Meet Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren: she understands how the Internet works

It is all too easy to forget in the United States' highly partisan political atmosphere that many of the 500+ individuals in Congress genuinely seek to represent the views of their constituents.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren – Silicon Valley's woman in Washington – does just that. And as a result she has a remarkable skillset: she actually understands how the Internet works.

We attended the Congresswoman's Town Hall meeting at Santa Clara University this week, organized by the State of the Net group, to hear what she had to say about a range of issues from legislation going through the House to broader issues of the DNS, ICANN and Internet governance.

Content distortion

A big part of the 90-minute session was taken up by Congresswoman Lofgren's concerns that the content industry is damaging the Internet's potential by seeking legislation and controls on any aspect of the Internet that allows for infringement of copyright.

"The attitude has been of resistance to technological change," she explained, "and I think with that they are failing to take advantage of the opportunities that new technologies bring… Content people have a legitimate interest but they have often not thought through the issues." She cites many examples including the fact that Hollywood fought DVDs, only for them to become a major source of revenue for movie companies.

But content producers have a strong voice in Washington DC and the result has been repeated legislation that puts forward solutions without understanding the larger impact. Lofgren recalled that the first draft of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) of 1998 was written so broadly that it effectively outlawed Web browsing. The PRO-IP Act of 2008 extended copyright protections and provided new powers. "And now we're at it again with the PROTECT-IP Act," said Lofgren.

One of the biggest concerns Lofgren has with the PROTECT-IP Act is the powers it would provide to tamper with the Internet itself. She cites the fact that it would enable court orders against third parties, most worryingly against search engines (who would required to remove hyperlinks to infringing websites) and ISPs or alternative DNS providers who would be required to block access to websites.

Leave the DNS alone

"It simply won't work to take these sites down," Lofgren argued. "If you tear the telephone book up, are there still telephone numbers? The US government should forget about taking down domain names and forget about monkeying around with the Internet's technical underpinnings and go after the money."

Claiming that Visa had already told her that it was prepared to go after the money made by copyright infringers online, Lofgren repeatedly made the point that seeking to control the domain name system was a largely pointless exercise and the best place to hit infringers was in their pocket. "I'm not fan of gambling, but the gambling industry is on the cutting edge of a lot of things – and there 'follow the money' has worked. If you follow the money you can have a major impact and avoid collateral damage to the Internet."

Displaying her tech credentials, Lofgren then referenced and held up a document [pdf] produced by a number of Internet engineers including Steve Crocker, Danny McPherson and Paul Vixie that warns against the DNS filtering requirements in the PROTECT-IP Bill.

"Our approach is sort-of like what China is doing now. It is censorship, and it we do this it will undercut our ability to be the international good guys when it comes to free speech."

She also confessed to having the MAFIAAFire add-on for her browser. The add-on bypasses efforts by US Customs to take down websites by seizing domain names by automatically redirecting requests for one domain name to another that contains the self-same content but has not been seized. The end-user will most likely be completely unaware of the redirect.

Lofgren cites a failure to understand how the Internet actually works as being behind a famous case in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) accidentally brought down 84,000 innocent websites, many of them for small businesses, and replaced their front page with a warning that the domain had been used to host child pornography. It had seized the domain without realizing that the domain was used to host a huge number of websites, only one of which contained prohibited content.

The Congresswoman goes further than that, questioning whether the legal justification used by ICE to seize domains would actually hold up to a challenge. "I think it's a little shaky [legally], but for people it's just a domain so why should they fight it?"

ICANN and Internet governance

Lofgren was on the panel at a recent hearing that quizzed ICANN about its plans to approve hundreds of new Internet extensions.

She despaired that her Congressional colleagues are only interested in the issue as it relates to content and infringement. "The bigger issue is whether ICANN will survive; whether China will try to take it over through the UN [United Nations], and it can control things in the UN because of its extravagant entanglements with small countries."

"We need to keep ICANN as an international body that provides for a free Internet. And one thing that allows that is country top-level domains that are not controlled by governments." Part of the new gTLD program that ICANN is launching in January 2012 will be the addition of new Internet extensions in different languages and scripts; currently those 'internationalized domain names' are only available to governments.

"But no one in Congress is interested in this issue as it's not about content," Lofgren opined.

The law is an ass

As a legislator, Lofgren unusually believes that Congress and new laws are not the way to deal with many Internet issues. "We would do a lot better for financial institutions and technical companies to collaborate than [deal with Internet problems] in Congress."

She gives as an example a bill currently passing through Congress: H.R. 1981, called 'Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011'. "It should be the '1984' Bill," she joked.

"Nobody is for Internet child pornography. But this is utilized as a cover for a massive expansion of government power and intrusion into individuals' lives." Lofgren pushed for an amendment that would rename the Bill: 'Keep Every American's Digital Data for Submission to the Federal Government Without a Warrant Act of 2011.' "I actually got quite a few people supporting that one," she noted, but added that she was one of "only a handful" of Congressmen and women opposing the Bill.

The reason for bad Internet law being passed is two-fold, Lofgren argued. For one, Congressmen and women don't understand how the Internet works. "I have colleagues that think Google owns the content on the websites that it links to," she noted. "If that is your understanding, then you are going to make bad decisions."

And the flipside to that issue is the fact that Silicon Valley and Internet companies are not present enough in Washington DC to tackle to misperceptions. "There is a presence from Silicon Valley but if you take how many people in total are on the ground, it wouldn't match what one large phone company has."

Acknowledging that tech companies "don't want to go to DC and talk to people who have no idea how the Internet works – you're too busy running your businesses", Lofgren nonetheless argues that it is essential. "The tech industry is not present. It does 'fly-ins' where executives come in for a day, but that doesn't have the impact of the entrenched interests."

PROTECT-IP-Technical-Whitepaper-Final.pdf762.41 KB