It was exactly the reaction many in the startup community had feared. “These are people and companies with incredibly large and engaged networks of users,” Anil Dash said, dressed in a black overcoat, black pants and black shoes, sipping a chai tea and chatting with Betabeat at the SunBurst Cafe not long ago. “But it’s not clear that having this big megaphone online will translate into any kind of real political power.”
Mr. Dash recently won a board seat on the New York Tech Meetup, a collection of more than 19,000 members from Silicon Alley, and one of the largest meetup groups in the world. “When Mayor Bloomberg came to our meeting, that made me remember why I was interested in the position. It showed that government was recognizing our power.”
Through Expert Labs, his non-profit, Mr. Dash explores ways for citizens to affect policy through the use of technology. “We need to figure out ways to get more aggressive. Take Nate Westheimer,” Mr. Dash said, referring to the jocular MC of the NY Tech Meetup. “He should be like Al Sharpton, our agitator, making people wake up to what’s important to us.”
The problem for the startup sector is that, while everyone from Mayor Bloomberg to President Obama recognizes their potential to create jobs or become the next Google, they are by definition small, cash strapped strivers, a difficult position from which to find political leverage. This prevents them from engaging the hoards of lobbyists who crafted the language that became the SOPA bill.
And as the committee hearing showed, by the time the issue was opened up for debate, the deck had already been stacked. From the Howard Dean scream to Tony Weiner’s tweet, the Internet has not been kind to politicians. But the opening statements for the SOPA hearing made it clear that the Judiciary committee had strong feelings about the ways in which the Internet was wreaking havoc.
“In my experience there is usually only one thing at stake when we have long lines outside a hearing as we do today, and when giant companies and their supporters start throwing around rhetoric like ‘this bill will kill the internet’ or ‘an attempt to build the Great Firewall of America,’ and that one thing is usually money,”said Rep. Mel Watt (R-NC). “When I hear overblown rhetoric like this bill is a killer to innovation and entrepreneurs, that the co-sponsors of this bill are the internet killers, I become suspicious of the message, as well as the messengers.”
Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who represents Silicon Valley, tried to defend the impassioned internet activists. “Writing this off as hyperbole is not fair,” she said. It was not the wealthy tech titans who were secretly backing this outrage, she noted, pointing out the many small entrepreneurs, legal and technical experts who opposed SOPA. “It hasn’t generally been the policy of this committee to dismiss the views of those in the industry we intend to litigate. I understand why you’re upset by the rhetoric, but that is not a reason to dismiss these objections.”
Still, the wave of internet based protest did make at least some impact. When Nancy Pelosi was asked via Twitter where she stood on SOPA she responded, “Need to find a better solution than #SOPA #DontBreakTheInternet.” While they couldn’t puncture the cloistered walls of the committee hearing, the startup community seemed to have gotten its protest across to at least one important politician, who was embracing both their medium and their message.