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What the Internet Association is Really About

It took 115,000 websites and more than 13 million Internet users to get Congress’ attention on January 18 and bring down the SOPA and PIPA Internet copyright bills. But now a new group is setting up shop in Washington to avoid such high-drama confrontations and shape politics with a more traditional method:

Lobbyist money.

The still somewhat secret Internet Association presents itself as “the unified voice of the Internet economy, representing the interests of America’s leading Internet companies and their global community of users,” but such flowery words are actually a common way to describe lobbying organizations. And that may be the problem.

The AFL-CIO, for instance, “is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of the working people of America.” The National Rifle Association’s mission is “to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and to promote safe, responsible, and competent use of firearms.” And the Motion Picture Association of America’s stated goal is “to advance the business and the art of filmmaking and its enjoyment around the world.”

Looking Under the Hood

These all sound like worthy, un-controversial goals, but depending on your political leanings, you may take issue with the actions these organizations take to safeguard what’s important to their members and their corporate donors. Very often these actions include trying to influence members of Congress and White House staffers about legislation – and funneling much-needed campaign donations their way.

Such ear-bending and glad-handing are no doubt big reasons why SOPA (HR. 3261), along with its counterpart bill in the Senate, PIPA (S. 968), were being fast-tracked in late 2011 in the first place. Both bills were intended to give private copyright holders more tools to pull down pirated copy from the Internet. That sounded good to many people, but the fine print revealed serious potential for over-reaching and lack of review. That’s why the Internet community fought back so hard.

Despite the failure of SOPA and PIPA, the original sponsors of the bill are still trying to tame copyright violations. In early July, a draft bill for an Intellectual Property Attaché Act (IPAA) was discussed within the Senate Judiciary Committee. That bill, which seems to be in a Congressional limbo since it hasn’t been formally introduced, would give members of the diplomatic corps more powers to enforce intellectual property violations on behalf of copyright holders around the world. These powers were also within SOPA and PIPA, but did not receive much attention at the time.

The Internet Lobbies Back

To fight these on-going efforts, companies like Google, Facebook, and eBay – all rumored to be founding members of the new Internet Association – can lobby individually. But even these large, powerful companies may find their influence relatively weak when acting individually.

Facebook, for example, had its lobbying team talk to House representatives about IPAA, as this quarterly disclosure report shows. But Facebook also discussed a lot of other issues with Congress, and despite its high public profile, remains just one company among many vying for the attention of Washington officials.

This is the logic behind an organization like the Internet Association: create one large lobbying group with a single, unified message – and a lot of money behind it.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Opponents of SOPA, IPAA, and similar legislation are probably welcoming the Internet Association. But they should be careful what they wish for…

Despite the Internet Association’s lofty mission statement, only one part is really relevant: “representing the interests of America’s leading Internet companies.”

At best, all that other stuff about their global community of users is just what companies like Facebook, Google and the rest believe is best for their users. At worst, it’s a rhetorical smokescreen intended to add popular legitimacy to the companies’ business goals.

Recalling problems Google has had with privacy alone should warn Web users against getting too excited about big Internet companies making more concerted political efforts in Washington.

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