February 2007

Free Kareem!

by on February 28, 2007

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Last Friday’s Cato Podcast was about the free Kareem movement, a campaign to secure the release of a young Egyptian blogger who was jailed for four years for the crime of criticizing Islam, his school, and the Egyptian authorities:

The Free Kareem Coalition is an interfaith alliance of young bloggers and college students committed to the principles of freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

This campaign is our way of fighting to further the cause of brave people who continue to practice their right to freedom of expression even when such rights are not recognized. The creators and main supporters of the Free Kareem Coalition are Muslim, and we are doing this despite what Kareem said about our religion. Free speech doesn’t mean “speech that you approve of.” It includes criticism.

You may be disgusted at what he said, even angered. That’s okay, so are we! But we will defend with all our might his right to express such opinions, because it is his basic, inalienable human right.

Kareem is a writer who always found the courage within him to keep speaking his mind freely in the name of not only freedom of speech, but the freedom to think in an otherwise sheltered society. Because of that, he has been sentenced to four years in prison. We stand by and fully support Kareem through these difficult times and will continue working on this campaign until he is freed.

A worthy cause. Click over to find out what you can do to help.

What Cell Phone Blocking?

by on February 28, 2007

Well, it’s been more than 48 hours since my last post blasting the Wu-Skypewireless Net neutrality” proposal, so I’ve been itching to write another essay about my favorite subject du jour! Luckily, when I arrived home today, I found my monthly copy of PC World magazine in the mail–yes, I am a geek–and randomly opened to an article by Cyrus Farivar entitled “Six Things You Never Knew Your Cell Phone Could Do” He begins the essay by noting that:

Right before your eyes, your cell phone has morphed into a portable computer. Whether you’re searching Google via text messages, using Short Message Service (SMS) to make international calls, or e-mailing a voice message, these tips will help jump-start your cell phone’s inner PC–and make your life easier to boot.

… and then Farivar goes on to highlight many “useful tips and tricks that you can teach even an old cell phone to do.” As I read through the article, all I kept thinking to myself is: “But according to Tim Wu and Skype, this stuff isn’t supposed to be possible!”

Via Richard Bennett, Wonkette reports the following depressing statistics about the newspaper industry:

Net income plunged 6.7%.
Classified advertising dropped 22%.
Overall ad revenue is down 8%.
Circulation is down 2.9% — except for Sunday, which is down 3.2%.
Operating income in the publishing division fell by 24%.
Craigslist’s CEO says this is because U.S. newspapers just plain suck.

There are a number of ways you might interpret these figures. Richard thinks, bizarrely, that the problem is “parasitic web sites” like Craig’s List [Update: Richard says that he was talking about news aggregators, although he didn't mention those in his original comment]. Craig’s List’s CEO, on the other hand, thinks it’s the newspapers’ fault:

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Should the FCC enforce net neutrality rules? No, says Google’s top policy executive. According to Andrew McLaughlin, the firm’s global public policy head: “Cutting the FCC out of the picture would be a smart move.”

The comments were made yesterday at the Tech Policy Summit in San Jose. As reported in Tech Daily and Communications Daily, McLaughlin argued that neutrality should be thought of as “an attorney general or FTC problem.”

This is a surprising statement from Google, which has lead the fight for neutrality regulation for over a year. Most proposals for neutrality regulation have put the FCC in charge–including the S. 215, by Sen. Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan.

Its also a sensible idea–one that many of us have long advocated. (See, for instance, this statement by the Progress and Freedom Foundation’s DACA working group.) At its heart, the net neutrality debate is over competition: how much is there, is it enough, and what to do if it is not. Such issues are the bread and butter of the FTC–which has close to a hundred years experience dealing with them.

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I’ve got a lengthy analysis of Rick Boucher’s latest copyright reform legislation. Despite being titled the “FAIR USE Act,” and despite the fact that Boucher’s press release focuses on the harms of the DMCA, the bill itself would do little or nothing to remedy the problems created by the DMCA:

If Boucher’s legislation passed, a film studies professor would be permitted to use software such as Handbrake to circumvent the copy protection on DVDs and create an audiovisual presentation featuring scenes from various movies. However, developing or distributing Handbrake in the United States would still be a crime.

Obviously, as a practical matter, that college professor already has the ability to use Handbrake without any real fear of prosecution. The MPAA knows that prosecuting a college professor for showing videos in his class would be a PR disaster. The problem is that, unlike previous versions of the legislation, Boucher’s new bill offers no legal protections for the developers of software like Handbrake. As a result, the tools required to exercise fair use are difficult to find, not as user-friendly as they could be, and not supported by major software companies like Apple and Microsoft. Perhaps worst of all, the law makes it impossible for legitimate software firms (in the United States, at least) to develop new software to make innovative uses of content obtained from DVDs, iTunes, or other DRM-encumbered formats. In the 1990s, software companies developed MP3 software that revolutionized music over the objections of the recording industry. An entrepreneur wanting to do the same thing for DVDs would run afoul of the law–and Boucher’s legislation would do nothing to change that.

Needless to say, this is disheartening to those of us who see DMCA reform as a high priority. Granted, Boucher’s bill didn’t go anywhere in previous sessions of Congress, and would likely have been a long shot again this session. But it was still nice to at least have somebody in Congress carrying the torch. Now, it doesn’t look like anyone will introduce meaningful DMCA reform in this session of Congress.

What’s going on here? Read the rest of the article for my take on Boucher’s apparent change of priorities.

On the podcast last week I mentioned that if Kevin Martin’s FCC approves the XM-Sirius merger, one of the conditions it could impose is that the new entity accept indecency regulation that satellite radio is not currently subject to. Adam called this “regulatory blackmail,” and now I’m seeing a pattern.

The WSJ reports that Spanish-language broadcaster Univision agreed to pay $24 million fine for violating the Children’s Television Act, which requires broadcasters to show three hours of educational programming a week. “In exchange, the FCC will approve Univision’s sale to a consortium of private-equity groups for $12.3 billion.” The fine is by far the largest the FCC has ever assessed. Not only does Univision have no choice but to accept the fine if it wants its sale to go through, but it seems like the commissioners don’t have a choice either.

The $24-million fine was negotiated by Mr. Martin’s staff, not the five-member FCC board. Several senior FCC officials, including at least one FCC commissioner, said they learned of the fine by reading the New York Times on Saturday. Despite some discomfort about the unusually high amount of the fine, the full FCC board is likely to vote for it. It would be politically difficult for FCC members to vote against enforcing children’s programming standards and the company has apparently agreed to pay the fine to clear the way for its sale.

The Pacific Research Institute just published a paper I coauthored on Municipal networks. The study, titled “Wi-Fi Waste: The Disaster of Municipal Communications Networks” reviewed 52 city-run telecom networks that compete in the cable, broadband, and telephone markets. The amount of deception and anti-competitive activity that we found in our sample was appalling and a solid reason why proposed new Muni WiFi systems should be opposed.

Joe over at TechDirt today commented on my post yesterday about public television DTV worries. “James Gattuso,” he writes, “sees a possible sinister motive in the move” to get DTV converters distributed. Joe dismisses the idea that public television stations would try to keep the on-the-air viewers away from cable and satellite, where they may find other things to watch besides PBS. It just wouldn’t make sense, he says: “If this were indeed the intention, then the move would be shortsighted, since these stations would be better off making their content more appealing rather than hoping to limit viewer choice”.

But the idea didn’t come from me–it came from public TV executives, at least according to Communications Daily, which wrote:

“Station executives estimate that public TV could lose 10%-15% of its membership if their “loyal” viewers switch to cable or DBS because of a mismanaged transition. That’s because viewers would have more channel choices and less disposable income to contribute, they said. To head off problems, stations are proposing to distribute converter boxes as gifts for pledge contributions or membership incentives, they said.”

Joe perhaps is right that the issue will be insignificant because so few viewers are affected. But that’s not what station execs are saying. Of course, the execs may be wrong. But either way, it hardly inspires confidence in public television management.

As I said yesterday, it’s all very strange.

Police LightYesterday I filed a public interest comment (PDF) in the FCC’s proceeding to create a national public safety broadband network in the 700 MHz band. Not coincidentally, so did Frontline Wireless, a new company started by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and former NTIA Administrator Janice Obuchowski among others. In their filing they propose a new plan to build a national wireless broadband network to be shared by public safety and consumers. This plan comes closer to the commercial provision of public safety communications that I’ve been suggesting, but it’s still a bit off. Below I’ll talk about the plan, but first some background.

As I’ve explained before, the digital TV transition frees up 84 MHz of spectrum. Congress has allocated 24 to public safety and 60 for auction. Morgan O’Brien’s Cyren Call asked the FCC to allocate additional spectrum to public safety for a national network by removing a 30 MHz block of spectrum from auction. The FCC denied the petition saying, quite rightly, that they didn’t have the authority not to auction off the spectrum Congress told them they had to. Cyren Call has since found a sponsor in John McCain who has said he will introduce a bill that would remove the 30 MHz from auction and give it to a “public safety broadband trust.”

The FCC’s current proceeding centers on what to do with the 24 MHz of spectrum that Congress did allocate to public safety. Specifically, the FCC asked for comment on its plan to take 12 MHz of this spectrum and license it to a nonprofit representing the public safety community that would in turn build a national broadband network, charge first responders a fee for service, and lease excess capacity on the network to commercial customers.

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Jed Harris has a fantastic post about how peer production introduces a fissure between capitalists and entrepreneurs:

Before widespread peer production, the entrepreneur’s and capitalist’s definitions of success were typically congruent, because growing a business required capital, and gaining access to capital required providing a competitive return. So classical profit was usually required to build a self-sustaining business entity.

The change that enables widespread peer production is that today, an entity can become self-sustaining, and even grow explosively, with very small amounts of capital. As a result it doesn’t need to trade ownership for capital, and so it doesn’t need to provide any return on investment.

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