Why Chris Dodd Failed With His SOPA/PIPA Strategy
from the time-to-engage,-chris dept
The NY Times has a fascinating, if ridiculous, interview with Chris Dodd about everything that happened regarding SOPA/PIPA. It starts off with the suggestion that the real problem here was that, due to Senate ethics rules, Dodd can’t personally lobby Congress until 2013. You may recall that, before leaving the Senate, Chris Dodd promised that he would not become a lobbyist — a promise he broke just a few months later in taking the top job at the MPAA. And make no mistake about it: Dodd’s role is as a lobbyist. He is barred from personally lobbying Congress, but can lobby the White House, and is the main “strategist” behind the MPAA’s PIPA/SOPA
But the bigger issue in the article is that Dodd still doesn’t seem to understand what happened. Sure, he talks about how the internet made a difference, but he thinks this sprang up out of nowhere.
By Mr. Dodd’s account, no Washington player can safely assume that a well-wired, heavily financed legislative program is safe from a sudden burst of Web-driven populism.
“This is altogether a new effect,” Mr. Dodd said, comparing the online movement to the Arab Spring. He could not remember seeing “an effort that was moving with this degree of support change this dramatically” in the last four decades, he added.
The thing is, if he’d actually been paying attention, he would have know that this has been building for a long, long time. For all the talk in the article of what a brilliant “strategist” he is, it appears his strategy was with the old way of doing things. He reacted to the internet with tremendous hubris — pretending that the complaints weren’t an issue, or were “just Google.” Some of us have been watching this closely for years. This goes back quite a ways. Before SOPA, before PIPA. Before COICA. Before ProIP. There’s been a growing recognition online that copyright is being used as a tool to block, censor and regulate our civil liberties, and there’s been a growing sense of outrage over this. We’ve reported on it. We’ve told people at the MPAA and RIAA about it directly. And they’ve ignored it. Like Dodd did. His “strategy” may work in a world where his lobbyists are the only ones at the table, but it’s no strategy for dealing with the public.
Even worse, Dodd’s own actions fueled the problem. His own statements built up this attack posture from the very beginning. We had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Dodd would come in as a “reformer,” intent on helping the MPAA adapt to the internet, embrace its opportunities and build better business models. But, instead, Dodd continued down the well-trodden path of blaming everyone else for his own industry’s unwillingness to adapt — and continued the MPAA’s disastrous strategy of focusing on anti-piracy rather than revenue maximization (or, even worse, believing that anti-piracy is revenue maximization when nearly all of the evidence suggests succeeding at anti-piracy does almost nothing to improve the bottom line).
As a “strategist,” the MPAA needed someone who understood the world that Hollywood is operating in. Dodd understood the way Washington DC used to work. That’s a big disconnect. And it does not appear to be getting any better.
Equally hilarious are his calls for a meeting — perhaps organized by the White House — of tech companies and Hollywood:
Mr. Dodd said he would welcome a summit meeting between Internet companies and content companies, perhaps convened by the White House, that could lead to a compromise. Looming next Tuesday is a cloture vote scheduled in the Senate, which appears to promise the death of the legislation in its current form.
“The perfect place to do it is a block away from here,” said Mr. Dodd, who pointed from his office on I Street toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sure. He’d welcome it now. Where was he three months ago when a group of entrepreneurs in the tech sector offered to sit down and meet with him? Where was he just a few weeks ago, when Senator Feinstein tried to set up a meeting between the tech world and Hollywood — which Hollywood rejected, claiming that it didn’t need to meet with tech companies, because it had this bill sewn up tight?
Now he wants to meet?
But even more to the point — and showing just how much Dodd still doesn’t get it… he wants to “meet with internet companies.” Not internet users. He still seems to think that this is about internet companies, and not their users. Part of the protests were about the process and the backroom dealing. There is no “backroom” for making political deals on the internet.
If he wants to meet, why not meet in an open format where anyone can contribute? Why not meet on the internet? Why not do a Reddit AMA? Why not hold a Twitter conversation? Why not set up a forum or do some Google Hangouts? Why not actually use the tools he seeks to regulate?
Obviously, sometimes it helps to meet face to face, but if that’s to be done, why not stream it live online? Why not let anyone watching contribute, make comments and ask questions? This can’t be another backroom deal, even with “the internet companies.” This has to be open and inclusive. This is about the whole process of DC-insiderism. This is about the whole process on which the article premises itself: that Dodd could have won this battle if he’d just been able to glad hand his way around Congress. That is what the internet was rejecting here. And I don’t think trying to do the same basic thing again is going to accomplish very much. Dodd isn’t going to win the internet over with a handshake and a sparkling smile.
Later in the interview, he discusses “missteps” in a way that shows he’s still missing the point:
He acknowledged his side had committed a misstep by allowing Hollywood to become the face of laws that were intended to protect not just movies, but also more mundane products — for instance, home smoke alarms — that are frequently counterfeited abroad, sometimes with disastrous effects.
“In terms of public perception, I’m Exhibit A,” said Mr. Dodd, who spent last weekend hobnobbing with stars at the Golden Globes. “This is seen as a red carpet business.”
It was a further problem, he said, that Hollywood’s writers, directors, producers and blue-collar workers — whose unions squarely backed the new law — never personally campaigned in a way that might have helped to counter the Web assault.
Notice that he’s not talking about substance here, but merely positioning. He’s talking about the marketing of the backroom deal, not the meaning of the backroom deal. Yes, the fact that Hollywood elites were driving this process was a part of the problem. But he’s wrong that it was because of how they positioned it. The MPAA absolutely did try to do exactly what he said. It set up CreativeAmerica as an astroturf group, staffed by former MPAA/studio execs, and pretending to represent the “grassroots.” The only problem was that the actual “blue collar” workers didn’t support the bills and recognized how bogus the claims of the MPAA were. And that was evident in the fact that the group totally failed to drum up any significant support — even with a huge war chest that is still running slick, expensive ad campaigns on TV and in Times Square in NY.
Finally, Dodd still shows the kind of hubris that got him into this mess when he starts complaining about the White House, and how disappointed he is, because of how much money the industry donates. This is the same tone deafness that we saw earlier with the studio heads:
“There’s a disconnect between the business interests and the politics of Hollywood,” Mr. Dodd said, meaning that the film industry and its denizens provided money for many campaigns, including those of Mr. Obama, without pushing its issues to the fore.
While Mr. Dodd is barred from Congressional contact, he has had a free hand in lobbying the White House and federal agencies. On Saturday, however, the Obama administration dealt his efforts a blow by announcing publicly, in response to online petitions, that it had reservations about a provision in the proposed laws that called for blocking user access to offending sites.
Mr. Dodd spoke with barely concealed anger at what he called a “really gratuitous” statement delivered by what he had presumed was a sympathetic administration, which came after the blocking provisions had effectively been killed in Congress.
It’s really incredible that Dodd can go from saying that this shouldn’t have been seen as Hollywood fat-cats asking for handouts… and then immediately shift into talking about how much money they gave the administration, and how they expected the administration to simply give them what they wanted. That is a big part of the problem. That is what the internet is complaining about. People were upset that Hollywood can “buy” legislation that goes against the public’s best interests.
Furthermore, the idea that Hollywood donors did not “push the issue to the fore” is pretty laughable. Hollywood has been pushing incredibly hard to get this bill passed over the past year. We’ve heard time and time again about how much time and effort have gone into lobbying for this bill, and how there were ever-increasing efforts over the past few months, with some Congressional staffers saying it was an unprecedented push for a particular bill. They pushed. But they failed to recognize the reality outside the beltway.
And that’s why Chris Dodd failed.
If he wants to turn things around, it’s time for him to stop focusing on the DC inside ballgame. It’s time for him to join the internet community and actually engage. That may be tough to do, and he’s certainly burnt a lot of bridges, but there are ways to build new relationships. But it can’t happen if he’s still taking the attitude he takes in this article. It’s still about getting what he wants, and not actually listening to the concerns of the wider internet. And until he understands that basic fact, Chris Dodd is going to continue to fail.