SOPA Scorecard: Internet 1, Lobbyists 0

Editor’s Note: David Binetti is the CEO and co-founder of Votizen, a consumer technology company based in Mountain View, CA, focused on giving voters a greater voice. You can follow Binetti on Twitter @dbinetti.

You’ve got to feel sorry for the SOPA guys.

They did all the right things. They got legislation introduced that would protect their industry from inconvenient threats — like that pesky Internet. They spent millions on lobbying from their $63m budget. And they even hired a high-profile, well-connected, just-out-of-Congress Senator for the bargain price of a $1.5 million base salary to run their organization. And yet it appears that their support is collapsing and are resorting to a rather pathetic tactic of name-calling in response.

You can’t blame them for being a little shell-shocked. In fact, four years ago, a bill like SOPA would have sailed through Congress, particularly because it’s a media-related issue, the mainstream media would have likely avoided shining a spotlight on the issue.

Unfortunately for them, things are a bit different now. Ordinary citizens have the ability to connect and communicate in myriad new ways. Yesterday’s Wikipedia’s blackout reached 162 million users, eight times more than watch the nightly news. Tumblr used Twilio to build a nifty call-Congress tool. Letters were delivered to Congress via Disqus. Google collected nearly 5 million online petition signatures in a day. And even Meetup was used to do some old-fashioned taking to the streets.

None of this could be considered “politics as usual.”

Not a single anti-SOPA lobbyist was hired for yesterday’s protest. The amazing thing is that the power of these networks delivered. By the end of the day, 25 Senators — including at least 5 former co-sponsors of the bill — had announced their opposition to SOPA.

Think about that for just a second: A well-organized, well-funded, well-connected, well-experienced lobbying effort on Capitol Hill was outflanked by an ad-hoc group of rank amateurs, most of whom were operating independent of one another and on their spare time. Regardless where you stand on the issue — and effective copyright protection is an important issue — this is very good news for the future of civic engagement.

In truth, for SOPA this is more likely a retreat than a surrender. The fight will continue, and here’s where things will really get interesting. Professional lobbyists are no doubt approaching the venture capitalists who have supported the anti-SOPA movement, explaining in compelling terms why they will need to have effective representation, a permanent organization to support their interests, and a budget to match the $50M+ coffers held by the MPAA. Most inside the Beltway are likely to interpret yesterday’s activities as a flash in the pan, will hunker down to wait out this phase, and insist that this is a K-Street battle that must be fought on K-Street.

This is understandable — arms merchants, more than anything else, want people shooting at each other — but doing so would likely be a mistake for the movement. If the tech community plays the lobbyist/money game and hires its own lobbyists, then it is playing on their opponent’s game on their opponent’s turf.

Instead, they should see what is happening in this rising opposition to SOPA in more familiar terms; namely, that the political industry itself is under massive disruption, and this is just the beginning. Once the population at large appreciates its newly found influence and starts to see that getting involved really does make a difference, it is likely to generate more activity and activism, leading to greater results. In fact, I believe historians may look back on SOPA as an early example of a new era of political engagement based on social media, much as how the 1964 Daisy ad precipitated a new era of political activity based on television.

For now, SOPA opponents should relish that they have, at least, won an important battle. And if they win the war, then perhaps we’ll all need to revisit the rules of political engagement and lobbying, which would be a very good thing.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons Flickr / gaylabaertaylor