AUSTIN, Texas - The Internet is a way of life for billions of people but some in Washington still don't seem to get it, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs said on Saturday.
"If you don't understand the Internet, you don't have any place in government," he told an audience at the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin.
Given the impact of the Internet on daily life, Kovacs said, he is amazed when members of Congress express a desire to hire staffers who "understand" the Internet.
"It's not something you learn, or hire someone for. It has to be the way you live your life," he said.
Washington and the tech industry have increasingly clashed as the impact of Internet and other tech issues grows. Mozilla joined other Internet companies and organizations like Google and Wikipedia in protesting proposed anti-piracy legislation in January.
But Kovacs said through internal discussions Mozilla officials have decided to avoid wading into more political fights. "That's not our place," he said. Instead, Kovacs said Mozilla will focus more on "protecting the Web."
It is incorrect to say that Web companies drove the broad online protests that ultimately scuttled the anti-piracy bills, he argued. Web sites simply "lubricated" communications between citizens and their representatives, allowing the issue to be publicized beyond people involved in technology policy.
"We enabled 30 million people to take action," Kovacs said. "Thirty million people are not nerds. Thirty million people are citizens."
Tech activists and companies are flexing their newfound lobbying muscles at the conference, but members of several different panels on the anti-piracy debate said many issues complicate efforts to harness that power again.
Major websites took unprecedented actions during piracy protests but Tumblr vice president Andrew McLaughlin said he doesn't expect to see a wave of more politically active web companies. Instead, concerned techies should become involved as basic citizens, he said.
McLaughlin, a former White House adviser, said online piracy must be addressed, but lawmakers who want to crack down on piracy should understand the way the Internet works, rather than base their decisions on a "short-sighted desire to hijack" the Internet in favor of entertainment companies or manufacturers.
And it's not just politicians who need to be educated, said Andrew Rasiej, president of Personal Democracy Media, a website dedicated to Internet policy issues.
Many of the people who spoke out against the anti-piracy bills did so based on information from their friends, he said. "Many didn’t even read the bill," Rasiej said. "There will need to be a lot more education on all sides."