Insights on fighting “Protect IP” from a Q&A with Congresswoman Lofgren

May 19, 2011 at 10:50 pm Leave a comment

Summary. Appeals to free speech and chilling effects are at best temporary measures in the fight against Protect IP and domain seizures. Even if we win this time it will keep coming back in modified form; the only way defeat it for good is to convince Washington that artists are in fact thriving, that piracy is not the real problem, and that takedown efforts are not in the interest of society. We in the tech world know this, but we are doing a poor job of making ourselves heard in Washington, and this needs to change.

As most of you know, the Protect IP Act is a horrendous piece of proposed legislation sponsored by the “content industry” that gives branches of the Government powers to sieze domain names at will, force websites to remove links, etc. Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren has been one of the very few legislators fighting the good fight, speaking out against this grave threat to free speech.

I was invited to a brown bag lunch with Rep. Lofgren at Mozilla today. (Mozilla has gotten involved in this because of the events surrounding the Mafiaafire add-on and Homeland Security.) I asked the Congresswoman this question (paraphrased):

“Does the strategy of domain-name seizures even have a prayer of achieving the intended outcome, or is it going to lead to something similar to the Streisand effect, as we’ve seen happen repeatedly on the Internet? Tools for circumvention of censorship in dictatorial regimes, that we can all get behind and that the U.S. government has often funded, may be morally different from tools for circumvention of anti-infringement efforts, but they are technologically identical.” [Princeton professor and now FTC chief technologist Ed Felten has pointed this out in a related context.]

In response, Rep. Lofgren pivoted to the point that seemed to be her favorite theme of the day—the tech world needs to come up with ways to monetize online content, she said. Unless that happens, it’s not looking good for our side in the long run.

At first I was slightly annoyed by her not addressing my question, but after she pivoted a couple of more times to the same point in answer to other questions I started to pay close attention.

What the Congresswoman was saying was this:

  1. The only way to convince Washington to drop this issue for good is to show that artists and musicians can get paid on the Internet.
  2. Currently they are not seeing any evidence of this. The Congresswoman believes that new technology needs to be developed to let artists get paid. I believe she is entirely wrong about this; see below.
  3. The arguments that have been raised by tech companies and civil liberties groups in Washington all center around free speech; there is nothing wrong with that but it is not a viable strategy in the long run because the issue is going to keep coming back.

Let’s zoom in on point 2 above. We techies all say we have the answers. New technology is not needed, we say. The dinosaurs of the content industries need to adapt their business models. Piracy is not correlated with a decrease in sales. Piracy happens not because it is cheaper, but because it is more convenient. Businesses need to compete with piracy rather than trying to outlaw it. Artists who’ve understood this are already thriving.

Washington is willing to listen to this. But no one is telling it to them.

There are a million blog posts that make the points above. But those don’t have an impact in Congress. “You vote up articles on Reddit all day,” Rep. Lofgren said. “Guess what, we don’t check Reddit in Washington.” Yes, she actually said that. The exact wording might be off but she used words to essentially that effect. She also pointed out that the tech industry spends by far the least amount of effort on lobbying. The entire industry has fewer representatives, apparently, than individual companies from many other sectors do.

A lot of information that we consider common knowledge is not available in Washington. It needs to be in a digestible form; for example, academic studies with concrete numbers that can be cited will be particularly useful. But a simple and important first step is to start communicating with policymakers. In my dealings with them, I’ve found them more willing to listen than I would have thought. So here’s my plea to the community to redirect some of the energy that we expend writing blog posts and expressing outrage into something more constructive.

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I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

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