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House Judiciary Online Piracy Hearings Frightening

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Thursday was a, well let’s say, interesting day, for those who have any sort of stake in, or connection to technology, politics or the horrific relationship between the two. 

Over the past few weeks there have been a number of legislative efforts to stop piracy on the Internet, specifically, to protect the intellectual property and innovation of American developers and creators.  One of these bills, HR3261, is called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).   While it’s certainly a noble goal, the language and text in SOPA caused enough outrage and fear across the country (you can see the actual wording here) as to draw strong bipartisan criticism and concern.

The problem, well one of the problems, with the bill in its original state was that it was extremely broad and equally vague in its definitions of terms such as rogue websites and what exactly constitutes infringement. As it existed, sites like YouTube and Tumblr could become potential targets for legal action and blacklisting; as would any other site where the majority of content is user generated.  Theoretically, for example, if a blogger at Blogcritics.org were accused of having promoted infringement, other blogs, as part of the same domain, could go poof in the night just for being on the same domain, without proof, only suspicion.  That’s broad enough to be easily abused.  Other critics note that the bill is counterproductive, effectively putting a stranglehold on American innovators and startups by forcing compliance to be a design requirement for them.

As a result of the criticism, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), drafted a manager’s amendment to SOPA, with the goal of toning down the language and narrowing the broad definitions that were in the bill’s original draft.  The amendment also narrowed the targets of the bill to non-U.S. sites, and removed language that would put entire domains at risk if even one page appeared to be linked to infringement.   While some provisions were made in the manager’s amendment, a lot was left to still hash out.

So let’s get back to why Thursday was interesting.  The House Judiciary Committee met to discuss SOPA, specifically Chairman Smith’s manager’s amendment.  Thanks to our digital age, I was able to watch some of the hearing’s live stream on my phone, all the while hoping and praying that I would not be accused of infringement for occasionally allowing other people to hover around my 4” screen.  After the coverage that I myself was able to see, I came up with one very solid conclusion with which I’m sure many other viewers would agree: the people in this room have absolutely no business making this decision for the rest of us.

My first fear was that it felt like there was a mad rush to hammer this legislation out before 2011 ran out of days.  I simply don’t understand the rush, when the potential consequences of this bill are so far reaching for not only the United States, but the Internet itself.  Thankfully a few folks in the room, both Democrat and Republican, pointed out to the the committee that rushing the decision could potentially lead to big mistakes.  These included Rep. Sheila Jackson (D-TX) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who cited the America Invents Act, the result of an attempt to reform the patent system that started in 2005; proof, at least to Rep. Issa, that there hadn’t been appropriate levels of due diligence on SOPA.

But that was only half of a two part horror I experienced while watching the stream, with the second half more horrifying than the first.  Hours of representatives tripping over basic technology phrases such as IP address and DNS server were  more than just a little painful to hear, since the proposed actions can cause sweeping changes for technology.  Every third or fourth time someone spoke, their comments were preceded by what became almost cliché disclaimers, such as: “I’m not a nerd/I’m not a technical expert, but I’ve been told,” or “from what I understand.”  These are the people who are discussing whether or not additional regulations (and let’s face it, outright censorship) should be applied to the Internet.  Excellent.  If you can’t intelligently explain to me what an IP address is, or what DNSSEC does, then get your damn hands off our Internet.  It’s not that you don’t speak for us, just that on this topic (with the exception of Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO)), you simply don’t have the capacity.

So there’s what Thursday was all about: an argument about whether the blind leading the blind should run full speed into a brick wall.  There were a number of proposed amendments that limited the far-reaching scope of SOPA which were ultimately killed by the bill’s proponents who seemed to be interested in nothing more than going full speed ahead.  The whole thing seemed like a ceremonial meeting that had to happen on principle, and nothing more.  The only individuals in the room who seemed to be talking sensibly, logically and with technical expertise, were Reps. Polis, Issa, Chaffetz and Lofgren, who asked Rep. Smith to stop the hearing so that the committee could hear testimony from technical experts.  Smith refused at the time, but he did make time to hear from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a strong SOPA supporter).

The Electronic Frontier Foundation posted an open letter to Congress, from some of the minds who engineered the Internet (Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP among them), and who laid out all of their concerns about SOPA.  They didn’t have to preface the letter by apologizing for not being technical experts, because guess what, they are.  And I don’t know about you, but if I received a letter about the Internet in which the senders could legitimately use the phrase “When we designed the Internet the first time,” I’m pretty sure I would give it a listen.  These are the technical experts you didn’t consult, and their opinion is very clear: that this bill would do nothing to stop foreign piracy of American IP, but will hamper American innovation and assault law-abiding citizens’ rights to communicate openly and express themselves online.

Thankfully, it appears that the 11 hour session seemed to convince the committee that we need to explore this far more. As I write this, the SOPA vote has been delayed, hearings resuming at the “earliest practical day that Congress is in session.”  I hope for the sake of the Internet and American innovation that this allows the committee to hear technical experts testify and derail this bill.

I mean, I’m no expert on politics, but…

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About tushar nene

  • jamminsue

    Thank you for the update

  • Igor

    The last thing we should do is allow the internet to fall into the hands of commercial interests, but I fear that their lust for power and money will result in a takeover of one of the last vestiges of a great public service.

    If commercial interests were any good at producing a network then we would all be sitting at 3270-like terminals with 24 lines of 80 green characters. We’d be hooked to IBMs SNA through leased lines costing hundreds or thousands per month.

    Private interests had decades in which to produce a good network and the best they could come up with was DECnet, SNA and 3270s. ALL of the principles that made ARPAnet a success were anathema to private business.

    So, now that We The People have demonstrated the superiority of public systems augmented by informal homebrew technologies they want to steal it and turn it to their own dubious purposes.

    It’s thievery, plain and simple. The wealth intrinsic in the internet was created by free people designing and building a free system. And now what these crooks want to do is steal the wealth and enslave it’s creators and users in chains.

  • One of my many problems with our government (there are lots) is that most, by far, of the representatives and senators are lawyers. I don’t particularly like lawyers, and certainly don’t hold them in high regard with respect to other professionals. Being geeky myself (You can’t spell GEEK without EE) it pains me that these officials would try and regulate something they know so little about.

    The only thing scarier would be if they DO know what they are doing and it’s what Igor said.

  • Half and Half

    I’m a lawyer and a computer scientist. Being a lawyer has shown me a great deal about how and why the world works (or how it doesn’t and why it doesn’t) – but it has also left me with a deep contempt for politicians and businesspeople who know nothing about the technology, have no intent of ever learning how it works, and who nevertheless believe themselves git to make decisions on technology guided by little more than intuition and prayer.

    Every technical, academic, or social discipline that has contributed to human progress is worthy of respect and should be treated accordingly. Legislators can be excused for not knowing much about technology – knowing technology intimately is a career in itself – but I would not excuse them for making rules founded on ignorance and hearsay.

    That’s probably the part that galls me most. Many of these politicians ARE LAWYERS and should know better than to premise legislation on naught but HEARSAY.

  • Half and Half I agree – I can excuse lawmakers here for not having technical know-how; it’s just not their background. But the stock skill in any core profession (law, science, and technology) is knowing what you don’t know, and what the consequences of not asking for help.

  • Igor

    IMO, the lawyers and politicians don’t care. They’re just putting one foot in front of the other to do what they see as necessary for their own good. Don’t depend for one minute on them.

    The internet was developed by interested scientists and engineers, working after hours at their University (post grad) jobs, and some guys at government labs. That is why it works. The open architecture, even the TCP/IP protocol mentioned above, was developed by people who were interested in disseminating information and improving communications among RESEARCH centers, predominately publicly funded.

    When the network started to go online, Private labs were permitted online in a subsidiary role. They were specifically barred from decision making because their views (OFFICIAL views, that is, the views of their executives) were so antithetical to the goals of academics: openness and freedom. From the beginning they wanted security, restrictions, rigid supervision, etc. Rather like any of the SNA systems that were so horrible. They were aggressively against TCP/IP, sliding windows protocols, “red balls, green balls”, etc., all of which expressed the freedom of the academics and undermined the control mania of corporate executives. When the domain name system was introduced to supplement the 4 octets address, the TLD “.com” was introduced to put them off in a sandbox of their own, hoping that would keep them out of other peoples business. But now we find them trying to take over the whole thing.

  • 1/2 & 1/2,

    Nothing against you personally – and I would give you credit on the CS – which degree came first? My biggest beef is with the ambulance chasers and litigation whores you see on TV and billboards. I have to believe (just to sleep at night) that there ARE good lawyers out there.

    I wholeheartedly agree that people should use expert advice when available, or learn enough not to be dangerous. Even those in Congress that are from some other field need to keep this in mind.

  • Half and Half

    O.A.R. –

    CS first, law second. There are good lawyers and bad, true. Some lawyers make a living producing nothing of value, manipulating the system into generating expensive ’causes’ that they can turn into personal profit. They’re characterized very negatively, but they’ve earned that characterization.

    But as for SOPA, most of what I read (granted, even much of that is hearsay, so I’d be cautious about jumping to conspiracy theories) is that SOPA is backed primarily by big content owners (e.g. RIAA, MPAA), which is rational and logical. Those entities like what they have and have always been against any technology which enables sharing content, until they can buy it and run it. I’m not even talking about pirate sites, the internet generally, or things like Napster – I’m talking about much older things like VCRs, radio, and public libraries. They do have a history of fighting technology tooth and nail (historically speaking, a losing battle) because they probably like their revenue streams where they are, and would be rationally afraid of anything that might make a dent in it.

    What they have never been that good about understanding is that such technology, in sharing the content, also drives demand for it. You’re more likely to want to buy content and content-related merchandise if you know about it. Marketing dollars are an expenditure. So are free samples and the revenue you could have gotten if you sold them instead.

    You don’t have to be the MPAA or the RIAA to understand where they’re coming from – all things considered, most of us feel more comfortable when money is coming directly into your pocket, not when money lost in the name of goodwill or unlicensed notoriety could hypothetically increase the size of your audience. It’s just less concrete.

    But I have to wonder how much of this calculus they bother to do. Radio has been good for the music industry. TV and VCRs have been great for the movie industry. The ready availability enriches popular culture, the arts, and ultimately some of it does recycle into fresh consumer demand.

    While it’s scary and risky to give up control over the manner in which awareness turns into revenue, hey, that’s just tough. The rest of us live our lives with just as much uncertainty and just as much upheaval. Not every change in technology or social or labor norms is ‘convenient’ for all of us. We have to make do. We have to adapt.

    The difference between us, however, is the ability to spend money on political influence. While content owners (they own the IP, but they hired other people to make it for them, so often I wouldn’t call them inventors are artists – that’s giving many of them too much creative credit) deserve a voice at the table, however much you may or may not like them, the rest of us deserve a spot at the table too. We’re not a democracy – we’re a republic. But a republic operating on the purchase of political favors through economic inequality is a corrupted republic, and it’s as far from its philosophical promise as socialism or communism as an ideal is from its implementation in a human culture.