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With Newfound Influence, Will Internet Organizers Hack Politics As Usual?

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, January 30 2012

MPAA Chief Chris Dodd should perhaps talk to the public via Reddit, rather than the "tech industry." Photo: Flickr/Wil Wheaton

The recent mass protests both online and off against anti-piracy legislation moving through Congress provided a tantalizing hint of the possibilities that can emerge when the powerful companies of Silicon Valley combine forces with grassroots organizers empowered with the tools of the web.

While the headlines focused on the specter of several large websites going dark, left untold was the story of the actions of key organizers to rally and direct thousands of Internet users to take concerted action. Individuals from the usually disparate worlds of non-profits, venture capital, politics and programming and elsewhere united briefly for one day, took direction from more experienced activists and used the tools at their disposal to pull whatever levers they could to get their message across to legislators.

"I think that what happened on the 18th will be looked at as a very interesting moment in time," says Mike McGeary, a founder and director of the new advocacy group for tech entrepreneurs and investors in San Francisco called Engine Advocacy. "It’s not the first day that people have gotten active through the Internet, or been activated that way. It’s a question of how well we can sustain that as a movement, beyond the cause celebre of SOPA."

Indeed, that’s the question that has emerged: Will the extraordinary success of the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) change the one industry that has resisted the disruptive influence of the internet, the industry of lobbyists on K-Street? Or will the moment pass — to be regarded in history as quirky exception to the general rule in which lobbyists almost always emerge triumphant?

"Everybody’s got their jobs to worry about, their work product to be worried about, and only when that is truly, truly threatened are people going to poke out of their comfort zones to actively protest and become activists," says Myles Weissleder, founder of the SF New Tech Meetup, a monthly networking event for startups in San Francisco. "My fear is that SOPA and PIPA are on hiatus, but they’re going to arise again in different iterations because there’s been too much effort in terms of the part of the entertainment industry to promote their goals. It’s an ongoing battle. The problem is how the technology community is going to maintain its fight against it."

Weissleder was one of the organizers who helped to pull together the physical rally that took place in San Francisco's City Hall Plaza. Jonathan Nelson, founder of the Hackers and Founders, was its principal organizing force.

Nelson was the key hub around which much of the West Coast organization took place last week, and the ad hoc nature of that organization illustrates just how peripheral the idea of political organizing is to the community that nevertheless so powerfully demonstrated its voice on January 18th.

He became involved in the rally last week only because he was repeatedly prodded to do so by members of the New York Tech Meetup, and by a member of Google's policy team, he says. He only made up his mind to commit to organizing the rally on Monday, but when he did, he and his friends pulled the event together in two days, staying up around the clock to make protest signs, and to e-mail influential contacts about the emergency protest planned to take place at the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Nelson, a software engineer who works as an emergency room nurse in Mountain View three nights a week, had never organized a political event of any kind before in his life. Yet by Wednesday, influential angel investor Ron Conway showed up to speak at the rally he put together. With him to speak out against the legislation was MC Hammer, San Francisco's chief innovation officer, Jay Nath, and David Chiu, the president of the city's Board of Supervisors.

The founder of Hackers and Founders also emailed all the other influential startup contacts he could think of. These were contacts whose businesses would have been dramatically affected by the proposed legislation, and who could explain all of that to the world via the local press that would be gathered to cover the event. That included Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and founding developer of WordPress, and Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia. They were out of the country, but his e-mails must have made the rounds: To his surprise, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, showed up to tell the world that Flickr would not have been able to get off the ground had these laws been in effect at the time Flickr started off.

But Nelson wasn't just focused on publicizing the message. He also directed the 5,000 members of Hackers and Founders to go to Free Press' Senate Whip List tool online and to call their senators to ask them to oppose the legislation, which was headed to the senate floor for an up or down vote.

Nelson and all the other organizers that day achieved their goal of blocking the legislation. But like many others in the startup community, he says he has no desire to become more involved in the traditional political process in order to influence members of Congress.

"I would be happy for someone else to take that job, because I just want to quit my day job, start a business and hire people," he says.

Yet at the same time, when this topic came up for discussion in an e-mail thread among the various startup founders, investors and Silicon Valley bigwigs after the rallies, Nelson says that the idea of trying to match the legacy media companies' financial donations wasn't an option that they were willing to consider.

"We would really suck at the power influence thing," he says. "We're better at highlighting and showcasing issues, and trying to get people to take action."

In that regard, he says, the sentiment in the startup community is tilted more in favor of protests and blocking legislation that they view as dangerous to the community.

And last week's protests and organization among people who don't normally talk to each other has established a new awareness of how to use online tools, and a useful new communications infrastructure.

"I think communication between people happened a lot more effectively because of the digital tools: One person can now speak with another 100 people on an online thread like Reddit," he says. "A person’s voice can now get amplified, and a bunch of people can actually choose to take action independently. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen more and more."

One big reason for this preference is simply because of the scrappy nature of the world of tech startups. Many of the investors, business people and venture capitalists identify more with being outsiders because they were once broke too.

"How they’ve gotten rich is trying to provide as much value as they can to as many people as they can, which is why there’s a really populist streak among these really rich people in Silicon Valley," he says. "Even the best venture capitalists and investors were entrepreneurs themselves, and so I think a lot of people in Silicon Valley really identify with the Occupy protestors, which is bizarre."

Engine Advocacy's McGeary is optimistic that he can build a 21st century advocacy group that can accommodate the energy and ethos of the community -- the sense that there needs to be better communication about the community's needs, but that that effort shouldn't take too much of the community's valuable time.

"Concentrated mass action like that shows us that people care, and they want to be involved, and now it’s our job to make sure that it’s something that’s a renewable resource in many ways. And I think if it comes with ease and simplicity it will work," he says.

"It might be the call tool on our web site where you could call your members of congress and tell them about SOPA and PIPA, or having easy ways to write letters, to coming to Washington to interact with members of congress, or finding a local town hall," he says. "These are all things we want to build, and make real world connections for these entrepreneurs to make them feel connected to government and vice versa."

McGeary isn't the only one thinking this way. He's building a steering committee. Already on the committee are Mike Masnick, founder and CEO of Techdirt and Floor64, First Amendment lawyer Marvin Ammori, entrepreneur Hamish Chandra, startup investor and advisor Derek Parham, JetPac Founder Derek Dukes, and of course, Alexis Ohanian co-founder of Reddit.

It's not clear yet what their plans are, but as they develop them, we'll be tracking their progress. Stay tuned.