(image) Earlier this week I ventured down to the Silicon Valley from my lair on the side of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin. Those of you who have visited Marin might understand why for me, after more than 25 years of working across the bridge in San Francisco and on planes around the world, I find it rather pleasant to just stay in my office and Think Big Thoughts whenever possible. But duty called, Jonathan Zittrain (who I’ve interviewed here) had asked me to participate in a conference he was hosting called “Ideas For A Better Internet,” and it was an honor to be asked.
Not to mention, I needed to get down to the Valley to see a few folks at Facebook (more on that in another post).
Given the conference convened on the eve of yesterday’s historic SOPA protest, the room was laden with potential energy. Groups of students presented their ideas for improving the Internet, and various luminaries pronounced on the issues of the day.
Toward the end of the evening, we had a panel with various notables (and me, for some reason). SOPA threaded in and out of that discussion, and I’m sure I had any number of things to say about it which were perfectly forgettable. But I do recall one thing that I said has stuck with me: We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore.
Now, plenty of folks have said this, and a few have even made it their life’s work in the past several years. Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington – for too long we’ve treated “Government” as damage, and we’ve routed around it.
The battle over SOPA and PIPA is a signal event in the history of our industry. The bills were breezing their way through the final days of Congress’s pre-holiday session, and just about everyone thought they’d pass. But thanks to Reddit, Boing Boing, and countless other independent voices, the issue caught fire across the Internet, and we all realized we had an existential threat on our hands. Protests were organized, large companies like Google and Amazon joined the movement, and within two weeks, the Obama administration had come out against key provisions of the legislation (doing it on a Saturday, perhaps hoping no one would notice, but at least they did it).
But the fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money. Or, put another way, they’re withdrawing it. Go read this article to see what I mean:
Does this matter? Damn straight it does. In politics, money not only talks, it seduces, it cajoles, it forces, and it commands. And this is one of the boldest declarations of what’s wrong with our political system I’ve seen in quite some time. Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure to Finke’s widely read blog. But to call it displeasure is a disservice. It’s more like the tantrum of gods who have come to realize that no one believes their myths anymore.
Check this quote: “God knows how much money we’ve given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they’re not supporting our interests.”
Are. You. Kidding Me? What exactly *are* Hollywood’s interests? As far as I can tell, they don’t want their movies and music pirated. I can get behind that concept, no problem, and so can most reasonable people (the President said as much on Saturday). And we already have laws that make piracy illegal. If they’re not enough (I honestly don’t know one way or the other), let’s be serious about how best to strengthen those laws, that shall we? Gutting the Internet as we know it so as to protect an industry that is already immensely successful is, well, beyond silly.
There are deeply naunced arguments to be had about this issue, and I’m not going to get into all of them here. What I do want to talk about is this issue of money in politics.
Bear with me as I tell you another story. A few weeks ago I ran into a fellow who I won’t call out publicly, because I like him too much and haven’t asked for his permission to use his name. He’s a very successful businessman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of President Obama’s various political campaigns, mainly in the area of fundraising. And to make a long story short, he essentially offered me an opportunity to brainstorm with the President and various members of his staff on the subject of tech and Internet policy.
The catch? It’d cost me about as much as a year’s tuition at any one of our nation’s finer private educational institutions. Which is….a lot of fucking money.
Why am I telling you this story? Because I was tempted to pay that fee so as to get in front of the President. But upon reflection, I realized I would be doing exactly what Hollywood has done, playing the same game, and expecting the same results. Were Obama to sign legislation I disagreed with, I’d feel cheated - “Hey, that’s not what I paid for!”
Not to mention, it struck me that if the President and his staff truly valued my input, they’d ask for it without requiring a check at the same time. I’ve been paid an awful lot to opine on any number of topics over the course of my career. I’m not looking to BE paid – in fact, I’d be proud to offer what advice I can simply to be part of the process. But to ask to PAY, well, it just feels wrong. Here’s how I put it in an email to that businessman friend of mine:
Fact is, Obama or his team should be sitting down with people like me to get smarter on tech policy (and in my case, on media and marketing regulation). They should be seeking out people like me in all fields. Instead, they cannot afford to do it unless a steep price tag is paid – it fucks up the social relationship totally and changes the dynamics of how the world actually works in normal information sharing scenarios between smart people.
My friend the fund-raising businessman agreed with my point, but he’s a realist: This is how the world works, he told me. We have to pay to play.
I think that’s a tragedy. I’ve pointed out on Twitter that at the moment, Hollywood has given seven times more money to the various backers of SOPA than our industry has. Many in our industry believe the way to tip the balance back our way is to simply play the same game, and out-donate the bastards. (Lord knows we have the money…)
But that sure as hell doesn’t sound very Internet-y to me. We have a problem on our hands, folks. In our own businesses, when faced with a problem, we find innovative solutions. We don’t just throw money at it. That’s the beauty of our industry.
There’s got to be a better way. And as I said at the Stanford conference, I for one am committing myself to helping figure this out. My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption.
But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together.
Update: Larry spoke the same night as I did, at the Long Now Foundation. I would have been there had it not been for my commitment to Zittrain, who is Larry’s replacement at Harvard, in a funny twist. Anyway, here’s the link to Kevin Kelly’s very cogent summary. Totally worth checking out.