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Joe Clements: When it comes to state politics, America’s largest technology companies are aloof and arrogant

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Last week’s passage of SB 604, or “Florida’s SOPA” or “SOPA Light” as some are calling the “anti-piracy” legislation pushed by the recording industry, embodies a truth about America’s massive tech industry.

When it comes to state politics, America’s largest technology companies are aloof and arrogant.  

The concept behind CS/SB 604 is so harmful to the Internet, public safety, and First Amendment rights that the recording industry abandoned federal-level efforts after losing a massive 2012 SOPA/PIPA battle in Congress.

Tech companies effectively defeated SOPA by asking their millions of users to contact their congressman or senator.  The grassroots pressure worked, and the tech industry assumed they could maintain a respectable presence in Washington and activate their ground game if things got hairy.

After the battle, everyone in the tech would gave themselves a high-five and return to Silicon Valley to “change the world” with apps for hooking up at bars, selling ads for apps that help you hook up at bars and, in the case of Elon Musk, to build an electric car and fly to space.

The recording industry, however, regrouped (likely in a cherry-paneled room in a Manhattan high rise) to evaluate strategy. With SOPA dead in Washington, the industry wisely decided on a SOPA dispersal to state capitals around the country.

The provincial governments of the flyover states would likely be unfamiliar with SOPA, and thereby be softer targets for “anti-piracy” measures. Further, the tech industries’ coastal bias would make them less likely to notice the widespread SOPA revival effort. With “SOPA light” implemented in a few states, courts would spend years untangling the issue — giving the recording industry more time to find a permanent solution.

The tech industry’s failure to account for the speed at which states pass laws resulted in most states having only barebones tech lobby presences. Google, for example, a $400 billion behemoth ostensibly doing business with every conscious human being in Florida, retains only one Florida lobbyist.

For the record, I make no criticism of Justin Sayfie. In fact, without Justin’s news takedown last week, no one would have realized that Sunshine State SOPA even existed. As a matter of corporate policy, however, I think Google should have a larger footprint in the world’s 20th largest economy than the local dog track. In contrast, at the federal level, Google spent $16.8 million lobbying the federal government in 2014, and moved into its new 55,000-square-foot offices on Capitol Hill.

Technology companies don’t like politics because they believe politics are the “old” way. Some may assume that elected officials’ ways of thinking are outdated, or that the political establishment is uninterested in the type of innovation that startups and tech giants thrive on. Taking time to build individual relationships with officials and regulators might be a foreign concept to companies that deal in relationships by the millions. A 24-month election cycle could be excruciatingly long to a company that might have found “overnight” success or whose valuation can change by billions of dollars in a day.

I would, however, argue that tech and politics have much in common. Relationships, whether one or one million, are of critical importance in both spaces and the tech industry should understand their intricate and delicate nature. Nurturing those relationships, even en masse, is how the tech industry builds massive empires and grows business in the online space. Similarly, nurturing relationships with elected officials is how tech companies could defend our collective interest in maintaining an open Internet, free of burdensome regulation.

If anyone in the Bay Area reads this transmission from our outpost before it’s too late, please help us muster the digital cavalry to get SB604 vetoed. The clock is running; the governor has only 13 days left to make a decision.

Also, if it’s not too much, a little Google Fiber would be nice as well.

Joe Clements is co-founder and CEO of Strategic Digital Services, a Tallahassee-based tech company.

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