On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA

(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:

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood Moguls Stopping Obama Donations Because Of President’s Piracy Stand: “Not Give A Dime Anymore”

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. 

44 thoughts on “On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA”

  1. It would be a horrible defeatist result to pursue the “out-donate the bastards”, which is a euphemism for “out-bribe” them.  We need a fundamental reform of campaign finance and lobbying if we’re going to get out of this mess and the hundreds of related ones that all find their root in political greed.

    Special interests and their ultimate influence were a fairly unique “blind spot” in the founding fathers’ vision of the US democracy.  We’ve allowed them to corrupt the democratic process and effectively institutionalize those bad behaviors as accepted practices.  

    That’s total bullshit.  We have to take back the power.  It starts with campaign finance reform and with legislation to effectively eliminate lobbying as a profession.  Term limits would help as well.  It was never envisioned by the founders that politics would be a career.  Rather, it was a civic duty to be performed for a brief period followed by a return to private life.  Career politicians trying to set any kind of policy or law are like priests dispensing sex and marriage advice.  No relevant experience.Since that will take time, I love the suggestion that politicians should be like Nascar drivers and should have to be covered with the logos of all of their “sponsors”.  At least we’d have some level of transparency.

  2. That’s what I am hoping will come out of Silicon Valley’s wakeup call. While I support the anti-SOPA folks, this has never been my cause. I’m more interested in the environment and clean tech, reducing health care costs, and adjusting our economics to fit a post-industrial age. If all that happens is that Silicon Valley wins this battle and ignores how business is done in Washington, it won’t help the causes important to me.

  3. John,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and revealing post (and for sharing it on FB so I could happen upon it).

    I think you are 100% correct that Obama and everyone else leading our government should be seeking out the opinions of people like you who understand how the internet works — not putting the opportunity to provide insight up for bid.  (This kind of “fact-finding” from the highest bidder is how we wound up with the financial crisis!)

    I think you let the Obama administration off the hook too easily, though, with your comment that “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.”  Collecting this steep fee would seem to pretty clearly be an opportunistic choice — not an unavoidable situation. We’re in a terrible fix if we’re going to accept that our government can “only afford” to hear viewpoints that come with thousands (or millions) of dollars behind them.  We’ve tasked our elected officials to make decisions on our behalf — something that can’t be done without thorough, open-minded consideration of all the relevant points of view.This is particularly disappointing from Obama.  He promised from the outset to disconnect governing from fundraising (I’m remembering the “two years of no lobbying post-White House” pledge all his staffers were supposed to pledge).  And he caused a mini-scandal criticizing the Citizens United decision at the State of the Union address because of concerns about ever greater skewing of influence towards moneyed organizations.  The hypocrisy is so dispiriting.Laurie

  4. Nice post, John.  Props to Lessig for realizing to free culture he had to go to the root cause.  Dissappointing to see Ruth Ginsberg today authoring the majority opinion allowing works previously in the public domain to go back under copyright. Question for you as a guy who has thought about Search as deeply as anyone, if you take away those with the most money and the passion to part with it to advocate a point of view, what methodology should politicians use to index and rank those who seek to advise them?

    1. Thanks Brian.
      It’s a very good question. I think human networks are still way, way better than anything we’ve built that throws off data. In other words, trust those you trust, to point you to folks you should talk to.
      For now. And probably for a long time, I’d wager.

  5. SOPA is not an existential threat.  What REDDIT, Google, and others did was completely shameful.  They lied to people about what the law entails and would require and completely ignored the fact that the methods SOPA entails are already being used to enforce similar laws against child pornography, drug trafficking, and terrorism.  The absolute lies and nonsense that were published on behalf of the anti-SOPA campaign and the complete gullibility with which they were so easily accepted by millions of unquestioning tech industry drones just goes to show how far out of touch with reality you and your friends have gotten.

    The fact that SOPA includes safe harbor provisions similar to laws already on the books that would ensure that the vast majority of Websites are never targeted by the proposed laws application was never once mentioned by you or anyone else who orchestrated the media and Web circus.

    Yesterday was the worst defeat for intelligence, rationality, and clear thinking that this country has experienced in decades.

      1. Yes, I DID read SOPA.  Several times.  I have yet to come across anyone who can show me which part of the proposed act would have threatened their Website.  Unless you’re selling counterfeit goods or setting up Websites that are designed to circumvent intellectual property rights, no one would be able to use the law against you, either.

        GOOGLE was threatened by the law because they are an advertising network that has close ties to Websites that do these things.  But they were given safe harbor as a search engine because all they would have to do is say “we are technically unable to comply with the request”.

        The law was written to make it easy for sites to NOT have to comply if they weren’t directly involved in the war over intellectual property rights.

        But feel free to cite whichever paragraph you feel would make your sites vulnerable.

      2. Come on. If anyone links to sites as you describe, then they are also screwed. Dude, William Gibson is against this. Enough said.

      3. Not according to SOPA they aren’t.  The definitions in the act make it clear that only “Internet Advertising Services” and “Search Engines” were being addressed with that concern — and I mentioned, the search engines have a safe harbor.  Sec. 102.c.2.B clearly states “A provider of an Internet search engine shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures…” to comply with specific requests (and has 5 days in which to do so).  Hence, if there are NO “technically feasable and reasonable measures” it can take, the search engine doesn’t have to do anything.

        Google already handles DMCA requests — this would in reality entail nothing more than complying in the same way.  BLEKKO was probably more directly impacted by the proposed law.

        Your personal Website would be safe harbored against this law, whereas Federated Media’s advertising service would have to comply.   So, do you already have processes for handling trademark infringement in your system?  Google does.  Again, there is nothing new in the law with respect to this stuff.

        Going after the money, however, that was smart.  That was new.

      4. Any service that offers the ability to its community to post, offers the ability for those who post to potentially link to a very undefined list of “bad” sites. And those services would then be liable.
        I am not sure what your motivations are, but your reading of the law is very, very forgiving and not at all realistic, to my mind. But I appreciate you taking the time to debate.

      5. There is no such language in either act as documented on Thomas.loc.gov.  My motivation is simply disappointment at the completely unnecessary amount of time and energy that was devoted to protesting these two bills by people who obviously don’t know what they actually say.

        In any event, here is where your readers can look at the unadulterated text of the bills for themselves.

        SOPA Bill:

        PIPA Bill:

        No threats to freedom of speech or the Internet exist in either bill.

      6. Yes, I read it too. People imputed all kinds of terrible behavior that would probably only happen in edge conditions and then would stand a good chance of leading to a wrongful prosecution lawsuit. 

        It was as if a bunch of drunks got together to protest DWI laws and started claiming, “They can take away ANYONE’s license. They can stop you ANY time of day or night. Do you really want to put in place a mechanism where the government can censor your travel?” 

        Every law is a pain to the people who run afoul of it. But do we want to start storming around and demanding that the government get rid of all rape laws just because some boys at Duke University were wrongfully prosecuted? 

        That’s what the protests about SOPA said to me. 

      7. Okay. But that’s the message I get from everyone. Google is the only one proposing a compromise which is, if you think about it, equally constricting on liberty. They just say, “Make the banks handle it. Not us.”

        We deal with offshore drug barons with the Border Patrol. Offshore car manufacturers must have their cars tested to conform to US regulation before entering the country. Offshore pharma needs to go through the FDA for tests before sending in drugs. Why should data be any different? 

        The fact is that places like RapidShare, ISOHunt, Pirate Bay etc are extremely lucrative and it’s all because they don’t pay any wages to the American content worker. They don’t pay health care. They don’t pay Social Security. They don’t pay anything. So why is there so much support for them?
        And if there isn’t, why not propose a compromise bill that distinguishes between the hard workers– your partner sites– and the folks who put up an FTP server and call it innovation?

      8. Yes, I’ve read Zittrain and talked with him. And again I get the same kind of thing that SOPA sucks really badly and let’s just keep repeating that ad nauseum. 

        But no one wants to talk about the issue in the abstract. If a foreign web site is violating American laws and doing something an American would get thrown in prison for doing, should that site continue to be connected to Americans? Can we punish those Americans? No one wants to punish the little cheapskates. But the big data kingpins lie offshore. So is this a loophole? 

        So forget about SOPA/PIPA or whatever. Should sites like MegaUpload continue to serve free copies of content? Or is the US permitted to do something about lawbreakers hiding outside borders? In other words, was Thomas Jefferson okay when he went after the Barbary Pirates? 

  6. It’s important to remember that there’s big money on both sides. I was floored by the numbers tossed around about MegaUpload. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars in running something that’s not much more than an open source FTP server. The fancy cars in the TechCrunch article were pretty shocking:


    And then if you add in the money from Google, a company that desperately wants to avoid any kind of regulation. While people make this out to be about freedom on the Net, a big chunk is financed by Google and that’s driven by their fear of not being able to fully automated their search mechanism. The DMCA notices are already a pain for them and they don’t want more legal hassles. 

    The people on the web have to realize that this is a big sumo match between two warring industrial complexes. It’s not between freedom and non-freedom.

    1. I don’t agree.
      My company doesn’t lobby (yet anyway) and we work with hundreds of thousands of independent publishers. This law would really impact us.

      1. How? Is it just the fear of linking turning into a liability? As someone else said, there’s a big difference between a search engine and a blog. What if this language were a bit tighter? Or a lot tighter?

        Or will you stand in solidarity with Google and their strange devotion to indexing torrent files? I can’t figure out why they include so many torrent files but they do. They’re quite happy to black list someone who fails to put in a “nofollow” attribute, but they’re willing to go to the mat for a pirate site. Insane if you ask me. 

  7. Without claiming any sort of expertise on the issue but a deep personal concern, I would like to share some thoughts. 

    First, I would like to applaude your stance towards the tempting yet costly offer you mentioned. It signals that it is absurd to impose “transaction costs” in the process of practicing democracy. In my honest opinion, these transaction costs should not exist both ways, meaning that unless necessitated by law, I find it economically irrational for someone to get paid for contributing to a democracy, not to mention, pay for it. Eventually it leads to practices like the one your friend mentioned of interests outbidding each other for “most favorable” government. 

    Second, in search of a way for dealing with it, again very humbly, I would like to note that the approach of the industry should not be geographically limited. In fact, the more non-country specific any short of action is taken, the more effective the result will be. As a matter of fact, the outcry against SOPA was global, not national. That’s the good lesson from the civic response against SOPA and the Interent’s power of enabling it. 

    Third, and following up from the last argument, the bad lesson learned from the SOPA response is that the vast majority, again in my humble opinion, of people who fought against it did so focusing on the importance of the mean rather than the understanding of the ends behind SOPA. That is what needs to be fixed not only in your democracy but in others as well. 

    To conclude and condense my comment in a sentence, I think it would be better for the industry to shift the focus from contesting on “engaging social media” to “engage is social ends”. 

    Peace from Greece.    

      1. It was an exageration pointing out that sometimes we tend to focus more on the medium (technology) rather than the purpose it can serve. Perhaps because technology changes so much and so often that we are in a perpetual process of adapting rather than coming up with practical uses of it.   

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  9. Great choice on reading “Republic, Lost”, John. I’m in the middle of it now, and it’s alternately depressing and deeply motivating (which has happened to me based on Lessig’s work before). You’ll…well, “enjoy” is probably the wrong word here. It’ll impact you, without question.

    And I agree 110% with your “he’s several moves ahead” sentiment…it’s clear at this point that’s exactly what’s going on.

  10. yo  pienso  que debe haber bancos con fondos de financiamiento para que puedan formar como  base para nuevos programas , la recaudación de fondos se debe de formar con estabilidad para el proceso de ley .

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