Guest blogger: Sunlight got it wrong


photo of Mike GodwinSunlight analysis of the fight on Capitol Hill over SOPA is generating some pushback in the online community from activists who think we overstated the role of money and corporate lobbying in the debate. In the interest of broadening and deepening the conversation, we asked one of our critics, Mike Godwin, a former counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Wikimedia, for permission to print his counterpoint:

I believe that Sunlight (and one of its primary sources, missed the story. Just as I would not write an Occupy movement story grounded in how much money was spent for food, medical care, and tents, I wouldn’t write about a “net-roots” popular movement focusing on the convenient fact that money was spent inside the Beltway during the time that the popular movement seems, temporarily, to have given some tech companies some traction on one issue.

It’s well-established that Google’s estimable DC presence — their many dollars and their top-notch personnel — had little effect on the ETAs of the SOPA and PIPA legislation before the holiday break. What changed the debate was not “politics as usual” or an infusion of cash, but the participation of the online community, including Wikipedia, Reddit, and others, to let policymakers know about their unhappiness with the direction and process of the legislation. This response was not organized by Google or any tech money at all (except perhaps the meager salaries that tech-policy writers tend to receive).

Response: Sunlight Executive Director Ellen Miller replies.

One thing I did notice as a close observer of the blackout and abrupt opposition to SOPA and PIPA was how quickly the Motion Picture Association of America  and other content-company spokespersons adopted and propagated the narrative that the net-roots opposition was of Google’s making. “Google owns the platform,” I heard more than once from people who may be unclear on what “own” and “platform” might mean in the Internet context. It disappointments me greatly to see how smoothly Sunlight adopted and promoted a version of the narrative that this is just one set of industrial interests competing with another.

I spent more than a decade in Washington dealing both with content-company lobbies and with tech company lobbies, and a proper comparison needs allocation breakdowns, not rough totals (and not even broad totals over time). The range and substance of issues on which MPAA maintains a lobbying presence are not the same as the ones that tech companies invest in. They are not even the same as the ones that Google invests in.

To give you a comparison: the pharmaceutical lobby, the American Medical Association, the American Library Association, and the agricultural lobby may speak from time to time on the same issue, but we would be cautious before saying that the raw numbers they spend tell us anything about about comparative influence, or whether the outcome of a policy dispute is a function of investment of dollars (or, as we are perhaps too fond of saying, “politics as usual”).

Now, nothing here should be taken as opposing discussion or criticisms of how money is spent in Washington — quite the contrary. I believe citizens are actually capable of more finely tuned, granular analysis of where the money and influence is applied. I do not see that granularity or skepticism in Sunlight’s article. I want breakdowns, names of lobbyists, how many visits took place, who visited whom, what was discussed, and so on. (From my own DC days, I know that most if not all of this is documentable.)

Now, once the the blackouts and other responses were being prepared and were implemented, certainly this enabled well-moneyed and well-established  interests to say to policymakers, “Hey, this non-controversial stuff you’ve fast-tracked may not be so uncontroversial after all.”  And the fast and furious backtracking by supporters underscored what the policymakers were hearing. So you should not read me as saying that Google et al. simply got out of the way of the disgruntled public. There was synergy there, as there generally is in multifactorial human political events. The public protest enabled tech companies to say that the issue was a real one for individuals.

But the reductive treatment of the money issue by Sunlight obscures this. The blackouts would have occurred regardless of what checks the tech companies were writing and in what amounts. It is hugely important, because we believe (as we suppose Sunlight does) in the potential for democratic activism, and that it does us no service to reduce this policy disagreement to a question of who employed more lawyers. (Besides, as a lawyer who practiced both on Capitol Hill and at the Federal Communications Commission before moving West, I can assure you I know who sends these places more lawyer-lobbyists per week on media-related or copyright-related matters, and it’s not Google or Microsoft or Apple or Intel or Cisco.)

And I can assure that the final outcome of this fight has yet to be determined. We may reasonably expect versions of SOPA and PIPA to return, only more felicitously named, and less transparently, once we’re past this political year.