I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”
I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.
I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.
After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.” There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.
The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about. While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.
After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:
“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”
My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.
When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”
Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.
This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.
We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.
We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.