The Tech Industry’s Odd Relationship with Government

ron-conway

Two recent posts on TechCrunch about tech industry efforts to influence and work with government deserve comment, because one clearly shows the right way to go while the other just as clearly exemplifies the wrong way. We’ll take them in time sequence, starting with how not to do things.

Three geeks go into a bar. Several drinks later, they determine that all it takes to solve the world’s problems is a new web site to crowdsource amendments to acts of Congress.

If you’ve been following technogeek efforts at leveraging the Web to magnify tech political influence for very long, you’ve heard this story several times. Larry Lessig, Tim Wu, and their cronies at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society have been on this mission since the turn of the century. They’ve been joined by the folks who believed blogs were going to change the world, such as the founders of Personal Democracy Forum and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, an early investor in blogging platform Moveable Type. When congressman Darrell Issa wrote his alternative to SOPA, the OPEN Act (AKA H.R.3782 : Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act,) he set up a web site to crowdsource comments and potential amendments. (After a slow start, the web site now has 101 proposed edits, but the bill isn’t going anywhere.)

The latest version of this story is CrunchGov, TechCrunch’s Policy Platform, which aims to provide three things:

It includes a political leaderboard that grades politicians based on how they vote on tech issues, a light legislative database of technology policy, and a public markup utility for crowdsourcing the best ideas on pending legislation. Everything is in beta for now (you know how these things go), but we think you’ll already be able to get a lot out of it.

If you think this is a good way for the tech industry to engage with public officials, think again. When the tech industry wants to engage, it works through organizations like the Information Technology Industry Council in Washington that work face-to-face with public officials and their staffs, it doesn’t create yet another web site where anonymous commenters can made poorly-informed changes to moribund legislative vehicles. When Washington and Sacramento want to engage with the tech industry, they reach out to ITIC at the national level and state-focused groups like TechNet in California.

Public officials are a lot more interested in the jobs created by Intel’s latest fab than by the jobs lost by the administrators of Reddit’s sleazy “Jailbait” and “Creepshots” sections when their identities are made public. The logic is pretty plain: Intel employs tens of thousands of people and produces essential elements of the tech economy such as integrated circuits, while Reddit and similar incubator-cooked web sites employ almost no paid labor and traffic in sexually suggestive photos of teenaged girls and “up-skirt” photos of women’s underwear taken from shoe mounted cameras. It’s not a subtle distinction.

Unfortunately, the focus of CrunchGov seem to be more in line with the issues faced by the Reddits of the tech world than with the broader spectrum. Reddit, after all, was the leading opponent of SOPA, CrunchGov’s primary issue. CrunchGov’s methods are right out of the low-value web site playbook as well: the creation of consensus positions on public policy issues and anonymous markup. (Ed: It’s stretching the definition of “tech industry” even to place most web-based businesses in the same category as Intel and Cisco, as their service isn’t really technical and they’ve developed no new technology; most of these web companies are simply content plays. But I digress.)

As anyone who works in public policy can tell you, the most important part of the job is the analysis of the impact of particular policies. The bad bills all come from consensus positions that no one dares to question because supporting them has become a matter of tribal membership. You don’t come to the correct position on a policy question by simply surveying TechNet, Engine Advocacy, and The Internet Association. You come to it by examining the questions, reading the bills, and working out the implications. There is no “popularity short cut” in this process.

And when you’ve figured out what you want and why you want it, you don’t make your thinking known to public officials by scribbling anonymous nonsense on a web site, you come forward as a real person with a real name to make your sentiments known in a way that encourages direct dialog. Anything less is just playing at policy, not making it. Anonymous commentary on the web may make you feel like an activist, but it doesn’t make an impact on the world.

Ron Conway gets this. He’s the founder of SV Angel, the most famous angel investor in Northern California these days, and the force behind sf.citi, a group fo 350 tech companies in San Francisco. Conway explains how sf.citi does things in his own post on TechCrunch, Why The Technology Industry Must Get Involved In Government:

Earlier this year I established sf.citi, an organization of more than 350 San Francisco-based tech companies created to leverage the collective power of the technology community around civic action. We have led several projects that highlight the civic engagement of tech companies including leading a voter registration drive.

sf.citi’s mission has six pillars that are inherent elements of policy: education, public safety, transportation, job creation, policy, and philanthropy. For instance, education is needed to support demand for engineers, but without guidance from the tech community, our education system has not prioritized STEM degrees like it should have. This is why sf.citi has led a number of civic projects to engage the tech community in improving San Francisco and its tech sector.

sf.citi puts its money where its mouth is, with funded programs in each of the six areas that its members have identified as crucial. This agenda creates ties between government and the tech sector where none existed before, and strengthens the ones that already exist. When civic leaders from the tech sector and beyond are working together on community objectives, the sense of “them and us” goes away and folks on both sides find common ground. It’s not hard to see the sense in doing things this way.

It should be noted that Conway is no more a fan of SOPA than the Reddit people are, so the differences between sf.citi with its strategy of real engagement around community issues and CrunchGov’s program of encouraging anonymous and uninformed commenters to lob rhetorical bombs from a distance aren’t ideological, they’re practical: sf.citi is serious and CrunchGov isn’t.

The problems with American democracy aren’t in any way related to policy makers living in a bubble where they’re insulated from public opinion. In fact, most of the staff time in district offices is dedicated to managing communication with constituents who aren’t bashful about speaking their minds and sharing their issues with elected officials.

What’s missing from this process is the engagement of thoughtful, responsible people with good ideas, knowledge, and a commitment to making a better community. These people are more likely to come forward in a process that’s open about real identifies, real backgrounds, and real commitments than in yet another round of web comment wars.

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About the author

Richard Bennett is an ITIF Senior Research Fellow specializing in broadband networking and Internet policy. He has a 30 year background in network engineering and standards. He was vice-chair of the IEEE 802.3 task group that devised the original Ethernet over Twisted Pair standard, and has contributed to Wi-Fi standards for fifteen years. He was active in OSI, the instigator of RFC 1001, and founder, along with Bob Metcalfe, of the Open Token Foundation, the first network industry alliance to operate an interoperability lab. He has worked for leading applied research labs, where portions of his work were underwritten by DARPA. Richard is also the inventor of four networking patents and a member of the BITAG Technical Working Group.