Monday, January 9, 2012

The SOPA Debate and the Future of American Politics

While the political blogosphere has been breathlessly covering the GOP horserace, the fight over SOPA is the more interesting story of these months  It, along with the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA), are poised for an under-reported, and potentially landscape altering showdown.  This legislation showcases the evolving nature of how political speech is transmitted, and what mediums of communication now have the most impact on shaping public perception.  The implications are profound for future statesmen.

First off, and most significant to our generation, on January 23rd, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and Yahoo! are all seriously considering shutting their websites down for a day.  They refer to it as "the nuclear option."  This is in protest of and preparation for the Senate cloture vote on Jan 24th for PIPA.   This could have unintended consequences of course, but it underscores the chilling effect these firms believe the legislation would be for internet freedom.   

Follow the Money
(via Venture Beat)
Both SOPA and PIPA are not your typical ideological red meat for either the left or right.  There is strong bi-partisan support for and against the measures.  Some of the biggest names in both parties have signed onto either side.  (Visit SOPA Track to see how your legislator is planning to vote, and see how their contributions break down from the two warring sides...)

Shockingly (or not), as this is one of the biggest battles in the fight for the future of innovation, the major broadcast media firms have been largely silent on reporting the legislation.  In fact, a recent Media Matters study shows that the major broadcast and cable networks have had ONE story about SOPA since October 1, 2011.  Contrast this with the outcry on the web, and even frequent coverage in print media, and it's not surprising to learn that the parent companies of CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all very much in favor of the legislation.

As Tim Cushing notes, one of the reasons for this is an "outdated thought process that still believes that the Internet Is Not Real."  Viewers of nightly news are not likely to be too interested in stories about the internet, since they obviously get their information from more traditional sources.  This makes sense, considering the demographic watching nightly news is rapidly aging.  But if the Big Media Firms think they'll win by keeping silent, they have another thing coming.

Rep. Paul Ryan got a taste of this over the past few weeks.  As one of the rising stars in the Republican Party, his voice matters for a lot of conservatives -- and liberals do well to listen to the tack this adversary takes.  In mid-December, his view on SOPA was ambiguous, and this angered a whole lot of techies.  The opponent for his seat strongly embraced a Reddit-led campaign against Ryan and SOPA, and in the matter of a few hours, raised $15,000.  Ryan has now clarified his position and has strongly come out against SOPA.

First Rule: Know Your Customers
GoDaddy.com also found itself in hot water for supporting SOPA.  The website registrar caused an uproar among the online community when it initially supported the legislation in the waning weeks of December.  Once again Reddit spearheaded an online revolt.  Customers of GoDaddy staged a boycott, and its competitors offered special deals (with the deal code being "SopaSucks").  37,000 domain names switched away from GoDaddy.  Spooked by this loss of business and the huge hit to their reputation among their primary customers, GoDaddy, too, has rescinded its support for the legislation.

So in one corner we have old school media firms playing by the established rules of the game, trusting in twentieth century models of pushing through beneficial legislation.  In the other corner, we have scrappy upstarts who are leveraging a new technology to pressure political and business leaders through twenty-first century, online, grassroots networks. The silence of the networks vs. the alluded to day-long silence of upstart, incredibly influential firms.  My money is on the latter.

We've seen this fight play out before, and it doesn't end well for the establishment.  To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, when the world has to play by the Establishment's rules, the Establishment wins.  But when an insurgent defines new rules for a new world before the Establishment can adapt (assuming they even will...), the insurgent usually comes out on top.  It's coming to the point where the online community finally has the clout (read: fundraising prowess and rapidly assembled grassroots coalitions) to start defining the debate in terms amenable to the realities of the Information Age.  The Center of Gravity for dispersing influence is on the verge of shifting permanently.  The far-reaching implications have only begun to be contemplated by our elected officials.  

Adapt or Die goes the adage.  Our static political system is finally beginning to see this play out.  Now if only we could find suitable candidates to match the spirit of our age...


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