electronic privacy

Are “Commons 2.0″ and participatory urbanism hype or hope?

“…armed with low-cost phones and an Internet connection, people are using civic-minded apps like ForageCity to tackle everything from public safety to potholes. The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that some foresee, or whether the “commons 2.0″ and “participatory urbanism” will become empty marketing slogans.”

-Angela Woodall, writing in the Oakland Tribune about a new mobile application from Oakland’s Youth Radio that is designed to help people redistribute extra fruit and vegetables to people in need.

Forage City app

[Image Credit: Susan Mernit]

Woodal asks good questions and, as it happens, posed them to me last week in a phone interview. (I’m quoted in the article.)

Here’s a couple of thoughts that didn’t make it in. Mobile applications that civic developers are creating around the world — like ForageCity — are making it increasingly possible for more people to interact more easily and for less cost where ever and whenever they wish. That does lead to giving more power to more people to connect to one another and solve problems, or at least discuss them.

The potential for such apps to connect and, crucially, scale is particularly significant when there is a shared standard for the open government data that fuels, as with the standard for transit data (GTFS) that now exists in 450 different cities. Around the U.S., cities are slowly working with one another to define more such standards — but it’s a complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight, or even years.

The question is whether the technology will have the long-term effect that Code for America founder Jen Pahlka described to Woodall. On that count, I tend to give Pahlka — and my publisher, Tim O’Reilly — the benefit of the doubt.

As I said to the reporter, the potential for civic apps is enormous — but these the tools are only as good as the people who use them and adapt them. The tools can be quite good on their own — full stop — but many network effects will only take place with broad, mainstream adoption.

Smartphones can now be used for finding shelter, improving medical care and documenting riots — but the same devices are also used for gaming, pornography, celebrity gossip and shopping. While the apps used to find city services are generally not the ones used to surveil citizens, in practice the mobile device itself may be an agent of both actions.

Working out how to both protect the rights of citizens and empower citizens using mobile devices will be a difficult and crucial need in the years ahead.

It’s not immediately clear, at least to this observer, that state governments, Congress, regulators and law enforcement are up to the challenge, but it’s hard not to hope that they rise to the challenge.

What is smart government?

Last month, I traveled to Moldova to speak at a “smart society” summit hosted by the Moldovan national e-government center and the World Bank. I talked about what I’ve been seeing and reporting on around the world and some broad principles for “smart government.” It was one of the first keynote talks I’ve ever given and, from what I gather, it went well: the Moldovan government asked me to give a reprise to their cabinet and prime minister the next day.

I’ve embedded the entirety of the morning session above, including my talk (which is about half an hour long). I was preceded by professor Beth Noveck, the former deputy CTO for open government at The White House. If you watch the entire program, you’ll hear from:

  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova, National Coordinator, Governance e-Transformation Agenda
  • Dona Scola, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Information Technology and Communication
  • Andrew Stott, UK Transparency Board, former UK Government Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement
  • Victor Bodiu, General Secretary, Government of the Republic of Moldova
  • Arcadie Barbarosie, Executive Director, Institute of Public Policy, Moldova

Without planning on it, I managed to deliver a one-liner that morning that’s worth rephrasing and reiterating here: Smart government should not just serve citizens with smartphones.

I look forward to your thoughts and comments, for those of you who make it through the whole keynote.

What should be in a “Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights?”

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OK) introduced a proposal for a “Digital Bill of Rights” at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City. You can watch a video of their conversation with Personal Democracy Media publisher Andrew Rasiej below:

Congressman Issa has posted the proposed Digital Bill of Rights on MADISON, the online legislation platform his staff built last December. The 10 proposed rights are the following:

The Digital Bill of Rights
1. Freedom – digital citizens have a right to a free, uncensored internet
2. Openness – digital citizens have a right to an open, unobstructed internet
3. Equality – all digital citizens are created equal on the internet
4. Participation – digital citizens have a right to peaceably participate where and how they choose on the internet
5. Creativity – digital citizens have a right to create, grow and collaborate on the internet, and be held accountable for what they create
6. Sharing – digital citizens have a right to freely share their ideas, lawful discoveries and opinions on the internet
7. Accessibility – digital citizens have a right to access the internet equally, regardless of who they are or where they are
8. Association – digital citizens have a right to freely associate on the internet
9. Privacy – digital citizens have a right to privacy on the internet
10. Property – digital citizens have a right to benefit from what they create, and be secure in their intellectual property on the internet

Congressman Issa made the following statement about the rights, which could well end up in a bill at some point, as with other proposals on the MADISON platform:

I believe that individuals possess certain fundamental rights. Government should exist to protect those rights against those who would violate them. That is the revolutionary principle at the heart of the American Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. No one should trample our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s why the Bill of Rights is an American citizen’s first line of defense against all forms of tyranny.

But where can a digital citizen turn for protection against the powerful? This question lay at the heart of the fight to stop SOPA and PIPA and keep the web open. While I do not have all the answers, the remarkable cooperation we witnessed in defense of an open Internet showed me three things. First, government is flying blind, interfering and regulating without understanding even the basics. Second, we have a rare opportunity to give government marching orders on how to treat the Internet, those who use it and the innovation it supports. And third, we must get to work immediately because our opponents are not giving up.

We need to frame a digital Bill of Rights. This is my first draft. I need your help to get this right, so I published it here in Madison for everyone to comment, criticize and collaborate. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing to work together to keep the web open.

-Congressman Darrell Issa

As of June 14th, the proposed rights have received 101 suggested edits and 35 community comments. Elsewhere on the Internet, they’ve generated considerably more attention. The proposed Digital Bill of Rights has received widespread news coverage, from the The Guardian to BoingBoing to Ars Technica to The Verge to CNET to The Hill.

A little online history

The idea of an online bill of rights isn’t a new one. Recently, as Evan Rodgers pointed out at the Verge, the Reddit community has been drafting its own digital bill of rights. Earlier this spring, the White House releases a consumer privacy bill of rights earlier this spring, albeit one focused on privacy.

The history of this idea goes back further, however, going back to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace to a 2007 proposal for a Internet bill of rights that came out of a meeting of the Internet Governance Forum to the iterations of a bill of rights in cyberspace that Jeff Jarvis went through in 2010. The idea of “Internet rights as the new frontier has, in other words, been around for a while.

And, for all of the interest around this week’s version, the proposal from Rep. Issa and Senator Wyden itself is relatively non-specific and does not officially recognize the iterations that have come before it. The Internet Bill of Rights that came out of Rio a few years ago, for instance, layered on a few additional (important) points:

“Privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, universal accessibility, network neutrability, interoperability, use of format and open standards, free access to information and knowledge, right to innovation and a fair and competitive market and consumers safeguard.”

There’s also a more fundamental question of how such rights would be enforced, by whom and in what context. In the United States, after all, there’s already a Bill of Rights, and one that’s held up rather well for over two centuries. Focusing on how and where the rights that citizens (digital or otherwise) already enjoy apply online would be a constructive and useful role for lawmakers to consider, particularly given the unprecedented capacity of both governments and private actors to search, surveil and censor humanity on the Internet.

All that being said, it’s significant that this pair of Congressmen introduced them and notable that the they’re taking comments from the online community using the Internet itself.

On Friday, I expect to have the opportunity to ask Rep. Issa about his thinking about a digital bill of rights, amongst other issues related to technology, data and open government. If you have questions or concerns about the proposals above that you’d like posed to the Congressman, please let me know at alex@oreilly.com.

UPDATE: Embedded below are the reactions on Twitter to the question posed in the headline of this post:


Is the Facebook “citizen cosponsor” app open government 2.0 or clever e-partisanship?

Yesterday, the Office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI) launched a new Facebook application, “Citizen Co-sponsor.” Rep. Cantor introduces it in the video below:

Since its introduction, I’ve been mulling over what to write about the new app. Here’s what I’ve read to date:

First, excellent reporting from TechPresident, where Sara Lai Stirland writes that the new Facebook open graph app makes lawmaking social:

The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.

The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.

For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.

Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.

“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”

The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.

“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”

Over at the Huffington Post, POPVOX founder Marci Harris published a long post with substantive concerns about the citizens cosponsors app. (Disclosure: Tim O’Reilly was an early angel investor in POPVOX.) Harris wanted to know more about who the sponsors of the app are (it’s funded by the Office of the Majority Leader), whether feedback will go to a citizen’s Member of Congress, whether “updates” will be neutral or partisan, who will have access to the list of constituents that is generated by the app, the capability to only express support for a bill, versus opposition, and the privacy policy.

In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.

Dave Copeland published a more critical take on the enterprise this afternoon at ReadWriteWeb, writing that the House Majority leader missed the mark with the Facebook app, asking a key question:

…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?

No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.

Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.

That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.

That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.

In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”

I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective  from Harris in mind:

As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”

Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.

“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”

With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”

This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.

White House releases Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

After years of wrangling about online privacy in Washington, the White House has unveiled a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. A coalition of Internet giants, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL, have committed to adopt “Do Not Track technology” in most Web browsers by the end of 2012.

These companies, which deliver almost 90 percent of online behavioral advertisements, have agreed not to track consumers if these choose to opt out of online tracking using the Do Not Track mechanism, which will likely manifest as a button or browser plug-in. All companies that have made this commitment will be subject to FTC enforcement.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama in a prepared statement. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That’s why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important. For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure. By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.”

The announcement coincided with the release of a long awaited white paper: Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy. (Embedded below.)

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) welcomed the Administration’s unveiling of this “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” calling the industry announcement by industry to respect “Do Not Track” settings in Web browsers is “a positive step for consumer privacy.”

“The Administration’s call for a comprehensive privacy bill of rights comes at a pivotal time when there is a tremendous concern among consumers about their personal information,” said CDT President Leslie Harris in a prepared statement. “While we believe legislation will likely be necessary to achieve these protections, we support the White Paper’s call for the development of consensus rules on emerging privacy issues to be worked out by industry, civil society, and regulators.”

“For five years CDT has pushed for the development of a reliable ‘Do Not Track’ mechanism; today’s Digital Advertising Alliance announcement is an important step toward making ‘Do Not Track’ a reality for consumers,” said CDT’s Director of Consumer Privacy Justin Brookman in a prepared statement. “The industry deserves credit for this commitment, though the details of exactly what ‘Do Not Track’ means still need to be worked out,” Brookman said. “CDT will continue to work through the W3C standards setting process to develop strong and workable ‘Do Not Track’ guidelines.”

As Edward Wyatt reported at the New York Times, however, implementation of these online privacy guidelines won’t be just a matter of adding some lines of code:

Much remains to be done before consumers can click on a button in their Web browser to set their privacy standards. Congress will probably have to write legislation governing the collection and use of personal data, officials said, something that is unlikely to occur this year. And the companies that make browsers — Google, Microsoft, Apple and others — will have to agree to the new standards.

There will be a press conference tomorrow, streamed live from the White House. (Much more to come on this story tomorrow, though given that I’ll be traveling, you’ll be reading it elsewhere.)

A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

· Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.

· Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.

· Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

· Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

· Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.

· Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

· Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

White House Privacy White Paper

This story has been updated as more statements and news stories came online.

U.S. Supreme Court decides government use of GPS for monitoring constitutes search under the 4th Amendment.

Huge electronic privacy news out of Washington. In an historic unanimous decision on United States vs. Jones, the United States Supreme Court found that “the Government’s attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.” That means that the federal government will now need a probable cause warrant to affix a GPS device to a car.

Kashmir Hill, Forbes’s ace privacy writer, summarized this decision succinctly in a tweet linking to the decision: “Gov lost. Privacy won.”

“The decision, in what is arguably the biggest Fourth Amendment case in the computer age, rejected the Obama administration’s position that American’s had no privacy in their public movements,” wrote David Kravets in Wired: “Warrant required for GPS tracking, Supreme Court rules.” Kravetz observed how long it’s been since a similar case made it to the nation’s highest court:

During oral arguments in the case in November, a number of justices invoked the specter of Big Brother if the police could secretly attach GPS devices on Americans’ cars without getting a probable-cause warrant.

The last time the high court considered the Fourth Amendment, technology and privacy in a big-ticket case was a decade ago, when the justices ruled that the authorities must obtain search warrants to employ thermal-imaging devices to detect indoor marijuana-growing operations, saying the imaging devices carry the potential to “shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy.”

“While the result was unanimous, the reasoning was not,” observes Timothy Lee in ArsTechnica: “Supreme Court holds warrantless wiretapping unconstitutional

A five-judge majority led by Justice Scalia, and including most of the court’s conservatives, focused on the physical trespass involved in attaching the device to the car. Three of the court’s liberals signed a concurrence by Justice Alito, a conservative, that would have taken a stronger pro-privacy stance, holding that extended warrantless tracking itself violates the Fourth Amendment regardless of whether the government committed a trespass to accomplish it.

Justice Sotomayor straddled the line. She signed onto the majority opinion, but also filed a separate concurrence in which she endorsed both Scalia’s concerns about physical trespass and Justice Alito’s broader concerns about the dangers of warrantless GPS tracking.

“As Justice Alito incisively observes, the same technological advances that have made possible nontrespassory surveillance techniques will also affect the Katz test by shaping the evolution of societal privacy expectations,” Sotomayor wrote, referring to the famous case of Katz v. United States that established the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test for violations of the Fourth Amendment. “Under that rubric, I agree with Justice Alito that, at the very least, ‘longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.’”

The Center for Democracy and Technology, which was an active participant in the jurisprudence surrounding the case, released the following statement on the ruling:

“The Supreme Court today made it clear that it will not allow advancing technology to erode the Constitutional right of privacy,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, Director of CDT’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.
The Justice Department had argued that the GPS device, because it tracked the person’s movements only on the public streets, did not raise any concern under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which generally requires a warrant for searches and seizures.  Not a single Justice agreed with the government on that issue.
Instead, all nine agreed that, under the facts of the case, the Constitution required a warrant issued by a judge.  Five Justices agreed that any use of GPS planted by the government was a search generally requiring a warrant, effectively settling that issue.
The case also has implications for tracking individuals using cell phone tower data.  Five Justices held that a warrant would have been required on the facts of this case even if the government tracking did not involve planting a GPS device.  ”Cell phone triangulation can be just as precise as GPS,” Nojeim said. “Congress should build on this opinion by writing a statute that draws a bright line requiring the government, except in emergencies, to get a warrant before turning your cell phone into a tracking device.”
CDT has helped to coordinate a coalition of major Internet companies, think tanks and advocacy groups from across the political spectrum calling on Congress to require a warrant for cell phone tracking.
CDT filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, arguing that warrant is required for GPS tracking.

“Wow,” tweeted electronic privacy and security researcher Chris Soghoian. “Justice Sotomayor in Jones concurrence (pg 5): it may be necessary to reconsider the 3rd party doctrine,” he continued, which is that there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy for data held by ISPs & telcos.”

In the decision, Sotomayor wrote that it is ‘ill suited to the digital age.’

“So 4 supreme court judges embraced the mosaic theory (but not by name),” tweeted Soghoian. “4 weeks of GPS tracking by gov not OK, but a lesser amount might be. Also interesting to see Sotomayor cite last year’s OnStar privacy firestorm as evidence that the public is not cool with covert GPS tracking. Majority opinion by Sup Ct paves way for more gov tracking of cellphones, which gov still claims it can do (w/single tower data) w/o warrant.”

Expect more tech policy and privacy writers to be all over this one, all week.

Transportation Camp DC gets geeky about the present and future of transit

Today in Washington, the “School without Walls was full of of civic energy around open data, tech, community, bikes, smart cities, systems, efficiency, sustainability, accessibility, trains, buses, hacking, social networking, research, policy, crowdsourcing and more. Transportation Camp, an “unconference” generated by its attendees, featured dozens of sessions on all of those topics and more. As I’ve reported before, transit data is open government fuel for economic growth.

A Case for Open Data in Transit from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Below, the stories told in the tweets from the people show how much more there is to the world of transit than data alone. Their enthusiasm and knowledge made the 2012 iteration of Transportation Camp in the District a success.


As Wikipedia prepares to go dark in protest, prospects for SOPA and PIPA dim in Congress

Online pressure to rethink anti-piracy bills that threaten the Internet industries, security and online free speech continues to build, although, as the New York Times reported, many still expect these online piracy bills invite a protracted battle. There are, as it turns out, quite a few people willing to stand up to these bills.

More notable criticism of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PROTECT IP Act in the U.S. Senate went online this weekend. Tim O’Reilly made his case for why SOPA and PIPA are bad industrial policy this weekend. The EFF explained how SOPA and PIPA violate White House principles supporting free speech. The MIT Media Lab came out against the bills with a lucid post by Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman explaining why they oppose SOPA and PIPA.

And, despite the paucity of coverage on the TV networks whose parent companies helped write the bills, a prominent blog post on SOPA and PIPA at Craiglist will continue to raise awareness online. The most intense day of online protest looks yet to come: On Wednesday, many websites will “blackout” to protest these bills, including Reddit. The biggest of these to date is Wikipedia’s SOPA initiative: co-founder Jimmy Wales shared on Twitter that Wikipedia will be “blacked out on Wednesday.

For those left wondering why such opposition persists after some sensational headlines this morning, prospects for the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House are significantly damaged but the legislation is not “dead.” Rather, the legislation is shelved until ‘consensus is reached.’ I believe that the writer at the Examiner sourced Rep. Darrell Issa’s statement from late Friday night when he wrote that Rep. Cantor made a ‘surprise statement.’ There’s no such statement in the House Majority Leader’s social media accounts or at GOPLeader.gov. As of this afternoon, requests for a statement to Rep. Cantor’s office have not been returned.

Here’s what actually was released: “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 Rep. Issa in a prepared statement released late Friday night.

Seasoned security scribe Bill Brenner is more reasonable in his caution at CSO Online and at his blog, where he writes that:

It appears SOPA is headed for the shelf due to the rising tide of opposition. Details on the site where I do my day job, CSOonline. I also wrote a post warning people that this isn’t over by a long shot.

Why is it important to be careful about declaring this legislation dead? Consider recent experience on another controversial bill. The White House indicated that they won’t accept a bill that damages freedom of expression or security this weekend. Remember, however, the statements of his administration regarding H.R. 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). President Obama signed the military spending bill into law at the end of 2011. He added an important coda to it, however:

“My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” wrote President Obama in a signing statement.

It’s the actions of presidential administrations in the future, given detention powers in the NDAA, that worry many observers, including the ACLU. Once such executive authority is granted, it will likely take years for the judicial system to provide a check or balance. And given that the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security has already been taking down websites for over a year, caution for this White House’s position here is warranted.

In one scenario, consider that a heavily amended version of SOPA and PIPA that do contain DNS provisions could make it through Congress, once “consensus is reached” in the House and a filibuster from Senator Wyden in the Senate is overcome.

In the absence of clearer guidance from the House Majority Leader’s office on what’s acceptable in the bill, it remains possible that a deal could still be made which legislative leaders then feel represents “consensus” — Rep. Smith has said he’ll pull the DNS provisions, for instance — and then SOPA could be brought to a vote. The President could add a signing statement and, well, you get the idea.

The Senate version’s of an anti-piracy bill (The PROTECT IP Act) is set for a potential vote next week. 14 Senators are currently publicly opposed to it. Without support from the House or the White House, of course, its prospects to become law in this Congress are damaged but not eliminated. Senator Leahy has indicated that he’d recommend study the impact of the DNS provisions after passage, not pull them entirely. Brad Plumer, who wrote that lawmakers are backing away from online piracy bills, offered this analysis:

Now, that doesn’t mean these bills, or their most controversial features, are dead and buried. Leahy, for one, was pretty clear that still supports passing a bill with DNS-blocking — he just thinks that feature should be studied carefully before it actually gets implemented. (As TechDirt’s Michael Masnick points out, that sounds like a compelling reason to slow down and reconsider before passing the bill, rather than enacting a provision that lawmakers don’t fully understand.)

UPDATE: On Tuesday, January 17th, Rep. Lamar Smith said that markup of SOPA would resume in February. So no, SOPA is not dead. Here’s the statement his office released:

Chairman Smith: “To enact legislation that protects consumers, businesses and jobs from foreign thieves who steal America’s intellectual property, we will continue to bring together industry representatives and Members to find ways to combat online piracy.

“Due to the Republican and Democratic retreats taking place over the next two weeks, markup of the Stop Online Piracy Act is expected to resume in February.

“I am committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House that saves American jobs and protects intellectual property.”

One of the most powerful politicians in the U.S House has publicly voiced his opposition to the bill, consistent with past opposition to regulatory burdens created in Washington. “The internet is one of the most magnificent expressions of freedom and free enterprise in history,” said Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), in a statement opposing SOPA. “It should stay that way. While H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, attempts to address a legitimate problem, I believe it creates the precedent and possibility for undue regulation, censorship and legal abuse.”

He’s right. These bills would upend the predictable legal environment created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, subjecting online innovators to a new era of uncertainty and risk. Legal experts from the top law schools in the country warn that they would damage free speech. Human rights experts warn that they would would force pervasive scrutiny and surveillance of Internet users’ online activities. Venture capitalists warn would chill the growth of social media and conscript every online platform into a new role as content police. The government’s own cybersecurity experts, at Sandia Labs, warn that these bills would damage DNSSEC, harming national security at a time when American government, businesses and consumers face attacks on their networks and computers every day. The founders of the Internet and World Wide Web warn that would lay the groundwork for an increasingly balkanized Internet, directly undercutting U.S. foreign policy advocacy in support of a single, global, open network.

If you’re curious about where your elected officials in Washington stand, learn whether your U.S. Representative or Senators support SOPA or PIPA using SOPAOpera.org, a Web application made by ProPublica using public data. (A full database is available at ProPublica.org, along with the methodology behind it.)

While Wikipedia and other sites blacking out at this scale is an an unprecedented action, what happens offline is still critical. That’s where laws are still made, after all. While new means of collective action enabled by the Internet are increasingly important, particularly with respect to generating coverage of these bills by the broadcast media, the voices that Representatives and Senators listen to most are those of their constituents. If these bills are important to you, the most effective action that any concerned citizen that wants to talk to Congress can take remains to go see your Senator or Congressman in person, call them or write them a letter.

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.