For years, I have worked on and thought about policies affecting both democracy and entrepreneurship. Network neutrality,which I worked on for years, promotes open speech platforms and certainty for innovators.
But the link between speech and entrepreneurship is sometimes more subtle. While most of my academic writings and much of my legal work has focused on First Amendment doctrine, people have often been surprised to know that I consistently study the conditions for innovation. There is a vast body of literature on the topic, and many nations, cities, and towns want their own “Silicon Valley.” People often talk about the need to foster homegrown start-up hubs or entrepreneurship ecosystems. During my summers at Stanford, I would meet at times with representatives from other countries touring the Valley, talking to investors, entrepreneurs, and lawyers about the Valley’s ecosystem, hoping to learn from it and replicate it. I have had the same meetings in DC, as have many others. And, when I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, I met folks in the midwest hoping to promote a culture and ecosystem for entrepreneurship in sleepy midwestern towns.
Creating another Silicon Valley is not easy, and perhaps an impossible task, depending on the yardstick. But there are ways to support a more, rather than a less, entrepreneurial ecosystem in a country or a city. While many factors are at play, some include basic legal protections that many of us in the US take for granted. These include impartial courts, contract law, property law, minimal corruption, civil liberties, and due process.
And freedom of speech.
Starting a business in a lawless land, or a land where the authorities can arbitrarily take your stuff and give it their cronies, is not a great proposition.
But, for less obvious reasons, a culture without free speech cannot support entrepreneurship. It might best support copying and following orders. But good ideas require networks of people to generate. They require discussion, debate, refinement. And that’s just to form the ideas. To execute the ideas, you need to be able to trust your neighbors, trust your partners, know that they cannot turn you over to authorities for your views, and that you will not be subject to guilt by association for their own personal views.
Intrinsically, entrepreneurship is about challenging old systems. It’s an act of defiance to some extent. And not every culture celebrates, or even tolerates, defiance.
These are just imprecise thoughts.
But reports of Joe Biden’s speech in Turkey sound like well-thought out foreign policy supporting these exact notions: you can’t have a Silicon Valley in your nation unless you have a Speaker’s Corner. You can’t have a Facebook without a free culture.
Biden’s speech sounds like a tour de force.
A free political climate is essential to economic innovation, and countries that try to censor the Internet are pursuing a “dead end,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told a group of young entrepreneurs gathered in Istanbul on Saturday.
He stressed the importance of a “free political climate in which ideas and innovation can flourish,” adding that governments should not try to close the Internet to free expression.
“Those countries will find that that approach is a dead end,” he said.
This concept should be more understood, and repeated often. When those abroad ask how to foster a Silicon Valley, advice should list basic legal and civil liberties protections near the top of the list. It’s good to see the Vice President come out so strongly with this message, and its one that others can add to.