North Carolina Matters
Sunday, August 11, 2002 by Dave Winer.
In late July we reported on a bill proposed by US Representative Howard Berman and three others, that would give the entertainment industry legal authority to enter, search, and even damage the personal computers of people they suspect of "pirating" their copyrighted music or movies.
This bill crosses many lines, giving powers previously reserved for the executive and judicial branches of government to private businesses. It isn't clear exactly where the lines are, and whether it would make it legal for individual citizens to access and control and even destroy the computers of the entertainment industry.
One thing is clear, as a computer professional with a public voice, I had to say something about this, and luckily some of the right people were listening.
Ed Cone, a technology writer based near Greensboro, North Carolina, runs a weblog and writes a column for the News & Record, a newspaper based in Greensboro. He also writes for Wired and Baseline magazines, which are national publications about computers and technology. Ed immediately understood the problems with the Berman bill.
Here's the bit of luck. The second sponsor of the bill, Howard Coble, is Ed's representative! Because Ed has a column in the local paper, he has access to Mr. Coble's staff, and voters in Coble's district. Ed understands the local community, which likes Representative Coble -- he is running unopposed in the November election.
Ed wrote a column about the bill that ran in last Sunday's News & Record. It was respectful; if anything, I felt that Ed's piece didn't go far enough in explaining why the bill was such a violation of individual rights, and so blatantly un-American.
If I was disappointed that Ed's column didn't go far enough, yesterday, an editorial ran in the News & Record that exceeded all my hopes.
They said the rights the bill grants the entertainment industry are "tantamount to allowing Sears or Kmart to invade your home if they believe you have shoplifted merchandise from one of their stores. And if they should accidentally bang a door or shatter a window in the process, well, no harm, no foul."
Indeed, we don't let Kmart or Sears enter our houses at all, and we don't let the government in, without probable cause or due process. To do otherwise would abrogate the US Constitution. You don't have to be a lawyer to understand this.
Now, to be clear, I don't fully endorse the position of the News & Record, but we agree on a starting point, respect for law and the rights of creative people. I also think the entertainment industry must have respect for people who use their product, and offer them a reasonable way to program music using the Internet. Further I do not advocate people using creative work without paying for it, but so far the entertainment industry has not offered a system that works the way honest users want it to. That's the place to begin the discussion, not by hobbling, invading or hacking our computers to turn the clock back to a pre-Internet distribution system. The Berman-Coble bill is the product of an industry run amok, and elected representatives who appear to not be listening to the electorate.
North Carolina Representative Coble appears to be a thoughtful person who was only hearing one side of the story. Even if he doesn't withdraw or qualify his support for the bill, we still have the satisfaction that the Internet community, which is international, has focused its frustration with the US Congress and brought it to a local community with special influence over the outcome, and respectfully and thoughtfully presented our point of view. In a medium that's good at expressing strong points of view, but in the past not so good at getting results, this is a milestone.
As Tip O'Neill said, all politics are local, but finding the localities with a special interest requires thoughtfulness, creativity and breadth of coverage. It took a while for the weblog network to reach a locality in North Carolina that makes a difference, but now we're there.