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Mike Masnick: Accidental Activist to Some, "Demagogue" to Others

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, May 10 2012

Mike Masnick, founder and CEO of Techdirt and Floor64, Photo: Flickr/Dennis Yang

The event organizers knew they wanted Mike Masnick to speak, but some worried that he'd be too controversial, too Jerry Springer.

Masnick runs Techdirt.com, one of the most popular hubs on the web for news and opinion about innovation policy and the Internet. He's known for writing with depth and knowledge, but he also uses sharp-elbowed language laced with a caustic wit. Masnick does not suffer fools lightly, and he seems to think that Washington D.C. policymakers' emphasis on enforcement rather than innovation is foolish. The entertainment industries, he says, are trying to prop up broken business models with legislation that will hurt the businesses of the future. He's made no bones about that on his blog, and his uncompromising views have made him one of the most controversial and widely-read voices in a sprawling international conversation about the future of creative industry. With up to two million readers visiting his site every month, and 600,000 subscribing to his site's news feed and daily e-mail, he's emerged as a spokesman of sorts for Silicon Valley in this debate, relied upon by key influencers in the new Internet economy to help them reach an internal consensus. And all of this has made him hugely unpopular, not only in Hollywood, but in those quarters of K Street where lobbyists for the established content industry hang their shingles.

So it was no surprise that when the Internet Education Foundation wanted to host a January panel discussion on the Stop Online Piracy Act, executive director Tim Lordan picked Masnick -- even if Lordan had to convince his colleagues that the blogger would, you know, behave. But there was something more to it than than Masnick's opinions or his influence. Perhaps more than anyone else, he represents the growing awareness in Silicon Valley that entrepreneurs can't just ignore Capitol Hill — and how far removed their views are from those of the people who have long held the clout in D.C. media and tech policy.

“Technology companies don’t have constituencies,” Lordan says. “And we kind of felt that Mike was representing something that wasn’t a company – it was more like a movement. And that’s kind of why we chose him. Mike represented something different, and we thought it was important to represent that at that particular moment in time.”

The "movement" Lordan is referring to is the vast outpouring of opposition that emerged to counter SOPA. After months of steadily building concern that the changes to the Internet proposed in SOPA would cripple user-generated content and with it major organizations like Wikipedia, Tumblr, Google and Twitter, many of those companies mobilized their users as part of a large-scale protest campaign. On Jan. 18, Wikipedia blacked out its pages, making the case that its enterprise would become unsustainable under the restraint on shared content effectively mandated in SOPA. Tumblr interrupted every single one of its users who tried to blog, explaining what SOPA was to them, and giving them access to a tool that would connect them by phone to their member of Congress to discuss the bill. Users trying to access their dashboard found lines of text "redacted" behind black lines, the argument being that Tumblr users would find themselves blocked out of the service too. Reddit, that ziggurat of GIFs, memes and parodies, also went dark. Just days before the Jan. 18 protests, the White House came out against the bill. The legislation, backed by the MPAA, RIAA, and major unions, quickly lost key sponsors from both parties. SOPA never made it out of the House of Representatives, and companion Senate legislation similarly stalled — a victory for Silicon Valley and against Hollywood.

The run-up to this climactic day of protest began in October, when a group of entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists arrived in Washington to discuss SOPA for the first time. Many of the group on that trip looked to Masnick for his reading of the legislation that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and a host of cosponsors introduced in the House on Oct. 27.

“We were actually at dinner the night before and we were supposed to meet members of Congress the next day,” recalls Mike McGeary, co-founder of a new group, Engine Advocacy, that advocates for the interests of Internet entrepreneurs. “We all started reading this, and everyone in the room turned to Mike at some point and asked: ‘Were we expecting this?’”

Masnick says that the group spent the next day visiting members of Congress to express their concerns. Many lawmakers told their visitors that this was the first time that they had heard from anyone in Silicon Valley about any issue at all.

In the months after that initial trip, Masnick escalated a full-scale online blitz against SOPA, hammering the legislation on his blog daily, and closely chronicling its movement through Congress. As they discussed the legislation in private email groups, free-Internet advocates passed around his articles as fodder for conversation.

“He is incredibly energetic. He is substantive. He studies the tech, he studies the issues, he spends a tremendous amount of time in the world of facts and data, and I think he’s got a good voice, and a very strong point of view, and he’s a fun writer,” says Andrew McLaughlin, one of Masnick’s readers, and the White House’s former deputy chief technology officer. McLaughlin is now a vice president at Tumblr, which was one of the platform companies that used its position to urge its users to call their members of congress to complain about SOPA. “His blog surfaces stuff that I’ve just never seen anywhere else to an amazing degree.”

In person, Masnick is more wonk than pundit. When I met him at a coffee shop in Palo Alto last week, he arrived in a rumpled sports jacket and jeans. The flights of hyperbole and scorn that characterize his writing online were nowhere to be found. His manners were mild. But he certainly didn't hold back any of his opinions on copyright.

“I tend to think enforcement doesn’t work,” he told me when we met. “And the type of enforcement that’s done, I don’t see it as an effective solution.”

Masnick builds this argument, he says, based on the data he sees. And he shares that data prolifically.

A Tuesday blog post pointing to a Wired story is a case in point. Last Thursday my former colleague David Kravets published a story charging that the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit had to drop a case against a web site it had accused of copyright infringement. The case was no good because the Recording Industry Association of America had failed to provide necessary evidence to the government to move forward. What was especially damning about the situation was that ICE had seized the domain, Dajaz1.com, in November 2010, but did not decide to drop the case, and to return control of the domain back to the owner, until more than a year later.

Masnick seized upon the story to criticize the “all-too-close relationship between the federal government and the RIAA,” and to point out how the apparently erroneous seizure of the domain resulted in a year of online exile, which almost killed Dajaz1.com. The post called the RIAA’s public statements regarding the case “ridiculous.” Masnick also worried about the Department of Justice and ICE’s regulatory capture “by this private entity with a history of hysterical overreactions.”

Masnick cranks out anything from nine to 11 stories a day, many of them similar to those in tone and tenor — but not all. Techdirt wasn't always such a frequent commenter on copyright and intellectual property.

"A couple of things happened: People started identifying us and me with those issues, and we got more and more of those things sent to us," he told me. "The other thing is that when we write about the other things people tend to skip over them. People don't have the same emotional connection to it."

Broadly, the blog is focused on innovation, and since innovation by its nature is often about breaking the rules, much of Masnick’s attention is also on those artists and creators who are for their part embracing the digital world with business experiments. (Masnick also defies a few conventions himself: Much of his work is done in the dead of night, and he often writes from an elliptical machine- sitting/standing desk combo described at length, with pictures, on his personal blog.) This means Techdirt could hone in as closely on Nine Inch Nails or Amanda Palmer as on a new startup. Another big area of focus are incumbents, for whom Masnick in typical Silicon Valley fashion has little patience. None of this helps his reputation in Washington, D.C.

“To the extent [Techdirt is] perceived at all, it’s perceived rather badly because it’s so one-sided and slanted," says Tom Sydnor, a former senior fellow and director of the Center for the Study of Digital Property at conservative think tank The Progress & Freedom Foundation. Sydnor, who worked as a top senate aide on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee during the 108th Congress, often got into fights online with Masnick on their respective blogs when Sydnor was blogging at PFF. He’s now a fellow at another think tank called the Association for Competitive Technology.

"I think Techdirt is demagoguery in the sense that a demagogue is somebody that tells only one side of the story, and exaggerates, and so I would largely say that Techdirt is demagoguery," Sydnor said at another point in our conversation.

Masnick acknowledges the blowback he gets, but he says that he hopes he's starting a dialogue. Musicians and artists often leave comments on his blog, he says, stating that he must hate them. He says that's far from the truth, and he engages them in the comments and will often arrange to meet them in person to discuss the issues further.

Detractors and all, Techdirt has built a steady following since its founding as an e-mail newsletter in 1997. Back then, Masnick was still studying for his MBA at Cornell. He started with 200 subscribers, mostly friends in business school or family.

“I was in the middle of nowhere,” Masnick says about living in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell is located. “I thought this newsletter would help me get a job in technology.”

Masnick did stints in marketing at Intel and at an e-commerce startup called Release Software before devoting himself to his own company, Floor 64, in 2000. Through Floor 64, he runs Techdirt and conducts research for clients; bridging this gap between the technology and policy worlds has become his full-time job. Now 37 with a wife and child, Masnick post-SOPA has become increasingly enaged with D.C. rather than simply pillorying it, dropping in on Silicon Valley events where members of Congress are appearing, and encouraging readers to do the same.

He’s also been actively attempting to raise grassroots interest in policymaking, working for a proactive agenda for innovation rather than beating back entertainment industry demands on Capitol Hill. It turns out that blogging about policy is easier than coming up with new ones.

For example, in late April, Masnick led a weekend workshop at a Berkeley conference on intellectual property activism with Engine’s McGeary, attended by many other longtime IP activists and policy geeks. Masnick and McGeary wanted to establish some goals and metrics for success for an innovation agenda, but only one group in attendance could come up with a specific idea.

Masnick says that he doesn't expect the same level of coordination among the grassroots that industry lobbyists have. That just wouldn't work. But he expresses a strong belief in a "bottom-up strategy," of letting good ideas bubble up from Internet freedom advocates at critical moments.

As an example, he points to Fight for the Future, a small non-profit run by Tiffiniy Cheng and Holmes Wilson in Western Massachusetts who coordinated a number of high-profile campaigns against SOPA.

"Those guys were amazing," he marvels. "They had ideas. Those were two people in Western Massachusetts who came out of nowhere. In some ways those guys were naive and they actually thought that SOPA could be stopped. I didn't think it could be stopped."

And he says that advocates versed in traditional lobbying didn't think January 18 would be a good day for the online demonstrations because the Senate wasn't in session that day. The people running the participating websites decided to go ahead anyway, and it worked.

At issue now is the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, a bill that would allow private companies to share more user information pertaining to broadly defined cybersecurity issues with the government and with one another. It passed the House despite vocal opposition from Internet privacy and user rights advocates. The Googles and Facebooks of the world did not join in their dissent, although the White House issued a statement promising that senior advisers would recommend President Barack Obama veto the bill if it reached his desk.

"There's a narrative that CISPA [the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act] proves that SOPA was really the result of Google," Masnick says. "I think that's unfair. I think it may have pushed things over the edge — you build coalitions and some coalitions are stronger than others.

"Nobody wins every single battle," he adds.

And anyway, he said, "That battle is not necessarily done yet."

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