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Why No Web Blackout For CISPA? Google It

To understand why "the Internet community" isn’t up in arms over the new cyber security bill, you have to follow the money.

According to the blog-and-Twitter hive mind, a kind of "Internet spring" blossomed early in 2012. On January 18, major websites including Wikipedia, "went dark" to protest SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), and Google blacked out its logo and explained its objections to the bill in an official blog post. The threat of online censorship—rooted in reality but grossly exaggerated—generated a wave of calls and emails to Congress that proved more powerful than a push from the media companies and artists organizations that supported the bill. When SOPA died, pundits declared "the Internet community had spoken."

But that’s not who spoke the loudest.

It’s not worth mourning SOPA, a sprawling bill full of vague definitions that made it nearly impossibly to fairly enforce (although it also contained some good ideas and its Senate counterpart was less problematic). But what's often misunderstood is that Internet companies pushed against the bill as hard as media companies lobbied for it. That's mostly because bill would have given online companies more responsibility for copyright infringement, or "sharing" as well-funded startups like to call it. When you consider Google's recent disclosure that it spent more than $5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2012 alone, the real reasons for SOPA's abrupt death start to come into focus. That figure doesn’t count the money Google gave to groups that opposed the law—or the space it devoted to the issue on its home page, the most valuable piece of online real estate in the world. Say what you will about the lobbying power of media companies, but NBC Universal didn’t run a pro-SOPA crawl on Sunday Night Football.

Google spends so much on lobbying that it’s hard to celebrate with a straight face the people-power that supposedly slayed SOPA. That $5 million—for just one quarter—represents a 240% increase from the same period last year. That’s more than the official lobbying budget of the MPAA ($570,000 for the same time period), the RIAA ($1.67 million), or media companies like Disney ($1.3 million) or News Corp. ($1.57 million). It’s more than Microsoft ($1.79 million), Facebook ($650,000), Amazon ($650,000), and Apple ($500,000) combined. It’s even more than Exxon Mobil ($4.17 million), which doesn’t have a cool, catchy motto like "Don’t be evil."

Google spends so much on lobbying that it’s hard to celebrate with a straight face the people-power that supposedly slayed SOPA

Following the money is important since so many activists crowed about how "the Internet community" resisted the power of corporations. Most neglected to mention that much of this activity was funded by another powerful corporation, as well as the venture capitalists that count on a lawless web to turn companies like Pinterest into rich IPOs. In November, the Open Congress blog ran a post about "Why SOPA and PROTECT-IP Are So Hard to Kill," suggesting that the entertainment industry spent many times more lobbying for the bill than technology companies pushing against it. While media companies almost certainly did spend more on the issue—unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to figure out what companies spend to lobby for or against a particular bill—the post grossly exaggerated the difference by including in the pro-SOPA column all of the spending by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber did a lot of the heavy lifting on SOPA, but the Chamber also lobbies on dozens of issues that have nothing to do with SOPA or technology. It's worth noting in this context, too, that the Open Congress blog, which detailed the entertainment industry's massive support of SOPA, is funded by the Sunlight Foundation, whose board includes former Google lobbyist and White House staffer Andrew McLaughlin and tech venture capitalist Esther Dyson.

On Google’s end, its $5 million doesn’t include money it gives to technology trade groups like NetCoalition and CCIA, which played their own parts in stoking the fury against SOPA. On December 29, Markham Erickson, the executive director of NetCoalition, told CNet that "there have been serious discussions" about major companies blacking out their websites. (Three weeks later, the organization minimized its role, telling the New York Times that "The Internet responded the way only the Internet could.") And lawmakers had 5 million reasons to attend the NetCoalition’s Capitol-building briefing on SOPA the day after the blackout.

Since lobbying disclosures only measure money spent on formal "big-L" lobbying, they don’t count the donations Google makes to universities like Stanford, which held a panel on "What’s Wrong With SOPA" that didn’t bother to present the opposing point of view. Or the cash it spends hiring consultancies like Engage, which builds online political campaigns like (Engage says it works for Google on other issues and that staffers there put together an anti-SOPA campaign on their own time.) Or the money Google gives to groups like Public Knowledge—quoted by the New York Times as being sympathetic to Google’s plight in Washington in a story that didn’t mention the financial connection.

To get a sense of how effective the SOPA protests would have been without the support of technology giants, consider the debate over CISPA (the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act), if you’ve even heard of it. From a civil liberties perspective, the bill is far more worrying than SOPA, and some of the same digital rights groups are against it. But the subject hasn’t generated nearly as much controversy, at least in part because Facebook supports it and Google is said to do so, although the company has not revealed its position. So much for transparency.

The new digital activism might be best summed up by a January 18 anti-SOPA demonstration in New York, an event organized by the local trade group New York Tech Meetup and Andrew Rasiej, who has helped politicians raise money from technology companies and championed their interests in Washington. He got right to the heart of the matter, calling SOPA "an unprecedented attack on the future of our industry." Then he led the crowd—many of whom work in that very same industry—in a chant of "This is what democracy looks like."

At the moment, unfortunately, he’s probably right.

Robert Levine is the author of Free Ride, which Businessweek found "timely and impressive" and the New York Times Book Review called "a book that should change the debate about the future of culture." He has been the executive editor of Billboard and a features editor at Wired and New York, and he has contributed to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. He attended Brandeis and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He covers the culture business from New York and Berlin. Follow @RobertBLevine_ on Twitter.

[Top Image: Getty Images]

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  • Mitch Stoltz

    Robert, it's no secret that tech companies, like nearly all companies with the means, spend money to lobby against bills that would hurt them. But that doesn't explain why dozens of Senators and Representatives, including cosponsors of the bills, withdrew their support in the space of two days, killing the bills. That happened because over four million voters sent emails to their representatives in those two days, and hundreds of thousands called the Capitol - a record on both counts. It's easy to forget this in our cynical times, but when members of Congress hear such a strong message from the voters who can remove them from office, even millions in lobbying can't compete.

    If the SOPA/PIPA defeat was determined only by who spent more on lobbying, as you suggest, the bills would have passed, albeit with more pages of convoluted exceptions protecting specific tech businesses but not the public or the small businesses without lobbyists. That's how the game is played, and that's exactly how previous copyright laws like the DMCA (1998) came about.

    Also, your suggestion that Hollywood was out-lobbied is disingenuous in the extreme. If you point out the influence that tech companies wield by proxy through trade groups, you must also mention the plethora of "hard" and "soft" lobbying organizations that promote the entertainment industry agenda - not the MPAA and RIAA alone.  You cannot dismiss the U.S. Chamber's influence with a wave of the hand, either. They spent almost $150 million on lobbying in 2009 when the predecessor to SOPA/PIPA was introduced, and again in 2010, more than the next 5 biggest lobbyists combined. Yes, those numbers aren't broken down by issue, but anyone who has followed the issue knows the extent of the Chamber's involvement.

    You claim that Google's homepage is highly visible, but you fail to mention the unskippable "anti-piracy" videos at the start of every DVD, the inaccurate copyright warnings at the end of every major league sports broadcast, and the parade of celebrities who promote the industry's agenda in Washington and to the public. Can you really say with a straight face that Google has a bigger bully pulpit than News Corp, Disney-ABC, Viacom, or Comcast-NBC-Universal? Those companies, who control a vast percentage of what Americans see and hear, gave essentially no news coverage to the SOPA/PIPA fight before January 18, the better to let their lobbyists continue negotiating in secret.

    You have not done your homework on CISPA - thousands of Americans have written to Congress about it, and debate continues. You're right that it's equally problematic. The difficulty is that many people don't understand the importance of online privacy.  SOPA/PIPA raised the prospect of popular Internet sites going dark by government fiat. That hit Americans where they live, and they responded.

    It's tempting to see every legislative fight as a battle of lobbyist spending. It's so often true. But failing to recognize when real democracy happens - not the smoke-filled room in which both tech and content companies tend to make law - only creates more cynicism.

    Mitch Stoltz
     (I am a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; these opinions are my own)