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.