On the face of it, policy debates probably seem like the least exciting part of International CES--especially if you're here, like most people, to see gadgets.
But in a quiet hallway that feels miles away from the electronics frenzy that goes on annually at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a number of tech policy debates go on. This year picked up right where last year left off on the hot-button issue of anti-piracy legislation and Internet regulation. The message was clear: The Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) might have been defeated in 2012, but there are more bills where that came from.
"Absolutely we will see the son of SOPA," said Gigi Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, an Internet advocacy group. "The best defense is offense."
On Tuesday, at least two sessions were devoted to thinking about potential future legislative threats to the Web community. The first was a screening of a short documentary called "Silicon Prairie: America's New Internet Economy." The film chronicled the Midwestern bus travels of Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit and one of the most vocal critics of SOPA. To promote the idea of an open Internet, he went on a road show during the same time as the presidential and vice presidential debates. The resulting feel-good film was produced to make the case that this Internet privacy isn't just an issue for Silicon Valley or Hollywood, but also for budding entrepreneurs in the rest of the country who depend on the Internet for business survival.
The second session gathered some of the Internet lobby's biggest players, including Public Knowledge's Sohn, on a panel called "Beyond SOPA: Creating a Pro-Innovation, Pro-Artist Copyright Policy." It's worth noting that the panel didn't include any participants who work in the entertainment or copyright industry--the strongest proponents of SOPA. The moderator began the discussion by acknowledging the make-up of the panel was "flawed" but claimed that although the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America had been invited both declined to participate.
Both policy sessions focused on the idea that the next threats to Internet businesses will arrive in more subtle legislative packages than SOPA or the Protect IP Act. "The entertainment industry has learned they can't be that brazen again," Ohanian said. That means the Internet community may have a tougher time galvanizing average Web users the way it did to defeat those previous bills (14 million people signed petitions against them).
And there are lots of other Internet issues that could come up in Washington in the near future. Sohn cited Fair Use, which determines how a copyrighted work may be used; digital "first sale" rights, which determine whether or not it's legal to sell or lend things like music or movies that you buy online; and the Internet Radio Fairness Act, a bill that could affect start-ups like Pandora and Spotify.
Privacy is an issue that's top of mind for Wilson Holmes, co-director of Fight for the Future. "The hard part is there's a different level of public interest in privacy," he said. "With SOPA it was easier to see how it would impact people."
But of potential greater concern, said the panelists, is something called the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). "That's where trade policy really goes off the rails," Sohn said.
The TPP is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the U.S., Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malyasia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. According to the Public Knowledge informational site, a portion of TPP focuses on intellectual property and "threatens to impose more stringent copyright without public input." Tech companies that are involved in content creation and sharing could be affected by such an agreement. The full extent of how they might be affected is unknown, however, because the negotiations and the text of the agreement are not open to the public. But it could include things like--according to two provisions that appeared in leaked versions of the text--criminalizing small-scale copyright infringement (downloading music, for instance) and requiring companies to obtain more licenses from copyright owners.
So what are entrepreneurs to do about looming threats, some of which they can't even see coming yet? Although the tech industry may be sending more lobbyists than ever to Washington, as AdWeek's Katy Backman notes, this may still be very much a grassroots fight.
"Every district and every state is an Internet district and Internet state," said Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of The Internet Association. In other words, any future fight must be fought by getting as many Internet companies and individual users involved as possible.
A flash mob in Washington was mentioned as one possible tool. As was a hashtag. And a contact Congress app.
"The onus is on us as citizens," Ohanian said. "These people are our employees--I'm talking about [members of Congress]. In this era of radical transparency, if I can find out what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast, I need to know what my senator is doing."