Today, TechCrunch announced the launch of CrunchGov, a policy platform that it hopes will bridge the worlds of tech and politics. It’s a positive step, but not without its potential pitfalls. On Twitter, writer and full-time curmudgeon Evgeny Morozov was one of the first to criticize the initiative. “The new euphemism for ‘lobbying’: ‘crowdsourcing,’” Morozov wrote, before linking to a Boing Boing post about CrunchGov.
Morozov declined a request for an interview to discuss his thoughts about CrunchGov. Perhaps it’s because he realized the issue is more complicated than that. CrunchGov does have a crowdsourcing element, but that is through a partnership with Project Madison, a tool that facilitates public feedback on pending legislation. Using Project Madison, people can suggest changes to bill language, comment on each other’s suggestions, and vote for their preferences. In that sense, it’s not much different from PopVox, which aggregates legislative data and lets members have their say on upcoming bills.
In an introductory piece about CrunchGov, TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, the project leader for the initiative, said TechCrunch thinks crowdsourcing legislation is a path to more productive conversations. In a later phone interview, he said that the section, which lets users read and comment on bills, is designed for the express purpose of circumventing power lobby groups such as the MPAA. In doing so, it would better represent the interests of small businesses, such as startups, Ferenstein said.
But that’s not all there is to CrunchGov. The site has also started a database of tech legislation, categorized by “Immigration,” “Open Internet,” “Intellectual Property,” “Entrepreneurship,” and “Cyber Security.” And in a nod to the National Rifle Association’s grades for political candidates, it has created a “leaderboard” that ranks members of the House of Representatives based on their voting records on tech issues. (It doesn’t rank Senators because they haven’t voted on enough legislation to provide a suitable data set.)
Ferenstein characterizes CrunchGov as “first and foremost a media experiment.” He sees it as a way that media can try to help people in the tech industry be better citizens. He also hopes it can help Washington DC get a better grasp of tech legislation.
“The internet was supposed to do all this amazing stuff to the democratic process,” Ferenstein said. “It obviously hasn’t. [TechCrunch is] well read in a particular slice of society, and this is an experiment in how the internet can empower citizens.” He feels that even if it turns out not to be the right way, he feels very strongly that the media should be doing these sorts of initiatives in at least some way.
He’s not concerned that TechCrunch might be seen to be stepping outside the bounds of its usual editorial mandate. “I don’t think it’s a secret that TechCrunch has never bought the traditional vision of objective journalism,” he said. “That said, we do have a responsibility to tell the truth.” The site refers to CrunchGov as “Endorsements 2.0,” comparable to the way traditional media outlets endorse particular candidates, except without actually telling people what to think. The leaderboard, which ranks members of Congress based on data from the Sunlight Foundation, reflects the “consensus policy beliefs of those in the technology industry,” Ferenstein’s introductory post claims. He told me, “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” The ratings were determined in consultation with tech-lobby groups that collectively represent most of the technology industry, TechCrunch claims.
On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.
As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?
Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated. Just because a certain congressman voted against the JOBS Act, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s against net neutrality or anti-immigration. Wider issues, such as the constituents they represent in their home districts, their party positions, and even disagreements with pieces of otherwise positive-sounding legislation that they don’t think go far enough, also come into play. Grades steamroll those nuances.
Still, CrunchGov is valuable as a conversation starter, and it fits into a broader trend of increased dialogue between Silicon Valley (expressed in the metaphorical sense) and Washington DC (ditto). Just in the last year, we’ve seen the emergence of Engine Advocacy, a more politically inclined Reddit, and strong startup presences at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The 2012 election has seen the emergence of several startups that could be important to the future of a more transparent and effective democracy, including NationBuilder, TurboVote, and Rally.org. The tech press, including TechPresident, Mashable, and even us here at PandoDaily, have been paying closer attention to politics. And events like the Personal Democracy Forum are bringing people together offline.
For those reasons, CrunchGov is another piece in an emerging tech-political ecosystem that has been crying out to be built. Even if no-one pays attention for a while, it is still a worthy initiative. It is incumbent upon quality publications, at least the ones that speak from a certain perspective, to not only reflect reader interests, but also to lead them.
The American political system is messy, often dysfunctional, and anathema to many in the “fail fast” culture of Silicon Valley. But it is also the anemically beating heart of Democracy. It’s not good enough for the tech world to merely pinch its nose and turn away. If we believe that technology and startups can improve Democracy – and we at PandoDaily, like TechCrunch, believe they can – then the time is ripe for engagement. A robust tech-political ecosystem will get us only part of the way there, but some progress is better than none at all.