In the aftermath of the big protest against the US SOPA bill, I’ve seen a fair few people (including Joel Spolsky) ask the question: why are we not lobbying for laws? Why is it that other interests try and oppress the internet and we fight back; shouldn’t we be taking the fight to them? Lobby and push for laws that make the net better, and have them fight us for once?
This thought, while it’s got the fist-in-the-air fight-the-power undertones that go over well with the internet crowd, is a bit worrying.
The movie and TV industry spent ninety million dollars lobbying the American government in 2011. Where’s our ninety million? Most of the tech industry is struggling to stay alive on VC money and the occasional payment; there’s no central fund, and no-one with the expertise to do the lobbying anyway, especially when that’s combined with the sneaking sense that paying money for attention and to get laws passed is Not Really Cricket.
Hang on, though; the big players have a whole ton of money. Ninety million is about two days profit for Apple, about four days profit for Google, about the same for Microsoft, about the same for Oracle. Seriously, if those four firms donated one day’s profit, the tech industry could throw a hundred and fifty million dollars into the pot without serious effort. The MPAA have recently started demanding quid pro quo for their donated money; maybe this is the time to get in the game and outspend them. Any one of the four firms above, and probably others besides, could swallow up the whole movie industry without so much as a gulp if they wanted.
But then we hit the biggest problem. I’ve been talking about “the tech industry” like it’s a thing. There is no tech industry.
The movie people get this right. No-one’s lobbying for only movies by Twentieth Century Fox to get extra copyright protection. No-one’s arguing that TV programmes should be blocked from being written to DVDs but only if they’ve got Martin Sheen in them. They work together. What we laughingly call “the tech industry” does not. Do you honestly think that if Apple or Microsoft or Oracle throw down a hundred million notes on a law that that law will benefit startups and Canonical and Red Hat and hobby programmers? If Microsoft throw down that money, do you think the resulting legislation will benefit Apple? Hell no. There’s almost no sense of collaboration in the “tech industry” at all; we’re a bunch of scratching yowling cats in a bag, too busy fighting one another to maintain a front against outside opposition.
What’s the solution here? I don’t know. But I’m wary of a world where the interests of the movie industry are less effective in the American Congress but have been replaced by the interests of multi-billion-dollar computer companies. That doesn’t seem to benefit the internet all that much.