Help improve my SXSW panel: Why doesn’t Congress grok the Internet?

My SXSW suckup was not in vain, even if it wasn’t efficient either. After a prolonged round of back-and-forth with the conference’s management, including one outright swap of topics, my panel on “Why Doesn’t Congress Grok the Internet?” is scheduled for 3:30-4:30 this Saturday afternoon in Austin.

The theme is pretty straightforward: Sixteen years after the Communications Decency Act, Congress still comes damn close to passing tech-policy legislation almost as boneheaded as that bill; what gives?

I’ll be discussing that topic with two staffers for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): Jayme White, staff director of the Senate Committee on Finance’s Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness subcommittee and senior tech advisor to Wyden; and Jennifer Hoelzer, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the senator. Both worked on Wyden’s successful opposition to the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts.

I don’t intend for this panel to be a “Congress sucks” beatdown, as fun as that might be. I want to get into the institutional, political and economic factors that lead to tech-ignorant bills appearing as often as they do. Here are some of the questions I have in mind:

  • The stereotype of Congressional knowledge of the Internet is Ted Stevens’ “series of tubes” monologue. Is that a fair perception these days?
  • Looking at the relative influences of the entertainment and tech industries in Washington, how much of a difference can that make on a relatively obscure tech-policy bill? What about one that’s become a headline item?
  • Describe the feedback your boss’s constituents typically provide about tech-policy issues. How often do they bring up the subject at all?
  • How much does the need to raise campaign funds from people who may have intense interests in these matters tilt the legislative process?
  • How would you grade the traditional media’s coverage of recent tech-policy disputes? Has it been part of the problem or part of the solution?
  • What sort of input did your office get from entertainment and tech-industry types, respectively, in the run-up to SOPA?
  • The revolving door is a reality on Capitol Hill (and, I should note, in many newsrooms). How much can the prospect of more profitable employment in private industry weigh on a staffer’s conduct? Among your former colleagues who worked on tech policy on the Hill, where did most of them end up?
  • Did the way Hollywood got rolled on SOPA and PIPA represent a fundamental change in these debates, or was it the product of good timing and good luck?

Now it’s your turn: What questions would you add to that list? Would you strike any of those above?

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Weekly output: Android security, CES answers, SOPA, Web chat, interview

This week was about a million times easier than my post-CES week last year–when two days after coming from Vegas, I was on the 7 a.m. Acela to New York to cover the introduction of the Verizon iPhone, followed by an 8 a.m. TV appearance the next morning. This time, I had time to linger at the State of the Net conference Tuesday and Wednesday (where I did a radio interview about SOPA that, sadly, doesn’t seem to be anywhere online) and edit, sort and caption my CES pictures into a semi-coherent photoset on Flickr.

1/15/2012: Security tip: Assess Android apps wisely, USA Today

The week’s summarizes the ways you can assess the quality of an Android app before installing it on the phone, then shares a lesson learned from my Christmas tech troubleshooting of an iPhoto problem on my mother-in-law’s computer.

1/18/2012: Why The Web Is Sick Of SOPA, Discovery News

Wednesday’s online protests provided a handy news peg to summarize the things I and many other Internet users hate about the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. One of them is the greedy, control-freak mindset behind these exercises in copyright overreach, as recently documented by News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch in a series of delusional tweets.

1/18/2012: CES 2012: Answers To Your Electronics Questions – Not All That You’ll Like, CEA Digital Dialogue

I’ve done a lot of CES recaps–including last week’s for Discovery–that focus on the new hardware on display at the electronics show. For this one, I opted to assess what sort of answers CES provided to some of the questions I hear most often about gadgets. Sorry, you won’t like the response the show coughed up about the future of smartphone battery life.

1/20/2012: Rob’s CES Recap, CEA Digital Dialogue

I did my first Web chat since my goodbye Q&A at the Post in April for CEA on Friday. (This was also my introduction to the CoverIt Live app I’ve seen used at many other sites.) About 10 minutes in, I realized how much I’d missed the experience–it’s good to be back in the saddle. The plan is to do these once a month at CEA’s site, although if there’s sufficient interest I wouldn’t have a problem with stepping up that frequency.

1/21/2012: January 21, 2012 — Kirk McElhearn, Daniel Eran Dilger, and Rob Pegoraro, Tech Night Owl Live

I was a guest on Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Live podcast. He interviewed me about Apple’s new iPad e-textbooks initiative (don’t put too much weight on my answers, since we spoke only an hour or so after the announcement and I hadn’t had much time to digest the details) and then my favorite political punching bag, SOPA. (This episode isn’t live on that page yet but should be sometime Saturday night. 1/22, 1:04 p.m. Now it is; I’ve added that link and corrected the title.)

Internet 1, Big Copyright 0

Some 11 and a half years ago, I was mad enough about a story in the news that I stayed up until 3:57 a.m. (according to the timestamp on the file) to write a column about it. That issue was a case called Universal v. Reimerdes, in which a federal judge had ruled it illegal to distribute the DeCSS DVD-unlocking software.

I knew that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “anti-circumvention” provisions made such a ruling possible. But it was something else to see it applied to a program with obvious fair-use potential–and to have people then act as if it were entirely feasible to halt the distribution of that file over the Internet. I just had to write about something so insultingly unfair and mind-boggingly stupid… assuming I could get the importance of it across to people who had never heard of DeCSS or the DMCA:

Last Thursday, a judge in New York City ruled that an obscure magazine called 2600, based in Middle Island, N.Y., can’t post an equally obscure program, DeCSS, on its Web site, or link to other sites that offer it. Few people have used this software, which unlocks a DVD movie’s encryption, and not many more seem to care.

They should. This lawsuit is all about the mix of fear and greed that is driving the entertainment industry to put tighter and tighter locks on its products–and whether consumers get to do anything about it.

That August 25, 2000 column in the Washington Post was the first of many copyright rants I’ve had occasion to write. A lot has changed since then–DeCSS, of course, never disappeared and has since been replaced by better software that I’ve used to make copies of my DVDs to watch on laptops without optical drives–but one thing had not. The entertainment-industry firms that had lobbied for the passage of the DMCA and cheered the DeCSS verdict had kept on getting their way in Washington. Never mind the larger size of the tech industry; at worst, Big Copyright might lose a round after an egregious overreach, but that setback would then go largely unrecorded.

That changed this week, thanks to a storm of protest over the Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act. Both would have turned the Internet’s Domain Name System into a censorship mechanism; the former would have also given copyright owners a financial kill switch for sites accepting user-generated content. And both looked set to sail through Congress until people noticed and started getting righteously fed-up, culminating in yesterday’s blackout protests at sites from Wikipedia to WordPress.com.

Those two bills have since taken a public beating–not just on tech-news sites, but on the evening news–and sponsors of each have been rushing to hit the Undo button on their support.  To judge from the more delusional press releases issued over the last 48 hours, I’m not sure that Hollywood even knows what hit it.

I would have liked to have seen this moment happen back in 2000, but this year will do.

Weekly output: Google directions and social isolation, 2011 in review, telling the tech future

Another holiday-shortened week, another holiday-shortened list of stories. That’s okay: Spending next week at CES should more than make up for my recent idle time.

1/1/2012: Today’s tip: Get the most out of Google Maps, USA Today

Full disclosure: When I leave my house, I carry a Metro SmarTrip card and keys to my house and my bike–plus, as of two weeks ago, one for Capital Bikeshare–but not my car. (Why would I do otherwise? If my car is anywhere but my driveway or our block when I step off the porch, something’s gone wrong.) So I’ve appreciated Google’s moves to provide directions to people traveling by rail, bus or bike. The Q&A part of this week’s column digs into some sociological research and my own experience to offer a non-cynical answer to the question “is technology just isolating us from each other?”

1/4/2012: 7 Tech Stories for 2011 and 2012, CEA Digital Dialogue

The year-in-review column may be a crutch for tech journalists to lean on during the slow week or two between Christmas and CES, but that doesn’t mean it can’t provide a useful opportunity to pull some sense out of the last 12 months’ worth of headlines–and see where those stories might go in the new year. At the risk of ruining whatever suspense this post might contain: Sorry, I think Congress will continue to demonstrate a certain… lack of finesse when it comes to tech policy.

1/5/2012: 5 Tech Advances That Might Arrive In 2012, Discovery News

Speaking of new-year columns, this one outlines five long-hyped technological breakthroughs that people might be able to buy this year: glasses-free 3-D TVs, portable fuel cells, color e-ink displays, battery-friendly LTE smartphones and big-screen OLED TVs. (Whether they’ll want to buy these things is another matter.) To judge from reader reactions and chatter on other sites, fuel cells top many people’s wish lists–but I’ll believe that when I’ve got a review unit ready to take on a weekend out of town.