Week in review: Clueless in Congress?

Politicians call peer-to-peer networks a "national security threat" and the FBI is on the hot seat for its surveillance requests. Also: iPhone shines.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
7 min read
Just when our elected representatives seem to finally have put the "Internet tubes" flub behind them, recent statements renew our suspicions that Congress really doesn't get tech.

Politicians charged that 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. At a hearing on the topic, Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, without offering details, that he is considering new laws aimed at addressing the problem. He said he was troubled by the possibility that foreign governments, terrorists or organized crime could gain access to documents that reveal national secrets.

The politicians present generally said they believe that there are benefits to peer-to-peer technology but that it will imperil national security, intrude on personal privacy and violate copyright law, if not properly restricted.

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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.

CNET News.com readers were incredulous that government workers dealing with classified information would be allowed to surf the Internet or even to download a file-sharing program. But some pointed to other motivations for the pronouncement.

"Is anyone stupid enough to honestly believe this has anything to do with national security?" wrote one News.com reader to the TalkBack forum. "What this is really about, and we all know it, is kissing the backsides of their masters in Hollywood so the campaign contributions will keep coming in."

In a related move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew anti-file-sharing legislation that drew yowls of protest from universities. Reid, without explanation, nixed his own amendment, which would have required colleges and universities--in exchange for federal funding--to use technology to "prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property."

Instead, Reid replaced it with a diluted version merely instructing institutions of higher education to advise their students not to commit copyright infringement and tell students what actions they're taking to prevent "unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material" through campus networks.

In another head-scratching move, John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and onetime presidential hopeful, said he wants to make it "illegal to transmit images of dog fighting, to run websites that cater to dog fighting." While dog fighting is obviously a deplorable "sport," such a law could imperil news organizations and animal rights Web sites that "transmit images of dog fighting" as part of reporting on or, alternatively, condemning the practice.

However, some politicians are embracing a tech-based debate format in their pursuits of the White House. It seemed wacky at first, but the idea of allowing Americans to pose questions to presidential candidates through brief YouTube videos turned out to be a success.

According to the format worked out in advance by CNN and YouTube, the Democratic Party-sanctioned debate in Charleston, S.C., was based on video questions submitted by the public by Sunday evening. CNN received nearly 3,000 videos, and its editors selected 39 for use during the two-hour debate.

The video questions posed in the Democratic debate were more personal and more direct than the circumlocutions that political journalists tend to prefer. But the problem was that the politicians ducked, weaved and often replied without giving a straight answer. (Ironically, the first user-submitted video, which asked the candidates to "actually answer the questions that are posed to you tonight," anticipated this problem but was insufficiently persuasive.)

Text messaging as means of political outreach is hardly a new idea, but 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich claims a new drive launched by his campaign stands out from all the rest. The congressman from Ohio is asking Americans opposed to the Iraq war to text the word "peace" to the number 73223. From there, he plans to forward on the responses to President Bush and the Pentagon.

Piracy concerns
The FBI's chief is trying to defuse lingering concerns about abuse of secret requests for telephone and e-mail logs, as politicians proposed new limits on the practice. Director Robert Mueller's appearance before a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary oversight committee highlighted the lingering fallout over a Justice Department inspector general report issued earlier this year. That inquiry found the FBI underreported its use of a secret surveillance tactic--called a national security letter--and concluded "serious misuse" had occurred.

Mueller told the committee that he "absolutely understands" the concerns raised by the report, although he emphasized there were no findings of "intentional" attempts by FBI agents to sidestep the law. Since then, he added, the agency has been implementing "numerous reforms," including retraining its agents and their supervisors on how and when to use the letters and establishing an internal program to monitor "compliance."

The FBI's planned actions apparently weren't satisfactory for some politicians who have dogged the Bush administration's surveillance techniques in the past. Just before Thursday's hearing, Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a new bill designed to place checks on the surveillance tools' use and to give Americans more recourse to respond to them.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the 20-page proposal, saying in a statement that it "will realign NSL authorities with the Constitution and reaffirm that Americans can be both safe and free."

Meanwhile, Congress is already well on its way to bestowing new powers on an internal White House panel that's supposed to judge whether Bush administration programs like the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance regime pose privacy and civil liberties concerns. But the board's chairman has a message for the politicians backing the new authority: thanks, but no thanks.

Civil liberties advocates have long dogged the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board--which, although it didn't meet until 2006, was created within the White House by Congress in 2004 at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission--for its perceived inability to make real assessments without executive branch officials looking over its shoulder. The board also has been criticized for its lack of transparency to the public.

Apple shines
The Mac and iPod may be Apple's cash cow, but the iPhone is stealing the show. The company reported profits of $818 million, or 92 cents a share, for its fiscal third quarter. That's a 73 percent jump compared with last year, when third-quarter profit was $472 million.

The company also reported selling 270,000 iPhones during the 30 hours before the quarter ended on June 30. That's at the upper end of what estimates were going into iPhone weekend, though far below some of the extremely high estimates that surfaced following the launch. Still, some were anticipating a smaller number after AT&T reported activating 146,000 iPhones during the same period.

The disparity in the numbers piqued our curiosity. If Apple sold 270,000 iPhones in the first 30 hours the product was on sale and AT&T activated only 146,000 iPhones during a similar period of time, then what happened to the other 124,000 phones?

Both Apple and AT&T initially said that a small number of customers ran into activation problems. AT&T said the "vast majority" of customers sailed through the activation process, and Apple said "a small percentage" of customers were affected by the activation delays. But what's to account for the 124,000 iPhones that were sold by Apple but not activated?

An AT&T spokesman offered several explanations for the discrepancy, the first of which was rebutted by Apple statements. One odd reason offered by AT&T for the gap was procrastination. This is quite possible, but extremely difficult to believe. Given the zeal of those who waited in line for an iPhone on Friday or bought one the following day, however, it's hard to imagine 100,000 or more of those customers waiting a day to activate their new toy.

Those who were hoping to flip their iPhones on eBay or Craigslist could account for the some of those who waited to activate, since many sellers did not receive the number of bids they had once hoped to receive in the first 30 hours the iPhone went on sale. Some might have returned unopened boxes without activating the iPhone when met with lackluster demand on the auction sites.

Also of note
A federal judge in a Massachusetts district court gave the founders of college-based social networking site ConnectU two weeks to revise their complaint against Facebook, its CEO and four other early employees of the fast-growing social network. ..A power outage hit downtown San Francisco, knocking popular Web sites such as Craigslist, GameSpot, Yelp, Technorati, TypePad and Netflix offline for a few hours...Toyota said a hybrid car you can recharge from household outlets has been approved for public road testing in Japan.