The following is from Jen Hoelzer, who for years worked as Senator Ron Wyden's Communications Director and Deputy Chief of Staff. During the SOPA/PIPA fight, she was perhaps the key person in Congress getting the press (and others in Congress) to understand the importance of SOPA and PIPA and what it meant for the internet. This morning, completely out of the blue, she sent this over. I think it does an amazing job highlighting just how important independent coverage of important tech policy issues, like what we provide, can be on these debates. Plenty of cynical people said that the SOPA/PIPA fight couldn't be won. Those same people are saying that the net neutrality battle is already lost. Good, independent reporting on these issues does make a difference, which is why we're asking you to support us in our net neutrality coverage.
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Hi. My name is Jen... and I was once a Congressional staffer who knew so little about Internet policy that I had no idea how little I knew about Internet policy. (I think this is where you're supposed to supportively say, "Hi, Jen," and reassure me that this is a safe space for me to continue my embarrassing confession. Because it gets worse.)
In late 2010, when my former boss -- U.S. Senator Ron Wyden -- announced that he was putting a hold on the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) – the predecessor to PIPA and later, SOPA -- I not only didn't know how the DNS system worked, I'm not sure I knew what infringement meant. (I'm not proud of these things, but they're true.)
If my boss hadn't involved himself in this issue, odds are I would never have heard of it and, heck, if by some chance I had learned that the Judiciary Committee had unanimously passed
legislation giving law enforcement (what their press release called) "important tools" to go after illegal activity, I probably wouldn't have given the issue any thought beyond thinking it was nice that Democrats and Republicans remembered how to work together.
Worse yet, when my chief of staff stopped by my office to let me know that the Senator would be placing a hold on the legislation, I didn't drop what I was doing to alert reporters or ask one of my deputies to pound out a press release. I'm not sure I even looked up from my computer.
Honestly, it didn't occur to me that anyone would consider what my boss did that afternoon news, until I got a Google News Alert that a blog called, Techdirt, had written about it
Now, in my defense, the above does not mean that I was lazy or willfully ignorant. From the outside, I realize Congress doesn't appear to do anything, but there are so many bills and issues swirling around Capitol Hill at any one time that it's a challenge just to stay on top of the sliver of them that pertains to your job. On an average day, Senator Wyden could go from a breakfast forum on health reform, to a committee hearing on tax reform, to introducing legislation on renewable energy, to questioning the forest service on resources for firefighting, before giving a floor speech on NSA surveillance, and that would just be before noon. So, the odds of my being on top of something that happened in a Committee my boss wasn't assigned to -- like the Judiciary Committee -- were slim.
Furthermore, my deputies and I -- as Wyden's communications director -- could barely keep up with all of the questions and requests we got from reporters. We didn't have the time or resources to tweet about everything he did, let alone proactively promote all of his work. I mean, just writing and distributing a press release can take a few hours, coming up with a messaging strategy, educating reporters, planning events and writing the various one-pagers, FAQs, op-eds and speeches needed to support a successful advocacy campaign can take days, weeks, even months and that's if nothing else is going on (which is rarely the case).
The day Senator Wyden put a hold on COICA, was the same day he introduced legislation to amend the Affordable Care Act with Senator Scott Brown. I was getting inundated with questions from reporters and bloggers wanting to understand "why in the hell he'd do such a thing," plus the Democratic caucus wanted us to put out and promote a statement pushing for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which had my deputy tied up, in addition to the various other things that tended to make the end of session a sprint.
I didn't jump at the opportunity to publicize my boss's hold announcement, because I didn't know enough about the issue to judge its news value, let alone explain it to reporters or write a quick press release, and I didn't have the time to learn enough about it to do any of those things before the end of the day. So, I told my chief of staff "great" and went back to talking to reporters about health policy.
Again, I'm not proud of the above story, but I was moved to share it, when I read that Techdirt's coverage of the COICA/PIPA/SOPA debate ultimately cost them more than 50%
of their advertising revenue and has since forced them to operate at a loss.
I don't want to imagine a tech debate without Techdirt in it.
I can't even begin to imagine how the COICA/PIPA/SOPA debate would have gone without Mike Masnick and Techdirt's coverage.
But I can imagine where I -- personally -- would have been without Techdirt's coverage. All I have to do is close my eyes and remember November 18, 2010. Now, as much as I'd like to tell you that Mike's November post on Ron Wyden's COICA hold changed everything for me, it didn't. One post couldn't make me an expert on Internet issues any more than a single story could have won the debate. But I can say the more I learned about the issues surrounding COICA and later PIPA and SOPA – and the more confident I grew in my knowledge and ability to explain those issues -- the more involved I got, the more press releases, speeches, FAQ's and blogs I wrote in support of Ron's work, the more reporters I talked to, coverage I influenced, and interviews I secured for the senator.
I can also say, I wouldn't have been able to do any of those things (at least not well) without Mike Masnick and the rest of the guys at Techdirt, because they're the guys who taught me tech policy.
That's not to say, I didn't work with really smart people who taught me a lot, I did and they did; but with Techdirt, I never had to ask a stupid question or admit what I didn't know. (I just kept reading.) Techdirt's posts were consistently straightforward, easy to understand and timely. Sure, another site might put together one or two good posts or a definitive explainer, but reading Techdirt every day was like taking a college course on the issues with every new post helping me understand a new aspect of what I'd learned previously. I often found some of the site's shorter posts and illustrative examples the most helpful, because they were the examples I ultimately used to explain the issues to others. For example, I've yet to find a better way to get someone to see the potential harm bills like SOPA and PIPA can do to free speech than pointing out that Universal once tried to blacklist 50 Cent's personal website, a fact I learned from a 6/21/11 Techdirt post, entitled "Did Universal Music Declare 50 Cent's Own Website A Pirate Site?"
(Seriously, that story alone helped me convince at least a dozen – non-tech – reporters to write about the issue, not to mention all of the Hill staffers I shared it with.)
Now, I understand that some of you may be tempted to write my experience off as unique (or flame me for asking you to sympathize with Congressional staffers), but I guarantee not having enough hours in the day was not an affliction unique to my experience. I'd also argue that good lobbyists derive less power from campaign contributions than they do from helping tired, overworked, Congressional staffers "understand" complex issues.
Lobbyists are experts at framing their client's positions in ways that sound like non-controversial no-brainers. They're so good at it, that most of them have even been convinced by their own arguments. A seasoned staffer who understands the issue at play will see through the lobbyist's ploy (and realize the offers of assistance aren't really "help"), but there aren't very many seasoned staffers who work on Internet and tech policy. To create those staffers and make the lobbyist's job harder, means helping those overworked staffers learn these issues, with short, easily digestible information that makes the problems with the lobbyists' sales pitch easy to discern. And, speaking from experience, no one is better at that than Techdirt.
Now, one of the sad realities of our political system is the fact that helping for-profit entities maintain the advantages that made them profitable pays a lot more than advocating for the public interest, which – if you're lucky – might yield you a pat on the back. But just because something isn't done for the money, doesn't mean those who do it don't have to earn a living. Saving the Internet shouldn't force Mike's staff to take pay cuts or his kids to go hungry.
If you care about a free and open Internet, you want Techdirt to be at full strength in the Net Neutrality debate. You want them to be educating more lawmakers and their staffers (like my former self) to understand these issues and be confident enough in their knowledge to take a stand against the cable companies and their lobbyists.
I'm donating to Techdirt's campaign because I know where I would have been without their work and I don't want a tech debate to take place without them. I hope you will do the same. It's also a great way to say thanks.
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