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W.T.F. Is the Electoral College, Anyway?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016, 22:27 EST Leave a comment

Electoral MapHave you heard? There was an election yesterday! I’ll post more on that in the days to come, but for now I’ll just point out that if the numbers as certified right now were final, Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, Donald Trump the electoral vote. Naturally, that has Hillary fans indignant, probably because they have no idea what the electoral vote is and why we have it.

For those who didn’t pay attention in high school history or civics class, as well as my readers from outside the United States, we Americans don’t directly vote for President and Vice President. Instead, we vote for electors, and in almost every state (Maine being the only exception, I think), the candidate whose electors get the most votes ends up winning the votes of all that state’s electors. The number of electors equals the number of the state’s United States Senators (two per state) plus the number of its members of the House of Representatives (proportional to the state’s population), such that larger states get more electoral votes, but no state gets fewer than three. So it doesn’t matter how many total people prefer any given candidate, but rather how many electors each candidate wins. If that sounds un-democratic, that’s because the United States isn’t actually a pure democracy. It’s a federal republic, and even though state and local offices are elected purely democratically, our constitution provides that it is the various states that elect the president and vice president. It’s a bit like the World Series; the winner isn’t the team that scores the most total runs, it’s the team that wins more games in the series.

What’s the point of the Electoral College? Simply put, it exists to prevent the country’s few humongous states from drowning out the voices of the rest of the citizenry. For the sake of convenience, let’s say there are five states, which break down by population and number of electors this way:

State Population Electors
California 12,400,000 55
Florida 6,500,000 29
Ohio 4,075,000 18
Kansas 1,350,000 6
Montana 675,000 3

Now here is a possible presidential election scenario:

State Candidate A Candidate B Electoral Votes
California 5,900,000 (47.58%) 6,500,000 (52.42%) 55 for Candidate B
Florida 3,400,000 (52.31%) 3,100,000 (47.69%) 29 for Candidate A
Ohio 2,120,000 (52.02%) 1,955,000 (47.98%) 18 for Candidate A
Kansas 705,000 (52.22%) 645,000 (47.78%) 6 for Candidate A
Montana 350,000 (51.85%) 320,000 (48.15%) 3 for Candidate A
Total 12,475,000 (49.90%) 12,525,000 (50.10%) Candidate A 56 – Candidate B 55

First, a few points. The elector numbers are real for the five states. The populations are fictitious but proportional to the actual populations of these states. Only a portion of the total population, adult citizens, are eligible to vote, and not all of them actually do so. There are many more than five states. The margins of victory from state to state aren’t that similar. Understanding all that, let’s examine at the results of our hypothetical election.

Candidate A wins Florida, Ohio, Kansas, and Montana by decent margins (3-6%). Candidate B wins California by a slightly larger margin. Because California is so populous, Candidate B gets more total votes, but by a slim margin&meash;only one-fifth of one percent. By popular vote, Candidate B very narrowly wins the presidency, even though four other states in different parts of the country with different concerns and interests preferred Candidate A.

But using the Electoral College, Candidate A—the candidate preferred by four of the five states—wins by one electoral vote. The more populous states got more electoral votes, which is as it should be, but the votes of the citizens in the four smaller states weren’t totally negated by the votes of Californians. It’s a compromise between simple majority rule and the premise, enshrined in our founding documents, of state sovereignty. It’s the same reason why Representatives are apportioned by population, but in the Senate all states are equal.

In only a few instances in our history has the winner of the popular vote not won the Electoral College, but when it has, it’s for reasons foreseen by the framers, when the popular vote was extremely close and the “tyranny of the majority” in a few big states would have essentially out-muscled the voters in the more numerous smaller states.

In a republic such as ours, I believe that compromise is entirely appropriate.

(10/06/2017: edited for clarity.)

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Categories: government, politics

The Anti-LGBTQ Hate Crime That Might Not Have Been

Saturday, July 16, 2016, 20:54 EST Leave a comment

Orlando rainbow flagLast month’s terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was universally believed to have been a hate crime targeting the club’s gay patrons. At the time, it made sense; if the attacker had intended to perpetrate a garden-variety assault on a large group of people, he wouldn’t have ended up at a gay establishment purely by chance.

It turns out that assumption might have been incorrect. The FBI has found no evidence that the terrorist chose the Pulse because it catered to a gay clientele. In fact, several of the earliest reports—that the shooter was himself gay, or that he was in the closet—have not been substantiated by any evidence uncovered by law enforcement officials.

Which isn’t to say that he did not deliberately kill dozens of gay people. He just didn’t leave behind any evidence of such intentions. But as the saying goes, absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence.

We know that Islamic terrorists, extremists, and theocrats around the world aren’t known for being gay-friendly. In at least ten Muslim countries, homosexual acts are punishable by death. In other places, private citizens who kill gays go unpunished. I’ve never heard an interpretation of Islam that was pro-gay.

In all likelihood, the Orlando killer was anti-gay in the same way that Islamic terrorists are anti-Christian, anti-Jew, and anti-Western: they see it as their duty to Allah to kill “infidels” and “kafir“.

Categories: law & justice, terrorism, U.S.

Why Screaming about “Rape Culture” Makes Women Less Safe

Wednesday, June 8, 2016, 13:34 EST 1 comment

One of my Facebook friends posted today about the case of the Stanford University student who was convicted of rape and got a ridiculously short sentence. The rapist’s father complained he shouldn’t get anything because he was actually a great person, except for that little rape thing that only lasted for 20 minutes. To my friend, this case proves that “rape culture is real and it’s present and if you refuse to acknowledge it, you’re perpetuating it.”

Her view isn’t uncommon. But it’s actually dangerous to women.

When I was a kid, parents taught their children to take care of themselves by not putting themselves in unsafe situations. They weren’t telling us that it would be our fault if something happened to us, they were telling us that they didn’t want something to happen to us. Be careful on the monkey bars. Don’t talk to strangers. If you’re home alone and you get a phone call, tell the caller that your parents can’t come to the phone, not that they aren’t there. It was advice intended to keep us safe from bad people.

Today’s parents give similar advice for 21st century situations, such as not posting personal information on the internet that might help predators find you. Now as then, such instruction is given because we live in a world where people do things they shouldn’t. We can’t convince them all to stop, so we make it harder for them to do those things to us and those we love. People who are more careful are less likely to be hurt by bad people.

Now imagine for a minute that a group of parents got together and decided that they weren’t going to teach their kids how to stay safe. Instead, they were going to insist that kids should be able to go online and give unknown individuals their full names, addresses, phone numbers, and youth soccer game schedules. Oh, and if you try to tell those parents that they are putting their children at risk, they protest that you’re blaming the victim and their kids shouldn’t have to be careful and if you think they should, you’re part of the problem.

Most of us, I hope, would call them out for stupidity, if not negligence. Yet we accept such attitudes from people who invoke “rape culture” as a reason for why women shouldn’t be encouraged to avoid situations that make them vulnerable to being raped.

I posted this reply to my friend:

I disagree that “rape culture” exists. There are many more thefts in this country than rapes, yet it isn’t because of “theft culture.” There are lots of homicides, but it isn’t because of “murder culture.” Same with reckless driving, kidnapping, drug dealing, and child abuse. The very fact that we have laws against these things, and that people go to jail for them (even though the sentences are sometimes lighter than we think they should be) is proof that there is no “culture,” except among the criminals.

After my house was burglarized, I didn’t defiantly refuse to lock my doors and complain that we need to teach people not to steal. I installed better locks. I wasn’t blaming myself for becoming a victim, I just took some simple steps to minimize the chance that it would happen again. That made more sense to me than waiting for the coming of an imaginary utopia in which unicorns roam freely and nobody does anything wrong.

Do you lock your doors? Not leave your pocketbook lying open at a bar while you go to the rest room? Look both ways before you cross the street? That doesn’t mean you’re perpetuating “[insert crime here] culture.” It means you’re using common sense to protect yourself from thieves and dangerous drivers. Please, please, please, use the same common sense to protect yourself from rapists.

I can only hope she takes my advice.

Happy September. The World Is Coming Apart.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014, 13:25 EST Leave a comment

Geez, I leave you people alone for not even five months, and all hell breaks loose. Clearly my presence is needed. Not to mention my commentary about it all.

Ukraine

For those who don’t know anything about Vladimir Putin, let me clue you in: He’s an old Soviet KGB guy who masturbates to a picture of Stalin. OK, I don’t actually know about that last part, though I wouldn’t be surprised. I do know that he is philosophically much closer to most leaders of the former Soviet Union—save Gorbachev—than any Russian leader since the collapse of the old communist empire.

Thus, no one should be surprised that he has invaded what in his dreams is still called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Sure, he insists that it isn’t really an invasion, just the action of unaffiliated rebels, because he is counting on the rest of the world not noticing that those rebels are all wearing Russian military uniforms and driving Russian military vehicles and packing Russian military-issue heat. Indeed, the only thing that should surprise anyone is that it took him this long. Make no mistake, Vlad has designs on Ukraine—and several other nations.

ISIS/ISIL

Take your pick on which name to use. You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. In fact, you can call it Al Qaeda or Hezbollah or Black September for all I care. It’s yet another Islamic terrorist group with an odd affinity for killing people who don’t toe their religious/political line. Remember after the September 11 attacks, when George W. Bush and assorted celebrities tied themselves in knots to assure Muslims that we weren’t at war against Islam? It turns out that Islam, or at least a segment of it that enjoys a disturbing amount of support from Muslims around the world, was at war against us, and still is. ISIS has vowed to destroy the United States and fly their flag over the White House. All I can say to that is, over my dead body, and I mean that literally.

One aspect of the news coverage that bothers me is all the attention given to the beheadings of two American journalists. Not that those weren’t awful, but ISIS has been doing this for months, and many of their victims have been Christians, particularly children. I’ve seen a fair amount of coverage in the alternative media and a few conservative news sites, but the mainstream media has been more lax—until their own were the targets.

Ferguson, Missouri

If media outlets give disproportionate coverage to journalists killed by terrorists, they also give disproportionate coverage to black men killed by police. Again, it isn’t that such cases shouldn’t be investigated; I’ve seen and heard enough about over-zealous cops on power trips to appreciate the possibility that the shooting of an unarmed civilian is indeed unwarranted. And in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the people who jumped on the bandwagon denouncing the shooting death of Michael Brown in Missouri. But as is the case so often, it turns out that initial reports—and my initial reaction—might not have been entirely accurate.

I consider heavy-handedness by law enforcement to be a significant threat to liberty. At the same time, it isn’t heavy-handed for an officer who believes he or she is in danger to exercise self-defense, which is the right of civilians as well. Let’s just say that I am no longer convinced that the Ferguson officer didn’t have a legitimate reason to feel threatened. Besides, if the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer is by definition a big news story, then the killing of an unarmed white man by a black police officer (yes, it happens more than you would think) should be as well. That there is disparate treatment says more about the racist attitudes of the media and many observers than about alleged racism by police.

Rape culture

It isn’t a new idea, but the neo-feminist insistence of societal misogyny so pervasive as to indicate the widespread cultural acceptance of rape is getting a lot more attention lately. It’s bullshit. Seriously, if encouraging women to take simple steps to keep themselves safe is sexist—and the reasoning (I use the term loosely) goes that men shouldn’t rape, so women shouldn’t have to protect themselves from it, and suggesting they do is akin to blaming the victim—then it isn’t just rape that our society supposedly accepts.

I have a home security system because my house was broken into a couple of years ago and I don’t want it to happen again. But really, it wasn’t my fault that I was robbed; I should be able to feel secure in my own home. So what if I refused, as a protest against “theft culture,” even to lock my doors and windows? Or what if I failed to safeguard my personal information—social security number, online passwords, credit card numbers, and the like—as a protest against identity thieves and a statement of empowerment? I would be out of my mind, that’s what. Because in the real world in which I live, there are those who break into houses, steal people’s identities, and yes, even rape women. I can stomp my feet and bitch about it, or I can be a grown-up and protect myself against it.

And having thus vented, I feel better now. I’ll be back soon with more of the insightful opinions you have come to expect from me and have, no doubt, missed terribly.

Public School Stupidity, School Nurse Stupidity, or Both?

Friday, June 15, 2012, 11:41 EST Leave a comment

Two recent stories raise the question. Today I read about a local incident of a teacher’s aide pulling out a student’s tooth:

Sabrina Grant of Framingham, Mass. says her autistic son Chris Quirk went to school last week with a loose tooth. Around lunchtime, she got an email from the aide at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, explaining that Chris had been playing with the tooth and she had pulled it out…

But Grant says when her son got off the bus after school, she realized the wrong tooth had been pulled.

“I noticed that the loose tooth that was in his mouth was still in his mouth,” she told CBS Boston. “And a molar behind his loose tooth [is what] they had pulled out. They pulled the wrong tooth.”

Compare that to another incident of another student at another school whose nurse refused the student his inhaler during an asthma attack:

A school nurse in Florida is being accused of denying a student his inhaler during an asthma attack because she couldn’t locate his parental consent form.

Michael Rudi, the student at the center of the scandal, and his mother, Su, joined Fox and Friends to tell their story.

As he was struggling to breath, Michael [Rudi] said he also had to fight to get help. He claims that at one point the nurse even closed the office door on him. Michael said, “I put my head to that window once I got to that door, and she was just sitting there smiling at me. She had a grin on her face, and I kept jiggling the door, begging for help. I got to the point where I couldn’t even jiggle the door knob.”

Su Rudi said that when she was notified that her son was having trouble breathing, she called the nurse and asked her to give Michael his medicine. When the nurse refused, Su asked her to call 911, but the nurse said, “No, I don’t have to.”

So while Michael Rudi was suffering an acute medical attack, officials at his school refused to allow him to use a medication that was prescribed for him for that purpose by a licensed physician and which he was legally allowed to use. But Chris Quirk, who was suffering from no medical malady, underwent an unnecessary and painful dental procedure performed by a school employee who was not licensed to practice dentistry.

Prosecutors should charge both school employees with child abuse (and, in the Quirk case, assault and the illegal practice of dentistry). The children’s parents should sue the schools—and refuse to settle out of court—in order to deter similar behavior elsewhere. And state legislatures across the country should enact laws prohibiting schools from preventing student use of legal medications prescribed for them and nullifying stupid “zero tolerance” policies that criminalize legitimate medical self-treatment on school grounds.

Another Politician Does the Perp Walk

Monday, April 2, 2012, 15:15 EST Leave a comment

With corruption, everyone paysIt’s the same old same old here in Massachusetts, but with a little twist. Instead of yet another state legislator facing criminal charges, it’s a former State Treasurer.

Former state treasurer Timothy Cahill was indicted Monday on public corruption charges related to advertisements promoting the state lottery that ran during his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2010, according to a person familiar with the charges.

Cahill faces criminal charges of procurement fraud and conspiracy to commit violations of state ethics laws, according to the individual, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because details of the indictments returned by a Suffolk County grand jury had not yet been announced.

Also indicted were Scott Campbell, a former Cahill aide, and Al Grazioso, the former chief of staff of the state Lottery Commission.

As a believer in the presumption of innocence who doesn’t know all the facts, I am not rushing to judgment. But in light of past events in which Massachusetts politicians went to prison, no one can be blamed for thinking, “Not again!”

Memo to Colleges and Universities: THIS Is How to Handle Pervert Employees

Monday, March 19, 2012, 17:39 EST Leave a comment

Miniature survellance cameraI just got an email from my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, about “a Rensselaer employee who was dismissed from his position and arrested” after allegedly installing a hidden camera in a women’s locker room at one of the university’s athletic facilities. According to a press release issued one week after the device was found:

On the evening of Thursday, March 8, a motion-sensitive video camera was discovered in the locker room of an athletic facility on the Rensselaer Troy campus. Following a swift investigation that evening and the morning of March 9, evidence pointed to a particular Rensselaer employee. We took immediate steps, including, but not limited to, the prompt dismissal of the employee in question, barring him from the campus, and blocking all forms of building and electronic access. Also on Friday, March 9, we contacted the Troy Police Department and turned over all results of our internal investigation and all related evidence. The Troy Police Department has launched a full investigation of this matter. The Rensselaer Public Safety Department continues to work with the Troy Police in the investigation.

The Troy Record reported the day after the press release that the alleged perpetrator was arrested, arraigned, and pleaded not guilty to setting up a motion-activated recording device in the ceiling of a women’s locker room inside the university’s swimming and diving facility. Unfortunately for the alleged perpetrator, the device itself implicated him.

[According] to police, the camera captured a still photograph of him installing the camera.

After it was hidden in the ceiling, the camera did take still photographs of “three to four adult women” in various stages of undress during the evening hours of March 8, said Capt. John Cooney.

It was discovered by one of the victims, who saw something wrong with the ceiling and upon closer inspection noticed it appeared to be a camera lens. The victim notified authorities at RPI who, in turn, called Troy police.

Reading about the ugly incident reminded me of the Pennsylvania State University scandal involving the alleged molestation of several youngsters by an assistant football coach. Not that I am equating the situations at RPI and Penn State. All of the RPI victims are reported to be adults, none was molested or assaulted, and the offending employee was not someone in a position of authority.

Nonetheless, it appears that a crime was committed and the privacy of several women breached in a manner that most of us would describe as creepy in the extreme. The actions of the administration and, subsequently, the police were swift and appropriate. Those actions not only prevented so much as the appearance of a damaging Penn State-style coverup, but more importantly they minimized the number of victims.

As an RPI alumna, I am proud that the university did not only the sensible thing but the just thing. It does no good and lots of harm to cover for (alleged) sexual predators and believe they can be dealt with secretly. Indeed, such people rely on secrecy to do their deeds, and giving them what they rely on merely enables them. If Penn State was a warning to other organizations of what not to do, let RPI be an example of doing it right.

Categories: law & justice

Guilty!

Thursday, February 9, 2012, 17:43 EST Leave a comment

GavelThat was the verdict reached today in a Worcester (Massachusetts) Superior Court trial on which the Den Son was a juror.

Every member of my immediate family has now served on a jury. I never have. I’ve been called to service as a trial juror in county court several times. Massachusetts uses a “one day, one trial” standard, meaning that serving on one trial or showing up for one day (even then being released) fulfills the jury obligation and exempts the juror from service for the next three years. On all but one summons to county court, I was notified through the standby system that I wasn’t needed. One time, I had to report but was discharged without being impaneled, which gave me the three-year pass.

I was also called to trial jury service in federal court once. That was a sort of on-call obligation of up to two months. Every Friday afternoon, I had to call the courthouse to learn whether I had to report the following Monday morning. If not, I was free for a week, after which I had to call again the next Friday. If I had to report, my obligation was fulfilled. If went the entire two months without having to report, my obligation was fulfilled. As it happened, I was called in on one Monday morning and was prepared to be impaneled. After waiting for almost two hours in the courtroom with other prospective jurors, the judge came in to tell us that “due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control,” there would be no trial beginning that day and we were dismissed, having fulfilled our obligation. I never found out whether the trial that was supposed to happen was criminal or civil, nor what happened to delay or defer it.

Fortunately, I haven’t yet been called for grand jury service at either the state or federal level.

But back to DS, who reported for trial jury service bright and early Tuesday morning and was impaneled for a trial that began after lunch that day. He wouldn’t tell me anything about it, except that it was a criminal case. Jurors aren’t supposed to discuss the case while the trial is underway, and DS took that requirement seriously. But at the end of the day, he was able to tell me that 1. the Commonwealth had completed its case, 2. he saw one objection sustained and another overruled, 3. on one occasion (presumably the sustained objection) the judge instructed the jurors to strike something from their memories, and 4. the court officer looked just like Jimmy Kimmel.

The trial was continued to Wednesday morning at 9:00. As it happened, I was to head to the courthouse at lunch time with my friend Karen to take pictures as she was sworn in as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff, so after her business was finished, I decided to find the trial on which DS was serving and check it out for a while. Between Superior Court, District Court, Juvenile Court, Housing Court, and Probate and Family Court, there are about 24 courtrooms in the building. I had checked out 14 of them before a court employee took pity on me and asked if I needed help finding something. She directed me to the appropriate section of the courthouse where, by peeking through the doors, I found the right courtroom. Karen and I slipped quietly and unobtrusively inside, noticed by no one except DS (who was the only person in the jury box to turn and look when the door opened) and a court officer who asked in a whisper if we had business before the court. We told him that we were there to observe, which seemed to suit him just fine. It was about 12:15pm.

We heard not more than five minutes of testimony by a man we subsequently learned was the defendant, under questioning by a woman we subsequently learned was counsel for the defense. DS was paying rapt attention and taking notes. It sounded to us like, as Karen put it, a “chew and screw” case (eating at a restaurant and leaving without paying), but I thought there must be more to it for it to have gone to trial. After the assistant district attorney declined to cross-examine and the defense rested, the judge asked counsel to approach for a sidebar, after which he announced they would take a brief break. The jurors were led out by one door, the defendant was led out by another door, and Karen and I left by the same door through which we had entered. It was just like Law & Order except the lawyers weren’t as attractive.

Apparently the jury spent the rest of the afternoon hearing closing arguments, having an extended lunch break while the judge held a hearing on another matter, and finally receiving instructions from the judge. They were to report back at 9:00 this morning to begin deliberating.

Just before 11:00 this morning, I got a call from DS informing me that after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury reached a verdict of guilty on the first poll. He could then tell me that the charge was armed robbery at a Worcester restaurant with the weapon being a knife. He said that the prosecution’s case was quite succinct but it took about twice as long as it should have because the restaurant owners, who besides a police officer were the primary witnesses testifying, spoke broken English and needed an interpreter, so everything was asked and answered twice. Since the jury doesn’t participate in sentencing, they were dismissed after the verdict was announced and told by the court officer that they could read about the sentence in the paper in a couple of days.

And so it was that this week, the Den Son performed his civic duty (and, some would contend, privilege) by actively participating in the criminal justice process. It’s a remarkable thing when you think about it, ordinary citizens of all ages and from all walks of life deciding the fate of someone else. Only the jurors can decide whether the prosecution has proven its case. Only an appellate court can reverse the guilty verdict, and then only for narrowly defined reasons. And if the verdict is “not guilty,” even the Chief Justice of the United States himself cannot negate it.

I’m proud of my son and, even though I’ve always considered jury duty to be a nuisance, a little envious that he has done something so important and I’ve never had the opportunity. The next time I receive a juror summons, I think I’ll look at it differently.

Categories: law & justice

About That Dwindling SOPA/PIPA Support, and an OPEN Alternative

Thursday, January 19, 2012, 18:10 EST Leave a comment

Yesteray’s internet protest was so effective that not only did several previous supporters of the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and “Protect IP Act” switch sides, but today an alternate bill was introduced in Congress. More on the newly proposed “Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act” later in this post. First, let’s take a look at the SOPA and PIPA situation, which is still somewhat fluid:

  • House sponsors of SOPA have included as many as 16 Democrats and 16 Republicans. Four of those Republicans and one Democrat have now dropped their support.
  • House opposition to SOPA now includes 46 Republicans and 43 Democrats.
  • Senate support of PIPA has included as many as 25 Democrats, 17 Republicans, and one Independent (who caucuses with the Democrats). Eight of those Republicans and two of the Democrats have now dropped their support.
  • Senate opposition to PIPA now includes six former Republican co-sponsors and one former Democratic co-sponsor.

These numbers are from a Wikipedia page which, as far as I can tell, accurately reflects the current positions of members and includes very recent (yesteray and today) defections from the supporters’ side.

I must say that I am heartened by the number of Republicans who have seen the light and dropped their support. Democratic supporters seem to be more stubborn, but that isn’t surprising given the heavy support the self-proclaimed “party of the people” gets from wealthy donors in the entertainment industry. Still, it couldn’t hurt to pressure more Democrats to turn.

It’s important to note that the SOPA, a vote on which has been indefinitely delayed in the House, could still come back. We can expect supporters to sit back and wait for Americans’ notoriously short memories to fade, then bring the legislation back, either unchanged or in a modified form. As for PIPA, a majority of Senators is not needed to kill the bill; 41 opponents can prevent a vote from taking place, thus winning by default.

In other words, we need to keep the heat on. The letters, calls, and emails to members shouldn’t stop now that the blackout is over. Indeed, the blackout was effective only because it prompted large numbers of voters to contact their Representative and Senators to express their opposition to these bills. We should continue to express our support and gratitude to those members who have come out in opposition to the legislation, besiege the proponents in an effort to turn them, and heavily lobby those whose position is unknown.

What about those of you who have never contacted your federal legislators? Your input can be especially effective. Make sure to mention at the beginning of your letter, email, or phone call that you have never contacted politician before but feel strongly about this issue. Nothing gets an elected official’s attention like previously unengaged constituents stirred to action for the first time.

If you don’t know whom to contact, it’s easy to find out. To get the name and contact info of your Representative in the House, go to the House web site and enter your zip code. To find your two Senators, go to the Senate web site and choose your state from the drop-down box.

To learn more about what SOPA would do and how, check out this infographic. This article provides additional information.

Would the “Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act” (OPEN) introduced today be any better? I’m not sure, but it’s worth looking into. According to the linked article:

The main difference between OPEN and the other two bills that have caused such a furor of criticism is that OPEN fundamentally differs on which government agency should be responsible for fighting online piracy and how it should go about it.

SOPA and PIPA are written to give the U.S. Attorney General the power to seek court orders to take-down foreign websites when those websites are accused of piracy by copyright holders, like Hollywood and the recording industry.

Once a foreign website is accused of piracy under SOPA and PIPA, all U.S. websites and companies are forced to sever ties with it — removing links and stopping payment processing and advertising with them. That could mean the removal of links from Google, Facebook and Twitter, including those posted by users.

The OPEN Act differs in that it would make the International Trade Commission (ITC) the agency responsible for fighting online piracy. The ITC already handles all cases involving foreign imports that are accused of copyright infringement, so it would seem a more natural fit for dealing with foreign websites, according to [Rep. Daniel] Issa [(R-CA)] and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the bill’s other main co-sponsor.

Under OPEN, once the ITC receives a complaint that a foreign website contained pirated material, it would be obligated to notify the website of the complaint — a key provision missing from SOPA, where no notification is required.

Further, if the ITC decides a complaint was legitimate, the agency could only force U.S. advertisers and payment companies to cut-off business with the foreign website, NOT search engines or Internet Service Providers, as had previously been required by both SOPA and PIPA. The OPEN Act also narrows the definition of what can websites can be targeted, saying that only those foreign sites that have “a limited purpose” aside from piracy or are clear piracy centers can be considered.

That sounds like a big improvement on the surface, but as usual, read a draft of the bill to see if it says what Issa and Wyden say it says. I’ll have more comments once I have a chance to do so.

Web Blackout Opens Eyes

Wednesday, January 18, 2012, 23:00 EST Leave a comment

Internet blackoutIt would appear that today’s mass internet strike, in which this blog proudly participated with a 12-hour blackout, has been at least somewhat effective (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who was a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act — became the latest lawmaker Wednesday to pull his support. In the House, Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.), originally a co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, pulled his name from the list of sponsors on Tuesday. A spokesman for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), meanwhile, told the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday that the congressman is also unable to support SOPA as written.

[ . . . ]

The widespread Internet protest is even bringing new Washington voices into the fray. Mostly silent in the debate, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) tweeted Wednesday he doesn’t back the bills.

Just yesterday, Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, to whom Reynolds derisively refers as “Lamar Smith (R-Hollywood), called the strike—or at least Wikipedia’s participation therein—a “publicity stunt” that “does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts.” But given Congress’s habit of passing overreaching legislation that brings avalanches of unintended consequences, fear is hardly an unreasonable reaction. The thing about laws, particularly (and ironically) laws crafted to address very narrowly defined threats or perceived threats to special interests, is that what their practical effects end up far exceeding the stated intentions of the authors and supporters.

The trouble with SOPA (the almost-dead House bill) and its evil twin PIPA (the pending Senate bill) is that their sometimes vague language permits much greater power to control content than their proponents claim. It would make more sense to enforce the array of copyright laws already on the books than to pass news laws that treat electronic media differently from traditional media. Newspapers wouldn’t tolerate a law allowing the mere allegation of copyright infringement by one of its reporters in a single story to shut down their presses indefinitely. Musicians and recording houses wouldn’t tolerate a law allowing the mere allegation of copyright infringement in one song to stop sales of all their recordings. Yet that’s essentially what SOPA and PIPA say can happen to web sites that are accused of copyright infringement.

But SOPA and PIPA are actually worse, because they require outside parties, such as web hosting services, to remove allegedly offending content or shut down allegedly offending sites operated independently by customers or face penalty themselves. It isn’t hard to imagine that service providers, unable to spend the time and resources required to perform their own investigations and unwilling to risk government sanction, would knuckle under to intimidation rather than stand their ground. The case of Righthaven, a copyright troll founded with the intention of making big money by bullying small independent electronic media users into settling lawsuits the courts have since ruled it had no standing to bring, provides a glimpse of what might happen if similar would-be bullies were explicitly handed the same power by the U.S. Congress.

Those who wish to read the full text of the bills in .pdf format can do so at the U.S. Government Printing Office web site: SOPA and PIPA.