Washington’s afraid of being SOPA’d, but thinks plural of “nerd” is “the tech industry”

Pols fear ‘SOPA backlash’” is a Politico column getting a lot of attention. It begins:

In the wake of the Internet blackout that led to the dramatic death of two controversial online piracy bills, a new warning has entered the Hill vernacular: “Don’t get SOPA’d.”

The good news is that the presence of the Internet community has been felt, and felt strongly enough that it’s become part of the ongoing DC political equation. As Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said, “The nerds are more powerful than anyone thought.”

The bad news is that Washington seems to equate the Internet community with “the tech industry”. The Politico column is replete with phrases like:

  • Tiptoeing around issues that could tick off tech heavyweights such as Google or Amazon.
  • The tech industry flexed its muscle.
  • Coming of political age for the tech industry.
  • Web companies rallied their user base.
  • Lawmakers try to line up tech industry support.

Larry Downes anticipated this miscalculation in Forbes a couple of weeks ago:

To imagine that the millions of Internet users who took to the virtual streets over the last few months were simply responding to the clarion call of technology companies misses the real point–dangerously so.

Rather, it was the users who urged and sometimes pressured technology companies to oppose the bills, not the other way around.  While the big companies eventually came on board, the push for them to do so came largely from activists using social networking and social news sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit, to build momentum and exert leverage, sometimes on the very companies whose tools they were using.

That is, far from being Pied Pipers, the tech companies found themselves in the role often attributed (probably erroneously) to Ghandi: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

The important between-the-lines message of the Politico column is that DC politicians have seen so many astroturf campaigns that they don’t recognize a true citizens movement when one explodes in their faces. The fact that this movement’s home was the Internet made it even easier for the I-don’t-understand-technology crowd to blame the technology industry. It’s Citizens United taken to its perversely illogical conclusion: To politicians and lobbyists, not only are corporations people, they’re the only people.