Free speech: It was a good idea. (A political interlude from your friendly local electronics lab warden.)

In the electronics lab at i3 Detroit, we have a Saleae Logic8 logic analyzer. Anyone working with digital signals should have some sort of logic analyzer, and this is a good one — the software is what makes it special. And yes, that means the hardware is pretty simple, so someone cloned it. Buyers of the cloned board are expected to use the official Saleae software with it, in violation of its license, but also in breach of the trust placed in users by the Saleae designers, who obviously put tremendous effort into making a product that’s really a delight to use.

But that’s not what’s interesting. You see, the clone also emulates two other cool products, all of which are based around the same chip as the Logic8. Look closely at how the clone works, and you can learn a fair bit about all three products, about USB device IDs, about reverse-engineering and firmware loading and serial EEPROMs. You can also have quite a heated discussion about the morals of such cloning! Without even buying the thing, it’s a whole electronics lesson and more.

But that’s not what’s interesting, either. What’s interesting is that because I linked to counterfeit products sold overseas, this very blog post will soon become illegal. Working their way through Congress right now are a pair of similar, and similarly-misguided, bills aimed at protecting American interests. (Which they won’t do.) They House version is SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and the Senate version is PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act), which expands to the tragically hilarious “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act”.

And I wouldn’t be talking about them if I didn’t think they might pass. The entertainment industry has a lot of money to buy more rope with which to hang themselves, by which I mean, legislation to imprison their customers. That doesn’t affect me; I gave up caring about movies years ago; but I do very much enjoy the freedom to talk about any intellectual pursuit that interests me, including the ingenuity of Chinese electronics counterfeiters.

What’s really insidious is that it wouldn’t just be illegal to link to counterfeit goods, or the shoot-first-ask-questions-later manner in which websites accused of doing so would be summarily zorched from the internet. Nor the guilty-until-proven-innocent way in which the burden of restoring the good name of one’s site falls on the zorchee. Both of those are bad, and would surely leave many nonprofit sites without the resources to defend themselves, but no, what makes my skin crawl is that the very act of providing information about how to get around the censorship, would itself become criminal.

Now, I don’t know about you, but as a self-described hacker, I enjoy circumventing limitations. It’s the single characteristic that I cite when asked to explain the outside-the-box problem solving skills of which my employer is so fond. Hackers like clever solutions to tricky problems (that’s how inventions get invented, after all), and most of us like to share the things we learn. That’s the sort of creativity our government should be encouraging.

So why are these two horrible bills before Congress right now? Because our elected representatives don’t understand the internet. They listen to whoever talks to them, and mostly, that’s lobbyists for big-business interests. You can change that situation right now, by educating yourself and then by getting in touch with the well-intentioned but tragically misguided folks in Washington. If these bills go away in their present form, they’ll be back when the heat dies down, so please stay informed and help preserve the freedom that makes us who we are.

Thank you.