June 2013

Regulating Code book coverIan Brown and Christopher T. Marsden’s new book, Regulating Code: Good Governance and Better Regulation in the Information Age, will go down as one of the most important Internet policy books of 2013 for two reasons. First, their book offers an excellent overview of how Internet regulation has unfolded on five different fronts: privacy and data protection; copyright; content censorship; social networks and user-generated content issues; and net neutrality regulation. They craft detailed case studies that incorporate important insights about how countries across the globe are dealing with these issues. Second, the authors endorse a specific normative approach to Net governance that they argue is taking hold across these policy arenas. They call their preferred policy paradigm “prosumer law” and it envisions an active role for governments, which they think should pursue “smarter regulation” of code.

In terms of organization, Brown and Marsden’s book follows the same format found in Milton Mueller’s important 2010 book Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance; both books feature meaty case studies in the middle bookended by chapters that endorse a specific approach to Internet policymaking. (Incidentally, both books were published by MIT Press.) And, also like Mueller’s book, Brown and Marsden’s Regulating Code does a somewhat better job using case studies to explore the forces shaping Internet policy across the globe than it does making the normative case for their preferred approach to these issues. Continue reading →

“Permitting voluntary spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would harness the power of market forces to put both commercial and federal spectrum to its highest and best uses.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a hearing today to ask, “How can Congress meet the needs of Federal agencies while addressing carriers’ spiraling demand for spectrum in the age of the data-intensive smartphone?” In my view, the answer requires a flexible approach that permits experimentation among multiple approaches.

There are challenges and opportunities for both (1) clearing and reallocating federal spectrum for commercial use and (2) sharing spectrum among federal and commercial users. Economic and technical issues may require different strategies for different spectrum bands and different uses. Experience indicates that voluntary negotiations among interested parties – not bureaucratic fiat – are likely to produce the most efficient strategy in any particular instance. Unfortunately, current law does not provide market incentives or mechanisms for the relevant parties (federal and commercial spectrum users and spectrum regulators) to achieve efficient outcomes.

Congressional action creating markets for spectrum transactions between federal and commercial users would provide the relevant parties with an opportunity to maximize their spectrum use through voluntary negotiation. A market-oriented approach would permit experimentation, encourage innovation, and promote investment while increasing the efficiency of spectrum use. The result would benefit consumers, federal agencies, and the economy. Continue reading →

Richard Brandt, technology journalist and author, discusses his new book, One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.Com. Brandt discusses Bezos’ entrepreneurial drive, his business philosophy, and how he’s grown Amazon to become the biggest retailer in the world. This episode also covers the biggest mistake Bezos ever made, how Amazon uses patent laws to its advantage, whether Amazon will soon become a publishing house, Bezos’ idea for privately-funded space exploration and his plan to revolutionize technology with quantum computing.


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Viral Hate coverThe Internet’s greatest blessing — its general openness to all speech and speakers — is also sometimes its biggest curse. That is, you cannot expect to have the most widely accessible, unrestricted communications platform the world has ever known and not also have some imbeciles who use it to spew insulting, vile, and hateful comments.

It is important to put things in perspective, however. Hate speech is not the norm online. The louts who spew hatred represent a small minority of all online speakers. The vast majority of online speech is of a socially acceptable — even beneficial — nature.

Still, the problem of hate speech remains very real and a diverse array of strategies are needed to deal with it. The sensible path forward in this regard is charted by Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf in their new book, Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. Their book explains why the best approach to online hate is a combination of education, digital literacy, user empowerment, industry best practices and self-regulation, increased watchdog / press oversight, social pressure and, most importantly, counter-speech. Foxman and Wolf also explain why — no matter how well-intentioned — legal solutions aimed at eradicating online hate will not work and would raise serious unintended consequences if imposed.

In striking this sensible balance, Foxman and Wolf have penned the definitive book on how to constructively combat viral hate in an age of ubiquitous information flows. Continue reading →

National Review today runs a pretty unfortunate article about Bitcoin in which the reporter, Betsy Woodruff, tries to live for a week using only bitcoins—a fun stunt already done by Kashmir Hill about two months ago. Aside from misrepresenting libertarianism, what's unfortunate about the article is how Bitcoin is presented to NR's readers, many of whom may be hearing about the virtual currency for the first time. Woodruff, who admits she doesn't completely understand how Bitcoin works, nevertheless writes,

From what I can tell, the main reason Bitcoin has any practical value is the existence of Silk Road, a website that lets users buy drugs and other illegal material online. …

A lot of Bitcoin aficionados will probably take issue with my next point here, but I’m pretty sure history will eventually be on my side. My theory is that Silk Road is the Fort Knox of Bitcoin. Bitcoin, from what I can tell, isn’t valuable because of idealistic Ron Paul supporters who feel it’s in their rational self-interest to invest in a monetary future unfettered by Washington; Bitcoin is valuable because you can use it to do something that you can’t use other forms of currency to do: buy drugs online. As long as Bitcoin is the best way to buy drugs online, and as long as there is a demand for Internet-acquired drugs, there will be a demand for Bitcoin.

Woodruff is right that folks who understand Bitcoin will take issue with her because she's demonstrably wrong. While it's true that illicit transactions probably did help bootstrap the Bitcoin economy early on, we are way past the point where such transactions account for any sizable portion of the economy. It's easy to put her "theory" to the test: Nicolas Cristin of Carnegie Mellon has estimated that Silk Road generates about $2 million in sales a month. The estimated total transaction volume for the whole bitcoin economy over the last 30 days is just over $770 million. So, Silk Road accounts for about 0.25% of bitcoin transactions—far from being the "Fort Knox of Bitcoin," as Woodruff says. And to put that in perspective, the UN estimates that the illicit drug trade accounts for 0.9% of world GDP.

The fact is that Bitcoin is not only a revolutionary new payments system that potentially disrupts traditional providers and can help serve the billions of unbanked around the world, but it also has the potential to be a distributed futures or securities market, or a distributed notary service. This is why Peter Thiel's Founders Fund and Fred Wilson's Union Square Ventures are investing millions of dollars in Bitcoin startups. Should we really think that these investors have overlooked what Woodruff posits—that the only value of bitcoins is to buy drugs? No, and I hope NR updates its story.

A few days ago, the big news in the telecom world was that President Obama again ordered federal agencies to share and sell their spectrum to expand commercial mobile broadband use. This effort is premised on the fact that agencies use their gifted airwaves poorly while demand for mobile broadband is surging. While the presidential memorandum half-heartedly supports clearing out agencies from some bands and selling it off, the focus of the memo is shared access, whereby federal agencies agree to allow non-federal users to use the same spectrum bands with non-interfering technologies.

The good news is that there is no mention of PCAST’s 2012 recommendation to the president to create a 1000 MHz “superhighway” of unlicensed federal spectrum accessed by sensing devices. This radical proposal would replace the conventional clearing-and-auction process with a spectrum commons framework reliant on unproven sensing technologies. Instead of consumers relying on carriers’ spectrum for mobile broadband, this plan would crudely imitate (in theory) wifi on steroids, where devices would search out access over a huge portion of valuable spectrum, avoiding federal users. Its omission in the recent memo likely means the unlicensed superhighway won’t be pursued.

Still, this doubling-down on other forms of dynamic spectrum sharing is unfortunate for several reasons. Continue reading →

Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET and former Washington bureau chief for Wired News, discusses recent leaks of NSA surveillance programs. What do we know so far, and what more might be unveiled in the coming weeks? McCullagh covers legal challenges to the programs, the Patriot Act, the fourth amendment, email encryption, the media and public response, and broader implications for privacy and reform.


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Today I had the great pleasure of moderating a panel discussion at a conference on the “Virtual Economy” hosted by Thomson Reuters and the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On my panel were representatives from the Bitcoin Foundation, the Tor Project, and the DOJ, and we had a lively discussion about how these technologies can potentially be used by criminals and what these open source communities might be able to do to mitigate that risk.

The bottom line message that came out of the panel (and indeed every panel) is that the Tor and Bitcoin communities do not like to see the technologies they develop put to evil uses, and that they are more than willing to work with policymakers and law enforcement to the extent that they can. On the flip side, the message to regulators was that they need to be more open, inclusive, and transparent in their decision making if they expect cooperation from these communities.

I was therefore interested in the keynote remarks delivered by Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the Director of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. In particular, she addressed the fact that since there have been several enforcement actions against virtual currency exchangers and providers, the traditional banking sector has been wary of doing business with companies in the virtual currency space. She said:

I do want to address the issue of virtual currency administrators and exchangers maintaining access to the banking system in light of the recent action against Liberty Reserve. Again, keep in mind the combined actions by the Department of Justice and FinCEN took down a $6 billion money laundering operation, the biggest in U.S. history.

We can understand the concerns that these actions may create a broad-brush, reaction from banks. Banks need to assess their risk tolerance and the risks any particular client might pose. That’s their obligation and that’s what we expect them to do.

And this goes back to my earlier points about corporate responsibility and why it is in the best interest of virtual currency administrators and exchangers to comply with their regulatory responsibilities. Banks are more likely to associate themselves with registered, compliant, transparent businesses. And our guidance should help virtual currency administrators and providers become compliant, well-established businesses that banks will regard as desirable and profitable customers.

While it’s true that FinCEN’s March guidance provides clarity for many actors in the Bitcoin space, it is nevertheless very ambiguous about other actors. For example, is a Bitcoin miner who sells for dollars the bitcoins he mines subject to regulation? If I buy those bitcoins, hold them for a time as an investment, and then resell them for dollars, am I subject to regulation? In neither case are bitcoins acquired to purchase goods or services (the only use-case clearly not regulated according to the guidance). And even if one is clearly subject to the regulations, say as an exchanger, it takes millions of dollars and potentially years of work to comply with state licensing and other requirements. My concern is that banks will not do business with Bitcoin start-ups not because they pose any real criminal risk, but because there is too much regulatory uncertainty.

My sincere hope is that banks do not interpret Ms. Shasky Calvery’s comments as validation of their risk-aversion. Banks and other financial institutions should be careful about who they do business with, and they certainly should not do business with criminals, but it would be a shame if they felt they couldn’t do business with an innovative new kind of start-up simply because that start-up has not been (and may never be) adequately defined by a regulator. Unfortunately, I fear banks may take the comments to suggest just that, putting start-ups in limbo.

Entrepreneurs may want to comply with regulation in order to get banking services, and they may do everything they think they have to in order to comply, but the banks may nevertheless not want to take the risk given that the FinCEN guidance is so ambiguous. I asked Ms. Shasky Calvery if there was a way entrepreneurs could seek clarification on the guidance, and she said they could call FinCEN’s toll-free regulatory helpline at (800) 949–2732. That may not be very satisfying to some, but it’s a start. And I hope that any clarification that emerges from conversations with FinCEN are made public by the agency so that others can learn from it.

All in all, I think today we saw the first tentative steps toward a deeper conversation between Bitcoin entrepreneurs and users on the one hand, and regulators and law enforcement on the other. That’s a good thing. But I hope regulators understand that it’s not just the regulations they promulgate that have consequences for regulated entities, it’s also the uncertainty they can create through inaction.

Ms. Shasky Calvery also said:

Some in the press speculated that our guidance was an attempt to clamp down on virtual currency providers. I will not deny that there are some troublesome providers out there. But, that is balanced by a recognition of the innovation these virtual currencies provide, and the financial inclusion that they might offer society. A whole host of emerging technologies in the financial sector have proven their capacity to empower customers, encourage the development of innovative financial products, and expand access to financial services. And we want these advances to continue.

That is a welcome sentiment, but those advances can only continue if there are clear rules made in consultation with regulated parties and the general public. Hopefully FinCEN will revisit its guidance now that the conversation has begun, and as other regulators consider new rules, they will hopefully engage the Bitcoin community early in order to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

My take on Prism

by on June 12, 2013 · 6 comments

Over at The Umlaut, I try to articulate why even people who have “nothing to hide” should be concerned about NSA surveillance:

I have no doubt that Prism is a helpful tool in combatting terrorism and enforcing the law, as the Obama administration claims. But ubiquitous surveillance doesn’t just help enforce the law; it changes the kinds of laws that can be enforced. It has Constitutional implications, not just because it violates the Fourth Amendment, which it does, but because it repeals a practical barrier to ever greater tyranny.

Read the whole thing, and pass it on.

The Department of Justice has suddenly reversed course from its previous findings that mobile providers who lack spectrum below 1 GHz can become “strong competitors” in rural markets and are “well-positioned” to drive competition locally and nationally. Those supporting government intervention as a means of avoiding competition in the upcoming incentive auction attempt to avoid these findings by highlighting misleading FCC statistics, including the assertion that Verizon owns “approximately 45 percent of the licensed MHz-POPs of the combined [800 MHz] Cellular and 700 MHz band spectrum, while AT&T holds approximately 39 percent.”

Sprint Nextel Corporation (Sprint Nextel) recently sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) signed by Dick Thornburgh, a former US Attorney General who is currently of counsel at K&L Gates, expressing his support for the ex parte submission of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that was recently filed in the FCC’s spectrum aggregation proceeding. The DOJ ex parte recommends that the FCC “ensure” Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile obtain a nationwide block of mobile spectrum in the upcoming broadcast incentive auction. In his letter of support on behalf of Sprint Nextel, Mr. Thornburgh states he believes the DOJ ex parte “is fully consistent with its longstanding approach to competition policy under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.”

Mr. Thornburgh is mistaken. The principle finding on which the DOJ’s new recommendation is based – that the FCC should adopt an inflexible, nationwide restriction on spectrum holdings below 1 GHz – is clearly inconsistent with the DOJ’s previous approach to competition policy in the mobile marketplace. Both the FCC and the DOJ have traditionally found that there is no factual basis for making competitive distinctions among mobile spectrum bands in urban markets, and the DOJ has distinguished among mobile spectrum bands only in rural markets. Continue reading →