Articles by Steven Titch

Steven Titch (@stevetitch) is an independent telecom and IT policy analyst. His policy analysis has been published by the Reason Foundation and the Heartland Institute and covers topics such as municipal broadband, network neutrality, universal service, telecom taxes and online gambling. Titch holds a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and English from Syracuse University. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas. He burns off energy running 5K races, is an avid poker player, and likes to mellow out in cellar jazz bars.


Today the Heartland Institute is publishing my policy brief, U.S. Cybersecurity Policy: Problems and Principles, which examines the proper role of government in defending U.S. citizens, organizations and infrastructure from cyberattacks, that is, criminal theft, vandalism or outright death and destruction through the use of global interconnected computer networks.

The hype around the idea of cyberterrorism and cybercrime is fast reaching a point where any skepticism risks being shouted down as willful ignorance of the scope of the problem. So let’s begin by admitting that cybersecurity is a genuine existential challenge. Last year, in what is believed to be the most damaging cyberattack against U.S. interests to date, a large-scale hack of some 30,000 Saudi Arabia-based ARAMCO personal computers erased all data on their hard drives. A militant Islamic group called the Sword of Justice took credit, although U.S. Defense Department analysts believe the government of Iran provided support.

This year, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have had computer systems hacked, allegedly by agents of the Chinese government looking for information on the newspapers’ China sources. In February, the loose-knit hacker group Anonymous claimed credit for a series of hacks of the Federal Reserve Bank, Bank of America, and American Express, targeting documents about salaries and corporate financial policies in an effort to embarrass the institutions. Meanwhile, organized crime rings are testing cybersecurity at banks, universities, government organizations and any other enterprise that maintains databases containing names, addresses, social security and credit card numbers of millions of Americans.

These and other reports, aided by popular entertainment that often depicts social breakdown in the face of massive cyberattack, have the White House and Congress scrambling to “do something.” This year alone has seen Congressional proposals such as Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), the Cybersecurity Act and a Presidential Executive Order all aimed at cybersecurity. Common to all three is a drastic increase the authority and control the federal government would have over the Internet and the information that resides in it should there be any vaguely defined attack on any vaguely defined critical U.S. information assets.

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My new policy brief urges the Federal Communications Commission to get on with the business of allocating the necessary spectrum to meet the burgeoning demand for wireless services.

The paper was finished before Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his resignation last month. At the risk of sounding harsh, that might be addition by subtraction. One of the big disappointments of Genachowski’s tenure was the lack of significant movement to get spectrum freed up and auctioned. In fairness, there were the interests a number of powerful constituencies to be balanced: the wireless companies, the broadcasters, and the federal government itself, which is sitting on chunks of prime spectrum and refuses to budge.

But that’s the job Congress specifically delegated to the FCC. We’d be closer to a resolution–and the public would have been better served–had the FCC put its energies into crafting a viable plan for spectrum trading and re-assignment instead of hand-wringing over how to handicap bidders with neutrality conditions and giving regulatory favors to developers of unproven technologies such as Super WiFi. Instead of managing the spectrum process, the FCC got sidetracked trying to to pick winners and losers.

A new chairman brings an opportunity for a new direction. Spectrum relief should go to the top of the agenda. And as I say in the policy brief, just do it.

Today Reason has published my policy paper addressing privacy concerns created by search, social networking and Web-based e-commerce in general.

These web sites have been in regulatory crosshairs for some time, although Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have been hesitant to push forward with restrictive legislation such as “Do Not Track” and mandatory opt-in or top-down mandates such as the White House drafted “Privacy Bill of Rights.” An the U.S. seems unwilling to go to the lengths Europe is, contemplating such unworkable rules like demanding an “Internet eraser button”—a sort of online memory hole that would scrub any information about you that is accessible on the Web, even if it is part of the public record.

In my paper, It’s Not Personal: The Dangers of Misapplied Policies to Search, Social Media and Other Web Content, I discuss the difficulty of regulating personal disclosure because different people have different thresholds for privacy. We all know people who refuse to go on Facebook because they are wary of allowing too much information about themselves to circulate. Where it gets dicey is when authority figures take a paternalistic attitude and start deciding what information I will not be allowed to share, for what they claim is my own good.

Top down mandates really don’t work, mainly because popular attitudes are always in flux. Offer me 50 percent off on a hotel room, and I may be willing to tell you where I’m vacationing. Find me interesting books and movies, and I may be happy to let you know my favorite titles.

Instead, ground-up guidelines that arise as users become more comfortable with the medium, and sites work to establish trust, work better. True, Google and Facebook often push the envelope in trying to determine where user boundaries are, but pull back when run into user protest. And when the FTC took up Google’s and Facebook’s practices, while the agency shook a metaphorical finger at both companies’ aggressiveness, it assessed no fines or penalties, essentially finding that no consumer harm was done.

This course has been wise. The willingness of users to exchange information about themselves in return for value is an important element of e-commerce. It is worth considering some likely consequences if the government pushes too hard to prevent sites from gathering information about users.

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Today the Reason Foundation publishes my policy brief on keys to successful state regulation of Internet gambling.

Thanks to a Department of Justice’s December 2011 memo on the parameters of the Wire Act, states can now license real-money intrastate online casino games. Earlier this year, Nevada became the first state to permit online wagering, and in August granted the first online operating license to South Point Poker LLC, which was to have launched trials last month. Since the Reason report went to press, South Point disclosed that its software is still undergoing independent testing but  hopes to have its site up by the end of the year.

Elsewhere, Delaware has enacted legislation to authorize online gambling under the auspcies of the state lottery commission and Illinois has begun selling lottery tickets online.

It goes without saying that U.S. citizens should be free to gamble online, just as they legally can in casinos throughout the country. The degree of regulation is subject to debate, but unfortunately remains a necessary element in policy. Yet lessons about taxation and regulation can be learned from experiences in Europe, as well as from regulation of brick-and-mortar casinos in the U.S. With a better understanding of usage trends, consumer game choices and operator cost models, legislators who want to offer constituents the freedom to play online can craft an environment that supports a robust online gaming climate, as opposed to one that drives legitimate operators away.

Regulation should derive from an enlightened approach that respects the responsibility and intelligence of its citizens. Internet gambling can be a safe, secure pastime.  Overall, the government’s only goal should be to protect users from theft or fraud. Gambling should not approached as an activity that needs to be controlled or discouraged under the rationale that it is a “sin” (to moralists) or “destructive behavior” (to social utilitarians), and then, hypocritically,  politically tolerated so it can be excessively taxed on those rationales.

Although it is likely states will differ in the particulars of how they structure the license and tax arrangements, a successful climate for legalized Internet gambling is likely to derive from the following fundamental principles. Lawmakers should heed the following guidelines:

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A cable TV monopoly is imminent and high prices loom, at least as far as the Associated Press is concerned.

That was the angle of a widely syndicated AP story last week reporting that in the second quarter of this year, landline phone companies lost broadband subscribers while cable companies gained market share.

Beneath the lead, Peter Svensson, AP technology reporter, wrote:

The flow of subscribers from phone companies to cable providers could lead to a de facto monopoly on broadband in many areas of the U.S., say industry watchers. That could mean a lack of choice and higher prices.

In the news business, the second graph is usually referred to as the “nut” graph. It encapsulates the significance of the story, that is, why it’s news.

It’s interesting that Svensson, with either support or input from his editors, jumped on the “de facto” monopoly angle. There could be any number of reasons why cable broadband is outpacing telco DSL, beginning with superior speed (to be fair, an aspect noted in the lead).

However, AP defaulted to the clichéd narrative that the telecom, Internet and media technology markets inevitably bend toward monopoly (see here, herehere and here for just as a sample). Moreover, that the money quote came from Susan Crawford, President Obama’s former special assistant for science, technology and innovation policy, and a vocal advocate of broad industry regulation, was all the more reason it should have been countered with some acknowledgement of the growing data on how consumer behavior is changing when it comes to TV viewing. Arguably, at least, the cable companies, far from heading toward monopoly, are sailing into competitive headwinds stirred up by video on demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and iTunes.

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President Obama seems to be poised once again to use executive powers to get what Congress won’t give him.

In this case, it’s the imposition of a sweeping set of cybersecurity mandates and regulations on the private sector. My latest commentary at Reason.org addresses the problems of the original Cybersecurity Act, which did not muster enough support in the Senate to get to a vote, and why a White House decision to implement it by executive order simply expands the government’s surveillance and datagathering power while doing little to secure the nation’s information infrastrucuture.

Find the commentary here.

Facebook has quietly launched a real-money online gambling application in the U.K., marking a major thrust of the social networking site into online gambling.

The Financial Times is reporting that starting today, Facebook will offer users in the U.K. ages 18 and over online bingo and slots for cash prizes. Slate.com  picked up the story this afternoon.

“Gambling is very popular and well regulated in the U.K. For millions of bingo users it’s already a social experience [so] it makes sense [for us] to offer that as well,” Julien Codorniou, Facebook’s head of gaming for Europe, Middle East and Africa, told the Financial Times.

It’s telling in and of itself that Facebook has a gaming chief for the EMEA region. The synergies of social media and gambling has been seriously discussed for several years, mostly in foreign venues,  as the U.S. government until recently, has been hostile toward Internet gambling.

However, the recent thaw on the part of the Department of Justice, seen most recently in its settlement (don’t-call-it-an-exoneration) with PokerStars, plus state action toward legalization in in states such as Nevada and Delaware, point to eventual legalization of Internet gambling in the U.S.

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Some 77 percent of wireless phone users who use their phones for online access say slow download speeds plague their mobile applications, according to a new survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Of the same user group, 46 percent said they experienced slow download speeds at least once a week or more frequently (see chart below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the report, published last week, does not delve into the reasons behind the service problems, it does offer evidence that users are noticing the quality issues wireless congestion is creating. Slow download speeds are a function of available bandwidth for mobile data services. Bandwidth requires spectrum. The iPhone, for instance, uses 24 times as much spectrum as a conventional cell phone, and the iPad uses 122 120 times as much, according to the Federal Communications Commission FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.  As more smartphones contend for more bandwidth within a given coverage area, connections slow or time out. Service providers and analysts have warned that the growing use of wireless smartphones and tablets, without an increase in spectrum, would begin to degrade service. There have been plenty of anecdotal instances of this. Pew offers some quantitative measurement.

While technologies such from cell-splitting to 4G offer temporary fixes, the quality issue will not be fully addressed until the government frees up more spectrum. While the FCC hasn’t helped much by blocking the AT&T-T-Mobile merger and joining with the Department of Justice in delaying the Verizon deal to lease unused spectrum from the cable companies, at least the agency has acknowledged the problem. Right now, as Larry Downes reported last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), which has been charged with the task of identifying spectrum the government can vacate, is stalling.  It would be nice to see the FCC apply the aggressiveness it brings to industry regulation to getting NTIA off the schneid. At the same time, the Commission needs to put aside its ideological bent and do what it can to make more spectrum available in the short term.

Yesterday brought a spate of news reports, many of them inaccurate or oversimplified, about a settlement the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan reached with two major international Internet poker sites—PokerStars and  Full Tilt Poker.

The buried lead–and very good news for online poker players–is that Internet poker site PokerStars is back in business. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara ended his case against the site and it is now free to re-enter the U.S. market when states begin permitting Internet gambling, which could start as early as this year in states such as Nevada and Delaware.

The three-way settlement itself  is rather complicated. Full Tilt Poker will have to forfeit all of its assets, at this point mostly property, to the U.S. government. PokerStars will then acquire those forfeited Full Tilt Poker assets from the feds in return for its own forfeiture of $547 million. PokerStars also agreed to make available $184 million in funds in deposits held by non-U.S. Full Tilt players, money players believed was lost.

The U.S. government seized these funds on April 15, 2011 when it shut down Full Tilt, PokerStars and a third site, Absolute Poker, on charges of money laundering. The date has become known as Black Friday in the poker community. Specifically, the three sites were charged with violation of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which prohibited U.S. banks from transferring funds to off-shore Internet poker and gambling sites. To combat the measure, sites such as PokerStars and Full Tilt began using payment processors that allegedly lied to U.S. banks about their ties to gambling sites. Although this would be fraud under the letter of the law, the U.S. government never claimed payment processors stole money from players or banks and no evidence suggests they did.

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The U.S. Senate holds hearings Wednesday on the so-called Market Fairness Act (S. 1832), which would be better dubbed the “Consumer and Enterprise Unfairness Act,” as it seeks to undo a critical requirement that prevents states from engaging in interstate tax plunder.

In a series of court decisions that stretch back to the 1950s, the courts have consistently affirmed that a business must have a physical presence within a state in order to be compelled to collect sales taxes set by that state and any local jurisdiction.

That meant catalogue and mail order businesses were not required to collect sales tax from customers in any other state but their own. The three major decision that serve as the legal foundation for this rule, including Quill v. North Dakota, the case cited most frequently.

Quill left room for Congress to act, which indeed it is doing with the Market Fairness Act. The impetus for the act has nothing to with the catalogue business, however. Rather, it’s the  estimated $200 billion in annual Internet retail sales, a significant portion of which escapes taxation, that’s got the states pushing Congress to take a sledgehammer to a fundamental U.S. tax principle that has served the purpose of interstate commerce since 1787.

That year, of course, is when the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation. One of the flaws of the Articles was that it permitted each of the states to tax residents of others. Rather than get the budding nation closer to the nominal goal of confederation, it was endangering the expansion of vital post-colonial commerce by creating 13 tax fiefdoms and protectorates. The authors of the Constitution wisely addressed this by vesting the regulation of interstate commerce in the federal government.

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