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What the New Internet Lobby Looks Like: An Interview with Internet Association's Michael Beckerman

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, September 19 2012

The Internet Association formally threw open its doors for business Wednesday, unveiling the 14 Web companies that make up its membership (they include AOL, Amazon, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, RackSpace and Zynga, among others).

The group's formation is worth noting not only because of the companies' newfound voice in the wake of the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act, but because it's going to be one of the more deep-pocketed organizations that are vying to be the voice of the larger "Internet community."

Its launch, and its new chief, also mark a turning point on Capitol Hill. For years, many policymakers seemed to associate the Internet with just one thing: Filesharing and its attendant intellectual property piracy. The PIPA/SOPA protests finally seemed to jolt them into engaging in a more nuanced discussion on the balance between the need to protect both creative works and technical innovation on the Internet.

"I suspect that in the aftermath of that debate, there's been a lot of rethinking across Washington, and maybe in companies across the country, as well as to what their strategies and approaches should be in dealing with Washington, and I think it's good that the companies are coming together to form the association," said David Sohn, the Center for Democracy and Technology's general counsel, and director of its project on copyright and technology.

One of the prime indicators is the hiring of Michael Beckerman, who stepped down in July from his post as a top advisor to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to lead the association. Here's a quick Q&A.

Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I spent 12 years on Capitol Hill in a variety of positions, most recently as deputy staff director for the Energy & Commerce Committee, which is the committee that has jurisdiction over telecommunications and Internet policy, so I’ve been following and working on these issues for a number of years.

What led you to the Internet Association?

The companies came together independently and decided that it was important to have a voice in the policy debate, and luckily they found me to be the first association head.

They met among themselves prior to SOPA and PIPA and discussed forming an Internet-focused trade association because there was none in Washington, and obviously after SOPA and PIPA happened, it sped up the process, and I started in July.

There was also this group representing Internet companies called the Net Coalition. Is this a successor organization to the NetCoalition? Or is it different?

We’re a new organization. Coalition and partnerships come and go. We’re a permanent fixture in the policy debate. And also another thing that is going to be unique about our trade organization is that we’re going to be looking to the users to get their input and their comments in the policy debate to make sure that they’re engaged, and that we have an open door to their views and thoughts as we fight shoulder-to-shoulder to make sure that the Internet stays free and innovative.

How are you going to do that?

We’ll be very active on social media, and ask for comments on our Web site and blog. We’ll look to have a number of forums throughout the country both live in person, but also over the Web to get input to make sure their voices are heard.

The great thing about the Internet that makes it different from other sectors of the economy is the close relationship between users and these companies. We want to make sure that the users’ voices are heard as we work to ensure that the next SOPA never comes up, you know?

One of the things that was unusual about the SOPA fight was how it snowballed, and they wanted to stop something that they thought was detrimental to the Internet. So it was relatively easy to get everyone on board. But obviously the Internet is a big place, and it’s a fractious place. What are your thoughts on getting consensus on a position?

Obviously there will be disagreement, and there will be times when it’ll be difficult to get consensus, but I think there’s enough commonality so that we can drive consensus. That’s why we have our three planks of policies of protecting Internet Freedom, fostering innovation and economic growth, and empowering users. And users get to decide how and what products to use, and not regulators, and not anybody else.

A measure of our success is going to be to educate regulators and legislators and even the media on how the Internet works, and how the Internet economy impacts the broader U.S. and global economy, and the brick and mortar businesses, and how people are finding new and creative ways to use the Internet, just so the next SOPA never comes up. If SOPA 2.0 arises, we’ll be ready, and we’ll be ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with users to win that battle again, but I think a real measure of our success is to educate folks enough, so that we never have to have that battle, so that policymakers are mindful enough that they realize the great economic and social value that comes from the Internet.

How has the SOPA/PIPA debate changed the way members of Congress think about intellectual property and the internet policymaking?

Well certainly now they realize that there’s another voice that needs to be heard. Part of the reason that SOPA was such a bad policy was that they never engaged with users or engineers, or companies. Obviously, now they realize that there are voices out there that have opinions that matter, and they’ll be listening to them.

And obviously in the aftermath, both the Republican and Democratic parties have put in Internet freedom planks into their party platforms. And I haven’t dug through the rest of the platforms, but I’m sure that it’s a rare spot of commonality between both parties. And it says a lot about both parties. Both sides, probably for different reasons, coming together and saying that Internet freedom is an important part of their platform.

We saw just this week Darrell Issa, and Anna Eshoo, both of them members from California, one on the right, and one on the left, joining together and talking about the importance of Internet freedom, and we hope to foster that bipartisanship. It doesn’t matter were you are on the political spectrum, this is an important issue for our economy, and for the world.

How does did the PIPA/SOPA debate change how lawmakers and the policymakers think about the balance between protecting intellectual property and Internet freedom? Are they mutually exclusive?

No. I would say that no-one has done more to protect intellectual property than these Internet companies. They take a backseat to no-one in that regard. It’s not either or.

Could you tell me what Internet freedom means to the association? In particular, I’m talking about the very different visions between the Republicans and the Democrats. There’s an element of Net Neutrality involved, and the Republicans have traditionally staunchly opposed Net Neutrality, but the Democrats support it. So what’s the association’s position on Internet Freedom.

We have a blog post on our Web site that’s worth checking out on that. But when I say ‘freedom,’ I sit here thinking freedom of speech, freedom to innovate with new ideas, freedom for everybody to be able to create and use the products and services of the Internet on whatever device they want however they choose.

It’s also freedom from regulation in a free and open environment, and the freedom to be able to have free, in terms of cost, services on the Internet. Under the wrong regulatory scheme, this free, open, innovative architecture of the Internet could be broken.

Will Reddit have a role in terms of soliciting feedback from the larger community of Internet users?

Absolutely. Reddit is a great company, a great platform, and we plan on working with them closely to make sure that the users are heard. We’re actually partnering with Reddit to do an Internet 2012 bus tour during the presidential and vice presidential debates to highlight how the Internet is bringing economic and social value to talent across America. They’re terrific.

We’re working with them to get the message out, to register voters, talk about how Internet jobs have evolved outside of Silicon Valley and cyberspace into the brick and mortar businesses around the country, and so we’ll be working with them on that tour.

So you’re going to be on the bus with them.