June 2013

Are we as globalized and interconnected as we think we are? Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of the new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, argues that America was likely more globalized before World War I than it is today. Zuckerman discusses how we’re more focused on what’s going on in our own backyards; how this affects creativity; the role the Internet plays in making us less connected with the rest of the world; and, how we can broaden our information universe to consume a more healthy “media diet.”


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***Cross-posted from Forbes.com***

It was, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again.  Fielding calls last week from journalists about reports the NSA had been engaged in massive and secret data mining of phone records and Internet traffic, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone was surprised by the so-called revelations.

Not only had the surveillance been going on for years, the activity had been reported all along—at least outside the mainstream media.  The programs involved have been the subject of longstanding concern and vocal criticism by advocacy groups on both the right and the left.

For those of us who had been following the story for a decade, this was no “bombshell.”  No “leak” was required.  There was no need for an “expose” of what had long since been exposed.

As the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez and others reminded us, the NSA’s surveillance activities, and many of the details breathlessly reported last week, weren’t even secret.  They come up regularly in Congress, during hearings, for example, about renewal of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the principal laws that govern the activity.

In those hearings, civil libertarians (Republicans and Democrats) show up to complain about the scope of the law and its secret enforcement, and are shot down as being soft on terrorism.  The laws are renewed and even extended, and the story goes back to sleep.

But for whatever reason, the mainstream media, like the corrupt Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” collectively found itself last week “shocked, shocked” to discover widespread, warrantless electronic surveillance by the U.S. government.  Surveillance they’ve known about for years.

Let me be clear.  As one of the long-standing critics of these programs, and especially their lack of oversight and transparency, I have no objection to renewed interest in the story, even if the drama with which it is being reported smells more than a little sensational with a healthy whiff of opportunism. Continue reading →

This post is a parody of “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” written by Galileo Galilei in 1632, which attempted to prove that the earth revolves around the sun (the Copernican system). Although the Copernican system was ultimately proven to be scientifically correct, Galileo was convicted of heresy and his book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books for more than two hundred years.

Galileo’s book was written as a dialogue between three characters, Salviati, who supported Galileo’s view, Simplicio, who believed the universe revolves around the earth (the Ptolemaic system), and Sagredo, an open-minded person with no established position. In this parody, Salviati supports the use of actual or de facto guard bands between broadcast and mobile services, Simplicio supports the FCC’s competing guard band proposals in the 600 MHz and 700 MHz bands, and Sagredo remains open-minded.


Salviati, Sagredo, Simplicio

SALVIATI. We resolved to meet today and discuss the differences in the FCC’s approach to the potential for harmful interference between broadcast and mobile services in the 600 MHz band on the one hand and the lower 700 MHz band on the other. Continue reading →

Today, the Obama administration announced 5 executive actions it is taking and 7 legislative proposals it is making to address the problem of patent trolls. While these are incremental steps in the right direction, they are still pretty weak sauce. The reforms could alleviate some of the litigation pressure on Silicon Valley firms, but there’s a long way to go if we want to have a patent system that maximized innovation.

The proposals aim to reduce anonymity in patent litigation, improve review at the USPTO, give more protection to downstream users, and improve standards at the International Trade Commission, a venue which has been gamed by patent plaintiffs. These are all steps worth taking. But they’re not enough. The White House’s press release quotes the president as saying that “our efforts at patent reform [i.e. the America Invents Act, passed in 2011] only went about halfway to where we need to go.” Presumably the White House believes these steps will take us the rest of the way there.

But the problem with computer-enabled patents isn’t merely that they result in a lot of opportunistic litigation, though they do. The problem is that almost every new idea is actually pretty obvious, in the sense that it is “invented” at the same time by lots of companies that are innovating in the same space. Granting patents in a field where everyone is innovating in the same way at the same time is a recipe for slowing down, not speeding up, innovation. Instead of just getting on with the process of building great new products, companies have to file for patents, assemble patent portfolios, license patents from competitors who “invented” certain software techniques a few months earlier, deal with litigation, and so on. A device like a smartphone requires thousands of patents to be filed, licensed, or litigated.

If we really want to speed up innovation, we need to take bolder steps. New Zealand recently abolished software patents by declaring that software is not an invention at all. It would be terrific if the White House would get behind that kind of bold thinking. In the meantime, we’ll have to watch closely as the Obama administration’s executive actions are implemented and its legislative recommendations move through Congress. I hope for the best, but for now I’m not too impressed.

Few dispute that mobile carriers are being squeezed by the relative scarcity of radio spectrum. This scarcity is a painful artifact of regulatory decisions made decades ago, when the regulators gave valuable spectrum away for free to government agencies and to commercial users via so-called “beauty contests.” As more Americans purchase tablets and smartphones (as of a year ago, smartphones comprise a majority of phone plans in the US), many fear that consumers will be hurt by higher prices, stringent data limits, and less wireless innovation.

In the face of this demand, freeing up more airwaves for mobile broadband became a bipartisan effort and many scholars and policymakers have turned their hungry eyes to the ample spectrum possessed by federal agencies, which hold around 1500 MHz of the most valuable bands. The scholarly consensus–confirmed by government audits–is that federal agencies use their spectrum poorly. Because many licensees use spectrum under the old rules (free spectrum) and use it inefficiently, President Obama directed the FCC and NTIA to find 500 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband use by 2020. Continue reading →

David Garcia, post doctoral researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and co-author of Social Resilience in Online Communities: The Autopsy of Friendster, discusses the concept of social resilience and how online communities, like Facebook and Friendster, withstand changes in their environment.

Garcia’s paper examines one of the first online social networking sites, Friendster, and analyzes its post-mortem data to learn why users abandoned it.

Garcia goes on to explain how opportunity cost and cost benefit analysis can affect a user’s decision whether or not to remain in an online community.


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Alexander Howard has put together this excellent compendium of comments on Mike Rosenwald’s new Washington Post editorial, “Will the Twitter Police make Twitter boring?” I was pleased to see that so many others had the same reaction to Rosenwald’s piece that I did.

For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone can equate counter-speech with “Twitter Police,” but that’s essentially what Rosenwald does in his essay. The examples he uses in his essay are exactly the sort of bone-headed and generally offensive comments that I would hope we would call out and challenge robustly in a deliberative democracy. But when average folks did exactly that, Rosenwald jumps to the preposterous conclusion that it somehow chilled speech. Stranger yet is his claim that “the Twitter Police are enforcing laws of their own making, with procedures they have authorized for themselves.” Say what? What laws are you talking about, Mike? This is just silly. These people are SPEAKING not enforcing any “laws.” They are expressing opinions about someone else’s (pretty crazy) opinions. This is what a healthy deliberative democracy is all about, bud!

Moreover, Rosenwald doesn’t really explain what a better world looks like. Is it one in which we all just turn a blind eye to what many regard as offensive or hair-brained commentary? I sure hope not!

I’m all for people vigorously expressing their opinions but I am just as strongly in favor of people pushing back with opinions of their own. You have no right to be free of social sanction if your speech offends large swaths of society. Speech has consequences and the more speech it prompts, the better.