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Tuesday, June 19, 2012
by Tamlin H. Bason
Blog exclusive plus Bloomberg BNA full story:
U.S. Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.) received a good bit of flak for his statements about nerds during a two-day House Judiciary Committee markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act back in December. Watt wasn't criticized for calling internet experts nerds—indeed, that is apparently a term to refer to programmers and engineers. Rather, Watt was criticized for his steadfast insistence that while he was "not a nerd" and did not "understand a lot of technical stuff," he nevertheless doubted that the DNS provision of the bill would undermine the security of the internet.
To many opponents of the bill, Watt's statements came across as pridefully arrogant. One one hand, it is refreshing to hear a politician admit that he or she doesn't understand something. And to be sure, some of the technical concepts surrounding the Domain Name System Security Extensions specifications are difficult to grasp. However, what irked Silicon Valley was not that many of the lawmakers did not understand the implications of the DNS provision (though the lawyer in me grimaces at the thought of a court trying to determine the legislative intent behind a provision that lawmakers don't themselves understand), but that they were reluctant to do the legwork necessary to educate themselves.
During a markup session that saw every amendment introduced by the few anti-SOPA lawmakers fail (by a wide margin), and nearly every amendment introduced by a SOPA supporter pass, the majority continuously resisted calls to either tone down or further study the DNS blocking provision. Ultimately the issue did not get any traction until Rep. Jason E. Chaffetz (R-Utah) said that he would withdraw an amendment that would have delayed the implementation of the domain name system blocking language until after a study was performed to determine the impact of the provision, if the committee's chairman, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), would consider holding additional hearings on the matter. At that point the markup session was postponed, ultimately until after the holiday season, which gave Silicon Valley more time to marshal their strength in opposition to the bill. We all know the rest.
Not to pick on Watt, but his statements, and similar ones by his colleagues, fed directly into the narrative that was being pushed by SOPA opponents at the time: Here are a bunch of lawmakers who don't understand the internet but are all too eager to regulate it.
For what it's worth, I think that this is wildly unfair. Smith—along with Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) as well as the Protect IP Act's sponsor, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), and many, many more—knows a great deal about the internet. Still, it wasn't necessary for the narrative to actually be true so long as it appeared true. One would expect, then, that supporters of broad rogue website legislation would have learned that they best serve their interests when they speak as knowledgeable authorities.
Indeed, in recent months, in order to move the debate beyond a Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley dynamic, there have been a number of studies, both by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that detail how intellectual property creates jobs in all industries, and therefore infringement and piracy affect more than just those in Los Angeles and New York. (I wrote about one of those studies last month.) Meanwhile, proponents of a legislative overhaul have continued to point out how laughably easy it is for someone to simply go online, type in the name of a movie of song they want, and proceed to illegally download that item. Demonstrating these real world examples strikes me as an appropriate way to call attention to the need for additional remedies.
However, I was surprised last week when, during a panel discussion at the American Constitution Society's annual conference in Washington, D.C., Stephanie Moore, the Democrats' chief counsel to the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, made some statements that seemed to undermine what I had suspected was a pretty thorough understanding of the bill.
Most notably, Moore took issue with the deluge of citizen response that buried Congress during the SOPA debates. Not only did she criticize the breadth of the public response, but she also criticized the depth of the public's understanding of SOPA.
"Congress was criticized for not being tech savvy, but from a lot of the comments we got it became clear that the people who were calling us did not understand the bill any better than we did," Moore said.
Here was an aide to a lawmaker who in one breath both admitted that some members of Congress may not have entirely understood the bill, and also critiqued the public for not having a better understanding of a highly controversial, and sometimes technical, piece of legislation.
Moore, I suppose it should be noted, is an aide to Watt.
UPDATE: My full writeup on the panel discussion is now available.
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