You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The Internet Association Wants To Crowdsource Its Lobbying

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, July 15 2013

The Internet Association's new Web site wants to engage Internet users in the policy process

The Internet Association on Monday launched a new online hub that its staff hope will open up the Beltway policymaking process to the public -- or at least encourage Internet companies' users to weigh in more often, and more voluminously.

The association has incorporated OpenGov Foundation's Project Madison bill annotation and collaboration service into its site, as well as a tool that enables the average Joe to lobby their members of Congress either through Twitter, Facebook, or through the members' forms on their Web sites.

"The Internet Association's website reflects our empowering users platform. It serves as a resource for the user community to learn about Internet policy issues and engage with their Members of Congress," said Michael Beckerman, the association's president and CEO in an e-mail. "Our association developed this website to be the most unique in Washington, by appealing to a global online community. Our website needs to represent the Internet industry and be a useful tool for the millions of people who care about the future of a free and innovative Internet. The design is meant to be forward thinking, not only in aesthetics, but also in grassroots engagement."

There are 14 different policy areas that that the association has laid out for Capitol Hill staffers and the public. They range from the generic "protecting Internet freedom" and "fostering innovation and economic growth," to more controversial and complicated subjects such as immigration, patent litigation reform, data security and cybersecurity.

However, just as its member companies encourage use of their products through the design of simple interfaces, the association has designed its policy pages for people who have become used to communicating with 140 characters or less: Each of the policy positions are communicated with 150 words or less of boilerplate language.

The idea of Internet companies getting their users more involved in the policymaking process is gaining more traction in fits and starts. The most effective example of that process: Last year's fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act. That's when companies used their own platforms to advertise their positions on the issue. They also asked their users directly to call their members of Congress, and gave them the tools to do so. And they worked with organizers to additionally mobilize millions of individuals online.

eBay, one of the Internet Association's member companies, even used the tactic in its fight against a federal bill that would have enabled states to collect taxes on items sold online by out-of-state businesses earlier this year. It sent out an e-mail to all of its users urging them to contact their members of Congress to oppose the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013. That effort was ineffective. The full Senate approved the legislation in May.

And that is perhaps what the Internet Association and its members have to learn: Crowdsourcing real support for policies takes a lot of work. The coalition of tech companies, venture capitalists and grassroots organizers succeeded in beating back SOPA and PIPA because there was one single simple goal to defeat what was universally acknowledged as a bad policy proposal. Professional organizers worked with lawyers and in-house counsel at the tech companies to build that tsunami of opposition.

Meanwhile, tech policies such as patent reform are multi-faceted. While killing the patent trolls might sound like a simple, desirable goal, the reality of what make a patent troll a patent troll is far more complex -- which is probably why none of the proposed patent reform bills are currently up for annotation on the revamped Internet Association's Web site, even though patent reform is one of the association's top legislative priorities this year.

Still, some companies have worked with their customers and users successfully to roll back unfavorable policies. Both the limo-hailing service Uber and the ride-sharing service Sidecar have successfully rallied their users to contact their local governments to allow their innovative services to continue operations.

The more difficult issue for associations always is getting the spectrum of companies on the same page internally in the first place let alone getting the wider tech-worker community supporting complex legal policies.

Nevertheless, it's possible. As Ron Conway's SF Citi shows on the local level, busy entrepreneurs are willing to listen to and trust the opinions of respected and powerful members of their community, and show up and mobilize when called. So the next step for the Internet Association would be to hire an organizer, and to round up influential members of their communities to advise peers on what positions they should be taking and lobbying their members of Congress about.

"Personally, I have mixed feelings about the concept," said Mike Masnick, CEO and Founder of the popular tech policy blog TechDirt about the incorporation of Madison, the bill annotation and collaboration service into the Internet Association's platform. "In theory it sounds good, but it takes a lot more to get people involved than just setting up a website -- and I think we've seen that all along with the various bills that have been posted via Project Madison in the past. I can't recall any that have received significant input from the public."

"Building a community requires a bit more than just throwing up some text and a chat box," he added. "That said, I do support the idea of more open and participative democracy, but I think it needs to continue to evolve beyond just "edit this bill," which is asking people to do something way outside of their knowledge area and skill set. I think techies, in particular, are a lot more likely to be useful in discussing the possible implications on innovation of a bill, rather than directly editing the text of a bill themselves."

Masnick suggests a more loose-knit kind of back an forth between the inside-the-Beltway types and the broader community on policy issue, kind of what happens on reddit right now when lawmakers such as Rep. Zoe Lofgren post proposed bills up for discussion and improvement.

"So, for something to work, I think a more open forum that is about "here's what we're trying to accomplish -- give us suggestions on how to accomplish that" as well as "will this idea work?" etc would be more effective than "here's this pre-written bill that you need to be a lawyer to understand anyway," Masnick writes in an e-mail.

"But, that might just be my overly cynical take on it. I'd say Project Madison is better than nothing, but it's one step forward in a process that needs to go much, much further."

Craig Montuori, founder of the tech startup advisory group Politihacks, applauded the Internet Association's effort.

"Following leadership from members like Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Jared Polis (D-CO) in increased engagement with the public on social media, Madison offers a good opportunity for direct public engagement on legislation," he said.

"However, I do have some concerns about the inevitable disagreements between our reality and that which dominates in Washington, e.g. when a rational policy choice clashes with a political necessity to advance a bill that both Washington and tech supports. In those cases, Madison will highlight those disagreements and frustrations without necessarily being able to address them, as many political negotiations go on behind closed doors.

On the other hand, I'm hopeful that such public pressure through Madison does more to bring those political deals out from behind closed doors than turns off tech and startup community members from engaging Washington for dislike of politics."