A Rootsier Internet Goes to Washington
Photograph by Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times/Redux
Monday’s launch of a new think tank called DisCo, which wants to educate Congress about disruptive technologies, is just one of several new efforts proposed by the Internet and startup community to get their voices heard. No longer will the conversation between Silicon Valley and the U.S. capital rely solely on big tech firms such as Amazon (AMZN), Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), and others. The Internet upstarts are hoping they can disrupt politics, too.
The Disruptive Competition Project. DisCo (short for Disruptive Competition) made its debut Monday morning with a Web page and some blog posts that help outline its mission. The site—and the concept of a think tank to discuss companies that are changing established industries—are part of the CCIA, the association for the computing industry. However, the site will feature its own staff on a variety of topics, from Web TV to privacy.
The goal is to help regulators understand the other side of the story, so when a company such as Aereo pops up to let subscribers record broadcast television to a DVR, the established industry doesn’t have the only say in Washington. The benefits of DisCo might mostly accrue to startups, but even established companies could benefit. For example, Dish’s ad-skipping DVR technology is something DisCo hopes to address on its site.
Engine Advocacy. Sometimes a startup, be it in Silicon Valley or in the middle of America, needs information and an understanding about how congressional politics will affect them. They also need a voice in the process, but few entrepreneurs have the time or inclination to call representatives or organize lobbying efforts. Engine Advocacy, created in San Francisco by a Democrat and Republican, aims to fill this niche, helping startups understand and take early action on issues relevant to them.
Engine rose to prominence by building a calling tool that was featured on several websites during the SOPA and PIPA protests. It uses the Internet to help aggregate voices and disseminate information, but it also has the technical know-how to build tools that will amplify the voices of its members and participants. In the same way that hooking up Twilio to a Web front end and a database made it easy for individuals to find and call their representatives during the SOPA protest, Engine provides both a stance and Web tools to broadcast that stance. (Watch GigaOM’s video interview with Engine Advocacy co-founder Michael McGeary.)
TestPAC. Think tanks and a lobbying organization are all well and good, but money is a surefire way to influence candidates and get your issues on the front burner. Because the Internet is great at bringing together people with ideas and asking them for money, TestPAC, the first Internet political action committee, was born. It has a Reddit subgroup and a democratic structure, with people able to vote on the issues to focus on, as well as campaigns it plans to run.
Unfortunately, TestPAC didn’t get the funding it needed to buy all the advertising it wanted. Plus, its uber-democratic methods and lack of knowledge around election laws have led to some stumbles, documented in this profile of TestPAC in Mother Jones. The net result is that TestPAC’s first goal—to keep SOPA sponsor and Representative. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) from getting 50 percent or more of the Texas primary vote—failed in the balloting on May 29.
The Internet Defense League. Taking the idea of rallying people to the next extreme is Reddit founder Alex OTK’s idea of creating a distress call for the Internet. People and companies can sign up their websites and will then be able to broadcast a code notifying visitors to that site of an action Congress is contemplating that will affect the Web.
It’s modeled on the SOPA blackout that occurred in January, and it has Reddit, the Cheezburger network, and a few other big-name sites signed up. The League says it will work with groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge to detect threats to the Web. I wonder how effective this will be, given the variety of nuances associated with most legislation. It’s rare to get a bill so bad that the entire Internet (or even a significant portion) will oppose it.
Taken together, each of these efforts contains elements that other political alliances and organizations should note. Because they were born from the Internet, they are adept at using the Web tools to educate, disseminate information, encourage action, and raise money. But because the Internet is so huge and isn’t a well-organized special-interest group, one must watch to see how much of a political effect these groups can have.
Can they change the game—or will their best tactics just get subsumed by larger lobbying and political organizations? I don’t know, but it’s good to see the wider Web trying to get involved.
Also from GigaOM:
Connected Consumer Q4: SOPA and the Future of Digital Content (subscription required)