Bad Internet Law: What Techies Can Do About It

June 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm Leave a comment

From the dangerous copyright lobby-sponsored PROTECT IP to a variety of misguided social networking safety laws, the spectre of bad Internet law is rearing its ugly head with increasing frequency. And at the e-G8 forum, Sarkozy and others talked about even more ambitious plans to “civilize” the Internet that will surely have repercussions in the U.S. as well. Three things are common to these efforts: a general ignorance of technological reality, an attempt to preserve pre-Internet era norms and business models that don’t necessarily make sense anymore, and severe chilling effects on free speech and innovation.

The bad news is that fighting specific laws as they come up is an uphill battle. What has changed in the last ten years is that the Internet has thoroughly permeated society, and therefore the interest groups pushing these laws are much more determined to get their way. The good news is that lawmakers are reasonably receptive to arguments from both sides. So far, however, they are not hearing nearly enough of our side of the story. It’s time for techies to step up and get more actively involved in policy if we hope to preserve what we’ve come to see as our way of life. Here’s how you can make a difference.

1. Stick to your strengths—explain technology. The primary reason why Washington is prone to making bad tech law is that they don’t understand tech, and don’t understand how bits are different from atoms. Not only is educating policymakers on tech more effective, as a technologist you’ll have more credibility if you stick to doing that, rather than opining on specific policy measures.

2. Don’t go it alone. Giving equal weight to every citizen’s input on individual issues may or may not be a good idea in theory, but it certainly doesn’t work that way in practice. Money, expertise, connections and familiarity with the system all count. You’ll find it much easier to be heard and to make a difference if you combine your efforts with an existing tech policy group. You’ll also learn the ropes much more quickly by networking. Organizations like the EFF are always looking for help from outside technologists.

3. Charity begins at home—talk to your policy people. If you work at a large tech company, you’re already in a great position: your company has a policy group, a.k.a. lobbyists. Help them with their understanding of tech and business constraints, and have them explain the policy issues they’re involved in. Engineers often view the in-house policy and legal groups as a bunch of lawyers trying to impose arbitrary rules. This attitude hurts in the long run.

4. Learn to navigate the Three Letter Agencies. “The Government” is not a monolithic entity. To a first approximation there are the two Houses, a variety of Agencies, Departments and Commissions, the state legislatures and the state Attorneys General. They differ in their responsibilities, agendas, means of citizen participation and the receptiveness to input on technology. It can be bewildering at first but don’t worry too much about it; you can pick it up as you go along. Weird but true: most Internet issues in the House are handled by the “Energy and Commerce” subcommittee!

While I have focused on bad Internet laws, since that is where the tech/politics disconnect is most obvious, there are certainly many laws and regulations that have a largely positive, or at least a mixed reception in technology circles. Net neutrality is a prominent example; I am myself involved in the Do Not Track project. These are good opportunities to get involved as well, since there is always a shortage of technical folks. I would suggest picking one or two issues, even though it might be tempting to speak out about everything you have an opinion on.

To those of you who are about to post something like, “What’s the point? Congresspeople are all bought and paid for and aren’t going to listen to us anyway,” I have two things to say:

  • Tech policy is certainly hard because of the huge chasm, but cynicism is unwarranted. Lawmakers are willing to listen and you will have an impact if you stick with it.
  • If you’re not interested, that’s your prerogative. But please refrain from discouraging others who’re fighting for your rights. Defeatism and apathy are part of the problem.

Finally, here are some tech policy blogs and resources if you feel like “lurking” before you’re ready to jump in.

Thanks to Pete Warden and Jonathan Mayer for comments on a draft.
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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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