THE BLOG

A Small Ray of Congressional Hope in a Gloomy Tech World

05/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Anyone not working for a telephone, cable or entertainment company, or one of their handmaiden acolytes, might conclude from events over the past couple of weeks in Washington that members of Congress are clueless. A Committee chairman thinks aloud that maybe the Internet shouldn't have been invented. House members beat up on the most successful Web company or hammer at an Internet protocol.

It's true, that most legislators in Congress follow blithely along with their biggest company employers or givers, with a few who cling to the ideology of the mythological free market in telecommunications. One member of Congress is different from most of the others. She's not a subcommittee chairman, or a member of the formal leadership. In fact, there is only one thing wrong here.

The only problem with Rep. Anna Eshoo is that there is only one of her. Her district her California district covers the western part of Silicon Valley, so she's tuned into tech issues in a way that befits an area that is home to companies from the seminal Hewlett-Packard to today's Google, with many, many more in between. There's a difference between mouthing the words of a big corporate constituent, as many member of Congress do, and actually getting the issues and speaking with confidence and knowledge. Eshoo, a down-to-earth, dedicated lawmaker, is one of the few in the latter group. And she is needed.

Not all California politicians appreciate Silicon Valley. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), even though she is from San Francisco, is one of those. She has viewed the Internet as a threat for years, even saying so to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, a constituent company that's done well for itself and others doing business online.

Were there more Anna Eshoos to keep an eye on things, a lot of the silliness around Washington when the discussion turns to the Internet and related issues might just be eliminated. Heaven knows, there's lost of silliness.

One good example came up at an April 23 hearing of the House Communications Subcommittee on communications networks and consumer privacy. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), a reliable vote for the telephone companies, started out by using the occasion to attack the privacy policies of Google. It's the standard attack meme for the telecom industry - to distract policymakers and the public away from the sins of the phone and cable companies by pointing to Google, which is the biggest target out there.

Stearns wanted to bring "search engines and advertising networks" into the discussion, arguing that consumers don't care how their privacy is being violated. He's right, up to a point, in that privacy should be protected. Eshoo came back to the central point of the hearing - the behavior of carrier companies like the telephone and cable companies, which can have access to a wide range of consumer data that a Web site wouldn't have. She said that some people believe Web-based services and carriers should be subject to the same privacy regulations. That wouldn't be "practical or prudent," Eshoo said, because Web-based services are different from carriers. One type is a free, ad-supported service. The other is more like a common carrier, and the relationship with the consumer is different.

That point should be obvious. A consumer chooses to use a Web site, normally one among many, many options. There's little choice for Internet access, certainly not enough that privacy policies are a marketing point. Even though some Web sites are good at picking up consumer information, a single site doesn't have the bandwidth, literally, to take in all the data about what consumers use and do online that a network carrier can have. The two are quite different, which is why Eshoo said that consumers deal with doctors and stock brokers, but the relationship is quite different. It's this willingness to speak out that makes her a champion, if a lonely one, of Net Neutrality and progressive online policies.

(Later in the hearing, Eshoo tagged AT&T, which was bragging about its privacy policies. She wondered how that squared with AT&T paying $21 million in fines to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the past three years for violating customer privacy. AT&T's response that it was "proud" of its record sounded a bit lame.)

If the remarks at that one hearing were the only silliness going around, then perhaps we wouldn't need another Eshoo or two. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

At the March 18 confirmation hearing for Gary Locke to head the Commerce Department, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) mused about the dangers of cybersecurity. Rockefeller, who had formerly headed the Intelligence Committee, which could turn anyone paranoid, said that directors of national intelligence have said that attacks over the Internet are the "number one hazard of attack" against the U.S., then added: "It really almost makes you ask the question would it have been better if we had never invented the internet, and had to use paper and pencil or whatever. That's a stupid thing to say, but it has genuine consequence."

As it turns out, Eshoo-1.0 serves on the House Intelligence Committee. It's a shame there wasn't an Eshoo-2.0 on the Senate side to sit next to Rockefeller. She would probably have observed that the Internet has also been a boon to the intelligence community through the collection of open-source material now available for analysis from around the world. As a Wall Street Journal story about a break-in of a Pentagon computer noted, "In addition, while the spies were able to download sizable amounts of data related to the jet-fighter, they weren't able to access the most sensitive material, which is stored on computers not connected to the Internet."

Maybe, just maybe, an Eshoo -3.0 would have had something to say about some more foolishness, this time from the House Oversight Committee. Chairman Ed Towns (D-NY), senior Republican Darrell Issa (R-CA) and committee member Peter Welch (D-VT) sent a rather silly letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz asking what they are doing about the scourge of peer-to-peer software and how it can be misused. They cite some typical media horror stories about private information getting out that shouldn't have.

Perhaps if Eshoo-3.0, a member of the Oversight Committee, had seen this letter going around for signature, her crack staff would have tracked down the incidents and found that the fault in these cases mostly was with the software users, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out. In the case of avionics for Marine One, the defense contractor put file-sharing software on an unsecured computer, violating security protocols. She might also have noted that some p2p software has tightened up its install procedures so that files are shared only from one directory, not from a whole drive - as users putting in software should have done in the first place. They would also have found that Lime Group, another target of the ire of Towns, Issa and Owens, had rewritten its software as promised.

Any technology has its drawbacks, whether its p2p software or those environment-polluting, people-maiming and killing machines we call cars.

And she might also have referenced Mike Masnick's Techdirt article about the continual campaign being carried out by the entertainment industry to get reporters to write about the "threat" of p2p software. Masnick calls it a "ridiculous PR pitch" from yet another arm of the entertainment lobby, yet some reporters fell for it.

Alas, there is only one Anna Eshoo. But we can always hope there are other members of Congress who could employ the same smarts and guts as she does when the forces of regression meet the desires of progress on whatever committee they serve and whenever the opportunity arises. Rest assured, there are, unfortunately, plenty of chances for everybody.