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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

USACM and U.S. Legislation

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USACM chair Eugene H. Spafford

Eugene H. Spafford, chair of USACM, is a professor of computer science at Purdue University.

Credit: Purdue University

When confronted with an issue, someone with a computing background typically gathers data, applies a decision algorithm, and makes a definitive choice. We are, after all, dealing with ones and zeroes on a daily basis!

Real-life policy choices are not quite that simple, however, especially those with political aspects. A policy choice often includes considerations about consistency with past choices (and laws), philosophical positions about the role of government, economic consequences, reputation and image, timing, and other factors that seldom present a single, obvious choice. Furthermore, choices are compounded by political considerations (especially near election seasons), and by simple ignorance (for example, the late Sen. Ted Stevens' description of the Internet as a "series of tubes"). The way these choices and priorities are mixed often result in outcomes that perplex—and possibly enrage—observers.

One recent example was the controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its companion Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA). In late 2011, people throughout the U.S. (and elsewhere) grew concerned about these proposed laws, with particular attention focused on SOPA. They feared the legislative language would inappropriately allow authorities to shut down whole domains and penalize fair use of copyrighted materials, among other possible results. An online protest grew, eventually resulting in a massive online "blackout" on January 18, 2012.

ACM's U.S. Public Policy Council (USACM) was involved in this issue well before the blackout. USACM's mandate is to help policymakers understand the computing-related aspects of their activities. We are uniquely positioned for this task because ACM is a non-partisan, professional organization devoted to computing. USACM focuses on the technical issues of computing, while acknowledging there are often more factors involved in policy. Thus, our usual mode of operation is to provide education and background on issues, although we sometimes take an advocacy position.

It was clear that SOPA (and PIPA) could result in adverse effects for some Internet users—a point not lost on some legislators. However, they also believed other factors outweighed or mitigated these risks. Three of these were specifically presented to USACM during our discussions about this legislation:

  • There are millions of people in the U.S. whose jobs, directly or indirectly, depend on intellectual property protection and licensing. Pension funds and investors hold significant equity positions in companies that depend on intellectual property. New and existing companies (including many not in the entertainment industry) depend on intellectual property protections to compete in the international marketplace.
  • As an international issue, the U.S. lacks legal jurisdiction where the most egregious violations originate. Some of the host nations have agendas that include the weakening or destruction of the U.S. economy, thus this activity is tolerated. Some governments have close ties to the criminal elements involved and will not take action. Others are resource-constrained and unable to mount investigations and prosecutions.
  • Most legal systems depend on discretion. Everything from deciding whether someone should get a speeding ticket to capital murder cases depend on some amount of discretion and expenditure of resources.

USACM did not address any of those concerns. Instead, we focused on the proposed legislation's technical aspects. Members of USACM provided briefings to Congressional staff and others about the ramifications should the legislation be passed. We also submitted formal statements to legislators in both the House and the Senate, with particular emphasis on how the proposed legislation could damage the deployment of the DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC). In mid-January, one senior staff member told us that our private meeting gave them the first true understanding of how DNS and DNSSEC worked, and thus why the legislation was problematic.

The combination of technical problems and political pressure were overwhelming; the bills were eventually withdrawn by their sponsors for further consideration. Some in the Internet community viewed this as a victory, but it will be fleeting: the underlying problems of intellectual property violations and fraud continue. Thus, we expect ongoing pressure for some legislative proposals.

The computing community must continue to be involved in the process to ensure that all such legislation is technically sound and consistent with our vision of computing. It involves being sensitive to the nuances and factors that influence policy beyond simply our own narrow interests, and continuing to provide expert technical advice. It may be confusing, but it is not impossible.

You can learn more about USACM (including how to participate) at

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Eugene H. Spafford ([email protected]) is chair of USACM, a professor of computer science, and founder and executive director of Purdue University's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAs), West Lafayette, IN.

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