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25 Jul

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Peer-to-peer networks a threat to national security, or: How to track who pays your Congressman

July 25, 2007 | By |

Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks allegedly threaten America’s national security, according to US Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Pardon me?

Waxman said

… he was troubled by the possibility that foreign governments, terrorists or organized crime could gain access to documents that reveal national secrets.

Like, how? Oh, wait, here it comes. Summarizes ZDNet:

…peer-to-peer networks can pose a “national security threat” because they enable federal employees to share sensitive or classified documents accidentally from their computers.

So federal employees can be trusted to run the government, but they can not be trusted to handle classified documents? That’s not only bullshit, it’s also an insult to all federal employees.

This is, of course, not the first time Congress has tackled P2P with pretty cheaply disguised cover stories. The same ZDNet article goes on to say:

Congressional gripes about P2P networks are hardly new, and in the past, they have reinforced concerns raised by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Four years ago, the same committee held a pair of hearings that condemned pornography sharing on P2P networks and also explored leaks of sensitive information. And throughout 2004, Congress considered multiple proposals that would have restricted–or effectively banned–many popular file-swapping networks.

But what motivated Waxman to pulling the terror card on peer-to-peer? One might easily come to the conclusion that Waxman tries to appease the movie and records guys, namely the RIAA, who’d do anything to ban filesharing, from uploading fake files to P2P networks to suing little girls. In other words, this smells like payroll work, doesn’t it?

Let’s give all those cool watchdog & transparency websites a quick glance and see what comes up!

Sunlight FoundationStarting with the awesome Sunlight Foundation, you’ll quickly notice the “Insanely Useful Websites” link, which offers (surprise!) indeed a bunch of insanely useful websites.

First up, Congresspedia has a neat brief profile of Henry Waxman. CongresspediaHere, we learn that Waxman sponsored a bill to enhance protection for whistleblowers, which sounds like a pretty good thing to me. So let’s keep in mind that Waxman probably isn’t all evil – brownie points for that bill. What else? He has passed the Sunlight Foundation’s transparency survey, if only with a meager 48 out of 100 points. Hm.

OpenCongressOn to OpenCongress, which gives us Waxman’s voting history. But since today I’m not after vote about transportation, global warming or discrimination, let’s keep the site in mind in case we want to have a closer look later on.

Center for Responsive PoliticsOpensecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, “tracks money in politics, and its effect on elections and public policy.” Right on the spot! Here you can search financial contributions to the Congressman’s election races and Congress terms, as well as an overall career profile.

So we learn that from 1989 to 2006, Waxman has received $4,136,978 and spent about 3.7 million out of that. Assuming that financial contributions won’t be without an effect to a politician’s vote, let’s see how much he got from the relevant industries: Coming in on third place of his top financially supporting industries (right after Health Professionals and Public Sector Unions) comes TV/Movies/Music with $353,180. Pretty bad, huh? But wait, there’s more.

In his 2004 California Race (District 30) TV/Movies/Music came also in third place with roughly 57 thousand dollars. If we assume that the Printing&Publishing industry has similar goals regarding copyright issues and add their contributions, we get an overall sum of $74,568, which happens to be just about one thousand dollars below the top contributor (Public Sector Unions). In 2006 Waxman ran for office again (obviously) and got even more from TV/Movies/Music, who ponied up $69,350, coming in second. (But Printing&Publishing disappeared, so maybe they just pooled their money?)

And in his ongoing term, Waxman’s top contributor list reads just about the same. Fun fact: The Number One individual contributing company is Time Warner, further down the ladder (No 3) we also find Walt Disney and Viacom (No 20), among others. All these can safely be assumed to fight peer-to-peer with all means, and to push for harder copyright regimes wherever they can – even if it takes playing the terror card as it happened in this case here.

So is Henry Waxman an expert on peer-to-peer networks? Hardly. It looks more like he lacks objectivity on the issue because he has received so much financial support from certain interest groups, namely the recording industry.

(I just picked Waxman here because he happens to be one of the movers and shakers on this initiative, but there’s others too, of course.)

Now, obviously it sucks big time to see that a politician’s decision are based not on his good faith (or knowledge) but on his sponsors’ interests.

But there’s two things that give me hope it’s going to get better over time:

One, Sunlight Foundation and the others are doing a tremendous job. I wish there were similar mechanisms and organizations in place in Germany. Corporate donations don’t play a role quite as big here, but they do play a role, and transparency is essential in looking behind some politicans’ behavior and motivation. (Just recently there was a huge fuss about German members of parliament having to disclose some of their secondary sources of income.)

Two, if politicians base their politics on motivations as one-sided as in this case, then we see a serious flaw in democracy. And it makes me tremendously glad to see that Larry Lessig has decided to try fixing it. Hardly anyone has done as much good for freeing culture from a repressive copyright regime as Lessig, and if there’s one person smart enough to find a way and charismatic enough to gather a massive following, it’s him. It’s great to see him tackle this new field.

So what’s my point here? Apart from running a little test and poking around for fun, it’s a message to legislators and voters, both in Germany and the U.S.: Please don’t buy all the crap your colleagues give you. P2P is neither the source of terrorism, nor a threat to national security. Your colleague just doesn’t want to lose that financial support and goes way beyond what’s rational and legitimate to secure it. Use the transparency tools that are available, and help establishing more if you can. It’s a good first step toward fixing democracy.