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Where the Tea Party is right, and wrong, about tech policy

By Derrick Harris | GigaOM.com,

It must be difficult to be a member of the Tea Party, having to balance the desire for more rights for everyone — including corporations — with less government to enforce those rights. A recent Heritage Foundation event featuring Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), highlights the movement’s dichotomy. Here’s where the Tea Party — or Paul, at least — gets it right and wrong on technology policy.

On copyright

Paul seems to understand the problems surrounding copyright enforcement online, right down to his reasons for opposing SOPA. It wasn’t so much what SOPA was trying to do in terms of shutting down pirate sites or forcing companies such as Google to act in some cases, as much as it was about the lack of due process in making these things happen. “There almost needs to be a trial …” he said. “It shouldn’t be just one person complaining to another website and all of a sudden the web site is shut down.”

Paul even suggested the idea of a federal court process through which copyright-holders could go to ask for fast adjudication on their claims of infringement, presumably to balance out concerns over high legal costs with the need for due process. I’ll assume, then, his defense of the YouTube model for content removal (and, by proxy, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act) is just a matter of not really understanding that law. Under the DMCA, complaints lead directly to takedowns or, in some cases, expensive trials that destroy companies and business models that end up being on the right side of the law.

In response to an audience question, Paul noted there’s room for debate over the length of copyrights and patents to balance out innovation and consumer protection with creators’ needs to monetize their inventions. The real question, however, which Paul didn’t address, is how we amend copyright and patent law to address new technologies and modes of delivering content.

On privacy

If the recently defeated Cybersecurity Act of 2012 really was problematic privacy-wise, as even Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) thinks it was, Paul was right to vote against it. He’s also right to stand up for consumer rights, claiming that any bill offering immunity against lawsuits to companies that share user data with the government will essentially protect those companies should they decide to breach contractual terms about data sharing. Consumers make considered choices when selecting service providers, he said, but “you don’t have a choice to make a contractual arrangement with our government.”

However, because signing up for services from companies such as Google, Facebook or any other web company requires voluntarily agreeing to its terms of service and privacy policies, Paul said they have access to whatever you grant them. I’m not for obtrusive privacy regulations that will unduly limit innovation and perhaps drive up the costs of services, but some rules and regulations laying out what companies can do with user data — and how they explain those uses in their privacy policies — probably aren’t the worst things in the world.

On the legislative process

Paul doesn’t think expansive legislation is the best way to address certain technological issues, such as cybersecurity, and I tend to agree. The process is slow, often reactionary to the known threats of the day, and potentially stifling to new approaches and technologies. “By the 24 months it may take to write the rules on cybersecurity, it’s already changed. It changes every day,” Paul said. “[O]ne of the things government is not is agile.”

Rather, on cybersecurity, at least, he suggests facilitating open exchanges between the government and companies around information exchange, and granting companies certain narrow rights to fight cybercrime (although I’m not sure his idea of offering freedom from certain antitrust laws is wise). Maybe they can create a working group dedicated to identifying and stopping the types of attacks everyone is seeing. This, Paul said, would attack problems in lightweight, narrow ways rather than always having  to “open Pandora’s box.”

Another of Paul’s ideas is just to let the courts resolve certain technology problems relatively quickly as they arise rather than trying to draft future-proof legislation and regulations. It’s not an ideal solution — courts deal in the specific facts of each case, their precedent is geographically limited and legal contracts could theoretically allow for some rather unethical practices — but it’s not entirely without merit.

On net neutrality

OK, Paul didn’t address net neutrality at the event, but Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy James Gattuso, who emceed the event, did. And Paul has discussed net neutrality before, as detailed here by TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. I’d argue they’re all flat wrong in the idea that government-mandated net neutrality will somehow stifle innovation and consumer choice more than will letting large carriers decide what data gets a free ride on their networks.

The idea of net neutrality actually ties into the recent hoopla over who invented the internet, something Paul did chime in on at the Heritage Foundation event, touting the individuals who took part in it over the government’s involvement. This argument falls short because it ignores the government funding involved in creating the internet, including to those individuals’ employers. As Masnick notes in his post on Paul’s net neutrality stance, the senator also conveniently ignores the government subsidies and rights of way necessary to build the internet’s infrastructure when characterizing it as privately owned infrastructure.

Boiled down to their core, Paul’s views on technology are kind of like an iron fist in a velvet glove (although whether that’s intentional or not is up for debate). They appear to have innovation and consumer rights in mind — and in some cases they do — but giving free rein to large companies with lots of control over the world’s internet experience probably means both causes will suffer in the end.

(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.

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