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Four Lessons For Tech Activists Hoping To Influence Politics

This year’s tech activism revealed a rookie misunderstanding: To win in D.C., you must show some respect.

Four Lessons For Tech Activists Hoping To Influence Politics

Illustration by Bigshop Toyworks

Late last year, Michael Hendrix was like most of his tech peers—eager to defend their space, but not always well informed. "Most of us didn't know what SOPA exactly did; we just knew it was bad," says Hendrix, head of the digital marketing firm Precise Agency. "We didn't know how to lobby and how to influence policy because we're geeks." So he followed the good-citizen playbook—calling and writing members of Congress, notably Texas Representative Lamar Smith, the House Judiciary chairman who had authored the SOPA legislation. Hendrix had business ties to Smith's Austin district.

Smith never responded; he'd become the epicenter of activists' insults and anger. SOPA, it turns out, would be defeated—in large part because of an orchestrated blackout by big web firms. But Hendrix wanted more, so he helped start a super PAC called Americans for Internet Freedom, which recruited and ran Republican software engineer Richard Morgan in a primary battle against Smith. But Smith won anyway.

Still, as tech activists move from the outside to the inside of politics, Hendrix's nascent efforts offer powerful lessons for the industry about the gap between activism and success.

1 Activists must be taught to donate. Techies are eager when they're behind a keyboard, but this community hasn't yet been trained to fight with their wallets—something that requires consistent outreach and network building. Hendrix's PAC raised and spent about $75,000 to defeat Smith, a small sum in politics. Other SOPA opponents fell similarly flat. In Virginia, candidate Karen Kwiatkowski raised only about $5,000 during a burst of SOPA-related fundraising, in her failed attempt to oust SOPA supporter Representative Bob Goodlatte.

2 Lighten up the fight. Politics may be divisive, but life behind closed doors—where decisions are really made—is more cordial. Techies didn't know that with SOPA; they flooded congressional offices with vitriol. "If you go out and say, 'This is a bill that's awful' and that you can't believe what these folks are doing, you potentially set yourself up to be on the not-favorite list of these lawmakers," says Emily Mendell of the National Venture Capital Association. "We let folks know it was important to be diplomatic." Because when the next issue arises, companies must deal with the same lawmakers.

3 Tech needs one megaphone. Hendrix's company had no lobbyists and didn't pay dues to any trade association that did. So he, and many like him, had nowhere to funnel their passions—creating an undisciplined racket. (Contrast that with, for instance, Planned Parenthood's swift fundraising campaigns every time an abortion debate flares up.) Industry groups are now forming, hoping to become that central voice. Hendrix wants his PAC to play a central role; he dreams of it being "the NRA of the Internet."

4 There must be a plan B. Hendrix's candidate may have lost, but he considers the money and energy well spent. "For us to sit out the election and not do anything would send a message to other legislators that you can sponsor this kind of legislation and nothing would happen back in your district," he says. But movements can't live crisis to crisis; Hendrix and his ilk need an agenda that can keep money and interest flowing. So what's next? Hendrix isn't sure, though he has an idea: He's trying to persuade his former candidate to register in Washington as a lobbyist.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.