Tech Now Has Its Own RIAA. Meesa Scared!

Today marks the launch of The Internet Association, a laudable effort from a number of prominent Internet technology companies to address our industry's historic lack of engagement with the policy world by creating a lobbying group with a coherent platform and formidable backing.

I'm happy to see such as serious effort from companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Amazon, Ebay and AOL to address our industry's concerns through direct engagement with lawmakers. As Clay Johnson so wonderfully said, Dear Internet, It's No Longer Ok to Not Know How Congress Works, and it would seem from the Internet Association's existence that at least some major companies on the Internet agree. It's especially relevant to me because, by tech standards, the amount of investment it takes to create industry-friendly policy is so small; The total lobbying dollars that the entertainment industry spent advocating for SOPA and PIPA was somewhere around $94 million in 2011. That's roughly how much profit Microsoft Office makes in a week, or how much profit Apple as a company makes every day.

Yes, I hate the pernicious effect of money influencing policy for our major industries. But If Apple could spend a single day's profit and out-lobby the entire legacy entertainment industry, it seems like it'd be a good investment. Then we can move on to fixing the broken business of government and think about the future of web protest.

So, I'm in favor of the tech industry getting more organized in talking to policy makers. But part of me is scared shitless about the Internet Association. Because industry associations that start out with benevolent intentions to protect the freedoms of innovative young industries often become instruments of regulatory capture and innovation bullying as those industries mature. To understand how a well-intentioned effort like the Internet Association can evolve into the unrecognizable form that the RIAA and MPAA have taken for the music and film industries, we should spend some time with our old friend Jar Jar Binks.

Where Weesa Going?

The convention is to hate Jar Jar Binks for his role as a buffoonish Stepin-Fetchit-meets-mincing-nelly stereotype, or for representing George Lucas' insistence on CGI taking the place of plot development, or for demonstrating that a ham fist is able to wield a sledge hammer when it comes to hitting you over the head with infantile punchlines. The more evolved amongst us hate him for doing the impossible and making fart and poop jokes unfunny.

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But I quibble with Jar Jar on grounds of policy and governance. It's often overlooked, but Jar Jar Binks created the Empire.

You see, the motion to grant Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers was introduced to the Galactic senate by Senator Binks. Which is to say, the government in the Star Wars universe went from being an elected republic to an autocratic empire due to a wartime policy change which Jar Jar introduced with the intention of protecting people in the most efficient way possible. Who could have anticipated that the Chancellor was also Darth Sidious and that he was grooming Anakin Skywalker to become Darth Vader? Certainly not meesa!

Which is all a roundabout, nerdy way of saying that sometimes when we create institutions under times of duress in order to protect ourselves from outside attacks, those institutions can get corrupted over time, with unintended consequences. One day you're worried about protecting your trade federation, the next day you're slogging through the trash compactor on a Death Star. One day you're still reeling from the onslaught of SOPA and PIPA, and the next day you're seeing how far you can push things with laws that will help your industry.

How We Avoid The Dark Side

The good news is, the journey from annoying pseudo-Rasta sidekick to destroying planets takes a few decades. What our tech industry doesn't often think about is that protectionist industry groups like the RIAA and MPAA started out with important, positive goals. The MPAA wanted to encourage filmmakers to have more artistic freedom, and did much to liberate movies from the oppressive censorship of the Hays code, leading to the flourishing of artistic creativity during the 1970s that we still revere today, including Star Wars itself.

Similarly, the RIAA has fought for artists' rights and their free expression a number of times, along with leading efforts in its earliest days to ensure consistent, high-quality reproduction of audio recordings. So it's no surprise today that most of the policy platform from the Internet Association is utterly reasonable proposals. I'd endorse the overwhelming majority of the Association's goals as stated today.

But if I like a lot of the people and companies behind the Internet Association, and I want most of their policies to happen, why am I raising the specter of the Dark Side in talking about them? For a few reasons:

  • We need to drive attention to the Internet Association at a time when our industry is distracted by passing events like the launch of new phones.
  • We must be mindful of the policies being advocated on our behalf by the companies we all work with — how many of us who care about the future of tech have even read what's being argued on our behalf?
  • Our legislators are going to expect that we agree with the policy positions of the Internet Association that claims to represent us; If that's not true then both the Association and Congress need to hear about it.
  • The Internet Association will likely have a lot of success in the next few years, since our industry is popular with regular people and politicians and provides a lot of jobs; This means the natural tendency that trade groups have toward regulatory capture or policy overreach will be accelerated as IA starts to get traction in Washington.
  • Have we considered how independent groups like Fight For the Future remain an important and vital part of the conversation, so that we have non-corporate policy influencers who'll advocate for users, not just companies, when considering the future of the web?

Making the IA a Force for Good

I am bullish on the Internet Association's work and mission in the short term. I think they will have tremendous impact with lawmakers and policymakers in the short term, even if the tech industry continues its usual habit of ignoring the policy world at large. I am inspired and satisfied by the fact that many of tech's biggest players are willing to work together like grownups. (Of note: Apple and Microsoft have not signed on to IA; We'll have to wait and see what that means.)

But our industry also has a habit of being self-centered and not particularly inclusive. While we're not abusive of intellectual property laws in the way of the movie and film industries that come before us, those industries would argue we're more abusive of traditional intellectual property rights than they are. Our culture values free speech to an extreme, which is admirable, but doesn't value protecting children or the vulnerable from the negative effects of free expression, which is a shortcoming. We are often myopic about the international and geopolitical implications of our platforms, preferring to pretend that content platforms can somehow be "neutral" about what they share or publish, instead of acknowledging that there are real-world impacts to what people do online.

These aren't the Internet Association's obligations to fix, but they are our entire community's responsibility to be aware of and watch as IA grows in size and power over the years to come. Let's watch IA closely, so we can celebrate the way they fight for us and provide a policy framework for our continued success. Let's appreciate that we can't keep growing our tech industry without being serious about the way technology interacts with law and policy.

And then, finally, let's be at our most mindful after we've got a few wins under our belt. Every other industry in the history of our country, and of capitalism broadly, has become abusive of its power once its titans band together into a trade group and start making laws. Maybe, if we're disciplined and vigilant and persistent, we can continue the tech industry's tradition of innovation and be the first industry that refuses to use its lobbying group as a system for protecting us from the disruptions of the next generation of innovators.

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