August 2009

You’d think that in 2009, when global networks are handling exabytes of data in a single day and OC192 fiber optic connections crisscross the planet, the FCC — the most important communications agency in the United States — would at least be able to use modern technology to stream its own public meetings.tlf image realplayer

Nope. The FCC is still streaming its webcasts with RealPlayer, a horrendous and arguably obsolete application that fell out of favor with techies years ago and has since been overtaken by superior streaming platforms like Adobe’s Flash Media Server.

Today’s big tech news item is the FCC’s “three-pronged probe” of the wireless industry, which was set to be announced today at this morning’s Open Commission Meeting.

Want to watch the FCC’s meeting and see what our “public servants” in Washington are up to? Good luck. The FCC’s streaming video server only supports 200 simultaneous connections.

In a nation of 270 million wireless users, why not offer, say, 1000 or even 10000 connections? Given the agency’s $339 million dollar budget that’s not too much to ask, is it?

It’s especially ironic that the FCC still struggles with streaming webcasts given that the FCC is launching an investigation of alleged “anti-competitive” practices in the wireless industry. Why isn’t the FCC investigating its own inability to accomplish relatively simple tasks, like stream live video or run a halfway decent website?

The FCC doesn’t just use RealPlayer for Open Commission Meetings. Even the FCC’s “Broadband Workshops” — which are supposedly going to guide the future of broadband deployment in America — are using the same tired streaming platform.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the platform the FCC uses for streaming video isn’t all that important. But it is a much-needed reminder that bureaucrats in Washington aren’t very good at keeping pace with modern technology. Unfortunately, many seem to have forgotten this fact.

ADDENDUM: Turns out the FCC does use a modern platform for streaming open commission meeting, Cisco Webex Webinar (accessible via www.broadband.gov) but only offers RealPlayer streams on the official FCC.gov website. Also, once meetings are finished, they are available online exclusively in the Real video format.

By Michael Palage & Berin Szoka, The Progress & Freedom Foundation

Over the next month, the ICANN Board will consider its options for ensuring that some framework is in place to ensure ICANN’s accountability to the global Internet community after the approaching expiration of its Memorandum of Understanding and Joint Project Agreement (MOU/JPA) with the U.S. Department of Commerce. We analyze these options in our new paper, “Choosing the Right Path to a Permanent Accountability Framework for ICANN.”

We urge the ICANN Board to allow the time necessary for the development of a permanent accountability framework in consultation with the global Internet community, as required by ICANN’s Bylaws.  The authors caution the ICANN Board against rubber-stamping a recent proposal to essentially make the MoU/JPA a permanent instrument as inadequate to ensure ICANN’s long-term accountability.  The alternative, simply ending ICANN’s relationship with the U.S. Government, would raise serious legal questions concerning ICANN’s ability to collect fees from registrars and registries and the transfer of property rights underlying the domain name system.

We conclude by calling on ICANN’s new CEO Rod Beckstrom to exercise the kind of leadership he advocated in his 2005 book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, which explains the advantages of decentralized managerial “nervous systems” (“starfish”) over top-down hierarchies (“spiders”):

Instead of focusing on ‘spider’-esque permanent instruments with a single government, Beckstrom and the ICANN Board should focus on more ‘starfish’-like solutions that both continue the USG’s stewardship role and involve more governments that want to participate in the unique private-public partnership known as ICANN—without compromising ICANN’s guiding principles and commitment to private sector leadership. Only this outcome will ensure the long-term viability of ICANN as a global trustee of the Internet’s unique identifiers.

Continue reading →

Liskula CohenRandy Cohen, who pens “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine, wrote this week about the “skank case,” or the controversy surrounding the recent legal outing for an anonymous blogger who called fashion model Liskula Cohen a “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank.”   Thanks to a recent court decision, we now know that the blogger who uttered those words is Rosemary Port, a 29-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology student.  And she now apparently plans to sue Google for revealing her identity to the court. [As a shameful aside, can I just say that there has never been a nerdy Internet legal battle that involved two more smokin' hot women than this! Sorry, I couldn't resist pointing out the obvious.]

Rosemary PortReflecting on this catfight in his NY Times Magazine editorial, “Is It O.K. to Blog About This Woman Anonymously?” Randy Cohen asks:

Has anonymous posting, though generally protected by law, become so toxic that it should be discouraged? It has. To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode. [...]

Here is a guideline. The effects of anonymous posting have become so baleful that it should be forsworn unless there is a reasonable fear of retribution.  By posting openly, we support the conditions in which honest conversation can flourish.

But Mr. Cohen never specifies whether he is talking about an ethical guideline or a legal guideline. There is a world of difference, of course.  As a matter of social or personal ethics, I think many of us would agree that anonymity “should be forsworn” and we should encourage people to “post openly.”   I always live by that rule myself when blogging or posting comments on other sites, whether they are blogs, discussion boards, or even shopping sites.  But that is my choice. I would not want that choice forced by law upon others. Continue reading →

Anne CollierMy friends Anne Collier and Larry Magid, two of America’s leading experts on Internet safety matters, have just released a terrific new “Online Safety 3.0” manifesto.  Anne is the editor of Net Family News, Larry pens the “Safe and Secure” blog for CNet News, and together they run ConnectSafely.org.  Everything they do is must-reading for those of us who cover and care about the intersection of online child safety and free speech issues. [Disclosure: I am currently serving along with Anne and Larry on the new, government-appointed Online Safety Technology Working Group.]

In their new “Online Safety 3.0″ essay, Anne and Larry argue that:

Both the Internet and the way young people use technology are constantly changing, but Internet safety messages change very slowly if at all. A few years ago, some of us in the Net safety community started talking about how to adjust our messaging for the much more interactive “Web 2.0.” And we did so, based on the latest research as it emerged. But even those messages are starting to get a bit stale.

Larry MagidTheir “Version 3.0″ for online safety refocuses the discussion on “the positive reasons for safe use of social technology.” They want to”enable[] youth enrichment and empowerment. Its main components — new media literacy and digital citizenship – are both protective and enabling.”  They argue that “promoting critical thinking, mindful producing, and the ethics, responsibilities and rights of citizenship” is “empowering because it’s protective. This is protection that lasts a lifetime.”  Amen to that.

What I like best about Anne and Larry’s approach is that is fundamentally optimistic.  Whereas so many supposed child safety experts talk down to both parents and kids and seem to suggest that both are completely oblivious to the world around them, Anne and Larry have a very different worldview and approach. They are positive about the potential of both parents and kids to take on new challenges and make the best of the new technologies they have at their disposal, even if there are some bumps along the way. The other thing I love about Anne and Larry is that they have done more than any two journalists I know to debunk the “technopanic” hysteria that others in the media world have propagated over the past 15 years.

Anyway, make sure to read their “Online Safety 3.0” manifesto.  Best thing I’ve seen on the subject in a long time.

Just caught this LA Times editorial from a couple of days ago on the “Overreaction to Online Harassment.” The piece makes many of the same points that Berin Szoka and I stress in our PFF paper on “Cyberbullying Legislation: Why Education is Preferable to Regulation.” [Also, here's a video of a debate on these issues that I took part in up on Cap Hill this summer.]

The Times editorial notes that, “Because of a past tragedy, lawmakers and prosecutors are becoming overzealous in combating noxious behavior on the Web.” Specifically, they are referring to the tragic case of Megan Meier, the teen who committed suicide after being harassed on MySpace. “Members of Congress often try to expand the powers of federal prosecutors and courts when state law doesn’t produce the results they seek, especially when confronted with cases as heart-wrenching as Meier’s,” the Times noted. For example, in may 2008, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1966 (originally H.R. 6123), the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” which would create a new federal felony to deal with this concern.

But creating a federal crime for something that is mostly peer-on-peer activity seems like overkill. Moreover, the Times notes, “the bill is so vaguely written” that it “would have a hard time withstanding a 1st Amendment challenge if it ever became law.”  As you’ll see in our paper, Berin and I agree, but we also point out that cyberbullying is a very serious matter since evidence suggests the cyberbullying is on the rise and that it can have profoundly damaging consequences for children.

Continue reading →

countdownThe WashingtonWatch.com project to collect congressional earmark data continues to make great strides. Over 35,000 earmark requests are in the database, and fewer than 50 representatives remain on the “wanted” list.

(I illustrated the WashingtonWatch.com post with the picture at right. Wanted to capture the all-American, do-it-yourself, shoot-for-the-moon spirit. Does that work for your inner art critic? . . .)

Also, take a look at the transparency “Hall of Shame” post published this morning. Even some appropriations committee members published their earmark disclosures as scanned PDFs. That’s transparency in name, but not in spirit.

Our job here at TLF is generally to talk about policy as opinion leaders, but I tend to be a little campaign-y sometimes. When I see something I don’t like, I’ll use this platform to sound off about it.

It appears that ProFlowers.com engages in a shady practice: handing customers who accept a “special offer” from them to a company that charges people a monthly fee for what appears to be some kind of credit monitoring service. There are write-ups of varying depth and quality here, here, here, and here.

Question: Does the Internet provide enough feedback to suppress this practice? How could the e-commerce ecosystem be changed to alert people about this kind of thing ahead of time?

Being a smart, informed, and aggressive consumer is each person’s responsibility if a free market is to operate well. The alternative is a negative feedback loop in which government authorities protect us, we rely on that protection and stop policing retailers. Thereby we abandon the field of consumer protection to government authorities, who—try as they might—can never do as good a job for us as we can for ourselves.

Should we each run a “scam” search on new online businesses before we deal with them? Maybe so. But that’s a little clunky. With the popularity of Firefox plug-ins for problem solving around here, maybe one of the consumer review/complaint sites could develop a plug-in to provide people reviews of a retailer as they visit the site.

I hope that prompting a conversation around the apparent ProFlowers.com credit card ripoff scam will alert savvy shoppers to a risk of doing business with them. (For the sake of searchability, feel free to blog a little bit yourself about the apparent ProFlowers credit card ripoff scam.) Perhaps this discussion will also generate a systemic fix that preempts shady dealings of the type alleged here.

Mediapost has published an interview I gave to Omar Tawakol, founder of the BlueKai registry entitled “User Empowerment, Not Regulation, Is The Answer to Privacy Concerns About Targeted Ads” in which I summarize the arguments Adam Thierer and I have been making since our “Principles to Guide the Debate” piece last September.

We argue for user empowerment over restrictive defaults (like “opt-in”) for data use and collection because, as the Supreme Court held in 2000: “Technology expands the capacity to choose; and it denies the potential of this revolution if we assume the Government is best positioned to make these choices for us.”

We promote tools that let users make their own decisions about privacy, not only because those decisions are fundamentally subjective, but because regulatory mandates could stifle the development of online content and commerce.

I also note the parallels between speech controls and privacy regulation, and call for a consistent, principled approach to both:

Since 1997, the Supreme Court has struck down multiple legislative attempts to censor online and offline content [especially the CDA] because there were “less restrictive alternatives” that would not so heavily burden free speech rights. In a 2000 cable-related decision, the Court held that “targeted blocking [by users] is less restrictive than banning, and the Government cannot ban speech if targeted blocking is a feasible and effective means of furthering its compelling interests.”

Courts have struck down other federal and state speech controls because parents had the tools to filter their kids’ access to information online, in video games, etc., as described in my PFF colleague Adam Thierer’s ongoing catalog of these tools

Many who oppose industry self-regulation are not really “consumer advocates” because they don’t recognize that consumers have many, competing values. Those regulatory advocates are more interested in their preferred one-size-fits-all mandates than in empowering users to determine their own privacy preferences.

Like advocates of censorship, privacy zealots assert great dangers to which citizens are supposedly oblivious but which urgently require government intervention-dismissing arguments to the contrary as either uninformed or irresponsible.

The comments on the interview are equally worth reading.  Jeff Chester, who has made a career out of attacking advertising, quickly posted a comment dismissing, but ignoring, my arguments about consumer welfare as corporate propaganda—just as he did with his comment on the post Adam and I wrote in June about congressional hearings on the issue featuring Chester (and Scott Cleland, the right-wing “Bizarro Chester“).  I’ve had it with Chester’s ad hominem attacks on the motives of those who disagree with him, as I explained in my reply to Chester: Continue reading →

I recently finished Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.  Like everything he writes, this book is worth reading and it will be of interest to those who follow technology policy debates since Cowen makes a passionate case for “Internet optimism” in the face of recent criticisms of the Internet and the Information Age in general.

Cowen is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the co-author, along with Alex Tabarrok, of the wonderful  MarginalRevolution.com blog.  And if you haven’t read Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, stop what you’re doing and go get yourself a copy right now. Brilliant book.  Compared to that book, Create Your Own Economy is a difficult book to summarize.  Seriously, this book is all over the place… but in a good way.  Even though it sometimes feels like “Tyler’s Miscellaneous Ramblings,” those ramblings will keep you engaged and entertained.  Cord Blomquist did a pretty good job of summarizing the general themes of the book in this post two months ago when he noted that, “despite cultural reflexes that would have us do otherwise, we should embrace… new technologies as means to be more selective about what information we absorb and therefore welcome the increased volume of bytes into our lives.  In his new book, [Cowen] explores technology as a vehicle to help you determine what you really value, not a series of a email-powered torture devices.”  That’s a pretty good summation, but the book is about much more than that.

Instead of a full-blown review, I want to focus on some of passages from Cowen’s book about coping with information overload, which I think readers here might find of interest. In doing so, I will contrast Cowen’s views with those of John Freeman, who just penned “A Manifesto for Slow Communication” in The Wall Street Journal. As we will see, Cowen and Freeman’s differences exemplify the heated ongoing debate taking place among “Internet optimists &  pessimists,” which I have discussed here many times before.   Continue reading →

Economics has been called the dismal science, and recognizing that politicians are economic actors leads to the conclusion in this good article: Would You Ask Turkeys to Mandate Thanksgiving? The Dismal Politics of Legislative Transparency