September 25, 2012

Internet Freedom Fighters: Amazon, Facebook, Rackspace and 54 More to Lobby Gov’t

Robert Gelber

This week, not one but two groups of IT heavyweights launched with plans to expand the scope of the Internet while protecting the free flow of ideas it provides.

First up is the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition), which began as a protest to the highly-controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). The group matured into a formal organization whose aim was to give infrastructure providers a public policy vote. i2 already has a healthy initial participation of 42 founding members, including Rackspace, Softlayer, ProfitBricks and Tucows.

Christian Dawson, chief operating officer at member company ServInt and i2 board chair, discusses the impetus for the group, highlighting the importance of an open Internet, in this short introductory video:

Dawson gives a further accounting of the group’s raison d’etre in his love letter to the Internet:

“One fascinating quality of the Internet is that it’s decentralized. It is not one *thing*. Nobody owns it. Moreover, for how many people use it, whose lives are intimately linked to it, few understand, what it is, how it works, or even who builds it.

“We in the Internet Infrastructure industry know how the Internet works because we are the ones building it every day. So it makes sense for us to come together to fight for it.”

Not only do these companies understand how the Internet works, they operate an industry that generates billions of dollars. In an official statement, i2 referred to a Tier1 Research study, which estimated that Internet infrastructures created $46 billion in direct and indirect revenue back in 2010.

Wasting no time, the i2 Coalition has already identified 13 areas that fall within the scope of its public policy mission. The group’s first priority is to promote a growing Internet infrastructure while keeping the interests of its members intact. Other areas include leaving political partisanship at the door, enabling individuals to exercise freedom of speech and protecting their privacy.

On the whole, the organization appears to be primarily focused on end user protections and the continued success of infrastructure providers. But some of these policies may butt against the actions of non-member organizations, like say Google. While Google will certainly benefit from the public advocacy for further infrastructure development, it has landed itself in hot water for capturing data without user permission. Earlier this month, the search company was fined $22.5 million by the FTC for bypassing security features in Apple’s Safari web browser to track the surfing activity of users.

While at first glance, non-participation from companies like Google and Facebook could suggest a lack of alignment with the coalition goals, it was soon made clear that these vendors had simply joined a different, albeit similar, group, announced two days later.

NEXT: Second Trade Group Launches

In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, a second organization also announced its formation last week as “the unified voice of the Internet economy in Washington.” This one, named the Internet Association, includes several high-profile companies that were curiously missing from the Internet Infrastructure Coalition, namely Google, Yahoo, Facebook, eBay and Amazon. The complete roster of 14 companies is led by President and CEO Michael Beckerman.

Like the i2 Coalition, the Internet Association’s mission is to represent “…the interests of America’s leading Internet companies and their global community of users.” It plans to accomplish these tasks by shaping public policy.

A short video, which incorporates clips from YouTube’s popular collection of human and animal antics, delivers a concise explanation of the association’s policy platform.

According to the association’s official launch announcement, its policy platform consists of three planks.

Protecting Internet Freedom

The Internet Association believes that the borderless nature of the World Wide Web has enabled innovations and entrepreneurship that would have otherwise been impossible to recreate. In their bid to protect the free flow of information across the Internet, the organization opposes government censorship and regulations that aim to inhibit free expression. This freedom can take the form of silly cat videos or the political activism enabled through social media.

Despite these stated goals, Google recently blocked access to an anti-Islamic movie, which sparked a number of deadly protests in Muslim countries. While the decision was most likely made to reduce the potential for further violence, it went against the grain of the alliance’s first policy plank.

Fostering Innovation and Economic Growth

Reiterating its focus on reducing regulatory constraints, the Internet Association believes that minimal barriers to building a Web-based business help foster a growing economy. This means that members of the association want governments, businesses and individuals to have their choice of Internet providers and platforms.

Empowering Users

As technologies that enable and leverage the Internet have evolved, end users have received increased flexibility with the services they access. For example, platform developer Techila built an Android application that allowed a user to spin up cloud compute resources through a mobile device.

Both associations believe the best way to continue empowering such innovations is to minimize any potential government interference, be it a mandates or regulations.

Membership in the two groups is not mutually exclusive, although currently Rackspace is the only player with dual-citizenship. Rackspace senior vice president and general counsel Alan Schoenbaum shared via email that his company’s “success is very much rooted in a free, safe Internet with no barriers to innovation.”

“We have joined both the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) and the Internet Association because we support an Internet that unleashes unprecedented entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation and we see value in influencing policies to fuel economic growth,” his message continued.

Ultimately, these fledgling trade organizations stand against any legislation that could reduce the speed limit on the information superhighway, and by extension threaten the public cloud market. While SOPA and PIPA provided the launch pad for action, there are multiple markets at stake, including cloud, mobile, search and social media. It will be interesting to see what type of power these groups wield against similar legislation that emerges down the road.

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