March 2009

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the newly-launched Seasteading Institute, which promises to break the cozy cartel of world governments by developing the technology required to found affordable autonomous communities on the open oceans. It’s an audacious plan, and I expressed some skepticism about whether it can be made to work. But the Institute, led by Patri Friedman, has made an impressive amount of progress in the last year. They’ve done preliminary engineering work on a small seastead design. They hosted a conference that was by all accounts well-attended. And they’ve generated an impressive amount of press coverage.

So I’m excited to see that Friedman will be giving a talk at Cato about his project on April 7. If I lived in DC, I’d definitely be there. I’m still not convinced Seasteading is the wave of the future, but I’m glad there are people giving it their best shot.

The “Jefferson 1” – feted by TLF with a fundraiser some months ago – has sued the Park Police. She was arrested at the Jefferson Memorial in 2008 for dancing to celebrate Jefferson’s birthday.

TLF wishes well her effort to vindicate our First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Much ink is spilled over the expanding array of video marketplace choices that are competing for the attention of our eyeballs, but much less is usually written about the competition for our ears.  As this excellent new Business Week article by Olga Kharif makes clear, competition and innovation in the audio marketplace has never been more vibrant.  It’s something I’ve pointed out here before and here’s a chart I created for my Media Metrics report to highlight all the new competition for our ears.   We’ve come a long way since the days of my youth, when transistor radios and vinyl records were the extent of audio competition!

Competition for Our Ears

Google Classic

Found here.

“I have bought this wonderful machine — a computer … it seems to me to be an Old Testament god, with a lot of rules and no mercy.”

Joseph Campbell, trailblazing comparative mythologist, b. 1904 (Thanks to The Writer’s Almanac)

Speaking of socializing media, acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps is someone who has devoted much of his life to regulating the media marketplace into the ground. If he had his way, federal bureaucrats would be controlling virtually every aspect of the media universe. Nothing would get done with Big Nanny’s permission.

That’s what makes his recent comments about the impact of media regulation so delicious.. and hypocritical.  According to an article  Bloomberg ran on Thursday, Copps is now saying that, with newspapers struggling to remain afloat, the FCC should now reconsider regulations that prohibit combined ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers.  The agency should “visit this whole problem” before long, Copps apparently told Bloomberg.

“Visit this problem before long”??  Please!  Congress and the FCC have had opportunities to “visit” and revisit this problem for many years now, but it has been Michael Copps and his merry band of media reformistas who have stopped every reform effort dead in its tracks.  (See my essays “Congress Fiddles, Newspapers Burn” and “Media Deregulation is Dead” for more evidence of how these radicals hijacked media policy in this country.)  As I documented in my 2005 Media Myths book, these charlatans have used hyperbolic rhetoric, shameless fear-mongering, and unsubstantiated claims in opposition to each and every sensible effort to reform our nation’s outdated media ownership policies.  Those laws and regulations have created artificial market structures and hindered the ability of media operators to find new business models that might throw them a lifeline in difficult times.

Consider the fact that it was just 14 months ago that then-Commissioner Copps issued this gem of a hysteria-ridden statement in response to the agency’s last effort to ever-so-slightly loosen the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule:
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I’ve got a new essay up over at the City Journal about John Nichols and Robert McChesney’s proposal to have the government heavily subsidize failing media enterprises to “save journalism.” It follows below:

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Socializing Media in Order to Save It
by Adam D. Thierer
City Journal March 27, 2009

With proposals to nationalize or heavily subsidize various segments of our economy more in vogue than ever, it was probably only a matter of time before someone suggested that America’s media marketplace should be brought into the government fold. John Nichols of The Nation and the prolific neo-Marxist media theorist Robert W. McChesney have now provided the road map for media’s march to serfdom. The cost to the American taxpayer would be at least $60 billion, but the cost for the First Amendment and our democracy would be incalculable.

Nichols and McChesney have coauthored several books and essays about media policy that view the world through the prism of class struggle, “manufactured consent” (á la Noam Chomsky), and the rest of the typical Marxoid tripe about history and economics. In their view, private, for-profit media cannot be trusted. As they stated in their 2003 call to arms, Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, media-reform efforts must begin with “the need to promote an understanding of the urgency to assert public control over the media.” “Our claim,” they continue, “is simply that the media system produces vastly less of quality than it would if corporate and commercial pressures were lessened.”

In a new Nation essay, “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” the authors bring their earlier work to its logical conclusion. Saving journalism, they argue, essentially requires that media become an appendage of the state. Journalism, they claim, is a “public good,” which—like education and defense—requires constant government oversight and support: “A moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens.” They propose that government devote $60 billion to “subscription subsidies, postal reforms, youth media and investment in public broadcasting.” Think of it as a “free press ‘infrastructure project,’” they say. “It would keep the press system alive. And it has the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus.” (Isn’t it amazing how everything stimulates the economy these days?)

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Fascinating article in the WSJ today:  “To Sketch a Thief: Genes Draw Likeness of Suspects In the Field of DNA Forensics, Scientists Identify Genetic Markers for Traits Revealing Appearance and Ethnicity.”

Forensic experts are increasingly relying on DNA as “a genetic eyewitness,” says Jack Ballantyne, associate director for research at the National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who is studying whether a DNA sample can reveal a person’s age. “We’d like to say if the DNA found on a bomb fragment comes from the young man who carried the bomb or from the wizened old mastermind who built it.”

The push to predict physical features from genetic material is known as DNA forensic phenotyping, and it’s already helped crack some difficult investigations. In 2004, police caught a Louisiana serial killer who eyewitnesses had suggested was white, but whose crime-scene DNA suggested — correctly — that he was black. Britain’s forensic service uses a similar “ethnic inference” test to trace murderers and rapists.

It goes almost without saying that the first impulse of many is to ban this evolving area of technology:

Worried about the ethical and social challenges, Germany doesn’t permit the forensic use of DNA to infer ethnicity or physical traits. Nor do a handful of U.S. states, including Indiana, Wyoming and Rhode Island. The U.K. and the Netherlands allow it.

The main downside I can see to the use of this technology in crime-fighting is that it would be disastrous for the genre of crime fiction.  While it certainly sounds like something out of GATTACA (my favorite movie of all time), it would have killed the plot:  The genetic-GESTAPO probably would have known that our genetically-defective hero Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was not in fact, the genetically-engineered-but-crippled superman Jerome Morrow (Jude Law) he claimed to be—and the whole plot would have gone up in smoke.  How much fun would that have been?

Interestingly, it seems Hulu once made the entire film available online but no longer does so.  Fie on them and their conspiracy to suppress the future!  Damn it, Hulu, don’t you know that “There Is No Gene For The Human Spirit?”

I’ve been working closely with PFF Adjunct Fellow & former ICANN Board member Michael D. Palage on ICANN issues.  Michael had this to say about the ongoing saga of ICANN’s attempt to create new gTLDs.

During the recent ICANN Board meeting in Mexico City, the Board authorized the creation and funding of an Implementation Recommendation Team (IRT).  This team was to be comprised of “an internationally diverse group of persons with knowledge, expertise, and experience in the fields of trademark, consumer protection, or competition law, and the interplay of trademarks and the domain name system to develop and propose solutions to the overarching issue of trademark protection in connection with the introduction of new gTLDs.” This IRT is tasked to produce a report for consideration by the ICANN community at the Sydney meeting.

The IRT consists of 24 members:

  • Chairwoman Caroline G. Chicoine; and
  • Seventeen members; and
  • Six ex officio members:  Four IPC-elected officers and two-GNSO elected Board Directors (Bruce Tonkin and Rita Rodin Johnston).  

I have a number of friends and colleagues serving on this team and I wish them well in their important endeavor.

I’ve previously proposed a number of rights-protection mechanisms that IRT should consider.  Today, I offer a few suggestions that I hope will guide IRT as they embark on their important work tomorrow.  In particular, I hope they’ll implement some of my suggestions intended to make the IRT process more transparent-so the rest of the global Internet can follow along with their important work and provide constructive input where possible.

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Chris Soghoian has responded to my recent post lauding his Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out (or “TACO” – documented and downloadable here). We’re agreed in the main on user empowerment. The interesting stuff is on the margin: He disagrees with me that blocking third party cookies as I do (and he does too) is a satisfactory approach to suppressing tracking by advertisers.

There are a couple of points worth making about the discussion.

The first has to do with our slightly differing objectives. Chris is deeply focused on advertisers and his dislike of being tracked by advertisers. Though it is not absolute, I have a preference against tracking by anyone other than sites that I know, like, and trust. I’m no more worried about advertisers than any entity that would track my surfing – and there are many.

Again, TLF readers, I ask you to try setting your browser to query you before setting cookies. It’s a real insight into the dozens of entities getting a look at you as you surf, including a bunch of social networks and news sites.

If “advertisers” are what you seek to harness, that seems like a group that can be captured through some kind of centralized control mechanism. (I don’t think it actually is.) But if your goal is privacy as against all comers, you don’t attempt to centrally plan or decide who is good and who is bad. Responsibility rests with the end user.

Let the goal be “advertisers,” though. And I ask: Those social networks and news aggregators – are they “advertisers”? If you’re going to require a subset of Web communicators to obey opt-out cookies, you have to be able to define that subset – a problem Chris doesn’t seem to have thought about yet.

Lots of different publishers, sites, and networks have data that is entirely fungible with the tracking data advertisers collect. What do you get if you push down on the “officially advertisers” part of the balloon? Workarounds.

But I’ve backed into the second point – the means to these ends. Chris soft-pedals how he would get at tracking, but as far as I can tell it’s a law that says “advertisers” have to obey opt-out cookies. Continue reading →