In the wake of last week’s big SOPA showdown, a lot of people are talking about the expanded presence and power of the Internet, online operators, and digital Netizens in Washington policy debates. I certainly don’t mean to diminish the importance of this particular episode. It certainly is historic, regardless of how you feel about the specifics of SOPA. What does concern me, however, is the way this episode is prompting questions about how much more “engagement” Internet companies need to consider inside the Beltway. For example, today’s Wall Street Journal features an article on “The Web’s Growing Muscle” and notes:
The Internet industry has found a rare sweet spot in Washington. With Google in the lead, the companies have begun building a strong traditional lobbying force in Washington. And, to complement that inside game, websites’ millions of users have become a powerful outside weight on Congress. What’s more, in a rare Washington double play, the concerns of Internet companies have found a sympathetic ear both in the Democratic White House and among Republican presidential candidates who otherwise can’t agree with Barack Obama on anything.
The piece concludes with a quote from an anonymous media executive saying “People are looking at what Google spent on lobbying and wondering, ‘Can we match that?’ It has to be a big spend.”
I cannot possibly think of anything more demoralizing than that. The idea that web companies should spend more of their time in Washington showering politicians with cash instead of out there in the real world innovating and making consumers happy is extremely troubling. I wrote about this growing trend in my 2010 Cato essay on “The Sad State of Cyber-Politics.” I built that essay around an old manifesto by Cypress Semiconductor CEO T. J. Rodgers on “Why Silicon Valley Should Not Normalize Relations with Washington, D.C.” Rodgers had argued that “The political scene in Washington is antithetical to the core values that drive our success in the international marketplace and risks converting entrepreneurs into statist businessmen,” and that “The collectivist notion that drives policymaking in Washington is the irrevocable enemy of high-technology capitalism and the wealth creation process.”
But no one was listening then and they certainly aren’t listening now. We find ourselves in the midst a mad rush to see who can open a bigger, fancier office in Washington and have glitzier parties to make the political class happy. As I noted in the Cato essay:
There’s enormous pressure on the high-tech sector to actually become more entrenched in coming years, at least to remain “competitive” with other companies who have planted a flag inside the Beltway. Recently, for example, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, a social networking site for professionals, worried that policymakers tend to ignore high-tech startups. “We don’t have an entrepreneurship lobby,” he said, “because entrepreneurs are off doing it.” As if that was a bad thing! In particular, he fretted about startups not getting their share of recent stimulus funding and argued that “It’s much easier when you’re embedded in the political infrastructure to respond to immediate things” such as nabbing stimulus dollars, he said.
Am I being naive about all this? Don’t these new tech companies have to have armies of lobbyists pressing the flesh and greasing the palms here in DC in order to compete against other entrenched competitors who are doing to same thing? Perhaps, but there’s always been self-fulfilling circularity to the argument that you have to be here in order to “be a player” or “have a seat at the table.” The end result of that thinking is always the same: more lobbying, more logrolling, more of “the big spend.” And then we end up with one giant cesspool of protected markets, protracted legal nightmares, bloated bureaucracies, and widespread regulatory capture. Welcome to the wonderful world of crony capitalism! And your tech sector superstars are now falling all over themselves to make sure they have that proverbial “seat at the table” so they can feast at this Big Government supper.
It makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. So, I’ll continue right on being a naive dope and conclude this piece the same way I concluded my old Cato essay on the sad state of cyber-politics:
For that small remnant of believers in real Internet Freedom — freedom from incessant government techno-meddling — we will never stop hoping that disputes among high-tech companies might be settled in the marketplace instead of within regulatory agencies and congressional committee rooms. And we must continue our push to discourage high-tech companies from an excessive “normalization” of relations with the parasitic culture that dominates Washington by reminding them, as Rodgers noted in 2000, “that free minds and free markets are the moral foundation that has made our success possible. We must never allow those freedoms to be diminished for any reason.”
Just let me dream, people.