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. :-)