November 2009

Wikipedia editorsThere was a very interesting front-page article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey Fowler wondering whether Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia, was dying because of new posting guidelines which have apparently led to a drop off in the number of volunteers contributing to the site. In their article (“Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages“), Angwin and Fowler note that:

In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzed Wikipedia’s data on the editing histories of its more than three million active contributors in 10 languages. Eight years after Wikipedia began with a goal to provide everyone in the world free access to “the sum of all human knowledge,” the declines in participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia’s ability to continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy. Errors and deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its reliability.

The article suggests that new posting and editing guidelines may have something to do with the drop:

But as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp. “People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen,” says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. “Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Let’s say it’s true that the new guidelines have resulted in fewer people contributing.  Is that that automatically a bad thing?  I suppose it depends on other variables that are harder to measure. Namely, quality metrics. This is where every discussion about Wikipedia gets sticky. Continue reading →

Free Press, the radical pro-regulatory media activist group, recently filed comments with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the agency’s upcoming workshop on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”  The Free Press comments provide an enlightening glimpse into the mind of how many on the Left now think about media policy in America.  Their approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Nothing the private sector can do will save journalism (unless it is entirely non-profit / non-commercial in nature);
  2. Even if there was something that private players could do to save journalism, Free Press would likely have federal authorities forbid it anyway (especially if it involved new business ownership patterns or combinations); and,
  3. The only thing that can really save journalism is a “public option” for the press in the form of massive state subsidization of media in this country.

To elaborate on the last point, here’s how Free Press summarizes what they are looking for:

For U.S. public media to become a truly world-class system will require a substantial increase in funding. This could be accomplished by an increase in direct congressional appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. With increased funding — to as little as $5 per person, increasing annual appropriations to some $1.5 billion — the American public media system could dramatically increase its capacity, reach, diversity and relevance.

But they stress that a simple expansion of the PBS/NPR/CPB non-commercial model will not be enough since that system is “vulnerable to repeated threats of funding cuts” and too “reliant on corporate backing, via the underwriting process.” They want to go well beyond non-commercial media, therefore, and have the state start building a massive public media infrastructure.  Here’s where their pitch for a public option for the press comes in: Continue reading →

Arik Hesseldahl has an interesting piece in Business Week about Apple’s control of the iPhone App approval process in which he asks: “Is a smartphone gatekeeper needed?” Plenty of people don’t think so and have raised a stink about Apple trying to play that role for the iPhone. It certainly could be true, as some critics suggest, that Apple is being too heavy-handed on occasion when rejecting apps, but it’s always easy for those of us on the outside of the process to think that.  Hesseldahl notes that:

it’s tempting to consider the implications of a less hands-on approach, as is the case with Macs, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows PCs, or other smartphones, including those running the Google (GOOG)-backed Android operating system. The software market for personal computing has existed in this way for nearly three decades, and while there have certainly been some problems along the way, I’d argue that overall we’re better off without Microsoft or Apple or some other organization approving software applications before they’re released to the market. PC users have learned to be careful about what they put on their computers through unhappy trial and error.

But he also notes that there is another side to the story: Continue reading →

Bob Barr, the four term Republican Georgia congressman turned ACLU activist and 2008 Libertarian Presidential candidate, has denounced Rep. Linda Sánchez‘s (D-CA) “Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act” (H.R. 1966) in particularly harsh terms:

This legislation represents an exercise in overcriminalization and poor draftsmanship not often seen, even in the Congress.  A term as broad and as vague as “intent  to .  .  .  cause substantial emotional distress to a person” invites constitutional challenge as being violative of the Fifth Amendment due process guarantee, as well as the First Amendment’s language protecting speech (including political and news media speech).   Sending an e-mail or a blog, or even posting a Twitter message that might be particularly insensitive or even downright mean about another person, including perhaps a candidate for office or an incumbent, could land you in jail if Rep. Sanchez’ bill were to become law.

Barr touches on many of the key points Adam Thierer and I raised in the written testimony we submitted to House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on this subject back in September—summarized here. At the hearing, Sanchez declared her intention to revise the bill to incorporate constitutional criticisms. Stay tuned for an update on that front…

But as we noted in our testimony, the constitutional problems with criminalization cannot beeasily  remedied, especially since Sanchez seems unwilling to limit her bill to cyberharassment of children by adults (such as allegedly happened in the Megan Meier case)—relying instead on existing cyberstalking laws (a much more narrowly defined crime involving “true threats”) to govern conduct among adults, and educational and counseling-based approaches to govern true cyberbullying among children.

Why we haven’t heard the last of Sanchez’s bill, the more serious threat is likely to be efforts to deputize online intermediaries to “deal with the problem” by chipping away at the broad immunity under Section 230 that has allowed the great flourishing of online content and services involving user generated content and participation. As we noted: Continue reading →

It’s truly amazing how fast mobile broadband demand is expanding. A couple of things caught my eye yesterday that really drove that home.  First, I was reading Bernstein Research’s weekly (subscription-only) newsletter and Craig Moffett, one of America’s top media and communications analysts, summarized the growing mobile bandwidth crunch as follows:

To fully grasp the challenge facing wireless providers as we make the transition from wireless voice to wireless data, it is helpful to put some ballpark numbers around current usage levels. Today, the average voice-only customer consumes something like 50 megabytes of data every month. For that, they pay about $40, or about $0.80 per megabyte. That’s 70% of wireless industry revenues. Text messaging generates another $10 per month for a minuscule amount of data (in fact, arguably no throughput at all, since text messaging travels in a signaling band rather than in the carrier band itself). Let’s call it $1,000 per megabyte. That’s another 15% of industry revenues. On a blended basis, then, that’s $1.00 per megabyte for 85% of industry revenues.

And then there’s the iPhone. By some estimates, the average iPhone user consumes as much as 800 megabytes per month. Take out their 50 Mb for voice and you’re looking at 750 Mb of data… for an additional $30. For the mathematically challenged, that’s a princely sum of… wait for it… four cents per megabyte. Worse, we noted that the FCC’s wireless net neutrality policies posed the risk of “bandwidth arbitrage,” where low bandwidth services (at $1.00 per megabyte) would be replaced with free or almost free applications that ride on $0.04 per megabyte data plans, and where carriers’ hands would be tied to prevent it. Taking a business that is currently getting $1.00 per megabyte down to just $0.04 per megabyte is, well, hard. And lest anyone think that this threat is idle fear-mongering, Google’s acquisition last week of Gizmo5, a wireless VoIP specialist, should give one pause.

Those are stunning numbers. And then I saw this new filing by CTIA listing some other statistics about growing mobile broadband demand:

Continue reading →

This morning, the Technology Committee of the New York City Council convened a large hearing on a resolution urging Congress to pass a robust Net Neutrality law. I was supposed to testify, but our narrowband transportation system prevented me from getting to New York. Here, however, is the testimony I prepared. It focuses on investment, innovation, and the impact Net Neutrality would have on both.

“Net Neutrality’s Impact on Internet Innovation” – by Bret Swanson – 11.20.09

Federal Cloud CommissionHmmm… What am I missing? I cannot lay my finger on a single line in the Communications Act of 1934, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, or any statute in between that gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to regulate cloud computing.  And yet, like any good stickler for jurisdictional authority, my PFF colleague Barbara Esbin keeps bringing to my attention little FCC chirps here and there which suggest that the agency is slowly positioning itself to become the Federal Cloud Commission. For example, back in September, Barbara brought to my attention this passage in the Commission’s recent Wireless Innovation and Investment Notice of Inquiry, (paragraph 60, pg. 21):

As other approaches, such as cloud computing, evolve, will established standards or de facto standards become more important to the applications development process? For example, can a dominant cloud computing position raise the same competitive issues that are now being discussed in the context of network neutrality? Will it be necessary to modify the existing balance between regulatory and market forces to promote further innovation in the development and deployment of new applications and services?

In my earlier essay about this, I noted that these questions should serve as a wake-up call for Google and other cloud-based providers who think that “neutrality” mandates will end at the infrastructure layer of the Net.  As Berin Szoka and I argued in our paper on “high-tech mutually assured destruction,” regulatory regimes grow but almost never contract.  And I’m even less optimistic about the FCC limiting its regulatory aspirations after the latest thing Barbara Esbin brought to my attention.

Today, as part of the Commission’s ongoing effort to develop a National Broadband Plan, the FCC released a request for information “on data portability and its relationship to broadband.”  (NBP Public Notice #21) “The Commission seeks tailored comment on broadband and portability of data and their relation to cloud computing, transparency, identity, and privacy,” the notice says.  Here was the second item on the list of things the Commission said it was investigating: Continue reading →

The American Consumer Institute has released a collection of essays addressing the likely consequences of “‘Net Neutrality” regulation for investment in broadband and for consumer welfare. These are important things to consider, in case it needs saying.

My colleague (and boss) Adam Thierer had a great post last week about how “fart apps” are a great example of the generative nature of the mobile phone application marketplace. But Fart apps are just one type of “soundboard” application. A typical soundboard app has a bunch of buttons, and each time you press a button a sound is played. Most soundboards play catchphrases from popular movies and TV shows. According to, there are 319 applications in the Android Market with “soundboard” in the title or description. Most (280) of them are free.

Almost all the free soundboards I tried include advertising from Google. The three main developers of soundboard apps for Android are Androidz , aspidoff, and Raz Corp. Androidz has ads from DoubleClick and aspidoff and Raz Corp (who’s apps seem exactly the same) both have ads from AdMob (which Google recently acquired). I’m all in favor of ad-supported content, but I suspect that the sound clips used in these soundboards are not licensed.
Continue reading →

My March 2008 paper, Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration, detailed the problems with electronic employment verification systems. The paper concludes that successful “internal enforcement” of immigration law requires a national ID—and ultimately a cradle-to-grave biometric tracking system.

The Department of Homeland Security has started a program called the “I E-Verify” campaign for businesses that use the federal background check system on its employees. If you see businesses with “I E-Verify” decorations or insignia, they at least indirectly support a national ID system in the United States. This can help you decide whether or not you want to spend your dollars with them.