I remember fondly the days when we were all tickled pink by our elected officials’ struggle to understand how the internet works. Whether it was George W. Bush referring to “the internets” or Senator Ted Stevens describing said internets as “a series of tubes,” we would sit back and chortle at our well-meaning but horribly uninformed representatives, confident that the right people would eventually steer them back on course. Well I have news for members of Congress: Those days are over.
We get it. You think you can be cute and old-fashioned by openly admitting that you don’t know what a DNS server is. You relish the opportunity to put on a half-cocked smile and ask to skip over the techno-jargon, conveniently masking your ignorance by making yourselves seem better aligned with the average American joe or jane — the “non-nerds” among us. But to anyone of moderate intelligence that tuned in to yesterday’s Congressional mark-up of SOPA, the legislation that seeks to fundamentally change how the internet works, you kind of just looked like a bunch of jack-asses.
Some background: Since its introduction, SOPA and its Senate twin PROTECT-IP have been staunchly condemned by countless engineers, technologists and lawyers intimately familiar with the inner functioning of the internet. Completely beside the fact that these bills as they currently stand would stifle free speech and potentially cripple legitimate businesses by giving corporations extrajudicial censorial powers, they have found an even more insidious threat: The method of DNS filtering proposed to block supposed infringing sites opens up enormous security holes that threaten the stability of the internet itself.
The only problem: Key members of the House Judiciary Committee still don’t understand how the internet works, and worse yet, it’s not clear whether they even want to.
It’s of course perfectly standard for members of Congress to not be exceptionally proficient in technological matters. But for some committee members, the issue did not stop at mere ignorance. Rather, it seemed there was in many cases an outright refusal to understand what is undoubtedly a complex issue dealing with highly-sensitive technologies.
When the security issue was brought up, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina seemed particularly comfortable about his own lack of understanding. Grinningly admitting “I’m not a nerd” before the committee, he nevertheless went on to dismiss without facts or justification the very evidence he didn’t understand and then downplay the need for a panel of experts. Rep. Maxine Waters of California followed up by saying that any discussion of security concerns is “wasting time” and that the bill should move forward without question, busted internets be damned.
The fact that there was any debate over whether to call in experts on such a matter should tell you something about the integrity of Congress. It’d be one thing if legitimate technical questions directed at the bill’s supporters weren’t met with either silence or veiled accusations that the other side was sympathetic to piracy. Yet here we are with a group of elected officials openly supporting a bill they can’t explain, and having the temerity to suggest there’s no need to “bring in the nerds” to suss out what’s actually on it.
“No legislation is perfect,” Rep. Watt said at one point, continuing the insane notion that the goal of the House should be to pass anything, despite what consequences it may bring. Later, Iowa Representative Steve King tweeted, somewhat ironically, about surfing the internet on his phone because he was bored listening to his colleague Shiela Jackson speak about the bill. Then, even more ironically, another representative’s comments calling him out for it were asked to be stricken from the record.
So it was as proponents of the Hollywood-funded bill curmudgeonly shot down all but two amendments proposed by its opponents, who fought to dramatically alter the document to preserve security and free speech on the net. But the chilling takeaway of this whole debacle was the irrefutable air of anti-intellectualism; that inescapable absurdity that we have members of Congress voting on a technical bill who do not posses any technical knowledge on the subject and do not find it imperative to recognize those who do.
This used to be funny, but now it’s really just terrifying. We’re dealing with legislation that will completely change the face of the internet and free speech for years to come. Yet here we are, still at the mercy of underachieving Congressional know-nothings that have more in common with the slacker students sitting in the back of math class than elected representatives. The fact that some of the people charged with representing us must be dragged kicking and screaming out of their complacency on such matters is no longer endearing — it’s just pathetic and sad.
Fortunately, committee members like Zoe Lofgren, Jason Chaffetz and Jared Polis are attempting to keep some semblance of sanity and reason in these debates. You can follow them live as the mark-up continues today via live stream or Twitter.