The Legacy of a Battle for Internet Freedom
JOSHUA JOHNSON: Last year, Congress killed two bills designed to stop online piracy of digital content. The bills, known as SOPA and PIPA, probably failed because they made one very powerful enemy, the Internet. More specifically people who use the Internet – namely most of the country – joined with Silicon Valley to oppose the measures.
Tomorrow some in Silicon Valley will gather to remember this victory on what they are calling Internet Freedom Day. Josh Mendelsohn is co-founder of Engine Advocacy, a group of tech startups that helped fight SOPA and PIPA. Josh, good morning.
JOSH MENDELSOHN: Thanks for having me.
JOHNSON: Talk about how the effort among Silicon Valley startups began to take shape. Major Internet companies like Google and Apple have their own big lobbyists on Capitol Hill. How did the little guys get their voices heard?
MENDELSOHN: One of the great things about startups is that we can be scrappy and move quickly and motivate our users quickly. We could do things like put on home page promos. We could do things like contacting our members and asking them to reach out to their members of Congress, and we could build really cool tools.
JOHNSON: Your effort eventually grew so large that it shut down the congressional switchboard. How did you build such a critical mass of people to do that?
MENDELSOHN: That’s part of the power of technology, and we just made it really simple for individuals to engage their members of Congress. So in this exact case, all you had to do was put in your phone number and your ZIP code, and it would directly connect you with your senator – super simple, very elegant.
JOHNSON: Now, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle thought about SOPA and PIPA in terms of copyright issues. A lot of big content companies like NBC Universal came out very much in support of SOPA and PIPA. But groups like Engine and the Electronic Frontier Foundation wanted to kind of reframe the conversation in terms of Internet freedom. Why is that?
MENDELSOHN: I don’t think anyone in this community is opposed to the notion of copyright. I think we all recognize its importance and its place in our society. What was different was the attention spent, for example, on DNS blocking. And DNS is a very technical mechanism, but it’s how when you type in www.kqed.org, you’re being sent to your website. Congress was going to make it so that one person could send a notice, and every Internet user could type in the station’s URL and it would go nowhere.
JOHNSON: So basically if one person complained that KQED was infringing on their copyrights, whether the complaint was fair or not, SOPA and PIPA would allow them to complain and essentially shut down our website, make it so you couldn’t find us.
MENDELSOHN: That’s exactly right. They would force your hoster of that domain name to stop access to you. And so it was truly an Internet freedom issue because this was literally a firewall that would prevent users from accessing sites they want.
JOHNSON: How much do you think congressional lawmakers think of the little guys, the startups, when they think of Silicon Valley? I mean, so much of what we think of as Silicon Valley is Google and Apple and Facebook and Yahoo and Adobe and Cisco and the huge names. How much do you think that balance has shifted as a result of this grassroots effort?
MENDELSOHN: What we’ve been able to do in the last year, these last 365 days, is get a lot better at educating members of congress and political officials on the role startups play all across the United States. So Engine for example commissioned a study that was done by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, and we know that tech startups are growing much faster than any other young businesses. We know that they are employing more people. Every high tech job you create creates 4.3 other jobs. That’s really significant because we can explain to any member of congress, with very robust economic research that’s been endorsed by a variety of academics, that hey if you make these policies that work really well for startups, you’re going to create a lot of American jobs, and if you ignore the threats it might pose to these businesses, you have the potential to cost a lot of American jobs.
JOHNSON: Josh Mendelsohn is co-founder of Engine Advocacy and a partner in the innovation lab Hattery. The Internet Freedom Day celebration takes place tomorrow evening at Hattery’s offices in San Francisco. Josh, thanks for talking to us.
MENDELSOHN: Really appreciate it.