Earlier today, Congress held hearings about Wikileaks and, given how the government has been reacting so far, I fully expected pure grandstanding about how "evil" Wikileaks is and how Julian Assange must be brought to justice. There was some of that, but it appears much more of it was focused on how the US government was abusing the classification system to make things secret that never should have been secret -- and how that was the real problem. Panel chair John Conyers apparently kicked off the hearing by saying that criminal charges against Assange would be "extreme" and saying that "caution is needed" before anything is done:
"Prosecuting WikiLeaks would raise the most fundamental questions about free speech, about who is a journalist and what citizens can know about their government," Conyers said. "The problem today is not too little secrecy but too much secrecy."
He also noted -- in contrast to much of the hysteria we've heard -- that while the releases have been embarassing "the real-world consequences have been fairly modest." Rep. William Delahunt appeared to echo these sentiments and again noted that secrecy by the government has been the real issue:
"Secrecy is the trademark of totalitarianism. In contrast, transparency and openness is why democracy is all about," Delahunt said.
"There is far too much secrecy and overclassification in the executive branch, and I think it puts American democracy at risk."
Many panelists appeared to make similar points as well. Thomas Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the panel that the government always overreacts to leaks and that "more openness makes us more secure." He also urged the government to "use a little restraint" and to avoid rushing into charging Julian Assange with violating the Espionage Act.
Of course, not everyone argued this way. Many of the Congressional Reps still seemed pretty bloodthirsty to charge Assange. And some of the panelists seemed to agree. Kenneth Wainstein, a lawyer from O'Melveny and Myers, warned the panel that any lawsuit against Wikileaks would raise serious First Amendment issues but then argued that the government could easily distinguish Wikileaks from the media though he did so by misstating that Wikileaks was "indiscriminately" dumping documents -- a point that has been debunked already. Gabriel Shoenfeld, who is a big supporter of government secrecy, spent a lot of time talking about how there's too much secrecy and that the government leaks info to the press all the time but ended his talk by saying that doesn't apply to Wikileaks.
However, even those who seemed to think that the government should still seek to prosecute Assange, they all seemed to admit that the government is way too secretive and abuses its classification privileges.
Last week, the FCC held what was ostensibly a panel discussion about the National Broadband Plan, but which was actually focused on copyright issues. How, exactly, is copyright an issue for broadband? Well, mainly because the entertainment industry has been trying for years to get ISPs to act as copyright cops... and apparently the FCC felt the need to hear them out. While the deck was mostly stacked in favor of the entertainment industry in terms of speakers, thankfully the FCC allowed Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge to take part as well -- and she questioned whether the FCC even had any mandate over such issues and wondered why the hearing was even being held. However, beyond stacking the deck of speakers, it appears the FCC gave significant other beneficial treatment to entertainment industry speakers.
Paramount's COO, Frederick Huntsberry, not only was given twice the amount of time to speak as the rest of the speakers had (10 minutes, instead of five, as Gigi was told), but also was able to convince the FCC that his talk was "owned" by Paramount, and should not be placed online -- as the FCC has done with all its other hearings. Wow. Yes, this was a public government hearing. Thankfully, the folks at Public Knowledge went through a low quality video of the whole proceeding and pulled out Huntsberry's part, where he not only demonstrates how file sharing works for the FCC, but goes on to implicate plenty of companies as aiding in the process, including Google, Yahoo, eBay, Boxee and others:
In the video, he demonstrates using Mininova and Drop.io (which is an amazingly useful site for many things that have absolutely nothing to do with unauthorized file sharing -- and is now being unfairly tarred by Paramount). There isn't really anything surprising in the video. He basically shows what everyone knows: it's easy to share files these days. But he seems to miss the point of that. That is, he wants the gov't to come in and try to stop this (an impossibility), rather than recognizing that it's time for him to shift his business model. Yes, distribution is cheap and easy these days. In most businesses when distribution becomes cheaper and easier, that's a good thing. Why is it that Hollywood top execs still can't figure out how to take advantage of it?
Mehan Jayasuriya points out the many problems with the way the FCC handled this whole event:
Any presentation delivered at a public government hearing should be made available to the general public in a convenient format. Not everyone is able to travel to Washington D.C. for hearings and those who cannot should not be excluded--rather, they should be encouraged to participate in the debate. The mission statement on the Commission's new Broadband.gov site seems to agree: "A great way to create a connected America is to involve all Americans in the development of a National Broadband Plan. The FCC welcomes civic participation, and we look forward to more interaction through this website." If Paramount was concerned that its video would encourage "piracy," then the company should not have presented it at a public hearing. It's as simple as that.
All of the other presentation materials for all of the other workshops are available on the FCC's website, so that citizens can download, read, comment on, reference and critique them. Why should Paramount's statement be treated any differently?
During the presentation, Huntsberry seems to suggest that a number of legitimate technology companies, including Drop.io, Twitter, Google, Facebook, Apple, Boxee, Sony, LG, Yahoo!, PayPal and Rapidshare, are arguably acting to enable or encourage unlawful filesharing. These companies and the users of their products should have an opportunity to respond to this allegation.
Not only did the FCC treat Paramount's presentation with kid gloves, the agency also treated the Hollywood execs preferentially throughout the course of the workshop. Upon entering the room where the workshop was held, attendees were greeted by a massive vinyl banner--presumably belonging to Paramount--on which the aforementioned Star Trek timeline was printed. While I appreciate the fact that a visual aid can be helpful, I can't help but feel like a PDF file submitted to the record would have sufficed.
But that's not all. Though these workshops were technically less procedural in nature than a formal hearing would be, MPAA Chairman and CEO Dan Glickman was repeatedly allowed to call his technical expert, MovieLabs CEO Steve Weinstein, up to the stand to chime in with additional comments--even though nothing he said was actually technical in nature. The Commission allowed Glickman to do this so many times that Weinstein also started calling others from the audience up to the stand, including Disney Executive Vice President Preston Padden and Disney Vice President Troy D. Dow. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical but I doubt that the Commission would have allowed any of the other panelists to engage in this kind of behavior.
And, again, uh.... what does copyright have to do with broadband policy in the first place? And where is it in the FCC's mandate that it has any say in copyright policy?