Tag: craigslist

The Internet Is Not .gov’s to Regulate

Imagine that Congress passed a law setting up a procedure that could require ordinary citizens like you to remove telephone numbers from your phone book or from the “contacts” list in your phone. What about a policy that cut off the phone lines to an entire building because some of its tenants used the phone to plot thefts or fraud? Would it be okay with you if the user of the numbers coming out of your phone records or the tenants of the cut-off building had been adjudged “rogue” users of the phone?

Cutting off phone lines is the closest familiar parallel to what Congress is considering in two bills nicknamed “SOPA” and “PIPA”—the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “PROTECT IP Act.”

Julian Sanchez has vigorously argued several points about these bills. Here, I’ll try to describe what they try to do to the Internet.

Simplifying, every computer and server has an IP (or “Internet Protocol”) address, which is a set of numbers that uniquely identify its location on the Internet. The IP address for the server hosting Cato’s Spanish language site, elcato.org, for example, is 67.192.234.234.

Now, these numbers are hard to remember, so there is a system that translates IP addresses into something more familiar. That’s the domain name system, or “DNS.” The domain name system takes the memorable name that you type into the address bar of your computer, such as elcato.org, and it looks up the IP address so you can be forwarded along to the IP address of your choice.

One of the major ideas behind SOPA and PIPA is to cut Internet sites that violate copyright out of the domain name system. No longer could typing “elcato.org” get you to the Web site you wanted to visit. Much of the debate has been about the legal process for determining whether to strike out a domain name.

But preventing a domain name lookup doesn’t take the site off the Internet. It just makes it slightly harder to access. You can prove it to yourself right now by copying “67.192.234.234” (without the quotes) and plugging it into your address bar. (The Internet is complicated. Some of you might be directed to other Cato sites.) Then come back here and read on, por favor!

The government would require law-abiding citizens to “black out” phone numbers—or Internet service providers to do the same with domain names—for this little effect on wrongdoing? It doesn’t make sense. The practical burdens on the law-abiding Internet service provider would be large. “Blacking out” an entire building—just like a Web site—would cut off the lawful communications right along with the unlawful ones. It’s through-the-looking-glass information control, with enormous potential to obstruct entirely lawful communications and impinge on First Amendment rights.

Which is why many Web sites today are “blacking out” in protest. In various ways, sites like Craigslist.org, Wikipedia, and many others are signaling to their visitors that Congress is threatening the core functioning of the Internet with bills like SOPA and PIPA. And threatening all of our freedom to communicate.

The Internet is not the government’s to regulate. It is an agreement on a set of protocols—a language that computers use to talk to one another. That language is the envelope in which our communications—our First-Amendment-protected speech—travels in hundreds of different forms.

The Internet community is growing in power. (Let’s not be triumphal—government authorities will use every wile to maintain control.) Hopefully the people who get engaged to fight SOPA and PIPA will recognize the many ways that the government regulates and limits information flows through technical means. The federal government exercises tight control over electromagnetic spectrum, for example, and it claims authority to impose public-utility-style regulation of Internet service provision in the name of “net neutrality.”

Under the better view—the view of freedom behind opposition to SOPA and PIPA—these things are not the government’s to regulate.

Speier (D-Silicon Valley) Sows Techno-panic

“Techno-Panics” are public and political crusades against the use of new media or technologies, particularly driven by the desire to protect children. As the moniker suggests, they’re not rational. Techno-panic is about imagined or trumped-up threats, often with a tenuous, coincidental, or potential relationship to the Internet. Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka of the Progress & Freedom Foundation have written extensively about techno-panics on the TechLiberationFront blog.

Talking about techno-panic does not deny the existence of serious problems. It merely identifies when policymakers and advocates lose their sense of proportion and react in ways that fail to address the genuine issues—such as censoring a web site because it reveals the fact that some few among a community of tens of millions of people will conspire to break the law.

You’d think that a congressional representative from the heart of Silicon Valley would not sow techno-panic, but here’s Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on the Craigslist censorship issue:

“We can’t forget the victims, we can’t rest easy. Child-sex trafficking continues, and lawmakers need to fight future machinations of Internet-driven sites that peddle children.”

Of all representatives in Congress, Speier should know that Craigslist has been making it easier for law enforcement to locate and enforce the law against any perpetrators of crimes against children. Pushing them to rogue sites does law enforcement no good. Censoring Craiglist only masks the problem, which may be in the interest of politicians, but definitely not children.

Internet Censorship

On August 24th, the Attorneys General of 17 states sent a letter [PDF] to the founder and CEO of the Craigslist online platform, to “request” that they take down the “Adult Services” section of the site. The link to that section of the site now stands with a “CENSORED” label over the place where the link stood.

On the TechLiberationFront blog, Ryan Radia has a good write-up, including the legal protections Craigslist enjoys under federal law as a provider of an “interactive computer service.” The AGs undoubtedly know that could not directly shut down Craigslist. They wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on if they attacked the site for the behavior of its users. But they also know that publically badgering Craigslist can win them political points and cut into the site’s image, profits, and ultimately, perhaps, viability. Several Attorneys General have doggedly asked Craigslist to patrol the behavior of its millions of users, never satisfied with the company’s efforts.

The turning point seems to have been a CNN “ambush” interview with Craigslist founder Craig Newmark in which reporter Amber Lyon sprung a terrific gotcha line, calling Craigslist “the Wal-Mart of online sex trafficking.” It’s a sound-bite with just enough truth: In a community of millions of people, there may be some such trafficking.

Newmark is an unusual character in any world, but especially in media and politics. He is meek, soft-spoken, and utterly guileless. A part of West-Coast tech’s recent interest in East-Coast government and politics, Newmark sought me ought a few months ago for a wide-ranging, ambling, and—for those reasons—charming chat.

Newmark was utterly caught off guard by the interview with the CNN reporter. The tape rolls through painfully awkward moments when Newmark remains simply silent or paces around, making him look stupid, mendacious, or both. (His comment on the interview is here, to which Lyon responds in the video linked above at “ambush.”)

The AGs smelled blood in the water. Their letter pounces on Craigslist and Craig Newmark’s inartful performance.

So the next step is the “CENSORED” block on Craigslist’s “Adult Services” section. Perhaps it’s meant to engender support for First Amendment rights, and to an extent it has. Early returns show support for Craigslist. But it may also create an expectation that large Web sites on which a tiny minority of people abuse speech rights to plan and execute crime may lose their speech protections themselves.

In case it needs pointing out, shutting down a Web site, or the portion of a Web site, on which people plan crime will only move crime to other places on the Internet. The cost to free speech in the AGs’ badgering of Craigslist vastly outweighs the infinitesimal crime-prevention benefit.

The Attorneys General sacrificing speech this way are: Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (a candidate for U.S. Senate), Dustin McDaniel (D) of Arkansas, Lawrence G. Wasden (R) of Idaho, Lisa Madigan (D) of Illinois, Tom Miller (D) of Iowa, Steve Six (D) of Kansas, Douglas F. Gansler (D) of Maryland, Mike Cox (R) of Michigan, Jim Hood (D) of Mississippi, Chris Koster (D) of Missouri, Michael A. Delaney (D) of New Hampshire, Richard Cordray (D) of Ohio, Patrick C. Lynch (D) of Rhode Island, Henry McMaster (R) of South Carolina, Robert E. Cooper, Jr. (D) of Tennessee, Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II (R) of Virginia.

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight’s World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 “USA! USA! USA!”)

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line—the high-tech version of It’s Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone—even those who don’t live “online.”

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone’s well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.