Crowdsourcing the Congress: Wikipedia's Blackout Bomb

The debate over legislation to stop online piracy  revealed not only the threat that a new generation of consumers presents to the entertainment industry’s traditional business model but the equally shaky future of  the way Congress currently conducts its business. The high tech, Internet-based companies that Hollywood most fears used their clout with the most coveted customers, young Millennials, to stop an attempt to rush to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and its Senate twin, Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).

The success of the Wikipedia-led Internet blackout demonstrated the way Congress goes about its business is as susceptible as the entertainment industry’s business model is to disruption from the energy and attitudes of a new, digitally native generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003). The film and television industry’s foundation, built on the notion that content will triumph ṻber alles, was shown to be  just as prone to destruction by the Napster virus as its  cousin in the recording industry was a decade ago. It turns out that consumers like companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, more than they like the companies who produce and package the content and insist on being paid for it.

  But the fact that many in Congress suddenly abandoned their support of SOPA or PIPA  in the face of this consumer revolt also sent a clear warning to those pushing the bills, using traditional methods of high--priced lobbying and closed-door decision making, that their way of doing business is equally in jeopardy. Wikipedia’s blackout Facebook page was liked or shared around 1.2 million times. A petition organized by Google in opposition gained over seven million signatures. When Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced on Facebook that he was withdrawing his support for PIPA, his action generated 4,700 likes.  Between midnight and 4 PM on the Wednesday of the “blackout bomb”, Twitter recorded over 2.4 million tweets on the subject. The Internet community’s insistence on a more open decision making process forced the Congress to ultimately abandon their confrontational, large-contributor  approach to the problem.  If Congress actually learned the larger lesson from this experience and  adopted a process that incorporates the Millennial Generation’s desire for win-win solutions derived from bottom up  participation designed to forge a consensus, they might finally reverse the continuing decline in popularity with their customers—the American electorate.   

Today, all national surveys show approval of Congress at historically low levels. ) Since the Republic was conceived, communication technologies have evolved to reduce the time and distance that separate Congress from the public, but most of Congress’s procedures and practices have remained trapped in a time warp of its own traditions. Creating a new connection between citizens and their representatives by using Millennials’ favorite technologies to build a more transparent, open and participatory legislative process is the essential first step in reversing this decline in Congress’s credibility.

This alternative approach to the legislative process was actually utilized by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon and Republican U.S. Representative Darrell Issa in drafting their alternative to SOPA/PIPA. The two lawmakers published a draft of their approach last year on the web at www.KeepTheWebOpen.com and asked for comments from interested parties. Based on the suggestions of those who visited the site, they proposed a bi-partisan alternative--the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, or OPEN Act--that uses a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to address the problem. It empowers the U.S. International Trade Commission to cut off the money supply of the several dozen foreign piracy sites that do most of the damage to content creators.

Although Internet companies and online activists liked both the process and the outcome, organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) continued to insist that the danger presented by these sites to their business model is so great that they can’t wait for the niceties of legalities and due process that the Wyden/Issa solution would involve.  The fact that the entertainment industry’s solution is perceived to be so  threatening to the freedom of users of the Internet that it united civil libertarians on the left and Libertarians on the right in opposition to SOPA/PIPA has not dissuaded those wedded to the old ways of doing business in Congress that they need to change their tactics. Their stubbornness is reminiscent of the attempt by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to halt the proliferation of peer-to-peer music sharing sites by suing its teenage customers, before RIAA finally gave up and acquiesced in a new business model for the industry built around Apple’s iPod. 

It’s time for Congressional leaders to use the learning experience of the SOPA/PIPA debate to throw off their generational blinders and find a way to concede power gracefully to a new generation with new ideas. To restore its credibility, Congress will have to use new tools to fully involve Millennials and older generations in the decision-making process. It should make a new bargain with the American people, built on an increased level of citizen participation in the process of governing, rather than upon the current trade of access and constituency service in return for campaign contributions.

Only when Congress embraces this new way of doing business will the legitimacy of the country’s legislative process begin to be restored and Congress’s approval ratings start to rise again. Until then the electoral fate of Senators and U.S. Representatives will be as uncertain and as subject to disruption as the future of the entertainment moguls they sought to please by backing SOPA/PIPA. 

(Cross-posted from Huffington Post) 


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