Should Congress and the Internet understand each other better?
December 20, 2011 | 12:07 am
An interesting triad of articles has appeared over the last few days, talking about Congress’s deliberations over SOPA. The article that started it all, by musician and blogger Joshua Kopstein, puts into its title a sentiment with which a lot of people on the Internet can readily agree: “Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How the Internet Works.”
Kopstein calls members of Congress out for not bothering or apparently even desiring to understand the impact that their legislation could have before passing it. A couple of representatives pooh-poohed security concerns that had been brought up about the bill, downplaying any need to bring in experts to explain to them what the problem was.
The fact that there was any debate over whether to call in experts on such a matter should tell you something about the integrity of Congress. It’d be one thing if legitimate technical questions directed at the bill’s supporters weren’t met with either silence or veiled accusations that the other side was sympathetic to piracy. Yet here we are with a group of elected officials openly supporting a bill they can’t explain, and having the temerity to suggest there’s no need to “bring in the nerds” to suss out what’s actually on it.
Another posted to his twitter account that he was so bored with the debate that he was surfing the Internet on his smartphone. (Hey, constituents, aren’t you glad you’ve got that guy working for you? He takes it so seriously…) Secure in their apparent complacency, the Representatives voted down all but two of the amendments SOPA opponents sought to add in the interest of preserving security and free speech. “This used to be funny, but now it’s really just terrifying,” Kopstein writes.
But author Clay Johnson takes Kopstein’s base assertion and turns it around, with a post entitled “Dear Internet, It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works.” Pointing out that the lack of understanding cuts both ways, and using the pharmaceutical industry as an example, Johnson notes that the beneficiaries of legislation are usually the ones who did the best job “educating” Congress themselves.
If Congress is complaining that they don’t know about something that you care about, the right answer isn’t to tell them to go get educated. The right answer is to educate them. Congress mentioned the word "biologics" 75 times in a month because a lobbyist spent a long time doing their job: educating members of Congress on the needs of its industry.
Johnson notes that the winning team in Washington is usually the one with the deepest pockets. We can work to change the system—indeed, Johnson says that is what his whole career is about—but it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.
He also points out that congressmen would much rather hear from their constituents than lobbyists—but their official computer systems for managing constituent mail are so far behind the times and user-unfriendly that they can make it hard for congressmen to make use of it.
Here’s an area for both some disruption and some lobbying. Let’s build tools that allow members of Congress to aggregate messages being sent to them, and to associate those messages with congressional districts. Let’s come up with a way for a member to see what their constituency is saying about any particular issue they’d like, and let’s provide that as an open service so that anybody can see what a particular constituency is saying. That way, when a member has a track record of voting against the desires of a substantial portion of his or her district, we’ve got a record of it, and it can get brought up in the next election.
At the same time, it’s also an area for some great lobbying. Hardware and software platforms are no more or less secure inside or outside the walls of Congress. Let’s lobby for a rules change that allows our members to use the software they want to use. It’s a non-political no-brainer that could allow members to work with businesses in their own districts rather than in Washington, and could help government attach itself to Moore’s law like the rest of us.
Finally, Michael Arrington writes his own response on Uncrunched: “If We Play by Big Government Rules, We’ve Lost.”
It’s the libertarian in me (or the fact that I’ve been mesmerized by Starz show Boss these last few months), but all I see in Washington DC are a bunch of elected thugs with various overlapping crime rings beneath them. Their job is to get reelected and gain power, not help the country or do what’s right. Unless you have a lot of money and are willing to spend it lobbying, you’re going to lose your fight no matter how righteous your position.
In Johnson’s world, congress gives a damn: “The truth is that Congress would much rather listen to its constituents than listen to lobbyists,” he says. Maybe he’s right, but I’ve yet to meet an elected official or bureaucrat who actually gave a damn. The profession just seems to attract a certain type of person, and that person wants to talk to the money, not to the people.
He sees the attempt for tech firms to lobby Congress as Johnson suggests as a cure that might be worse than the disease. Most startups, he writes, don’t have the time or resources to do something like that and still concentrate on the business side of things.
In Congress’s attempt to regulate the tech industry, they risk destroying the fertile ground for innovation that has grown up in Silicon Valley. If the government would just leave Silicon Valley alone, Arrington writes, it will fuel growth in the economy and generally make the world a better place.
That may be true. But it seems to me, based on what we’ve seen with SOPA, that a copyright-paranoid entertainment industry isn’t about to let that happen. I can hope for the best, of course, but that doesn’t mean I’m really expecting it.