Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is a Democratic
torch-bearer. He is a stalwart
progressive, a reliable vote for an economic agenda aimed at helping people. But at the recent Netroots Nation, it
was what he didn’t talk about that was more important.
On Saturday night (June 9) in Providence in his home state,
Whitehouse was literally a torch-bearer.
After the close of the Netroots Nation conference there, Whitehouse took
part in an evening performance of Waterfire, a combination of performance art
with pagan ritual that involves setting fire to wood set in baskets in the
middle of the Providence River to the accompaniment of solemn music with
attendants dressed in black riding in black boats. The centerpiece of the event is Waterplace Park in downtown
Providence, and it was there that the lead boat circled, with Whitehouse in the
bow, holding aloft a flaming torch.
Whitehouse had spent considerable time at the conference
this year, as he did a year ago, speaking from the big stage but also chatting
with conference attendees and with reporters and bloggers, even showing up on a
Sunday morning to greet Netroots attendees who did some community cleanup the day
after the convention ended.
The crowd, generally of the progressive mind-set, likes him,
but are stumped when asked this:
Did you know that Senator Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary
Committee, supported the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity
and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (aka PIPA), the Senate copyright bill
A sample of responses to that question: “I didn’t know that.” “Really?” “I’m surprised.” It was, to be sure, the one topic he
didn’t bring up voluntarily in discussion in the middle of the crowd of people
who more than likely helped to kill the copyright bills (PIPA and its evil
House cousin, the Stop Online Piracy Act, aka SOPA.)
In an interview, Whitehouse was forthrightly unapologetic
about taking a stand that flies in the face of the Netroots Nation crowd. His priority is to protect
American jobs and support American industry. He said he is worried about the “audio techs and key
grips” and others who can’t sell their works if those works are pirated. Whitehouse said his big worry are the
“foreign criminals” who are selling U.S.-made products: “I still have a problem of
criminals in China or Estonia making millions from stolen goods.”
Whitehouse said he recognizes now one of the flaws in PIPA
— the proposed requirement that search engines and Internet Service Providers
direct Web users away from supposed “pirate” sites, basically rewriting the Domain
Name Service (DNS), the phone book of the Internet, an integral part of the
Internet plumbing deleting the objectionable sites. Whitehouse said the bill shouldn’t have interfered with the
fundamental operations of the Internet.
Fooling with the DNS system was the “third rail”
of the debate, Whitehouse said. He
expected that flaw would be fixed on the Senate floor, had the bill come up for
debate. But, he said the House
version of the bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was “so bad”
and the reaction from the public so intense that the Senate leadership chose
not to bring the bill to the floor.
That fierce reaction left “a big residue” in
Congress, and led to SOPA becoming a verb among the legislative community. To be SOPA’d is to be hit with an
intense public reaction and Senators don’t want to be hit with it again.
Whitehouse’s solution is pretty much the standard in
Washington. He said that Google,
Facebook and Wikipedia need to “work something out” with the music
and art industries.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, also put in a lot of
time at Netroots Nation, talking to conference-goers and meeting with Maryland
residents. He was a co-sponsor of PIPA, but was one of the first to drop off
last January when pressure against the bill was mounting. He said he was
responding to concerns of Marylanders (a push from the Maryland Juice political
blog also helped).
Cardin also told us, as did Whitehouse, that “something
needs to be done” to curb the “piracy.” He didn’t like the PIPA bill “as written.”
So from the standpoint of Whitehouse and Cardin, mainstream
Democrats, we are at a standoff.
Something has to be done, but we aren’t sure what, and we don’t want to
call down the wrath of Internet activists again. A standoff in this instance is good because the ghosts of
SOPA and PIPA continue to haunt Capitol Hill. Emissaries from Senate and the House are quietly going
around Washington asking tech companies what it would take to “fix”
the legislation next year. The
entertainment industries never give up.
The world view from Whitehouse and Cardin contrasts sharply
with those of two other legislators, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Darrell
Issa (R-CA), two of the heroes of the SOPA/PIPA fight who helped to scuttle the
bills. Wyden has the longer
history in protecting an open Internet, but Issa stood up at a crucial time
this winter against the SOPA bill.
The two spoke at the opening session of the Personal
Democracy Forum (PDF) 2012 conference in New York on June 11. They lauded the citizen activism that brought down the
copyright enforcement bills, with Wyden heaping praise on the elimination of
the “middlemen” — the lobbyists, reporters, pollsters, etc.
Both legislators said they wanted an Internet/Digital Bill of
Rights. Issa said he wants a right
to “free, uncensored Internet,” an open unobstructed Internet.” He wanted to “get neutrality right,”
an admirable goal, although he doesn’t support the Federal Communications
Commission rules, saying the agency didn’t have the authority to proceed. (The matter is in court, and it’s likely the FCC will lose.)
And yet, and yet, and yet. There are enormous doses of unreality that invade the
Whitehouse (as opposed to the White House) view of the world, as there are with
the view of Issa and Wyden.
If Whitehouse thinks that the only problem with PIPA was
that it tinkered with the internals of the Internet, he was sadly
mistaken. That was only one
problem. On a Netroots panel,
Steven DeMaura of the conservative Americans for Job Security, said it was the
ability of companies to bring their own law suits that energized his
group. There are many provisions
to which conservatives, progressives, pro-Internet activists of all sorts,
While Whitehouse and Cardin want to do “something”
on piracy, it’s not the sit-down with organizations and companies that will
solve the issue. Even if Wikipedia
or Reddit or Tumblr were admitted
to the club, saying that a small group can work out the problem in isolation
won’t cut it. A wider, public
discussion should take place, starting with an honest assessment of the
problem. Whitehouse and Cardin
still accept the supposed “harms” of piracy from the entertainment
industry — figures which no one else has been able to replicate or justify.
Neither mentioned anything about the entertainment
industries trying harder to solve their problems by allowing more consumer
access to content. Limiting access to movies or TV shows, or even making it
impossible to see programs or movies online because of arbitrary release dates
hurts the content business. Making
some content subject to data caps and other content exempt hurts consumers.
Failing to recognize research that contradicts the old,
unproven saws (accepted by government without confirming evidence) about
potential losses from piracy and loss of jobs. While entertainment leaders are great talking about their
studies “proving” losses from piracy, they ignore other research
showing that downloaders also buy the most music and other content.
From the Wyden/Issa viewpoint, an Internet Bill of Rights is
a fine idea. Issa has proposed
some language for one such Bill of Rights, which he said would cover SOPA and
PIPA under the right to an “unobstructed Internet.” (Issa in the past has voted for
bills to toughen copyright enforcement, including the Pro-IP Act that increased government
seizure forfeiture authority, which is what the government uses to justify
seizing Internet domains.)
Another Bill of Rights-like effort is on Reddit. Others are starting to draft their own
versions. Public Knowledge has an
Internet Blueprint. These are all
worthwhile endeavors. Even if they
remain as intangible principles, there is some public value in having them
debated and accepted. As Wyden
said at PDF, such a document could be used as a benchmark against which
legislation could be measured and he thought perhaps half of the Congress could support it given enough time. That seems optimistic.
The question will be whether such a Bill of Rights to
protect Internet users would prohibit the abuses proposed in PIPA and
SOPA. The conflict between those
values will be a debate worth having, and it will be interesting to see where
Congressional Netroots boosters come down when the conflict comes up again next year. Then the Netroots will know who their real