SOPA And The Law of Unintended Consequences

on January 30, 2012 at 10:00 AM

As the pirates of Silicon Valley rage against each other – as they have for decades – with patent infringement suits, new technology introductions, verbal quips against competitive CEOs, and a host of other one-upsmanship activities that would make any Congressional Committee Chair proud, we’ve recently seen an interesting coalescence of solidarity among technology companies that hasn’t been seen in ages: a united – and ultimately successful – front against SOPA, the Stop Online Privacy Act.

While privacy-focused organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been laser-focused on stopping technology-focused legislation that restricts privacy for some time, this is perhaps the first occasion since the NSA’s introduction of the ill-fated Clipper Chip in 1993 that has brought together so many industry competitors into what is being portrayed as a fight for their very survival. By proclaiming the House-driven SOPA and its sister bill in the Senate, PIPA, as “Blacklist Bills” that will stifle First Amendment speech, fail to curtail online piracy, and present a nightmare engineering scenario for everyone from ISPs, to corporate network managers, to federal agencies, corporations and public policy groups alike (such as the EFF) have killed this legislation. Internet stalwarts such as Wikipedia and Reddit went “black” for a 24-hour period in protest, and others (I’m looking at you, Craiglist and Google) displayed messages of solidarity with otherwise competitive organizations. Content providers kicked their P.R. and lobbying machines into high gear, and pulled hard on the ears of any Representative or Senator willing to listen.

Regardless of where you stood on SOPA – and to be clear, while I personally am all for protecting the rights of copyright holders, I believe SOPA and PIPA were terrible solutions to the problem – there’s no question that the fight to kill this legislation drew big tech inside the D.C. beltway like nothing else. Technology companies have viewed Congress for decades as a “third wheel” to the more direct relationship between themselves and their corporate and individual customers; periodically they’ll come forward to support tangential laws such as COPA or CDA, but for the most part, they haven’t come into a great deal of conflict with legislation, and the fact is most technology companies view the D.C. law machine as too slow and stodgy to keep up with what they do for a living.

That has changed in the past few years, both with cybersecurity legislation and other bills that have gradually brought members of Congress and their staffs up-to-date with more cutting-edge technologies. The upshot of that education is that Congress is now trying to solve legitimate problems (regardless of the appropriateness or effectiveness of their solutions), and the livelihood of many technology companies are firmly in the crosshairs. For the first time in perhaps a generation, IT is a “power player” again in Washington, with a fresh victory against SOPA and PIPA – and inside the DC beltway, everybody loves a winner.

So what does this mean for the future of a working relationship between technologists and legislators? Let’s hope that the SOPA/PIPA event serves as a signal to the technology industry that the best way to deal with Congress and ensure that their business model, infrastructure and rights are protected (as well as the rights of their customers) is not by shunning D.C. and only returning to town when they’re threatened, but by consistently, continuously engaging members of Congress and their personnel through continuous interaction and education.

John Linkous is vice president, chief security and compliance officer eIQnetworks, Inc.