For more than 10 years, as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of GoDaddy.com, I had the privilege of witnessing, firsthand, an amazing evolution of law and policy on the Internet. In 2001, when I accepted the position, the Internet was a virtual wild west of anything goes-style communicating. It’s hard to remember those lawless days now that we’ve evolved to a more structured environment. We have come a long way in the past decade.
That progress didn’t happen without significant leadership and effort from a handful of technology companies who took seriously the need for establishing a framework around which Internet policy could be developed. For their efforts, I and the Internet thank them.
Our contribution to that progress gained focus when I hired an experienced Washington operative, opened a D.C. office and began to travel to D.C., on average, one week per month to visit members of the Congressional committees and administrative agencies with whom we would work most closely. These trips were a whirlwind of activity. It was not uncommon to have more than a dozen meetings scheduled on a given day, as well as one or more breakfasts, at least one lunch and sometimes as many as three or four evening events. If it weren’t for Go Daddy’s extremely capable vice president of government relations, a dedicated outside lobbyist and a driver who was more like a babysitter (and who subsequently became a very good friend), there is no way I could have pulled off even one of these trips, let alone one per month. To say the trips were exhausting would be putting it mildly.
During one such trip, we stopped in to see Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI). He had just been visited by the mother of a young man who overdosed on prescription drugs he bought from an illegal online drug seller. The young man’s name was Ryan Haight and he was only 18 when he died. I can’t recall today what we went there to talk about. What I do remember is the remarkable set of events that unfolded as a result of that meeting. Rep. Stupak, still understandably upset from his visit with Ryan’s mother, was singularly focused on one thing that day: how to rid the Internet of illegal drug sellers like the one that sold Ryan the drugs that ultimately took his life.
Rep. Stupak said, “Christine, what are you guys going to do about this? We have to figure out a way to fix this problem.” Of course, my immediate thought was “what do you mean, ‘you guys?’” We were supposed to be responsible for the entire Internet?
But he was right. We did need a solution. Illegal drug sites ranked just below child endangerment at the top of my list of most egregious online activities and I wanted to fix that problem as much as he did. So we set out to do just that. It turns out that when you get in the middle of an issue that is partially controlled by the Drug Enforcement Administration and partially controlled by the Food and Drug Administration, it can create some difficult hurdles to overcome. The House Judiciary Committee counsel’s office worked miracles in moving the ball forward. No progress would have been made without their serious effort to keep everyone’s eye on the proverbial ball. To avoid describing how that sausage was made, and rest assured, it was messy, suffice it to say that the end result was the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act which is now being used by online service providers with great effectiveness in the fight against illegal online pharmacies.
There is a similar story to go along with each bit of legislation we supported or opposed. There was the conversation with then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) about child protection that evolved into the extremely effective PROTECT Our Children Act. There was the conversation with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) about fighting online child pornography that evolved into the related Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act. And, of course, there were many conversations about legislation that we couldn’t support because of its chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas online, or open access to the Internet, or innovation, or any number of other issues.
The point here is that if you’re going to make the effort to follow and influence policy, if you’re going to take trips to D.C. that completely wipe you out and if you’re going to spend your client’s money monitoring policy development and attempting to help shape it, you must do it in an efficient and effective manner. And, you can only do that if you know who the players are.
Keep track of the answers to at least the following questions:
- Who are your allies? Who wants the same things you do? Are they members of your constituency, your customers, your competitors, members of Congress? Who is on your side? Who can you rely on to assist with your goals? And why are they willing to help?
- Who are your enemies? Who wants the opposite of the things you do and why? What is their motivation? It could be the same list as the answer to number 1, depending on the specific policy issue.
- What are the hurdles that will be difficult to overcome? Are you waging a policy development process that pits two major departments of the federal government against each other (e.g., the DEA and the FDA)? Are there strong forces in the government (on the Hill, the Administration, federal agencies, etc.) in favor of or opposed to your position? Are they willing to spend money fighting about it?
The cold, hard truth is: Policy tends to evolve slowly. It can take years of relationship-building, meetings, hearings, mark-ups, amendments and compromises before you actually make measurable progress. Your bean counters may threaten to pull the plug on your policy development funding years before you have any proof that your approach is working. If you know that ahead of time, and explain your rationale for taking a measured approach, and in the process pick up a few wins along the way, it’s likely they will go along with your advice. But, do everyone a favor, including yourself, and be realistic about your allies and enemies before they become barriers to getting to your goal.