SOPA Opera

They Work For The Internet: Behind Silicon Alley All-Stars’ Marathon Coding Session at Tumblr to Fight Against Congress

The SOPA standoff puts politics in Silicon Alley's sights. Will they succeed?

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DAVID KARP DOESN’T SEEM LIKELY FOR POLITICS. When the Tumblr founder and CEO explains what happened over the weekend, he speaks about it in his typically blazing conversational speed, a full paragraph at a time, with the intensity of someone who’s been sequestered on a coding project for the last three days:

“Basically,” he blasts off, “we had this gathering of the internet in our office, we had seventy people and a bunch of politicians on the phone”—and then pulls back to divest himself of credit—”though we didn’t organize the effort, it was the Demand Progress guys. We just put them up in our office, where we had forty-plus people around. We were in here all day on Saturday. We basically showed up to just say, ‘hey, anything we can develop we’ll help develop, in direct communication with dozens of people,’ and basically all of these founders and people in tech companies are standing by following all this,’” and by ‘this,’ Mr. Karp is referring to a piece of legislation going through Congress—”developing, working to figure out how they can seed it in their communities—propagate it—and get it out there. We literally just finished the copy, we had our team of engineers help build it.”

And yesterday morning, these efforts went live, the center of which was a quirky, live collage of user-submitted photos from those with jobs in the tech/online platform entitled I Work For The Internet that provoked the call to Mr. Karp. That was at the beginning of the day.

Less than 24 hours into its existence, the site has already provoked a decent amount of curiosity, amusement, and—like anything else on the Internet—some criticism and meta-enabling, like a Gawker post lampooning the message, and a VICE post about how Gawker fell for their trolling prank on the site.

It also happens to be the product of some of the most deeply-ingrained footsoilders of Silicon Alley, who came together in all-weekend marathon thinktank and coding session for what might be one of the most bracing and cohesive American policy problems Silicon Alley has faced as an industry, and their first step towards fighting one together, too. The startups of New York City don’t usually find themselves embroiled in politics, unless, of course, it’s in a (bipartisan) manner with which the ingenious of their own platforms can be further brought to light. Yet, to say that they have some skin in the SOPA fight is a massive understatement. 

Tumblr’s New York City offices—where the weekend-long, late-night session was held—is quite the fitting setting. After all, if Silicon Alley loses this fight, the entirety of Tumblr could be shut down for hosting anything from a beloved music blog like SexMusic to a beloved Ryan Gosling blog like Fuck Yeah Ryan Gosling.

The Stop Online Piracy Act, a bipartisan effort powered by the packed wallets of Hollywood lobbyists, is an effort to curb illegal distribution of their product by way of an Internet Kill Switch: If a website is accused of hosting pirated content, it can be shut down, sight-unseen, without due process. Orwellian and fantastically dreamed as it may sound, it’s actually being debated in Congress for a vote over the next week.

The implications of this legislation being passed are what the thinktank-yielded website—or trifecta of sites (I Work For The InternetTrust Nerds, and Fight For The Future)— aims to explain. By distilling the result of SOPA’s passage into simple voting issues and a user-friendly way to act on them, those helping fight SOPA hope to give it the kind of viral, accessible resonance that might yield political action.

Mr. Karp takes another breath, but this time, and slightly slower, he speaks emphatically: “We really working to understand the process and the legislation right now. We were really just discussing what we could do to get behind this.” With words like that, maybe his political future isn’t so cloudy after all.

TURNOUT WAS REALLY GOOD. You know, like, New York Tech Company people, for the most part.” Six days into his new job, Tumblr’s new Vice President, Andrew McLaughlin—a former White House staffer who was President Obama’s deputy chief technology officer, which followed a four-year stint as Google’s global policy wonk—is already talking politics. He’s rattling off (albeit, with some struggle) the names of all of those who were in attendance over the weekend, when the aforementioned Silicon Alley heavy hitters came up with the concept, design, and execution of an attempt at activism-by-meme, as a stance against the highly-controversial sum-of-all-fears legislation that is SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, currently being pushed through Congress this week.

“Brad Burnham and Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures were there, um,” he continues, “people from Etsy, Kickstarter, Reddit, Foursquare..people from some of the Betaworks companies, so like, Chartbeat, I think Beatworks itself, Social Flow. We didn’t actually pass around an attendance sheet, and this was actually the first time I met them, so I’m sort of shitty on the names, but,” he finishes, “it was a real slice of the startup crowd in New York City.”

Awareness of the legislation has rocketed over the last few weeks, but even when Tumblr previously took action to put their foot in the ground on SOPA, the primary focus was the threat of censorship, a looming political threat most Americans don’t fret over conspiratorially. After all, it is protected by the first—and not, say, the nineteenth—amendment. SOPA advocates needed something stronger, and the legislation more than gives them that fight.

“We didn’t want to repeat what we did last time,” Tumblr editorial director Mark Coatney explains, recalling Tumblr’s ‘blackout’ initiative, “but at the same time, everything that we’ve heard from the feedback from that is that the only thing congressional staffers respond to are the phone calls to their office. After that it was: ‘How can we hit the other aspects of the bill?’”

Hence, the newest efforts. For example, on the jobs front, Mr. McLaughlin suggests that the United States—ever-proficient in creating platform companies like eBay, Amazon, Google, Dropbox, and say, Tumblr—could have job-creation threatened by an act that places liability for these platforms’ content on the platforms instead of the users, as they traditionally have. “The rules up until now have been very straightforward. So long as you’re not the one who’s not the author, as long as you act quickly to take things down when they’re infringing copyright, let’s say, then you’re not liable for what users did.”

The threat SOPA presents is that domains like Tumblr would be responsible for what its users do. “Let’s say Canada and the European Union maintain the principle of intermediary liability. We think there’s a real danger that increased compliance costs on U.S. businesses will make us less competitive, and people in other parts of the world will be more competitive. If you make it much more expensive to be an American internet company, then that’s going to be to the benefit of other countries.”

i work 1 They Work For The Internet: Behind Silicon Alley All Stars Marathon Coding Session at Tumblr to Fight Against Congress

Silicon Alley hits the political presses, snazzy logos and all.

This potential for this to go wrong in other ways, it should be noted, could hit Mr. McLaughlin’s new home especially hard. “[SOPA] has real implications for, let’s say, Tumblr, where we’ve got 35 million blogs, every single one of them has a unique third-level URL under Tumblr.com. Under the bill as it’s written, the threat is that one bad apple means they could get cancellation of Tumblr.com the domain name, killing everyone’s blog. We don’t think that’s what people intend, we don’t think that’s what they want the result to be, but we look at the language of the bill…and the use of this very clumsy tool of domain cancellation, that’s what we see as a possibility.”

But why shouldn’t domains be responsible for their content? After all, Hollywood and what it produces is, over the last century, one of America’s most consistent exports. Mr. McLaughlin volleys this back without thinking: “[Domains] aren’t engaged in the infringement. They’re not doing it. They’re not the criminals. If two people plan a crime using the telephone system, you don’t indict the phone company for connecting the call. If you want these platforms to thrive, you can’t impose liability for every one of the literally billions of transactions that runs over their system every day,” he takes a breath, and then drives again:

“The second point is this justice point, which is just simply: They’re not doing the infringement. When you put those two together, it just so happens, the traditional techniques of law enforcement are what we should be using. The number of kind of like commercial scale copyright infringement mills is—by Hollywood’s own estimate—somewhere in the low tens. To inflict an entirely new liability regime and to break secure DNS to go after a couple of dozens of sites is crazy!”

The other two sites—Trust Nerds, which advocates against the dismantling of DNS upgrades that would be waylaid by any stripe of Internet Kill Switch and attempt to circumvent it, and American Censorship, which advocates against the potential for SOPA to be abused by redaction-happy corporate or bureaucratic forces lacking the best intentions—make up the remainder of the political tech power push. “When it became clear that those were the three narratives to hit,” Mr. Karp concludes, “we decided to go with ‘Fight for the Future,’ which was the original SOPA setup, and then decided to make that the hub for all the stuff we now use to host that call to action.”

And on Monday, it was done…With exception to a few coding errors, of course, the likes of which received personal adjustment from Mr. Karp after reading about them on Hacker News boards. For a first foray into political activism by Silicon Alley at-large, it’s undeniably coherent and impressive, regardless of what some may think of the message (it certainly stands in stark opposition to that other viral political movement, Occupy Wall Street, whose criticisms of ‘But what does it stand for?‘ have all but been totally answered herein, and then some).

Yet, if strong national opposition to the face-value injustices of Wall Street banks experiences news-cycle setbacks in the simple dismantling of sit-in protests, are the lofty ambitions of fighting SOPA realistic? In other words: If you can barely get someone to call their representative for that, is all this effort be for naught?

“We’re not under any illusions. I’ve been around D.C. long enough,” Mr. McLaughlin says, sounding like someone who has, in fact, been around D.C. long enough. “We’re not under any illusions that this isn’t some magical counter to decades of investment and relationships and political campaigns and lobbyists and so forth that pro-SOPA people have made. It’s not like this is, you know, a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington-moment where lots of calls come in and suddenly everyone drops what they’re doing and we magically win the debate. We’re not that grandiose as to think this is going to work like that.” He concludes that this is the kind of fight those with dogs in it—and those who want to help—we need to get used to, and now is as good a time as any to start:

“For this battle and for future battles down the road, people who care about the Internet need to get in the habit of letting their representatives know they care about the Internet. The Internet isn’t just a force of nature that happens, it’s something that’s built. It’s built by humans and regulated by governments, and the people who care about it need to be sufficiently vocal.”

“Maybe,” he says, “some good will come out of it.”

fkamer@observer.com | @weareyourfek

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