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Power politics in the age of Google

[live-blogged yesterday] I’ve come in 30 minutes late (Sorry! I had it marked wrong on my schedule) to a panel at the Kennedy School about politics and the Net. The panel is outstanding: Susan Crawford, Micah Sifry, Nicco Mele, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Elaine Kamarck, moderated by Alex Jones.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

As I enter, Susan is saying that SOPA was put forward to make PIPA [Senate version] look reasonable, but it obviously backfired. But, she warns, the type of concerted effort that defeated SOPA is special and rare; we can’t count on it happening again.

Nicco says that Google has doubled its lobbying budget, spending $10M this past year. But it hasn’t made much of a dent against the tight relationships among the entertainment industry lobbyists and Congress. “This is not the end of this issue,” he says, referring to the battle over Hollywood content. “It’s more like a battle in the middle of the opening third.” He adds, “The power of the grassroots to shape and drive the debate…was a shock to the insular world inside the Beltway.”

Alex: Suppose there had been the outcry but not the going dark? Was it going dark that did it?

Nicco: It was an expression of the intensity of the situation. It might have had the same outcome. Google didn’t go dark and drove a huge amount of traffic to anti-SOPA sites.

Susan: Google joined a parade smaller sites like had started.

Alex: Is this a watershed moment?

Elaine: No. Sometimes DC gets things wrong. E.g., a Medicare bill was repealed after 16 months because the seniors went nuts about it. This was pre-Internet. “Old ladies were throwing rotten eggs at Dan Rostenkowski.” Also, in 2006 there were local protests against a bipartisan immigration reform law. SOPA was a perfect example of a bunch of old guys — Chris Dodd et al. — not understanding that they were playing with fire. They didn’t take into account the intensity the Net citizens felt. There’s nothing fundamentally different from what we’ve seen before: Sometimes the folks in Washington just don’t get it.

Alex: We tried to get people on the other side to join us, but I’ll take their side. An op-ed yesterday said that the anti-SOPA digital tsunami was an abuse of democracy.

Micah: That was a frustrating op-ed because he doesn’t imagine that the citizens who were linking and faxing had agency. He assumes they were all duped by Google etc. Citizens can inform themselves, make up their minds, and take action. That said, I think it’s worth noting that some of these companies have immense power. It’s fair to ask how far can they responsibly use that power? I’d argue that most of these companies are in a more responsive relationship to their users than much of old media, especially not Hollywood and the recording industry. They are far more likely to listen to their customers and respond to them. Also, anyone who raises the issue of abusive media power needs to be asked how Fox News helped create the Tea Party Movement, cheerleading people to go to the first rallies. The media coverage on Fox took place before the manifestation of what it was “covering.” For me the fact that the anti-SOPA movement was a civic-commercial hybrid is fascinating.

Alex: Truman ordered the Army to bust up a train strike. Google and the Web overall have become the nervous system of the world. At what point does the power of a privately owned nervous system becomes so great that its even considering withholding services becomes inappropriate?

Alexis: The op-ed was malarkey. All sites are made equal, so if Wikipedia closed down for a week, there would be a new instance of it almost immediately. Likewise if the search engines went down. It is such a frictionless market.

Susan: Legally, infrastructure like transportation and physical access lines is different from the content. When it comes to train line or someone providing cable access to your home, there are extraordinarily high start-up costs. They can be natural monopolies since it may not make sense to have more than one. Google is not a natural monopoly.

Elaine: Laying a transatlantic cable is a big, expensive undertaking. Those infrastructure companies are governed like utilities. The Net access providers claim that they should be able to charge Google more for carrying their content, and that battle will play out over the next decade. So, there are clashes, but the SOPA battle isn’t like that. The US federal govt is not prepared to think about governing the Net. You can see this in its approach to cybersecurity. There’s a nasty cycle: cybercrime is one of those crimes you can pretty much guarantee you’re never going to be caught at. We’re not ready as a country to think about regulating the Net to prevent it. The MPAA and RIAA are really not ready to deal with this. They’re playing an old game. They and a lot of people in Washington don’t understand the issues.

Alex: What are the issues where the govt ought to be thinking about regulation?

Nicco: I don’t think we have a handle on these issues yet. Our leaders lack a fundamental understanding. One way to deal with this would be to introduce a mandatory retirement age for Congress. [it’s a joke, sort of.] They’re fundamentally out of touch with how most Americans are living their lives.

Alex: How seriously should we take Anonymous? The nihilistic impulse and incredible skill?

Micah: It’s hard to generalize about Anonymous. It’s a shape shifter. I asked someone researching them if she could assure me that they’re not the Russian Mafia. She said she couldn’t; you just don’t know. And it’s not just Anonymous: the Arabs and Israelis are going after each other. We should also keep in mind that on sites like and you get daily acts of altruism.

Susan: User empowerment/agency is almost always the right reaction to bad acts and bad speech.

Alex: How about identifying malefactors?

Micah: It’s a good thing you can’t. If we reengineered the Net so you could, the people who would be hunted down would mainly by dissidents. It’s a double-sided sword.

Elaine: You’ve expressed the Zeitgeist of the Net. At some point, criminals will get smarter and will steal billions of dollars from people on Facebook. There’s a crisis point for the Net coming. It won’t be shut down, but it will fundamentally change. It’s not inconceivable that in 20 yrs will have a different Net because people will demand it because someone will have stolen thousands of dollars from us all, or they will withdraw from the one Net and instead will form cloistered nets.

Susan: I agree. There will be a meltdown and people will react with fear. We need to train our reps to understand what the Net is so that they can have an intelligent response.

Alexis: People are afraid of hackers. But the problem is that security is terrible. Banks need to take online security much more seriously.

Alex: Has Wikileaks changed the way people share info?

Susan: The State Dept. no longer shares cables with the Defense Dept.

Alexis: The weak point is always human.

Micah: When I hear you talking about criminals attacking the banks, I think the criminals are running the banks. We’re moving away from trust in centralized institutions and more trust in ourselves. I mentioned at the start of this panel [missed it!], and it’s taking off to the extent that in Detroit they’re starting to refer to it as a grassroots WPA. Nicco and I think that the anti-SOPA moment was different because it wasn’t just a shout, but it was when a large community began to realize its own power to shift how things work.

Elaine: Seniors aren’t an interest group?

Micah: Yes, but they worked through a single lobbying group.

Susan: Now they have network.

Alex: But you said we can’t do this too many times…

Suan: But now that the Internet community can see itself, it is forming new associations and networks…

Alex: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in working together…

Alexis: Hollywood should see the Net as another channel to make money. 10% of the entries at Sundance this year were funded by fans via Kickstarter.

Alex: The anti-SOPA group spanned politics. Matt Drudge was part of it. Are either the Dems or the Repubs better at this?

Alexis: It’s become a political issue.

[And just under the wire, Micah gets in a Google-Santorum joke.]

Q: The Net can be brought down any time…
Susan: It would be extremely difficult to bring it down. The root servers are echoed all over the world. The real risk is that physical cables between companies can be cut. We have too few Internet providers. The great thing about the Net is that it works just well enough — a best-effort network. The NSA has a tremendous amount of info about the threats and attacks. That info should be shared with the operators of the networks and banks in ways that are safe for them so they can cooperate. But you don’t want to burn the village to save it.

Q: What are the lessons from SOPA for citizens and for smaller sites?
Alexis: It’s easy to put up a one-off site to help organize and get attention. That just takes some html and a good idea.
Nicco: How much do you think of Reddit as a political force?
Alexis: It’s not. The people there are. The SOPA protest bubbled up from subreddits. At that point it got the attention of the staff. For us, it was 12 hours of lost revenues, but traffic was up the next day. We built Reddit as a meritocracy. We strive to make sure that if something comes to the front page, it’s genuinely popular.

Nicco: The point of the Constitution is to regulate lunatic populism.

Elaine: No, you take populism into account when governing.

Nicco: Someday Reddit’s mgt may be faced with a decision about going against the community’s preferences.

Alex: The huge anti-SOPA outpouring was only about 10M, which is less than a plebiscite.

Elaine: This is an issue with no clear answer. They heard the outcry, and the reps who had signed on without reading the bill pulled back. This happens not just with Net issues. E.g., Cap and Trade.

Q: [me] Is there a Net constituency, Net values, and does the Net shape political consciousness?
Micah: We’re seeing a change in consciousness: a willingness to dig and share. The Net is conducive to those values, although not everyone who uses it will share those values. But many of these sites have constituencies. This is a sharing economy. The Net is enabling something that was always there in American culture: barn raisings, rent sharing. And some of the things you can do are organically natural: I don’t think you can convince 75M American teens that they’re all thieves. And they’re going to be voters. They’re going to ask what sorts of businesses they can build on top of that sharing.

Q: Alexis, how have you been tweeting during this panel?
A: Katrina has been tweeting in my name. That’s trust!

Q: Tim Wu has made a compelling argument that historically information empires start out open and then become monopolies. Google is young and it’s already finishing our sentences [auto-complete], which is a powerful way of shaping consciousness. The more people are searching, the easier it is to improve your service, so there are economies of scale in search. Hence, monopolies could emerge that have serious barriers to entry.
Nicco: The history of personal computers + connectivity is about empowering individuals and making it easier for small things to destroy big things. I’m not convinced that Google’s advantage is large enough to make it a monopoly.
Micah: I worry that Google can manipulate search results in undisclosed ways. If they favor results that favor their own products, which they’re starting to do now, they’re taking a risk. Their value is that they give us the best results, and if they don’t do that, other sites may get traction. And if they start favoring their own products they can be accused of antitrust violations. They have immense power and I don’t see how to get them to be more transparent without giving up trade secrets.
Alexis: We’re allies with Google as a matter of convenience. If they started lobbying in DC against Net interests, everyone would abandon them. And we think when it comes to building products, we could beat ’em.

Q: Google is becoming a content producer. Might they switch to pro-SOPA?
Alexis: I don’t know, but if they did, we’d line up against them.

Q: People in this room could switch search engines, but for many people, it’d be harder.
Susan: There’s something about the Google logo that’s like the clown in a horror movie. They haven’t broadened their model beyond targeting ads. Antitrust authorities look at Google very hard. The FTC and DoJ are watching.

Q: Why didn’t Facebook protest SOPA?
Micah: FB is one of the more serious monsters. They signed onto some of the letters but there was no serious activity by the leaders. They want to get into China and don’t want the Chinese govt to think they’re a platform for dissension. Interpret all their actions in that context.
Susa: They see themselves like a media property. They’re the ESPN of the network. Watch FB’s relationship with the carriers. They’re going to want special treatment so that FB becomes the Internet for you. AOL tried it and Americans loved it.

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