Blackout? What Blackout? “The SOPA blackout was about as organic as the masses of North Koreans crying in the streets upon hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death”

[Editor Charles says: A version of this post originally appeared in MTP Monthly]

In his excellent critique of the SOPA astroturf campaign, “Lobbyists 1, Internet 0: An Alternative Take on SOPA,” David Rodnitzky of PPC Associates really puts a nail in the coffin of Google’s campaign.  Rodnitzky has no ties whatsoever to the entertainment industry, and opposed SOPA.  However, he also doesn’t like being lied to or lied about.  At the risk of stating the obvious, Rodnitsky’s piece is genuine citizen journalism.

Rodnitsky starts at the right place–something about the SOPA campaign didn’t feel quite right.  He wanted to believe it was a great day for democracy, but began to suspect it wasn’t quite all that.  Rodnitsky was concerned about “how easy it can be to get caught up in a moment, often without fully thinking through why we are for or against a cause. So now that the initial ebullience of our anti-SOPA moment of triumph has worn off, it’s worth reflecting a little deeper on this moment in Internet history. How exactly did the SOPA blackout come about, and why did so many people rally to its cause?”

Using his background as a search engine marketer, Rodnitsky then takes us through a careful analysis of exactly what happened when and by whom.  For those who have been deflecting attacks from the same group of anti-copyright adversaries for a decade or more, these names are familiar to us even though they were new to Rodnitsky.  However, he connected the dots very well nonetheless.

Rodnitsky notes that Google, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, and eBay had been lobbying Congress for months regarding SOPA–actually for months regarding it’s Senate predecessors COICA and Protect IP as well.  Both legislative action and Google’s lobbying really gathered steam once it became apparent to Members that Google was next deep in really sleazy advertising practices regarding rogue sites.  In fact, the term “rogue sites” was probably coined by former Health and Human Services Secretary Joseph A. Califano, Jr., now director of the Columbia University National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse in a direct appeal to Eric Schmidt for Google to stop promoting the sale of controlled substances–which letter was ignored, by the way:  “[We were] able to find prominent displays of ads for rogue [sites] in a Google search for controlled drugs included in our analysis. This suggests that Google is profiting from advertisements for illegal sales of controlled…drugs.”

Google, of course, really stepped up its lobbying campaign–some staffers have suggested that they had two lobbyists or consultants for each Member of Congress.  Google’s lobbying expenditures tripled to $3.76M in Q4 2011, and that doesn’t count what it spends on the union buster Net Coalition, Public Knowledge, EFF, ACLU, and so on and so on and so on.  I can’t wait to see the lobbying reports for Q1 2012.

Rodnitsky puts his finger right in the astroturf:

“The history of public reaction to SOPA is really a history of effective public relations. SOPA was introduced into the house in late October of last year by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. You probably heard little about the dangers of SOPA, however, until mid-November, when Google, Facebook, and several other large Internet companies bought full-page ads in major newspapers outlining their opposition to the bill. Shortly after these ads, and testimony by a Google attorney in front of Congress, and who knows what else behind the scenes, editorial and tech writers started to come out against SOPA.”

Rodnitsky is quite correct–the timing of the public relations campaign was quite remarkable, with everyone from the LA Times (not surprising) to the Heritage Foundation (very surprising) having something negative to say.  (See “Heritage Foundation Misses the Market on Rogue Sites“.)  I personally was interviewed by a reporter from the LA Times who was clearly was trying to get me to change my view on the legislation.  In fact, every reporter I spoke to about SOPA clearly started the conversation with an anti-SOPA position, often based on a half-baked understanding of the facts at best.  This culminated in a TV journalist saying to me that President Obama said he would veto the bill–and resenting my correcting her that President Obama hadn’t said anything of the kind, aside from the fact that there was no bill to veto as yet.  Somehow the misinformation had gone from a White House blog reacting to what was probably a scammed “petition” to a statement that the President of the United States had supposedly made.

Rodnitsky tells us that “Just days after Google’s testimony and full-page ads, Nancy Pelosi (CA-D) and Darrell Issa (CA-R) publicly came out against SOPA. Google is the 8th-largest contributor to Nancy Pelosi and is listed as a “top contributor to Darrel Issa” on Facebook is listed as a top contributor to Pelosi.”

This is also of interest because Erik Stallman reportedly joined the Net Coalition lobbying firm Holch & Erickson as “retained counsel” right about that time–until January 2011 Stallman had served as chief technology counsel to House Minority Leader and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Net Coalition circulated the union busting flyers at meetings of conservative organizations in Washington and seems to be leading Google’s dirty tricks campaign against organized labor who opposed the company’s management on rogue sites, second only to usual suspect, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Using his search engine marketing background, Rodnitsky notes that:

A “big surge of Twitter traffic came on December 13th, when the Washington Post ran a story about a “visual petition” against SOPA on the Website”

Of course, nothing is known about other than that the site was created by “FightForTheFuture.”  While Rodnitsky may not recognize that name, we do.  He observes that “[t]he only names listed on the FightForTheFuture site are “Tiffiniy Cheng” and “Holmes Wilson.” I looked up Tiffiniy online and she apparently works for “DownhillBattle,” which as best I could tell is a blog that is mad about record labels.”

Oh, you could say that.  We also remember them quite well.

But Rodnitsky notices that Cheng:

“also lists herself as the “Founder, Executive Director, PPF, Open Congress.” PPF is the “Participatory Politics Foundation,” a 501-c-3 non-profit that was founded and funded by The Sunlight Foundation, which is also a non-profit. The Sunlight Foundation is funded by folks like Adobe, Google, Craigslist, the Hewlett Foundation, Reid Hoffman, Esther Dyson, Matt Cutts, and Mark Cuban. Anyways, I’m not an investigative journalist, but all of this strikes me as quite odd; the sudden launch of some very nicely designed, privately registered, anti-SOPA Web sites without any contact info other than a woman who once founded a non-profit that gets money from another non-profit that gets money from technology companies? Methinks something is rotten in Denmark.”

Rodnitsky would have been interested in this story about the Media Democracy Fund whose materials state that it funds Future of Music Coalition and Public Knowledge among many others.  MDF made somewhat uncharacteristically high grants to Fight for the Future (raising the question of whether the contributions were “black boxed” to disguise a corporate contribution):

“Fight for the Future got off the ground last fall with a $300,000 grant from the Media Democracy Fund, which supports public interest organizations that focus on digital rights. Its director, Helen Brunner, said the fund is finalizing another $759,000 grant for Fight for the Future.”

Allow me to add–PPF also lists as its “allies” the Sunlight Foundation (Lessig), Change Congress (Lessig), Free Press (Lessig), Maplight (Lessig), Fix Congress First (Lessig), Rootstrikers (Lessig), and United Republic (Josh Silver fmr Free Press and Lessig).  Who do you suppose funds all these overlapping Lessig organizations?  Although I guess the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society was left out for some reason.

Rodnitsky ends the story:

“In late December, NetCoalition, one of several lobbying organizations that represent the tech community [and dominated by Google], hatched the idea for the SOPA blackout day. And of course, as we know, eventually the blackout took place, leading to the dramatic increase in awareness and outrage about SOPA that the tech giants had been hoping for all along.”

But his whistful conclusion is most telling, and probably shared by his cohort:

“I’d rather see multi-billion dollar Internet conglomerates dedicate their home pages to raising money to cure cancer or stop poverty than to political battles that benefit their bottom line.”

Unfortunately, you were conned.

Nothing personal, just crony capitalism.