A few weeks ago I ventured to our nation’s capital to steep in its culture a bit, and get some first hand reporting done for the book. I met with about a dozen or so folks, including several scholars, the heads of the FCC and FTC, and senior folks in the Departments of Commerce and State. I also spoke to a lobbyist from the Internet industry, as well as people from various “think tanks” that populate the city. It was my first such trip, but it certainly won’t be my last.
Each of the conversations was specific to the person I was interviewing, but I did employ one device to tie them together – I asked each person the same set of questions toward the end of the conversation. And as I was on the plane home, I wrote myself a little reminder to post about the most interesting set of answers I got, which was to this simple question: What doesn’t the Valley understand about Washington?
It’s not a secret that the Valley, as a whole, has an ambivalent attitude toward DC. Until recently, the prevailing philosophy has trended libertarian – just stay out of the way, please, and let us do what we do best. Just about every startup CEO I’ve ever known – including myself – ignores Washington in the early years of a company’s lifecycle. Government is treated like plumbing – it’s dirty, it costs too much, it’s preferably someone else’s job, and it’s ignored until it stops working the way we want it to.
SOPA and PIPA is the classic example of the plumbing going out – and the Internet’s response to it was the topic of much of my conversations last month. Sure, “we” managed to stop some stupid legislation from passing, but the fact is, we almost missed it, and Lord knows what else we’re missing due to our refusal to truly engage with the instrument of our shared governance.
To be fair, in the past few years a number of major Internet companies have gotten very serious about joining the conversation in DC – Google is perhaps the most serious of them all (I’m not counting Micrsoft, which got pretty serious back in 1997 when it lost an antitrust suit). Now, one can argue that like Microsoft before it, Google’s seriousness is due to how interested Washington has become in Google, but regardless, it was interesting to hear from source after source how they respected Google for at least fully staffing a presence in DC.
Other large Internet companies also have offices in Washington, but from what I hear, they are not that effective beyond very narrow areas of interest. Two of the largest e-commerce companies in the world have a sum total of eight people in DC, I was told by a well-placed source. Eight people can’t get much done when you’re dealing with regulatory frameworks around fraud, intellectual property, international trade, infrastructure and spectrum policy, and countless other areas of regulation that matter to the Internet.
In short, and perhaps predictably, nearly everyone I spoke to in Washington told me that the Valley’s number one issue was its lack of engagement with the government. But the answers were far more varied and interesting than that simple statement. Here they are, without attribution, as most of my conversations were on background pending clearance of actual quotes for the book:
- The Valley doesn’t understand the threat that comes from Washington. Put another way, our industry figures it out too late. The Valley doesn’t understand how much skin it already has in the game. “When things are bent in the right direction here, it can be a really good thing,” one highly placed government source told me. Washington is “dismissed, and when it’s dismissed you neither realize the upside nor mitigate the downside.”
- When the Valley does engage, it’s too lightly, and too predictably. Larger Valley companies get an office on K Street (where the lobbyists live) and hire an ex-Congressperson to lobby on that company’s core issues. But “that’s not where the magic is,” one source told me. The real magic is for companies to use their own platforms to engage with their customers in authentic conversations that get the attention of lawmakers. This happened – albeit very late – with SOPA/PIPA, and it got everyone’s attention in Washington. Imagine if this was an ongoing conversation, and not a one-off “Chicken Little” scenario? Counter to what many believe about Washington, where money and lobbying connections are presumed to always win the day, “Fact-based arguments matter, a lot,” one senior policymaker told me. “Fact-based debates occur here, every day. If you take yourself out of that conversation, it’s like going into litigation without a lawyer.” Internet companies are uniquely positioned to change the approach to how lawmakers “hear” their constituents, but have done very little to actually leverage that fact.
- The Valley is too obsessed with the issue of privacy, one scholar told me. Instead, it should look to regulations around whether or not harm is being done to consumers. This was an interesting insight – and perhaps a way to think about protecting our data and our identities. There are already a thicket of regulations and law around keeping consumers safe from the harmful effects of business practices. Perhaps we are paying attention to the wrong thing, this scholar suggested.
- The Valley assumes that bad legislation will be rooted out and defeated in the same way that SOPA and PIPA were. But that’s a faulty assumption. “The Valley is techno-deterministic, and presumes ‘we can engineer around it,’” one scholar told me. “They don’t realize they’ve already been blinkered – a subset of possible new technological possibilities has already been removed that they are not even aware of.” One example of this is the recent “white spaces” spectrum allocation, which while promising avenues of new market opportunity, was severely retarded by forces in Washington far more powerful than the Internet industry (more on this in another post).
- The framework of “us vs. them” is unproductive and produces poor results. The prevailing mentality in the valley, one well-connected scholar told me, is the “heroic techie versus the wicked regulator…Rather than just having libertarian abstractions about regulations versus freedom,” this source continued, ”it’s important to realize that in every single debate there are… regulations that strike better or worse balances between competing values. You just have to engage enough to defend the good ones.”
Put another way, as another senior government official told me, “The Valley doesn’t understand there are good and decent people here who really want to get things done.”
If I were to sum up the message from all my conversations in Washington, it’d be this: We’re here because as a society, we decided we needed people to help manage values we hold in common. Increasingly, the Internet is how we express those values. So stop ignoring us and hoping we’ll go away, and start engaging with us more. Decidedly better results will occur if you do.
I don’t pretend that one trip to DC makes me an expert on the subject (it surely does not), but I left DC energized and wanting to engage more than I have in the past. I hope you’ll feel the same.