January 2005

Apple vs. the First Amendment

by on January 31, 2005

I’ve agreed to be the science and technology editor for Brainwash, the online magazine of America’s Future Foundation.

Here is my inaugural column. In it I take on Apple Computer’s ridiculous lawsuit against Think Secret for printing rumors of upcoming Apple products.

It’s official. After a week or so of speculation, SBC Communications announced that it is buying AT&T. The deal that Clinton FCC Chairman Reed Hundt once called “unthinkable” is now–pending regulatory approval–a reality.

The acquisition is a bit of a family reunion–SBC is, after all, one of the “baby bells” spun off by AT&T twenty years ago. A “Mother and Child” reunion, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story last week. But does the deal signal a return to the old days of Ma Bell? Is the old Bell system family being revived?

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Bush says he doesn’t favor censorship, but does think government should set limits.”
From an interview on C-Span, reported today on WALB.com

To his credit, Bush did stress that the first line of defense for children is parents, saying “They put an off button on the TV for a reason.” An important point. Parental limits are the best way to control what children see. Government limits are, er, well, censorship.

Heritage is hosting an event this Friday featuring bloggers from RatherBiased, PowerlineBlog and WizbangBlog, and hosted by Heritage’s Mark Tapscott. The subject: “Dan Rather is Retiring: Is the Blogosphere the New Media Establishment? Should be fun. If you are in DC, come on by. If you aren’t in DC, we applaud your common sense. And you can virtually attend here.

Replacing Michael Powell

by on January 21, 2005

After four tumultuous years as chairman of the FCC, Michael Powell today announced his resignation, effective at the end of this month. To the general public, Powell was known–if at all–for his fights against Howard Stern, wardrobe malfunctions, and other forms of profanity on the web. But Powell’s–and the FCC’s–far more important work was in the far more boring–but economically critical–area of telecommunications regulation. Powell was–as Adam Thierer of Cato put it–as “the regulator who loved markets.” A fan of Hayek, Powell fought top reduce obsolete regulation of telephone markets, and to keep new regulations from being imposed on emerging telecom technologies. As a result, these markets are certainly freer–and Americans better off–than they would have been otherwise.

Nevertheless, Powell leaves with many of his efforts incomplete. Reform of forced sharing rules for telephone companies as yet leaves many of these senseless regulations in effect, and mired in litigation. And despite good first steps toward protecting Internet telephony from regulation, the final status of this revolutionary new service remains in doubt. Many blame Powell’s unusual (some say eccentric) personal style for impeding reform. Recalcitrant fellow commissioners certainly didn’t help. Nor did a White House that was often unhelpful on key telecom reform issues.

The key question now is who will replace Powell. One leading contender is current Commissioner Kevin Martin. Until recently, Martin was seen as a strong supporter of deregulation. But, in a critical 2003 battle over telecom rules, he broke ranks with Powell, and teamed with the FCC’s two Democrats to pass a significantly more regulatory set of rules. For Martin to be rewarded now with the chairmanship would raise more than a few questions.

Fortunately, there are a number of other candidates who could effectively take over the reform banner at the FCC. Among these: Peter Pitsch–Intel’s man for telecom policy in Washington, and a former chief of staff at the Reagan-era FCC. Combining a firm grasp of free-market principles with an intimate knowledge of how Washington works, Pitsch could be prove effective at leading reform. Similarly, Janice Obuchowski, who headed up telecom policy at the Commerce Department in the first Bush Administration would make an excellent choice. Another promising contender is Mike Gallagher, who is the current telecom head over at Commerce.

Historically, FCC selections have been a bit of an afterthought for presidents, sub-cabinet positions with little political consequence. For better or worse, that is no longer true: the FCC now sits front and center, regulating (or not regulating) key parts of the of the information economy. The selection will also say much about Bush’s attitude toward regulation as a whole during his second term. This is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

Easy Cases Make Boring Law

by on January 19, 2005

I’m going to disagree with co-blogger Tom Bell’s prediction that a decision by the Times to charge for content would trigger the blogosphere apocalypse. As I understand it, the right to quote excerpts from copyrighted material has been firmly established in law for decades. So much so that the Times probably wouldn’t waste time trying to get it overturned. In particular, it’s clearly legal to quote relatively brief snippets of a copyrighted source, and clearly illegal to reprint entire works without the permission of the copyright holder.

I don’t know where the exact line lies, but I don’t think it matters too much. Legitimate bloggers engaged in genuine criticism won’t need to excerpt entire articles, and the Times which knows this sort of law better than anyone, likely won’t waste their time on them. Indeed, I think the law is so clear on this issue that the judge would probably dismiss it almost immediately. Unless there’s some novel aspect to this that makes it different from the print realm, a single EFF or ACLU lawyer who knows how to write a motion to dismiss would probably be sufficient to keep the Times at bay indefinitely.

On the other hand, bloggers who excerpt entire articles are clearly stealing content from the Times and hence will likely get sued. But it’s hard to see how that’s a bad thing– the blogger in question can either shorten the quote to an excerpt, or remove it entirely. Here, it’s unlikely that any blogger will be stupid enough to try to defend blatant copyright infringement.

I’m a little puzzled about the supposed great temptation to excerpt. Yes, I like getting traffic to my blog, and so I’ll post things that I think will get me readers. But the benefits of increased traffic aren’t so substantial that it would be worth breaking the law and risking the wrath of Times lawyers. Given that the Times is available on newsstands around the country, the market value of any given article is pretty trivial. And certainly being known as the guy who steals New York Times content won’t make me famous or popular.

So personally, I think the Times will be shooting itself in the foot if it starts charging for content, but I don’t think its decision to do so will have any particular impact on the future of blogging, copyright law, or the fair use doctrine.

I recently reviewed a book called The Open Society Paradox: Why the 21st Century Calls for More Openness – Not Less. It’s not a good book and I said so.

The author has taken umbrage. I have no doubt that it stings to have something you’ve worked hard at openly criticized, but I feel no obligation to pull punches on a book with many weaknesses even if its author is a nice person.

His response to my review does say that the truth eventually comes out. In that spirit, I encourage all to read the review and the response . . . if not the book.

The L.A. Times has an interesting report today arguing that runaway spyware and other Internet pests are driving people away from the Internet. Many web users, it says, are hanging up their mice in frustration over unwanted intruders on their home computers. The problem is real–the LAT cites a survey finding that 31 percent of surfers are buying less online than before due to security issues.

Importantly, and maybe surprisingly, the Times doesn’t hold out much hope that proposed legislation floating around Congress will do much good. They are right–for reasons I’ve argued elsewhere.

The ultimate solution to this problem is in fact already coming from the private sector–where every entity with a stake in cyberspace seems to be coming up with anti-spyware tools. (See Jim Harper’s post on this if you don’t believe me.) While not perfect by any means, these tools are still new, and are getting better. While “spyware kills Internet” makes good newspaper copy, such reports of the death of cyberspace are highly exaggerated.

Google + Amazon = World Media Domination and then Rise of the Machines Techno-Totalitarianism … or so claims this video. But you have to admit that this is very well done. Look at the little details too… like when they flash the Google identify card up on the screen and the guy’s name on the card is Winston Smith… a la Orwell’s “1984.”


A new Bible story

by on January 11, 2005

This is an interesting parody on the problems associated with extending copyright. That said, someone could write a competing story where creative work doesn’t get done because no one is paying for it and creative authors don’t have enough money to send their kids to school.