Congressman Darrell Issa has been a redditor—the name given to users of the website Reddit.com—for approximately eight months.
In that time, the Republican from California and head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has used the site to defend the indefinitely delayed cyber-security bill CISPA, mock President Obama’s small-business experience with an image of Willy Wonka, and, on Tuesday, introduce an early draft of a bill that calls for a two-year moratorium on any and all Internet-related legislation, with a call for feedback.
“[I am A] Congressman Seeking Your Input on a Bill to Ban New Regulations or Burdens on the Internet for Two Years,” wrote Issa in the title of his post. “Together, we can make Washington take a break from messing w/ the Internet.”
The draft of “The Internet American Moratorium Act,” linked to from the post, was published in full on a website operated by the congressman’s office: keepthewebopen.com. The bill specifically calls for a moratorium on new laws, regulations, or rules that Congress—or the Obama administration, called out by name—might try to enact that would require individuals or corporations to change the way they interact with the Internet.
That means no more Stop Online Piracy Act (you know this one as SOPA). No more PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). And no more Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA).
To understand where Congressman Issa is coming from, and to know why he’s stepping out in front of a notoriously passionate crowd, one must have a fairly solid understanding of the trials and tribulations over Internet legislation to date. There are entire Wikipedia threads devoted to the saga. Issa’s name can be found throughout most of them.
But here’s what happened in a nutshell: lawmakers, time and time again, tried to introduce Internet-specific legislation that promised to give the government more power to fight online counterfeiters, copyright infringers, and/or hackers. All of them grew unpopular and were eventually tabled as experts each time rose up and found flaws with the legislation that might threaten the way the Internet works. There were protests. Internet shutdowns. Change in a near-perfect system, many felt, wasn’t good. The message, it seems, was received.
“After SOPA, PIPA, and other smaller brush fires in Internet policy over the last few years, if we learned nothing, we learned we can’t rush through policy without open debate and discussion,” an Issa spokesman explained to The Daily Beast when asked about the proposed legislation. He said they were hoping to include “good substantive input” from any and all stakeholders who might be impacted by such future legislative action.
They chose the right place.
Many of those stakeholders—the techies who earn their livelihoods on the Internet—can be found on Reddit, a popular Web forum that’s grown from a place geeks would hang out to a lively community that this past summer welcomed President Barack Obama for a preelection Q&A.
Redditors have been actively involved in debating the merits (or, more like it, the lack thereof) of legislation that might seek to control the Internet for the better part of the last two years. They are a left-leaning bunch, clever, kind, and outspoken. But if there’s one thing you should know about Reddit, it’s that its users relish any opportunity to give good, substantive input.
Plus, as an added bonus, they have a knack for democracy.
Every comment or post that a user posts on the site is subject to a vote. For any post to gain popularity, and therefore be seen by more users, it must get a significant number of so-called upvotes. It’s not a foreign concept. So when politicians bring their politik closer to the heart of Reddit, the website, and its administrators, couldn’t be more pleased.
“We want to support anything that encourages civic engagement,” Erik Martin, the site’s general manager, told The Daily Beast on a phone call from his company’s recently opened New York City offices. “We’re a site that has one and a half million votes every day, so anytime we have a chance to encourage redditors to get involved with the government, whether it’s the United States or international, that is something that we try to support.”
“This particular issue is one that people on Reddit—open Internet, freedom—is an issue a lot of redditors care about,” he adds. “I have no idea at all the intent of Issa in this case, but it happens to be a really great way to get a lot of people involved in the legislative process and their general civic engagement.”
He says the fact that people are poring over the details of the bill’s language is “a huge win,” and later said, “I think having people consuming all these sources of information, learning more about the details, learning more about the process” is something he’ll “take over partisan talking heads any day.”
Issa’s office was on the same page.
“I have no idea at all the intent of Issa in this case, but it happens to be a really great way to get a lot of people involved in the legislative process and their general civic engagement.”
“Reddit’s users tend to love personal freedom, technology, and open debate,” said the spokesperson for Rep. Issa, “and the congressman shares those values and enjoys the interaction that can take place.”
But one thing Issa doesn’t necessarily share with the community is ideology.
Reddit users tend to lean left. Overwhelmingly so. And if history is any indication, they don’t like lawmakers who mess with their Internet (to be fair, those assaults have come from both sides of the aisle). A quick spin through the top comments shows those the community have voted for the most.
“This sounds like a backdoor toward preventing net neutrality to me,” writes one user danny ray, who says he loves the idea of keeping the Internet free and open, “but for some reason I doubt that’s what this bill intended.”
“He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” says another.
“Hey Darrell, why did you vote for CISPA?” asks a third.
But the congressman isn’t one to shy from confrontation. At 10:30 a.m. Eastern standard time today, he’ll be answering questions from users in the free-for-all “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) format. It’s his second time at the rodeo; he answered that CISPA question in a separate thread earlier this fall (Short answer: “I thought long and hard before deciding that the benefits of CISPA outweigh the potential costs …They were not fully addressed in the legislation and need to be dealt with before anything becomes law.”)
“[Rep. Issa’s] been on Reddit before and the congressman knows that there a lot of redditors that disagree with him on a lot of different issues,” says Martin, the site’s general manager. “I don’t think it stops users on Reddit from hopefully engaging about this particular issue, whether they agree with his strategy, or his proposal, or not.”
“At least hopefully they are willing to engage,” he says. “And it seems like they are.”