Silicon Valley news blog TechCrunch just launched a beta version of CrunchGov, a policy information hub that will reflect the interests of the technology industry, specifically internet and consumer electronics companies. The mini-site was inspired in part by the coordinated online protest to the Stop Online Piracy Act at the beginning of the year, founding writer Greg Ferenstein said.
"First and foremost, this is a media experiment," he told The Verge. "We're not getting into advocacy, but we think the government process should be more interactive, and we're trying to be helpful. Ultimately we're a media company, and we represent our readers as constituents."
"We're a media company, and we represent our readers as constituents."
A news publication partnering with industry groups raises questions about journalistic independence. However, TechCrunch has always positioned itself as pro-Silicon Valley. (It’s a tough sort of love, though. The overarching bias hasn’t stopped its editors from running negative coverage about individual companies including Zynga, Facebook, and even Valley darling Square.)
TechCrunch caters to an affluent, male, tech-obsessed readership. "First read for VCs, startups, corporate execs, PR/press and tech enthusiasts," the company tells advertisers. TechCrunch made its name by cornering coverage of web and social media startups, and arguably remains the most influential media organization in that subset of the tech industry.
Ferenstein maintains the goal of CrunchGov is not to advocate for the tech industry. "We're not lobbying, we are not doing any back-door dealing, we're not doing anything on the policy side," he said. "We see the problem purely as an information gap, which we're trying to close."
CrunchGov aims to fill in that gap using data and guidance from four tech lobbies: Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.
CrunchGov uses data and guidance from four tech lobbies
TechCrunch writers and reporters will also be covering more legislative issues on the blog, Ferenstein said.
Silicon Valley internet companies, especially Google and Facebook, have ramped up their lobbying efforts recently. Silicon Valley was disengaged from national politics until the SOPA dustup, Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway told The Verge in an email. "After SOPA / PIPA, tech has ‘woken up’ and will stay awake forever now," he wrote. "Tech and civic engagement is increasing fast in [San Francisco]... and what better venue to have this discussion than TechCrunch."
The new CrunchGov mini-site includes a database of tech legislation drawn from the activities of the four lobbying organizations. The legislation database will be updated once the next three significant tech bills are introduced, and then will be updated for every bill thereafter.
The information in the database is pretty scant, which Ferenstein acknowledges, but TechCrunch plans to build it out. Right now, the database shows a few sentences on each bill along with its status in Congress, endorsements, links to relevant articles, a list of opponents, and the percentage of tech-friendly legislators supporting it, mostly sourced from third parties. In some cases, fields are still blank.
CrunchGov also includes a report card grading "Tech Threats" and "Tech Titans" in Congress, powered by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that uses technology to bring transparency to government. The grades are determined by TechCrunch staff with input from the dominant voices in the internet tech lobby.
In the future, TechCrunch plans to broaden its sources beyond the four tech lobbies, but for now "this is our best proxy," Ferenstein said. The legislators are ranked according to their positions on the three bills for which the four groups share the same position: SOPA; the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, which included a provision for equity-based crowdfunding; and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011. Net neutrality, for one example, was not factored in because there was no consensus among the interest groups.
Grades B through D were assigned based on public voting and sponsorship records. "Some policymakers go far beyond mere voting to champion or threaten innovation," TechCrunch says in its methodology. "In these instances, we worked with industry insiders to determine who were the most well known tech champions and threats, and gave ‘As’ and ‘Fs’ accordingly."
Sending feedback to Washington
The new mini-site also includes a public comment tool for draft bills called Project Madison, originally developed by Congressman Darrell Issa in order to draft a tech industry-friendly alternative to SOPA. Project Madison allows citizens and tech companies to comment on draft legislation line-by-line.
CrunchGov’s Project Madison page has been seeded with a piece of legislation that would allow government agencies to consider open source software with equal weight when deciding what technology is approved for official uses. The comments will be unmoderated, but Ferenstein believes there is a high enough barrier to entry that Project Madison will attract commensurately high quality responses.
CrunchGov is part of a new effort by TechCrunch to cover civic issues
Until now, TechCrunch has been somewhat siloed as an insidery trade publication preoccupied with the machinations of the Silicon Valley-centric startup and internet industry. CrunchGov is part of a new effort by TechCrunch to cover civic issues.
"You will see a lot more policy-related coverage and government coverage under the TechCrunch banner," Ferenstein said. "Tech affects the rest of the world, and the rest of the world affects tech. The idea that tech is somehow a separate field or a separate news channel is almost kind of silly."