Monday, February 13, 2012

David & Goliath; Internet Tech Sector & U.S. Government

By way of the Silicon Flatirons "The Digital Broadband Migration: The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance" conference last night, I somehow found myself at a reception with a few dozen brains much bigger than mine; thank you Dean Phil Weiser and Brad Bernthal. 1/3 were politicians by trade (even if their primary source of income was commercial/private), and 2/3s were software or broadband infrastructure industry CEOs/leaders. For a more specific sample of who was in the room: Colorado Senator Mark Udall, Edward Felton (CTO, FTC)Daniel Weitzner (deputy CTO for Internet policy), Dave Wright (CEO, SolidFire), Founder CableLabs, an executive from Dish Network, an executive from Comcast, Robert Reich (CEO, OpenSpace)Jim Franklin (CEO, SendGrid), Jason Mendelson (Partner at Foundry Group), Brad Feld (Partner at Foundry Group).

In listening to the conversation during the reception, and prior at the conference, a consistent theme emerged; "voice." Senator Udall (paraphrasing): "make sure your internet tech sector's voice is heard. there are important policies in play. your voice was only heard late in the game on SOPA/PIPA." Phil Weiser (paraphrasing): "traditional industry is used to having frameworks such as trade associations to help them voice their perspective to Congress."

The room was filled with incredibly smart people, yet we were not being heard on incredibly important topics. I'm grateful for Senator Udall having invested several hours into the event; he was fully engaged. I'm speaking more generally about Congress at large. SOPA/PIPA were an eye opener for me. How could such potentially impactful, and broken, legislation have made it down the pike in the first place? That's the question I'm stuck pondering. Unfortunately, I don't like my answer.

At least one of the reasons our voice is indeed not being heard is because we're not speaking the same language that the system has grown up speaking. Phil Weiser was on-point eluding to trade associations' communicative impact on Government. The "internet tech sector" (for lack of a better name) does not lobby the same way more traditional industries do. The result is that our voice does not get heard. Sure some of our peers lobby for their specific interests, but a) they look less and less like the entrepreneurial startup ecosystem everyday (Google, Microsoft, Oracle) and don't represent our interests but 50% of the time anymore, and b) they still spend a pittance relative to the amounts other lobby categories are paid in order to craft/pass legislation. It's a horribly cynical outlook I know, but even Senator Udall implied the success of its Congressional impact during the reception.

SOPA/PIPA illustrated that our collective Internet tech sector approach thus far is going to get us in serious trouble. The Government is going to start passing legislation that has dramatic impact on how we conduct business. They've stayed out of our hair on the direct bill passage front thus far, but that's changing. If we don't get our "voice heard," we'll fall to the giant stalwarts that have dominated Congressional influence to-date.

Because we're a distributed bunch by nature (lots of entrepreneurs, lots of software startups), collective communication is hard. It's even harder when we shove our heads in the sand saying "I'm busy. I've got work to do, and it's hard, and it takes my creative energy. I don't have time to voice my concerns to those perpetuating an archaic system that doesn't apply to me." Well, while true at the moment, the system's applicability to all of us in this space is about to get very personal and direct. If something's not done now, we'll fall later.

What Can Be Done?
We can lobby. We've resisted this thus far, but perhaps it is time for small to mid-sized software "internet tech industry" firms to collectively pony up dues to a more centralized lobby effort and/or trade association that represents our interests. Money talks folks. Always has, always will, and thus far we haven't spent a relative dime trying to have our voice heard.

We can act. PIPA/SOPA was exemplary on this front. However, it was exhausting, inefficient, and it doesn't scale. We can't protest after-the-fact every time bad legislation makes its way through the system.

We can change. While I believe lobbying is the practical/tactical solution, it is broken and wrong in and of itself. The United States is a very different place today. The founding frameworks that have steered elections, law, and legislation to-date simply do not work for such a technologically advanced society. The disconnect between Congress and the people creating jobs and industries today is vast. We can, and need to, change that. Brad Feld made a resonating statement last night at the table, "the compromise approach is inherently flawed. stakeholders need to be problem solving, not compromising." That's a foundational statement that I'd like to see a new system built around. At the same time, it feels revolutionary and that feels hard. It's time for change; execution's always the catch.

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