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Summary:

Tea Party favorite Senator Rand Paul took to the podium at a Heritage Foundation event last week to talk about tech policy. However, individual rights and less government regulation certainly are important to the future of the internet, there are necessary limits to that freedom.

bureaucracy

It must be difficult to be a member of the Tea Party, having to balance the desire for more rights for everyone — including corporations — with less government to enforce those rights. A recent Heritage Foundation event featuring Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), highlights the movement’s dichotomy. (Watch it in its entirety in the video below). Here’s where the Tea Party — or Paul, at least — gets it right and wrong on technology policy.

On copyright

Paul seems to understand the problems surrounding copyright enforcement online, right down to his reasons for opposing SOPA. It wasn’t so much what SOPA was trying to do in terms of shutting down pirate sites or forcing companies such as Google to act in some cases, as much as it was about the lack of due process in making these things happen. “There almost needs to be a trial …” he said. “It shouldn’t be just one person complaining to another website and all of a sudden the web site is shut down.”

Paul even suggested the idea of a federal court process through which copyright-holders could go to ask for fast adjudication on their claims of infringement, presumably to balance out concerns over high legal costs with the need for due process. I’ll assume, then, his defense of the YouTube model for content removal (and, by proxy, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act) is just a matter of not really understanding that law. Under the DMCA, complaints lead directly to takedowns or, in some cases, expensive trials that destroy companies and business models that end up being on the right side of the law.

In response to an audience question, Paul noted there’s room for debate over the length of copyrights and patents to balance out innovation and consumer protection with creators’ needs to monetize their inventions. The real question, however, which Paul didn’t address, is how we amend copyright and patent law to address new technologies and modes of delivering content.

On privacy

If the recently defeated Cybersecurity Act of 2012 really was problematic privacy-wise, as even Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) thinks it was, Paul was right to vote against it. He’s also right to stand up for consumer rights, claiming that any bill offering immunity against lawsuits to companies that share user data with the government will essentially protect those companies should they decide to breach contractual terms about data sharing. Consumers make considered choices when selecting service providers, he said, but “you don’t have a choice to make a contractual arrangement with our government.”

However, because signing up for services from companies such as Google, Facebook or any other web company requires voluntarily agreeing to its terms of service and privacy policies, Paul said they have access to whatever you grant them. I’m not for obtrusive privacy regulations that will unduly limit innovation and perhaps drive up the costs of services, but some rules and regulations laying out what companies can do with user data — and how they explain those uses in their privacy policies — probably aren’t the worst things in the world.

On the legislative process

Paul doesn’t think expansive legislation is the best way to address certain technological issues, such as cybersecurity, and I tend to agree. The process is slow, often reactionary to the known threats of the day, and potentially stifling to new approaches and technologies. “By the 24 months it may take to write the rules on cybersecurity, it’s already changed. It changes every day,” Paul said. “[O]ne of the things government is not is agile.”

Rather, on cybersecurity, at least, he suggests facilitating open exchanges between the government and companies around information exchange, and granting companies certain narrow rights to fight cybercrime (although I’m not sure his idea of offering freedom from certain antitrust laws is wise). Maybe they can create a working group dedicated to identifying and stopping the types of attacks everyone is seeing. This, Paul said, would attack problems in lightweight, narrow ways rather than always having  to “open Pandora’s box.”

Another of Paul’s ideas is just to let the courts resolve certain technology problems relatively quickly as they arise rather than trying to draft future-proof legislation and regulations. It’s not an ideal solution — courts deal in the specific facts of each case, their precedent is geographically limited and legal contracts could theoretically allow for some rather unethical practices — but it’s not entirely without merit.

On net neutrality

OK, Paul didn’t address net neutrality at the event, but Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy James Gattuso, who emceed the event, did. And Paul has discussed net neutrality before, as detailed here by TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. I’d argue they’re all flat wrong in the idea that government-mandated net neutrality will somehow stifle innovation and consumer choice more than will letting large carriers decide what data gets a free ride on their networks.

The idea of net neutrality actually ties into the recent hoopla over who invented the internet, something Paul did chime in on at the Heritage Foundation event, touting the individuals who took part in it over the government’s involvement. This argument falls short because it ignores the government funding involved in creating the internet, including to those individuals’ employers. As Masnick notes in his post on Paul’s net neutrality stance, the senator also conveniently ignores the government subsidies and rights of way necessary to build the internet’s infrastructure when characterizing it as privately owned infrastructure.

Boiled down to their core, Paul’s views on technology are kind of like an iron fist in a velvet glove (although whether that’s intentional or not is up for debate). They appear to have innovation and consumer rights in mind — and in some cases they do — but giving free rein to large companies with lots of control over the world’s internet experience probably means both causes will suffer in the end.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock user Nomad_Soul.

  1. The Tea Party is for more rights for everyone? Why haven’t they insisted on repealing the Patriot acts?

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    1. Derrick Harris Monday, August 6, 2012
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      1. That’s one.

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  2. It must be difficult to be a Tech Blogger, having to balance the thoughts that while in the case of SOPA government is an over-reaching, innovation killing entity but suddenly this very same government can pull off a regulation like Net Neutrality without having the very same characteristics.

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    1. Derrick Harris Monday, August 6, 2012

      It will be hard — especially for the gov’t not to give into the carrier lobby — but not all laws are bad. And what’s the alternative, other than deregulating the prioritization of packets?

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      1. Your argument comes down to “not all laws are bad”? The simple way to not give into the carrier lobby is to not create, at all, a 2,000 page law that they can unduly influence. The alternative is to open things up, allow folks to compete to provide bandwidth to consumers, who are willing to pay for the service. The government is currently sitting on unused wireless spectrum. Open up, allow folks to compete and allow the laws of supply and demand to work their magic. Keep it simple.

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  3. The Tea Party didn’t say a word until we had a black president. Who gives a damn what Klan 2.0 thinks.

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    1. The Tea Party came to be because the President mounted record debt in a short 2 year span which has brought nothing but stagnant economic recovery, 15% real unemployment, and illegal immigration. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, no violence has ever come about during a Tea Party event…..NONE.

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    2. This kind of dialog isn’t useful.

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  4. Let’s get something straight once and for all. The TEA PARTY is about 3 things: Limited Government and it’s relation to Government Fiscal Responsibility, and the Free Markets. Derrick Harris is obviously confused here as he is trying to make a automatic connection between Senator Paul’s views on this tech topic with the Tea Party, which is inaccurate. Senator Paul may be a member of the middle-class grass roots organization, but in this video he is clearly speaking in representation of Conservative politics and not on behalf of the Tea Party.

    Mr. Harris, as a responsible journalist you cannot make that assumption and try to state it as fact. You are entitled to your opinion on Senator Paul’s views, to which yours can equally and easily be challenged, but you cannot state this is a Tea Party issue. You are making a false connection and therefore your head title is inaccurate.

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    1. Derrick Harris Monday, August 6, 2012

      The author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington isn’t associated with the Tea Party? Also curious to hear how anything he said wasn’t based on limited government and free markets. That’s all I heard, which, as I said, has pros and cons when it comes to tech.

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  5. I will keep it simple the Tea Baggers are Racist S__t!

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    1. Derrick Harris Monday, August 6, 2012

      I think we should keep the name-calling to a minimum. The reality is that the Tea Party is now a meaningful force in Congress and U.S. politics, in general, and its stance on issues matters.

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  6. Rand Paul is not tea party. He is a libertarian who happens to be member of a conservative party. Libertarians if they are politicians see conservatives or other non socialist movements as allies, even if they are deep nuts.

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  7. I think the Tea Party’s opposition to net neutrality is valid. Look at the FCC’s original mission and what they have grown into. They went from spectrum management to content management and regulation. The abuse of the commerce clause is another good view into the potential dangers. What seems like sensible regulation today sets a precedent for over reach tomorrow. In general I trend to also agree with the EFF, which has noted the same concerns.

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