Off the SOPA Box and into the Town Square
As the week begins, internet freedom fighters continue to celebrate the shelving of SOPA and PIPA. And while the winners of this WWW battle might not be sporting “I ♥ Congress” bumper stickers, we should all be feeling hopeful about the potential to build on this newfound civic energy. Importantly, the fight was civil — all sides acknowledge that the problems of piracy and IP theft are vital concerns that require action. Yet the process stunk. It was biased toward inside players, exclusionary, and worst of all, failed to acknowledge the changed reality of modern communications technology.
Yet the biggest lesson from last week’s mass action and celebration is this: if we had our act together as citizens of a modern democracy, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) would have never been introduced. For this reason, this month’s win was a tactical victory, not a strategic one. A strategic victory will occur when we use our Internet freedoms to restore and redesign American democracy. In a truly engaged society, protesting individual votes is only a last ditch effort. Post SOPA and PIPA, our efforts must be directed toward rewiring the Town Square to enable continual, sustained participation in our own self-governance.
The Internet blackout was an innovation for sure, but it still belongs in the category of advocacy politics that I’ll call “Surround and Punish.” Speaking as a former Hill staffer, this method of influence is frustrating, inconsistent and sometimes even antagonistic. (I know I’m not the only person who has run sideways into the Rayburn cafeteria to avoid being harassed). And I’m not dissing calls to action on specific bills. I’ve been an advocate, too. An important insight I recently heard from a long-time staffer was this:
“Quit giving me more and more information. Stop sending me lists of links. I know how to use Wikipedia footnotes. What I lack is context and expert judgment. What I lack is the institutional incentive to use facts.”
Clearly, we have a much greater problem than a few lousy bills. Namely that broadly considered information doesn’t have a competitive political constituency.
Members of Congress and their staff see themselves as public servants. They want to help. And here’s my soapbox: we need to stop beating up on the institution long enough to figure out how to help it perform its civic duty.
Congress doesn’t lack information. What is missing is something the military calls “situational awareness.” This is a form of understanding that includes strategic judgment and especially pertains to individuals who must act quickly despite many moving parts that could change and impact the results of the decision at hand. It is anticipatory, not reactive. It is risky. Modern leaders need it as much as military commanders. Reducing (political) risk and helping them be prepared are therefore influential actions.
One of the biggest challenges in today’s Congress is filtering the incoming noise. Far too much staff time is taken up just managing incoming communication, not making policy or interacting meaningfully with constituents. The din is overwhelming. Lobbyists solve this problem in socially intelligent ways. While money in the system is corrosive, there is no secret conspiracy of lobbyists. They are familiar and helpful in real-time. Good ones give you all sides of the issue and a clear favored position (their own). They do lots of your work for you. Meanwhile, most information sorting is primitive and brutal: an intern at the front desk seals its fate.
Complex issues that are interrelated require global perspective and need different kinds of support. Internet freedom is a good example. Instead of industries hiring ever more lobbyists to make their narrow case to members of Congress in D.C., the Internet freedom coalition should figure out ways to provide local continuing education for their Members and staff, back home in the states, free of conflicts of interest and premised on the common good. We should do more than just talk. We also need to help public leaders at every level figure out ways to meaningfully incorporate more citizen participation in decision-making.
Context and expert judgment used to be provided to both the House and Senate by long-time professional staff. As the Sunlight Foundation points out, this changed in the 1990s, when conservative “reformers” gave us not limited government, but lobotomized government. What we’re working with now is a legislative branch that has scarce public interest filters and so acts like an information cartel — knowledge is not necessarily a public obligation. Instead, it is a commodity (lobbyists) or a weapon (talking points). Moreover, members and staff don’t often feel the political payoff of balanced, thoughtful, substantive discussion.
If we want our democracy to belong to the modern era, we need to create this common good capacity for them. In the tech world, context experts and specialized judgment are seen as knowledge curation and high reputation filtering. These are two new roles for citizens in a modern democracy. Other roles are network node, data validator, visual mapper, opinion consolidator, knowledge broker, engagement sherpa, community amp, institutional translator, storyteller, civic convenor and on and on.
In many ways, Internet freedom is both a domestic and global challenge for the United States. Who are we and where are we going in the world? Both here at home and in our global presence we need to go away from coercion and toward persuasion, away from exclusion and toward participation, away from borders and toward networks, away from secrecy and toward transparency, away from reaction and toward resilience. This last one is the most important lesson for Internet freedom. It’s what we should be talking about after the SOPA-PIPA defeats.