Even before last week's "uprising" by the internet, lots of people had been talking about how the larger internet generation needed to be more engaged in policy issues. This was part of the very reason that I helped start
the new organization Engine Advocacy
over the past couple months -- because of the belief of a group of folks that there needed to be a conduit of education both between the wider "internet" and policy makers... and in reverse. Along those lines, you can't imagine how thrilling it's been over the past few days to see hundreds of people suddenly coming to similar realizations. There has been a deluge of posts from people (many of them, it appears, coming out entirely independent of one another) in the wake of the delay of SOPA and PIPA, discussing the same key things:
- This was an astounding demonstration of what the internet can do in the policy space, and we should not let it die, but leverage what came together for more.
- This shouldn't just be reactive to things like SOPA/PIPA, but it should be a positive, proactive, long-term force for good going forward.
- We should start discussing what kinds of positive goals we can reach for immediately.
Here are just a few examples of this kind of discussion (and there are many, many more):
- Joel Spolsky, with some policy ideas and a suggestion for getting around Congressional corruption by having internet companies give free online ad space to politicians who run "respectable" campaigns.
- Fred Wilson, suggesting we need an entirely new framework for thinking about copyright issues.
- Smari McCarthy, worrying that the response to SOPA/PIPA was too strong (I disagree), but also noting the need to be much more proactive going forward.
- Rick Falkvinge, also talking about going on the offensive for freedom of speech online.
- Mark McKenna, also pointing out that it's time to revisit existing copyright law and raise questions about whether it needs to be ratcheted back, rather than forward.
- Reddit user ColtonProvias tries to create organization out of chaos.
- Reddit user birdomics looks at creating a new political party for the internet -- called the Internet Party (which others suggest already exists in the form of the Pirate Party).
I've also been involved in three separate phone calls since Friday, from different folks who were deeply involved in bringing together the disparate forces that resulted in last week's (and really, the past four months') efforts against SOPA/PIPA -- to discuss the same exact issues, and how to take what happened and use it proactively as a force for further good.
I've also seen a number of discussions about people trying to set up an "internet super PAC" or something similar. For what it's worth on that, apparently one already exists
, and I know of at least two other attempts currently underway to create similar super PACs. I'm also pretty sure that the folks over at Demand Progress already
have a super PAC.
Tons of people don't want to let this feeling go, and very much want to push forward. That's really exciting. I'm especially thrilled about the unbridled optimism
seen at community sites like Reddit -- even if it's sometimes misguided (and a little too frequently, misinformed) -- because it's going to take a kind of unbridled optimism to overcome the forces that are working against such things. I know lots of people have mocked the Reddit community for jumping into things headfirst without getting its facts straight, but it's that same sort of optimistic spirit that lets the community jump into projects that otherwise objective people would claim are "impossible." Hell, getting GoDaddy to change its position, and even the big internet blackout (which really started on Reddit), were two ideas that most folks would have insisted would have never worked
just two months ago. And yet they did.
On top of that, I'm thrilled to see most of this all bubbling up publicly and online -- rather than being sorted out secretly in backrooms. This should be a public discussion. And while -- as with any public discussion -- it leads to a few cringeworthy moments where people who don't know what they're talking about run wild with ideas that don't make sense, that's part of where good ideas come from. The fact that lots of people are chiming in and sharing their thoughts may seem chaotic to an outside world, but out of it, I expect to see some amazing things come together. That, by itself, really is part of the power of the internet -- the fact that this doesn't need to be top-down and organized, but can build itself organically. It may be messy, but I expect we'll see some impressive things come out of it.
I will have lots more to say about all of this going forward, but for those who are jumping into these discussions here and elsewhere, I have three suggested points that I think should drive these discussions, though I have no idea if others will agree:
- Any regulation that impacts the internet needs to be data driven rather than faith-based. I've been banging this drum for ages. The evidence used to support copyright expansionism for centuries has been suspect. Yet, when one industry makes claims, politicians seem to take them at face value. That needs to stop. A key guiding point for those driving any kind of "internet agenda" going forward should be a reliance on actual, credible data. James Boyle and William Patry have both written books that highlight this, and if you haven't read them, you should.
Thankfully, the UK is actually leading the way (somewhat) here, thanks to the mostly good Hargreaves report (which Boyle worked on), which the UK government has said it intends to follow. Unfortunately, while it says that, so far the actual actions when it comes to laws have remained faith-based.
Some will claim that you can come up with data to support just about anything -- and to some extent that's true. But I think that it's possible for rational people to look closely at research and data and come to reasonable conclusions -- while figuring out when to dismiss conclusions that are clearly bunk or created through pure extrapolation or bad assumptions. Either way, the fact that plenty of legislation gets proposed and passed without any real evidence of a need is a huge problem.
- We need to recognize that the internet, free speech and copyright are all connected. One of the tricks for trying to pass SOPA/PIPA (and successfully passing previous bills like the ProIP Act) was to pretend that these were just laws about "arcane" legal issues like copyright -- something that "no one cares about." But in an age where (thanks to bad copyright law changes) everything you create is pretty much subject to copyright, combined with computers and networks whose main job is copying works -- we've reached a point where it's ridiculous to think that you can regulate copyright or the internet without impacting free speech.
There has been a growing recognition of this, including an excellent book by Neil Netanel, and another by David Lange & Jefferson Powell, in which the conflict between copyright and free speech is discussed at length. Unfortunately, the courts have yet to really recognize this issue. The Supreme Court's ruling in Eldred nearly a decade ago is a pretty big problem here, not recognizing how the expansion of copyright law, combined with the internet, really has made copyright law and the First Amendment much more entwined. The Supreme Court completely ignores that based on some very silly reasoning -- and that ruling has lived on to haunt us until today -- such as with the Golan ruling, which came out the exact same day as the internet SOPA/PIPA protests.
People who live online recognize the inherent conflict between today's copyright laws and free speech -- and recognize the risks of harming free speech through copyright expansionism. But because the two laws barely conflicted for quite some time, those who don't understand the internet pretend that there's no conflict at all. That's a problem. Part of the reason why the SOPA/PIPA efforts worked was because people inherently recognized an attack on their free speech rights. Keeping the focus on such rights is the only way efforts to be proactive and move forward will work.
- Don't be confined by what's been done or how others do things. While I'm not against the idea of these sorts of "internet super PACs," something about them feels very... old school. Similarly, I've heard talk of efforts to "hire a lobbyist" for "the internet." Perhaps these things need to be done, but I worry if those become the sole focus of the strategy, because it seems to be playing into the thinking of "the way things are done" in DC today. It's way too easy to be co-opted into the system if you play by their rules.
The reason that the protests worked (so far) was because we didn't "play by the rules." We came together incredibly organically (and chaotically at times -- and sometimes didn't come together at all, as different people and groups just did different things). If this effort is going to turn into something more powerful going forward, it needs to keep some of that same spirit and thinking. It can't just squeeze itself into the way things are done in DC today, or it will become "just another super PAC" or "just another lobbyist." That's not useful or productive.
I'd really like to see a lot more out-of-the-box thinking, about how we can actually use the tools of the internet to make a difference, rather than looking at how we can use the tools of DC to join the crowd.
Also, while I have no desire to add a bit of a buzzkill to all of this: this was a single (very limited and possibly very temporary) victory in a very long-term war, in which people who get this stuff have lost pretty much every battle so far. It's great to feel empowered by what happened. And, it's fantastic to recognize that the momentum we've seen building for years finally bubbled over into something productive, but this is a tough slog, and will be a lot of work going forward. We absolutely should channel that feeling and energy into these proactive efforts -- but we have to also recognize that we remain at a disadvantage in much of this, and will almost certainly lose some (if not many) of these fights in the future. That's part of the learning process. This victory was important -- but it will also be followed by some losses (and hopefully more victories). For folks backing this fight, you need to recognize that it won't always be successful. Hell, even with everything that happened, most people still don't recognize just how close a battle this was, and just how likely it was that PIPA was going to pass this week until the very last second.
Either way, it really was just only a few weeks ago that I talked about the amazing power of people
speaking up and actually making a difference. I didn't realize we'd see it show up in such a large scale and with such effectiveness so quickly, however. The trick now is to keep it going.
There's obviously much more that can and should be done (and can and should be talked about), and I'll certainly be talking about much more. But with so many different ideas flowing around, I thought it would be best to start with a few key principles, and then move on from there.