The Internet Industry's Most High Profile, But Least Successful, Trade Group Dissolves
from the good-riddance dept
While this may feel like Washington DC insider baseball, it’s fairly notable that the “big” internet trade/lobbying group, the Internet Association has announced it’s shutting down (Emily Birnbaum at Politico had the scoop the night before the official announcement). There will likely be a bunch of post mortems and discussions about this happening just as the big internet companies (who came together to set up IA in the first place) are under such regulatory threats. But, to me, this is good riddance. It was an organization that more often than not made things worse for the internet, rather than better. And that’s too bad, because it had a real chance to do the opposite. This is not to say there weren’t good people who worked there — there absolutely were. But as an organization, it missed a ton of opportunities to do the right thing.
The Internet Association was formed in 2012, soon after the SOPA fight. I was asked to meet with some of the folks putting it together at the beginning, and was a bit confused as to what purpose it would serve. There are, already, a few trade groups that represents internet companies, and I wasn’t entirely clear on the need for a new one. The story I heard (more or less) was that the “big” trade groups — including the RIAA, (then) MPAA, NTIA, NCTA had all “professionalized” the trade group space, and that they were seen as much more official and powerful than the more scrappy trade groups representing the internet companies — like CCIA. While there was also CTA (at that time, still known as CEA), which was bigger and “professional,” it was seen as having too broad a coverage, representing not just the internet (on which it actually does a great job), but the wider technology/electronics industry.
However, what struck me at the time of its founding, and in various meetings I had with people at the Internet Association over the years was that they seemed to have no fundamental principles behind their lobbying and advocacy. It seemed to be entirely a political organization. Obviously, any lobbying/trade group is — perhaps by definition — a political organization, which is often responsible for figuring out which ways the wind blows on certain regulations. But, still, the more successful trade groups always seem to have some core, fundamental principles that they fight for (even if those core fundamental principles are sometimes silly and misguided — see: RIAA, MPAA, etc.). And that’s what makes their advocacy more powerful. The Internet Association never seemed to really stand for anything.
This all came to a head, most notably, in the Internet Association’s about face on FOSTA. As you may recall, there was a pretty unified front against FOSTA from the entire internet, and then suddenly — almost completely out of the blue — the Internet Association endorsed it. As I wrote in a big post mortem about how FOSTA became law, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of the Internet Association. It is true that Facebook and Netflix (two giant members at the time, though Netflix later left) decided that FOSTA wasn’t a fight they were interested in. This pissed off smaller members of IA tremendously. Days after the announcement, I spoke to someone at a smaller (but still quite successful) internet company, who spent the better part of an hour venting angrily about how the Internet Association screwed them over, and that many other smaller members felt similarly.
I later met with two different executives at IA who both tried to defend the decision as “if we didn’t do this, something worse was coming,” but no one else seems to believe that (and Congressional staffers told me that wasn’t true — and that they had actually been very close on something that would have been much better). It was, yet again, a political move, rather than a principled one. And, after that, the Internet Association just couldn’t be trusted any more.
And as if to just put a huge exclamation point on the idea that the Internet Association was political rather than principled, it pulled this bit of nonsense:
I am honored to receive the ?Internet Association?s 2019 Internet Freedom Award. pic.twitter.com/Hoqr74Hdfy
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) May 23, 2019
Compounding problems was the decision (after a one year search, in which the organization had no permanent director) to appoint someone with no real background in the internet, or the biggest issues related to internet policy, to be the new executive director. Instead, it was someone who had worked mostly in the telecom space, including at multiple big professionalized trade groups in that space. And, again, you can see the thinking there, given the desire for the Internet Association to punch at that level. But, again, it left the organization without a principled stance, and put directional choices even more in the hands of its members — who don’t necessarily agree on things that much these days. Facebook’s power over the organization (as seen in the FOSTA decision) also turned off plenty of companies that are just sick of Facebook ruining the internet for everyone else.
In other words, it was a lobbying group with nothing to actually lobby for, and what little it did lobby for, it did so without conviction. It was just going through the expensive motions. So, good riddance to the Internet Association. There are still other groups that really do stand on their principles and seem to do a damn good job of actually fighting for core ideas around the internet — like CCIA, CTA, Engine Advocacy, NetChoice, and (the newest entrant), the Chamber of Progress. Those organizations, while trade groups, actually tend to lead on ideas, have strong principled stances, and are able to make a real difference. It’s too bad the Internet Association never really was able to do the same.