In recent weeks, some of my allies in the internet community have asked why I am working on the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act, which they see as harmful to the internet. Many of these activists have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me in the past as I fought against powerful special interests. I appreciate their views and their work to keep the internet open and free.
Let me explain my position clearly.
In my view, the trade promotion authority bill I introduced last week, along with the Trans Pacific Partnership that is still being negotiated, both present real opportunities to preserve and protect an open internet around the world.
Information Must Be Free to Move Freely
Our trade promotion authority bill sets new priorities to ensure information can flow freely across national borders. Currently, repressive regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere are conspiring to build walls around the internet that cut off the flow of information at national borders. Even democratic regimes with a lesser history of honoring free speech than the U.S. are proposing unacceptable restrictions on the internet. If the United States lets these countries set the standard that the internet should be subdivided into country-sized pieces, it will devastate digital entrepreneurs in the U.S. and squelch one of the world’s most powerful avenues for free speech.
That is far from the only digital issue at stake in upcoming trade deals. I worked with the internet community to ensure that the United States will never ask for or accept a trade agreement that contains provisions like those in PIPA and SOPA, which would have broken the internet to enforce copyright provisions.
I successfully pushed U.S. trade negotiators to seek new provisions on “limitations and exceptions” on copyright in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiation. These new provisions are consistent with what is known as “fair use,” and are vital for researchers, journalists, and an informed public.
I pushed the U.S. Trade Representative to ensure that nothing in any trade deal the U.S. signs will undermine net neutrality, which the internet community fought so hard to secure over the past year. These are major victories, victories that export the pillars of the open internet around the world.
At the same time, I fully agree with some critics who have legitimate concerns about what they saw in draft chapters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with 11 Asian-Pacific nations, and what they fear might be in the text that is not yet public. Some of the red flags that have been raised relate to concerns around current U.S. law and how it is enforced. And some U.S. laws, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, includes provisions that go too far to protect copyright at the expense of free speech, digital security and the public good.
Current Copyright Laws Are Broken
Part of the solution is to fix our laws here at home to set a better balance between technology and other important values. That is why I introduced a new bill last week to rewrite the restrictive anti-circumvention language in DMCA. This law makes us more vulnerable to cyberattacks by criminalizing research into security holes in our software and electronics. It makes it far too difficult to create accessible versions of e-books and other materials for those with impaired vision and other disabilities. And it simply doesn’t reflect the realities of today’s digital economy. This bill makes it clear that the US can roll back overly broad IP laws even after they are subjects in a trade negotiation.
Together we can stand tall against threats to innovation and free speech.
Activists rightfully criticize the effect of the trade agreements to require trade partners to mirror the U.S. copyright term of 70 years beyond the life of the author. That is far too long. As someone who owns copyrights on a number of books written by my father Peter Wyden—some of which have been made into movies and other media—I can see firsthand how ridiculous that is. Not only did my father hand on his copyrights to me, but it’s a safe bet that I’ll be handing down those rights to my children. That’s not a system that protects authors’ works; it’s a padlock on creative expression and free speech.
The Copyright Extension Act passed by unanimous votes in both the House and Senate in 1998, at a time when Congress passed a number of bills that went too far in favor of IP. I’ll be the first to admit that I made the wrong decision back then not to try and block that bill. Unfortunately, the reality is these long copyright terms simply have too much support from powerful lobbying groups and in Congress to stand a realistic chance of overturning this year.
So how do we fix it? The way the internet has always beaten back threats: by mobilizing the grassroots and bringing the internet community together to push for change. It will take a lot of sweat equity to overcome decades of lobbying, but now is the time to start. A first step would be winning this fight on anti-circumvention law. Most importantly, these trade agreements in no way inhibit American voters and their representatives from changing laws we see as outdated or simply wrong.
Reintroducing Aaron’s Law
I can’t leave this subject without raising our government’s misguided, inconsistent and dangerous implementation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In 2013, Rep. Zoe Lofgren and I introduced Aaron’s Law to rein in the sort of prosecutorial malpractice that allowed Aaron Swartz to be hounded and threatened with decades in prison for merely downloading journal articles. Meanwhile CIA officials have admitted to hacking Senate files, with no consequences whatsoever.
This system is an affront to the notion of equal justice. Yesterday, we reintroduced Aaron’s Law, along with Sen. Rand Paul. We won’t stop until Congress achieves real reforms in this area. Our bill takes direct aim at heavy-handed prosecutions for non-malicious computer crimes. Violating a smartphone app’s terms of service or sharing academic articles should never be punished more harshly than a government agency hacking into Senate files.
Yesterday, we reintroduced Aaron’s Law, along with Sen. Rand Paul. We won’t stop until Congress achieves real reforms in this area.
Despite these outdated and misguided provisions of U.S. law, the internet community, although only a few decades old, has chalked up an impressive string of wins.
When panic over the internet swept Washington two decades ago, threatening endless litigation against service providers and message boards and websites alike, former Rep. Chris Cox and I wrote Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protected those providers and paved the way for today’s interactive web, citizen journalism and social media.
When Congress wanted to bulldoze the framework of the internet to catch people who broke copyright rules, I stood up with the internet community. We stopped the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act (COICA), and when it came back with new names, we stopped SOPA and PIPA too.
When Big Cable wanted to divide the internet into fast and slow lanes, four million internet users told the Federal Communications Commission that the open internet, and net neutrality, needed to remain the law of the land. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler listened, and we won again.
Together we can stand tall against threats to innovation and free speech, from restrictive copyright, to government plans for backdoors in our private electronics to the cybersecurity bill that is really a surveillance bill in sheep’s clothing. With the internet community’s continued involvement, we can score another victory by incorporating this open internet principles into global trade policy.