Ignoring It Won't Make It Go Away

Michael Arrington argues, over at TechCrunch, that the startup community should ignore the current administration’s entreaties for feedback on tech policy, and instead shoo policy makers away and hope for this best. This advice is naive, misguided and short-sighted and if followed, will yield less opportunity and potential for startups in the future. If the tech industry’s innovators ignore government policy, it will instead be decided entirely by those who are uninformed about policy, in cahoots with the monied forces of legacy technology and media companies. Insulting government and dismissing it won’t make it go away, and ignores the potential it provides for supporting new opportunities.

The Ostrich Technique

Adobe ignored the fact that Apple could regulate the app store market, and ended up wasting tons of time creating a new release of Flash that would generate iOS apps that Apple would never approve. TweetUp ignored the fact that Twitter could regulate the Twitter application market, and ended up potentially wasting tons of time creating a service that might not be able to build an advertising product that Twitter would approve.

And today, Michael Arrington suggested that startups ignore the fact that the U.S. Government can regulate the entire technology market, putting them at risk of wasting tons of time creating products or services that might be unintentionally or intentionally impacted by policy changes. Worse, he’s shortsightedly advocating that there not be a dialogue between startups and policy makers, which might lead to startups missing the potential for building billlion-dollar businesses on open government platforms. Startups from Garmin to Foursquare rely on government GPS data, the Weather Channel turned government weather data into a billion dollar business, and I’m pretty sure health data is next. But not if everybody in Silicon Valley puts their fingers in their ears and says “la la la la la I can’t hear you!”

There is no “The Government”

Look, I get it. Tech geeks in San Francisco always want to play more-libertarian-than-thou, and it leads to silly things like saying “the government” as if it’s a monolithic entity. That’s the same as talking about “the technology industry” as if somebody stringing ethernet cables in Tulsa is the same as Steve Jobs. Michael’s lead example of why the current administration shouldn’t engage with the tech community? Chris Dodd’s cluelessness about venture capital. You’d have be unaware of the distinction between the legislative and executive branch, convinced of the not-quite-proven concept that venture capital is an unmitigatedly positive force for innovation, and ignore the fact that the tech industry is successfully fighting against the legislation in order to make even the most tenuous case that this example has anything to do with the President’s agenda.

People in D.C. don’t look at the crappiness of the web browser on their Blackberries and make broad declarations that “the tech industry is clueless”, they say “This one product has a flaw. Let’s find a better one.” People in San Francisco need to be at least that thoughtful when looking eastward.

What’s my agenda? Well, obviously, I’m the director of Expert Labs, which has as its mission the goal of helping policy makers make better decisions by tapping in to the expertise of citizens, especially experts like the people who start new technology companies. But we are not part of the government — we’re an independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization specifically because we think that we can get people engaged in improving policy without having to work for government. Surely even the most diehard libertarian must want to support the idea that as citizens, we don’t have to work for government or be a lobbyist in order to positively influence policy.

Now, I don’t know Victoria Espinel, the intellectual property enforcer that Michael had such issue with. But I do know folks like Todd Park, who is part of this administration, as CTO of Health & Human Services, and the startup he built is making hundreds of millions of dollars more revenue than, say, the last half-dozen web startups that TechCrunch has covered.

But, most importantly, not liking government doesn’t mean it will go away. It just means that only big, slow, customer-hostile tech companies will be the ones influencing policy. In the 90s, Microsoft ignored the entire realm of policy, thinking their hyper-competitive market couldn’t possibly be of interest to regulators. Facebook’s making that same mistake about privacy right now, not realizing that their continuous missteps and shoddy communications are going to doom not just Facebook, but the entire social media industry, to onerous regulations if they don’t get their act together quick enough. And our ostensible voices of leadership are advocating “close your eyes and hope they go away” as a plan of action? It’s clearly time for leaders who are in tune with reality when it comes to regulation.

Inevitably, people will point to failures of government as “proof” that government can’t do anything right. These same people never point to corporate abuses as proof that corporations can’t do anything right. And they’ll use the fact that over 90 percent of venture-backed startups fail as a credential. I think all these systems and economies run the way that they do for a reason, and while I won’t claim to be the best educated person in the world about all of these topics, I am someone who’s worked at a venture-backed startup, started a few businesses, been involved in public policy discussions, and helped lead an effort to involve thousands of people from all walks of life in substantive policy discussions with policy makers in the White House. Talking about policy makers from a position of authority when you’ve failed to engage with them is even more egregious than simply judging a book by its cover; It’s judging all books by one shoddy book’s cover.

Quitting Is Not A Strategy

If you care about startups, get involved. Do you think the AT&Ts and Verizons, let alone the Halliburtons and BPs of the world, are going to just let the government leave startups alone? If you have a cool new music startup, and the RIAA sends 100 lobbyists to DC to crush you, and the current administration asks “What can we do to help you innovate?” and your answer is “STOP PISSING ON OUR FLOWERS YOU SOCIALISTS!”, how do you think it’s gonna play out?

Here’s a hint: It doesn’t end up with you sitting happily in a rose garden. AT&T is, (as detailed in the video below) funneling millions of dollars into fighting network neutrality, and the inventors and founders who could articulate why that’s a bad thing are in danger of forfeiting the game instead of even showing up and trying to play. Stop listening to the people who’ve already got millions of dollars in their pockets, who already have control over tons of startups, when they tell you not to talk to your government. And stop believing the myth that the innovation and opportunity of Silicon Valley happened because “government didn’t intervene”. Instead, what you had was a relatively smart set of regulations that formed a framework where some small number of people could get very rich. There’s no reason that system can’t be expanded and improved, unless the startup community decides that there’s no room left for any innovations in policy in the future.

Still not convinced? Please watch Susan Crawford articulate the challenge we all face, in her presentation on rethinking broadband from this year’s Personal Democracy Forum.