The Internet’s man in Washington
How Darrell Issa, a San Diego Republican, became Web advocates’ closest, and most perplexing, ally in Congress.
At the frenzied height of last winter’s unprecedented collective rebellion against the Stop Online Piracy Act it was easy to forget that there had once been a time when SOPA was both an obscure and obdurate little piece of legislation, a 78-page digital copyright bill that, both in and out of Washington, was considered inevitable, when it was considered at all.
The moment that seemed to change was on Dec. 15, 2011, the first day of the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of SOPA’s text. Representative Jason Chaffetz, exasperated by Congress’ slap-dash efforts to rewrite the rules governing the online world, said SOPA was like amateurs doing home surgery.
“We are basically going to reconfigure the Internet and how it is going to work,” said Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, “without bringing in the nerds, without bringing in the doctors.” There wasn’t a soul in that Rayburn House Office Building hearing room “that can tell you how this is going to work,” protested Chaffetz, with the possible exception of three people: Jared Polis, the young Colorado Democrat and co-founder of a digital greeting-card company, Silicon Valley Democrat Zoe Lofgren, “and, certainly, Darrell Issa.”
“‘Nerd’ is something I am proud to be,” the Republican from San Diego humble-bragged in response. “It just means I couldn’t dance and wasn’t terribly good looking.”
Issa (pronounced Ice-uh) had long been the rare technologist in the House of Representatives’ crop of lawyers from “small law firms,” as Issa has described his colleagues. Of the 39 members of the House Judiciary Committee, 31 were trained as attorneys. Issa was the bright white swatch of paint that reveals how off-white the walls have been all along.
Over the next several weeks of the SOPA quarrel, Issa led the charge against SOPA. He repeatedly cited the objections of the Internet’s architects, enumerated the damage the bill could do to the medium’s interlocking parts, and defined its existential threat to the vibrancy of the digital economy. He was, in short, a pain in the side of the House’s Republican leadership, which badly wanted to be able to get back to the time when it could just leave worries over the esoteric enforcement of copyright on the Internet to its Judiciary chairman, and SOPA’s sponsor in Congress, Texas’ Lamar Smith.
Ultimately, with a rejection of SOPA from the public eventually triggering a reaction from the White House, whatever support Smith’s bill had fell apart over the winter holidays. SOPA’s defeat gave new momentum to an “Internet Freedom” movement that had been at a low simmer since the battle over Net neutrality in the mid-to-late-2000s. For the first time in Washington, the primacy of the Internet’s survival was a legitimate political cause. People of otherwise vastly different political ideologies had come together to protect it. And their fiercest ally was Darrell Issa, a six-term congressman who has proven as ambitious, spirited, and complex as the movement itself.
In SOPA’s wake, if there was a Declaration of Internet Freedom that needed early endorsers, Issa was there to put his name to it. If there was an Internet Defense League to be launched, sign Darrell Issa up. If there was an “Internet Freedom” plank to be slipped into the 2012 Republican presidential platform, Darrell Issa was there to shepherd it. Issa emerged as someone those who cherish the Internet hadn’t yet found in Washington – a compatriot who not only understood the digitally networked realm, but one who had enough institutional might and political savvy to elevate its defense to the level of a national cause. Issa was ready to be the Internet advocates’ friend.
They’re beginning to wonder exactly what kind of friend they’ve gotten.
It’s easy to expect that the Internet’s savior would emerge from Silicon Valley or be a Democrat. By reputation and by fact, technologists from California tend to back Democrats; the county that contains most of Silicon Valley voted for Barack Obamaover Mitt Romney by a 42 percentage-point margin, and the president had a huge fundraising advantage among workers at companies like Google, Apple, and eBay. Even former eBay head Meg Whitman failed to get real traction from her industry in her 2010 campaign for governor as a Republican. Same went for the Senate campaign of Carly Fiorina, one-time CEO of Hewlett-Packard, considered Silicon Valley’s founding company.
Instead their man on the inside is Issa, a guy repping San Diego, not San Francisco.
When Issa is not leading hearings on the State Department’s response to the Benghazi assassinations, his days can be consumed by the technology beat. When I met him in his second-floor Capitol Hill suite for an interview in February, he was in the midst of this 30-hour stretch of events:
1.) He made the trip over to the Senate side to pick up a Champion of Internet Innovation Award, presented by a coalition of Web-hosting and other digital infrastructure companies. Issa used the moment to pitch the crowd on his wonky ongoing drive to change how the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on purchasing information technology.
2.) Issa popped down to the House floor to deliver an impassioned 70-second speech in support of a bipartisan plan to create a spin-off of the 30-year-old Congressional Art Competition that would focus, instead, on students in science, technology, engineering, and math.
3.) As part of the second-ever Startup Day on the Hill, Issa spent half an hour counseling a few dozen assembled entrepreneurs from companies like Etsy, Yelp, and PureDiscovery on effective stratagems for getting Congress’ attention, drawing from his work as the founder of the Vehicle Security Association back in his tech entrepreneur days.
4.) Issa sat down in his office suite for a brainstorming session with a visiting Newt Gingrich. “Newt,” said Issa later of the former Speaker of the House, “is a guy who has 10 ideas before he finishes breakfast. I like to have as many of those periodically as I can, and I consider him good for that. He’s not a tech guy per se, but he really kinda loves, ‘How do we communicate better?’”
As our interview began, Issa entered his office and headed into a small attached kitchen, fixing himself a cup of coffee in a mug that advertised the Viper car alarm. Many Senators and Representatives seem fairly desperate to come across as though they were born members of Congress, but Issa seems eager to remind visitors that before coming there he had a full, hands-on life as a builder of gadgets and a highly successful technology company. The Viper alarm was a compact bit of technology that helped to transform Issa from a working-class kid from Cleveland into, by most lists, Congress’ single wealthiest member.
His Rayburn Building office was something of a shrine to Viper and its affiliated products. Looming over the bullpen where his congressional staff handle constituents’ problems and legislative duties was a cartoonish Viper poster: “No One Dares Come Close.” At the front desk, his staff assistant’s pens were stuffed into a plastic Viper stadium cup. On the bookshelf in his inner office, along with a photo of a turtlenecked young Issa in conversation with Bill Gates and an audiobook copy of Atlas Shrugged, there was a boxed Viper remote car starter kit. On one colonial blue wall of his office were 16 of the 37 patents that Issa either holds or co-holds, references to which he frequently drops in conversation. The framed patents, with names like “Alarm Sensor Multiplexing,” were hung in what looks like the shape of a robot. His office says the arrangement is unintentional.
Issa, a raven-haired, 59-year-old who is stockier than he appears on C-SPAN, described how tech knowledge first came to him through his fingertips, getting his start by fixing radios and other small gadgets in high school. “It was (a) good for money and (b) not all that hard to figure out that most failures in old electronics were little breaks in what we now know as printed circuit boards.” He came to Washington with the ability to “speak engineering,” as Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, puts it, and an eagerness to fix what stands in the way of his fellow tech entrepreneurs as they go about hiring workers and protecting what they invent. “I came here thinking I was going to do patent reform and immigration reform,” said Issa, “and go home.”
But once he was sworn into Congress in 2001, Issa was tempted to bite off a bigger piece of public affairs. He got on the Foreign Affairs Committee to spend time on “world peace” and took a crack at the problem in the Middle East. Shapiro, who has known Issa for a quarter-century, says that when such shuttle diplomacy didn’t work, Issa “was very disappointed.”
“For the first several years in Congress, he stayed away from tech issues,” recalls Shapiro, “but I think he’s come home.”
“What I love about Darrell Issa is that no problem is too big,” says Shapiro, “and he doesn’t seem to need a lot of sleep.”
While Gary Shapiro might be an unalloyed fan of Darrell Issa, other Washington reviews of the congressman tend to be far more polarized; many involve frequent use of the word “but.” For example, “Darrell Issa is very smart, unafraid, and really rich,” praises one strongly Democratic congressional aide, “and that means that he doesn’t care about a lot of things in ways that other members of Congress worry about them,” including the tremendous deference they have historically shown to Hollywood’s schemes, like SOPA, for reining in the Internet. “But,” the aide adds, “his problem is that since he’s taken over Oversight and Government Reform he’s done a really bad job.”
Since being awarded with that gavel in 2010, Issa has swung it, sometimes wildly, at the Obama administration. That track record can cause cognitive dissonance outside Washington, where observers wrestle to reconcile the many Darrell Issas they seem to keep hearing about.
The Darrell Issa who resisted SOPA with such tireless verve is the same Darrell Issa who led Congress to last summer’s unprecedented contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder over the Fast and Furious gunwalking case. The Darrell Issa who has pledged to investigate the possibly overzealous prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old digital advocate who killed himself in January (Issa called Swartz a fellow “progressive activist”) is the same Darrell Issa who caused quite the national stir last February when he refused to let Georgetown’s Sandra Fluke testify on contraception. The hearing was titled, “Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”
To Michael McGeary, Issa’s been a staunch ally, admirably eager to build consensus with whomever’s willing to try. McGeary came up in Democratic campaigns before switching to the Silicon Valley startup life, and he’s now the co-founder of Engine Advocacy, a 15-month-old San Francisco-based lobbying group for tech entrepreneurs. “He’s built products. He holds patents,” says McGeary. “He understands innately our perspective before we even get there.”
Still, McGeary can channel what he suspects some of his friends and compatriots are thinking. “Wait, I’m working with the guy who brought you the California recall?” Yes, that, too, was Darrell Issa.
When Issa’s legislative director brought him a draft copy of the Stop Online Piracy Act on a Tuesday, just a single day before Chairman Smith planned to formally introduce it in the House, it was a rare quiet moment. “We actually had time to look through it,” said Issa. He had an immediate, overwhelming reaction to it. “Every part of the bill was awful,” he recalls. “It was an inherently bad piece of legislation.”
SOPA’s sins, said Issa, were myriad and wicked. To start, not only could it damage the Internet’s infrastructure, but it would put the burden of enforcement on online entrepreneurs — poison pills for both Issa and the tech industry elite. It would also give more work to trial attorneys, whom Issa disdains, and the Justice Department, whose power he’s loath to increase. Issa, working with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s office, whipped up an alternative: the OPEN Act. OPEN would, in brief, treat digital copyright violations from overseas as a trade issue and take a follow-the-money rather than a target-the-website approach.
But Issa would go beyond simply opposing SOPA or even offering a variation on its theme. Over a rushed weekend, his team cobbled together Project Madison, something like a Wikipedia for proposed legislation. Citizens could help edit a bill draft and get credit for their contributions. Madison, more than anything else, captured something in the air during the SOPA frenzy: It wasn’t just that SOPA was a lousy piece of legislation, it was that SOPA was a lousy piece of legislation that came out of a closed, rushed, industry-driven process that seemed willfully ignorant of what nearly anyone else thought. This was the networked 21st century, the Era of Collaboration – was this really how a bill still became a law?
Issa didn’t think it had to be. And so he provided, according to his office, the seed money for Project Madison. But House administrators balked at the unconventionality of the whole operation, and in June he spun it off into a nonprofit foundation run by a former staffer from a townhouse in Northeast Washington. “The government,” spat Issa at a recent event, “is too stodgy and stupid to do something like open gov in-house.”
The “open gov” movement has taken root in Washington in recent years and tends to focus on participatory democracy, on bringing people into the work of government. That’s Issa’s interest, too, but it’s steeled with an ultimate objective that tends to get lost in the kumbayas. An empowered citizen is the one best able to help “constrain our own government,” said Issa. To wit: At that Startup Day gathering, Issa joshingly distilled the people-powered success of the anti-SOPA movement as, “We managed to get [my colleagues in Congress] to do nothing at all.”
It’s not that government has no role in the tech realm, said Issa in our interview. It’s that it’s the role of last resort, one to be avoided when technology is on its current arc: getting better and better. “Let something mature as much as you can, as long as every day, every quarter, every month, technology is speeding up and rolling out and improving your life,” Issa advises.
That circles back to the last decade’s debate over net neutrality, so formative that it might well be the Internet Freedom movement’s Battle of Lexington. “Neutrality” advocates pushed for the Federal Communications Commission to make rules saying that Internet service providers shouldn’t be able to discriminate between sources of Internet traffic. But to Issa, “net neutrality is actually a classic example of where the FCC was simply doing a power grab.” In other words, Issa views this notion of leveling the online playing field in an entirely different way from most of his allies in the movement.
And that thinking separates Issa from those who think that now that Washington has discovered the networked world exists, they should make laws to help it along. “He’s an ‘Internet champion,’” grumbles one Internet activist about Issa, “whose position is, ‘No bills.’”
Actually, Issa’s got a bill on that. This past November, Issa went onto Reddit for an “I Am A” forum. He wanted to gauge feedback on his Internet American Moratorium Act (note the acronym). It was a two-year time-out to keep Congress from “messing with the Internet” that prompted some 2,500 comments. Issa was savaged for supposed offenses of varying degrees of absurdity: the debatable notion that, on Internet policy, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing; the plausible idea that the IAMA bill amounted to a backdoor circumvention of neutrality laws; the rather out-there suggestion that Issa was really lulling the public into passivity so he could push through something even more aggressive than SOPA.
But what got Issa hammered hardest was his inarguable and vocal backing of CISPA, a cybersecurity bill meant to grease the sharing of online data by Internet companies, said by critics to “turn the websites we love into legally immune government spies.” (The Internet Defense League even eventually unleashed one of its “cat signals” to warn against it.) So, the Redditors pressed, why exactly did Issa support it?
As on other topics, the arguments that Issa has made in favor of CISPA can be, while full of details, meandering and self-contradicting. The Internet, he tried to explain in our interview, is too central to modern life not to protect from the sort of takedowns, viruses, and snooping practiced by cyber saboteurs. Thus it’s OK to ask companies to hand over data that can help address threats. “Crime reporting,” said Issa, reaching for a comparison, “is a classic example of minimal invasiveness.”
Believing that demands a certain faith that government can be constrained from abusing the data with which it’s entrusted. But Issa quickly pointed to precisely where the executive branch has a track record of not being able to help itself. “We have to make sure that government doesn’t build up a database of information for other uses, and it inherently will,” says Issa. “Under the PATRIOT Act,” which Issa supported, “we gave all sorts of things the government could do, with certain kinds of requirements, and every time the Judiciary Committee reviews it they have flagrantly done what they wanted to do.”
Still, if CISPA (which has since passed the House, though the Obama White House has pledged to veto it) could be reasoned away, even more perplexing was a bill dropped into the House’s hopper by Issa and New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney — on the very day after Congressman Chaffetz bestowed upon Issa the “nerd” honorific. Called the Research Works Act, the stated point of the bill was to stop the spread of federal government policies that mandated free public access to scientific research.
Even at the time, it looked like a strange choice: Issa talks often about the idea that the free flow of knowledge is central to a free people, commiserating at Swartz’s memorial, “All he wanted was freedom of information.” And in other settings he’s gone far further. Swartz, remember, faced decades in prison for downloading millions of academic papers from MIT. “Had he been a journalist,” Issa has been reported as saying, “he would have been praised for it. It would have been like the Pentagon Papers.”
“We got misinformation,” said Issa when I asked him about the seeming discrepancy on the science bill. The publishing lobby, he said, led him to believe it was a technical fix that would actually expose more people to federally funded science. “In retrospect, that was poorly researched and as a result it was a mistake, and I would never drop a piece of language like that again.”
There’s an even more fundamental lesson in the way the Research Works Act played out, said Issa. Coming as it did in the middle of SOPA, his office’s supply of attention was unavoidably limited. The bill was, indeed, a confusingly written piece of legislative language. In retrospect, said Issa, he should have asked for help by posting a draft of the bill on Project Madison. “Then,” he said, “I would have had only one bad day of people telling me why this was not well thought out.”
Instead, he had five weeks of it. Issa and Maloney abandoned the bill when, after getting heat from a self-organized group of academics, the publishers publicly scampered away from it.
If Issa is more inclined than his colleagues to see ideas as raw fodder for constant collaboration, such practice is standard operating procedure in the tech world. That ceaseless churn isn’t always pleasant, said Issa, but from such tumult great innovations — and, heck, maybe good public policy — are born. “Reddit is a great medium because it’s filled with people who don’t trust government,” Issa said. “Some people say it’s brave to go there. No, it’s stupid not to go there. It’s stupid not to go to a place that’s going to give you the worst-case analysis.”
Amongst Issa’s appealing aspects is that he’s largely a happy warrior, in the mold of Ronald Reagan, whose “Hellcats of the Navy” poster hangs in his office foyer. In person he’s warm, quick to smile, and eager to chat. That opens doors and minds, but it only goes so far. Alexis Ohanian, the 30-year-old co-founder of Reddit and a Brooklyn-based Internet activist whose profile, too, surged with SOPA, said he doesn’t entirely know what to make of the sort of ally he has in Issa. Ohanian and Issa have emerged as perhaps the two most prominent players in the post-SOPA world, but their burgeoning alliance isn’t without its complications.
“We’ve had conversations where he’s been pretty chill about being pretty frank with me about stuff, where it’s so clear that we’re on totally opposite sides of issues,” Ohanian said, “but then for SOPA/PIPA stuff, it’s like, [he’s] got our back, and that’s so awesome.” If he and Issa are in league with one another, said Ohanian, it mirrors the broader pro-Internet coalition that has emerged in Washington. “I think enough of us agree,” said Ohanian, “that whether we’re worried about government ruining the Internet or big business ruining the Internet, we don’t want anyone to ruin it, and that’s been the common ground thus far.”
Ohanian stopped to consider for a moment the gap between him and Issa as he seeks to build a coalition. “There’s no good explanation for CISPA.”
Issa isn’t the fire-breathing culture-war combatant in the Gingrich mold that many technologists might be expected to find viscerally abhorrent. As my interview with him broke up, a staffer reminded the congressman of a meeting later that day of the Value Action Team, subset of the House GOP caucus focused on keeping lines open with socially conservative groups. “You can look them up,” he joked. “The other end of the Republican party.”
“I’m more of a libertarian,” said Issa in our interview, arguing that he has much in common with other technologists who might be coming only now to the realization that they want to minimize government involvement in their personal business or professional businesses. “Do I think we’re kindred spirits?” he asked. “Yeah.”
In the end, last winter’s great SOPA fight died when Majority Leader Eric Cantor assured Issa that the bill wouldn’t move ahead without total Republican unanimity, akin to saying that the Stop Online Piracy Act would come up for a vote when pigs flew over the Capitol dome. I asked Issa if his role leading the historic digital revolution that beat back SOPA meant that Cantor or others in the Republican leadership ring him up for guidance when the party faces other major questions on tech. “God,” said Issa, “I only wish it did.”
Time marches on, said Issa. “It’s amazing how, around here, your credibility has to be reinvented every quarter.”
PHOTOS: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) (R) speaks with aide during testimony to the House Rules Committee about a proposed vote to find U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts | Rep. Darrell Issa receiving the “Champion of Internet Innovation Award” from the Internet Infrastructure Coalition. Courtesy of Darrell Issa’s Flickr account. | Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (L),Republican candidate for governor of California, is joined by U.S.Congressman Darrell Issa at Schwarzenegger’s campaign headquarters in Santa Monica, California, September 26, 2003. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith | Anti-piracy legislation protesters gather to demonstrate against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) being considered by Congress, at City Hall in San Francisco, California January 18, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith | Rep. Darrell Issa and Google co-founder Larry Page. Photo courtesy of Issa’s Flickr page. | The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, (R-CA) speaks at the committee at Capitol Hill in Washington June 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana