Nearly a year after citizens blindsided the government with an unprecedented protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, Congress is at a loss for how to proceed. Luddite officials see complex tech issues as a mysterious minefield and the greenhorn technology industry does not have the insider D.C. connections to move beyond unwieldy protests outside the gated halls of America’s capitol.
As a startup-focused publication, TechCrunch gets to see the results of tech policy every day. And we think we can help the two sides understand each other better. So we’re launching a new project today called CrunchGov.
It includes a political leaderboard that grades politicians based on how they vote on tech issues, a light legislative database of technology policy, and a public markup utility for crowdsourcing the best ideas on pending legislation. Everything is in beta for now (you know how these things go), but we think you’ll already be able to get a lot out of it.
Here’s some more detail about each part of the project, and our thinking behind it.
Political Leaderboard: Newspaper Endorsements 2.0
For nearly two centuries, many of the world’s most venerable newspapers have endorsed political candidates and ballot propositions, believing that even the hallowed tradition of journalistic neutrality does not relinquish us from our civic duty. Yet, the process of wheeling out an otherwise shameful opinion from the shadows for a quadrennial pronouncement seems riddled with problems.
How, for instance, did the The New York Times decide to endorse Obama in 2008, and was there any way in which McCain could have possibly earned the endorsement? Why offer an opinion every four years, when the gravest threats necessarily happen between elections? These concerns compelled TechCrunch to give the traditional media endorsement a much-needed 21st century upgrade: a quantified opinion, a platform for bi-directional consultation with officials, and a constantly updated database of issues.
Our report card ranks members of congress on a set of transparent criteria, which reflect the consensus policy beliefs of those in the technology industry. Most individuals in the technology industry favor more high-skilled immigrants, the ability to crowdfund startups, and vigorously opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act when it was presented to congress.
Our “A” through “F” evaluation ranks policymakers on the probability that their vote will align with the technology industry.
A “B” grade reflects the overwhelming majority of Congresspeople who had 100 percent alignment (voted for high-skilled immigrants and crowdfunding, and opposed SOPA).
A “C” congress member deviates on one of those issues and a “D” deviates more than one issue.
For those members who are widely known champions or threats of tech policy, we reserved a select few “A” and “F” ratings.
A more thorough explanation of our evaluation methodology can be read here; suffice it to say that our ratings were informed by a broad set of influential tech lobby organizations that collectively represent most of the technology industry. Each of them filled out a survey, indicating which laws should be included in our measure, and we only graded on laws that had broad agreement. Net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security ultimately did not make the cut, since there is no consensus on how to approach those issues.
We believe this approach overcomes glaring shortcomings in traditional endorsements. For one, every member knows exactly why they got a particular grade and what they could do to change their standing (in the future, we will let Congress members know how we will grade a particular bill before it comes to a vote). Second, our measure, rather than reflect the mysterious opinion of a faceless editorial board, reflects an actual voting constituency. Last, our measure will be constantly updated, so that policymakers and interested citizens can be fully informed in realtime.
A Legislative Database
Tech policy is more than just piracy and immigration reform: it’s tax reform, STEM education, cybersecurity, privacy, patent rights, broadband expansion, libel law, wireless spectrum — not to mention all of the local policies, such as taxi and hotel regulation, wreaking havoc on startups. Haphazardly skimming tech news headlines is an inefficient way to be an informed netizen, so we’ve developed a (growing) database of tech legislation, complete with all the relevant details, links to news stories, and a list of who supports and opposes the legislation.
However, simply being educated on legislation and voting every few years isn’t enough. Democracy 2.0 demands a more direct, interactive form of citizens…which brings us to our third tool:
Project Madison, A Crowdsourced Public Markup Utility
“Everyone is an expert in something,” says Seamus Kraft, U.S. Representative Darrell Issa’s Digital Director, who helped develop America’s first real shot at federal direct democracy, Project Madison. The utility for solicits public feedback on pending legislation: users amend actual bill language, comment on each other’s suggestions, and vote up or down each suggestion. With the help of the collective IQ of the technology industry, we hope that better ideas can facilitate bi-partisan agreement on otherwise doomed bills and avoid the unintended consequences of poorly crafted laws.
A trial run of the public markup utility in Congress has already proven successful. When Rep. Issa opened his own alternative to SOPA for public markup, Project Madison participants came in droves with surprisingly specific legal suggestions. For instance, one savvy user noticed that current piracy legislation could mistakenly leave a person who owns a domain name legally responsible for the actions of the website administrator (the equivalent of holding a landlord responsible if his tenant was growing pot in the backyard). The suggestion was included in the updated bill before Congress, representing perhaps the first time that the public, en masse, could have a realistic shot at contributing to federal law purely based on the merit of their ideas.
We know that all of our readers are experts in something and we want to harness your brilliance to improve the democratic process.
Additionally, we think crowdsourcing legislation is the path to more productive conversations. For instance, rather than a firm like Google writing a blog post opposing a piece of legislation, they could offer their own amendment to Project Madison, satisfying both a need to publicly criticize a bill and offer a realistic alternative.
In addition to our three initial CrunchGov products (report card, policy database, and legislation crowdsourcing), the most prominent members of tech policy are lending their voices to TechCrunch, including Senators Wyden and Moran, Congressman Issa, investor Ron Conway, and Pandora Founder Tim Westergren.
We would like to give special thanks to the Sunlight Foundation and inSourceCode for contributing to the development of our CrunchGov rollout. In addition, we’d like to thank lobby groups Technet, Engine Advocacy, The Internet Association, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group for lending their expertise as we attempt to understand the evolving constituency that is the technology industry.
CrunchGov began as a conversation at our Disrupt conference in New York between myself, co-editor Eric Eldon, and Voxer CEO, Tom Katis on how the media could help its readers be more effective citizens. The beta for our new platform is evolving and we’d love hear your (constructive) thoughts and suggestions.
For a decade, technology has democratized countless industries; isn’t it about time that technology also democratized democracy itself?