Good ideas aren't enough. They need champions and constant vigilance, or Congress will take them from you.
Many problems arise when your country's legislature is consistently more responsive to its donors than its constituents. One of these problems is that simple good ideas can't just be left alone to bask in their goodness.
The Internet is clearly a good idea -- not tautologically good, but certainly one of the better things that's happened to human communication and the spread of knowledge in recent centuries. But now some people in Congress who didn't know what an MP3 was until their granddaughter got an iPod a few years ago, want to go and ruin the web to benefit a few reactionary trade groups who would prefer censorship to innovation. A bill that was introduced into the House last month, called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), aims to penalize or eliminate websites that have pirated content, and the repercussions for Internet users could be far-reaching.
The reaction online has been one of the largest upswells of traditional advocacy by web-native organizations in recent memory. Ever heard of Facebook, Google, Twitter, eBay, LinkedIn, Mozilla, KickStarter, Yahoo, AOL or Zynga? They're all opposed to the bill.
Google's fighting the good fight within the halls of Congress, where its representative was the only opposition witness allowed before the House Judiciary Committee. 4Chan, BoingBoing, and other top web properties converted their home pages to CENSORED home page takeovers, offering priceless in-kind advertising to the cause.
The result? Six thousand websites participated. One million emails were sent to Congress -- and 3,000 handwritten letters.
Tumblr takes it up a notch
Tumblr took even more dramatic action as far as getting users' attention, and redirected the roughly 500,000 daily unique visitors to Tumblr.com to a slick "call Congress" tool that dialed users, prompted them with talking points, and connected them to their representatives.
I need to take a minute and let you marinate on Tumblr's part in all of this. The service combines Twitter and blogging and has grown 900 percent in the last year. With 30 minutes' notice, Tumblr got hooked up with Mobile Commons, another New York-based start-up. And then they delivered an average of 3.6 calls per second to Congress. Because Tumblr is a blogging platform, its action also produced a sharp uptick in blog posts about SOPA.
The tool the Tumblr team built made me a little happy and a little sad. I was happy because it was perfectly executed. The interface was nice; it was blatantly clear what I was supposed to do; and it got my complete attention until the task was completed. But it also made me sad because I've been watching political technology for 10 years and have never seen anything nearly this good from the industry vendors who charge campaigns and non-profits significant sums of money for their clunky click-to-call tools.
It appears that Tumblr built in a day or two what no D.C.-based technology supplier could come up with in the last five years. The closest I've seen to Tumblr's tool was a short-lived but great "Whip Congress" tool built by Change Congress and a couple of Google employees. It provided a nice overview of which members of Congress to thank and which to spank for their stance on a bill.
Tumblr ended up routing 87,834 calls to representatives, for a total of 1,293 hours on the phone. For those of you who haven't worked in advocacy at the federal level, members of Congress pay a lot more attention to phone calls from constituents than emails or petitions.
But the bill lives on.
protecting free speech
Even if this bill is defeated, what has happened this week is really important for the protection of free speech online (which is, in spirit if not in law, identical to the protection of free speech in general).
We take for granted that great things like the Internet exist (and frankly, we should be able to). The problem with the U.S. Congress is that if a tiny, tiny minority of people doesn't like something (like the open Internet), and they give lots of money to key members of Congress, their opinions suddenly trump the vast majority of citizens, who didn't realize they'd have to fight for something that's so obviously great and well-loved. In this case, pro-SOPA groups like Pfizer and the MPAA have given 12 times the amount of money to members of the House of Representatives as web companies and consumer groups:
So, in addition to paying more attention and donating LOTS more money, the people who want to ruin the Internet also have the advantage of surprise. Net-savvy individuals first have to find out about the threat to the web, and then they have to overcome the counterintuitive logic that something as brilliant as the Internet is being fundamentally threatened by the people who just got around to figuring out that Facebook and its 800 million users might be a good place to rent out Batman movies.
It's vital that even consumer-level websites are getting political right now. We need them to win this battle. And we need everyone who loves the open web to be relatively engaged in protecting it, at least when ideas as terrible as SOPA gain traction.
The same problem occurs on issue after issue. No one stands up for great things we all take for granted, because who would mess with great things? There's no real money or lobby behind protecting free speech, just some ideals and financially struggling non-profits. If it weren't for the courts, free speech would be a distant memory at the mercy of some industry inconvenienced by it.
It's really, really helpful when major and relatively apolitical sections of American society suddenly pay attention and push back on Congress. Many terrible ideas are advanced in the halls of Congress all the time, but they depend on the majority of us not paying attention until it's too late and they've already become law.
Fortunately, some groups have started this process. I'd recommend at least joining their email lists and following them on Twitter, as these groups are working very hard to keep the Internet the Internet:
A video to reward you for reading all of that text: