June 2007

This is the final installment of my 10-part series of essays that have coincided with “Internet Safety Month.” Many of these essays have focused on the variety of parental controls tools on the market that can help parents better control, or at least monitor, their children’s Internet usage or online communications. (See parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.) Other essays focused on the importance of education, building public awareness, and the need for stepped-up law enforcement efforts aimed at prosecuting online predators. (See parts 7, 8, and 9).

In this final installment, I want to focus on what I believe is the most important—and most frequently overlooked—part of the parental controls and online safety discussion: Good parenting!

Specifically, it is important to realize that many household-level rules and informal parental control methods exist that represent the most important steps that most parents can take in dealing with potentially objectionable content or teaching their children how to be sensible, savvy media users. Indeed, to the extent that many households never take advantage of the many technical tools I outlined in earlier essays, it is likely because they rely instead on the informal household media rules and strategies discussed below.

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Ed Felten and Tim Wu both have interesting posts on the release of the iPhone. In a sense, they make precisely the same technical observation—that more open wireless networks would be good for innovation—but Felten is an optimist about it, while Wu is a pessimist. First, here’s Wu:

the iPhone is locked, as is de rigueur in the wireless world. It will work only with one carrier, AT&T. Judged by the standards of a personal computer or electronics, that’s odd: Imagine buying a Dell that worked only with Comcast Internet access or a VCR that worked only with NBC. Despite the fact that the iPhone costs $500 or so, it cannot yet be brought over to T-Mobile or Verizon or Sprint. AT&T sees this as a feature, not a bug, as every new iPhone customer must commit to a two-year, $1,400 to $2,400 contract.

If Apple wanted to be “revolutionary,” it would sell an unlocked version of the iPhone that, like a computer, you could bring to the carrier of your choice. An even more radical device would be the “X Phone”—a phone on permanent roam that chose whatever network was providing the best service. Imagine, for example, using your iPhone to talk on Sprint because it had the best voice coverage in Alaska, while at the same time using Verizon’s 3G network for Internet access. Of course, getting that phone to market would be difficult, and Apple hasn’t tried.

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Live free or die.

Via Luis, I don’t know if there’s a specific policy angle, but this talk by Eben Moglen at Google is interesting:

The really interesting thing about this talk, from my perspective, is that it illustrates the extent to which the free software community is driven by informal norms and the power of reputation. Moglen’s basic argument is that Google’s image in the free software community is important to its long-term success as a company, and that it is therefore in Google’s self-interest to voluntarily give back code over and above what the GPL requires as a way to build social capital.

I’m not sure if this argument is right, but if it is, I think it suggests why the hand-wringing over the specific terms of GPL v3 are probably overblown. The GPL is as much a social contract as a legal document. Going to court is an important backstop for its terms, but the primary enforcement mechanism are pressures from the hacker community. This is why hackers cared so much about making an example of Novell when it signed the patent agreement with Microsoft: they want to make sure that companies that violate the spirit of the GPL pay a high price. When the primary enforcement mechanisms are social rather than legal, the exact legal terms aren’t that important: if you behave in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the GPL, you’ll have the same problems Novell did, regardless of what the letter of the license says.

By the same token, it is likely to be in Google’s interest to give non-essential code back to the free software community even though the GPL doesn’t specifically require them to as a way of building the social capital within the free software community. As the free software community grows, the exact terms of free software licenses may become less and less important as a robust set of social norms emerge that pressure companies far more effectively than a legal document possibly could.

The Federal Trade Commission is “unaware of any significant market failure or demonstrated consumer harm from conduct by broadband providers,” according to a Staff Report on Broadband Connectivity Competition Policy, which advises:

Policy makers should be wary of enacting regulation solely to prevent prospective harm to consumer welfare, particularly given the indeterminate effects on such welfare of potential conduct by broadband providers and the law enforcement structures that already exist.

The report indicates FTC staff believes it is “impossible to determine in the abstract” whether allowing content and applications providers (or even end users) to pay broadband providers for prioritized data transmission will be beneficial or harmful to consumer welfare. Similarly, staff feels broadband providers have “conflicting incentives” relating to blockage and discrimination against data from non-affiliated providers and that, in the abstract, “it is impossible to know which of these incentives would prove stronger for each broadband provider.”

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It’s no secret that the Fairness Doctrine isn’t popular in the talk radio world. The effort to revive the rule is largely aimed at curbing that media, and most major talk shows hosts have (rightfully) turned the idea into a policy pinata. Less well known, however, is the fact that the Fairness Doctrine is also taking a major caning online. Usually, the blogoshere is friendly territory for the left. But when it comes to the Fairness Doctrine, its been anything but.

A quick google blog search earlier today on the term “fairness doctrine” shows the extent of the problem for supporters: of the top ten posts on the subject which take a position, nine were against reimposing the Doctrine. And it doesn’t seem to get much better in the next 10, or the 10 after that. Sure, there’s been some spirited defenses of regulation coming from the Huffington Post and elsewhere, but they’ve been vasted outnumbered by critics.

And it’s mostly not from professional policy wonks, judging by the names of the blogs, which often are as colorful as their arguments. Here’s a sampling:

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Tech Policy Weekly from the Technology Liberation Front is a weekly podcast about technology policy from TLF’s learned band of contributors. The shows’s panelists this week are Jerry Brito of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Tim Lee of the Cato Institute, Hance Haney of the Discovery Institute, Radley Balko of Reason magazine, and Ryan Paul of Ars Technica. Topics include,

  • Congress considers repealing the Internet gambling ban,
  • Frontline proposes open access rules for the 700 MHz band, and
  • a judge rules that trade secrets prevent source code disclosure.

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Only a couple of days ago, it seems like the debate over the Fairness Doctrine was fading. Opponents were reduced to citing overheard elevator conversations for Pete’s sake.

Then the dam burst. So far this week three Democratic senators have come out in support of reimposing the restriction. (One — John Kerry — was probably as surprised as anyone, since his comments had been recorded months ago, but only released Tuesday by New York public radio host Brian Lehrer).

In the House, all the action has been by Fairness Doctrine opponents, led by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana — who have crafted a bill to take away the FCC’s authority to impose such regulation.

Now comes the real shocker — the idea will be voted on today by the full house, as an amendment to the FCC appropriations bill. Now that’s what I call fast action.

Odds are that the amendment won’t pass. But the up or down vote will tell us a lot, as members will, on the record, have to declare whether they believe in government control of the media or not.

The results should be interesting. Stay tuned.

Yesterday, the immigration reform bill stumbled over the bill’s REAL ID provisions, which attempt to revive the moribund U.S. national ID system. Apparently, REAL ID does not enjoy the support of a majority of Senators.

Though Senate procedure is quite murky to me, apparently the Baucus-Tester amendment, to strip REAL ID-related requirements from the immigration bill (being considered as one division of an omnibus amendment known as a “clay pigeon”), was the subject of a motion to table. (“Tabling” an amendment means setting it aside indefinitely, which usually means forever.) The motion failed.

Several Senators who support overall immigration reform voted against tabling the amendment. This means that including the REAL ID provisions in the bill is enough to kill it.

Though only time and further machinations will tell, it looks like REAL ID-based internal enforcement can not be a part of any immigration law reform bill that gets through Congress.

That’s good news for all the native born, law-abiding Americans who would have been treated as suspects and made subject to surveillance in a vain attempt to get at illegal aliens.

Update: It appears that a cloture vote on the bill has failed, meaning the Senate is not prepared to continue with the bill. The inclusion of REAL ID killed immigration reform.

Tom Lee has a great post on this New York Times article, which looks at the pressing problem of culinary piracy. Tom points out that the law is very clear—you can’t prevent other people from copying your recipes—and that’s a good thing:

All of this ignores the public domain innovations that Ms. Charles benefits from, royalty-free: the cocktails her bartenders serve, the system of reservation-making she presumably employs, and, most amazingly, the Caesar Salad recipe that she says her mother got from another restaurant, but which she’s now suing her sous chef for using. Diffuse borrowing seems to be okay; borrowing too much from one place isn’t, I guess. But where do you draw the line?

The story mentions that nondisclosure agreements are coming to more and more kitchens, but fails to point out why this is: as screwed-up as our IP system is, it actually dealt with these questions before the food industry was sufficiently powerful to corrupt the process. That’s why lawyers are now trying to shove all of this stuff into contract law, where you can get away with much more. In other words: it’s because the sorts of claims Ms. Charles is making are untenable under IP law.

There’s no question that the sous chef is being tacky by copying Charles’ restaurant, but it would be very silly to open a Pandora’s box by punishing him for copying paint colors. IP laws are there to encourage people to make new things; the market’s there to get them to make those things better. These distinctions can get blurry in the world of novel cuisine. But restaurants are fundamentally in the business of selling food, not seeking rent on ideas about food. This story is asinine, and Pete Wells would have done better to highlight how stupid everyone involved is being instead of just making the guy getting sued sound like a jerk.

Update: Oops, forgot to actually include the link to Tom’s entry. My bad!