Are you a Digital Entrepreneur? Don’t Let Your Voice Get Drowned Out in D.C.
by Kate Tummarello, Executive Director, Engine
The Internet has democratized opportunity. You can grow an online audience and build a business around your recipes, or makeup tutorials, or crocheted plant hangers. But that’s the result of an intentional policy choice, and, if we’re not careful, that won’t always be the case.
In the past, success for someone running a business was having a local audience or customer base. If you were aiming bigger, you had to hope you’d get noticed by a national gatekeeper, like a record label or a publishing house.
But you no longer need a book deal, a cable TV show, or to be distributed in a brick and mortar store to reach an audience or a customer. Now, if you have a creative idea and an Internet connection, you can self-publish your ebook, launch a YouTube channel, or sell your art on RedBubble. The Internet allows you to reach people across the globe and share content, sell products and services, and bring together a community. The Internet has created a class of digital entrepreneurs — the people who are making a living online creating content, telling stories, providing resources, selling goods and services, etc. — and we’re launching a new project to tell their stories.
None of this is a happy accident. It’s thanks to a legal framework created back in the 1990s by a handful of very prescient members of Congress (yes, Congress, the same place where policymakers today are asking about “ending finsta” and wondering how Facebook makes money). That legal framework allows Internet companies to host user content without having to police what you post and look at every single photo, comment, video, etc., to make sure they won’t get sued.
Imagine if, every time you went to share something online, someone working at that Internet company had to first review everything you were saying or posting — for example, to make sure each post was true, that you were the first one to create it, and it wouldn’t offend someone else and get the company sued. An Internet company would have to hire enough employees to check the millions of pieces of user content that are created and shared every day — which no company can actually do.
Even if an Internet company could hire enough people to do that, it would almost certainly still get sued — and have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself — any time one deep-pocketed user didn’t like something another user said. If you’ve been on the Internet, you’ve probably seen a comment section go off the rails and can imagine how often aggrieved users would sue to have other users’ comments removed. And if Internet companies have to worry about being sued, there will be fewer platforms out there, and they’re going to, overall, take down more content, especially if it’s content being posted by users who don’t already have a large megaphone online.
Without that legal framework created in the 1990s, we’d have a very different Internet. It would be a step backwards, towards a world where it’s easier for larger, already-successful voices to continue growing online and harder for small and new voices to spread. That would put the power back in the hands of those that traditionally held it and favored voices that look like theirs: overwhelmingly white and male. And it would be a huge hit to digital entrepreneurs.
None of this is to say the Internet can’t be a healthier place and work better for more people. Those are conversations we can and should be having. And many of those conversations are happening online. But it is irresponsible to have those conversations without considering the very real impacts changes in policy will have on the thousands of digital entrepreneurs across the country.
Every Internet user and every digital entrepreneur in the U.S. has members of Congress representing them. Those members of Congress hear from all kinds of businesses constantly. But over the last few years, many members of Congress have been debating changing that crucial Internet legal framework from the 1990s, and none of them are hearing from digital entrepreneurs. That’s why we’re launching the Digital Entrepreneur Project, to tell the stories of the creators, sellers, and storytellers all over the country that should be front of mind if Congress wants to change the way the Internet works.
Sometimes, the Internet works so well that we take it for granted. If we’re not careful, policymakers will take for granted all of the opportunities the Internet has created and change the law in ways that make it difficult for new digital entrepreneurs to access opportunities.
So this year, when you’re doing your holiday shopping on Etsy, or listening to a podcast while you travel, or trying to learn a TikTok dance with your family, take a few minutes to appreciate — and support, when possible — your favorite digital entrepreneurs. And take a minute to appreciate the fact that all of this content can be created and shared in the first place.
Engine is a non-profit technology policy, research, and advocacy organization that bridges the gap between policymakers and startups. Engine works with government and a community of thousands of high-technology, growth-oriented startups across the nation to support the development of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis, and advocacy on local and national issues.