If We Play By Big Government Rules, We’ve Lost

I’ve been following the developments around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) making its way through Congress with the same trepidation that I’ve followed previous governmental tech blunders, wondering if this time they’ll piss in the flowerbed enough to kill all the flowers.

I was very happy to see Joshua Kopstein’s Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works post last week calling out congress as a whole, and individual elected officials, on their ridiculous tendency to use their tech ignorance as some sort of badge of honor. The facts don’t matter, they seem to almost be literally saying. The unspoken words are, all that matters is the money, which flows from Hollywood. Protect the IP, no matter what the cost.

Today though Clay Johnson writes a rebuttal to Kopstein’s post, saying the opposite – Dear Internet: It’s No Longer OK to Not Know How Congress Works.

His argument is that Silicon Valley has to start playing by the rules if they expect to get what they want from our government. It’s a balanced argument, not simply pro-government. But I think it sparks a dangerous idea – that we need to play ball or else.

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.

I’m not naive enough to think that will change any time soon. But I do hope that Silicon Valley doesn’t just give up and start playing the game, like Johnson suggests.

To some extent we already do play the game, of course. Companies banded together in the 90’s to push the government to rip apart Microsoft. Microsoft and Facebook do the same thing today with Google, and Google’s no slouch in the political arena itself.

But the young startups, the ones trying revolutionary new things that are often messy and usually piss off some big profitable industry. Those are the ones that can’t play the game and expect to survive. Startups must be nimble. They can’t spend time mucking around as some sort of coalition and trying to lobby and pay off the government. Nor can they spend the time educating our congress about how the Internet actually works.

Instead, they just build. Disrupt. Fail. Succeed.

I still believe what I wrote in June 2010, and I’ll still believe it in another ten years.

Silicon Valley has fueled much of the growth in our economy over the last few decades and has created amazing (and highly profitable) companies that are making the world a much better and more interesting place to live. All that happened while the government ignored us.

We don’t want handouts. We don’t want “public-private partnerships,” and we sure as hell don’t want legislation. Just let us do our thing and maybe say thanks to those companies that create jobs by the hundreds of thousands and send in those humongous corporate tax payments on profits. Because all you can do is screw up something beautiful. Really.

This is a special place (the tech world). Leave it alone and let it thrive. If we continue to ignore the huge value destroying game played in Washington DC we may continue to get hit hard over and over again. But if we start playing the game – as Johnson suggests – then a lot of what’s special about Silicon Valley will just vaporize away.

The Internet has already adapted. It’s time for Congress to do the same.

42 thoughts on “If We Play By Big Government Rules, We’ve Lost

  1. Damon Pace says:

    If you want to change the world…don’t ask for permission. Our govt is not nimble enough to keep up with the pace of innovation happening in SV. It is still trying to solve problems from 10+ years ago. They will only get further and further behind as time moves on.

  2. Very well put. If you (and Kopstein) can only persuade one Congress critter… who in turn enlightens others…

  3. Matt says:

    Now the big companies are trying to rip apart the small startups – like patent trolls or big corps that squash the weak.

    So some could say, SV will rip you apart if your startup isn’t there. This has been my recent thought/fear of running my own startup outside of SV.

    Get eaten by the bigger fish if you will.

    Either way, it’s about beating the naysayers and build a solid company. Success will follow.

  4. the only problem with this reasoning is the “unilateral disarmament” argument. meaning that the “enemies” of real progress (unions, education bureaucracy, public employees) will NOT change voluntary. the tech industry cares more about its own skin (to an extent) and feigns interest in improving education, both K-12 and higher ed, esp in terms of STEM graduates. if the tech industry keeps “not playing” nothing will change. i suggest that the techies with brains (not the lefty ones that dangle with obama) get behind ron paul in a big way in iowa and new hampshire or else you will get the same ol’ b.s. from d.c. that you have seen for the last 20 years.

  5. Angelos says:

    A big WOW my friend. Well said. Hope there is also honesty in those words.

  6. Kirk Eisele says:

    In the ultimate show of appreciation this bit is now quoting you as my Facebook status “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.” with credit of course…

    I wish I thought you were wrong about that…

  7. Dave Hodson says:

    Mike – a great reason to contribute to the EFF. They get it and fight nonsense like this. Finally, Lamar Alexander is a crook; that is indisputable.

  8. Sam Feuer says:

    How about Heather Harde for President of the United States of America.

  9. This complaint is roughly comparable to the Tea Party’s demands for the government to get its hands off their Medicare.

    Have you forgotten how the Internet came to be?

    Have you forgotten that the NSF paid for Larry’s and Sergey’s Stanford research grants that enabled them to come up with that little search thing?

    Have you forgotten about the government policy that gave Wi-Fi free access to spectrum?

    What about the government grants and contracts that paid for nearly all the early process improvements in semiconductors?

    It’s all well and good to claim that all you “see in Washington DC are a bunch of elected thugs with various overlapping crime rings beneath them,” but a lot of people see Sand Hill Road in pretty much the same way, an interlocking circle of cronies who decide who wins and who loses for their mutual benefit. The reality is a bit more complex in both instances.

    Unfortunately for the spirit of adolescent libertarianism that motivates much of the tech industry’s naive approach to politics, we live in a representative democracy in which lawmakers make decisions that affect all of us. They’re going to do their thing with your input or without it, and if you choose not to engage you effectively forfeit your right to complain.

    Leaving tech alone because it’s “special” isn’t on the menu and shouldn’t be.

    • A democracy = the majority rule + 1, which means the 51 can tell the other 49 what to do…which is why this country was founded as a Constitutional Republic with multiple checks and balances (including the states) to protect the individuals freedoms. Now most of that has been destroyed over the years one piece at a time…and at this point almost all politicians just do what they want. They don’t really care what the people want or what they promised in their really expensive lobbyist backed campaigns. There are very few that want to change this as they enjoy their control, Ron Paul will fight to restore the freedom to the individual in this country, something big needs to change in Washington, DC, and Ron Paul is our best shot!

    • I disagree entirely with the point of view your post takes. So because a the long arms of a few departments have provided funding for a few pieces of what eventually became massive parts of the internet, Congress should be able to blindly make legislation for whatever they want? That’s your post in a nutshell.

      • Not really the proper nutshell at all.

        Congress is going to pass any laws they want, blindly or otherwise, because that’s their job. Arrington argues that tech is special and should therefore be exempt from government regulation. I argue that tech is not special, and toward that end offer examples of government helping tech along.

        If you don’t like blind laws, work with Congress to help them see; that’s on the menu, but not laws at all isn’t.

  10. “But I do hope that Silicon Valley doesn’t just give up and start playing the game, like Johnson suggests.”

    Clay doesn’t suggest that. I know it because he and I work together on changing the API for regular citizens to interact with regulators and legislators — it’s our mission at Expert Labs (see http://expertlabs.org/ )

    But what Clay is reflecting is *today’s reality*. And I’d note that your advice to female and minority entrepreneurs who face systematic injustices and inequities is that they should accept the system as is, rather than advocating for changing it. Now, when you’re on the wrong side of an unfair system, you say that people *shouldn’t* accept it and should loudly advocate for changing the system.

    Here’s the good news: I agree with you. And Clay does, too. But you can’t change the system without first learning how it works. I hope you’ll advocate for entrepreneurs and technologists to do exactly that, and then maybe join efforts at organizations like ours at Expert Labs to make a real change in how we can interact with government without having to buy our way in.

  11. Raven Brooks says:

    This comes down to a few industries trying to create special rules and/or a monopoly for themselves. And I think that rather than talking about “big government” or saying “leave tech alone” it’s instead more productive to educate people about what these companies are trying to do and when appropriate mock the hell out of them for trying.

    They’re lame dinosaur industries and companies that can’t really compete and innovate so they’re trying to squeeze every bit of profit out of what they have, no matter how misguided or likely to screw everyone else their efforts are.

    That completely fits in with the kind of writing I’ve come to expect from you and other tech journalists I respect. And it doesn’t require anyone to take a specific stance for any political party.

  12. Edward Wilson says:

    Hey Mike, you’re a disturber not a disruptor. If you were the latter, you’d have mentioned somewhere in your rant the need for a separation of corporation and state. But you don’t want that for many other reasons of course. You’ve also failed to mention the culprits, dozens of corporations (many of whom are tech companies) who’ve supported SOPA financially.

    What else would one expect from an individual (with others) has diminished the value of the word “disrupt” to websites that make people click on items like lab mice and sell their data.

    If you peel off a few layers off this onion, you’ll see that you are no pirate, like many other VC’s looking to make a quick buck, SOPA is just in the way.

  13. I love tech, but quit pretending it isn’t just another industry making up a part of the economy.

  14. Love this post. Surprised by the ignorance displayed in some of the comments though.

    • Richard, please don’t be surprised…
      Long time ago, I came to the realization that most people [because of specific reasons in our culture] live in a fog of misinformation and, yes, ignorance, particularly those who waste their time “blogging.”

  15. The problem is Big Companies using money to commit a soft coup d’etat of the Government, and because of the dysfunction they caused everyone thinks the government is the problem.

  16. golstat2003 says:

    Government should leave tech alone? Sure, tell that to the corporations and trade associations (many of what are made up of tech companies) that keep lining the pockets of congress to NOT leave tech alone.

  17. Abiel Abuy says:

    “Their job is to get reelected and gain power, not help the country or do what’s right.” This line practically describe the Politics here in the Philippines!!!

  18. Brandon Calder says:

    Amen, Mike!

    We need to throw most of these guys to the curb and start fresh with folks who don’t want to make a career out of politics, but rather to simply represent their constituents.

  19. How does this post square with a full-throated support of net neutrality, which is legislation that (a) intervenes in the free market to protect some participants against others, and (b) is based on the premise that the internet is a collective good?

  20. Peter Mullen says:

    Silicon Valley is on the verge of being tied up into the web of big-monied interests (if not done already) and the sale of TC to AOL is but one of so many recent examples. It’s the proverbial two-edged sword. We all want our startups to be hugely successful but we also want to keep the benefits of a free, free-wheeling, open, vibrant ecosystem. The ability to keep having it both ways is almost extinct and disasters like SOPA are an unfortunate reality. The federal government recently announced a billion dollar fund to invest in startups. Does anyone here think this is a good idea? (I don’t) Are VCs are taking money and funding startups from the very LPs who are supporters of SOPA? How to keep it small when taking big money? Answers please.

  21. gregorylent says:

    farmville anyone?

  22. instantbight says:

    Hi, I am im in eight grade and I am the owner and writer of http://www.instantbight.com, I am also using the chunk theme and I wanted to know how you make your quotes look like they do.
    Thanks so much!

  23. Thanks for writing about this. I really don’t like SOPA bill

  24. Isnt that always the case though

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