Last week, two Internet regulation bills on the fast track to becoming law were stopped in less than 24 hours after tech-savvy netizens erupted in protest through social media and tech blogs. The instant and overwhelming force of the same community that overturned the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is starting to gel into a recognizable political lobby.
SOPA “was clearly a watershed moment,” says Matt Lira, the digital director for House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, “Just as the people who comprised that community kind of awoke to new ways to engage with Congress, I think Congress, as a whole awoke to the fact this audience is out there.” As a result of having its voice heard in government, this new digital, loosely organized lobby, which quickly bands together and dissipates like a flash mob around Internet-related policy issues, is becoming a political force.
On Monday, online opposition went viral against a DC law requiring the smartphone-friendly sedan service, Uber, to charge five times the base rate as a unionized cab. “wow, a business (Uber) is prevented from lowering its prices.. wait.. what? We live in America, right?” tweeted venture capitalist, Kevin Rose, which got 348 retweets and followed a barrage of angry coverage from tech blogs and mainstream news sites. “Uber vs. Washington, D.C.: This Is Insane,” went The Atlantic headline.
After being flooded with thousands of emails, Councilwoman Mary Cheh shelved the proposed law by breakfast the next morning. A surplus of political will ended up reversing the course of the DC legislature, with a no-fare minimum amendment passed specifically for Uber. “@JackEvansWard2 the District’s tens of thousands of @uber riders thank you for your support.. you made DC a better city today!” tweeted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, to the councilmen that scored the victory for his company.
Apparently ready for even more political blood, the tech blogs again flared up the same day in response to Congressman Lamar Smith’s re-animation of a SOPA provision that attempted to arm the Department of Commerce with an aggressive anti-piracy global task force, which would ‘promote’ contentious intellectual property policies around the world. After we reached out to the otherwise tech-friendly congressman, Darrell Issa, for an explanation for why he was supporting the bill, he and the other sponsors reversed their support before it could even make it to a committee for consideration (the bill is still pending review).
“They’re reading the comments with no staff filter,” Lira explains, who has witnessed members reference Facebook and Twitter in closed-door discussions (Lira had no knowledge of the impact of social media on Smith’s SOPA provision, and was speaking, generally, about how Congressmen are attuned to tech-related issues).
While many lobbying organizations now utilize social media to propagate their message, Lira argues that innovators and technology news outlets naturally have a stronger online presence, and are therefore uniquely positioned to give tech issues facetime on congressmen’s smartphones. Google, for instance, was part of a successful online protest against SOPA, but failed at influencing the outcome of the decidedly non-tech anti-gay marriage amendment in California. Offline, Google, and the relatively liberal social media user-base, couldn’t compete a well-funded traditional campaign filled with TV advertisements, pundits, yard signs, and print advertisements.
But, organizations like the entertainment lobby and cab union have no clear offline media advantage, and are therefore overwhelmed by those who control the digital discussion. As the Internet becomes an increasing part of the government’s news diet, the early adopters of technology now have a captive audience of elected officials who have no choice but to hear the demands of this new, pro-Internet lobby.