Senate

TechCrunch’s “CrunchGov” grades Congress on tech, pilots legislative crowdsourcing platform

In general, connecting more citizens with their legislators and create more resources for Congress to understand where their constituents and tech community stands on proposed legislation is a good thing. Last year’s Congressional hearings on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act made it pretty darn clear that many technologists felt that it was no longer ok to not know how the Internet works. Conversely, however, if the tech world cares about what happens in DC, it’s no longer ok to not know how Congress works.

In that context, the launch of a policy platform by one of the biggest tech blogs on the planet could definitely be a positive development. TechCrunch contributor Greg Ferenstein writes that the effort is aimed at “helping policymakers become better listeners, and technologists to be more effective citizens.”

The problem with the initial set of tools is that they’re an incomplete picture of what’s online, at best. CrunchGov won’t satisfy the needs of tech journalists, staffers or analysts, who need deeper dives into expert opinion, policy briefings and data. (Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy and Technology, OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation already offer those resources.)

Will “grading” Members of the House of Representatives on TechCrunch’s new Congressional leaderboard lead to them being better listeners? Color me, well, unconvinced. Will an “F” from TechCrunch result in Reps. Smith, Grassley, or Blackburn changing the bills they introduce, support or vote for or against?

Hard to know. True, it’s the sort of symbol that a political opponent could use in an election — but if Reddit’s community couldn’t defeat SOPA’s chief sponsor in a primary, will a bad grade do it? Ferenstein says the leaderboard provides a “a quantified opinion” of the alignment of Reps with the consensus of the tech industry.

Update: as reported by Adrian Jeffries at The Verge, this quantified opinion is based upon TechCrunch editorial and “data and guidance from four tech lobbies.”

Engine Advocacy, which represents startups; TechNet, which represents CEOs in areas from finance and ecommerce to biotech and clean tech; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents major Silicon Valley employers; and the powerhouse conglomerate The Internet Association, which represents Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among others.

Ferenstein told Hamish McKenzie at PandoDaily that “We’re saying this is generally the view of many people who read our site.” If that’s the case, it would be useful to transparently see the data that shows how TechCrunch readers feel about proposed or passed bills — much in the same way that POPVOX or OpenCongress allow users to express support or opposition to legislation. At the moment, readers are stuck taking their word for it.

McKenzie also highlighted some problems with the rankings and the proposition of rankings themselves:

On three major issues – net neutrality, privacy, and cyber security – TechCrunch’s surveys found no consensus, which somewhat undermines the leaderboard rankings. After all, those rankings appear to be based mainly on three data points: a Congressperson’s position on SOPA, and his or her votes on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It might be true that CrunchGov takes a data-driven approach to its rankings, but when three data points out a possible set of six are omitted, it’s fair to question just how useful the measure is.

As much as anything else, that speaks to the complicated definition of “those in the technology industry.” The industry is so broad and varied, from solo developers creating social games in their basements to hardware executives wanting to drive profits on their devices, that trying to establish consensus on political issues across a broad section of a relatively amorphous community is probably an impossible task. It also overemphasizes tech issues among the myriad of policy concerns that people working in the industry hold, some of which might seem tangential but are actually inextricably tied to the industry. What of climate change? What of taxes? What of puppies?

Also, applying grades to legislators puts TechCrunch in the same camp as the NRA, Americans For Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club in terms of assessing representatives based on narrow, and politically loaded, interests. It’s a headline-oriented approach that provides low-information people with a low-information look at a process and system that is actually very complicated.

More effective citizenship through the Internet?

I’m not unconvinced these limited bill summaries or leaderboard will help “technologists” become “more effective citizens,” though I plan to keep an open mind: this new policy platform is in beta, from the copy to the design to the number of bills in the legislative database or the data around them.

Helping readers to be “more effective” citizens is a bigger challenge than educating them just about how legislators are graded on tech-related bills. The scope of that  knowing who your Representative, Senators or where they stand on issues, what bills are up for a vote or introduced, how they voted, The new Congress.gov will connect you to many of the above needs, at the federal level. It might mean following the money, communicating your support or opposition to your elected officials, registering to vote, and participating the democratic processes of state and local government, from schools to . Oh, and voting: tens of millions of American citizens will head to the polls in under two weeks.

To be fair, CrunchGov does do some of these things, linking out to existing open government ecosystem online. Clicking “more info” shows positions Representatives have taken on the tech issues CrunchGov editors have determined that the industry has a “consensus” around, including votes, and links to their profiles in OpenCongress and Influence Explorer. Bill summaries link to maplight.org.

When it comes to the initial set of issues in the legislative database, there’s an overly heavy editorial thumb on the till of what’s deemed important to the tech community.

For one, “cybersecurity” is a poor choice for a Silicon Valley blog. It’s a Washington word, used often in the context of national defense and wars, accompanied by fears of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Network security, mobile device security or Web application security are all more specific issues, and ones that startups and huge enterprises all have to deal with in their operations. The security experts I trust see Capitol Hill rhetoric taking aim at the wrong cybersecurity threats.

CrunchGov has only one bill selection for the issue — the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) (H.R. 3523). The summary explains that CISPA proposes more information sharing, has a pie chart showing that “tech-friendly legislators” are split 50/50 on it, shows endorsements and opposition, links to 3 articles about the bill, including TechCrunch’s own coverage.

What’s left unclear? For one, that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) – an “A-lister” who TechCrunch writes “has received numerous awards and accolades from the industry,” supported CISPA. Or that organizations and advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and civil rights strongly opposed it. If you’re a technologist, legislator or citizen, honestly, you’re better off reading ProPublica’s explainer or the Center for Democracy and Technology’s CISPA resource page.

There’s also framing choices that meant a number of bills aren’t listed — and that the Senate is left out entirely. Why? According to Ferenstein, “the “do-nothing” congress made it impossible to rank the Senate, because they didn’t pass enough bills related to technology policy.”

It’s true that the Senate hasn’t passed many bills — but the 51 laws that did go through the Senate in the 112th Congress include more tech policy issues than that statement might lead you to believe, from e-verify to online leak prevention. It’s also moved laws that every citizens should know about, like the extension of the PATRIOT Act, given that provisions affect the tech industry. (Yes, digital due process matters in the age of the cloud: your email isn’t as private as you might think it is.)

Putting a legislative crowdsourcing platform to re-use

Congressional leaderboard and limited legislative dashboard aside, CrunchGov is trying to crowdsource legislation using a local installation of MADISON, the software Congressman Issa’s office developed and rolled out last December during the first Congressional hackathon. MADISON was subsequently open sourced, which made the code available to TechCrunch.

It’s in this context that CrunchGov’s aspirations for technology to “democratize democracy itself” may be the most tested. The first test case will be a bill from Congressman Issa to reform government IT procurement. For this experiment to matter, the blog’s readership will need to participate, do so meaningfully, and see that their edits are given weight by bill authors in Washington. Rep. Issa’s office, which has distinguished itself in its use of the Internet to engage the public, may well do so. If proposals from the initial pilot aren’t put into bills, that may be the end of reader interest.

Will other Congressmen and staffers do the same, should their bills be posted? It’s hard to say. As with so many efforts to engage citizens online, this effort is in beta.

This post has been updated, including links to coverage from Pando Daily and the Verge.

POPVOX shares its Top 50 bills for the 112th Congress (#SOPA is #1)

Last week, the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in beta, its vision of the next generation of THOMAS, the online repository of the nation’s legislative data. The site features a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors to the site see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest the site.

The most viewed bills there, however, may not match up to the most popular bills elsewhere online. POPVOX**, a civic startup that is trying to bring the voice of the People into Congress, has posted the top 50 bills on its site for the 112th Congress, in terms of activity.

That the top bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act — and that the PROTECT IP Act is also in the top 5 — is unlikely to be a surprise to observers. The other bills at the top of the list — HR3035 Mobile Informational Call Act, HR2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and  S3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – may be more unfamiliar to many people. The complete list is in the infographic below, including whether POPVOX’s userbase supported or opposed them.

popvox infographic

Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, wrote in via email to note that, as the 112th Congress comes to a close, the sequestration issue is starting to pop.

**DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX last year. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.”

 

STUDY: On Twitter, Congressional Republicans lead on engagement, links and laws cited

Data from a new study on the use of Twitter by U.S. Senator and Representatives by public relations giant Edelman strongly suggests that the Grand Old Party has opened up a grand old lead in its use of the popular microblogging platform in just about every metric.

On Twitter’s 6th birthday, there’s more political speech flowing through tweets than ever. Twitter data from the study, as provided by Simply Measured, showed that on Twitter, Republican lawmakers are mentioned more, reply more often, are retweeted more, share more links to rich content and webpages, and reference specific bills much more often. Republicans tweet about legislation 3.5 times more than Democrats.

There are also more Republicans on Twitter: while the 89 U.S. Senators who tweet are evenly split, with one more Republican Senator tipping the balance, in the U.S. House there are 67 more Republican Representatives expressing themselves in 140 characters or less.

At this point, it’s worth noting that one of Twitter’s government leads in DC estimated earlier this year that only 15-20% of Congressional Twitter accounts are actually being updated by the Congressmen themselves, but the imbalance stands.

While Edelman DC was quite tactful about what its study on the yeas and nays of the Congressional Twitterverse revealed, the lead Congressional Republicans hold on Twitter has been well documented since 2010, when a study on Twitter in Congress asserted that Democrats use Twitter for transparency, while Republicans use it for outreach. A 2011 survey of social media use in Congress by the Associated Press found that the Republicans similarly “out tweeting” Democrats on Twitter.

While the ways that governments deal with social media cannot be measured by one platform alone nor the activity upon it, the data in the embedded study below be of interest to many, particularly as the window for Congress to pass meaningful legislation narrows as the full election season looms this summer.

In the context of social media and election 2012, how well a Representative or Senator is tweeting could be assessed by whether they can use Twitter to build awareness of political platforms, respond to opposing campaign or, perhaps importantly for the purposes of the election, reach potential voters, help get them registered, and bring them to the polls

Capitol Tweets: Yeas and Nays of the Congressional Twitterverse

Nathan Eung, one of the authors of the study cited above, wrote at Govfresh about how the reasons for using Twitter may be different across party lines

Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.

All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability.

Capitol Tweets: New Edelman Study Looks at U.S. Congressional Performance on Twitter

A Conversation About Social Media, Open Government and eDemocracy [VIDEO]

If the town square now includes public discourse online, democratic governments in the 21st century are finding that part of civic life now includes listening there. Given what we’ve seen in this young century, how governments deal with social media is now part of how they deal with civil liberties, press freedom, privacy and freedom of expression in general.

At the end of Social Media Week 2012, I moderated a discussion with Matt Lira, Lorelei Kelly our Clay Johnson at the U.S. National Archives. This conversation explored more than how social media is changing politics in Washington: we looked at its potential to can help elected officials and other public servants make better policy decisions in the 21st century.

I hope you find it of interest; all three of the panelists gave thoughtful answers to the questions that I and the audience posed.

A tale of 42 tweets: Highlights from my first Social Media Week in DC

Last week was “Social Media Week” here in DC. The week featured speakers, panels, workshops, events, and parties all across the District, celebrating tech and social media in the nation’s Capital, including a special edition of the DC Tech Meetup. I moderated four panels, participated in a fifth and attended what I could otherwise. I found the occasion to be a great way to meet new people around the District. Following is a storify of some of my personal highlights, as told in tweets and photographs. This is by no means representative of everyone’s experiences, which are as varied as the attendees. It’s solely what I saw and what lingered from the social media week that was.


Don’t just broadcast Supreme Court hearings on TV: stream the video online

While Chief Justice John Roberts may assert with considerable “justice” that the Supreme Court of the United States is the most transparent part of government, the fact remains that hearings are not televised on CSPAN nor on a .gov website.

This week, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-7 to send a short bill on to the full Senate that would amend the U.S. Code to allow Supreme Court hearings to be broadcast live on national TV.

“Four days ago more than 111 million Americans watched the Super Bowl. No one would have tolerated that game being recorded and broadcast days later or its plays being transcribed and released at the end of the week. The outcome of the Supreme Court argument next month goes to the heart of our democracy and will affect Americans more than the outcome of any football game. Now is the time for the Supreme Court’s public proceedings to become truly accessible to the millions of Americans who will be affected by its rulings.”-Senator Patrick Leahy

Video of the Judiciary Committee session is embedded below, via C-SPAN:

I agree with that these hearings should be made available to the American people through broadcast television. The full Senate and House might consider going one step further, however, and amend the bill to add a provision for a livestream to the Internet.

The Supreme Court did get a new look — and online address — at SupremeCourt.gov in 2010. SupremeCourt.gov does provide access to opinionsordersdocketCourt calendarstranscriptsschedulesrulesvisitors’ guidescase-handling guidespress releases and other general information.

The upcoming hearings about the healthcare reform law could make this the year when the judicial branch gets upgraded to be a real-time component of the public sphere of 2012. While oyez.org is a tremendous resource for those interested in hearing audio recordings of hearings, citizens deserve better.

In the age of the Internet, public means online.

UPDATE: An alert — and informed — reader on Facebook commented that Justices Scalia and Breyer weighed in against televising hearings:

“I was initially in favor of televising,” said Scalia, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986. “But the longer I’ve been there, the less good idea I think it is. … If I really thought the American people would get educated, I’d be all for it.” But, Scalia insisted, people would see only brief, illusory exchanges. “For every 10 people who sat through our proceedings gavel to gavel, there would be 10,000 people who would see nothing but a 30-second takeout … which I guarantee you would not be representative of what we do.”

Video of their testimony before the Senate is embedded below:

C-SPAN has a dedicated page on “Cameras in the Court” with the positions of each Supreme Court Justice.

[Update: Per Adam Liptak's report for the New York Times, that page is now behind, with respect to Justices Kagan and Sotomayor's stance. (They've expressed concerns after joining the high court.) I've updated their quotes below.]

Here are their most recent comments, per that page:

Justice Elana Kagan:

“I have a few worries, including that people might play to the camera. Sometimes you see that when you watch Congressional hearings.” -  Remarks to the  the University of Michigan Law School, September 7, 2012

Justice Clarence Thomas:

“It runs the risk of undermining the manner in which we consider the cases. Certainly it will change our proceedings. And I don’t think for the better.” – Testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee, April 4, 2006

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“I don’t think most viewers take the time to actually delve into either the briefs or the legal arguments to appreciate what the court is doing … They speculate about, oh, the judge favors this point rather than that point. Very few of them understand what the process is, which is to play devil’s advocate.” - interview with Charlie Rose, February 6, 2013

Justice Anthony Kennedy

“…But I don’t think it’s in the best interest of our institution…Our dynamic works. The discussions that the justices have with the attorneys during oral arguments is a splendid dynamic. If you introduce cameras, it is human nature for me to suspect that one of my colleagues is saying something for a soundbite. Please don’t introduce that insidious dynamic into what is now a collegial court. Our court works…We teach, by having no cameras, that we are different. We are judged by what we write. WE are judged over a much longer term. We’re not judged by what we say. But, all in all, I think it would destroy a dynamic that is now really quite a splendid one and I don’t think we should take that chance.” – Appearance before the House Appropriations Subcommittee, March 8, 2007

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“I think what bothers many people, at least me, on the other side, is that if it were in the Supreme Court, I think it would become a symbol for every court, and therefore it would be in every criminal trial in the country. And when I start thinking about witnesses, [sic] I don’t want them thinking how they look to their neighbors…And I do think about the O.J. Simpson case. And I think I’m not certain I would vote in favor of having it in every criminal trial in the country. And then I also think a problem in the appellate court is that when we decide something, it’s decided for millions of people. Of the millions of people who will be affected, only two or three are actually there in the form of parties… A decision of this issue, this kind of issue, which carries with it threats to that institution as well as benefits, should be decided after really pretty serious research and study, and not decided on the basis of something that happens to strike somebody two minutes in a conversation. And that goes, by the way, for me as well as for everybody else.- American Bar Association Rule of Law Symposium Panel on The Role of the Judiciary, November 10, 2005

Justice Stephen Breyer:

“I think there are good reasons for it and good reasons against it. The best reason against it is the problem that we could become a symbol since we are the Supreme Court, and if it was in our court, it would be in every court in the country, criminal cases included…When you have television in some, not all, criminal cases, there are risks. The risks are that the witness is hesitant to say exactly what he or she thinks because he knows the neighbors are watching. The risk might be with some jurors that they are afraid that they will be identified on television and thus could become the victims of a crime. There are risks involving what the lawyer might or might not be thinking…Is he influenced by that television when he decides what evidence to present? So what you have in me and the other judges, is a conservative reaction, with a small “c.” We didn’t create the Supreme Court…But we are trustees for that reputation, a reputation of great importance so that government will work fairly in America…And not one of us wants to take a step that could undermine the courts as an institution.”

“…I hope eventually the answer will become clear, that either those who are concerned about the negative effects are shown wrong, or they’re shown right. But at the moment I think it’s quite uncertain what the answer is.” – Interview on C-SPAN’s Q & A, December 4, 2005

Justice Samuel Alito

“I had the opportunity to deal with this issue actually in relation to my own court a number of years ago. All the courts of appeals were given the authority to allow their oral arguments to be televised if it wanted. We had a debate within our court about whether we would or should allow television cameras in our courtroom. I argued that we should do it…The issue is a little different in the Supreme Court. It would be presumptuous for me to talk about it right now, particularly since at least one of the justices have said that a television camera would make its way into the Supreme Court over his dead body. I will keep an open mind despite the decision I took in the third circuit.” – Confirmation Hearing, January 11, 2006

Chief Justice John Roberts:

“There’s a concern (among justices) about the impact of television on the functioning of the institution. We’re going to be very careful before we do anything that might have an adverse impact.”
- Remarks at the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ annual conference, July 13, 2006

“Well, my new best friend, Senator Thompson, assures me that television cameras are nothing to be afraid of. But I don’t have a set view on that. I do think it’s something that I would want to listen to the views of – if I were confirmed – to my colleagues.”
- Confirmation Hearing, September 14, 2005

This post has been edited and updated since its initial publication, including additional content, links and quotes.

4 reasons #40dollars resonated more with citizens on Twitter than #1000days

Yesterday, David Copeland reported at ReadWriteWeb that the GOP tried to replicate the success of the White House’s #40dollars social media campaign on Twitter with their own #1000days effort. As the Chicago Tribune reported, the GOP campaign sought to highlight an inauspicious milestone for the U.S. Senate. 1,000 since it passed a budget. Democrats, who control the Senate, last approved a budget in 2009.

Writes Copeland, “It’s clear that the digitial [sic] media campaigns had different goals, and #1000days was primarily aimed at emphasizing a point that was notably absent in President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. But if social media as it pertains to politics is truly about connecting with voters and constituents, score one for the Democrats.”

In this particular case, I mostly agree. The GOP’s efforts at gop.gov/sotu this year constituted an unprecedented use of the Web and social media by an opposition party to respond to a State of the Union, with smart integration of Twitter and YouTube. Citizens asked questions on the #GOPSOTU hashtag and Members of Congress responded using YouTube. As the Daily Dot reported, the #1000days hashtag has failed to spread beyond the Beltway. From what I’ve seen, the four reasons why #1000days hasn’t resonated in the same way break down into structural, tactical, and strategic issues:

1) Structural issue: Reach. Based upon the statistics I’ve seen, the @WhiteHouse has much more reach than than any single other “governance” account on Twitter. The GOP caucus in Congress, former Massachusetts governor@MittRomney and the @Heritage Foundation do have, in aggregate, an even or greater number of engaged followers. That said, the @BarackObama campaign account, which amplified the #40dollars conversation, has far greater reach, if lower engagement. Both metrics matter, in terms of the ability to involving and focusing more citizens in a given conversation around a #hashtag at a given time.

2) Tactical issue: Timing. The #1000days campaign was launched during the #SOTU, when the attention of politically engaged Americans was fractured between paying attention to the President’s speech itself, watching online (3m+ visits to wh.gov/sotu), reading the media organizations competing to report or fact check on the speech online, watching the TV networks and, of course, talking to one another.

3) Strategic issue: Adaptability. Agreeing upon and passing a budget is a fundamental, basic issue for the operations of any business, organization or government entity. Congress and the Obama administration have cobbled together a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills to fund itself over the past 3 years. While many Americans have to make and live by budgets in their personal lives and businesses, however, the #1000days campaign may be both too abstract and too constrained to a single message. The question about #40dollars, by contrast, asked citizens what it means to them, which is concrete, personal and invites creative answers.

4) Tactical issue: Engagement and Amplification. As Copeland reports, “Ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans started tweeting using the hashtag #1000days to accent the amount of time since Senate Democrats passed a federal budget.”

On Tuesday night, the top tweets for a search of the #1000days hashtag come from @MittRomney and Republican politicians. Neither Romney nor @SenJohnMcCain had retweeted any followers who have used the hashtag. @SpeakerBoehner has primarily retweeted the @GOPconference or other members of his caucus. The Heritage Foundation has only retweeted its own staff. That pattern is replicated throughout other participating accounts.

The @WhiteHouse, in contrast, continued its practice of resharing tweets from Twitter users who joined the conversation, sharing the voices of citizens with one another, not just other politicians. There’s a good lesson in this successful use to of Twitter that should extend well beyond citizen engagement and open government circles. One campaign amplified the messages of the representatives, the other channeled the voices of constituents responding to their elected issues on on a given issue back through the accounts coordinating the effort.

As I pointed out last year in an article on social media, politics and influence, it’s of note that the operators of the @WhiteHouse Twitter account now routinely natively retweet other accounts participating in #WHchats. While some of these Tweets will leave followers without context for the Tweet, the White House appears to have shifted its online strategy to one of engagement versus the lower risk style broadcasting that most politicians adopt online. To date, many of the president’s political opponents have not followed suit.

The challenges of these four issues look validated by the results to date: some 6,000 tweets per hour for #40dollars at the height of the campaign, as Ed O’Keefe wrote at the Washington Post. Keefe, on a talk on Monday, given by Kori Schulman, White House deputy director for digital strategy, “by 5 p.m., #40dollars was trending worldwide, Schulman said, and the hashtag was generating about 6,000 tweets per hour. At the height of the push, WhiteHouse.gov received about 5,000 responses per hour to the question.” In total, Schulman said the #40dollars campaign “generated 70,000 tweets, 46,000 submissions via the White House Web site, 10,000 related Facebook posts and contributions from 126,000 users.”

By way of contrast, according to the numbers in Topsy, the #1000days campaign has generated 3,862 tweets in the past week.

Agree? Disagree? What am I missing here.

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.