Silicon Valley Needs a Foreign Policy

Big Tech Firms Have a Global Role to Play

A screengrab of the Google Doodle on France's election day last May.

As California's high-tech firms grew to become economic powerhouses in the American economy, they punched below their weight politically. For the most part, they are not very savvy about the ways of Washington -- they came late to the lobbying game -- and their political strategies were naïve compared with those of old industrial sectors like oil and automobiles.

That seems to be changing. In January, a group of high-tech heavyweights, including Google and Wikipedia, along with less prominent combatants (155,000 Web sites in all) and nonprofits such as Fight for the Future, joined in a massive online blackout to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Since the bill's introduction in May 2011, a wide mix of representatives from the film, television, music, and publishing industries had been championing SOPA and its sibling, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), two pieces of legislation designed to address international theft of copyrighted U.S. intellectual property.

But then something remarkable happened: After Wikipedia and others went dark in protest, petitions circulated, and Silicon Valley CEOs had their say, the other side blinked. Support on Capitol Hill evaporated, and SOPA's lead congressional sponsor, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), pulled the bill from the floor.

SOPA's defeat has been held up as a triumph for Internet freedom. But in combination with a few earlier examples, including Google's 2010 courageous but lonely stance against the People's Republic of China, it represents something more transformational. January's legislative battle marked the first time the major U.S. tech firms and their friends and followers came together and leveraged their political might like the globalized, information-age colossus that they have been for a long time. 

Over the last 30 years, even as the United States transformed from a manufacturing economy into a service economy and the economic epicenter of innovation and progress shifted decisively toward high-tech frontiers such as Boston and North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle, the technology industry's political engagement remained

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