Friday, January 20, 2012

Protest Success: SOPA Protests Unravel Congressional Support for Anti-Piracy Bills as Original Backers Change Positions

One Senator Says He Will No Longer Back Legislation He Co-Sponsored, Another Says More Time and Research are Needed

Internet protests by big cyber-players such as Wikipedia and Google this week made a solid dent in Congressional support for anti-web piracy measures as lawmakers abandoned and rethought their backing for the proposed legislation, which promised a high-profile showdown between new media interests and some of the most powerful commercial interests in Washington.

Freshman Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising GOP star, announced Wednesday morning that he would no longer back anti-Internet piracy legislation he had co-sponsored, while Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the campaign operation for his party, quickly jumped on the bandwagon, opting to suggest that Congress take more time to study the measure that had been set for a test vote next week.

Before the business day even started on Wednesday, Cornyn posted on his Facebook page just before 9 a.m. that it was "better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong. Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the Internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time," he wrote, the NY Times reports.

Their decisions came after swathes of the Internet were shut down Wednesday to protest two separate bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, written by GOP Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, drafted by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Members of Congress — many of whom are grappling with the issues posed by the explosion in new media and social websites — appeared caught off guard by the backlash to what had been a relatively obscure piece of legislation to many of them, the Times reports.

The backlash to the pending legislation had caused the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, to go dark. Google's home page had a black banner across its home page that leads to pointed information blasting the bills.

Such new-media lobbying was having an impact. "As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs. However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies," wrote Rubio on his Facebook page, the NY Times reports.

The Motion Picture Association of America, NewsCorp, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Chamber of Commerce and old-line media companies that have long been Washington powerhouses have been pressing for legislation for at least four years, saying their intellectual property is being stolen by offshore websites.

A previous version in the last Congress was similarly savaged, but with far less visibility, reports Times writer Jonathan Weisman.

And where does the PRSA stand? The association released this statement: "We respect the protection of a company's or individual's intellectual property rights, while also firmly believing in the freedom of expression and the continuation of an open and unrestricted Internet. As such, we oppose the current versions of the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, currently under review by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, respectively.

It is the opinion of PRSA that SOPA and PIPA, as currently written, overreach, threatening the innovation and development of the Internet."



Civilization going into Reverse

Victor Davis Hanson

In Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra was doomed both to tell the truth and to be ignored. Our modern version is a bankrupt Greece that we seem to discount.

News accounts abound now of impoverished Athens residents scrounging pharmacies for scarce aspirin -- as Greece is squeezed to make interest payments to the supposedly euro-pinching German banks.

Such accounts may be exaggerations, but they should warn us that yearly progress is never assured. Instead, history offers plenty of examples of life becoming far worse than it had been centuries earlier. The biographer Plutarch, writing 500 years after the glories of classical Greece, lamented that in his time weeds grew amid the empty colonnades of the once-impressive Greek city-states. In America, most would prefer to live in the Detroit of 1941 than the Detroit of 2011. The quality of today's air travel has regressed to the climate of yesterday's bus service.

In 2000, Greeks apparently assumed that they had struck it rich with their newfound money-laden European Union lenders -- even though they certainly had not earned their new riches through increased productivity, the discovery of more natural resources, or greater collective investment and savings.

The brief Euro mirage has vanished. Life in Athens is zooming backward to the pre-EU days of the 1970s. Then, most imported goods were too expensive to buy, medical care was often premodern, and the city resembled more a Turkish Istanbul than a European Munich.

The United States should pay heed to the modern Greek Cassandra, since our own rendezvous with reality is rapidly approaching. The costs of servicing a growing national debt of more than $15 trillion are starting to squeeze out other budget expenditures. Americans are no longer affluent enough to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to import oil, while we snub our noses at vast new oil and gas finds beneath our own soil and seas.

In my state, Californians for 40 years have hiked taxes; grown their government; vastly expanded entitlements; put farmland, timberland and oil and gas lands off limits; and opened their borders to millions of illegal aliens. They apparently assumed that they had inherited so much wealth from prior generations and that their state was so naturally rich, that a continually better life was their natural birthright.

It wasn't. Now, as in Greece, the veneer of civilization is proving pretty thin in California. Hospitals no longer have the money to offer sophisticated long-term medical care to the indigent. Cities no longer have the funds to self-insure themselves from the accustomed barrage of monthly lawsuits. When thieves rip copper wire out of street lights, the streets stay dark. Most state residents would rather go to the dentist these days than queue up and take a number at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hospital emergency rooms neither have room nor act as if there's much of an emergency.

Traffic flows no better on most of the state's freeways than it did 40 years ago -- and often much worse, given the crumbling infrastructure and increased traffic. Once-excellent K-12 public schools now score near the bottom in nationwide tests. The California state university system keeps adding administrators to the point where they have almost matched the number of faculty, although half of the students who enter CSU need remedial reading and math. Despite millions of dollars in tutoring, half the students still don't graduate. The taxpayer is blamed in constant harangues for not ponying up more money, rather than administrators being faulted for a lack of reform.

In 1960 there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws and far fewer lawyers -- and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later. Technological progress -- whether iPhones or Xboxes -- can often accompany moral regress. There are not yet weeds in our cities, but those too may be coming.

The average Californian, like the average Greek, forgot that civilization is fragile. Its continuance requires respect for the law, tough-minded education, collective thrift, private investment, individual self-reliance, and common codes of behavior and civility -- and exempts no one from those rules. Such knowledge and patterns of civilized behavior, slowly accrued over centuries, can be lost in a single generation.

A keen visitor to Athens -- or Los Angeles -- during the last decade not only could have seen that things were not quite right, but also could have concluded that they could not go on as they were. And so they are not. Washington, please take heed.



Capitalism = Freedom

There are a few things Mitt Romney needs to do in order to energize the Republican base -- and, not coincidentally, define the debate over his record as a businessman that will be the subject of harsh criticism from the President and his allies.

First, he needs to make clear what the choices are. As Donald Luskin points out in a brilliant piece in today's Wall Street Journal, capitalism is really about freedom (cf Milton Friedman). Contrary to the President's view, it's not about leaving people to "fend for themselves" -- it's about trusting that people are smart enough and capable enough to make better choices for themselves than big, intrusive government can make for them. It's about leaving people free to have an opportunity to use their God-given talents to make of their life what they will, without constant government interference.

Obviously, there is always a balance that must be struck between freedom and "equality" (or "security"). Of course, we must do for those who truly cannot do for themselves. We are a compassionate country, and no one wants to change that. But the President has gotten the balance wrong. What he seems to forget -- and what Romney must remind him, and Americans generally -- is that we DO do for others, but that government isn't always the best (or only) agent of help. In fact, sometimes (not always, but sometimes), people are helped more effectively through the operation of the free market than through mandates from government bureaucrats.

What Americans need to understand is that every effort to insulate every American (or American business) from the possibility of failure comes at a price. The price is economic growth, opportunity and personal responsibility. Are there bad, greedy people in business? Absolutely. But there are bad, greedy people in government, too. That's the human condition in a fallen world. And working for the government doesn't automatically make you virtuous, any more than working in the private sector makes you evil.

Second, Romney has to stop worrying about the fact that he's rich. It fits with the story of opportunity that he's telling. His father was born in humble circumstances and didn't even finish college. His wife has roots in a humble Welsh mining village. He has worked hard for his money and should explain that his story (and theirs, and the President's, for that matter) is only possible in a land of opportunity.

In fact, it's wrong for those who have already "made it" -- like the President and First Lady -- to deny all credit to America for their opportunities. It's wrong for them, and people like them, to decide instead that their accomplishments are uniquely theirs (because of their superior intellect or whatever) and then use those positions to reduce the opportunities for those who come after them, in the name of supposedly "helping" others. And make no mistake: Every time achievement is penalized -- and those who succeed are denigrated -- it sends a message and it reduces opportunity.

Contrary to what the President, Occupy Wall Street (and, sadly, some Republican presidential candidates) would have us believe, as long as it's done honestly, there's nothing wrong with earning money. In fact, it's the money that people like Mitt Romney have earned that allow people like Barack Obama the luxury of "spread[ing] the wealth around." Big government types should be thanking the rich, not demonizing them.

In the end, the election is about one thing: Opportunity and freedom vs. government control and stagnation. It's about whether Americans want a President who wants the government to give them a fish (at least until the country goes bankrupt) -- or one who wants to help create the conditions where Americans can fish for themselves, for life. Let's hope Romney says so, without apology.



Don't Trust Your Instincts

John Stossel

Simple answers are so satisfying: Green jobs will fix the economy. Stimulus will create jobs. Charity helps people more than commerce. Everyone should vote.

Well, all those instinctive solutions are wrong. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in "The Fatal Conceit," it's a problem that in our complex, extended economy, we rely on instincts developed during our ancestors' existence in small bands. In those old days, everyone knew everyone else, so affairs could be micromanaged. Today, we live in a global economy where strangers deal with each other. The rules need to be different.

Hayek said: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

You might think people have begun to understand this. Opinion polls show Americans are very dissatisfied with government. Congress has only a 12 percent approval rating. Good. People should be suspicious of what Congress would design. Central planners failed in the Soviet Union and Cuba and America's public schools and at the post office.

Despite all that failure, however, whenever a crisis hits, the natural instinct is to say, "Government must do something."

Look at this piece of instinctual wisdom: Everyone should vote. In the last big election, only 90 million people voted out of more than 200 million eligible voters. That's terrible, we're told. But it's not terrible because a lot of people are ignorant. When I asked people to identify pictures of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, almost half couldn't.

This is one reason I say those "get out the vote" drives are dumb. I take heat for saying that, but Bryan Caplan agrees. He's a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of "The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies."

"A lot of bad policies ... pass by popular demand," Caplan told me. "In order to do the right thing, you have to know something."

The "informed citizen" is the ideal of democratic societies, but Caplan points out that average citizens have no incentive to become informed, while special interests do. The rest of us have lives. We are busy with things other than politics. That's why our democratic government inflates the price of sugar through trade restrictions, even though American sugar consumers far outnumber American sugar producers.

Caplan has a radical proposal for citizens: Be honest. If you know nothing about a subject, don't have an opinion about it. "And don't reward or penalize candidates for their position on an issue you don't understand."

Political life differs from private life. If you vote for a candidate while ignorant about issues, you'll pay no more than a tiny fraction of the price of your ignorance. Not so in your private affairs. If you're dumb when you buy a car, you get stuck with a bad car. You get punished right away.

"And you may look back and say, 'I'm not going to do that again.' ... It's not so much that voters are dumb. Even smart people act dumb when they vote. I know an engineer who is very clever. ... But his views on economics (are) ridiculous."

It's not what people don't know that gets them into trouble. It's what they know that isn't so.

"A very common view is that foreign aid is actually the largest item in the budget," Caplan said. "It's about 1 percent."

Actually, even less. Medicare, Social Security, the military and interest on the debt make up over half the budget. But surveys show that people believe foreign aid and welfare are the biggest items.

So, you ignorant people, please stay home on Election Day. And those of you who do vote, please resist the instinctive urge to give our tribal elders more power.

If Americans keep voting for politicians who want to pass more laws and spend more money, the result will not be a country with fewer problems, but a country that's governed by piecemeal socialism. Or corporatism. We can debate the meaning of those words, but there's no doubt that such central planning leaves us less prosperous and less free.




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