Technology and the Law

You really don’t need watch carefully to recognize that technology is advancing at a rate that is far outpacing the ability of governments and the legal system to keep up.

However, while a few stories of Congress critters struggling to cope with social media and judges being stumped by digital recording systems might be funny in the moment, the legal stagnation when it comes to rapid digital changes has serious implications for the future of American society.

As The Guardian, the UK news organization that first published Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA is monitoring everyone’s communications, accurately notes, “Technology law will soon be reshaped by people who don’t use email”.

There’s been much discussion – and derision – of the US supreme court’s recent forays into cellphones and the internet, but as more and more of these cases bubble up to the high chamber, including surveillance reform, we won’t be laughing for long: the future of technology and privacy law will undoubtedly be written over the next few years by nine individuals who haven’t “really ‘gotten to’ email” and find Facebook and Twitter “a challenge”.

And we certainly can’t count on Congress to address the issues.

This lack of basic understanding is alarming, because the supreme court is really the only branch of power poised to confront one of the great challenges of our time: catching up our laws to the pace of innovation, defending our privacy against the sprint of surveillance. The NSA is “training more cyberwarriors” as fast as it can, but our elected representatives move at a snail’s pace when it comes to the internet. The US Congress has proven itself unable to pass even the most uncontroversial proposals, let alone comprehensive NSA reforms: the legislative branch can’t even get its act together long enough to pass an update our primary email privacy law, which was written in 1986 – before the World Wide Web had been invented.

As the most recent edition of the Decode DC podcast illustrates, our legislators can’t even manage the flood of email and other messages they receive.

But while our “leaders” are bogged down with re-fighting political battles of the past, legislatures in other countries are looking forward.

By contrast, consider Finland. There, lawmakers are experimenting with a bold new way of reforming a law: crowdsourcing — meaning turning the legislative process over to the people.

Or consider Brazil, where there is now an experimental computer lab smack in the middle of the Parliament’s committee rooms. There, official staff hackers throw together apps and games and data visualizations to help Brazilians — and the members of Parliament — understand the legislative process.

So, any hope our politicians can get their act together and bring our laws into the 21st century? Probably not, especially when a third of their adult constituents (and too many of them) don’t even accept basic scientific concepts and believe in ghosts, UFOs and astrology.

Dangerous Ignorance

This kind of stupidity has long since passed being funny and is now downright frightening.

Missouri’s Todd Akin, a Representative running for Senator, made headlines through his bizarre misunderstanding of biology, specifically that of the female reproductive system. Overcome by his desire to believe that pregnancy (and thus abortion) shouldn’t be an issue for rape victims, he infamously claimed that the female body could somehow block pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”

But Akin’s (very public) misunderstanding of science pales in comparison to that of Georgia Representative Paul Broun. He’s an MD who is apparently convinced most of modern science is a plot, fostered by none other than Satan. “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory,” Broun declared, “all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

Pushing it over into scary territory is the the fact that both of these elected representatives hold positions on the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

And then there’s the chair of that committee who believes that any evidence supporting the idea that human behavior is altering the climate is produced by scientists who are only in it for the money.

These are the people who are helping to set our country’s science policy.

They are also the same people (and there are many more)* who want to infect the science curriculum with their same willful and dangerous ignorance.

*A writer in Scientific American says the anti-science, anti-intellectual movement growing in this country is actually jeopardizing democracy. It’s a long article but well worth reading.

Take the Money and Run for Office

If you’re not a regular listener to This American Life (I’m not), you still need to hear their program from last weekend, Take the Money and Run for Office.

Produced by the people behind the essential Planet Money podcast, this is a rather depressing hour about how US congress critters spend their time raising money to run for office (more time, in many cases, than on their actual jobs) and what it buys for those contributors.

That flow of money traded for influence has long since moved from the exception to the rule.

That’s our system. If a congressman went in front of a town hall meeting and said, for $5,000, I’ll sit down with anyone of you and have breakfast. You can tell me exactly how you’d like me to vote. He’d be booed off the stage.

But that’s the case for pretty much everybody in Congress. They don’t even have to say it.

I think the worst part of the hour, however, was listening to the incredible hypocrisy of John McCain, co-author of the last major piece of legislation to address campaign finance, as he whined about a situation he continues to wallow in.

Anyway, spend the time to listen and then pass it along to friends and family. If you teach US Government or American History, play it for your students and ask for their responses.

Now, I’m not naive enough to believe one public radio program is going to change anything. But it would be nice if more people paid attention to this crap instead of naively believing the old Schoolhouse Rock version of the legislative process is still the way things work.

Teachable Moment

For those who’ve missed all the shouting in certain circles of the web, today is the day the web goes on strike. At least here in the US, where our congress critters are considering two bills that, quite frankly, should scare everyone who publishes content online.

The proposed laws, as do many these days, have somewhat Orwellian names: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). I mean, who wouldn’t want to join either of those worthy causes?

Well, take a few minutes to watch this video about the many unintended consequences that are likely to come with the vaguely written, open-ended PIPA (SOPA is only slightly different in language but not in the mechanics), primarily written by representatives of the big content producers, the MPAA and RIAA.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

All that, and neither will stop people who really want to illegally distribute copyrighted content.

In addition to violating any number of Constitutional rights, these laws would have an enormous chilling effect on legitimate fair use of copyrighted material as well as the diversity of speech so badly needed in the world today.

Both laws also start with some very false premises (such as piracy is costing the US billions of dollars and millions of jobs), as explained by Tim O’Reilly.

Take a look around the web today and you’ll find many sites have gone dark in opposition to SOPA and PIPA (including Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress, and several thousand others). I’m sure many people who have never heard of SOPA or PIPA will notice as they try to go about their normal web surfing.

However, although I thought about doing the same – taking this site dark (despite being a very, very small corner of the web) – I’m an educator and it seems to me that helping anyone who arrives here, by design or accident, understand the issues is a more effective way of making the point. Same idea, different style. Thus this post you are now reading (thank you!).

However, no matter which process makes you aware of the situation, as a web user, and probably a web content creator, it’s important to understand just how dangerous this kind of legislation is and why it’s in your best interest to actively oppose it.

Take a few more minutes today to contact your congress critter. Tell them to throw out this crap (be nice :-) and instead work on rules that support genuine net neutrality and fair use.

Then spend a few dollars and join the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization that has been a leader in the fight against this and other attempts to censor voices and ideas around the world.

Yet Another Useless Sequel

According to the chair of the House Education and the Workforce* Committee, he and his fellow congress critters are “making progress” on revisions to No Child Left Behind.

Here’s what they have so far.

Two bills have already cleared the House committee: one would eliminate some federal programs; another would make it easier for states to create new charter schools. A third, which would give states more flexibility to spend federal funding according to their needs, should clear the committee this summer, he said.

The last two bills will be the most complicated and controversial, and will address the evaluation systems for teachers and the accountability provisions of the law. He predicted a lot of debate on those two, but said there was agreement that the law should not place such high stakes on the results of a single test.

Nice that they no longer believe in the power of a “single test”.

Unfortunately, nothing in this sequel to the original nearly decade-old train wreck of a law will address the real problem. Few people at any level of leadership are discussing the fundamental changes to our largely outmoded educational model that are desperately needed.

Which means NCLB 2 will be exactly like most sequels to second-rate horror movies: more of a waste of time and money, plus an even lamer plot than the original.

*Formerly Labor, which seems to be a dirty word for Republicans. :-)

Uh Oh, Someone May Not Like This!

As the years tick down to 2014, we get closer to the day when No Child Left Behind says that every student in every public school in this country will pass their annual battery of standardized tests. All at the same time. Period. No exceptions.

Which means, as the Post seems to have suddenly discovered, that a growing number of schools previously considered good are now being declared failures under the law, largely due to a few students in “sub-groups” who may not be capable of learning how to pass tests at the same time as their chronological peers.

And we have Congress critters who are equally amazed that such an incredibly misconceived plan, one with absolutely no research to support it, is not working.

“We’re getting to the point where we’re going to have almost every school in the country failing,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “We’re going to have to change that.”

Unfortunately, they will work to fix the public relations aspect of NCLB and do nothing to address the fact that all-testing, all-the-time is not a system for improving student learning.

More Crap Public Policy Polling

According to a recent survey, only 21% of those polled supports “net neutrality”, which really doesn’t make much sense until you read past the headline find more than a little crap in this so-called “research”.

The worst part was that the poll really didn’t ask about net neutrality in the first place.  Instead the polling company asked “Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate the Internet like it does radio and television?”

Neutrality is NOT about the government regulating the net in the same way they do with scarce spectrum used in traditional over-the-air communications.

It’s about preventing big media companies from controlling traffic and making sure everyone gets equal access to any and all resources they choose to use.

However, it’s not surprising the survey was phrased in a way that would benefit the corporations that own the wires, not the content producers.

The poll was conducted by Rasmussen, whose work is widely known in the industry as being “biased and inaccurate“, and is a favorite of Republican candidates and their pet cable channel.

Of course, too many of our congress critters (not to mention most of their constituents) are totally clueless when it comes to public polling, and rarely look even this deep into the statistics before accepting the findings and making their policy decisions.

As always, research of any kind should be approached with a large degree of skepticism and some understanding of basic statistics, two skills kids do not learn in most schools.

Heading in the Wrong Direction

States and the federal government have already watered down just about everything when it comes to building a quality education system for this country, so this latest step should surprise no one.

Senators have included in key legislation language that would allow teachers still in training to be considered “highly qualified” so they can meet a standard set in the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In an era when the education mantra is that all kids deserve great teachers, some members of Congress want it to be the law of the land that a neophyte teacher who has demonstrated “satisfactory progress” toward full state certification is “highly qualified.”

Many politicians and other education “experts” have already downgraded the concept of “well educated” to mean “receiving passing scores on a series of multiple choice tests”.

Now some of them want to define-down “highly qualified” as “heading in the right direction”.

I wonder what it takes to be a “highly qualified” congress critter.

Common Ground That’s More Like Quicksand

A writer in the Post speculates that the president and the new Congress might find some common ground, “ripe for deal-making” in the issue of education.

Of course there’s common ground!  When it comes to education a majority of congress critters on both sides of the aisle believe…

The way to improve education is through more and better standardized testing.

Charter schools are the magic path to improved learning (aka higher test scores), even if they use pretty much the same curriculum and teaching techniques as “regular” schools at the same or higher costs while selectively choosing their students.

Teachers are the one and only cause of bad schools (or at least the union members) and firing the “bad” ones while giving performance pay to a select group of the remaining will fix everything. Professional development for teachers? Sorry, too expensive.

And finally, schools that should educate students for their future using exactly the same structure they fondly remember from the previous century, maybe with a few computers and an interactive whiteboard added to make the classroom look high tech.

The fact that anyone believes “We need to fix No Child Left Behind.”, or that Bush’s train wreck of a law is even fixable, tells you where this “bipartisan effort” is heading.

Rep. George Miller, the outgoing House education chairman, is quoted in the story as saying, “The old days of defending the status quo have kind of evaporated over the last two years.”

That’s crap! The status quo is exactly the common ground when it comes to “deal-making” on federal control of American education, and it functions more like quicksand than a solid foundation.

Facebook Requires Congressional Oversight?

In the past few weeks I’ve read that some congress critters, along with a smattering of states Attorneys General, are calling for public hearings/investigations concerning privacy issues at Facebook.


In many ways this is just another in a long line of don’t-they-have-better-things-to-do, high profile, faux public outrages.

While I haven’t made much use of Facebook for much of anything, I do have an account and have some degree of concern about their seeming lack of concern for user security.

But do the screw-ups of a privately-owned company, whose product is largely recreational and which has little or no impact on America’s economic security, really merit the attention of our national legislature?


Isn’t this more an educational issue? One where people learn, sometimes the hard way, to take responsibility for their own digital imprint.

And about the larger community educating each other and banding together to pressure Facebook into making the changes they want? Or leaving and using other tools for socializing online.

Because no one with a Facebook account signed up for life and, although they don’t make it especially easy, it is still possible to quit.

Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time that a popular internet company has done something to upset a very noisy web minority and it won’t be the last.

However, that doesn’t mean they need to make a federal case out of it.


Hypocrisy Overload

Washington DC is commonly used as a metaphorical punching bag by a wide variety of critics, both in and out of politics, and that’s to be expected considering this is the national capital.

But once in a while there comes instances of massive hypocrisy spouted by critics that sound like something straight out of The Onion.

For example, this past Saturday a crowd of people (one much smaller than claimed by supporters) staged a protest on the mall in front of the Capitol.

Nothing unusual. The city gets dozens of manufactured events every year, and those of us who live in the DC area always know to check the papers to see what kind of mess they plan to make of travel in and out of the city.

This particular group was rallying against “big government”, “government spending”, “excessive taxation”, and an assortment of other whines that were in their script.

However, it seems one of their pet congress critters is unhappy with Metro, our local transportation system, saying they didn’t provide enough subway cars to get everyone to the demonstration on time.

A PUBLIC transportation system, paid for by an inadequate amount of TAXES, run by the GOVERNMENT didn’t live up to his high expectations.

Let’s face it, Metro is far from perfect, and the system has been deteriorating lately due to lack of support.

But overall they do a good job of not only transporting hundreds of thousands of locals every week but also millions of tourists who visit every year. And by all reports, ridership last Saturday was not much higher than most weekends this time of year.

So, if these people who hate government programs and their government-paid representative don’t like the public transportation system around here, and don’t like waiting on the platform like the rest of us, maybe they should either walk or take a cab.

Oh, yeah. That same fine representative, who is now demanding a GOVERNMENT investigation of Metro, thought that using private transit was a bad thing.

And then there’s another congress critter I ran across on some program who regurgitated what he called “the old line” about Washington being “100 square miles surrounded by reality”.

Obviously this clueless character has never made the very short trip from his cozy House chambers to Southeast DC. Or many parts of Northeast. Both well inside his 100 square miles.

Plenty of stark reality going on in those neighborhoods, reality that has NO representation in Congress and is largely ignored by most of the idiots like him working inside that irony-free zone of hypocrisy perched on Capitol Hill.