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New Suits in Town
What image usually comes to mind when you think of corporate lobbying? I'll go out on a limb and guess that it includes the efforts of big oil, banks, telcos and media, companies. Well it seems that Google is determined to overthrow several traditional groups with its latest burst of spending.
Over the past year, Google has drastically increased its lobbying efforts. While much of the work goes toward greasing the wheels for its planned mergers, and influencing anti-trust hearings, it's surprising to see the influences behind their current hot project.
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The Protect IP Act
The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, also known by the much easier to say PROTECT IP Act (they really had to work to get that one), is currently centered in Google's sights. Funding is already flowing to political groups opposing the Senate bill, and Google's CEO Eric Schmidt has stated his opposition to it publicly.
For those of you that aren't aware of it yet, the Protect IP Act focuses on stopping the infringement of intellectual property. It would likely primarily target piracy. The controversial aspect of the bill seems to be its plan to force DNS blocking for sites that are dedicated to enabling copyright infringement. In short, even if you punch the address in directly, you won't be able to reach the site. Protect IP is a Senate bill, Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, is the House equivalent. It's also known as E-PARASITE (Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation). While it's easy to laugh at these elaborate names and acronyms, what you call something can really make a difference, as we discuss in a moment.
Another important, but widely overlooked, aspect of the bills is the forcing of search engines (like Google) to attempt to actively filter out infringers and block sites that are in violation. It would be a fairly big change to the current state of the Internet. So Google has a lot of skin in the game.
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Twisting Debates for Fun and Profit
The most basic rule of debate is framing. You want to frame an issue in such a way that it resonates with your target audience and brings them around to your side. One classic example was the change in rhetoric concerning the estate tax. Few people really care about a tax on large inheritances, but if you start calling it a “death tax” then people it would never have effected are suddenly screaming for it to be cut down.
Google's doing this with their Protect IP lobbying. Schmidt himself stated that they choose to “lobby based on ideas,” which means funneling money to organizations and institutions that support their position . The effect of this is quite noticeable. Regardless of your beliefs on the matter, note the framing for the arguments against the act. They're all focused around keeping the Internet free, maintaining freedom of speech, and ridiculously arguing that an anti-piracy bill in the US would be used as justification by oppressive regimes to be more oppressive than they already are.
That's not an exaggeration. Eric Schmidt argued that, "this bill would send a signal to Internet restricting countries that they can make similar demands and use similar tools—only for more sinister reasons." For those unfamiliar with logical fallacies, this is called a slippery slope argument. It's along the same lines as "if we allow gay marriage, people will soon be marrying their pets." See, I just used a slippery slope from Schmidt's comment to the more emotionally charged one. It's a pointless and intellectually dishonest argument to raise a reader's emotions. He's honestly saying that fighting piracy will somehow allow tyrants to justify political censorship. I'm surprised he didn't hurt himself making that big of a logical leap. Context matters. Using a hammer to pound in a nail is different than using a hammer to kill someone, but Schmidt wants hammer prohibition nonetheless.
This is a bill about preventing people from stealing content, specifically preventing websites from setting up to profit off of piracy and other infringement. It's just an aggressive means of shutting down some leeches that have existed in a bit of a gray area in the past.
Now, Google may genuinely believe in their stated reasons. They could be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists out of altruism. Or they could just be throwing up a smokescreen so that they can maintain the profitable status quo. Which do you think is more likely?
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Notice the power in framing of the issue. Frame it as around freedom and Google looks great. Point out that it's mainly about Google wanting to not have to bother with taking down pirated content and it's looks a little clearer.
Google is making a profit by pushing against this bill. If it's passed, they'll no longer be able to take a piece out of the fairly active market for pirated and stolen content. Their system in place at the moment is obviously inadequate, and they don't want to have to take an active monitoring role, or lose out on a number of sites and searches. They want to continue profiting without having to worry about the average Joe. The people hurt the most by piracy and content theft are the little guys that don't have vast legal teams to protect themselves. Google doesn't care about that.
This isn't really that out of place for Google. Framing themselves as altruistic while carrying out cold business plans is nothing new. They make their slogan “Don't Be Evil,” then show absolutely no concern for their users privacy. We already have a few articles on their information gathering techniques, which included things like signing every Gmail user up for a social network and recording data flowing over unencrypted wireless networks through their Street View vans.
At the end of the day, Google is a fairly cold company. They're not fighting this bill to keep the Internet free. They're fighting it because it will create a legal headache for them, and could potentially cut into their profits. They are shielding people that openly support piracy and copyright infringement, because it is convenient for them. And at the end of the day, they'll walk away from it looking like heroes.
It's a pretty good strategy, really.
- Cunningham, Lillian. Google's Eric Schmidt Expounds on His Senate Testimony. The Washington Post.
- Unless otherwise cited, all information based on author's own opinions
- Anderson, Nate. Google Chairman: Internet Blacklists Make Us More Like China. Ars Technica.
- Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Bjoertvedt
- Levine, Robert. Google's Spreading Tentacles of Influence. Bloomberg Businessweek.