December 2006

Someone has figured out how to bypass the AACS copy protection scheme on the new HD-DVD format. HD-DVD players have been on the market since March, so this encryption scheme survived for approximately 8 months. The only thing that’s surprising about this is that it took so long.

I believe that in theory, the HD-DVD format allows the cartel that controls the format to blacklist compromised devices so that they won’t be able to play future releases. The story I linked to above doesn’t mention if this is likely to occur in this case.

It seems that AT&T has made a 2-year network neutrality promise in order to get its merger with Bell South approved. The Los Angeles Times approves:

In order to win approval from the Federal Communications Commission for its $84.5-billion buyout of BellSouth, the reconstituted Ma Bell agreed Thursday to not offer for two years “any service that privileges, degrades or prioritizes” any data transmitted over its broadband network. In other words, AT&T guaranteed what has come to be known as “Net neutrality”–giving websites and services equal access to Internet users. The only exceptions are for AT&T’s new TV service and the managed networks it sells to businesses.

Net neutrality became an issue last year after AT&T and BellSouth executives talked about making online companies cover more of the cost of broadband networks. In particular, they raised the prospect of charging high-traffic companies such as Google an extra fee to improve the picture quality of online movies and TV shows. Such charges could help established companies fend off upstarts by erecting a cost barrier to entry, suffocating the next YouTubes and Flickrs in their cribs.

I’m not thrilled about this, but it could have the silver lining. Frankly, AT&T is already so much a creature of the state that I’m not sure I care very much if they’re under the thumb of the FCC for a couple more years. I’m far more worried about regulations being applied to smaller firms and new entrants that might not have as much clout with the FCC. If this deal helps to take the wind out of the sails of the activists who want to regulate the entire Internet, that could be a blessing.

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I don’t know about the legal merits, but as a policy matter, this seems like a terrible decision:

A judge ruled Friday that congressional aspirant Christine Jennings has no right to examine the programming source code that runs the electronic voting machines at the center of a disputed Southwest Florida congressional race.

Circuit Judge William Gary ruled that Jennings’ arguments about the possibility of lost votes were “conjecture,” and didn’t warrant overriding the trade secrets of the voting machine company.

Democrats in Congress meanwhile, said they’d allow Republican Vern Buchanan to take the seat next Thursday, but with a warning that the inquiry wasn’t over and that his hold on it could be temporary.

The state has certified Buchanan the winner of the District 13 race by a scant 369 votes.

The ruling Friday from Judge Gary prevents for now the Jennings camp from being able to use the programming code to try to show voting machines used in Sarasota County malfunctioned. Jennings claims that an unusually large number of undervotes _ ballots that didn’t show a vote _ recorded in the race implies the machines lost the votes.

The source code to a voting machine in a DRE election is analogous to the voting procedures manual in a traditional paper election. It would clearly be absurd to run an election in which votes were counted in secret and no one was allowed to know what rules were used to determine the winner. Transparency demands that anyone be permitted to inspect the voting procedures to make sure they are fair and accurate.

Precisely the same principle applies here. The source code is the vote-counting procedure. It’s absurd to ask Jennings to prove there was a problem with the voting process before she can be given access to the details of how the election was conducted. Obviously her allegations of miscounting are only “conjecture” at this point, because she hasn’t been given the opportunity to examine the process by which the votes were counted.

Related to the previous post on online communities’ supposed narcissism, a reader emailed me the following:

What’s particularly delicious is that just before I read this post I was browsing Penny Arcade, which seems like exactly the kind of shallow commercial endeavor Siva is decrying–it’s a webcomic about video games, after all. And what do I see on PA’s front page but this, by the comic’s writer:

“As of today, Friday, December the 29th, your efforts with Child’s Play have amassed $963,160(!!!). This is by no means the final figure, nor is it the final post on the subject – there is still a tremendous amount of tabulation to occur, new checks, community initiatives, last minute rushes, and perhaps even New Year’s Epiphanies. I have faith that we will reach a million straight up in donations, and if we do not, I am steeling myself to make a financially debilitating charitable contribution.”

It’s not a cure for AIDS, but that’s still a cool million to make life better for hospitalized children. Communities linked by shared interests, even ones that seem shallow, are wonderful things.

Civic republicanism can be an attractive vision, but not when it turns into elitist hectoring.

Indeed.

Siva Vaidhyanathan has a puzzling article up at MSNBC complaining about–well, I’m not actually sure what he’s complaining about:

Google, for instance, only makes money because it harvests, copies, aggregates, and ranks billions of Web contributions by millions of authors who unknowingly grant Google the right to capitalize, or “free ride,” on their work. Who are you to Google? To Amazon? Do “you” really deserve an award for allowing yourself to be rendered so flatly and cravenly? Do you deserve an award because media mogul Rupert Murdoch can make money capturing your creativity via his new toy, MySpace?

The important movement online is not about “you.” It’s about “us.” It’s about our profound need to connect and share. It’s about our remarkable ability to create among circles– each person contributing a little bit to a poem, a song, a quilt, or a conversation.

So it’s not about your reviews on Amazon. It’s about how we as a community of Web users choose to exercise our collective wills and forge collective consciousnesses. So far, we have declined to do so. We have not harnessed this communicative power to force the rich and powerful to stop polluting our air and water or to stop the spread of AIDS or malaria. We have not brought down any tyrants. We have simply let a handful of new corporations aggregate and exercise their own will on us. And we have perfected online dating.

He seems to be drawing a distinction between “good” social production, which apparently has the power to cure aids and bring down dictators, and “bad” social production, which merely gives people better ways to communicate, and allows companies like Google and MySpace to profit in the process. But neither side of this dichotomy makes a lot of sense.

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NSFW Tag

by on December 29, 2006

PJ Doland, TLF’s webmaster and occasional contributor, has come up with what strikes me as a really clever idea:

Almost two years ago, in an attempt to combat the rising problem of comment spam, Google unveiled a new HTML attribute:

rel=”nofollow”

By including that attribute in hyperlinks, website administrators direct search engines not to give any credit to the linked content. The attribute is generally applied by most blog software to comment and trackback content before it is posted. This obviously minimizes the incentive for comment spamming as a means of improving a site’s PageRank status.

In the same spirit, I am now proposing a new attribute:

rel=”nsfw”

NSFW is an abbreviation often used to indicate that content is “not safe for work.” This new attribute should be applied to tags to indicate that the content is potentially “not safe for work.”

Sounds like a great idea to me. Read the whole thing for details on how it would work and why people would want to use it. There’s also some good discussion of the idea going on over at Digg.

There are all sorts of year-end / best-of / Top 10 lists being put together right now, but I haven’t seen anyone offer up a “Most Important Tech Policy Developments of 2006″ list. Geez, isn’t everyone else on the planet as interested in this nerdy stuff as we are?!

Anyway, I’d don’t have a top ten list, but I do have a nomination for the story that I think belongs on the top of such a list. I think the biggest tech policy story of 2006 was the heated political battle over Net Neutrality regulation and the fact that Congress did NOT pass legislation mandating it. It was a hell of a battle, pitting titans of industry against each other. And in intellectual circles it had policy wonks foaming at the mouth. (You can find all our rumblings on the topic here).

I don’t think this debate is over, but I’m not sure it will ever be as heated of an affair as it was this year. I also doubt that Net Neutrality mandates have nearly as good of a chance of passing through Congress this coming session since it is less likely there will be a major communications reform bill to attach it to. And there’s no way Net Neutrality regulation will pass as a stand-alone measure. There’s just too much opposition to it. It would have to be passed as part of some grand communications law reform compromise measure.

Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing what others think was the biggest tech policy story of 2006, or at least belongs on the Top 10 list.

I’ve linked to several Paul Graham essays in the past. His new article on inequality isn’t especially technology related, but it’s extremely good, so I’m going to quote it anyway:

Because of the circumstances in which they encounter it, children tend to misunderstand wealth. They confuse it with money. They think that there is a fixed amount of it. And they think of it as something that’s distributed by authorities (and so should be distributed equally), rather than something that has to be created (and might be created unequally).

In fact, wealth is not money. Money is just a convenient way of trading one form of wealth for another. Wealth is the underlying stuff–the goods and services we buy. When you travel to a rich or poor country, you don’t have to look at people’s bank accounts to tell which kind you’re in. You can see wealth–in buildings and streets, in the clothes and the health of the people.

Where does wealth come from? People make it. This was easier to grasp when most people lived on farms, and made many of the things they wanted with their own hands. Then you could see in the house, the herds, and the granary the wealth that each family created. It was obvious then too that the wealth of the world was not a fixed quantity that had to be shared out, like slices of a pie. If you wanted more wealth, you could make it.

I think this intuition that wealth comes from a fixed pool is at the root of most concerns with inequality. When people see a rich guy and a poor guy, they assume that somehow, the rich guy must have somehow (perhaps indirectly) taken the money from the poor guy. But if wealth is really created by individual initiative, it becomes hard to see why inequality, per se, should be a source of concern.

Graham makes many more good points, so I encourage you to read the whole thing.

In a few of my previous essays, I’ve been wondering about the future of virtual reality worlds and specifically how property rights might get defined within those worlds. Alan Sipress of the Washington Post penned an excellent story yesterday on this subject which I thought I’d bring to your attention. In his lengthy front-page story, “Where Real Money Meets Virtual Reality, The Jury Is Still Out,” Sipress notes that:

“As virtual worlds proliferate across the Web, software designers and lawyers are straining to define property rights in this emerging digital realm. The debate over these rights extends far beyond the early computer games that pioneered virtual reality into the new frontiers of commerce. … U.S. courts have heard several cases involving virtual-world property rights but have yet to set a clear precedent clarifying whether people own the electronic goods they make, buy or accumulate in Second Life and other online landscapes. …

The debate is assuming greater urgency as commerce gains pace in virtual reality. In Second Life, where nearly 2 million people have signed up to create their own characters and socialize with other digital beings, the virtual economy is booming, with total transactions in November reaching the equivalent of $20 million. Second Life’s creator, Linden Lab, allows members to exchange the electronic currency they accumulate online with real U.S. dollars. Last month, people converted about $3 million at the Lindex currency market.”

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Neat! Dennis Kennedy has named TLF a runner-up for the title of “Best Overall Law-Related Blog.” We’re in good company, with Rob Hyndman’s excellent blog as co-runner-up. We lost out to The Trademark Blog, a blog I haven’t read before, but it looks excellent.