Monday, August 25, 2008

Biden on Tech Freedom Issues

Short answer: very bad.

Short-ish answer: Imagine if Jack Thompson were president, and GTA5 were coming out.

Yahoo! News has the long answer:

But back to the Delaware senator's tech record. After taking over the Foreign Relations committee, Biden became a staunch ally of Hollywood and the recording industry in their efforts to expand copyright law. He sponsored a bill in 2002 that would have make it a federal felony to trick certain types of devices into playing unauthorized music or executing unapproved computer programs. Biden's bill was backed by content companies including News Corp. but eventually died after Verizon, Microsoft, Apple, eBay, and Yahoo lobbied against it.

A few months later, Biden signed a letter that urged the Justice Department "to prosecute individuals who intentionally allow mass copying from their computer over peer-to-peer networks." Critics of this approach said that the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, and not taxpayers, should pay for their own lawsuits.

Last year, Biden sponsored an RIAA-backed bill called the Perform Act aimed at restricting Americans' ability to record and play back individual songs from satellite and Internet radio services. (The RIAA sued XM Satellite Radio over precisely this point.)

All of which meant that nobody in Washington was surprised when Biden was one of only four U.S. senators invited to a champagne reception in celebration of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act hosted by the MPAA's Jack Valenti, the RIAA, and the Business Software Alliance. (Photos are here.)

Now, it's true that few Americans will cast their votes in November based on what the vice presidential candidate thinks of copyright law. But these pro-copyright views don't exactly jibe with what Obama has promised; he's pledged to "update and reform our copyright and patent systems to promote civic discourse, innovation and investment while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated." These are code words for taking a more pro-EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) than pro-MPAA approach....

...On privacy, Biden's record is hardly stellar. In the 1990s, Biden was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and introduced a bill called the Comprehensive Counter-Terrorism Act, which the EFF says he was "persuaded" to do by the FBI. A second Biden bill was called the Violent Crime Control Act. Both were staunchly anti-encryption, with this identical language:

It is the sense of Congress that providers of electronic communications services and manufacturers of electronic communications service equipment shall ensure that communications systems permit the government to obtain the plain text contents of voice, data, and other communications when appropriately authorized by law.

Translated, that means turn over your encryption keys. The book Electronic Privacy Papers describes Biden's bill as representing the FBI's visible effort to restrict encryption technology, which was taking place in concert with the National Security Agency's parallel, but less visible efforts. (Biden was no foe of the NSA. He once described now-retired NSA director Bobby Ray Inman as the "single most competent man in the government.")

Biden's bill -- and the threat of encryption being outlawed -- is what spurred Phil Zimmermann to write PGP, thereby kicking off a historic debate about export controls, national security, and privacy. Zimmermann, who's now busy developing Zfone, says it was Biden's legislation "that led me to publish PGP electronically for free that year, shortly before the measure was defeated after vigorous protest by civil libertarians and industry groups."

While neither of Biden's pair of bills became law, they did foreshadow the FBI's pro-wiretapping, anti-encryption legislative strategy that followed -- and demonstrated that the Delaware senator was willing to be a reliable ally of law enforcement on the topic. (They also previewed the FBI's legislative proposal later that decade for banning encryption products such as SSH or PGP without government backdoors, which was approved by one House of Representatives committee but never came to a vote in the Senate.)


There are a lot of good things that Biden brings to the table, and Obama's policy proposals on this are by-and-large one of the best parts of the campaign. But there will be tension.

Edit: Here's CNET's take on it too.

This does make me wonder about what an Obama administration's relations with the Netroots is going to be like. He's already made it pretty clear that he has no time for bloggers who aren't doing it on my.barackobama.com, and certainly has no time for those who raise and spend money outside his campaign. I'm confident that he's better than the Republicans—they're the Republicans, after all—but the Biden choice raises some questions.

Even if he rips up Romney, us users want proof he won't rip us up, too.

(You know what else raises questions? Trying to do a damned emdash in a blog. I'm moving away from using double dashes, but typing out a control code each time gets very, very old.)

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