Friday, December 16, 2011

99. The House Judiciary Hearing on SOPA was a Messy Show

[Article first published as House Judiciary Online Piracy Hearings Frightening on Blogcritics.]

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 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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