Lots of sites are protesting SOPA today by going dark. Turning your website black is cute and even attention-grabbing. But the only way SOPA dies is if the internet industry starts lobbying just as hard as the entertainment industry.
Look, I fully support efforts by Reddit and Wikipedia and others to raise awareness. But the reason SOPA and PIPA are threatening to destroy the internet as we know it is due to the internet sector’s epic failure to engage politically in a way that matters throughout, well, basically its entire history. Meaning, by aggressively lobbying. Sure, money is a terrible and horrible corrupting influence on politics. But here’s the thing: it exists.
Politics is defined by money and access. Plain and simple. The unfortunate truth is that if you want to change Washington DC, you have to buy it. And the big online internet companies, especially web-facing ones, have failed to pony up. Case in point: Obama spent more buying ads on Google in 2008 than Google did on total lobbying in 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined.
In fact, the internet industry is such a poor lobbyist that OpenSecrets doesn’t even break it out into its own category. Instead, it’s lumped into computers/internet, which comprises a lot of software companies and lobbying groups — like the Business Software Alliance, which was an initial backer of SOPA — whose interests run counter to each other.
And it’s not just about money. (Although, it’s mostly about money.) The techno-libertarian utopianism that pervades Silicon Valley means that both corporations and individuals buy into the idea that they don’t need to bend anyone’s ear in Washington DC.
The problem is DC is still going to talk other people. (Notably, the entertainment industry, which has a long, effective track record of getting its legislation passed.) Together they’re going to talk about us, and we can be a part of that conversation or not. But no matter how much we may wish that Congress wouldn’t listen to lobbyists, it’s an unrealistic expectation borne of idealism that ignores how our broken, dysfunctional government actually works. In the America of 2012, laws are written by lobbyists.
So let’s say that today’s blackouts do have the effect of stopping SOPA and PIPA. Let’s say the blackouts do raise enough awareness that, as Alexis Madrigal argues in The Atlantic, it spurs Congress to do what it does best, which is nothing.
If that happens, well, SOPA and PIPA may die. But Hollywood and the entrainment industry will still be alive, trying to protect their dying business models through legislation. They’ll be out there, lobbying. Making other attempts. Writing other bills.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we are seeing an entirely new form of lobbying emerge, one that isn’t dependent on money, but on numbers. But I’m deeply sceptical that what we’re seeing today will have the momentum, reach or influence to sustain this movement over the long haul.
Because to be sure, this fight hasn’t ended, nor will it anytime soon. And unless the internet engages politically in a meaningful sustained way, Hollywood wins.