July 2013

In June, The Guardian ran a groundbreaking story that divulged a top secret court order forcing Verizon to hand over to the National Security Agency (NSA) all of its subscribers’ telephony metadata—including the phone numbers of both parties to any call involving a person in the United States and the time and duration of each call—on a daily basis. Although media outlets have published several articles in recent years disclosing various aspects the NSA’s domestic surveillance, the leaked court order obtained by The Guardian revealed hard evidence that NSA snooping goes far beyond suspected terrorists and foreign intelligence agents—instead, the agency routinely and indiscriminately targets private information about all Americans who use a major U.S. phone company.

It was only a matter of time before the NSA’s surveillance program—which is purportedly authorized by Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act (50 U.S.C. § 1861)—faced a challenge in federal court. The Electronic Privacy Information Center fired the first salvo on July 8, when the group filed a petition urging the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus nullifying the court orders authorizing the NSA to coerce customer data from phone companies. But as Tim Lee of The Washington Post pointed out in a recent essay, the nation’s highest Court has never before reviewed a decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which is responsible for issuing the top secret court order authorizing the NSA’s surveillance program.130606-NSA-headquarters-tight-730a-590x400

Today, another crucial lawsuit challenging the NSA’s domestic surveillance program was brought by a diverse coalition of nineteen public interest groups, religious organizations, and other associations. The coalition, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, includes TechFreedom, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, among many other groups. The lawsuit, brought in the U.S. district court in northern California, argues that the NSA’s program—aptly described as the “Assocational Tracking Program” in the complaint—violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution, along with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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ICANN is meeting in Durban, South Africa this week, and this morning, its Governmental Advisory Committee, which goes by the delightfully onomatopoetic acronym GAC, announced its official objection to the .amazon top-level domain name, which was set to go to Amazon, the online purveyor of books and everything else. Domain Incite reports:

The objection came at the behest of Brazil and other Latin American countries that claim rights to Amazon as a geographic term, and follows failed attempts by Amazon to reach agreement.

Brazil was able to achieve consensus in the GAC because the United States, which refused to agree to the objection three months ago in Beijing, had decided to keep mum this time around.

The objection will be forwarded to the ICANN board in the GAC’s Durban communique later in the week, after which the board will have a presumption that the .amazon application should be rejected.

The board could overrule the GAC, but it seems unlikely.

This is a loss for anything resembling rule of law on the Internet. There are rules for applying for new generic TLDs, and the rules specifically say which geographic terms are protected. Basically, anything on this list, known as ISO 3166-1 is verboten. But “Amazon” is not on that list, nor is “Patagonia;” .patagonia was recently withdrawn. Amazon and Patagonia followed the rules and won their respective gTLDs fair and square.

The US’s decision to appease other countries by remaining silent is a mistake. The idea of diplomacy is to get countries to like you so that you can get what you want on policy, not to give up what is right on policy so that other countries will like you. I agree with Milton Mueller, whose bottom line is:

What is at stake here is far more important than the interests of Amazon, Inc. and Patagonia, Inc. What’s really at stake is whether the Internet is free of pointless constraints and petty political objections; whether governments can abuse the ICANN process to create rights and powers for themselves without any international legislative process subject to democratic and judicial checks and balances; whether the alternative governance model that ICANN was supposed to represent is real; whether domain name policy is made through an open, bottom-up consensus or top-down by states; whether the use of words or names on the Internet is subject to arbitrary objections from politicians globalizing their local prejudices.

Black Code coverRonald J. Deibert is the director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and the author of an important new book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, an in-depth look at the growing insecurity of the Internet. Specifically, Deibert’s book is a meticulous examination of the “malicious threats that are growing from the inside out” and which “threaten to destroy the fragile ecosystem we have come to take for granted.” (p. 14) It is also a remarkably timely book in light of the recent revelations about NSA surveillance and how it is being facilitated with the assistance of various tech and telecom giants.

The clear and colloquial tone that Deibert employs in the text helps make arcane Internet security issues interesting and accessible. Indeed, some chapters of the book almost feel like they were pulled from the pages of techno-thriller, complete with villainous characters, unexpected plot twists, and shocking conclusions. “Cyber crime has become one of the world’s largest growth businesses,” Deibert notes (p. 144) and his chapters focus on many prominent recent examples, including cyber-crime syndicates like Koobface, government cyber-spying schemes like GhostNet, state-sanctioned sabotage like Stuxnet, and the vexing issue of zero-day exploit sales.

Deibert is uniquely qualified to narrate this tale not just because he is a gifted story-teller but also because he has had a front row seat in the unfolding play that we might refer to as “How Cyberspace Grew Less Secure.” Continue reading →

K. Eric Drexler of Oxford University discusses his latest book Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. Drexler, who has been referred to as “the founding father of nanotechnology” covers how society can conserve resources and make more efficient products through nanotechnology; how nanotechnology can solve some of the world’s most pressing problems; how this varies from what you’ve seen in science fiction; and, how we can improve manufacturing at the molecular level.


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The New York Times reports:

The Russians, who with only minimal success, had for years sought to make these companies provide law enforcement access to data within Russia, reacted angrily. Mr. Gattarov formed an ad hoc committee in response to Mr. Snowden’s leaks.

Ostensibly with the goal of safeguarding Russian citizens’ private lives and letters from spying, the committee revived a long-simmering Russian initiative to transfer control of Internet technical standards and domain name assignments from two nongovernmental groups that control them today to an arm of the United Nations, the International Telecommunications [sic] Union.

It’s not immediately clear to me how moving Internet standards and DNS from IETF and ICANN to the ITU is supposed to stop the NSA from spying on Russians, so the smart read is that this is retaliation pure and simple.

Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio Patriota, for example, a week ago endorsed the Russian proposal to transfer some control over Internet technical standards to the United Nations telecommunications agency.

While these are not major changes in policy positions, the NSA’s surveillance programs seem to be galvanizing those who want the ITU to take an active role in Internet governance. It’s time for the USA to practice what it preaches on Internet freedom.

“In today’s globally competitive era, the United States cannot continue to delay its transition to Internet-enabled infrastructure.”

Last week the Department of Defense (DoD) filed comments with the FCC in its proceeding examining the transition from outdated telephone technologies to Internet Protocol (the “IP-transition”). The comments, which were filed “on behalf of the consumer interests” of the DoD by a civilian attorney in the Army’s Regulatory Law Office (emphasis added), ask the FCC to “consider potential adverse consequences on public safety and national security” of requiring federal agencies to “prematurely transition to different technologies.”

What are these potential adverse consequences? The italicized “interests” of the DoD provide the answer: It wants to avoid incurring any costs to upgrade its outdated telephone technologies to modern, Internet Protocol technologies when its current communications contracts expire in 2017. Continue reading →

Future and Its Enemies coverTechnologies of FreedomI was honored to be asked by the editors at Reason magazine to be a part of their “Revolutionary Reading” roundup of “The 9 Most Transformative Books of the Last 45 Years.”  Reason is celebrating its 45th anniversary and running a wide variety of essays looking back at how liberty has fared over the past half-century. The magazine notes that “Statism has hardly gone away, but the movement to roll it back is stronger than ever.” For this particular feature, Reason’s editors “asked seven libertarians to recommend some of the books in different fields that made [the anti-statist] cultural and intellectual revolution possible.”

When Jesse Walker of Reason first contacted me about contributing my thoughts about which technology policy books made the biggest difference, I told him I knew exactly what my choices would be: Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom (1983) and Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies (1998). Faithful readers of this blog know all too well how much I love these two books and how I am constantly reminding people of their intellectual importance all these years later. (See, for example, this and this.) All my thinking and writing about tech policy over the past two decades has been shaped by the bold vision and recommendations set forth by Pool and Postrel in these beautiful books.

As I note in my Reason write-up of the books: Continue reading →

Ajit Pai FCCAjit Pai, a Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), had an outstanding op-ed in the L.A. Times yesterday about state and local efforts to regulate private taxi or ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. “Ever since Uber came to California,” Pai notes, “regulators have seemed determined to send Uber and companies like it on a one-way ride out of the Golden State.” Regulators have thrown numerous impediments in their way in California as well as in other states and localities (including here in Washington, D.C.). Pai continues on to discuss how, sadly, “tech start-ups in other industries face similar burdens”:

For example, Square has created a credit card reader for mobile devices. Small businesses love Square because it reduces costs and is convenient for customers. But some states want a piece of the action. Illinois, for example, has ordered Square to stop doing business in the Land of Lincoln until it gets a money transmitter license, even though the money flows through existing payment networks when Square processes credit cards. If Square had to get licenses in the 47 states with such laws, it could cost nearly half a million dollars, an extraordinary expense for a fledgling company.

He also notes that “Obstacles to entrepreneurship aren’t limited to the tech world”:

Across the country, restaurant associations have tried to kick food trucks off the streets. Auto dealers have used franchise laws to prevent car company Tesla from cutting out the middleman and selling directly to customers. Professional boards, too, often fiercely defend the status quo, impeding telemedicine by requiring state-by-state licensing or in-person consultations and even restricting who can sell tooth-whitening services.

What’s going on here? It’s an old and lamentable tale of incumbent protectionism and outright cronyism, Pai notes: Continue reading →

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center discusses his recent working paper with coauthor Brent Skorup, A History of Cronyism and Capture in the Information Technology Sector. Thierer takes a look at how cronyism has manifested itself in technology and media markets — whether it be in the form of regulatory favoritism or tax privileges. Which tech companies are the worst offenders? What are the consequences for consumers? And, how does cronyism affect entrepreneurship over the long term?


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This afternoon, Berin Szoka asked me to participate in a TechFreedom conference on “COPPA: Past, Present & Future of Children’s Privacy & Media.” [CSPAN video is here.] It was a in-depth, 3-hour, 2-panel discussion of the Federal Trade Commission’s recent revisions to the rules issued under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

While most of the other panelists were focused on the devilish details about how COPPA works in practice (or at least should work in practice), I decided to ask a more provocative question to really shake up the discussion: What are we going to do when COPPA fails?

My notes for the event follow down below. I didn’t have time to put them into a smooth narrative, so please pardon the bullet points. Continue reading →