Well-Armed Lambs: The Real Way To Get Congress To Understand SOPA
Benjamin Franklin is said to have once described democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. Liberty, he went on to point out, is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.
This one is for my fellow lambs, those of you dismayed over the legislative sausage-making that’s resulted in SOPA, PIPA, and Washington’s willingness to put the entire Internet at risk in the name of defending it against the digital version of a teenager stuffing CDs under his shirt.
I won’t attempt a technical rundown of why the now infamous bills pending represent a bridge too far (see here for some useful links). Instead, in an attempt to make sure we all remain well-armed – even as momentum has started to shift in the SOPA soap opera – let me talk briefly about politics, and the men and women who pull the levers of power in this country.
Let’s start here: for those of you incensed over the existence of SOPA and who tell anyone who will listen that Congress doesn’t understand the Internet, you’re right. But there’s also a good chance you don’t understand Congress – or some of what goes on behind the scenes of our political system in general.
As a reporter who has spent a fair amount of time covering politics, among other things, I could have earned a master’s degree during the time I’ve wasted in meetings, hearings and interviews with federal, state and local politicians all pretending to be one way in a world that’s something else.
Let’s check our naiveté at the door. Politics, governance and lawmaking aren’t skills performed by treasure hunters studying some inscrutable map in search of an X that marks the spot of the right thing to do. The compromises and ugly consensus that mark the ebb and flow of a legislative life don’t necessarily have anything to do with the things that make the world go round. Silicon Valley is in the midst of its introduction to the world of central planning. Mortgage finance, the housing market, health care and banking have all been there, done that in just the last couple of years.
“That government is best which governs least” is the famous Republican mantra that nevertheless gets thrown out the door when a lawmaker of either party – in SOPA’s case, a lawmaker like Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas – decides it’s time to save an industry from itself.
And let’s look at the politicians themselves. I will never forget an anecdote from a New York Times story I read several years ago: It described a meeting between congressmen and a few lobbyists discussing a highly technical issue. At one point, one of the congressmen in the room interrupts. He explains to the young hotshot in front of him how the first time he’d ever flown on a plane was fairly recently – in fact, it was when he was on his way to start his new job as a Congressman in the nation’s capital. At one point during the flight, he looked out the window and saw the landing flaps moving. For a moment, he thought part of the plane’s wing was coming off.
“So, you’re going to have to slow down,” he told the lobbyist.
Some of the D.C. lawmakers at the heart of the SOPA fight are ordinary people like that. They might be struggling to make sense of the fight over piracy and the complicated ramifications of this or that decision. Others are almost – but not completely – beyond the reach of people like SOPA’s outspoken opponents. They’re the Lamar Smiths of the world, quick to propose a fix to problems at the behest, not of the victim, but rather of the party that can capitalize on the straw man solution.
Or, as Dan Primack put it in the latest edition of “Fortune” – “Congress has proved itself incapable of finding bipartisan solutions to our nation’s most acute problems. But when it comes to imaginary crises, it’s doing a bang-up job.”
And why shouldn’t it? In all aspects of life, money talks and the other stuff walks. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest lobbying force supporting the latest Internet piracy bills, spent more than half a billion dollars lobbying Congress between 2000 and 2009, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics cited by Opensecrets.org. Google, the biggest lobbying force fighting the bills, spent a comparative pittance during that same time - $11 million.
The U.S. Chamber currently also has six former members of Congress lobbying on its behalf. Google has only one.
Public-interest groups, tech industry companies and leaders and Internet users have been making their voices heard for months. One congressional staffer told me Facebook is a great outlet to use for this kind of effort. Post a message on a congressman’s wall, and it sits there, like some bad customer survey posted near the front door of a restaurant.
Opponents of the piracy bills have at least one thing on their side from the get-go. In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re not winning. And with this being an election year, it’s not a great time to find one’s self on the wrong end of a legislative standoff that will seem to the public to be about Internet freedom – especially if your party is trying to, you know, unseat a popular president and retake the upper chamber of Congress.
Jared Polis, a U.S. Rep. from Colorado, told me that if enough people do the basics, like call and write, it does indeed make an impact. Polis – a SOPA opponent - is in a position to know a lot more about the issue than many of his colleagues: before his election to Congress in 2008, he founded successful Internet businesses like ProFlowers and co-founded greeting card site bluemountainarts.com. Something of a nerd himself, Rep. Polis even popped in on the forum for the online game League of Legends earlier this month to gin up support for the fight against SOPA.
“The only thing elected officials will listen to more than money is voters,” Polis told me in an e-mail. “They track the numbers and calls coming into their offices, and when it's this clear that Americans oppose SOPA it makes a difference. There are some very powerful interests that want SOPA to become law, but a committed grassroots campaign can - and in the past has - overcome that. It's imperative that voters continue to contact their elected officials and make their voice heard – repeatedly, if necessary.”
My staffer friend added this advice, specifically for the tech community: write and blog about congressmen you’re interested in, especially those on the relevant committees, to get their attention. Hopefully, she said, it will show up in the members’ Google Alerts and maybe even get on their press secretary’s radar. She added: “It needs to be an organized and strategic effort with one or two focal points. Don't be all over the place.”
The response from the public is having an effect. Lawmakers have in recent days said some of the most onerous provisions of the bills may not survive. And U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor may not even let SOPA come up for a vote … yet. And the White House has come out and claimed the brave stance of opposing Internet censorship.
Polis says to keep it up.
“The single most effective action opponents of SOPA and PIPA can take is to call and write the offices of their representatives and senators in Congress,” he told me. “Elected officials keep close track of what their constituents are saying, and if opponents can make their presence felt, politicians will notice.”
Sort of reminds me of the most important advice I ever got from my dad - If you don’t decide how you’re going to live your life, someone else will do it for you.
Now get going, my fellow lambs. The wolves are at the door, and we’ve got some votes to contest.