September 2009

Oxford UniversityI’ll be heading to Oxford University this week to participate in an Oxford Internet Institute (OII) forum on the subject of “Child Protection, Free Speech and the Internet: Mapping the Territory and Limitations of Common Ground.”  It’s being led by several experts from the OII as well as my good friends John Morris and Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT).  The aims of this forum are:

  • To facilitate a dialogue between NGOs campaigning to protect respectively, child protection and children’s rights online, and freedom of speech and other civil liberties online.
  • To promote a better understanding of each others’ positions, to share perspectives and information with a view to identifying areas of common ground and areas of disagreement.
  • To identify any shared policy goals, and possible tools to support the achievement of those goals.
  • To publicize the findings of the forum in international policy debates about Internet governance and regulation.

Conference participants were asked to submit a 2-3 pg summary of their views on a couple of questions that will be discussed at this event.  I have listed those questions, and my answers, down below the fold.  It’s my best attempt to date to succinctly outline my views about how to balance content concerns and free speech issues going forward.  Continue reading →

This week Google unveiled Sidewiki, a tool that lets users annotate any page on the web and read other users’ notes about the page they are visiting. Professional Google watcher Jeff Jarvis quickly panned the service saying that it bifurcates the conversation at sites that already have commenting systems, and that it relieves the site owner of the ability to moderate. Others have pooh-poohed the service, too.

What strikes me about the uproar is that Sidewiki is a lot like the “electronic sidewalks” that Cass Sunstein proposed in his book Republic.com. The concept was first developed in detail in a law review article by Noah D. Zatz titled, Sidewalks in Cyberspace: Making Space for Public Forums in the Electronic Environment [PDF]. The idea is a fairness doctrine for the Internet that would require site owners to give equal time to opposing political views. Sunstein eventually abandoned the view, admitting that it was unworkable and probably unconstitutional. Now here comes Google, a corporation, not the government, and makes digital sidewalks real.

The very existence of Sidewiki, along with the fact that anyone can start a blog for free in a matter of minutes, explodes the need for a web fairness doctrine. But since we’re not talking about government forcing site owners to host opposing views, I wonder if we’re better off with such infrastructure. As some have noted, Google is not the first to try to enable web annotation, and the rest have largely failed, but Google is certainly the biggest to make the attempt. As a site owner I might be worse off with Sidewiki content next to my site that I can’t control. But as a consumer of information I can certainly see the appeal of having ready access to opposing views about what I’m reading. What costs am I overlooking? That Google owns the Sidewiki-sidewalk?

Cross-posted from Surprisingly Free. Leave a comment on the original article.

One of the projects I run is OpenRegs.com, an alternative interface to the federal government’s official Regulations.gov site. With the help of Peter Snyder, we recently developed an iPhone app that would put the Federal Register in your pocket. We duly submitted it to Apple over a week ago, and just received a message letting us know that the app has been rejected.

Action IconThe reason? Our app “uses a standard Action button for an action which is not its intended purpose.” The action button looks like the icon to the right.

According to Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, its purpose is to “open an action sheet that allows users to take an application-specific action.” We used it to bring up a view from which a user could email a particular federal regulation. Instead, we should have used an envelope icon or something similar. Sounds like an incredibly fastidious reason to reject an application, right? It is, and I’m glad they can do so.
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sf-logoTLF friends, I have an announcement: Today the Mercatus Center at George Mason University is launching a new Technology Policy Program, which I will be directing. Perhaps more exciting for TLF readers, though, is that we’re also launching a new blog and podcast.

The new site is called Surprisingly Free, and it will focus on the intersection of technology, policy, and economics. We’ll feature commentary from Mercatus and GMU scholars, guest bloggers, and aggregated posts from other academics around the country.

The podcast is imaginatively called Surprisingly Free Conversations and it’s modeled after Russ Robert’s excellent Econtalk. The format is a weekly in-depth one-on-one conversation with a thinker or entrepreneur in the tech field. The first episode is up and features TLF veteran Tim Lee on bottom-up processes, innovation, and the future of news. Check it out, and please subscribe in iTunes.

We’re looking forward to engaging the tech policy discussion online from a law and econ academic perspective, and we hope you’ll join us for the ride. I look forward to your feedback!

The Post, hardly a bastion of radical cyber-libertarianism, has come out strongly against FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s plans to have the FCC issue “Net Neutrality” regulations. The editorial asks the critical threshold question we crazy cyber-libertarians always insist on:

Is this intervention necessary?

Mr. Genachowski claims to have seen “breaks and cracks” in the Internet that threaten to change the “fundamental architecture of openness.” He and other proponents of federal involvement cite a handful of cases they say prove that, left to their own devices, ISPs… will choke the free flow of information and technology. One example alluded to by the chairman: Comcast’s blocking an application by BitTorrent that would allow peer-to-peer video sharing. Yet that conflict was ultimately resolved by the two companies — without FCC intervention — after Comcast’s alleged bad behavior was exposed by a blogger.

Thus, the FCC oppposes pre-emptive regulation that would “prohibit ISPs from ‘discriminating against’ different applications,” noting that  this would mean that “ISPs, which have poured billions of dollars into building infrastructure, would have little control — if any — over the kinds of information and technology flowing through their pipes.”

Three cheers for the Post for recognizing both the property rights of ISPs in their networks and the fact that, even with Genachowski’s “slight concession” to allow “managed services in limited circumstances… unneeded regulation could still interfere with [ISPs] ability to manage bandwidth-hogging applications that can hamper service, especially during peak times.” Instead, the Post called for simple transparency, supporting a requirement that “ISPs be candid with the agency and the public about network management practices. The last paragraph hits the ball out of the park:

Mr. Genachowski claims that the FCC “will do as much as we need to do, and no more, to ensure that the Internet remains an unfettered platform for competition, creativity and entrepreneurial activity.” He will advance this goal by insisting on transparency; he will jeopardize it — and stifle further investments by ISPs — with attempts to micromanage what has been a vibrant and well-functioning marketplace.

Amen! The Post is about as “mainstream” as it gets in American journalism, so their strong opposition really underscores that preemptive “net neutrality” regulation isn’t the popular cause some in Washington think it is. It is simply infrastructure socialism.

In a week in which neutrality regulation is making a lot of news, I hope that Robert Hahn and Hal Singer’s terrific new study, “Why the iPhone Won’t Last Forever and What the Government Should Do to Promote its Successor” gets some attention. It provides a wonderful overview of how dynamically competitive the mobile marketplace has been over the past two decades and why critics are wrong to get worked up about the short-term “dominance” of Apple’s iPhone. Here’s the abstract of their paper:

Because of the overwhelming, positive response to the iPhone as compared to other smart phones, exclusive agreements between handset makers and wireless carriers have come under increasing scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers. In this paper, we document the myriad revolutions that have occurred in the mobile handset market over the past twenty years. Although casual observers have often claimed that a particular innovation was here to stay, they commonly are proven wrong by unforeseen developments in this fast-changing marketplace. We argue that exclusive agreements can play an important role in helping to ensure that another must-have device will soon come along that will supplant the iPhone, and generate large benefits for consumers. These agreements, which encourage risk taking, increase choice, and frequently lower prices, should be applauded by the government. In contrast, government regulation that would require forced sharing of a successful break-through technology is likely to stifle innovation and hurt consumer welfare.

“New technologies often seemingly emerge from nowhere, but also frequently lose their luster quickly,” Hahn and Singer go on to argue. As evidence they cite the recent examples of Second Life and MySpace, which were hyped as potentially become dominant providers in their respective areas just a few years ago, but now are subjected to intense competition. “[T]he the mobile handset market is subject to these same disruptive forces,” they argue: Continue reading →

Yesterday up on Capitol Hill, I hosted a very interesting discussion about “Next-Generation Parental Controls & Child Safety Efforts.”  I thought I’d provide a quick recap here for those who couldn’t attend. [Note: audio of the event will be up shortly at the link above and transcript is in the works.] The event featured Steve Crown, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Microsoft Corporation’s Entertainment & Devices Division; Dane Snowden, Vice President of External & State Affairs of CTIA – The Wireless Association; and Stephen Balkam, Chief Executive Officer of Family Online Safety Institute.

Steve Crown of Microsoft kicked the show off with a terrific overview of some the current and next-generation parental control tools and awareness efforts that Microsoft is deploying to help empower parents and keep kids safer both online and in gaming environments. Crown outlined Microsoft’s 5-prong strategy regarding how they have approached these issues on the gaming front, and I think it represents an excellent model of how sensible industry self-regulation and “best practices” can go a long way toward addressing concerns that many parents and policymakers have. The five strategies Crown outlined were: (1) Respect both the freedom of game creators and freedom of choice for game consumers; (2) empower parents with ratings, tools, and information; (3) use independent ratings (like the ESRB) to label content; (4) require all games be rated before they can be used on a platform so that parents can implement blocking controls; and (5) respect regional laws and rating systems in different parts of the globe.

In my book on Parental Controls & Online Child Safety: A Survey of Tools & Methods, I’ve documented many of the empowerment tools that Microsoft has deployed in recent years to make this empowerment vision a reality. One of the most important things MS does on its XBox 360 console is to provide an immediate “out-of-the-box” prompt for parents to set up parental controls and establish other limitations on online chat, spending, or Internet access. Microsoft announced another cool new feature in November 2007, the “Family Timer.” It lets parents limit how and when children play games on the console. This is similar to the time management tools Microsoft offers in its Vista operating system for PCs.  Incidentally, my wife has asked me to start using the Family Timer on our XBox — not for our kids, but for me!  This particular 40-year-old man is still a big kid at heart.

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Adam Thierer and I have warned that neutrality regulation, once imposed on broadband providers, will extend to other Internet services wherever “gatekeepers” are alleged to control access to a platform used by others. In short, the slippery slope of creeping common carriage is real and we’re already heading down it, with cyber-collectivist “luminaries” like Jonathan Zittrain and Frank Pasquale demanding neutrality regulation for devices, application platforms like iTunes and Facebook, and search!

TLF Reader Jim Reardon made a particularly astute observation on my post asking whether Americans really want net neutrality regulation:

Regulation of any service, product or industry is preceded by definition. Once defined, it is subject to taxation.

[Net Neutrality regulation] is a prelude to taxation of Internet products and services. It will likely start with telephony services and proceed accordingly to financial services, and continue from there.

As such, the activity is essentially neutral insofar as technology innovation is concerned — so long as applicable taxes are paid the government will ensure that the service is not disfavored by the network operators.

Absolutely right! One of the greatest barriers to government regulation and taxation of the Internet today is the lack of clear definitions: The FCC rules will tell you precisely what “cable television” or “commercial radio” mean, but the concepts of “social networking,” “Internet video,” “blogging,” and even “search” are indeterminate and constantly evolving.

Ronald Reagan once quipped:

Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it.  If it keeps moving, regulate it.  And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

Fortunately, government’s ability to implement this view depends—to paraphrase President Clinton—”on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ ‘it’ is”: Allowing “it” to remain beautifully amorphous may be the best way to keep government at bay.

Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles;
[The Lord] hath put down the mighty from their seats [of power] and raised up the lowly.
- “Magnificat

The Internet continues to humble the mighty in journalism. We hear a lot about the humbling of news outlets like the New York Times, but little about the humbling of news-makers. While the media reformistas would have us believe that dark, shadowy forces control what we hear, see and read, the reality is that it’s becoming increasingly impossible for even the world’s largest companies to “manage” stories because we live in an age of true media abundance. There’s no better sign of this than the fact that Michael Arrington has declared, with good reason, the “news embargo” dead. In the days of media scarcity (which the reformistas like Andrew Keen want to re-create), press releases often declared a story to be “embargoed” until a specific day and time, allowing companies to shape the story by planting releases with the “right” journalists ahead of time. Such embargoes have been breaking down for some time, but now, with the explosion of media abundance, even Google no longer has “the clout to force press to stick to embargoes.”

It’s not my favorite recording but this clip of Bach’s “Magnificat” (BWV 243) should sear into your brain the irrepressibility of the Internet as the greatest leveling force since the invention of the printing press. The two are not unrelated: Bach’s Lutheranism was made possible only by the ready availability of the printed word.

Whatever you think about this messy dispute between AT&T and Google about how to classify web-based telephony apps for regulatory purposes — in this case, Google Voice — the key issue not to lose site of here is that we are inching ever closer to FCC regulation of web-based apps!  Again, this is the point we have stressed here again and again and again and again when opposing Net neutrality mandates: If you open the door to regulation of one layer of the Net, you open up the door to the eventual regulation of all layers of the Net.

You might not buy that story initially but if you doubt it then I invite you to read just about any history of American broadcast media regulation over the course of the past seven decades. (You might want to start with Krattenmaker & Powe’s Regulating Broadcast Programming or Jonathan Emord’s Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment). In such histories you will find a common theme: Once regulation of media and communications platforms gets underway, the natural progression of things is uni-directional — Up!  That is, when new questions arise about how to “deal with” a new service, network, platform, or technology, the general tendency is the “regulate up” instead of “deregulating down.”  When regulators are given a greater say about the contours of markets as technologies evolve and/or converge, we shouldn’t be surprised that their first instinct is to “bring them into the fold.”

And, sadly, that is exactly what is likely to occur eventually with Google Voice. The only really interesting question is what else regulators start mucking with in the search and applications layer once they get their hands on it.  And if you still insist that I am being overly paranoid about “regulatory creep” and the prospect of the FCC gradually transforming into the Federal Information Commission, then consider what the agency had to say about cloud computing in paragraph 60 (pg. 21) of the FCC’s recent Wireless Innovation and Investment Notice of Inquiry, which was launched on August 27th: Continue reading →