Internet (that is, the people and institutions who care about its values of openness and sharing) take on fixing our dysfunctional political system, if that system is going to keep on generating threats to the Internet's existence?

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