A Tale of Two Senators.

Now that I work in the internet technology industry, matters of internet regulation are more important to me now than ever. Last January when Congress was debating the SOPA/PIPA bills, I like many of you, contacted my representatives in both the house and senate. Both the senior senator from Oregon Ron Wyden, and the junior senator Jeff Merkley responded to my concerns. Unfortunately my representative of the house did not (hmm… wonder if I will vote for that person again). The responses from each senator were quite different, here they are in their entirety:

Senator Jeff Merkley was the first to respond, twice even. His first response came days after my initial email, I received it  on January 7, 2011.

“Dear Thomas,

Thank you for contacting me to share your views about the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (S. 968), legislation that would provide new authority for U.S. officials to shut down foreign websites that sell counterfeit products.

I have heard from many Oregonians on both sides of this issue – those who support providing U.S. agencies with greater authority to shut down websites, and those who are worried that the legislation could result in Internet censorship. Thanks to your letter and the letters of fellow Oregonians, I have asked my staff to take a closer look into this legislation.

On May 26, the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which I am not a member, passed this bill out of committee.  Please know that I will continue to follow its progress and will keep your views in mind should the full Senate take up this legislation.  Again, I have made note of your points and appreciate your input.

I hope you will continue to send your observations and thoughts my way.”

At the time, the bill was still in committee, which as the senator points out, not being on the committee meant he had little to no influence over the bill at that point. However, this line really irked my tater: “I have heard from many Oregonians on both sides of this issue…” I’m not buying that one bit! Undoubtedly, there were many millions of Americans on the “anti” side of this issue, and a few old money, big business entertainment industry tycoons, who spend millions in lobbying dollars on the “pro” side of the issue.

We are all IT people, our businesses depend on the internet, and we know the business potential. It is not our fault that the old money industries refuse to invest in the future, and instead, only choose to focus on the next quarter. None of the middle managers who got to where they are today in “traditional” media want their companies to evolve, and make a profit in the new environment. It’s beyond their depth, and after all, they have to look out for #1. I had hoped the junior senator, not yet completely corrupted by Washington politics would understand this. However, he continues to hedge his political bets by claiming there is an equal disposition for or against internet censorship among his constituents.

The second email came a few days later on January 31, 2011.

“Dear Thomas,

Thank you for your earlier message about the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

I have heard from tens of thousands of Oregonians on this legislation, which aims to provide new authority for U.S. officials to shut down foreign websites that offer counterfeit products. I very much appreciate the outpouring of input on this issue and I wanted to let you know that after carefully analyzing the legislation, I decided to oppose SOPA and PIPA.  Please click the image below to view a video explanation of my reasons opposing SOPA and PIPA.

I hope you will continue to send your observations and thoughts my way.”

This was less tater irking, yet felt even more impersonal to me. There is a link to a you tube response included. He states that he did decide to oppose the bill, and acknowledges the effect email, Facebook, and Twitter can have on influencing congress. However, he still promoted the “both sides” talking point. Sure, it’s just politics, but feels disingenuous to me.

Senator Wyden’s response took much longer to receive. It wasn’t until March 16, 2012 that I received a response. However, I did find the Sr. senators response much more personal, and informative:

“Dear Mr. Hale:

Thank you for contacting me regarding Internet censorship. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.

The Internet is increasingly integral part of everyday life.  It is changing the way we communicate with each other, the way we learn about the world and the way we conduct business.  In fact, the Internet is changing the way that people govern themselves.

Online copyright infringement and international commerce in counterfeit merchandise is a legitimate problem. Unfortunately, legislative proposals were recently advanced to address this problem that if passed they would most certainly damage the fundamental architecture of the Internet. These proposals sought to establish a harmful censorship regime that would erode fundamental freedoms of speech and the press.  These proposals, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) introduced in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) introduced in the House of Representatives, represented a direct threat to innovation and economic engines of the Internet.   Accordingly, I worked for more than a year to stop these proposals from becoming law.

I take a back seat to no one in ensuring that intellectual property rights, like copyrights and trademarks, are respected.  In fact, I have sponsored bipartisan legislation to do that: the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN).  I have also worked to strengthen the Customs Service and aid their efforts in stopping counterfeit goods at the border.  But any effort to combat infringement of intellectual property rights must not do more harm than good to the forces of creativity and innovation that our IP laws were created to foster.  Unfortunately, the collateral damage of PIPA and SOPA would far outbalance the remedies they offered.

From the moment when these bills were unveiled, I suggested legislative changes to the proposals to ensure that they would not be harmful to free speech and to the integrity of the Internet.  Unfortunately, the backers of PIPA and SOPA had little interest in compromising with me or those who shared my concerns.  As a result, I launched a public effort to filibuster PIPA in the Senate and was prepared to force weeks of debate on the legislation.  I also established a bipartisan coalition to ensure that the public understood the problems with PIPA and SOPA, so that they could make their views known to the Congress.

On January 18, with just under a week before the Senate would begin a process to overcome my filibuster, more than 15 million Americans contacted Congress through e-mail, phone calls, and social networks.  It changed Washington.  Before January 18, the prevailing view was that PIPA and SOPA would easily pass into law.  By January 20, it became clear that there were not enough votes to overcome my filibuster, or pass PIPA.  As a result, the legislation was pulled from the Senate schedule and backers of SOPA in the House of Representatives acknowledged defeat.   This could not have happened were it not for the public, primarily through online social media, learning about the proposal and raising a coordinated communication effort with Congress.

Congress can learn from this experience.  Instead of constructing legislation intended to assist the narrow interests of the well-connected in Washington, DC, legislation should be advanced in a way that enables the public to understand the proposals and provide their views so that what become law represents the interests of all Americans.

Thank you for contacting me and keeping me apprised on the issues that are important to you.  I will continue to fight for you and for an open Internet.”

This is still politics, and I do have concerns over senator Wyden’s second attempt to draft piracy protection legislation. However, I do feel like senator Wyden is being honest. As a politician in the United States, of course his primary job function is raising money to win the next auction, er… I mean election. Big money lobbyists and campaign donors have to be appeased to some degree, or else they will use their resources against you. Yet, the Sr. senator manages to “politic” in a way that acknowledges me as a constituent, and my individual concerns.

For those of you not at all aware of US, or Oregon politics, Ron Wyden’s wife/in laws own Powell’s Books, one of the largest independently owned book stores in the US. Why would someone who has a personal business interest in “old money media” filibuster a bill that (the pro side) claims protects traditional media from the big scary internet?  If not passing internet censorship laws will destroy intellectual property rights, and bring an end to life as we know it – Why did senator Wyden go out of his way, risking being the target of big money negative campaign advertising, and openly oppose PIPA? Something smells fishy, and because of senator Wyden’s personal response, I don’t believe it’s his office stinking up the place.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and also, more than one way to earn revenue from publishing. Take our client Free-eBooks.net for example. Not only do they allow authors a venue to publish their work, they also provide a profit motive for those authors. Sure, someone could steal the thousands of ebooks published on site, but if the content provider offers that content free anyway, what would be the point? So how would anyone earn any revenue from free content? The same way media companies have generated revenues since the dawn of their respective mediums – Advertising! Yes, there are extra benefits that come with a paid account, but how do you convince users to pay for a service, if you do not provide an example of what they will get for their money?

Take the ESPN website for example. In order to access the “insider” content, you have to pay for it. If ESPN cannot prove to me that their “insiders” have more knowledge of, or information regarding my team than the “insiders” at Blazers Edge, I am not going to pay for the content. I pay for cable TV, and I get ESPN. I pay for cable internet, and I have to pay extra, for the same content I could get for free from the TV! After Adult Swim went to a pay model to view their content, I went to Hulu. Why pay to see [AS] re-runs of Family Guy, when I can get it for free from Hulu? Comedy Central has figured this out. South Park, The Daily Show, even The Colbert Report (can I get a Colbert bump please?) have all embraced the opportunities, and revenue that the online audience can generate.

The real issue at the heart of SOPA/PIPA, is not online piracy. The real issue is that traditional media outlets have yet to figure out that you can make money, the exact same way on the internet, as you do with television or radio. “If you build it, they will come.” You as a business owner know that the internet offers an opportunity to generate revenue from the audience you have created, without paying the rates that traditional media demands to build that audience. It is up to you to innovate, create, maintain, and expand upon your business model. You have to make an effort to make a profit, but “old money” interests believe they are entitled to those revenues. It is very much an issue of supply vs. demand. When the supply does not meet the needs of the audience demands, it’s not the customers fault your business model is broken!

There is absolutely no reason why media companies could not create a business model that makes pirating content absolutely worthless, ineffective, and a complete non-issue. Lower quality content, with commercials is the business model for Hulu, and it seems to be working for them! You earn revenue from advertisers who want to reach the audience you have created. If users like the service, and want it commercial free in HD quality, then they can pay extra for it. It’s just so simple, it’s criminal that so many traditional content providers have yet to understand. Instead of spending millions to lobby for a bill that doesn’t pass into law, why not spend a fraction of that money actually investing in the new way of doing business?

By, Tom Hale, Jr.