October 2007


by on October 31, 2007 · 4 comments

The media business in general and punditry in particular are currently seeing an explosion of clever new ways to deliver content. One of the most intriguing is bloggingheads.tv, a “diavlog,” meaning a blog featuring videos of pairs of talking heads. For example, my friend Will Wilkinson had a fascinating discussion with BH.tv founder Robert Wright about libertarianism and what’s wrong with Ron Paul. (Incidentally, everything Will says about Paul is true, but he’s still head and shoulders above the other candidates)

What prompted me to plug them here, though (aside from the shameless hope that sucking up to them will land me an invitation to participate) is that they’ve recently had a significant technology upgrade. They ditched the irritating WMP-based format they had before and replaced it with a Flash-based video player. Meaning that at least Mac users can watch videos without having to install proprietary plugins. (Linux users might still be screwed). They’ve also introduced “dingalinks,” which are permalinks for video. Awesome.

But best of all, they’ve added a feature that lets you watch videos at 1.4 times normal speed. That means I can watch Bob and Will have 75 minutes of conversation in 54 minutes. It’s absolutely fantastic. The biggest flaw with video-based blogging is that it takes so long to watch videos. I can read faster than most people can talk, so it’s an incredibly wasteful way to consume punditry. However, it turns out that people are perfectly understandable speaking at 1.4 times their normal speed. So I saved 20 minutes at the cost of Will’s voice being slightly squeakier than normal.

They post interesting discussions from insightful people several times a week, so I encourage you to check them out.

The Other Holt Bill

by on October 31, 2007 · 0 comments

I’m a little slow on this, but I’ve finally had a chance to read through Rush Holt’s alternative to the House leadership’s (now shelved) FISA bill, and it’s a real breath of fresh air. It increases executive power in two relatively modest ways: by allowing domestic interception of foreign-to-foreign communications without a warrant and extending the deadline for getting after-the-fact “emergency” warrants from 3 to 7 days. The rest of the legislation is focused where this debate should have been focused from the outset: on ensuring that the executive and judicial branch actually have the resources required to do their job without sacrificing anyone’s civil liberties. It increases the number of judges on the FISA court, authorizes the DNI and the attorney general to hire more lawyers to fill out warrant requests, and requires that the FISA court decide on warrant requests within 24 hours.

Notably, unlike the House Democrats’ RESTORE Act, the Holt bill does not require the executive branch to file a blizzard of quarterly reports on all aspects of its surveillance activities. (It does require the president to immediately disclose to Congress what programs are already being undertaken) It doesn’t require them because they aren’t needed: individualized warrant applications are a much more reliable check on executive branch abuses. The RESTORE Act, in contrast, gave the executive branch much broader discretion to engage in warrantless wiretaps when one end of a call was overseas, and the reporting process was essentially a stopgap to paper over that deficiency.

In a sane world, the Holt bill would be the reasonable compromise between a White House that wanted more authority and liberal Democrats who are wary of a White House with a dismal civil liberties record. Instead, we live in a bizarro world in which the Democrats’ initial offer is significantly more permissive, and the White House is complaining that even that doesn’t give them nearly enough power.

Domain name tasting was on today’s ICANN agenda at the meeting in LA. The GNSO Council, which represents commercial and noncommercial interests, considered this unsavory issue and voted to take a more thorough look at domain name tasting.

What is domain name tasting? It refers to an abusive practice in which speculators look for the best domain names where they can park ads, and take advantage of a five-day grace period between the time a new domain name is reserved and the time the registration fee must be paid.

Speculators routinely register large numbers of potentially attractive domain names and then carefully track how many accidental hits they generate. If a site fails to generate much traffic, the speculator can let the domain name lapse without paying anything.  But if the site generates a lot of traffic, the speculator can use it to park ads, often from one of the large managed Web advertising networks like Google, and generate significant revenue with no effort.

WIkipedia describes the controversy:

The practice is controversial as practitioners typically register many hundreds of thousands of domain names under this practice, with these temporary registrations far exceeding the number of domain names actually licensed. In April 2006, out of 35 million registrations, only a little more than 2 million were permanent or actually purchased. By February 2007, the CEO of GoDaddy reported that of 55.1 million domain names registered, 51.5 million were canceled and refunded just before the 5 day grace period expired and only 3.6 million domain names were actually kept.

All this tasting taxes the DNS network, and increases the costs and burdens on legitimate registrants. Moreover, the ICANNWiki describes the consumer harm as follows:

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a Show-Me Institute conference on education policy. One theme that was echoed by a number of conference participants is that after decades of study, researchers have been unable to quantify what makes a good teacher or a successful school. We know that certain schools, such as KIPP, work much better than other schools. But replicating those successes at scale has proven maddeningly difficult. When someone tries to take a successful school and use it as a model for producing a large number of equally successful schools, something invariably gets lost in translation. Generally speaking, a successful school can only be replicated through a labor-intensive process of apprenticeship, in which key personnel for the new school spend several years at the existing school learning the details of how it works. Obviously, that makes the process of replicating successful agonizingly slow.

I’ve read (although I can’t find a good source right now) that development economists in the mid-20th century discovered similar problems when they tried to export American technology to third-world countries. They hoped that if they helped poor countries build American-style factories and sent them manuals and technical advisors to explain how to use them, that those third-world countries could start producing manufactured goods and rapidly increase their standard of living. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way. Duplicating American infrastructure overseas turns out to be a lot more complex than anyone imagined.

In short, a central problem in both education policy and development economics is that technology is surprisingly sticky. Merely observing someone do something innovative is almost never sufficient to replicate that innovative activity elsewhere. Policy wonks in both fields would love to find a way to mass-produce successes, but that turns out to be maddeningly difficult. Tacit knowledge turns out to be surprisingly important.

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I imagine New York Governor Eliot Spitzer wishes he never stepped in the driver’s license issue. His original decision to use the New York driver’s license as a driver’s license rather than an immigration enforcement tool was correct. But it was met with caterwauls of derision by the virulent anti-immigrant crowd. He backed down and committed his state to the federal REAL ID Act, a national ID scheme that is basically in collapse.

In an interview on CNN this morning, I think he revealed how he intends to split the difference. Describing the two kinds of licenses he intends to have in the state beyond the passport card (for “Buffalo and along the Canadian border”), he said:

A Real ID license that people will get if they want to have perhaps an easier time at an airport. Another one if you already have a passport. You will not need to pay the extra fees, et cetera. So, two separate licenses. Both valid, both legitimate.

My read of that is that he will not encourage New Yorkers to get REAL ID-compliant licenses. Those will cost more and be more difficult to get, so perhaps the majority of New Yorkers won’t have them. They will use passports for those rare “U.S. government purposes.”

Though he blew it when he caved to the anti-immigrant groups, Governor Spitzer is right to suggest that New Yorkers wanting a REAL ID-compliant license should pay the full cost of getting one.

Especially when a significant number of New Yorkers decline to go the REAL ID route, the cost per card will be enormous and, ultimately, I doubt that New York will actually implement REAL ID. When the governor and state legislature discover the cost of what he’s committed them to, they’ll get together on declining to participate in the national ID system.

Update: Here’s an article roughly confirming my thesis about Spitzer’s strategy.

One of the largest issues to be considered here at the Los Angeles ICANN meeting is about WHOIS. As the AP reports, there are proposals to eliminate the WHOIS database, modify the information process, or call for more studies. Indeed, there’s a lot of people interested in this topic, particularly privacy advocates on the one side and trademark owners on the other.

But there’s more to this issue than privacy and IP rights. The reality is that WHOIS is important for law enforcement to track criminals that steal personal information.

What is WHOIS? It’s the publicly available database that reveals the contact information for who owns a domain name.  ICANN has grappled about what to do with WHOIS for a long time, and this week we’ll see action by ICANN’s board of directors as to whether to approve a new proposal to create an operational point of contact (OPoC) or to even eliminate WHOIS, so that registrants don’t have to provide their contact information for the whole world — or the dictator in an authoritarian country — to see.

This is a controversial proposal. Registrars – the websites that you go to to register a name – would love to see OPoC because it gives them another point of revenue. They’d be the ones that could operate the systems to designate an OPoC. But there are a lot of questions raised. How does a point of contact relay information to the registrant? How quickly would it have to respond to law enforcement? Or a trademark owner?

In addition to the OPoC supporters, there are those that would like to abandon WHOIS entirely. This would be a mistake, as Saul Hansell writes in his New York Times blog:

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Some months ago, I noted that Betzip.com (since rechristened “PurePlay.com”) employs an intriguing legal hack to avoid anti-gambling regulations. It charges its customers a flat monthly fee, which qualifies them to win large prizes for winning online poker games. Non-paying customers can play the same games for free, too—though without qualifying for the largest prizes.

Why adopt that business model? Presumably, because it allows PurePlay to argue that it does not offer a gambling service. Specifically, PurePlay could claim that, because the amount players win has no relation to how much they stake, it dodges the “consideration” element of the legal definition of gambling. Query whether that claim would survive the devoted attentions of a prosecutor and court. I set that question aside, though, and here focus on PurePlay’s claim that they have patented their business model.

Curious about the scope of PurePlay’s patent, I searched its website for details. It offered none. I wrote to PurePlay asking for the patent’s number. PurePlay refused to say. So I put my able research assistant, Mr. Sherwood Tung, on the case. He found PurePlay’s patent, and more.

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I’ll take Solveig’s recent post about a fishing cat as permission to throw out something having almost no connection to tech policy once in a while.

I just watched on my TiVo – there’s my tech angle! – the Newshour debate between Norman Podhoretz and Fareed Zakaria regarding Iran’s efforts to join the nuclear club. I was enthralled by the stark differences of opinion, and the evidence each brought to his side. This is serious business, more serious than I had thought – if the opinions of the one I think is wrong have any traction.

Update: My Cato Institute colleague Justin Logan was inspired to comment on the debate in The American Prospect.

ICANN%20logo.jpgI’m at the ICANN public meeting in Los Angeles this week. This is my first time at ICANN, so I’m going to be giving you my impressions of the whole thing over the next few days. And there are some interesting cultural, privacy and operational issues that will be considered.

ICANN will vote on how new gTLD (generic top level domain)
names will be added in the future, what to do about the privacy of domain name
registrants regarding the WHOIS process, and how to deal with Internationalized Domain Names, the process of translating names
into such languages as Arabic and Chinese. The later issue is the impetus for
the title of this meeting, “My Name, My Language, My Internet.”

ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers, and is responsible for the global coordination of the Internet’s
system of domain names (like .org, .museum and country codes like .UK). There are almost 1500 attendees at this meeting in the LAX Hilton. That’s
right, beautiful LAX airport! After past meetings in San
Juan, Lisbon, Sao Paulo, and Marrakech, I get to go to the one
just minutes from LA’s airport. Great.

Vint Cerf opened up the meeting. This is his last meeting as
Chairman of the Board of ICANN. He’s been on the Board for eight years.

Transparency and accountability are still important buzzwords here. Assistant Secretary for Communications at NITA, John Kneur and ICANN’s CEO, Paul Twomey, both spoke to the need for making sure that ICANN is sufficiently open to the public and all stakeholders.

The major topic for today concerns the introduction of new gTLDs to
supplement (or compete against) existing ones like .com, .biz, .mobi, and
.travel. ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization Council (GNSO) has a
proposal for this process. From ICANN’s website:

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As promised, here is the first in a series of posts looking at the usefulness of the FCC website. Others, including Michael Marcus and Cynthia Brumfield, have already catalogued just how much in disrepair the site is. (In fact, our own James Gattuso blogged today about the FCC site, which prompted me to finally kick off the series.) I’ve had lots of time to think about this while researching my new government transparency and the Internet paper, so here’s my contribution to the general piling-on.

First, let’s look at search. Given the ever-increasing amount of data online, search is the web’s killer app. If you can’t find it, it doesn’t matter how much useful data is available online. The FCC offers a search bar at the top left of its site. So what does this box search? According to the FCC site:

Search Scope: The FCC Search Engine searches throughout the FCC’s web site, including the Electronic Document Management System (EDOCS), but does not collect information from the FCC’s other databases and electronic filing systems such as the Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS). Information is collected from web pages and many types of documents including Word, WordPerfect, Acrobat, Excel, and ASCII Text, and is constantly updated.

Right off the bat this tells us that the FCC houses several disparate databases (eight, according to Brumfield), and that they’re not all searched by their main search box. Most notably, their regulatory docket system (ECFS) is not searched. (More on this in a future post.)

If you search for Kevin Martin, this is what you get:

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