January 25, 2012 columns

The Lesson the Tech Community Should Have Learned from SOPA

Powell discusses the importance of judging a bill not by its intentions or its name, but by its effects.

Imagine you’re an expert in some field of technical knowledge. Your field impacts quite a lot of people but most of them don’t understand the details the way you do. One day, Congress proposes legislation called the Make Things Better Act, which, its sponsors say, will make things better.

But wait. The Act happens to deal with exactly the field you’re knowledgeable about. And you know what? It won’t make things better. In fact, it will make things far, far worse. Not only will it make things worse, but any benefits the legislation does create will accrue exclusively to a small but powerful interest group.

So you and your other technically-minded friends mobilize against the Make Things Better Act and, through coordination and outcry, succeed in killing it. Two days later, Congress proposes another piece of legislation called the It’s Good for the Children Act. Except this time the law deals with an area outside your expertise. If you applied the lesson learned from the Make Things Better Act, you might react to this new proposal with skepticism. After all, when you were in a position to evaluate what Congress was really up to, you discovered that it wasn’t working in the interests of the American public but, instead, of a tiny and powerful minority. Couldn’t it be possible the new bill is just be more of the same?

Most likely, though, based on the way people typically react in these situations, you won’t apply that lesson. Instead you’ll say, “Boy this new law is great because my favored political party wrote it and, well, it’s good for the children.”

Drawing on a recent example, the opponents of SOPA appear to have avoided the skeptical conclusion. Many of them are calling for increased regulation of political speech by way of campaign finance restrictions. How money and speech work within the byzantine rules of political campaigns is a field every bit as complex as name servers and Internet protocols. These same folks who laughed at the late Ted Stevens’ characterization of the Internet as “a series of tubes” have no problem ignoring their own ignorance when it comes to judging regulations outside their expertise.

The skeptic’s lesson—that we should be skeptical of laws we don’t understand when we so often discover how bad those are that we do understand—goes a great distance in explaining why some of us find libertarianism compelling and others don’t.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy grounded in a set of principles about rights and their impact on the permissible scope of government. But it’s also an attitude of skepticism in the face of claims by the state that, if only given more power, it can fix whatever ails us.

It’s true that proponents of state power often have well-polished pitches for why their favored program will work. Yet we usually lack the knowledge to fully evaluate their claims. How many of us understand the economics of health care markets or the details of the global investment banking system? How many of us have the training it takes to know how interest rates impact employment or potential ways law enforcement might use the records from cellular phones? And even if we turn to the experts to explain to us why we should or shouldn’t support a given policy, those experts rarely agree and often have competing interests. After all, SOPA’s proponents were able to present “expert” arguments for their positions, too.

This ignorance—which we all suffer, for there is just too much for any one person to know—forces us to either accept at face value what our legislators tell us or to adopt a general attitude of skepticism. The latter leads in the direction of libertarianism. The former leads to bigger, more damaging government—and government more and more in the pockets of those very interest groups we hope it would instead work against.

One hopes that next time a nice-sounding bill comes along (something like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), those millions of geeks who applied their expert knowledge to SOPA and found it wanting will look past the name, will recognize their own ignorance about the particular policy area, and will instead evince a heavy dose of libertarian skepticism. SOPA was not the exception to the rule. Instead, it was just how things are done in Washington.