Dec. 3 2012 09:59 PM

Issa's proposed moratorium is cool in spirit, but otherwise impractical

Issa does Reddit.
Photo courtesy of

Analogies are handy when it comes to understanding complex technologies, but they're next to useless in making arguments. Here's an example:

Not too long ago, I saw a local journalist on Twitter defend U-T San Diego's new pay wall with the following argument: Plumbers get paid for their work, so should reporters. Now, don't get me wrong—I believe I'm worth paying. But that analogy is worth about as much as a flattened novelty penny from the Museum of Modern Irrelevancy. Here's the thing: There are laws regulating how property owners manage water and sewage. If there were an ordinance requiring that all landlords provide their tenants with clean, flowing, hot-and-cold local news, we wouldn't be debating whether pay walls will save the journalism profession. News organizations would have a guaranteed market, though the government intervention would probably erode all the benefits of having a free press to begin with.

That said, I'm now about to drop an analogy, not as an argument, but an explanation.

Imagine your PC was still running Windows 98 and that for 14 years, you've simply installed patches and updates to an operating system that was designed before the creators of YouTube or Facebook had even graduated (or in, some cases, even enrolled) in college. That's essentially how the United States regulates the Internet through laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Communications Decency Act. They're designed to address old scenarios, making it immensely difficult to address the rapidly adapting reality.

I tend to be a bit of a radical when it comes to the Internet. In my mind, law-enforcement efforts should be focused on child exploitation and financial fraud, not copyright infringement. I embrace the anarchy of the web, the way that whatever rules companies or governments might enact are frequently ignored because they're either unenforceable, easily circumvented or ridiculously unfair. Any attempt to regulate digital spaces should favor the user and encourage commercial innovation, community organization and individual expression.

I believe that, as a species, we're speeding toward a new existential paradigm, where the very nature of what it means to be human and a society is in flux, and physical-world assumptions about the economy have to be all but abandoned. It's moving so fast that most attempts to legislate the 'net are based on almost immediately obsolete information.

So, it was kind of exciting to see U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican whose district covers part of North County, launch an even more radical proposal last week. Under the Internet American Moratorium Act, the federal government— both Congress and the executive branch—would be barred from passing any new regulations or rules governing the Internet for two years. His point is that lawmakers and regulators really have little clue how the Internet ecosystem functions.

To an extent, that's true. I remember one Congressional candidate telling us during the 2012 election, in all seriousness, that he/she didn't need CityBeat's permission to use our photos on campaign materials because, once it's on the Internet, it becomes free. It doesn't, not legally. At the same time, Issa has proven—especially with his efforts to defeat last year's heinous anti-piracy bills—that he gets it, even if some of his votes, such as his yes on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, deserve a smack-down (which users totally delivered when he debuted his moratorium on Reddit last Wednesday).

Rep. Susan Davis, a Democrat whose district covers much of the city of San Diego, is also demonstrating that she's not a total n00b. With the Ensuring Shoppers Transparency in Online Pricing Act, or E-STOP, Davis wants online merchants (at least those who do more than $1 million in annual sales) to disclose when they automati- cally alter prices based on a user's personal data, whether that's an IP address, geographic location or browsing history. It doesn't ban the practice, which is becoming more and more common and isn't altogether negative, but it does allow for greater consumer choice. It's a simple transparency proposal and not something where waiting two years would make a great difference.

But let's get two things straight about Issa's moratorium: First, in practice, it would be a disaster. Regulatory agencies would find themselves powerless to fix their mistakes or to adapt to unforeseen threats. Second, it won't pass. Congress would never, ever—with a Taylor Swiftian extra ever!—handcuff itself like that; nor would the Obama administration.

But as a discussion point, Issa's anarchic idea is brilliant. 

Email or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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