President Barack Obama answering questions on Reddit on Wednesday. Did he come out in favor of the open Internet?
As you've all probably heard, President Obama took to Reddit, the Internet discussion site, to...have an Internet discussion! Which was in no way intended to upstage Paul Ryan's Really Big Speech at the Republican National Convention. Really. In no way.
As KPCC's Tony Pierce reported earlier at our Represent! blog, Obama's arrival at Reddit actually broke Reddit, for a few minutes at least.
What was truly rather Earth-shattering, however, was his answer to the first question he was asked, from "SharkGirl":
Q: We know how Republicans feel about protecting Internet Freedom. Is Internet Freedom an issue you'd push to add to the Democratic Party's 2012 platform?
Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody - from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle - and it will be reflected in the platform.
This question and the President's answer could indicate a major change in the ongoing battle — which has mostly cooled at the moment — over an "open Internet." Until recently, traditional copyright protections have have held sway over the online assault against them. (Here's a good video primer on the open Internet, from Union Square Ventures' Albert Wegner.)
But that dynamic is changing.
In January, legislation — SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate — that would have curtailed the Silicon Valley and the tech world's need to inhale and repurpose as much content as possible was defeated at the eleventh hour by a very aggressive campaign by Big Tech to prevent Big Content from asserting its control of who watches what, when, and where.
The lasting image from this period was the blackout of Wikipedia, undertaken by Wikipedia itself as a sign of protest.
Now the Republicans have actually written the open Internet into their platform at the GOP Convention. One of the leaders of this effort is California Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican who broke ranks back in January and sided with the tech community to beat back SOPA/PIPA. This was no small achievement, as the legislation was supported by Hollywood and Hollywood money and lobbied for by MPAA CEO Chris Dodd, a former Democratic Senator.
The Internet has in the past been seen as something that the left owns — those stodgy conservatives can't be down with the future — but ironically the open Internet push matches up nicely with the Libertarian/free-market ethos of the GOP, Version 2012. This is from Mashable:
The Republican stance mirrors the party’s views on other issues: They view the Internet as a space that thrives when unregulated, and believe in removing government regulations like net neutrality rules. Echoing conservative values, the party argues that the private sector can best regulate networks and protect users’ privacy.
“The Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more rapidly and extensively than any other technological advance in human history,” reads the “Protecting Internet Freedom” section of the platform. “Its independence is its power. The Internet offers a communications system uniquely free from government intervention.”
This GOP platform statement and the President's indirect reponse to it at Reddit mean that Washington is back in the debate. Silicon Valley has never let up, so spooked was it by how close the SOPA/PIPA legislation came to passing.
That leaves Hollywood as the remaining power center to weigh in. It's unlikely that the nation's entire entertainment capital is going to go along with the President's message. This is going to be tricky for Obama, who has made numerous trips to the West Coast to fundraise among Hollywood royalty as a way of dealing with the Wall Street money going over to the other side during this campaign.
It will be interesting to see how this debate shapes up over the next few months. As I've written, Hollywood and Silicon Valley have incompatible business models. Washington will be cast as the final authority. The Democrats don't want to surrender the Internet — but the Republicans, led by Issa on this front, would be happy, delighted even, to see a reversal, with Silicon Valley edging over to what four years ago many in techland might have considered the dark side.