Franken fails to protect open Internet

Senator Al Franken needs to abandon his Hollywood connections.

Christopher Meyer

Until recently, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has been a champion of Internet freedoms. In his three years in the Senate, he has made it a priority to defend First Amendment rights and online privacy protections, and he has been the SenateâÄôs most vocal advocate on behalf of âÄúNet NeutralityâÄù âÄî the principle that Internet service providers should not be able to restrict usersâÄô access to different types of websites.
FrankenâÄôs past leadership on these issues make it all the more startling that he is a cosponsor of the Protect Intellectual Property Act, the Senate version of a bill that would massively expand the governmentâÄôs ability to crack down against online violations of intellectual property. PIPA essentially serves the interests of the entertainment industry while harming nearly everyone else. Among other harms, the bill would censor legitimate free speech, undermine due process and would place tremendous burdens on website operators.  
On Jan. 18 more than 75,000 websites participated in an âÄúInternet BlackoutâÄù to protest the collateral damage the bill would wreak upon the Internet. The blackout prompted millions of Americans to contact their senators and representatives; Google alone reported that more than 7 million people signed their petition opposing the bill. This unprecedented level of protest finally caught senatorsâÄô attention, and two days after the blackout,  the Senate leadership postponed the bill indefinitely.
FrankenâÄôs involvement with PIPA was not as extensive as that of MinnesotaâÄôs other senator, Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar was not just a cosponsor of the bill; she herself was the author of some of its most contemptuous provisions, including the provision that would make it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to post copyrighted material on the Internet. Despite KlobucharâÄôs greater responsibility for the bill, FrankenâÄôs support has been a much deeper disappointment. Activists have long been resigned to KlobucharâÄôs mediocrity on progressive causes. In contrast, FrankenâÄôs position stands out starkly against his otherwise robust progressive record.
What could possibly account for FrankenâÄôs betrayal of progressive values? In retrospect, the explanation seems clear. During the 2008 Senate campaign, Franken joked that while his opponent was taking loads of money from âÄúbig oilâÄù and âÄúbig tobacco,âÄù the biggest source of FrankenâÄôs funding was âÄúbig comedy.âÄù The joke was funny at the time because it was hard to imagine what nefarious agenda comedians might have. But it turns out that by âÄúbig comedyâÄù Franken really meant âÄúbig media,âÄù and it turns out he was serious. Franken has received more than $900,000 from the entertainment industry since 2007, and his connections to Hollywood seem like the best explanation for his otherwise inexplicable position.
On Jan. 20, Franken posted his opinions about the bill on his blog. The tone of the post was accommodating and diplomatic, but in terms of substance he made no concessions whatsoever. He wrote that âÄúif holding off on this legislation gives us an opportunity to take a step back and try to bring everybody back to the table, I think itâÄôs the right thing to do.âÄù The offer to hold off on the legislation might have been meaningful if he had proposed it while the bill was still scheduled for a vote, but instead he waited until after Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had already announced that the bill would be postponed. Franken did not acknowledge the legitimacy of any of the criticisms against the bill. Rather, he wrote that âÄúFrankly, there is a lot of misinformation floating around out there: If this bill really did some of the things people have heard it would do (like shutting down YouTube), I would never have supported it.âÄù FrankenâÄôs accusation of misinformation is ironic because the people with the greatest expertise in computer technology have been the billâÄôs most adamant opponents. The specific example of misinformation he cites is disingenuous because critics of the bill were not claiming that YouTube itself would get shut down but rather that the burdens the bill would place on website operators would inhibit future YouTube-like companies from ever getting off the ground.
The statements from Franken and other legislators indicate that while PIPA has been delayed, it is far from dead; its supporters are determined to resurrect its provisions, most likely in a rebranded form. For example, the House Judiciary Committee recently passed the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act, which would require Internet service providers to capture and store information about customersâÄô usage history, including addresses, search history, credit card data and bank statements. While ostensibly directed at child pornography, the data would be available to law enforcement based on the suspicion of any crime, including intellectual property violation, thus providing an excellent mechanism for media corporations to get the results they want while being able to smear their opponents as being on the same side as child molesters.
In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, University of Minnesota professor of political science Larry Jacobs stated that he expected the PIPA issue would eventually blow over for Franken. I think Jacobs badly underestimates the magnitude of the events that have transpired. The Internet Blackout has been permanently emblazoned on the memory of millions of voters, including many voters that will be critical to FrankenâÄôs re-election. To regain the trust of those voters, Franken must distance himself from his Hollywood benefactors and prove that he really isnâÄôt in the pocket of âÄúbig comedy.âÄù

Chris Meyer welcomes comments at
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