My turn back on the skewer: lobbying is not an inherently bad thing.
To make my case, let me briefly recount an under-appreciated part of the debate about PIPA and SOPA: the roles that lobbying played in both designing and killing the proposed bills (at least SOPA).
News flash: lots of bills passed through Congress are originally drafted in interest groups. In some ways, this seems corrupt—it looks like Congress is just carrying out the lobbyists’ will in exchange for campaign contributions. Yet at others it makes perfect sense: members of Congress have no special expertise in most of the issues that come before them, so they rely on experts to explain industry needs, emerging trends and the like.
Over time, members of Congress come to rely on lobbyists and other experts in their field to understand major issues. They develop relationships with lobbyists and the bureaucracies that implement regulations that are based on friendly interaction rather than on coercion or direct pay-for-play corruption. These “issue networks” (as people like me call them) tend to dominate policy-making in a given area: interested persons work with Congress and bureaucracies to shape legislation in ways that seem to work for everyone—or at least everyone in the conversation, which it turns out isn’t everyone. Which matters—as I’ll explain in a couple of paragraphs.
Notably, most of the time this set of mutually reinforcing relationships “work,” at least in the sense that laws get passed, money gets raised, and not too much of a stink gets raised about any particular issue. Lots of laws get passed this way. It’s ordinary business in Congress.
It seems to me that PIPA and SOPA emerged from exactly this kind of issue network. Hollywood producers went to their long-standing allies, both Republican and Democratic, and pushed for legislation that served their interests against online, digital piracy. Note that this is a real issue: while people today seem to think music ought always be free online, the fact is that lots of people are trying to make a living producing entertainment content, and digital piracy is costing them billions of dollars every year. It also costs jobs since if a producer doesn’t make money, people don’t get hired to make music and TV and movies, etc.
So the industry proposed a bill that seemed to work for their interests, and their allies in Congress thought it made sense so they supported it. After all, social media and the digital age are new things, and members of Congress are older, not particularly technologically literate, and don’t think about Facebook or BitTorrent … well, at all. Why would they? They have jobs and lives and experiences—and relationships with established media companies that have been long-standing and effective for many years. Basically, they only had a conversation about SOPA/PIPA within their issue network, where everyone thought it was a good idea.
Which, of course, ended up biting them in the ass. For while social media is new, it is expansive. It can mobilize lots of people to a cause very quickly—especially when this mobilization can itself take place digitally. That is, since all you have to do to lobby as a member of the digital generation is send an email or sign an online petition, social media are tailor-made for your lobbying efforts. It works easily and smoothly—digital media at its best.
And, of course, it worked. My sense is not that Congress was trying to destroy Youtube or BitTorrent or whatever, but rather that it had no idea that there was a case to be made against SOPA/PIPA. It didn’t know because when members supported the legislation, they never heard anyone opposed to it offer their point of view. They weren’t part of the issue network, so they didn’t get noticed.
What the online lobbying against SOPA/PIPA did was push the digital community’s voice into the conversation in a dramatic way. It mobilized a strong counter-lobbying force sufficient to blunt the ideas floated among a relatively small group of people with reinforcing opinions.
So congratulations, all of you who took steps to kill SOPA/PIPA: you’re now lobbyists, too. Just—this time, it looks like you won. Let me suggest you keep it up.