Congress, The FEC, and the Future of Technology

by Tom Bridge

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This afternoon on Capitol Hill, the Congressional Internet Caucus held a panel on McCain-Feingold & the Internet, and while the video is still coming (showing on C-SPAN as I type this late in the evening on the East Coast), you can download MP3 Audio of the discussion between Mike Cornfield of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology, Chairman Scott Thomas of the FEC and Mike Krempasky of Red State.

During Mr. Krempasky's opening statement, he made an incredible point. In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London, on the rumor that cats and dogs were spreading bubonic plague, ordered the destruction of all dogs and cats in the city. Except, this had an horrific effect, removing all predators for the true vector for the disease: rats. The FEC is threatening to remove bloggers' voices from the campaign field because of campaign finance problems, which is disingenuous, since Mr. Krempasky makes the point that bloggers are "a broad and deep cross section of America...the blogosphere is fiercely independent, it's suspicious of authority, suspicious of money and frankly it's more effective than any regulation could be at exposing these connections and fact checking the so called authorities who try to...throw their influence around."

Mr. Morris of the CDT made an excellent follow up point, that the FEC is threatening to make laws that affect the internet today that will only hinder the internet five years from now. We're still inventing at such a rapid pace that laws affecting specifics of the internet and its use for speech, political or otherwise will be ineffective in short order. This is becoming a common theme in government regulation of technology.

Before the Supreme Court this week is Grokster v. MGM whereby the entertainment industry is arguing that technology is harming them, even when the technology wasn't created for that purpose in the first place. As we involve government in the innovation business, it seems to me that we are doing so to our own peril: regulations against the use of technology interferes with the inherent ingenuity of American businesses. No one knows where technologies like BitTorrent are going, and restricting and manhandling their usage will only make things more difficult for us to free them from the fetters of bad laws in five years.

When Apple began to respond to the recession of the early 2000s, they did so not through layoffs and staff cutbacks, they did so through innovation. Thusly was the iPod born, the new iMac (twice revised since then), the G5, the Cinema Displays and a whole host of additional software products based on media. Had the government limited what media could be produced on a computer in 2000, this would have limited an entire digital media revolution, and destroyed an incredible business concept. So too is political speech being threatened by poor understandings of the internet and technology. So too is file-sharing and digital rights policy by poor understandings of the internet technology.

The public comment period on the new Rule from the FEC begins on the day of release to the public Register, currently slated for next Friday, the 8th of April, and will last 60 days. If you blog, if you innovate, if you benefit from either of these things, and believe me, we all do, take the time to write to the FEC about your viewpoints and make yourself heard. It is, after all, our democracy, we ought to take part in it.

Regulation vs. Innovation, what's your take?