On Sunday, the New York Times ran a story by Natasha Singer on the ongoing generic top-level domain (gTLD) expansion. Singer correctly notes that there is a great deal of skepticism that the new gTLDs will add social value. After all, what is the social value of .book when there is already .book.com?
Singer also raises cultural, expression, and competition concerns:
There’s a larger issue at stake, however. Advocates of Internet freedom contend that such an expanded address system effectively places online control over powerful commercial and cultural interests in the hands of individual companies, challenging the very idea of an open Internet. Existing generic domains, like .net and .com, overseen by Verisign Inc., a domain registry, have an open-use policy; that means consumers can buy domain names ending in .com directly from retail registrars like GoDaddy. With a new crop of applicants, however, Icann initially accepted proposals for closed or restricted generic domains, a practice that could limit competing views and businesses.
It’s true that there is concern over “closed generics,” but I think there is a deeper problem than anti-competitiveness that could emerge from TLD expansion. Continue reading →
Over at The Switch, the Washington Post’s excellent new technology policy blog, Brian Fung has an interesting post about tethering and Google Glass, but I think he perpetuates a common misconception:
Carriers have all sorts of rules about tethering, and sorting through them can be like feeling your way down a dark alley. Verizon used to charge $20 a month for tethering before the FCC ruled it had to allow tethering for free. Now, any data you use comes out of your cellular plan’s overall data allowance. AT&T gives you a separate pool of data for tethering plans, but charges up to $50 a month for the right, much as Verizon once did.
Fung claims that due to the likely increase in tethering as devices like Google Glass come to market, “assuming the FCC didn’t require all wireless carriers to make tethering free, it’d be a huge source of potential revenue for companies like AT&T.”
In fact, the cost of tethering on AT&T is not very different from the cost of doing so on Verizon, which means by definition that AT&T is not likely to get a windfall from increased use of tethering. It’s also evidence that the FCC tethering rule for Verizon doesn’t matter very much.
Continue reading →
Nobel laureate Gary Becker and I are on the same page. He says patent terms should be short:
Major reforms to reduce these unproductive opportunities would include lowering typical patent length and the scope of innovations that are eligible for patents. The current patent length of 20 years (longer for drug companies) from the date of filing for a patent can be cut in half without greatly discouraging innovation. One obvious advantage of cutting patent length in half is that the economic cost from the temporary monopoly power given to patent holders would be made much more temporary. In addition, a shorter patent length gives patent holders less of an effective head start in developing follow on patents that can greatly extend the effective length of an original patent.
More importantly, he says we should carve out particularly troublesome areas, like software, from the patent system:
In narrowing the type of innovations that are patentable, one can start by eliminating the patenting of software. Disputes over software patents are among the most common, expensive, and counterproductive. Their exclusion from the patent system would discourage some software innovations, but the saving from litigation costs over disputed patent rights would more than compensate the economy for that cost. Moreover, some software innovations would be encouraged because the inability to patent software will eliminate uncertainty over whether someone else with a similar patent will sue and do battle in the courts.
In addition to eliminating patents on software, no patents should be allowed on DNA, such as identification of genes that appear to cause particular diseases. Instead, they should be treated as other scientific discoveries, and be in the public domain. The Supreme Court recently considered a dispute over whether the genes that cause BRCA1 and BRCA2 deviations and greatly raises the risk of breast cancer is patentable. Their ruling banned patenting of human DNA, and this is an important step in the right direction.
Other categories of innovations should also be excluded from the patent system. Essentially, patents should be considered a last resort, not a first resort, to be used only when market-based methods of encouraging innovations are likely to be insufficient, and when litigation costs will be manageable. With such a “minimalist” patent system, patent intermediaries would have a legitimate and possibly important role to play in helping innovators get and protect their patent rights.
It’s good to see a consensus for major reform developing among economists. I hope that legal scholars and policymakers will start to listen.
The Progressive Policy Institute has released a new and remarkable broadband report. In it, PPI explicitly distances itself from the Crawford/Wu wing of the left-of-center telecommunications conversation. A money quote from the introduction:
What should the progressive agenda be? Are our choices either to embrace this aggressive regulatory agenda or to accede to conservative laissez-faire? This essay argues that there is a third, and far more promising, option for such a progressive broadband policy agenda. It balances respect for the private investment that has built the nation’s broadband infrastructure with the need to realize the Internet’s full promise as a form of social infrastructure and a tool for individual empowerment. It turns away from problems we may reasonably fear but that simply do not exist—most importantly, the idea that the provision of broadband services is dominated by an anti-competitive “duopoly” that stifles the broad dissemination of content.
On “cage match” competition in the telecom sector:
So perhaps the greatest paradox inherent in “cage match” competition is that, while advocates champion more intrusive regulation, the signal providers are in the fight of their business lives. The benefits of their innovation and investment are being appropriated by the devices and services that use the signal; their stock values and capitalizations are listless compared to the companies that make devices and applications; they have made commitments in the tens of billions to build infrastructure that cannot be reversed. And they are trapped in a vicious circle: they innovate to improve signal quality and availability, these innovations make possible new devices, applications, and services that capture consumer allegiance, these other aspects of the broadband experience appropriate value and make signal more commodity-like in the eyes of consumers, which forces the providers to further improve their product, perpetuating the cycle. They are the economy’s front line for investing in and innovating for our broadband infrastructure, and perhaps they benefit from that investment and innovation the least.
From the section entitled “Neutrality,” “Unbundling,” and other progressive policy failures:
The weight of the evidence, therefore, suggests the activist agenda leads progressives to a dead end. It addresses a problem that doesn’t exist—the absence of competition in broadband—and compromises another and more important objective—investment in broadband leading to ubiquitous broadband access. In reality, access providers have made massive investments in high-fixed cost broadband wired and wireless capacity that they can only justify by competing for market share and that are continually improving. The case that they are suppressing or might suppress content—either editorially or competitively—is virtually nonexistent.
This analysis is spot on. While I don’t agree with every policy proposal in the report (though I do agree with some, such as liberating spectrum from the broadcasters and DoD), PPI deserves a lot of credit for its excellent study of the state of telecommunications competition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next week, I’ll be in Geneva for the 2013 World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum, better known by the acronym WTPF-13. This is the first major ITU conference since the WCIT in December, and the first real test of whether what some are calling the “post-WCIT era” really exists, and if so, what it means. For those just now tuning in, the WCIT was a treaty conference in Dubai in which some ITU member states pushed hard to make elements of the Internet subject to intergovernmental agreement, resulting in the refusal of 55 countries to sign the treaty. I published a retrospective account of my experience at the WCIT at Ars Technica.
The WTPF will be different than the WCIT in several important ways: Continue reading →
Today, Jerry Brito, Adam Thierer and I filed comments on the FAA’s proposed privacy rules for “test sites” for the integration of commercial drones into domestic airspace. I’ve been excited about this development ever since I learned that Congress had ordered the FAA to complete the integration by September 2015. Airspace is a vastly underutilized resource, and new technologies are just now becoming available that will enable us to make the most of it.
In our comments, we argue that airspace, like the Internet, could be a revolutionary platform for innovation:
Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” credits “permissionless innovation” for the economic beneﬁts that the Internet has generated. As an open platform, the Internet allows entrepreneurs to try new business models and offer new services without seeking the approval of regulators beforehand.
Like the Internet, airspace is a platform for commercial and social innovation. We cannot accurately predict to what uses it will be put when restrictions on commercial use of UASs are lifted. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is vital that innovation and entrepreneurship be allowed to proceed without ex ante barriers imposed by regulators.
And in Wired today, I argue that preemptive privacy regulation is unnecessary and unwise:
Regulation at this juncture requires our over-speculating about which types of privacy violations might arise. Since many of these harms may never materialize, pre-emptive regulation is likely to overprotect privacy at the expense of innovation.
Frankly, it wouldn’t even work. Imagine if we had tried to comprehensively regulate online privacy before allowing commercial use of the internet. We wouldn’t have even known how to. We wouldn’t have had the benefit of understanding how online commerce works, nor could we have anticipated the rise of social networking and related phenomena.
I expect us all to hear more about commercial drones in the near future. See Jerry’s piece in Reason last month or Larry Downes’s great post at the HBR blog for more.