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.


Related Stories:

So Long, SOPA?

Act on ACTA: The Internet War Is Not Over

Hollywood and Silicon Valley: Who’s Backing Who?



Joe R.
Joe R5 years ago

Informative. Thanks.

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

I like Cathryn's fantasy - wouldn't that be poetic justice!

Mike Barnes
Michael Barnes6 years ago

A thoughtful, well-written treatise. The average citizen, though, after a day of work, or looking for work, paying bills, minding the kids, stressing about an economy corrupted by industries that can afford lobbyists, etc, does not really want to spend more hours working as an activist. They want someone else to do it for them while they watch mindless reality television and the Bernays' style propaganda known as 'news'. Sad, but there it is.
True story - last year, writing for an online publication, I wrote a story about little known IL legislation coming up for a vote. An activist group contacted me, and after we had spoken several times, asked me to do an analysis of the bill. I pored over the legalease for 4 hours and gave them seventeen in depth questions. I would up drafting the work for an activist organization and going to the Governor's office, although they were the activists. To be fair, they are still working on follow-up and lobbying legislators against it, but my point is that professional activists reached out to someone else who is not an activist, per se, to do what they do.

Thom Loveless
Thom Loveless6 years ago

'A strategic victory will occur when we use our Internet freedoms to restore and redesign American democracy.'

Don't bother, most of us gave up on America as a democracy years ago.

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine6 years ago

My educational entity has a student liason, however, remember, he/she is on their books. I am a victim of more than one lie and mismanagment of a noted professor of engineering which only fuels my disqust he still is there after more than five years. The first and only person I discussed this matter with also fell victim, but, refused to go on record. Grave. I pray someone who would like to do something about this will contact me as I will receive comments to this story. I need someone with backbone.

Joy Dantine
Joy Dantine6 years ago

I voted "no"; even though the majority know the cirriculum to such and end and due mainly to manhours and other setbacks after the fact. Like insurance and taxes, it should be easier than it is. May I suggest someone on the board be on the books - just for this purpose - without double dipping of course.

Fred Urbasek
Past Member 6 years ago

Why don't these Congressmen and women go to their districts more often and talk to people who have a different point of view? What they do is talk to people who are like them. If a Congressman/woman goes home and talks to conservatives or liberals of his/hers party, how can they get unbias information. If they talk to both sides, they may get a better idea on how to legislate for the US.

Randi L.
Randi Levin6 years ago

How can the internet be an act of free will when Google watches everything you do and every link you share!

Free Internet= Bull Shoot

Gary Ansorge
Gary Ansorge6 years ago

The points made in this article are very good. It gives me some insight into the political process that might actually be useful,,,

Sue Jones
Sue Jones6 years ago

I firmly believe we can figure out a way to both protect intellectual properties online AND keep internet access open and unimpeded. I'm not a techie, so wouldn't know how to start, but when I hear my son-in-law and his buds (all techs) talking about it, there are good, clear ways to take care of the problem while not allowing special privileges to the few. How about we get some hackers to work out a bill that does just that? They have the knowledge and the skill - and love the internet!