Committee Shuffle Moves Coble Off the Net's Case

by Doc Searls

Capitol Hill watchers are hen's teeth in the tech world. Watching what elected Feds are up to is a recent diversion, mostly because the long-term effects of the DMCA have begun to kick in. Meanwhile, Larry Lessig and other generals in the Good Fight are yelling back at our ragtag army while standing, swords drawn, on the front line.

So it's hard to sense a common wisdom developing around the latest committee assignments, which are happening right now, as the 108th Congress convenes its first session.

This is what I gathered after visiting my mother, sister and a pile of other relatives last week, most of whom reside in North Carolina's 6th congressional district. Representing that district is Republican Howard Coble, who ran nearly unopposed and won for the umpteenth time this past Fall.

Coble, you might remember, is the coauthor of HR 5211, "To amend title 17, United States Code, to limit the liability of copyright owners for protecting their works on peer-to-peer networks". The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the bill "Vigilantism Unbound". Declan McCullagh called it "the boldest political effort to date by record labels and movie studios to disrupt peer-to-peer networks that they view as an increasingly dire threat to their bottom line."

At the time, Coble was the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property. His coauthor of the bill was democrat Howard Berman of Burbank, California, in California's 28th Congressional District.

Now (my relatives were the first to point out) Coble is gone from that committee, having switched chairs with Republican Lamar Smith of Texas' 21st district, who had been in charge of the Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee. But Coble also lost out entirely on membership in the committee he had chaired. The Greensboro News-Record reports:

While happy with his new appointment, Coble said the day was bittersweet. He was unable to retain a seat on the subcommittee he chaired for the last three terms, Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.

That subcommittee was so popular its open seats were snapped up before he could formally request one, Coble said. Instead, Coble's second subcommittee assignment will be on a panel supervising commercial and administrative law.

It's not clear where Berman will sit. Other members of various committees will be announced on February 6.

When I asked Fred von Lohmann of the EFF for some wisdom on the matter, he replied:

Coble has departed as chair of the House Judiciary's IP Subcommittee (this was a normal thing--Republicans have rules about how long someone can hold a House subcommittee chair). He had always been viewed as very friendly to entertainment industry interests (he cosponsored the Berman P2P Vigilantism bill). He is being replaced by Lamar Smith, a conservative Texas Republican who used to represent a largely rural area outside of Austin. Smith was recently redistricted, however, into a more central area of Austin, and many expect him to be looking for issues that will capture some of the Dell millionaires in Austin. That might bode well for his copyright agenda. At the same time, he will be cautious about alienating entertainment interests, as his success as subcommittee chair may well depend on it.

All in all, I think Smith will be an improvement over Coble on copyright issues. However, it's much too soon to say how much of an improvement he may turn out to be.

As for the Berman P2P Vigilantism bill, I expect it will be reintroduced (since Berman is the chief impetus for it, and he remains a powerful Democratic member of the committee) later this year, perhaps with some modifications to appease critics from the tech industry.

Of course, there are other bills the tech world would love to kill. High on that list is Fritz Hollings' Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, which produces an acronym so non-memorable that it has been re-dubbed the "Consume But Don't Try Programming Anything" bill.

There's a sense that this new Congress won't be quite so friendly to Hollywood or to allied industries, such as commercial broadcasting. For example, this past week the Commerce Committee grilled Lowry Mays, CEO of the much-reviled Clear Channel Communications, which owns substantial portions of radio dials across the U.S.

But when you look at the names of the various subcommittees and the kinds of issues on which they focus, it's clear we have a long way to go.

The good news is we're still at the opening of the session. There's still a lot of time left to influence what happens in the course of two years if you start at the beginning.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column is Linux for Suits, and his biweekly newsletter is SuitWatch.


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