Stopping SOPA

UPDATE: Senator Mark Udall took a clear position opposing PIPA this weekend and Wikipedia is getting a lot of attention for its plan to “go black” on Wednesday in protest of PIPA and SOPA (along with a bunch of other sites, such as Reddit and Boing Boing.

I support sensible tools to limit internet piracy. While I think there is often much to gain by making your intellectual property as widely accessible as possible, I think people who create and own intellectual property – books, film, software code, technical innovations, and the like – deserve to have control over what happens to that property. As an author (my first book will be out next month) and the co-founder of a startup whose success will depend, in part, on building effective software, I believe I should have the right and ability to govern who else uses the intellectual property I create.

But it’s easy to craft anti-piracy tools that get it wrong, and two bills currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress fail miserably. Under the pretense of protecting intellectual property, and I say this as someone whose livelihood is now connected to the creation of intellectual property, both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) overreach in very destructive ways. A bunch of folks have written thorough, cogent explanations of what the bills would do and why they are so harmful to innovation, free speech, and the security of the internet.

The most ominous of their many problems is the way in which they basically enable anyone to force web sites to remove access to other web sites simply by claiming piracy. The structure of intellectual property law in the U.S. is a mess, heavily privileging those with resources over those without, independent of the actual merits of a particular infringement claim. But SOPA and PIPA would actually make it worse by undermining the ability of entrepreneurs to create and protect intellectual property.

Critics span the political spectrum, from the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to MoveOn.org, and they include technology giants like Google and Facebook, entrepreneurs (e.g., a letter signed by 200 prominent entrepreneurs), publishers (e.g., O’Reilly Media), and investors (e.g., Brad Feld and Fred Wilson) alike. Nonprofit folks like Beth Kanter have been stepping up as well.

In a sense, the fight is about the old media (primarily Hollywood studios and record labels) trying to protect their incumbent but dying business models. Steve Blank has an interesting take on the refusal (inability?) of old media giants to innovate.

Thankfully, the White House is now saying it opposes both bills as well and the tide seems to be turning.

And while this is an important fight in its own right, it’s also a tremendous example of a smart political strategy married to a terrific organizing effort.

To App Or Not To App

Photo by flickr user AxsDeny.
This is the question Fast Company and many others are posing more generally, but of course the question applies to nonprofits as well. Social Fish lays out a thoughtful argument against associations creating mobile apps (which I think might agree reasonably extend to other nonprofits as well): too many barriers to the app being used, popular app types don’t track to what associations can offer, and not enough members use apps at all.

Sensible arguments all the way around. SocialFish is joined by Holly Ross on the Frogloop blog and others in making the case that organizations should focus on developing mobile-friendly versions of their sites before thinking about apps. This, too, seems like sensible advice given growth in the PDA market. Although market penetration by smartphones is still small, it is growing quickly. (SocialFish also argues for focusing on social network optimization before building apps, as well.)

Mobile-friendly probably should be a priority over apps, and I think SocialFish’s take is sensible enough, but I also think that mobile apps offer sustained engagement opportunities that might just be worth the investment. For one thing, as Wired Magazine argued in their provocatively-titled headliner last year (“The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet!”): we are witnessing a real shift in how people access the web, away from conventional web browsers and toward mobile devices. An increasing proportion of mobile web-based activity simply bypasses the browser altogether. While making your site mobile-friendly (if not mobile-optimized) is almost certainly worthwhile, it only captures those people who are using mobile browsers in the first place. Companies like Urban Airship are doing really well (check out this Robert Scoble interview with their CEO, Scott Kveton) precisely because of this shift in how people interact with the Web. This argument is bolstered partly by the data on app-based financial transactions. As Kveton argues, the vast majority of mobile app-generated revenue results from ongoing transactions between a mobile phone customer and a specific app . . . users of that app continue to spend money on the app in order to access new value.

Well-designed apps also can offer high-value interactions that mobile phone users actually want. Obviously geolocation tools and gamification design elements are two (sometimes combined) approaches, but mobile apps can offer very engaging experiences and value that users don’t typically find through browsers. If you can build a really compelling app, maybe you should. Finally, apps also have a built-in mechanism for repeated interactions. Every time you publish an update or some other sort of push notification for your app, like Urban Airship does, everyone who’s got the app installed gets a fresh reminder about having it, and it gives you a chance to get them excited again about whatever value your app offers.

What you get with an app, as Fast Company suggests, is a self-contained experience, but it’s clear that without a real self-contained experience value proposition for potential users a mobile app strategy isn’t likely to do much for your organization. If you can offer high-value information, relevant deals, or a genuinely engaging experience through an app, on the other hand, it may be worth the effort. If you see mobile apps as an opportunity to deepen engagement, not just as a donation-making channel, I think they offer a lot of potential.

But all that said, most of this conversation about whether to app or not skips what I think is the more fundamental question: who is your audience, and how and why exactly do you want their engagement? MobileActive does a nice job of laying out some of the right questions to ask, but they all boil down to the same questions you should ask about any potential strategy: 1) who is your audience; 2) can you build an app in which they find value and through which can increase engagement; and 3) what are the costs of building and deploying an app compared to the benefits?