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How SOPA and PIPA did and didn’t change how Washington lobbying works

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The political scientist E.E. Schattschneider once called politics “the mobilization of bias.” By this, he meant something both simple and profound. All political battles are fights between competing interests, he noted, but political outcomes are almost always determined by the bias of those paying attention to the conflict. The trick is to make sure you mobilize the crowd that will cheer for you.

The recent extraordinary turn of events in the ongoing debate over regulating internet piracy made for a perfect illustration of Schattschneider's theory. By expanding what he called the “scope of conflict” (i.e., by engaging a public that suddenly seemed to care very much about the issue),  forces arrayed against proposed legislation fundamentally changed the political battle.

Prior to the Wednesday when Wikipedia went dark, most Americans had never heard of legislation known as SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) in the House, and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual property Act) in the Senate.

For months the audience around the issue was dominated by a small group of Washington insiders, tilted in favor of the representatives of Hollywood, who had reason to believe they were on the verge of passing legislation to reduce trafficking in pirated movies, music, and goods. The lobbyists for the movie and music producers had diligently worked the Hill for months to make their arguments (the wheels of friendship and sympathy greased by campaign donations), and everything seemed ready to go.

But then Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and tens of thousands of others changed the scope of conflict in a flash. Harnessing the unique megaphone they had built as content providers, the online companies generated as many as 3 million e-mails to Congress, 7 million signatures and 3.9 million tweets. It was enough to cause many in Congress to wonder whether they had unwittingly kicked a hive.

To many in the Washington commentariat, this supposed David vs. Goliath story presaged a revolution in the way Washington influence would work from now on.  “SOPA protests by Google and Facebook upend traditional lobbying,” wrote Bloomberg News’ Eric Englemen, quoting experts explaining how the tech lobbying effort was “unprecedented” and “trying to reinvent how we carry out democratic politics.”; “Fights are no longer just about which side has the most – or best – lobbyists” wrote Politico’s Anna Palmer under the breathless headline: “K Street’s boom goes bust.”

Would that it were true. For one, the David and Goliath story is mostly a myth. And K Street is for sure not going bust anytime soon.

Yes, Hollywood does spend a lot of money on politics. But so does tech. The Motion Picture Association of American reported $1.3 million in lobbying expenditures through the first three quarters of 2011, and is now run by former Senator Chris Dodd. But Google spent $7.1 million over the same period, and has hired former House Democratic Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, among the 112 lobbyists registered to lobby for the company.  Google’s PACs and employees have given three times the money as the MPAA.

MORE: Political Party Time tracks pro- and anti-SOPA lobbyists.

And, as the Center for Responsive Politics’ Viveca Novak reported, computer and internet companies hired 246 lobbyists to advocate on SOPA and PIPA issues, as compared to 241 lobbyists hired by the TV, music and movie industry.  Companies lobbying on these issues spent $104.6 million combined on these issues in the fourth quarter of 2011. Yes, Hollywood has been at the influence game longer. But tech has been rapidly catching up the last few years.

Moreover, contrary to the Politico article, political fights have never been solely about which side has the most or best lobbyists. Substantial research in political science shows that, once issues are salient enough that there are coalitions and resources on both sides, victory is much more unpredictable. Not that money doesn’t matter. It’s just that there is often money on both sides, and the American system of government has a strong status quo bias. It’s very hard to get bills into law.

In many ways, what happened is a classic story of sunlight working. By calling public attention to a bill that was by most indications a poorly-drafted blunt-force instrument for combating Internet piracy, SOPA’s opponents put the bill back to the drawing board, where both sides will now have a chance to resolve the issue, hopefully in some sort of compromise fashion.

And yet, the way in which content providers were able to use the Internet to mobilize a response was something different. Never before have the content providers been quite so politically engaged and quite so unified. There is an impressive power in all these websites providing a unified message. It is almost as if traditional newspapers and magazines all devoted their front pages to the same blistering editorial on the same day.

And in this respect there is something sui generis about the anti-SOPA lobbying activity. It’s hard to imagine a similar coordinated effort to advocate, say, for a more progressive tax code that no longer taxed passive investment income at a significantly lower rate than salaried income.  This kind of spontaneous uprising is almost certainly limited to issues that hit the Internet content providers where they live. Take a step back, and it looks a lot like the kind of self-interested advocacy that has always dominated politics, with private interests on both sides miming the familiar symbolic tropes of the people and the public good.

Thus, the MPAA’s Chris Dodd wrapped a legitimate concern inside a hyperbole when he said in a statement that “It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.”  The Internet companies that we depend on for content do have an agenda, and too much power in their hands has its own dangers.

So what are we to make of what happened? Part of the lesson here is an old lesson (per Schattschneider), but one worth repeating. The contours of the audience paying attention to a policy usually determine whether that policy ultimately passes. When a broader public gets wind of a crude bill that would transparently benefit a narrow public, that bill is typically rendered toxic and thus politically finished.

It used to be the case that for this to happen, the mainstream media had to be involved in calling attention to the travesty. Those days are disappearing, and this is generally a good thing. By lowering the barriers to entry, the Internet has the potential to make political activism more democratic than ever before, and the SOPA turnaround is proof that it can work politically to engage a broad crowd in short order.

But two major open questions remain:

Can this new model for policy accountability extend to issues that are less of an existential threat to the Internet content providers, or does it depend on the coordinated leadership of the providers? Can other causes replicate the success?

And if the Googles, Facebooks, Twitters, and Wikipedias are becoming new guardians of political accountability, how accountable are they?

It is tempting to be euphoric and say that the day Wikipedia went dark in protest marks a new turning point in the dynamics of power in Washington. But as is often the case, the reality is both less dramatic and more complicated.