Madison is an innovative and creative city. Perhaps you have already heard this.
The University of Wisconsin and the city of Madison share a rare relationship, unique among college towns and the institutions that call them home. For the last decade or two, this has been the result of an enthusiastic pool of recent graduates who have entered the technology industry – either as creative contributors like the eastsiders behind Chad Vader or the industry innovators like Epic Systems, which started in Madison and currently owns a large corporate campus in Verona.
Because of this, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two pieces of federal legislation which would severely curtail the rights of Internet entrepreneurs and innovators, would affect Madison’s metropolitan area on a level similar to other hubs for the online industry like San Francisco, Seattle or New York.
Despite its small size, Madison is an area that depends heavily on the Internet. In 2010, the community became heavily invested in a bid to bring Google’s ultra-high speed service, Google Fiber, to town. UW itself is already a significant source of online traffic that caters to professors and researchers who regularly publish and share their work with students, using the Internet as their primary educational and entertainment tool.
The technology industry might be crucial for the economy of Wisconsin’s second-largest city, but our congressional delegation has been reluctant to heavily contribute to the debate about SOPA and PIPA. It took until Wednesday’s online “blackout,” in which The Badger Herald participated, for Madison’s own Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin to release a statement announcing she would not support the legislation.
Last Tuesday, Baldwin’s press representative said she had “some reservations” about the legislation. Baldwin still was staying unusually quiet about the issue.
Baldwin has rightfully earned her title as one of the most effective progressive voices in the House of Representatives. However, her reluctance to be one of the major progressive voices to come out early against SOPA and PIPA exposes several important aspects of her position in Congress, her campaign for Senate and the disappointing representation of Congress’ Democratic caucus.
Ever since her first Congressional victory in the 1990s, Baldwin has essentially been a shoo-in to win Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District. Still, she needs donations to keep her biannual campaigns afloat, and she predictably receives large donations from trade unions and equal rights advocacy groups.
A brief scan of the history of donations to Baldwin’s campaign committee might explain her reluctance to oppose SOPA immediately. In 2010, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association donated $10,000 to Baldwin’s campaign, tying it with three other unions as the top donor to the Baldwin campaign. Unsurprisingly, the NCTA is one of the many organizations affiliated with the entertainment industry that supports SOPA.
It’s refreshing to see Baldwin actually break from the disturbing trend of Democrats voting on the sides of organizations that help bankroll their campaigns. But with that refreshment comes a more bitter aftertaste: Baldwin did not join the anti-SOPA movement in Congress early enough to align with her progressive allies like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a fellow Democrat, or conservative libertarians like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Although both bills are now entering their death-rattle phase, both senators have said they plan to filibuster PIPA when it reaches the Senate floor this week, and many libertarians and progressives in the House realized the dangerous consequences of SOPA long before the blackout was even planned.
This issue could have consequences for Baldwin’s campaign to replace Sen. Herb Kohl this year. Kohl actually co-sponsors PIPA. Baldwin’s likely Republican opponent in the race, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, said he opposes SOPA and PIPA.
“This bill is a broad overreach by the government to address some valid concerns, but it also raises issues of regulation and censorship that cannot be supported,” Thompson’s spokesperson Darrin Schmitz said in an email.
Baldwin’s response to the blackout last week was equally heavy-handed but contained one nugget that suggested SOPA’s supporters did not support censoring online content.
“I do not believe that it is the intent of supporters of this legislation to promote Internet censorship,” Baldwin said in a statement. “However, the bill as written will have a chilling effect on Internet expression.”
Perhaps Baldwin was just being nice to her colleagues in Congress. But if SOPA and PIPA’s supporters do not endorse Internet censorship, they would have rescinded their support for the legislation, as many Republicans and Democrats already have. Baldwin’s response wrongly defends SOPA’s supporters as advocates for an open Internet when those who have followed the bill’s history know that it always has been a poorly-written piece of legislation that was composed by Luddites.
For this reason, Baldwin should begin to worry about censorship and Internet piracy becoming an important issue in her race against a Republican rival later this year. Although she should be applauded for ultimately opposing SOPA, her affiliation-by-default with Kohl and her financial connections to entertainment lobbyists could become an important distinction against a moderate Republican or libertarian like Tommy Thompson.
Young people who are highly concerned for the future of the Internet and censorship will be watching this Senate race closely. As Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy has proven, many youth voters are not afraid to jump Democratic ship for a libertarian candidate who advocates for a free Internet. Baldwin’s late announcement of her opposition to SOPA may have been a costly political mistake.
Ryan Rainey ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism and Latin American studies.