IA has made great progress on its mission to foster innovation, promote economic growth, and empower people through a free and open internet. As this chapter closes, member companies remain committed to advancing public policy in support of this mission and will continue to work with stakeholders in other capacities. – Board of Directors Statement on IA’s Future –
Thus spake the Internet Association upon announcing that it will cease operations at the end of this year; and anyone engaged in advocating the rights of creative professionals (i.e. copyrights) shall be forgiven their moment of schadenfreude. While it would be inaccurate to say that this lobbying organization was formed by the major internet platforms in response to the anti-piracy bills SOPA/PIPA, it was certainly no coincidence that IA formed concurrently with Silicon Valley’s extraordinary efforts to kill that legislation, which Congress abandoned in January of 2012.
It was the holiday season of 2011 when nearly every Member of Congress and the Obama White House expected the anti-piracy bills would pass easily into law. Neither Google, nor any of the internet giants, had much of a lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, but they did have an unprecedented advantage as an industry insofar as they owned the platforms we were all using to “share information” and shape one another’s views. They controlled the algorithms that prioritized results in a search or a newsfeed, and they had the data to show how effective a dumb meme could be for animating political action.
I believed then, as I do now, that the Stop SOPA campaign was a primer in how to affordably and effectively unravel a democratic republic—a little lie that taught others how to tell much bigger lies. At the same time that organizations like the EFF were congratulating themselves and the public for the “grassroots” effort that stopped those bills, Silicon Valley companies were already having discussions about getting their act together in Washington.
In addition to Google growing its own presence in D.C. from a whisper to a roar, they joined with Facebook, eBay, Amazon, and others to form the Internet Association, which was announced in the media in July of 2012—just six months after the defeat of the anti-piracy bills. The unstated mission of IA, couched in vague terms like “innovation” and “openness,” was arguably to maintain the status quo and keep the pesky laws of the “real world” from infecting the self-governing idealism of cyberspace.
Now, in a very different climate in which we even see Facebook make a show of asking Congress for regulation, it is fair to say that the status quo the IA was formed to maintain is a lost cause. Further, according to Politico, the organization’s funding imploded on the weak link that the giants’ interests are unsurprisingly not wholly aligned with the smaller members. The article quotes Yelp senior vice president of public policy Luther Lowe, using a colloquial acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon and stating, “This org could’ve saved itself years ago by kicking out everyone with a market cap greater than $500b (i.e. GAFA). I made this suggestion to the leadership a few years ago, but it was shot down, so we quit.”
Pause for schadenfreude. Go ahead. You’ve earned it.
In 2019, Netflix left the Internet Association and joined the Motion Picture Association—the same organization that lobbied for the anti-piracy bills and which was therefore cast as the leviathan that would “destroy the internet” and “end free speech” for the sake of a few more dollars for its movies, and all because the studios were “clinging to the dead model of copyright in creative works.” The Netflix switch was hardly a surprise for a company that was, in fact, a movie studio, but the point is that the foundation of IP protection for creative works endures while the underlying rationales for killing anti-piracy legislation in 2012 have not aged well.
Netflix, like any film producer, entertains millions of viewers while vague Silicon Valley’s vague allusions to speech rights and connecting people stammer in hearings on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers confidently announce that the free ride for internet platforms is over. Whether that means revision to liability standards like Section 230 or meaningful antitrust enforcement, etc. remains to be seen—especially while bipartisanship on these issues remains entangled in the kind of disinformation that metastasized on social media, and which is still endorsed by a consequential faction of the GOP.
While I am highly skeptical that legislation alone will help us restore the conduct necessary to maintain a healthy democracy, I do believe that there are policy-based solutions to particular harms like social media addiction in teens, nonconsensual pornography and harassment, predatory antitrust conduct, and, yes, rampant copyright infringement.
Such matters can and should be addressed through legislative action, and in that regard, the end of the Internet Association after just under a decade of operation should affirm at least two truths: first, that maintaining the laissez-faire approach to cyber policy was always folly; and second, that there is no “the internet” to defend against public policy. The internet is just a network of machines upon which every individual and every business, small and large, is mutually dependent. So, ciao, Internet Association. It’s been weird.