One day last October, more than 100 congressional staffers crammed into a room on the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building to listen to four lawyers discuss smartphone and tablet patent litigation. The chief of staff for the House Judiciary Committee came a few minutes late and couldn’t get a seat. This is a typical scene these days at the periodic lunchtime lectures put on by the Congressional Internet Caucus, a bipartisan collection of 125 House and Senate members who are, in the words of their mission statement, “working to promote the promise and potential of the Internet.” Third on the list of the caucus’s goals: “Promoting the education of Members of Congress and their staff.”
Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that advises the caucus and arranges information sessions, says the number of members and staff looking for that education is “staggering.” In the early 2000s, he says, he’d be lucky if 40 people showed up at an event—and back then they served a hot lunch. In those days, the ability to speak knowledgeably about how the Web works wasn’t highly prized on Capitol Hill. Members who had no problem bluffing their way through answers about the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or the effects of marginal tax rates on worker productivity thought nothing of expressing befuddlement at the “series of tubes” that were coming to dominate U.S. culture and the economy. Until just a few years ago, Congress largely left decisions about regulating the Internet to a handful of committees responsible for science, commerce, and law, where a small number of members took the time to learn the difference between DNS and an IP address.