State of the Net Conference Recap

By Eric Goldman

Today I attended the State of the Net conference, sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee. This event has become the “go-to” event for Internet policy wonks. Well over 300 people attended, including many well-known folks. If you deal with Internet policy, you should be at this conference.

A few notes from the event:

The morning keynote was delivered by Mary Bono Mack, who delivered one of the most true believer IP-maximalist talks I’ve heard in a long time. It was almost cartoonish. Based on the fire-and-brimstone talk, I imagine she would support just about any expansion of IP rights proposed to her. In response to a Q&A, she said that she had been previously misquoted and that she doesn’t support a perpetual copyright duration. But she thought the Eldred opinion vindicated Congress’ previous term extension as a reasonable policy; she must have read a very different opinion than the one I read. See Anne Broache’s writeup of Mary’s talk.

I’ve now heard a few different suggestions that server-level filtering by IAPs would drop them out of 512(a) coverage. (Today, Gigi Sohn raised this issue). This arises in response to AT&T’s proposal to filter for copyrighted material, but it’s also a subtext of the net neutrality discussion. I’m not sure if this is an accurate reading of 512(a), though. 512(a) says it applies only if the “the transmission, routing, provision of connections, or storage is carried out through an automatic technical process without selection of the material by the service provider.” (Emphasis added). What does it mean for a service provider to select material? In context, I think the statutory language means that the user, instead of the service provider, selects the particular file moving over the IAP’s network. I don’t see how this exclusion was meant to cover automated filtering. In contrast, if the language is read to apply to filtering; would any type of filtering, including spam and virus filtering, knock out IAPs from 512(a)? If so, then no one could ever qualify for 512(a). It’s not beyond Congress to draft a safe harbor that describes a null set of activity (see, e.g., 512(d)), but I suspect the courts will be more flexible in their reading than this.

The always-entertaining Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Leibowitz spoke about social networking sites. He implied that if Facebook hadn’t backed down on Beacon, he was going to encourage the FTC to investigate it. He also wondered how online speech could receive the same level of protection as offline speech, and specifically referenced Marsh v. Alabama (the company town case) in suggesting that some online sites might be analogized to essential facilities. I’m not really sure what to make of this, as every court that has reviewed these state action arguments as applied to private online sites have rejected them squarely. But I’m sure virtual world exceptionalists will be thrilled to know that an FTC Commissioner might be sold on weighting player rights over provider rights.

At the post-event technology exhibition, I had the most remarkable demo from a woman at Quova, the geolocation company that claims 97% accuracy to the state level and 95% accuracy to the city level. I don’t feel comfortable repeating some of the things she said because I haven’t been able to validate them, but suffice it to say that all of you privacy advocates who freaked out about ChoicePoint may have a new company to freak out about. Among the questions that I’d like to see answered about Quova:

* what websites supply them with IP address data based on their users’ activities? If it’s the companies she named, then I’m pretty confident that at least some big Internet brands have been regularly violating their privacy policies.

* what government agencies are Quova’s customers? And what are they doing with the data?

* what kinds of subpoenas is Quova getting from private plaintiffs, and how are they handling those subpoenas? Based on what I heard, it sounded like plaintiffs have been wasting their time tendering subpoenas to individual websites when Quova may offer some interesting one-stop-shopping.

If you have any insights into any of these Qs, I’d welcome your thoughts.