Sen. Marco Rubio spent the weekend of January 15th, at home in Florida, assailed by worried constituents over his support for a pair of bills aimed at preventing online piracy.
His legislative aides had advised him to support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), persuaded by the intellectual property fears of important American corporations like Disney, a key Florida employer. Rubio himself shared their anger at the outright theft of movies and flouting of other copyrights, which is why he was one of the bill's Senate co-sponsors.
But constituents flooded his email inbox, his social feeds, and bent his ear in real life, and on January 18 websites from Google to Reddit blacked out portions of their sites to warn of unintended damage to the new medium. At 9:33 a.m that day Rubio withdrew his support of the bill in a message on his Facebook wall, warning of Congress "rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences." His change of heart sparked a stampede of lawmaker defections that scuttled the bill that very day, handing a victory to the new forces of the Internet over a powerful and well-funded lobby of of old media companies. (BuzzFeed was among the media companies opposing SOPA.)
Rubio tweets himself, but leaves Facebook to his staff. His 242-word message drew more 1,700 shares and nearly 5,000 likes on the social network.
Four months later, Rubio told BuzzFeed Wednesday that the episode reinforced his belief that government must be careful when regulating business — especially "one of the few creative sources that we have in our global economy."
But Rubio added that the death of the bills also represented a first on Capitol Hill, where the Internet is upending the balance of power.
"I thought it was also a watershed moment in terms of Washington lobbying in general, where you had kind of the old guard and the old school of the movie industry, the music industry, versus this new technology folks," he said. "You had guys that would swarm the capitol with lobbyists versus guys that swarmed the Capitol with Facebook posts and tweets. It just was not even a fair fight."
Rubio is carving a space out for himself as a champion of the Internet and is on the leading edge, along with Rep. Darrell Issa, of a new wave of Republican leadership on issues like Internet privacy and regulation. The conservative Republicans have emerged as surprising champions for an industry whose youth and cultural leanings has traditionally aligned it with Democrats, and which has emerged as a key support base for President Barack Obama, whose White House also helped kill the piracy legislation.
But Rubio shrugs off a partisan realignment, saying the shift is more about the rise of younger, more Internet-savvy, lawmakers.
"I've never really seen it as a partisan" issue, he said. "I've seen it as more of a generational one than a partisan one."
Beyond SOPA, Rubio says he has doubts about government's ability to regulate the Internet at all, with a Whac-A-Mole slate of issues.
"The greater point from a policymaker is that there is no way we can get government regulations that could ever keep pace with this [change]," Rubio said. "I mean, by the time that we write a rule or write a law and pass it, the industry has already created a new set of issues that this law no longer applies to. The bottom line: If government regulated the Internet, there would be no YouTube, Twitter, Facebook."
But if there is to be global cooperation on regulating the Internet, Rubio is adamant that the United States take a leading role, and expressed concerns over Russia and China backing the International Telecommunication Union. An international conference in Dubai later this year will discuss modifying the International Telecommunications Regulations, with Russia and China calling for an “international code of conduct” to regulate the Internet.
"The first red flag is that China and Russia and other beacons of freedom are trying to lead the effort on it," he said of plans to increase the powers of the United Nations body.
Rubio said it's in the national interest of the United States to help spread the Internet places like China and Cuba, floating what amounts to Internet Free China — a modern day Radio Free Europe, government-sponsored effort.
"Say if Cubans had access to the Internet there'd be no Castro regime," he said. If Cubans were able to communicate with each other in real time, if Cubans had access to Twitter and they could hear from each other — some of them could get access and communicate with the outside world — but they'd be actually able to talk to each other, that regime could not survive more than three or four months in my opinion — certainly not a year."
Rubio said the same principle that set him against SOPA also leads him to oppose efforts to enforce "net neutrality," regulations that would prevent cable companies and other providers from favoring some content over others. Rubio warned they will inhibit innovation in the backbone of the Internet, and compared the plans to cable television franchises in the 1980s, which granted companies regional monopolies.
"Now everyone is offering everything. Maybe there are parts of the country where there's not as much competition now, but certainly in Florida, we have Sprint, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, we have multiple carriers — at least 7 or 8 to choose from, maybe more."
Though Rubio is one of the growing number of lawmakers who tweet themselves, but he admits he's as mystified by Facebook comments as many, causing him to shy away from the platform personally — his staff monitor what his constituents are saying, he said, filtering out the helpful from the "one world government" crowd.
"Unfortunately with a lot of the Facebook posts, the comments…," he said shaking his head during an interview with BuzzFeed reporters and editors in New York. "The only thing I control personally is Twitter. I don't let anyone on my staff deal with it but me."
Rubio said he's most concerned about being "genuine" on Twitter, because if he let other people tweet for him, people would just tune him out. He laughed when asked his colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley's tweets, which often devolve into diatribes against the History Channel's eschewing history for reality TV.
"He tweets all the time, man. He's crazy about it," Rubio said. "If you've got something interesting to say, you should use it, you know, and I think he always does."
Rubio, 41, is on of a number of politicians seeking to cast themselves as avatars of the Internet age. As power — and wealth — shifts from the old entertainment barons of Hollywood to the start-ups of Silicon Valley, his focus on the new politics and policy of the Internet offers him access to new donors and support, and a fresh kind of national political identity.
And indeed, Rubio's own career is inseparable from the Internet — he won his 2010 race with the backing of the Tea Party, whose rise coincided with a Republican and libertarian embrace of social media.
"The phenomenon of the Tea Party, that's not a new sentiment," Rubio said. "How people feel about limited government and adherence to the Constitution, these are not new things. The difference was that 10-15 years ago you needed some large formal organization to coordinate people. Fifteen years ago, if like minded people decided we want to form an organization to do something about the size of government, you needed a Republican Party to organize it, to do phone banks, to bring you together.
"Today anybody can organize, if you have access to a laptop and the Internet and to a social media platform you can put people together, you can organize, you can start movements, you can start causes and you certainly see that play out around the world."