The first panel I attended during the interactive event at South-by-Southwest discussed media coverage of SOPA / PIPA. This topic is near and dear to my heart because of the allegations from Big IP that SOPA and PIPA were derailed not because they were a bad idea, but because of a vast conspiracy within the media that presented only the “anti” side of the argument.
As an initial matter, the audience was decidedly “anti” SOPA /PIPA: only one person out of thirty raised their hand as a support of the legislation. Oddly, from the perspective of someone who followed this legislation for a significant period of time, each of the panelists commented that their publications only started following the issue in mid-October, late November. Stacey Higginbotham attributed the uptick in coverage to efforts from EFF and Reddit, as well as Congressional hearings in which members of Congress made statements like, “I don’t understand how the Internet works.”
Kim Hart, from Politico talked about how the MPAA, RIAA and other pro-SOPA organizations wouldn’t return Politico’s phone calls, or issued traditional “Washington” statements. This is different from the tech community, who would return phone calls, understood the bill and could speak cogently and specifically to a reporter’s questions. Brian Stelter from the New York Times wondered whether the initial lack of coverage stemmed from the fact that most content sponsored legislation always passed, so reporting on the issue was not news. Interestingly, Stelter referred to the internet blackouts as “manipulation” of the internet audience.
Hart looks at the fight as a “coming out” of sorts for the start-up tech industry in Washginton. Stacey Higginbotham from GigaOm disagreed with this statement opining that the start-up tech industry really doesn’t want much attention from Washington.
There was substantial discussion about whether it was ethical for publications like GigaOm to actually advocate for, or against, legislation. Higginbotham stated that she remains thoughtful about the subject, and while GigaOm is not an advocacy organization, it has a different place in the journalism ecosystem as a blog so advocacy is not as troubling. This was contrasted with the New York Times, which did not advocate in print, but did advocate at the corporate level.
The SOPA debates may have changed the way organizations advocate in Washington. Hart said that members of Congress may now be tiptoeing around tech issues for fear of being “SOPA’d.” Beyond that, the advocacy shows the effectiveness of non-traditional technology, for example online bill drafting, in influencing policy. Hart says that while the jury is still out about whether the SOPA debate changed lobbying, the culture in Washington is so difficult to change, one shouldn’t necessarily assume that the game has changed.