Grading the Tech Policy Makers: A First Quarter Recap

It's been a busy 2012 on the Hill. As legislators and policymakers grapple with an array of issues central to the policy agendas of companies in the technology industry, CIO.com takes stock of how Washington has moved on intellectual property, cybersecurity, privacy and spectrum in the first quarter of 2012.

By Kenneth Corbin
Tue, April 17, 2012

CIO — In the technology policy world, the year opened with what appeared to be a short road to passage of controversial intellectual property legislation that-- while opposed by civil rights and consumer advocacy groups and many Web firms-- had the backing of the heavyweights in the film, television and music industries, special-interest groups that are used to getting their way in Washington.

Lawmakers have also refocused their attention on cybersecurity, continuing the long-running debate over what, if any, legislative measures are necessary to improve the security of critical digital systems. Meantime, the privacy debate continues to simmer, with policymakers releasing two prominent reports advancing the administration's stance on protecting sensitive information online. Then the ongoing battle between wireless providers who say they desperately need more spectrum to handle the surge in mobile data traffic and the television broadcasters who are reluctant to give up their airwaves licenses saw something of a resolution.

In tech policy, as in other heavily lobbied sectors of government activity, it can sometimes be hard to separate the heat from the light. In that spirit, we've put together a recap of the movement of some of the most prominent industry issues over the first three months of 2012, a year with an abbreviated legislative calendar owing to the fall election.

The Demise of SOPA, PIPA

With the strong backing of groups like the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA), two slightly different versions of anti-piracy legislation in the House and the Senate seemed to be on the fast track toward passage in each chamber and reconciliation in conference.

The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Senate version, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), would have given rights holders new mechanisms to pursue legal action against websites that trafficked in pirated content such as illegal digital downloads or knock-off software, with the ultimate goal of forcing the infringing sites to shut down.

The expressed purpose of the bills was to target so-called rogue foreign websites whose primary mission was the sale or distribution of material that violates intellectual property rights. Supporters of the measure made a compelling case that IP infringement amounts to billions of dollars in lost revenue for U.S. companies, which, in turn, negatively affects job growth.

But as the bills worked their way through the House and Senate, and appeared poised for the endgame debate early this year, a broad wave of opposition began to emerge, with digital rights advocates, civil liberties groups and many powerful tech companies protesting that the measures would create a dragnet that would ensnare legitimate companies, with a particularly harmful effect on startups. Some worried that popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter could be affected. Others protested that the bills would give powerful entertainment lobbies undue leverage over the Internet, with the inevitable effect of stifling innovation and free speech.

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