Tumblr’s 32.5 million users woke up last week to a vision of a dystopian future. ““WTF,” a frustrated fashionista working on her own startup wrote to Betabeat. “I can’t see any of my god damn archives. UGGGGHHH.”
Logging in to their dashboards, where they browse the stream of posts from the blogs they follow, users were greeted with text and images that were blacked out like the redacted sections of a classified briefing.
Those obscured blogs represented Tumblr’s take on American Censorship Day, a protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was going before a hearing of the Congressional Judiciary Committee that afternoon. The bill would allow companies to sue service providers like Tumblr or Facebook for hosting content like copyrighted music files or movies, a big reversal from the safe harbor provisions which had long defined internet piracy law.
The startup community, both entrepreneurs and the investors who back them, had been raising the alarm for several weeks about their concerns that this bill would cripple their ability to innovate and damage the internet economy. But if SOPA was the first real test of the political muscle of the entrepreneurs and small-business owners who are driving the tech sector, it was a test they would fail. Whether SOPA eventually becomes law or not, the issue provided a clear illustration to many in the startup world that they may be frighteningly unprepared to navigate the dangerous waters of Capitol Hill, where buttonholing trumps beta-testing and hard-nosed lobbying beats “likes.”
“We’ve got all these blogs and these Twitter followers, but when it comes to politics, I worry that we’re the tree falling in the wood and nobody is hearing us,” said Fred Wilson, New York’s most prominent venture capitalist and an outspoken opponent of the SOPA bill.
Mr. Wilson and his partner Brad Burnham had travelled to D.C. recently to put in face time with Senators and members of Congress. But he worries that talk is cheap, and the startup community won’t be able to wield much influence until it begins working through D.C.’s more traditional channels. “We’re outmanned and outgunned by the older, more mature industries,” he explained. “The startup community is beginning to find its voice, but we don’t have a PAC or lobbyists.
“When the startup industry has more friends in Congress and when we are giving more money, then we will have more say. But so far we have not had a lot of success.”
SOPA would essentially reverse the conditions set out by Congress in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1997. That legislation gave companies like Youtube and Facebook protection under “safe harbor.” If someone uploaded a copyrighted television show or music file to one of these sites, the copyright owner can file a claim to have it taken down. As long as these sites respond in a timely fashion, they were considered to have done their part.
Under the SOPA act, companies and the government have the new ability to force internet service providers, giants like AT&T and Verizon, to block access to certain domain names if those sites are thought to be hosting pirated content. It would also give copyright holders the ability to sue search engines, blogs and forums if they contain links to this copyrighted material. It would give corporations a powerful enforcement mechanism, by making it possible for them to demand that advertising networks and payment processors stop doing business with offending sites.
Mr. Wilson’s concern that opponents of the bill would go unheard turned out to be unfounded. Tumblr users who clicked on the redacted text they saw on America Censorship day were taken to a screen encouraging them to call Congress and protest. Tumblr is better known as a home for hilarious cat animations and underground mixtapes than a hotbed of political activism. But its irate users placed an astonishing 87,834 calls to Congress in the next 12 hours, averaging at one point 3.6 calls per second.
The internet was practically howling. A petition posted to the White House website from a user on Reddit quickly gathered more than 40,000 signatures. “This Bill would essentially allow a Great Firewall of America and would be a shameful desecration of free speech and any sort of reasonable copyright law,” it read. “Essentially it’s a censorship law that would end the Internet as we know it in America.”
But while the members of the House Judiciary Committee heard these voices loud and clear, they seemed more amused and annoyed than alarmed at the vast and vocal outcry. “To those who say that a bill to stop online theft will break the Internet, I would like to point out that it’s not likely to happen,” Rep. John Conyers (D.-Michigan) noted with a dry chuckle, at the opening of Wednesday’s SOPA hearing. “We’re getting a number of reactions from those in the tech sector who think this will strangle startups.”
The strident voices of Boing Boing and Hacker News seem to have backfired. This wasn’t the slick talk of K Street lobbying firms or the prepared testimony of well-heeled industry groups. It was the rage of Reddit, eventually boiling over into the mainstream press. To the Congressmen who crafted this legislation, it came across as childish and suspect.
Rep. Conyers pulled out a sheet of paper with an image of Godzilla on the front. “I reluctantly ask to put this into the record,” he said. “The attack of the internet killers. This is serious business. Don’t walk, run, tell Congress SOPA hreatens internet security.”
Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) interjected. “Isn’t that a comic?”
“No this is serious,” Rep. Conyers replied, laughing. “We ought to know better.”
It was exactly the reaction many in the startup community had feared. “These are people and companies with incredibly large and engaged networks of users,” Anil Dash said, dressed in a black overcoat, black pants and black shoes, sipping a chai tea and chatting with Betabeat at the SunBurst Cafe not long ago. “But it’s not clear that having this big megaphone online will translate into any kind of real political power.”
Mr. Dash recently won a board seat on the New York Tech Meetup, a collection of more than 19,000 members from Silicon Alley, and one of the largest meetup groups in the world. “When Mayor Bloomberg came to our meeting, that made me remember why I was interested in the position. It showed that government was recognizing our power.”
Through Expert Labs, his non-profit, Mr. Dash explores ways for citizens to affect policy through the use of technology. “We need to figure out ways to get more aggressive. Take Nate Westheimer,” Mr. Dash said, referring to the jocular MC of the NY Tech Meetup. “He should be like Al Sharpton, our agitator, making people wake up to what’s important to us.”
The problem for the startup sector is that, while everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to President Obama recognizes their potential to create jobs or become the next Google, they are by definition small, cash strapped strivers, a difficult position from which to find political leverage. This prevents them from engaging the hoards of lobbyists who crafted the language that became the SOPA bill.
And as the committee hearing showed, by the time the issue was opened up for debate, the deck had already been stacked. From the Howard Dean scream to Tony Weiner’s tweet, the Internet has not been kind to politicians. But the opening statements for the SOPA hearing made it clear that the Judiciary committee had strong feelings about the ways in which the Internet was wreaking havoc.
“In my experience there is usually only one thing at stake when we have long lines outside a hearing as we do today, and when giant companies and their supporters start throwing around rhetoric like ‘this bill will kill the internet’ or ‘an attempt to build the Great Firewall of America,’ and that one thing is usually money,”said Rep. Mel Watt (R-NC). “When I hear overblown rhetoric like this bill is a killer to innovation and entrepreneurs, that the co-sponsors of this bill are the internet killers, I become suspicious of the message, as well as the messengers.”
Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who represents Silicon Valley, tried to defend the impassioned internet activists. “Writing this off as hyperbole is not fair,” she said. It was not the wealthy tech titans who were secretly backing this outrage, she noted, pointing out the many small entrepreneurs, legal and technical experts who opposed SOPA. “It hasn’t generally been the policy of this committee to dismiss the views of those in the industry we intend to litigate. I understand why you’re upset by the rhetoric, but that is not a reason to dismiss these objections.”
Still, the wave of internet based protest did make at least some impact. When Nancy Pelosi was asked via Twitter where she stood on SOPA she responded, “Need to find a better solution than #SOPA #DontBreakTheInternet.” While they couldn’t puncture the cloistered walls of the committee hearing, the startup community seemed to have gotten its protest across to at least one important politician, who was embracing both their medium and their message.