Eugene H. Spafford
usACM and u.s. Legislation
Computing professionals sometimes find policy
issues ill-defined, confusing, or irrelevant.
Perhaps that is why—to date—policy participation
has been limited within our community.
When confronted with an issue, someone with a computing background typically gathers data, applies a decision algorithm, and makes a definitive choice.
We are, after all, dealing with ones and
zeroes on a daily basis!
Real-life policy choices are not quite
that simple, however, especially those
with political aspects. A policy choice
often includes considerations about
consistency with past choices (and
laws), philosophical positions about the
role of government, economic consequences, reputation and image, timing,
and other factors that seldom present
a single, obvious choice. Furthermore,
choices are compounded by political
considerations (especially near election seasons), and by simple ignorance
(for example, the late Sen. Ted Stevens’
description of the Internet as a “series
of tubes”). The way these choices and
priorities are mixed often result in outcomes that perplex—and possibly enrage—observers.
One recent example was the controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act
(SOPA) and its companion Preventing
Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property
Act (the PROTECT IP Act, or PIPA). In
late 2011, people throughout the U.S.
(and elsewhere) grew concerned about
these proposed laws, with particular attention focused on SOPA. They feared
the legislative language would inappropriately allow authorities to shut down
whole domains and penalize fair use
of copyrighted materials, among other
possible results. An online protest grew,
eventually resulting in a massive online
“blackout” on January 18, 2012.
ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Council
(USACM) was involved in this issue well
before the blackout. USACM’s mandate
is to help policymakers understand the
computing-related aspects of their ac-
tivities. We are uniquely positioned for
this task because ACM is a non-parti-
san, professional organization devoted
to computing. USACM focuses on the
technical issues of computing, while
acknowledging there are often more
factors involved in policy. Thus, our
usual mode of operation is to provide
education and background on issues, al-
though we sometimes take an advocacy
USACM did not address any of those
concerns. Instead, we focused on the
proposed legislation’s technical aspects.
Members of USACM provided briefings
to Congressional staff and others about
the ramifications should the legislation
be passed. We also submitted formal
statements to legislators in both the
House and the Senate, with particular
emphasis on how the proposed legislation could damage the deployment of
the DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC).
In mid-January, one senior staff member told us that our private meeting gave
them the first true understanding of
how DNS and DNSSEC worked, and thus
why the legislation was problematic.
The combination of technical problems and political pressure were overwhelming; the bills were eventually
withdrawn by their sponsors for further
consideration. Some in the Internet
community viewed this as a victory, but
it will be fleeting: the underlying problems of intellectual property violations
and fraud continue. Thus, we expect
ongoing pressure for some legislative
The computing community must
continue to be involved in the process to
ensure that all such legislation is technically sound and consistent with our
vision of computing. It involves being
sensitive to the nuances and factors that
influence policy beyond simply our own
narrow interests, and continuing to provide expert technical advice. It may be
confusing, but it is not impossible.
You can learn more about USACM
(including how to participate) at http://
Eugene h. Spafford ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of
usaCM, a professor of computer science, and founder
and executive director of Purdue university’s Center for
education and research in Information assurance and
security (CerIas), West lafayette, In.
© 2012 aCM 0001-0782/12/06 $10.00