Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Proactive Legislation

The recent SOPA/PIPA debacle has me marvelling, not at the hamfisted nature of the MPAA, but at the vast, disparate collection of internet companies, startups, luminaries in the fields of CS, and privacy, and forward-thinking individuals and the effort that was brought to bear on our various legislators. For the most part, it was a loose organization of people and enterprises acting on their own, and the concerted nature of the blackout seemed to be a avalanche where small important actors triggered the event rather than ran it. And the amount of effort and energy that went into it was pretty staggering.

Just think if that amount of energy was put into writing legislation rather than merely blocking legislation?

Providing our congress-critters alternative legislation, completely drafted, seems like it could be far better than MPAA-, RIAA-, Big Oil, Big Whatever providing a significant amount of the guidance as to what the laws should be enacted. We should have our own groups put together ideas, crafting and analysing and reshaping laws to be ultimately given to legislators to introduce in their fora, and then be there to guide them as they try to reshape them to discuss our choices (especially when we chose otherwise).

The problem is that Big Whatever works. Fragmented groups of self-interested individuals and corporations never seem to form a cohesive movement, and only act in concert when threatened and then only from each of their own fears. There is no such thing as Big People or Big Citizenry. If there were, we'd ship the vast majority of Congress home and replace it with people willing to do our bidding, and change the laws to better ensure that they did so. As it stands, Big Citizenry politics is a study in waveform superposition -- it's only when there's enough people who happen to be aligned, when there's a "rogue wave" of citizen support for change, that we stand any chance of making progress. And Congressional rules increasingly impede progress, so that any such wave is likely to dissipate before any action is completed.1 So we have to be strategic when such a wave occurs, and dismantle the structure Big Everyone-Else has created.

Projects like RootStrikers are on the right track, but the larger "we" need a game plan. First, we have to strike at the things that impede political change:
  1. Cut the flow of money from lobbyists to congress-critters in all arenas: gifts, election donations, PACs, superPACs.
  2. Replace or remove old and anti-democratic Congressional rules: (secret) holds, anything that means we have to have a supermajority to pass anything, anything that requires that every piece of legislation take some undue amount of time and prevent discussion/handling of alternative legislation.2
  3. Improve the ability to hold congress-critters accountable to their campaign statements and their vows in office. This requires a bit more noodling on my part (and I'll take suggestions), but I'm thinking having some kind of contract-like device that allows something short of impeachment happen when they don't follow up at all or, worse, go directly against what they claimed they would do in office. (Can you say, "Transparency?" I knew you could.)
Second, we need to strike at the things that greatly facilitate Big Brother3:
  1. Strengthen privacy transparency requirements. Companies need to be extremely transparent about what of your data is consumed (even if not the special sauce of how).
  2. Strengthen minimum privacy requirements. Companies need to limit what they record about people that is ephemeral to their actual service, and not share it with other companies without explicit approval (that isn't buried in some arcane Terms of Service).
  3. Decentralize. While this isn't a government thing entirely, nor should it be mandated,  having a best-practices document and easy how-tos to ensure you don't have all of your online presence stuck in a company's monolithic service umbrella, and that some things are explicitly separated so as to ensure that collusion of several companies and the government (I'm looking at you, AT&T) are required to perform clandestine domestic spying.
Third, we need to strike at the things that inhibit technical progress:
  1. Overhaul the Copyright office. Restore expiration terms to their original values, making considerations for increased lifespans of the creators. Set up iron-clad fair use examples and put the onus of responsibility on the creator to show at least some infringement before issuing take-downs. Make bad take-downs cost you (e.g., a Copyright version of SLAPP).
  2. Overhaul the Patent offices. Require Software Patent Bonds, monies put in by big corporations when applying for patents, that get paid out to finders when said approved patents are later found to have prior art–don't make the system perversely set up to make it so that creators want to not look at the set of other patents to avoid the triple penalty for possible infringement (if someone finds out). Clean the house of bad patents and figure out how better to interoperate with international patents.
  3. Fix the state of anti-logic/anti-science education. It's impossible to get things done when you're not operating with people even remotely attempting to be rational actors.
Then there's a swath of other things I would get at (healthcare, taxation), but I'll save that for another day.

The remaining question is who or what group(s) is/are best set up to provide a cohesive set of legislation to enact these things, and full logistics support to shepherd them through a narcissistic, divisive Congress? And how do we rally the Big Citizenry to support them? How do we start this avalanche?
1To some extent this is a good thing, so that rational thought and consideration drive change rather than instinct and reaction, to avoid the perverse and destructive tendencies of the latter two (e.g., post-911 security theater), not to mention the cost of vacillation when the needle swings back the other way. I just think the knob has been adjusted too far.
2Even the operating system vendors have finally gotten on the bandwagon of not running blocking operations on the main/UI thread. Legislation should have deadlines for congresspeople to consume, understand, and hear back from their constituents, but it shouldn't require spinwaiting; the filibuster should not stall other legislation.
3Government or even corporate strongarming via data collection, aggregation and mining will always be possible. Making every internet service required to have some backdoor putatively for "organized crime" or more recently "the terrorists" just allows entities like the FBI/NSA/CIA/police to selectively target individuals or communities it takes issue with for harassment in the form of selective prosecution.

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