Turning off a few big Websites is a nice gesture. I’m sure the operators of Wikipedia, Reddit and the other sites that are going dark are proud of themselves for making the statement, and are probably patting themselves on the back, thinking they struck a blow for an open Internet. They’re kidding themselves. Congress doesn’t care.
Members of Congress mostly care about one thing, and that’s getting re-elected. This being an election year, they care about it more than they will next year. The only way to fight bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is to appeal to members of Congress in a way that makes them worry about getting re-elected.
The reason members of Congress pile on to bills such as SOPA and the PROTECTIP Act (PIPA) is that their party leadership, along with some big donors, tells them they should do this because it will enhance their chances in November. Toeing the party line will help get party and Political Action Committee (PAC) support. Courting big donors will ensure big donations to their private PACs. As you’ve probably noticed, movie studios and recording companies have lots of money that they donate to PACs. Thus, members of Congress tend to do what they say, unless something convinces them to do otherwise.
Your job, assuming you care about an open, operational Internet is to give them a reason to do otherwise. This means you need to get their attention in a way that works, and you need to give them a reason to listen to what you have to say.
When I was researching my book, “Politics on the Nets” one of the things I learned is that actions that take place on the Internet or by email rarely affect legislation. Some time has passed since then, but the Internet hasn’t gained much in its power to influence Congress. So, here are the steps you need to take if you really want to get something done in Congress.
1. Write your representative in Congress and your two U.S. senators a letter expressing your ideas calmly and without technical jargon, including Internet slang. Yes, I said write a letter. This does not mean an email and it doesn’t mean a blog entry. While some politicians really do read their own email, the most of them delegate that to a junior staffer who decides what email, if any, gets sent along to the legislator. That means your letter must be printed on paper and signed, along with your physical snail-mail address so that they know that you’re a constituent.
Politicians Respond to Grassroots Initiatives
2. Send the letter by FedEx. The letter will still be opened by some junior staffer, but when a letter appears in the magical FedEx envelope, it gets special attention. After all, if you’re willing to drop $20 to send a letter, it must be important, right? Email is free, which is why it’s generally ignored.
3. Make sure your letter is no more than one page long, and that you proofread it. In the letter, make sure you tell the legislator what bill you’re writing about and why (in rational language) you oppose it. Then, in two paragraphs, say what you think should be done instead. For example, suggest including representatives from Internet companies in future hearings-something that didn’t happen in the last set of hearings. Also suggest an alternate approach to meeting the needs of everyone concerned without Draconian results, arbitration, for example.
4. Be polite in how you discuss the issues. Nobody likes to read letters that are argumentative or insulting, and this includes members of Congress. If they don’t read your letter, it doesn’t do any good to write it. If you’re insulting or abusive, that junior staffer I mentioned earlier will simply toss your letter into the “hate mail” pile where it will never see the light of day.
5. Get with some friends or associates, and discuss what workable solutions you would like to see. Remember that these solutions must address the needs of the Internet community. Acknowledge the vital place the Internet holds in the global economy and concede that it must address the legitimate rights of the owners of intellectual property. Do some collaboration in your blogs or on your Facebook page or across a table at Starbucks, but have as many people as possible recommend similar actions. Then, it will seem like a grassroots proposal, and politicians love those.
6. If you find a workable proposal already out there on the Internet somewhere, then by all means, mention it.
7. Finally, stress the need of all interested parties, including the Internet community, to take place in any future hearings. This part is vital.
Right now, SOPA and PIPA are effectively dead at least for this term. But you can be certain that they will rise, zombie-like from the dead once the recording companies and the movie companies get their second wind. When that happens, you need to have already started sending your letters to your representatives in Congress. You should have gone by their town meetings or dropped in to their offices in Washington (yes, you really can go into the Congressional office buildings) and explained your concerns. Remember, they want to get re-elected. You’re the one with the vote and maybe a contribution. They really do want to hear from you.