How the Tech Industry’s Anti-SOPA Tactics Changed Politics

The tactics used in the massive online protests that helped convince Congress to axe the controversial SOPA and PIPA bills earlier this year brought new weight to Internet-based activism. Observers say the changes are already reshaping the political process in significant ways.

Netizens who joined the groundswell against the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s Protect IP Act were part of the first successful Internet campaign to kill legislation. The Internet-delivered knockout punch left many lawmakers scrambling to understand this sudden disruption of the political process, according to Internet leaders on a panel at the two-day Tech Policy Summit in Napa, Calif, this week.

“This is kind of the day that Silicon Valley realizes that Washington exists, and this is also the day that Washington realizes that Silicon Valley is important,” said Jonathan Nelson, founder of Hacker & Founders, an Internet community of early Silicon Valley startups.

Online protests have “really disrupted the whole process of tech policy, advocacy in Washington,” said panelist Larry Downes, author of the “The Laws of Disruption.” “Congress is very confused. They don’t know what to make of it. They know it’s scary, and it’s fast, and it had an effect.”

Web Mobs

One reason for the politicians' confusion is the unruly nature of many Web protests. Outrage over Internet controversies, such as the censorship and privacy issues many saw in SOPA and PIPA, can often spark mob-like behavior. Many netizens join movements through word of mouth on Facebook, Twitter and other online forums without a full understanding of the issues, panelists noted.

“I’ve noticed this in online communities for years,” Nelson said. “There are lynch mobs that happen when this rumor passes, and all of a sudden this person is being lambasted online.”

Unfortunately, people using the Web for activism will have to accept mobs as a fact of Internet life, Nelson warned. “We’re going to actually start seeing a lot more of that emergence sort of mob behavior around these political issues.”

The Politicians Come

Trying to make sense of the protests, politicians have been flying into Silicon Valley more often to meet with tech startups and get a reading on where the industry stands on political issues, noted Nnena Ukuku, co-founder and chief executive of Black Founders Startup Ventures. Black Founders provides startup financing with a focus on black entrepreneurs.

To take advantage of this attention, though, younger generations in the tech industry will have to get over their bad attitudes about working with government. Tech leaders often complain that government moves too slowly and has no bearing on their lives anyway. “Because of that, they’re not engaging with government, which I think continues to create a problem,” Ukuku said.

“There’s a machine, and there’s rules, and I think that it’s just a matter of time before enough people say, ‘Hey, may be I can tweak this machine a little bit,’” Nelson added. “I actually think that those geeks and those companies that do [engage with government] are probably going to have an immense amount of leverage.”

Now What?

So what’s the next flashpoint? Unresolved issues that could bring the tech industry into conflict with lawmakers include consumer privacy, immigration reform and copyright protection.

Those conflicts are likely to continue, as many tech leaders still don’t trust government to solve problems effectively. Downes echoed the familiar refrain that government should let the industry regulate itself. “Let us work out issues like privacy, like security, like anti-trust,” he said. “Let us work out these competitive things ourselves. We won’t do a perfect job, but we’re going to do a better job.”

It’s far from clear if government agrees with that assessment. But in the wake of the successful SOPA/PIPA protests, it’s no longer safe for the government to ignore the wishes of the tech community.

Photo by Antone Gonsalves: Pictured, left to right:

Michelle Quinn, tech reporter, Politico PRO (Moderator)

Larry Downes, author of “The Laws of Disruption”

Nnena Ukuku, co-founder and CEO of Black Founders Startup Ventures

Jonathan Nelson, founder of Hackers & Founders