Sing, Canaries, Sing

“Software developers are the canaries in the coal mine,” said one particularly astute testifier at this morning’s hearing at the Massachusetts State House on the mini-DMCA bill proposed here.  The canaries were out in force today, and it was a great sight to behold.

It was a pretty amazing session.  A grade-school civics teacher — not to mention de Tocqueville and others who cared about how engaged Americans are in their democracy — would have been proud.  It was a hearing before a joint committee of the Great and General Court.  Room 222, just off of historic Nurses Hall, was standing room only.  But it wasn’t just the usual suits (like me).  The place was packed with coders.  Scientists.  Biologists.  Researchers.  Engineers of various sorts, from industry and from the academy.  Lots of young people, most with long hair, men and women, most wearing jackets and ties that don’t otherwise get a whole lot of use.  Lots of hearts in the right place.  Credit the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Ed Felten, Larry Lessig, Derek Slater, lots of others paying attention to this madness.

The relevant part of the hearing kicked off with a VP from the MPAA, named Amy Isabelle (sp?).  She played her part — well-spoken, presented herself well.  She said the bill was about preventing theft, not about copyright.  She acknowledged that lots of people had presented problems about the bill and that edits were being made (no specifics from Ms. Isabelle, though).  She noted that other states had adopted the law.  One of the high-points of the day: a question from Rep. Linsky: “Do we really need this law?  What about the MA larceny statute, Chapter 266, Section 30?” MPAA: “I don’t know.  The lawyers tell me we need this.” Rep. Linsky: “Whose lawyers?  The prosecutors?”  MPAA: “No, our lawyers.”  Notably absent in Room 222 today: the MA AG’s office, who were there to testify for another bill on identity theft.  Props to them for *not* testifying for this thing.  The MPAA VP noted that she was open to hearing comments and making amendments to the bill.

And then the fun began.  Dozens of people told the committee, over three hours, what a horror show this bill would be.  Not good for speech, privacy, research, security.  Good only for very few who want to lock things down and make more jail sentences possible.  We pressed on civil liberties, on TiVo, on encryption, on anonymity, on technologies we don’t know about, on academic work.  (I’ll post my modest contribution to the testimony later.)  The committee, much to their credit, definitely got it by the end.

My two favorite parts were comments by the co-chairs.  Rep. Vallee, (who knew what he was talking about), told the group, late in the third hour, that we’d raised “concerns that are resonating with me and I think with the rest of the committee.”  Sen. McGee, the co-chair, also well informed, had an equally good line, at the end: “I note that the proponents of this bill [the MPAA lobbyists] left the hearing partway through and didn’t stay around to hear your concerns about the bill.”  I wonder if they weren’t off to another state to testify there.

So, at the end of the day, one national lobbyist who hadn’t apparently bothered to read the relevant Massachusetts law proposed a one-size-fits-all bill to a committee who then heard dozens of ardent opponents.  The opponents were ordinary people who had taken personal days to voice their concerns.  They learned about the problem through Weblogs, listservs, word of mouth.  They came out in force.  It was a great vision of the kind of democracy that the Net can foster.  I even overheard one lobbyist whisper: “These guys all read the Weblogs.”  How subversive.

I hope this committee does the right thing.  From what they said, anyway, this bill is in major trouble.  It should be scrapped, not amended.  It’s a waste of good legislator’s time.  It’s a special interest bill, plain and simple.

The canaries are singing.  It sounded great this morning at the Massachusetts State House.