The secret behind the SOPA defeat

January 31, 2012: 11:21 AM ET

Was this a victory for the little guy? The fight shows that the Internet and tech industries have finally come into their own in Washington.

FORTUNE -- The recent defeats of SOPA and PIPA, two bills designed to clamp down on Internet piracy, have been widely hailed as a victory for popular, bottom-up democracy. To some degree this was true, but it's important not to overlook the effect of bareknuckled political action and lobbying by the tech industry. And it's important not to forget that the tech lobby deserves just as much scrutiny as do the various lobbies -- the movie and music industries, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others -- that supported the bills.

The tech lobby was in the right this time, but it won't always be. And though at least some of the companies that fought against SOPA and PIPA did so in part from a sincere desire for sound public policy, they mainly did it to protect their own business interests. Judging by some of the reactions to the bills' defeat, you'd almost forget that the fight was mainly between two groups of powerful, self-interested business interests. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, called the bills' demise "a serious grassroots victory for democracy."

Politico's Anna Palmer took things a step further, citing the legislation's defeat as evidence that "K Street's boom days have come and gone." That's a wild overstatement. Revenues are flat for lobbying firms. As Palmer herself reports, there are several reasons for that, including cyclical economic ones. Nevertheless, she writes:

Fights are no longer just about which side has the most — or best — lobbyists. The new world of Washington influence is more diverse: Traditional access lobbying is waged alongside campaigns that use media, grass-roots activism and the Internet — activity often not reported in federal lobbying filings.

But "grass-roots" campaigning -- online or off, real or Astroturf - has been part of lobbying for decades. It can work for issues like SOPA and PIPA, where a bill is easy to demonize (there wasn't anything to SOPA or PIPA that appealed to the average person). It's not so easy when it comes to complex issues like healthcare or energy policy, where there are lots of costs and benefits to be weighed against each other. And SOPA/PIPA weren't partisan bills -- they were supported, and hated, by people on both sides of the aisle. For that reason, it was easier to debate the measures on their merits, of which they had few.

Furthermore, political fights have never been "just" about which interests draw the most lobbying power. If that were the case, we might be paying $50 to withdraw $20 from ATMs and our coastlines might be riddled with oil platforms. The sausage of legislation is made up of many ingredients. Legislators make voting decisions for all kinds of different reasons:  the opinions of their constituents, internal cameral politics, sometimes even the merits of a given piece of legislation. The influence of lobbyists is outsized -- often to a dangerous degree -- but is rarely the only factor.

Lee Drutman of the Sunlight Foundation declares flatly that "the David and Goliath story" of SOPA/PIPA's defeat "is mostly a myth." He notes that while the Motion Picture Association of America -- the most conspicuous of the lobbying groups that supported the bills -- spent a total of $1.3 million (on all issues) in the first three quarters of last year, Google alone spent a total of $7.1 million on lobbying.

And according to the Center for Responsive Politics, at the end of last year the Internet industry had 246 lobbyists working on its behalf, while big media firms employed 241.

None of which is to dismiss the effect of popular anger over the bills. That, spurred in part by the Web blackouts that helped whip up the rage, was the proximate reason for the bills' defeat. But this fight also showed that the Internet and tech industries have finally come into their own in Washington. As issues like privacy and antitrust come up for debate over the next few years, the lobbying behavior of those industries will need close scrutiny. They won't always have the public interest at heart.

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