Isolationist no more: The Internet goes to Washington

Monday’s launch of a new think tank called DisCo that wants to educate Congress about disruptive technologies is just one of several new efforts proposed by the Internet and startup community to get their voices heard. No longer will the conversation between Silicon Valley and D.C. rely solely on big tech firms like Amazon, (s amzn) Google,(s goog) Facebook (s fb) and others. The Internet upstarts are hoping they can disrupt politics too.
The Disruptive Competition Project. DisCo (short for Disruptive Competition) debuted Monday morning with a Web page and some blog posts that help outline its mission. The site, and the concept of a think tank to discuss companies that are changing established industries, are part of the CCIA, the association for the computing industry. However, the site will feature its own staff on a variety of topics, from Web TV to privacy.
The goal is to help regulators understand the other side of the story, so when a company such as Aereo, which lets subscribers record broadcast television to a DVR, pops up, the established industry doesn’t have the only say in Washington. The benefits of DisCo might mostly accrue to startups, but even established companies could benefit. For example, Dish’s ad-skipping DVR technology is something DisCo hopes to address on its site.

Engine Advocacy. Sometimes a startup, be it in Silicon Valley or in the middle of America, needs information and an understanding about how Congressional politics will affect them. They also need a voice in the process, but few entrepreneurs have the time or inclination to call their representative or organize a lobbying effort. Engine Advocacy, created by a Democrat and Republican in San Francisco, aims to fill this niche, helping startups understand and take action early on issues relevant to them.
Engine rose to prominence by building a calling tool that was featured on several websites during the SOPA and PIPA protests. It uses the Internet to help aggregate voices and disseminate information, but it also has the technical know-how to build tools that will amplify the voices of its members and participants. In the same way that hooking up Twilio to a Web front end and a database made it easy for individuals to find and call their representatives during the SOPA protest, Engine provides both a stance and Web tools to broadcast that stance. See our video with Engine Advocacy co-founder Michael McGeary below:
TestPAC. Think tanks and a lobbying organization are all well and good, but money is a surefire way to influence candidates and get your issues on the front burner. And because the Internet is great at bringing together people with ideas and asking them for money, TestPAC, the first Internet political action committee, was born. It has a Reddit subgroup and a democratic structure, with people able to vote on the issues it wants to focus on as well as campaigns it plans to run.
Unfortunately, TestPAC didn’t get the funding it needed to buy all the advertising it wanted. Plus, its uber-democratic methods and lack of knowledge around election laws have led to some stumbles, documented in this profile of TestPAC in Mother Jones. The net result was that TestPAC’s first goal, to keep SOPA sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) from getting 50 percent or more of the vote, failed in the May 29 Texas primaries.

The Internet Defense League. Taking the idea of rallying people to the next extreme is Reddit founder Alex OTK’s idea of creating a distress call for the Internet. People and companies can sign up their websites and will then be able to broadcast a code notifying visitors to that site of an action that Congress is planning to take that will affect the Web.
It’s modeled on the SOPA blackout that occurred in January, and it has Reddit, the Cheezburger network and a few other big-name sites signed up. The League says it will work with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge to detect threats to the Web, but I do wonder how effective this will be, given the overall nuances associated with most legislation. It’s rare to get a bill so bad that the entire (or even a significant portion) of the Internet will oppose it.

Will the Internet eat Washington or will Washington eat the Internet?

Taken together each of these efforts contain elements that other political alliances and organizations should note. Because they were born from the Internet, they are adept at using the tools of the Web to educate, disseminate information, encourage action and raise money. But because the Internet is a huge contingency and still isn’t as well-organized as other special-interest groups, it will be worth watching to see how much of an effect these groups can have on politics.
Can they change the game, or will their best tactics just get subsumed by the larger lobbying and political organizations? I don’t know, but it’s good to see the wider Web trying to get involved.