Yesterday’s SOPA strike was enormously successful, not only raising attention to the issue but moving a tremendous amount of politicians for a one-day event. Over 4.5 million people signed Google’s petition against SOPA. The Wikipedia action gave high-profile attention to the issue as well, and even if Facebook and Twitter’s responses were muted, overall the online community made themselves heard.
But those of us charting the protest yesterday were struck by how most of the lawmakers turning against the bill were Republicans. If you look at the latest whip count on PIPA, for example, you see that more Republicans oppose it at this point than Democrats.
Instead, Democrats by and large finessed their responses, claiming that they would work to fix the finished product. Markos Moulitsas lets Democrats have it:
You have an entire wired generation focused on this issue like a laser, fighting like hell to protect their online freedoms, and it’s FUCKING REPUBLICANS who are playing the heroes by dropping support?
Those goddam Democrats would rather keep collecting their Hollywood checks, than heed the will of millions of Americans who have lent their online voice in an unprecedented manner.
Are they really this stupid? Can they really be this idiotic?
Are they really going to cede this issue to Republicans, hand them this massive public victory, then get left with nothing but public scorn when SOPA and PIPA go down in flames?
To be clear, this is more of an issue with Congress. The Obama Administration responded last weekend with opposition to aspects of SOPA and PIPA, and the Obama 2012 campaign put out a petition on the issue yesterday (kind of leading from behind, but they’re in the right place). And there are plenty of Democrats who listened to their constituents yesterday, mostly the ones who will have to gain their support. Tim Holden, in a tough race in Pennsylvania, withdrew his SOPA support yesterday. Tammy Baldwin, running for Senate in Wisconsin, made a great statement of opposition. And candidates trying to get into the House, like Jose Hernandez in California, stood with the online community.
The problematic figures here are the institutional Congressional Democrats, the ones who don’t have an election coming up, or whose seats are safe, who simply welcome the campaign checks, mostly from the entertainment industry, and the power and influence that goes along with them. A former lobbyist writes at The Verge that this issue will ultimately get decided by the size of those checks.
Even if SOPA and PIPA die on the vine, Congress will be back with fresh legislation and cute new propaganda-laden titles, courtesy of the MPAA and RIAA’s ruthlessly effective combination of money and patience — a combination the tech community has shown little interest in matching. To change Congress, you have to change who Congress listens to. But more importantly, you have to change what those people are saying — and to do that you need to peer outside the marble halls of Congress and focus your gaze squarely on Silicon Valley.
As long as the entertainment industry spends more money in Washington than the tech industry, bad laws like SOPA and PIPA will appear with frightening regularity. The government will seem ignorant and unresponsive to the internet community for as long as the internet community refuses to participate — that’s just how this works.
Congress is a game, and anyone who wants to get something done in government plays. Those who don’t play never accomplish anything. It’s a game of reputation, relationships, back-room deals, and big money. And if you haven’t called or written your representatives, or engaged someone to advocate on your behalf, you’re not even spectating from the bleachers — as far as Congress is concerned, you’re sitting in your car listening to the game on the radio, somewhere in the uncharted Canadian tundra. Meanwhile, special interest groups help decide the batting order, while lobbyists line the bases, waving their pet legislation home.
This traditional view is becoming less true, in part because of the large megaphone that the Internet allows. Attention can get raised on issues that normally stay behind the scenes, and those politicians responsive to public opinion will shift their view. The problem is that this power relationship only works when the politicians listen to their grassroots. And in general terms, that describes the Republican relationship to the Tea Party, not the Democratic relationship to their grassroots. The Tea Party has struck fear into their party; the progressive movement inspires laughter. And that’s why you saw the movement you saw yesterday.