The US needs a Department of Nerds

During the recent House Judiciary Committee hearings, it seemed every other statement began with the following disclosure: “I’m not a nerd, but I think…” Through the course of the hearings, the word “nerd” was used quite often. Some were derisive. Others, respectful. However in all cases, it was an assertion of general ignorance about the matter at hand.

It has become painfully obvious that our US representatives fundamentally do not understand new technology. But who can blame them? The average age of the 112th Congress was 56.7 years at the start of the term. This demographic was middle-aged and well out of college before the inception of the personal computing era and the Internet. While many in Congress have adopted social media, nobody would expect them to understand the intricacies of IP addresses and DNS servers. Most millennials outside of the technology industry would be hard-pressed to describe these concepts.

So why then are our Congressmen seeking to enact legislation about something they do not understand? While it is certainly impossible for Congressmen to fully understand all the details of every bill they work on, it has always been their responsibility to interface with leaders of respective industries to make the best possible decision with limited information.

The problem is that technology as a whole is moving too quickly for legislators to understand the latest innovations to pass effective legislation. As technology has continued to improve, the knowledge gap between the engineer and the layman has increased. The field has become too specialized for “non-nerds” to understand well, nonetheless our representatives. Furthermore, technology is important to a number of industries, sometimes with conflicting interests. To make effective decisions in this regard would require a very comprehensive understanding of not just technology, but how it is applied in different industries.

The technology industry represents the most significant US innovation in the past few decades. It should be encouraged to grow as quickly as possible, but this growth cannot be unregulated. Nor should those who are unfamiliar with the field be the ones regulating it. 10 years from now, will our Congressmen understand enough about the complex algorithms and programs that operate Google’s self-driving car to make an informed decision about its safety and efficacy for use by the general public? Certainly not. However, this does not mean that this service should be unregulated. As technology is integrated more and more into everyday life, there will need to be people in government that do understand the intricacies of technology.

The US needs a Department of Nerds. Maybe more aptly named, a Department of Technology. This branch of the executive arm should regulate technology as a whole.  It should encourage sustained organic growth of the technology industry. It should help regulate computer security to prevent hackers from attacking America’s public facilities and crucial infrastructure. It should service other departments to improve efficiency of everything from agriculture to veterans’ affairs. Most importantly, it should be run by nerds. The appointed secretary should be someone who understands technological innovation and someone who champions its safe and effective utilization in America.

While the current Departments manage technology in their respective fields, there are significant inefficiencies that are incurred by this framework. While the Department of Defense has access to highly advanced computer security knowledge, a millennial hacker recently accessed water infrastructure management systems using just a three-character password. While certainly there should be some level of disparity between the two systems, it is clear that the latter industry could use a significant security upgrade. A centralized Department of Technology would allow for more effective distribution of technology to improve efficiency and security of all sectors.

In the future, the balanced implementation of technology will be the hallmark of all successful nations. Technological innovation and development will be necessary across all industries in the public and private sectors. A centralized authority that understands technology is necessary to regulate the introduction of new technologies to different industries. As the integration of technology into our day-to-day lives increases, the more important it will be that this technology is well understood and reviewed.

The present is being built by nerds, but regulated by laymen. The future must be regulated by nerds.

The True Intent of SOPA

The Great Firewall of China has been an inapt metaphor for the entirety of its existence. Its purpose is to keep its citizens in rather than to keep invaders out like the original Great Wall. Some will point to its exclusion of non-Chinese companies from the Chinese web space, but ultimately, the government was more than willing to play ball with those who were willing to compromise. The only thing the Great Firewall has in common with the Great Wall, is that they were both built to protect the builders.

Reasons Claimed by SOPA Proponents

The Great Firewall of America is no different. It is being built by the people who would benefit most from its construction. Just take a look at the witness list at the House hearing for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA or H.R. 3261). 5 of the 6 witness list are outspoken advocates for SOPA. Most notable is Michael O’Leary, Senior Executive Vice President of Global Policy and External Affairs for the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). During the course of the hearings, O’Leary made multiple fallacious claims that googling names of movies such as “J. Edgar” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” would return pirated versions of the movie. According to O’Leary, this link will show you lists of pirated versions of the movie. I’ll let you judge for yourself the veracity of his claim.

Many in support of the SOPA bill will claim that enforcement would be balanced and fair. They would claim that I am exaggerating the effects of the SOPA bill through hyperbole. During the course of the hearing, Michael O’Leary not only showed support for SOPA, but stated that “the Internet isn’t broken” in places like China and Iran. Wait. Isn’t China the home of some of the worst copyright infringement in the world? O’Leary’s statement must be made from either pure ignorance or to fallaciously support legislation that is not truly intended to protect against copyright infringement. When countries notorious for human rights abuse are held up as successful Internet models, it’s quite apparent that the Great Firewall of America is an apt name for the SOPA construct.

Let’s look at other potential motivations for SOPA. While the name of the bill certainly seems reasonable and desirable, how big of a problem is online piracy? The MPAA published this document about piracy in America. If you analyze their claim that there are $58 billion in losses per year from piracy and that 13% of all adults have pirated, you’ll find that the MPAA claims that your average downloader should be buying 200 more DVD’s a year. Lest we forget, the MPAA has a history of using hyperbole to defend its own interests. In his 1982 testimony, Jack Valenti, former President of the MPAA, stated the following to Congress,

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Clearly the effects of the VCR on the media industry was poorly understood and greatly exaggerated by the MPAA. Videotape sales ended up being a significant new revenue stream for the MPAA for many years, even spawning the spinoff media rental industry which still exists today.

Failure to Understand the Internet as as Medium

During the hearing, it became painfully obvious that the proponents of SOPA simply do not understand the Internet as a medium. Representative Ben Quayle expressed concern that there were no successful business models that could survive without SOPA to prevent piracy. Yet services like iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon now represent some of the largest services in media representing billions in revenue every year. Furthermore, there have even recently been disruptive business models like Spotify which have been able to assert themselves in the environment that SOPA proponents claim is not possible to exist in.

It is apparent that proponents of SOPA like the MPAA are simply failing to adapt their business model as technology evolves. In the 1980’s, the MPAA fought against the VCR claiming concerns over about copyright violations. In the 2010’s, the MPAA is fighting against the Internet as a medium. The difference is, this time the stakes are much higher. SOPA’s scope extends far beyond alleged piracy. It creates a web environment almost identical to that of China that restricts internet access, which has recently been declared a human right by the United Nations.

The True Intent of SOPA

If the most recent hearing was any indication, the proponents of SOPA are not interested in working with the technology and Internet industries to find solutions to stem online piracy. When has a fair and balanced discussion ever been held when the debate is stacked 5 to 1? Supporters of SOPA clearly do not understand the Internet as a medium and are constructing a system in which the deck is stacked in their favor. As many tech giants have pointed out, SOPA is devastating to the technology and Internet industries. How long will we suffer the claims that media giants cannot make enough money, even as they are increasing their own compensation?

The Stop Online Piracy Act is being constructed to allow a stranglehold on the American Internet. Make no mistake. Its constructors are building it with this intent in mind. Just like the Great Firewall of China, the Stop Online Piracy Act is a misnomer. Hidden behind an innocuous name, the bill’s intent is not to stem piracy as its proponents suggest, its true intent is to control the Internet itself.

US Bill Creating the Great Firewall of America

History of Chinese Internet Censorship

In the western world, China has long been infamous for its human rights abuses. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s re-opening of China to the west in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these abuses were largely hidden from the West. With the advent of globalization, the PRC quickly realized the dangers of the internet to China’s fragile societal balance. Beginning in 2005, China began enlisting Western aid in Chinese internet censorship. Western companies like Cisco and Google have long abetted the Chinese government in establishing the so-called Great Firewall of China.

As Western social media developed, the PRC quickly recognized the power of these sites and moved to restrict its citizen’s access to these web sites. While some of these actions may appear to be antitrust behavior to allow local Chinese companies a competitive edge, make no mistake that the primary reason for censorship is the ongoing restriction of information from Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, as the Chinese web has developed, Chinese ‘netizens’ actively find ways around the Great Firewall and discuss social issues around the world. Numerous free tools such as Freegate, Freenet, and Vtunnel provide solutions for Chinese netizens to access the internet in the free world. As Chinese netizens find ways around the firewall, China has continued to step up its policing of the Chinese web.

The Power of Social Media in China

Over the past few years, more and more of China’s human rights abuses have come to light through social media. Ai Weiwei’s recent incarceration and the PRC’s bullying of Ai through gigantic back tax charges has resulted in Ai Weiwei speaking out about his incarceration. Using Google+, Ai was able to communicate methods of donation to help fight back against the $2.4 million back taxes claimed by the Chinese government. According to Chinese law, in order to contest tax charges of this nature, half of the sum must be presented as  collateral. In an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of Chinese social media, Ai’s supporters around the world have already donated more than $1 million in 2 weeks.

Despite the outpouring of support from the West, Ai Weiwei is quick to criticize Western foreign policy.

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights… With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

Unfortunately, Ai is more than correct in his assessment. Unfortunately, Western politicians’ short-sightedness extends beyond Chinese foreign policy.

Internet Censorship in the United States

On October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill aims to quell loosely defined “online piracy.” I’d like to compare SOPA to the Chinese web landscape by discussing the two major things that SOPA would do if passed.

1. SOPA allows for suspension of service prior to being found guilty

SOPA does away with the “safe harbors” defined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These safe harbors allow some degree of protection for providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Google from liability for copyright infringement. SOPA would hold any site with user-generated content responsible. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., it was demonstrated that big media corporations have not considered fair use in the past when issuing takedown notices. In the SOPA world, the alleged rightsholder would be able to force former safe harbors to suspend service prior to being found guilty of infringing on rights. None of the sites that rely on user-generated content would be able to survive in this environment.

While China is not as concerned with IP laws as America is, there are obvious parallels here. The major Chinese Twitter-clone, Sina Weibo, is often forced to censor information without proof of guilt. This frequently involves blocking references to activists like Ai Weiwei who are trying to express free speech. The important point to note here is that in Ai’s case, he has not necessarily been proven to be guilty of anything prior to the repression of his speech. Similarly, whether or not the rightsholders’ property is being infringed upon, the alleged infringer would have to suspend services immediately.

2. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist web sites

Under Section 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General could order American companies from doing business with any alleged infringing web site. While proponents of SOPA have avoided using the term blacklist, make no mistake. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist websites.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head yet, they should be. This is exactly what China has done with the Great Firewall. We have seen many times in China and recently in the Arab Spring that the censorship of internet is a strong component of the suppression of human rights. Recently, the UN has declared internet access a human right. SOPA would be infringing on American human rights in order to protect big media companies from infringement on their content.

Ultimately, SOPA attempts to control the American web space in the same way that the PRC suppresses human rights in China in the name of intellectual property protection. Look, at the end of the day, online piracy is a serious problem. However, SOPA is not the way to deal with it. If the DMCA needs to be revised to adjust to today’s web, then so be it. Let’s be clear here. This is not a slippery slope argument. SOPA puts in provisions that allows the US to control the internet the same way that the PRC does in China.

To  help fight this bill,

Contact your Congressmen

AND

visit americancensorship.org and show support for American Censorship Day tomorrow, November 16, 2011.