Congress

Rep. Smith pulls DNS provision from SOPA, Rep Issa postpones hearing, White House responds to epetition

The Friday night news dump lives on: at 12:30 AM last night, I received an email from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform: according to the release, Rep. Lamar Smith said he will remove the domain name provision from the Stop Online Piracy Act. Rep. Darrell Issa says he’ll suspend next week’s hearing with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian & other Internet experts. As you may have heard, the United States Congress is considering anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries that are engine of the dynamic economic growth all around the world: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act in the U.S. Senate.

Here’s the release:

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa today announced that a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, which was to examine the impact of Domain Name Service (DNS) and search engine blocking on the Internet, has been postponed following assurances that anti-piracy legislation will not move to the House floor this Congress without a consensus.

“While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House. Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote,” said Chairman Issa. “The voice of the Internet community has been heard. Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal.”

“Earlier tonight, Chairman Smith announced that he will remove the DNS blocking provision from his legislation. Although SOPA, despite the removal of this provision, is still a fundamentally flawed bill, I have decided that postponing the scheduled hearing on DNS blocking with technical experts is the best course of action at this time. Right now, the focus of protecting the Internet needs to be on the Senate where Majority Leader Reid has announced his intention to try to move similar legislation in less than two weeks.”
http://www.keepthewebopen.com

This isn’t the end of the news, however: on the same night, this morning, the White House responded to the “We The People” epetition asking the President to veto the Stop Online Piracy Act & PROTECT IP Act. Cybersecurity coordinator Howard Schmidt, US CTO Aneesh Chopra and OMB intellectual property enforcement coordinator Victoria Espinel wrote it. While they don’t address the veto requested in the epetition, the White House did come out strongly against the DNS provisions in the bills.

Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected. To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity. Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing.

We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.

Taken in context with Senator Leahy’s statement on reconsidering DNS (albeit not removing it from the bill) and Rep. Lamar Smith saying he’ll remove a DNS provision from SOPA, one of the major concerns that the tech community appears to have been heard and validated. Read my past coverage of SOPA and PIPA at Radar for these concerns, including links to the bills and a white paper from Internet engineers.

The White House, however, did write that “existing tools are not strong enough” and that they want legislation to move forward. That could well be the OPEN Act supported by Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Darrell Issa.

The MPAA has also weighed in on the Congressional moves. (PDF. Michael O’Leary, senior executive VP for global policy and external affairs for the MPAA:

“We fully support Chairman Smith in his efforts to protect U.S. workers, businesses and consumers
against online theft. We believe his announcement today regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act and
Senator Leahy’s earlier announcement regarding the PROTECT IP Act will help forge an even
broader consensus for legislative action, and we look forward to working with them and other
interested parties in passing strong legislation utilizing the remaining tools at our disposal to protect
American jobs and creativity. We continue to believe that DNS filtering is an important tool, already
used in numerous countries internationally to protect consumers and the intellectual property of
businesses with targeted filters for rogue sites. We are confident that any close examination of DNS
screening will demonstrate that contrary to the claims of some critics, it will not break the Internet.”

Gary Price, who forwarded the MPAA response, also notes that “on Thursday, the Library of Congress named a new Director of Communications. She starts at the end of this month. She was key in the founding of the Pro-SOPA Copyright Alliance and
also worked for the MPAA.

We’ll be seeing reactions to this all weekend. I’ll link to the best of them tomorrow from this story. For now, a couple of things seems clear:

1) The technical concerns of the Internet community appear to have been heard. It’s also likely that the federal government’s own cybersecurity experts, including Sandia Labs and Schmidt himself, influenced Congressional actions here. Senator Leahy, however, has not committed to remove DNS provisions entirely from PIPA, only to research them upon passage. That’s likely to be unsatisfactory to many concerned with the bills. “Trust us” to study it after passage is a tough sell.

2) The White House is supporting the arguments that online piracy is a a “real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers.” That statement should have been supported with more evidence from the government’s research institutions.

3) The response from the White House has to be considered an open government win, with respect to an epetition resulting in a statement from the top IT officials in the country. That said, posting it on a Friday night Saturday morning, as opposed to a response from the President during his Friday news conference, buried* diminished the impact of the news and muted its political impact.

4) Most American citizens oppose government involvement in blocking access to content online, particularly when the word “censor” is accurately applied. When asked if ISPs, social media sites and search engines should block access — as they would under SOPA — only a third of Americans agree.

The White House stated that “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

It will be up to the American people to hold them accountable for the commitment.

Update: Here’s Erik Cain, writing at Forbes on the White House response on SOPA:

This pretty clearly pits the Obama Administration against SOPA/PIPA. It also calls for more open and honest discussion about these bills and the problems they seek to address. Since there has been almost no discussion or debate until very recently on the legislation in question, this is a very welcome development.

I admit that while I’m pretty glad to see the administration come out with this sort of in-depth statement on the matter, I have a hard time trusting the president on these issues. His veto pen notably did not come out to quash the NDAA – a bill he vowed at one point to not let past his desk.

Then again, internet regulations may have wide, bipartisan support but still nowhere near the support that a defense funding bill has. Obama may have seen a political fight he couldn’t win, read the writing on the wall, and backed off of the NDAA rather than suffer a blow right before an election. The same does not apply to SOPA/PIPA.

So an executive veto on these bills seems much more likely, though at this point – with various congressmen starting to speak out, lots of companies threatening blackouts of their websites – including Wikipedia and Reddit – we may see the momentum behind these bills grind to a halt. The White House statement on the matter will only help push the conversation in congress. That’s a good thing.

Here’s Matt Yglesias, who writes at Slate that the Obama administration came out against SOPA and PIPA:

It increasingly looks like the SOPA/Protect IP fights are turning into an example of how the political system sometimes does work correctly after all. The con forces on these bills initially looked numerically overwhelmed in congress and hugely outspent. But opponents really mobilized vocally, got people and institutions who don’t normally focus on politics to write about this, and perhaps most important of all demonstrated that more people genuinely cared about this issue than most members of congress initially realized. Now the momentum has slowed incredibly and the White House technology policy team has come out against these bills.

To look a gift horse in the mouth for a second, however, I note that the White House statement does contain a “reasonable” to-be-sure line stating that “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”

Greg Sandoval and Declan McCullagh for CNET: DNS provision pulled from SOPA, victory for opponents:

Without the DNS provision, SOPA now looks a great deal more like the OPEN Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which was designed to be an alternative to SOPA. A watered-down SOPA means Smith improves his chances of getting the bill through Congress but at this point, nothing is assured.

Late today came word that six Republican senators have asked Majority Leader Harry Reid to postpone a vote on Pro IP, also known as PIPA. The senators wrote: “Prior to committee action, some members expressed substantive concerns about the bill, and there was a commitment to resolve them prior to floor consideration.”

Leahy issued a statement which appears to be a reply to the request by those senators. He argued that the PIPA vote should go ahead as planned.

“Saying no to debating the [Pro IP Act] hurts the economy,” Leahy wrote. “It says no to the American workers whose livelihoods depend on intellectual property-reliant businesses. And it says yes to the criminals hiding overseas stealing American intellectual property…all Senators should agree that this is a debate we must have…and should support cloture on the motion to proceed on January 24.”

It sounds as if Leahy is trying to keep some of the bill’s supporters from bolting. There’s little question now that some SOPA and PIPA backers in Congress are in retreat and seeking some kind of compromise in the face of significant opposition.

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing: Lamar Smith and Patrick Leahy blink, pull DNS-blocking out of PIPA and SOPA

After repeatedly insisting that establishing a national censoring firewall with DNS-blocking was critical to the Stop Online Piracy Act, the bill’s sponsor (and chair of the House Judicial Committee) Rep Lamar Smith has blinked. He’s agreed to cut DNS-blocking from the bill, in the face of a threat from rival Rep Darrell Issa, whose House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was preparing to hear expert testimony on the harm that this provision would do to national security and the Internet’s robustness against fraud and worse.

Even without its DNS provisions, SOPA remains terminally flawed, creating a regime that would be terminally hostile to any site that contains links and any site that allows the public to post comments on it. But attention has shifted to PIPA, the Senate version of the bill, which is nearly as bad, and which is rocketing towards an imminent vote.

Timothy Lee at ArsTechnica: Obama administration joins the ranks of SOPA skeptics:

Combine all those concerns, and the statement is a fairly sweeping condemnation of SOPA and PIPA in their current form. Espinel and her colleagues appear to have left enough wiggle room in the statement to allow the president to sign a future version of the bill that addresses some, but not all, of the critics’ concerns. But the bill’s sponsors are now going to have to work hard to satisfy critics and build a consensus in favor of passage.

Tim O’Reilly at Google+ on the White House response to the epetition on SOPA and PIPA:

I found myself profoundly disturbed by something that seems to me to go to the root of the problem in Washington: the failure to correctly diagnose the problem we are trying to solve, but instead to accept, seemingly uncritically, the claims of various interest groups. The offending paragraph is as follows:

“Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation’s most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders.”

In the entire discussion, I’ve seen no discussion of credible evidence of this economic harm. There’s no question in my mind that piracy exists, that people around the world are enjoying creative content without paying for it, and even that some criminals are profiting by redistributing it. But is there actual economic harm?

In my experience at O’Reilly, the losses due to piracy are far outweighed by the benefits of the free flow of information, which makes the world richer, and develops new markets for legitimate content. Most of the people who are downloading unauthorized copies of O’Reilly books would never have paid us for them anyway; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others are buying content from us, many of them in countries that we were never able to do business with when our products were not available in digital form.

History shows us, again and again, that frontiers are lawless places, but that as they get richer and more settled, they join in the rule of law. American publishing, now the largest publishing industry in the world, began with piracy. (I have a post coming on that subject on Monday.)

Congress (and the White House) need to spend time thinking hard about how best to grow our economy – and that means being careful not to close off the frontier, or to harm those trying to settle it, in order to protect those who want to remain safe at home. British publishers could have come to America in the 19th century; they chose not to, and as a result, we grew our own indigenous publishing industry, which relied at first, in no small part, on pirating British and European works.

If the goal is really to support jobs and the American economy, internet “protectionism” is not the way to do it.

*The White House emailed me later in the morning to point out that the epetition response was posted on Saturday morning.

As SOPA comes to a vote, O.E.C.D. calls on members to defend Internet freedom

On Wednesday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called on its members to defend Internet freedoms. “It’s really a milestone in terms of making a statement about openness,” said Karen Kornbluh, the U.S. ambassador to the O.E.C.D., quoted by Eric Pfanner in the New York Times. “You can’t really get the innovation you need in terms of creating jobs unless we work together to protect the openness of the Internet.”

China and Russia come under some scrutiny for recent actions regarding their citizens and the Internet. For instance, distributed denial of service attacks were recently used in Russia in attempts to squelch online speech after the elections.

The United States of America, however, also has a serious Internet freedom issue on its collective hands, as people following the progress of the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) through Congress know. If you’re unclear about the issues raised by the Stop Online Piracy Act, read my feature, “Congress considers anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries,” or watch the video below, from the Cato Institute:

Cato Institute research fellow Sanchez asserts “that internet censorship won’t effectively address the problem of piracy and will threaten innovation and the liberties of Americans by engaging in unconstitutional prior restraint.” The video was produced by Caleb Brown, Austin Bragg and Julian Sanchez.

The key O.E.C.D. recommendation relevant to SOPA is the one that urges policy makers to “limit Internet intermediary liability.” If you don’t know what intermediary liability is, watch White House deputy CTO for Internet policy Danny Weitzner explain it at Radar. As Pfanner observed, President Barack Obama has yet to take a public position on SOPA or the PROTECT IP Act.

The House Judiciary Committee addressed some of the concerns raised about SOPA in the manager’s amendment of SOPA. Markup of the bill is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday morning. While some of the most controversial elements in the original bill have been edited (removal of a private right of actor, narrowed range of targets) the use of DNS and filtering as enforcement mechanisms remain. The EFF is not satisfied, stating that the manager’s amendment is “still a disaster.” <Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology welcomes the revisions but retained serious concerns.

As Google anti-spam lead Matt Cutts recently pointed out, “some guy” also recently pointed out that SOPA is unconstitutional. The fellow in question happens to be Lawrence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, who released his opinion on SOPA online. “Under standard First Amendment scrutiny, both PROTECT IP & SOPA are clearly unconstitutional,” concurred Marvin Ammori.

What happens next is less clear. It’s unlikely that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would have brought SOPA up for markup unless he thought he had the votes to pass it on to the full House of Representatives.

The SOPA “manager’s amendment retains the fundamental flaws of its predecessor,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. . Issa told CNET that SOPA won’t be approved unless fixed.

Former Internet entrepreneur Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) went further, telling CNET that SOPA will “destroy the Internet as we know it.” According to Polis, his staffers haven’t received a single call asking them to pass SOPA, but had “hundreds against” it.”

Many prominent members of the Internet community have come out against SOPA. Thousands of people have added their faces to IWorkForTheInternet.org this week. Notably, earlier this week, Jimmy Wales asked Wikipedia if it should “strike” over SOPA. As of Monday night, about 75% of those responding to his straw poll supported the action. Wikimedia general counsel Geoff Brigham advised the Wikipedia community that SOPA will hurt the free Web and Wikipedia. As of today, we still don’t know whether the world’s biggest encyclopedia will protest tomorrow.

Will any of it make a difference to the eventual legislation or its passage? Stay tuned.

Make Thomas.gov a platform, suggests House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer

Rep Steny Honey at the Congressional Hackathon

How governments deal with social media has been a focal point of friction, fantasy and fierce real-time discussion around the globe in 2011. Tonight in Washington, the first “Congressional hackathon” convened Members of the House of Representatives, staffers, media, developers and citizens at the Capitol Building in Washington to talk about how social media, open government and technology could make the “people’s house” work better for those it represents. I embedded a Storify below that collects tweets and pictures from the event, plan to file a full report at Radar tomorrow and will share video when it becomes available.

In his remarks, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer addressed how social media is affected Congress and his caucus and open government in the Executive branch. He also cited the growth of open data in cities as a model that Congress should consider for the future of Thomas.gov:

“For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make thomas.gov – where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses – easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.

“The data available on thomas.gov should be expanded and made easily accessible by third party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector. One successful example is how cities have made public transit data accessible so developers can use it in apps and websites. The end result has been commuters saving time everyday and seeing more punctual trains and buses as a result of the transparency. Legislative data is far more complex, but the same principles apply. If we make the information available, I am confident that smart people like you will use it in inventive ways.”

If Hoyer and the House leadership would like to see that happen, several attendees at the hackathon suggested to me that Congress could take a specific action: collaborate with the Senate and send the Library of Congress a letter instructing it to provide bulk legislative data access to THOMAS.gov in structured formats so that the developers, designers and citizens around the nation can co-create a better civic experience for everyone.

Here’s the story of the rest of the event, as told in tweets and pictures:

Can a Congressional hackathon make the House of Representatives more social?

It’s time to think different about hacking in Congress. Later this afternoon, I’ll be strolling over to Capitol Hill to participate in what I believe is an unprecedented event: developers working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers and staffers to figure out how to “hack Congress” to make it work better for citizens. Details on the Facebook hackathon are over at the House Majority Leader’s website.

There are a number of reasons that I’m optimistic that we’ll see useful results from today’s efforts.

First, the Republicans have been invested in this area on this since before last year’s election, when the GOP leadership put embracing innovation on the agenda. In April, they sent a letter to the House Clerk regarding legislative data release. Then, in September, a live XML feed for the House floor went online. Yes, there’s a long way to go on open legislative data quality in Congress but there’s support for open government data on both sides of the aisle. Dan Schuman, blogging about what the Sunlight Foundation hopes to see from what he calls a “wonk-a-thon,” lists the many other ways the House has yet to catch up with 21st century technology:

We have yet to see bulk access to THOMAS or public access to CRS reports, important legislative and ethics documents are still unavailable in digital format, many committee hearings still are not online, and so on.

As Schuman highlights there, the Sunlight Foundation has been focused on opening up Congress through technology since, well, there was a Sunlight Foundation. To whit: “There have been several previous collaborative efforts by members of the transparency community to outline how the House of Representatives can be more open and accountable, of which an enduring touchstone is the Open House Project Report, issued in May 2007,” writes Schuman.

Second, the people coming to Congress for some civic coding today aren’t your average group of developers: they’re from Facebook. If you’ve been following technology news, you know that there’s been a fierce competition for development talent in Silicon Valley for years now, with Google and Facebook specifically focused on attracting the best and brightest. It’s fair to say that the world’s largest social network, predicted to go public next year, has had some success on that front. These developers are, naturally, likely to be looking for ways to integrate legislative data, video and RSS into Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol and Facebook’s platform.

Third, I here that there are some new tools for making the process of forming legislation more open to the people set to go online. I’m looking forward to reporting that out to the country.

Will talent, vision and opportunity combine to make the People’s House a more social, open place? Stay tuned.


Sunlight Foundation: Congressional supercommittee is an open government failure as well

The supercommittee isn’t looking super today. The New York Times reported this afternoon that Congressional lawmarkers concede that budget talks are close to failure.

Partisan Fail

"Partisan Fail" by David @Colarusso

Why? Politico’s chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen, dug into the issues in this morning’s Playbook. For those who had hopes that a grand bargain could be made by this group of 12 lawmakers, the reality of tomorrow’s expected announcement is going to be bitter medicine. Allen was an optimist but made a sharp point:

We thought that human factors would prod ambitious members to crack the code, and that the committee would take on its own ecology, regardless of pressures from above or below. But we were punk’d: The supercommittee – one of the most fascinating government experiments of this generation — never existed as a dynamic political organism.

Over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog, John Wonderlich commented on an additional facet of this historical moment: the failure of the supercommittee on open government. Wonderlich argues that this failure calls into question four assumptions that drove the design of the supercommittee:

  • public discussion is a distraction, and public attention reduces substance

  • fewer voices at the table leads to clarity
  • contrived deadlines created a shared sense of purpose and urgency
  • it’s acceptable for party leaders to force Congress to choose between the supercommittee-creating debt limit “deal” and defaulting on the nation’s debts, with no time to examine the “deal”, and no ability to change

    Wonderlich pulls few punches in his analysis and leaves his readers with a suggestion about “what might have been”:

    What if they had started with other assumptions?

    If the leaders had all decided that deficit reduction needed a contrived process, what other possibilities could they have chosen? What if they had declared a deadline for a fall proposal from the Republicans, and vowed an up or down vote in both the House and Senate on their plan, on the condition that if Republicans fail, Democrats get their chance in the Spring? And that this process would continue until one side’s bill passed? If the agreement were built on the public word of the party leadership, then both parties would start vying for legitimacy, rather than positioning themselves for failure.

    That might be a ridiculous idea. But the point is that the supercommittee process was borne of a particular set of assumptions about how compromise should work, and was structured to reflect those assumptions. Those assumptions have been discredited.

    Secrecy plus power plus contrived deadlines equals embarrassing failure.

    May our leaders see the supercommittee as rock-bottom for their secrecy addiction, rather than finding a new way to double down. And the next time they create a power-sharing scheme, they should remember the difference between their discretion as party leaders, and the expectations for self-governance inherent in a democracy.

    Tomorrow, this particular experiment in representative democracy looks likely to come to end.

    Reps. Issa and Lofgren warn that SOPA is “a bipartisan attempt to regulate the Internet”

    Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Representative Zoe Lofgren sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to the other members of the House of Representatives entitled “A bipartisan attempt to regulate the Internet?”

    I’ve posted the letter below in its entirety, adding a link to the bill page for the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) (H.R. 3261) on Thomas.gov and a PopVox widget after it, and embedded my interview with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden about the PROTECT IP Act, the companion bill to SOPA in the Senate.

    From: The Honorable Zoe Lofgren
    Sent By: Ryan.Clough@mail.house.gov
    Date: 11/8/2011

    Dear Colleague:

    The Judiciary Committee is close to consideration of H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act. We write to call your attention to a recent article about the bill in the Los Angeles Times, entitled, “A bipartisan attempt to regulate the Internet?” (available at http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2011/10/technology-a-bipartisan-attempt-to-regulate-the-internet.html).

    We agree with the goal of fighting online copyright infringement, and would support narrowly targeted legislation that does not ensnare legitimate websites. We also believe that a consensus on the issue between the content and technology industries is achievable. As the attached article makes clear, H.R. 3261 unfortunately does not follow a consensus-based approach. It would give the government sweeping new powers to order Internet Service Providers to implement various filtering technologies on their networks. It would also create new forms of private legal action against websites—cutting them off from payment and advertising providers by default, without any court review, upon a complaint from any copyright owner, even one whose work is not necessarily being infringed.

    Online innovation and commerce were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2004 to 2009, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Before we impose a sprawling new regulatory regime on the Internet, we must carefully consider the risks that it could pose for this vital engine of our economy.

    Sincerely,

    Zoe Lofgren
    Member of Congress

    Darrell Issa
    Member of Congress

    HouseLive.gov embraces open format to bring live video to mobile devices

    Congress may be one of the most unpopular institutions in the land but some of its staffers are continuing to work towards bringing its communications infrastructure into the 21st century.

    The United States House of Representatives has begun beta testing streaming video from the House floor directly to mobile devices via HouseLive.gov — and they’re doing it using an open format that will work on iPads, iPhones Android devices or whatever else a citizen is using.

    “Streaming the House floor to mobile devices through HouseLive.gov is just one more way the House is innovating and keeping its pledge to make Congress more open and accessible to the American people,” wrote Don Seymour in a blog post on Speaker.gov.

    “The Office of the Clerk began beta testing this new H.264 live streaming feed for mobile devices last week,” wrote Seymour.

    At present, supported video resolution is 480×360 and the bit rate is 650 kbps, so you’ll need to have a fast mobile connection to tune in. The bottom line, however, is that the video stream should work across ALL platforms now, desktop or mobile.

    Seymour explained a bit more via email “The site now works like this: 1) when someone visits HouseLive.gov, the site first defaults to Silverlight. If Silverlight is not installed, then, 2) it defaults to Flash. If Flash is not installed/available, then, 3) it defaults to HTML5.”

    He also used a key term that’s familiar to the Web world: “beta,” referring to a feature that’s still not finalized. Given that open government is in beta, and looks set to remain in that phase for a long time to come, it feels apt. Seymour asks in his blog post that citizens send feedback to the Clerk’s office: “…since this feature is still in beta, please leave a comment below if you experience any difficulties. Be sure to note your device (iPhone? Blackberry?), operating system (iOS? Android?), and connection speed (Wi-fi? 3G?); we’ll pass your note along to the Clerk’s office.”

    Radhika Marya covered the news about mobile video over at Mashable, adding a few bytes of context for the addition.

    While we’re moving closer to House 2.0, there’s still a long way to go. Nick Judd suggests on direction at techPresident, this move puts the floor of the U.S. House in your hand:

    The House Republicans have their share of tech-savvy staffers who have brought their side of the Hill out of the Stone Age when it comes to things like what a member’s website can do, for instance, encouraging lawmakers to adopt Drupal, a popular open-source content management system. They’ve also come up with new ways to interact with voters, such as YouCut and a project to solicit tales of regulatory woe from business owners. That said, in August, after Congress squeaked a debt-ceiling deal through both houses, Politifact reported that House Republicans have had trouble making good on another 21st-century promise: to post all legislation online 72 hours in advance of a vote.

    Live video from the House floor on a mobile device isn’t likely to stimulate movement on the issues that matter to many citizens, including jobs, education, energy costs or healthcare, to name the hot buttons that will be discussed at tonight’s Republican primary debate. It will, however, give citizens a direct window to watch debates from wherever they are, however, and that’s a step forward. Speaking as someone who has suffered through abysmal streamed video of committee meetings many times — or not seen them online at all — here’s hoping that the next step for Congressional staff is to bring those proceedings into the 21st century soon too.

    Update: Commenting on my post about this news on Google Plus, software architect David Bucci questions just how “open” the format in question is: “This gets an “interesting use of the word ‘open’” alert – first it tries SilverLight, then falls back to Flash, and then HTML5 using the patent-encumbered H.264. Umm … I’m looking for the “open” in there … ubiquitous != open. Instead of “open format”, it must mean “open access” (which I applaud).”

    Open government data gathers bipartisan support in Washington

    Two weeks ago at the Strata Conference in NYC, I donned a headset, grabbed a tablet worth of questions and headed to the podium to talk with the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about data and open government.

    Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) joined me via remote webcast from chambers in Washington, D.C. Our crack video team is working on an improved version of this video in which you’ll see my side of the broadcast, along with a boost in audio. Until then, the video that the House Oversight digital team uploaded to YouTube will suffice — and I don’t want to wait to share this story any longer in the meantime, particularly as interest builds behind the principle subject of our conversation, a proposed bill to standardize financial reporting data standards in the federal government and create single database for financial spending.

    Daniel Schuman listened in and summarized our conversation on open government data over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog:

    The Chairman focused his remarks on the DATA Act, the bipartisan legislation he introduced that would transform how government tracks federal spending and identifies waste, fraud, and abuse.

    He emphasized the importance of making government data available online in real time so that innovative minds can immediately make use the information to build their own businesses. Business, in turn, would help the government identify program mismanagement and data quality problems. The Chairman specifically singled out Vice President Biden as a supporter of efforts to find a common solution to make data available in a systematic way.

    …Chairman Issa explained that the private sector must step up as advocates for greater openness because they will benefit from building and using the tools made possible by greater transparency. He added when government drives down the cost of obtaining information, private individuals will derive value from the analysis of data, not its ownership.

    The cost of good data

    Since our conversation, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the DATA Act would cost the government $575 million to implement over 5 years, as reported by FierceGovernmentIT:

    “In a cost estimate dated Sept. 16, the CBO attributes $325 million of the estimated total to requirements in the bill regarding the collecting and reporting of financial information. The DATA Act would require federal agencies, and most government contractors and grant award winners to adopt XBRL as a financial data reporting mechanism.”

    Left unsaid in the CBO estimate is what the impact of this kind of transparency on the federal government’s finances might be, in terms of savings. House Oversight staff have estimated annual savings from standards and centralized spending database that would more than offset that outlay, including:

    • $41 million in funds recovered from questionable recipients
    • $63 million in funds withheld from questionable recipients
    • $5 billion in savings recommended by inspectors general
    • unknown savings resulting from better internal spending control and better oversight by Congressional appropriators.

    The DATA Act, which would expand the role of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to track all federal spending and make all of the information available to the public, has bipartisan support in the Senate from Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), who has introduced a companion bill there.

    As NextGov reported yesterday, efforts to require government-wide spending reports have advanced on the Hill, while President Obama has begun the process of establishing a similar board by executive order.

    You can read more letters of support that extend from well beyond an Open Government Coalition online over at Scribd, including:

    Open government as a bipartisan issue

    Given the White House’s embrace of the mantle of open government on President’s first day in office, the executive branch has gathered a lot of the press, attention, praise, scrutiny and criticism in this area.

    That looks to be changing, and for the better. As Clay Johnson pointed out at the beginning of 2011, any competition between the White House and Congress on open government is likely to be a win for the American people.

    Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of WashingtonWatch.com, wrote then that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” he opined. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”

    The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.

    There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”

    Johnson identified the moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rose to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government.

    The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress, where Republicans hold an edge on social media.

    While some projects or choices continue to cast questions on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, with the GOP bending new House rules, there’s progress to report. The leadership of the House of Representatives has supported the creation of open, online video archives, like House.Resource.org. The House revamped its floor feed recently, adding live XML. And House leadership has recently venerated the role of technology in making Congress more transparent, engaged and accountable.

    Rep. Issa, in particularly, appears to have taken on open government as a cause and, for the moment, its rhetoric. He even tweets using the #opengov hashtag. When it comes to the legislature, “the American people have a right to all the data from Congress. They have a right,” he said at a recent forum on Congressional transparency, as reported by Diana Lopez.

    Government secrecy and transparency are, in theory, non-partisan issues. In practice, they are often used a political bludgeons against an opposing party, particularly by a partisan minority, and then discarded once power is gained. For government transparency to outlast a given White House or Congress, laws and regulatory changes have to happen.

    Open government has to be “baked in” to culture, practices, regulations, technology, business practices and public expectations. Needless to say, that’s going to take a while, but it looks like both the administration and some members of Congress are willing to keep trying.

    As these efforts go forward, it will be up to the media, businesses, nonprofits, watchdogs and, of course, citizens to hold them accountable for actions taken, not just rhetoric.

    What’s the future of the DATA Act?

    I’m writing a feature article about the bill, this conversation, context for government performance data and whether open government and transparency will have any legs in the upcoming presidential campaign.

    If you have any questions that are unanswered after watching the conversation, comments about the use of XBRL or perspective on the proposed law’s future in Congress, please ring in in the comments or find me at alex[at]oreilly.com.

    White House and House GOP turns to the Web to discuss jobs

    It’s a tale of two parties, two social networks, live events and high stakes: creating jobs in an American economy still struggling to come out of recession. Would the American Jobs Act, introduced by President Obama earlier this month, make a difference? Can the White House or Congress do anything to create jobs, aside from directly hiring more government workers for infrastructure projects or similar initiatives? The American people will have the opportunity to hear from both sides of the aisle today and judge themselves, starting at 2 PM EST when the president will participate in a town hall hosted at LinkedIn in California.

    UPDATE: Archived video from President Obama’s LinkedIn townhall is embedded below:

    Notably, there will still be a live chat on Facebook at a LinkedIn townhall, along with a public “backchannel” at the #meetopportunity hashtag on Twitter.

    This is the second time that the White House experiments with LinkedIn for questions, following a forum earlier this year with tech CEOs and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra. The questions are pulled from a “putting America back to work forum on LinkedIn.com. As I’ve observed before, the platform isn’t ideal for ideation and moderation of questions but LinkedIn is unquestionably targeted towards employment.

    Personally, I’d like to see CEO Jeff Weiner crunch the big data the social network has collected about job openings and the skills and degrees that high school and college grads currently have. Programs and policies oriented towards matching the two would be an interesting direction.

    UPDATE: Here are the questions that were asked:

    UPDATE: Below is a “storified” tweetstream from the event:

     

    House GOP Leaders discuss technology, transparency and jobs

    At 6 PM EST, the leaders of the Republican caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives will also host an online townhall, though they’ll be doing it on Facebook Live. The event will feature House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will moderate.

    Prior to today’s event, the House GOP leaders participated in a discussion about the role social media and technology now plays in government with Politico’s senior White House correspondent, Mike Allen. Video is below:

    In the interview, the House GOP’s “Young Guns” spoke at length about the role that new social and mobile technology plays in the work of Congress and government, touching upon many subjects that will be of interest to the open government community.

    Such interest is hardly new — the new GOP majority came into the House with promises to embrace innovation and transparency– but given the importance of open government, it’s a useful reminder that open government is a bipartisan issue.

    If you have thoughts or comments on either of the town halls or the discussion above, please share them in the comments.

    UPDATE: The archived video of this congressional “Facehall” is embedded below:

    UPDATE: A Storify of my own tweets during the event is embedded below:

    East Coast earthquake cements role of social media in government crisis communications

    At approximately 1:51:04 ET today, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake 3.7 miles below Virginia rattled the east coast of the United States from South Carolina to Maine.

    A 3D map of the earthquake from DC-based DevelopmentSeed, embedded below, visualizes the intensity of the tremblor.

    Thankfully, today’s earthquake does not appear to have caused any deaths nor collapsed buildings or bridges, although the National Cathedral sustained what officials call “substantial earthquake damage.” Longer term earthquake damage in DC will take time to assess. Eric Wemple has a comprehensive assessment of earthquake coverage that includes links to more logistical details and assessments, if you’re interested.

    A reminder to prepare

    FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate talked directly to the public over the Internet, using his Twitter account, emphasizing that this quake is a reminder to get prepared.

    He also highlighted a critical resource for an increasingly mobile citizenry, m.fema.gov/earthquake, and hurricanes.gov, which will be an important source of information as Hurricane Irene moves up the coast.

    Additionally, Govfresh founder Luke Fretwell compiled an excellent short federal government primer to earthquake preparedness that’s full of more resources, including what to do before, during and after an earthquake

    Key earthquake information can be found at Ready.gov and the FEMA, USGS and Centers for Disease Control Websites. USGS also provides a seven-step Protecting Your Family From Earthquakes safety guide (embed below).

    Remember, prepare, plan and stay informed.

    Social media fills a fault

    seismic waves by xkcd

    While both DC residents and people across the United States took the opportunity to joke about the quake using Twitter, a more sobering reality emerged as residents found themselves unable to make phone calls over overloaded cellphone networks: social networks offered an important alternate channel to connect with friends, family and coworkers. In the context of overloaded networks, the Department of Homeland Security offered earthquake advice: don’t call. In fact, DHS urged urged citizens to use social media to contact one another. The White House amplified that message:

    RT @DHSJournal: Quake: Tell friends/family you are OK via text, email and social media (@twitter & facebook.com). Avoid calls.less than a minute ago via Twitter for BlackBerry® Favorite Retweet Reply

     

    Citizens didn’t need much urging to turn to social networks after the quake. According to

    Facebook hosts conversation with Red Cross on social media in emergencies

    The day after the earthquake, in what turns out to be an unusually good scheduling choice, Facebook DC is hosting a conversation with the Red Cross on the use of social media in emergencies. As a new infographic from the Red Cross, embedded below, makes clear, the importance of emergency social data has grown over the past year.

    Social Media in Emergencies

    According to a new national survey:

    • The Internet is now the third most popular way for people to gather emergency information, after television and local radio
    • Nearly a fourth of the online population would use social media to let family and friends know they are safe.
    • 80% of the general public surveyed believe emergency response organizations should monitor social media.
    • About one third of those polled via telephone said they would expect help to arrive within an hour.

    The event will be livestreamed on Facebook DC’s page at 3 PM EDT, if you’re online and free to tune in.

    Watch live streaming video from facebookdclive at livestream.com

    More Americans Using Social Media and Technology in Emergencies