SXSW Lesson 1: The Tech Industry Learned Nothing from SOPA/PIPA

SXSW LogoOn Saturday the 11th, I, like tens of thousands of other of the tech-inclined, was at SXSW. However, at 3:30 I wasn’t at the main conference center or even within a mile of it. I had caught the shuttle and was at the AT&T Executive Education and Convention Center right next to the University of Texas of Austin.

Jayme White, Jennifer Hoelzer, Rob Pegoraro were giving a panel entitled “Why Doesn’t Congress Grok The Internet?“. White and Hoelzer are both staffers from Senator Ron Wyden’s office. Wyden, who was instrumental in the defeat of both SOPA and PIPA, in large part because of his hold on PIPA as it first came through the Senate.

While it was a rare chance to understand how the SOPA/PIPA ordeal played out behind closed doors in Congress, halfway through the panel I took a head count and only 18 people were there, including at least 5 attorneys, one future Congressional Fellow and myself.

Two days later I found myself in Tim O’Reilly’s talk “Create More Value Than You Capture“. Though copyright wasn’t the focus of the talk, the conversation veered a few times toward SOPA and PIPA. Once, O’Reilly mentioned that he spoke with Nancy Pelosi about the bills and explained that it was Congress’ job to protect the future from the past and not the other way around. The several-hundred strong audience cheered loudly before O’Reilly moved back to the focus of the conversation.

While the duality of the two talks was interesting, I quickly realized a major problem: Though the Internet community emerged victorious in the SOPA/PIPA controversy, it hadn’t learned any lessons from it and there’s a real risk that the next time questionable legislation comes through Congress that it won’t be so lucky.

In short, the tech industry needs to realize that that there’s more to Congress and legislation than protests and that Wikipedia/Reddit can’t go dark for every bill that the tech community doesn’t like.

It’s time to focus on the long term.

The Real Lesson from SOPA and PIPA

Following the SOPA and PIPA protests, the tech community has been somewhat drunk with power. However, it’s for good reason. More than being backed by major copyright holders, SOPA and PIPA were also backed by the largest lobbying groups in the country, including the AFLCIO and the Chamber of Commerce. The protests derailed the legislation, which was seemingly a sure thing.

However, the focus shouldn’t be on how the legislation was derailed, but how it got to the point that it did. How is it that not one, but two bills made it past committee and reached a point where it required a huge upheaval to derail them at the last minute.

The answer was presented in the first panel, namely that, while Congress may not understand the Internet (something that is changing by most accounts) the Internet understands Congress much less.

According to White and Hoelzer, the issue is, in large part, that the tech industry’s efforts at working with Congress prior to the protests were weak and ineffective. O’Reilly, it seems, is the exception to the rule and is one of the few in the industry who actively seeks out and speaks with Senators and Representatives.

Lobbying may be a dirty word, but if you don’t have a seat at the table when a bill is being drafted, it’s only going to represent the interests of others.

The tech industry can’t afford to be reactive much longer. Even now there are several controversial bills working their way through Congress and Wikipedia can’t go dark for all of them and, even they can, they can’t count on the same uproar from the general public.

At some point, reacting just isn’t enough. This isn’t just for copyright legislation either and applies to all bills that seek to regulate the Web, Net Neutrality, obscenity, privacy, etc.

In short, protests are fine for emergency situations, but the goal should be to prevent such situations in the future, not be confident that they can be handled.

Why Did This Happen?

I can only speculate as to why the tech industry takes this approach. Some of it, I’m certain, is that the tech industry has not felt the sting of legislation as much as other, older industries and just hasn’t invested as much into being involved with government.

Some of it is also likely that the tech industry still has an attitude that it doesn’t need or shouldn’t be regulated, at least not heavily. Like many new industries, including the movie industry in its early years, the Internet is seeking as little government involvement as possible.

Finally, there’s a significant amount of justified optimism about the ability of the Internet to change the world. There’s a tendency in the tech community to believe that the Web is the future and everything else is simply the past, a dinosaur just not yet dead. This makes many in the tech community see other industries, even complimentary ones, as the enemy and an anchor holding them back from the future (of course, the mistrust works both ways but more on that later).

However, while all are understandable, the real problem is that they are also unrealistic. Government involvement is inevitable and other industries will be around. The tech industry has to understand those truths or risk hopping from near-disaster to near-disaster wondering why government is out to get them.

Fixing the Problem

There’s no simple solution to this issue. The Internet is a very young industry. It has had a major impact in a short while and it’s being asked to grow up fast. Most industries get decades to evolve, grow and develop social norms before significant government intervention becomes an issue. The Internet doesn’t have that luxury as armageddon could be tomorrow or the next day.

The Web needs to get active in Congress and I don’t mean the various projects to track and make it more transparent. As noble as those efforts are, they are moving in a different direction. Instead, the Web needs to get involved directly, this includes the business leaders and venture capitalists waking up to the impact Congress can have and, more importantly, the Web needs to organize, create groups that go beyond just contact info so that they can speak and be heard in one voice.

That, in turn, is exactly what White said to me when I asked how smaller copyright holders could get more involved in legislation. He said we need to organize and be heard. He was right.

In short, there’s no simple solution here, no new service you can setup to fix the problme, no new script you can program to make the issue go away. It’s time for the digital to become tangible and to make contact with Congress offline as well as on.

Bottom Line

The Internet has difficult years ahead of it when it comes to government issues. The Web is clearly on the government’s mind and more legislation is almost certainly coming. Wile SOPA and PIPA will make government more wary for a time, it won’t last long.

The tech community has a rare opportunity right now to organize, get serious and get involved. It has a chance to prevent future bills like SOPA and PIPA not by protests but by stopping them before they start.

Simply put, there’s much more to dealing with Congress than preventing bad bills from passing, it’s about getting good bills to pass and working leaders to make sure potentially bad bills are blunted or better-targeted.

If the tech community can’t do this and soon. The RIAA’s seemingly-laughable hope that the blackout protests were a one-time thing may actually come to pass.

As the old Japanese proverb goes, “After victory, tighten your helmet chord.” So holds true for the tech industry.

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