Monday, May 21, 2007

10 Signs That the US Needs Legislators That Understand Tech

There's a lot of technology legislation being created by people who really have very little understand of technology, or the ramifications of the bills and laws they are passing. New industries are being thwarted, consumers are getting shafted, and technological change is occurring at rate that is restricted by clinging to old business models.

Some of these legislators mean well, but they don't know enough. They are afraid of technology and don't understand what this rapid fire change means. These people tend to become unwilling shills of the record industry, movie industry, local businesses and their constituents. Their inability to play the technology chess game in their head makes them easy prey for businesses and coalitions with definitive stakes in certain market spaces.

Others of these people definitively know what they are doing. They are smart, tech-savvy and have a stake in some business or industry which would be effected by technological change - these people are dangerous. They are manipulating the ecosystem for their own benefit, and using fear of change and technology as a tool for that manipulation.

We all have our top 10 lists of idiocy in this area, and it changes (for me anyway) every day. So, without further ado, I present to you:

The RocketList of Idiocy in Technology Legislation

Number 10: States Implement Used CD Legislation

This falls squarely into the "all consumers are to be treated as criminals" camp. Florida and Utah (and potentially Wisconsin and Rhode Island) have enacted legislation which treats people trying to sell used CD or video games as pirates. These laws slipped quietly into the books without nary a ripple of a news story. Among the restrictions:

  • Florida requires all retailers sreselling used CDs to acquire a permit and invest in a $10,000 security bond through the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
  • A CD Store retailer must hold the used CD for 30 days before reselling
  • Stores must fingerprint individuals trading in CDs, copy their state identification, and pay them only in store credit.
  • Although video game retailers are not required to acquire a permit, they need to hold traded games for 15 days before they can be resold.
Clearly this legislation is aimed at making used CD shops behave like pawn shops. At least one retailer has closed its doors because of this action. I've heard a lot of apologists talk about this (cuts down on thieves stealing CDs and selling them for a quick buck, prevents people from counterfeiting CDs, etc.) - it's all nonsense.

Number 9: Amendment made Voting Machine Legislation Limiting Source Code Disclosure

In the original legislation written by Rush Holt's (D-NJ), the e-voting reform bill provided for a lot of changes to the original flawed e-voting laws -- one of the major changes was the introduction of the concept of allowing anyone to examine the source code that controls the voting machine - just by requesting it. Now, the bill has been amended so that source code can still be obtained, but only through a third party agency that can only show the code to government agencies, parties in dispute, or academics.

These types of restrictions are usually put in place by law makers who either don't understand the nature of open-source policies, or see an opportunity to obfuscate the facts by scaring voters with the idea of "open source." It is difficult to imagine what the rationale is for limiting access to the source code - piracy makes no sense, as does hacking - since the machines are not network connected.

What would you rather have, a voting machine company trying to protect its intellectual property, or an open voting process with transparency into the mechanisms that make it all function?

Number 8: Nascent Internet Radio Industry: Royalty Fees. Established Terrestrial Radio: Not So Much

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, as well as 100,000's of other blogs, the RIAA is out to screw over another nascent industry: internet, or streaming, radio. About every 2 years, the RIAA pops up and says "hey, lets make digital radio sources pay for the use of our material," even though it provides the same marketing vehicle for artists that terrestrial radio provides, and terrestrial radio pays nothing. (They play nothing, too, so maybe its fair.)

The argument, the RIAA claims, is that digital forms of music are so easy to pirate, that people - being natural theives, like monkeys - will scope our artists music up from these "internet radio stations" and stick 'em on iPods, and pass them around to their other friends!! Gak! We must protect our artists!!! ...nice argument, if it were true. And, of course, if the RIAA wasn't also trying to collect fees for artists that they don't even represent. Uh, yeah. Make sense to you? Me either - but it made sense to some folks on capitol hill as they considered yet another round of measures to get mom&pop internet radio stations to pay licensing fees per song per user retro-active to January 2006.

The original date to levee these fees was May 15, 2007. Then people got pissed - including NPR, actually - and the date was extended to July 15, 2007. And then, the Senate woke up - specifically Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sam Brownback (R-KS). (Bipartisan cooperation? The enemy of my enemy is my friend!) Introduced 2 weeks ago, the Wyden-Brownback amendment will change the fee to a much more reasonable 7.5% of total revenues (which is almost $0 for most internet stations), the same fee that satellite broadcasters Sirius and XM currently pay.

The education of the Senate by Wyden and Brownback is the reason this idiocy has fallen in my list from #1 to #8. Why did it not fall of the list completely? Because its still a real issue - and the RIAA, I am certain, is not done yet.

Number 7: The Digital Millennium Copyright Hack Act

Enacted in '98 with what, I am sure, was the best of intentions for protecting the rights of artists, production houses and consumers, the DMCA has become the most over-hyped, abused, misguided and easily exploited law the Clinton administration ever conjured into being.

So loosely defined as to be nearly useless, the DMCA has language that explicitly calls out something called "webcasters" to pay licensing fees to "record companies" (two phrases that should immediately raise the red flag in your brain that signals that someone with incomplete knowledge wrote this bill), and that service providers are "expected to remove material from users' web sites that appears to constitute copyright infringement."

This type of hip-slinging language has allowed:
  • ...agencies such as the RIAA to threaten grandmothers
  • ...Uri Geller to issue a take-down notice to YouTube for potentially demonstrating that he could very well be a fraud.
  • ...some bullshit company called "Media Rights Technology" to sue Microsoft, Apple, Real Networks and raft of other real companies (with lawyers, guns and money) because their DRM is not bulletproof. (All together now: hahahahahaha)
The DMCA is wasting all of our time and money, and doing the exact opposite of what it is trying to accomplish: protect artists and enable consumers. Back to the effing shop, people...this thing's not done.

Number 6: Playing the Fear of Terrorism Card - Barring that, Playing the Fear of Child Pornographers Card.

...or the Fear of Godlessness Card...or the Fear of Drunk Drivers Card...or whatever.

Look, let's face it - the majority of American's don't understand how technology works, why it works, what it is capable of, or who uses it for what purposes. All they know is that they want their kids safe, their vegetables fresh and their belief systems unchallenged. Unfortunately, those are the people electing our legislators, and they aren't much better off.

What a perfect opening to prey on the unknowing - so when the US Government wants to censor portions of Google Earth because it "reveals too much" about our military secrets and low profile installations within US borders, standing up and countering with the "Free Speech"...uh, a good way to get you labeled a terrorist sympathizer. So, its ok that civilian and commercial satellites take high resolution photographs of everything all the time and have for decades -- but, oh, now that you can view them easily its a problem? Tell me, when our nations enemies actually had technological prowess (back when actual countries were considered a threat to US security) to intercept and decode civilian satellite images - they were never considered of much use. Now that our enemies are...lets just say...technically less sophisticated, we have a problem?

Likewise, when you bring up that parents should police their own households to uphold their standards of decency, instead of trying to bring about government regulations to enforce their standards of decency on everyone you run the risk of getting labeled an apologist for child pornographers and stalkers. I have a better idea, instead of trying to tie up my government forming meaningless policies or having my ISP create filter technology that doesn't work - how about you get of your lazy ass, walk into your daughter's room to get her off her MySpace chat and take her to the zoo?

Number 5: 95% of Everything is Crap

Or, in this case, 96% - but it's close enough to make Theodor Sturgeon seem like an optimist.


That was the vote in the US House to introduce into the House...are you sitting down?... the Deleting Online Predators Act. ( appropriate.) Aimed squarely at Web 2.0, DOPA's purpose - if passed - will be to ban online social networking from school networks. The idea here - if I can follow the faulty, fear mongering logic thread, is that MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites result in rape, murder and drug use among Our Nations Teens! (ONT! DOPA is for ONT!!!!) Apparently, little Susie is more in danger from BiteMe213 (age 42, Peoria, IL) leering at her prom pictures, then she is from Creep Janitor Guy (CJG! DOPA is ambivalent to CJG!) hanging out at her cheerleading practice.

But, you know, its a hell of a lot easier to convince your tech-illiterate voting constituents that you are technically savvy, and doing something against sexual predators when you try to create an entity like DOPA. And the best part? You don't have to lift a finger! Ever! Just create a house resolution and the school system's IT groups do all the work! (What? Your daughter's school doesn't have an IT system? Oh well, maybe it's easier to just pull the internet plug.) I can just hear CJG cackling in the corner, can you?

Oh...and, the bill, if you choose to read it and risk the taste of bile, is pretty - uh - broad reaching. Not only does MySpace, Facebook and other time-wasters get banned, but so does Shelfari (with its student-unfriendly credo of "Read! Share! Explore!"), or Digg (allowing students to read popular current events! God! NO!!!!!!!!!!!), or... oh - you get the idea.

So who are these Social Defenders of Freedom? Who are the mystery 415? Well, since it is most of them, it's not too hard to figure out...but, if you need a guide, cuz - you know - you're social network site is blocked, check out here.

Number 4: I Just Don't Have the Patents For This...

US patent law is almost as old as the US itself. In fact, it has its origins in
the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which states: "Congress shall have the power …. [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Powerful stuff, emotion-generating stuff isn't it? It is - quite honestly - amazing that this sort of advanced concept emerged during a time 200 years ago when a group of colonists was trying to break free from their home country...the problem is that this clause was intended for things like plowshares and cotton gins, not so Steve Ballmer could launch 235 patent infringements against Linux in a weird attempt to block Dell from shipping non-Vista machines.

Nor was it intended to be used...:
And this is nothing new, by the way....anyone old enough to remember the DOS database company "d-Base" from trying to trademark the lower case "d"? Or Texas Instruments from trying to patent binary math?

The rule here is very simple, US Patent office, let me break it down for you:

...if its an's ethereal, like the wind or the human spirit. Really.
...if its an's a thing, like a plowshare. Knock yourself out.

Number 3: Honey? Is There Someone Else On the Line?

Ever hear of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)? Yeah, well, the FBI hopes you really don't pay too much attention...they tried to get this thing quietly enacted in 1994, because - darn it - they really want to know what you are VoIPing about. You could be a criminal! Or a terrorist! Or a pornographer!

CALEA is a series of APIs and protocols that conform to a standard to allow the feds to tap into any internet service provider that conforms to it. All of them. Comcast, Verizon, your university's service system, your school's, your company. All of it. Hahaha. Feel safer now? Instead of those persnickety analog phone lines that required people like Gene Hackman to obtain a warrant and sit in a panel van outside your home, now the feds can just set up huge servers and data mining tools (provided that they aren't patented) to collect and filter all of your online activity! Automatically! Neat!

Fortunately, CALEA was opposed by watchdog groups like the EFF, and the University deadline for compliance (May 14, 2007) has come and gone - with CALEA being forced to modify its ruling. Legistlators and the Administration are laughing at CALEA behinds its back, but the thing still isn't dead... stay tuned, the CALEA story isn't over yet.

Number 2&1: It's A Tie For Technical Idiocy!!!

Ok, I tried to order these #2 and #1 as proper examples of the kind of techincal - oh, let's be kind and say "illiteracy" - that pervades our government. I really did. I wanted the number #1 example of why our system of technological legislation has to change and not pander to the fears and concerns of a non-technologically "literate" public...but these were both way to good to give one of them less priority then the other.

In both cases, I decided to despense with my verbose opinions and descriptions of the tied offenders, because (a) they have already gotten a ton of press, and (b) these two videos very clearly highlight the issue. Is it a cheap shot to use a couple of videos to "make fun" of the two offenders? Of course it is - but screw it, one of the these guys is the longest serving senator in the government (oh, and, by the way, he chaired the effing United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during the 109th Congress, for pete's sake), and the other guy runs the freakin' country. The fact that neither of them seem to know what they are talking about in the technology arena - or aren't smart enough to have handlers that do - is a disgrace. So, yeah - this is a cheap shot, but they deserve it.

So, without further ado...

Number 1-1: Ted Steven's Series of Tubes

Number 1-2: The Internets and The Google

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