The Company That Generated 400,000 Calls To Congress About SOPA

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For those concerned about how to deal with Internet piracy, the holiday season has been a fractious one thanks to the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). Those for it include content producers like Comcast, Disney and Sony, which want to be able to shut down “rogue” movie, pharmaceutical, and knock-off goods websites; those opposed include Google, Mozilla, Yahoo and almost everyone in the Internet industry, who are concerned about the security and free speech implications of the bill, and about being on the hook to limit access to these sites.

Most of the supporters of the bill know their way around Washington; the politicians behind the bill have received four times as much campaign money from the entertainment industry as from the Internet industry, notes Maplight. The Internet industry is similarly outstripped when it comes to lobbying dollars. So instead, the Internet approach has been to try to rile up public opposition to the bill. Tumblr came up with the most innovative method — it put a link on its homepage to “stop the law that will censor the Internet.” Those who clicked could enter their phone number to get a recorded call from Tumblr CEO David Karp about the bill, and then be connected with their congressperson to voice their opposition. On the first day, this generated 87,000 calls. When other organizations joined in –expressing a desire to “melt Congress’s phone system” — the number of calls pouring into congressional offices reached 400,000. Mobile Commons is the company that made those hundreds of thousands easy-to-place calls possible.

Four years old and based in Brooklyn, Mobile Commons is the brainchild of CEO Jed Alpert, an entertainment lawyer whose clients once included Britney Spears. He built a system for her through which fans could get text messages and recorded horoscope readings from the star. While doing some political volunteering in 2004, he realized the system could also be used to connect voters with their senators. Now the company’s clients include those with political causes such as the AARP and Planned Parenthood, but also private companies such as Nike and Diageo which use it to run mobile advertising campaigns.

“Mobile messaging is the way people communicate. It’s the most effective way to get people to take action,” says Alpert. He says people’s text messages are a nearly spam-free environment, meaning that people actually read everything there, which has made it an attractive way for companies to try to start communicating with clients.

While the SOPA campaign was a one-off, connecting people with their congressional representatives for a single call, most of the campaigns Mobile Commons runs are ongoing ones, where customers opt-in to receiving messages from companies. (One of the SOPA opponents who used the Mobile Commons system, StopAmericanCensorship.org, notes that it may retain contact information for future campaigns.)

“Think of it as a conversation between the brand and the constituent,” says Alpert. Once customers start communicating this way, Mobile Commons starts building a database for the client, capturing as much information as possible about the person associated with the phone number — such as gender, age, location — for better targeting. The company’s internal list linking political representatives with zip codes is also in the database, and is what made the anti-SOPA campaign possible. (That campaign was probably the company’s biggest day in terms of number of calls placed in a 14-hour period.)

“It’s such an interesting juxtaposition of old media and new media and how they go about lobbying,” says Alpert. “MPAA has this traditional, old-school Washington presence, while Tumblr has no lobbying presence but a massive reach. They may not be Washington insiders, but they get their voice heard.”

In the lead up to the holidays, things are quieting down, though. The debate in the House Judiciary Committee over SOPA has been pushed to 2012.