July 2005

Although the word “spyware” alone can make the blood boil for those who have struggled to remove the stuff from their computers, coming up with an actual definition of the concept is actually quite difficult. Still, the Anti-Spyware Coalition, consisting of consumer groups, Internet service providers (ISPs), and software companies, is struggling to pin one down. The group released a draft definition this week.

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The Economist (subscription) ran a story in its current edition making the case that cell phones–even more than the personal computer–may be key to reducing poverty in the third world. From enabling farmers to check prices in different markets, to making it easier for people to find work, to making it easier to transfer funds, wireless telephony is a boon.
“[M]obile phones are, in short,” says The Economist, “a classic example of technology that helps people help themselves.”

Yet, high costs are impeding the growth of wireless in many areas. And among the culprits are third-world governments themselves. From Turkey to Uganda to Bangladesh and even Aghanistan, governments have imposed high taxes or other costs on wireless services. As the article notes, manufacturers (seeing a market here) are working to reduce their costs “Now governments must do their part, too.” Worth reading.

Anytime you find yourself thinking that regulation in America can’t get any worse, it’s always helpful to take a look at Europe for confirmation that yes, indeed, it can. The Times of London online edition posted a startling story today on a new issue paper on media regulation expected to be released soon in Brussels. The paper is part of an EU effort to update its existing media directive, adopted in 1989. Among its conclusions: “non-linear audio-visual content” (Euro-speak for Internet content) needs to be regulated. According to Times Online, the EU is considering regulating areas such as “taste and decency, accuracy and impartiality for Internet broadcasters.”

Chilling stuff, if true. Of course, it’s hard to predict what, if anything will sprout out of Brussels’ bureaucratic maze. Still, it kind of makes you glad that over here we have that pesky First Amendment to protect us (well, usually) from such regulatory musings.

We’re in the midst of a transition from analog to digital transmissions of broadcast TV – sort of (as I said in a C:\Spin article). Today the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on legislation concerning digital television (DTV), focusing on how and when to transition away from analog. It is hoped that the hearings will induce Congress to give this lagging transition a defined mission with a “hard” deadline.

Congress must create a “hard” deadline for a complete digital transition. The sooner the date becomes a certainty, the better it will be for: a) consumers, who will be able to make more informed purchases; b) manufacturers, who can label analog sets in a way that will inform consumers of the transition date; c) broadcasters, who can publicize the transition in a way that can help attract increased viewership.

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There’s been a debate raging in Washington recently about the future of public broadcasting. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post provides some details of this catfight and yesterday’s Senate hearing on the matter in his column today.

I don’t want to get into all questions about “bias” on PBS or NPR, although I think there’s a lot less of it than others do. Indeed, I think there is a great deal of informative and entertaining programming on public television and radio that is not “biased” at all. I especially enjoy NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” as well as PBS’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

Are there some biased shows or personalities on public TV and radio? Of course there are. But I don’t really think there’s any more bias on public broadcasting outlets than any other media outlet these days. And I don’t have any problem with the tilt of the bias being a little more to the left than to the right on these outlets. There’s no way any of us could ever agree on what constitutes “perfect” balance TV or radio. Moreover, attempts to strike such a balance–even for public broadcasting–ultimately run afoul of the First Amendment since it interferes with the editorial discretion of the programmers. Finally, in our world of media abundance, there are plenty of other good outlets to which we can turn if we find any one outlet overly biased.

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Wires Are So 20th Century

by on July 11, 2005

There are officially more cell phones than land lines in the United States. I ditched my last landline in 2003 and I haven’t looked back.

If there was ever a philosophical argument for regulating telephone service as a “natural monopoly,” there certainly isn’t any more. These days, the Baby Bells are just four competitors in the vibrant market for telephone service. Their phones just happen to be the anachronistic ones with cords still attached to them.

(Hat tip: Ezra)

Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg times is on the story of an “intruder” who “hacked” into a wide-open WiFi and “stole” Internet service. Fortunately, the good guys caught him in the act, and now he’s facing hard time.

Mr. Leary, needs to take a deep breath and calm down.

Here’s something he might ponder once he’s got his blood pressure under control: on a recent trip to the Midwest, I probably “stole” Internet access from a dozen open access points around town. When I needed to check my email or look up an address, I’d drive down the street until I found myself within range of an unsecured wireless network. Then I logged in, checked my email, and logged off.

It’s almost certain that the owner didn’t even know I was there. The amount of bandwidth I “stole” was trivial, probably worth a fraction of a penny. I didn’t try to hack into anyone’s computer or snoop their private data. So am I a criminal?

ISPs will point out that such access technically violates their Terms of Service. Which is true. Comcast, for example, prohibits its broadband users from “making available to anyone outside the Premises the ability to use the Service (i.e. wi-fi, or other methods of networking).” But the TOS is an agreement with the guy who owns the access point, not with the guy who’s barrowing it. If Comcast has a beef with how its customers are using their service, they should take that up with the customer, not the guy driving by on the street. More to the point, this is the sort of thing that’s best dealt with with benign neglect. That provision in the TOS is to prevent a whole apartment building from sharing one broadband connection, depriving the ISP of revenue. But allowing me to use a WiFi network for 30 seconds isn’t going to make me any less likely to sign up for home broadband.

But I guess people have a tendency to get freaked out about things they don’t understand. When everything about a computer network is a mystery to you, I imagine it’s frightening to think that random strangers might have access. But whether or not you think it’s ethical to log into an unsecured wireless network, it’s certainly not a huge deal. Trading kiddie porn and stealing credit card numbers are a big deal, but one can do that with any Internet connection. There’s nothing special about WiFi in that respect.

Moreover, it takes all of 2 minutes, and virtually no technical savvy, to set a password for your access point. The procedure depends on which one you’ve got, so consult your manual, but most likely it involves opening your browser, typing in a number like “” for the address, and clicking a “change password” button. If you don’t want people sharing your network–and more power to you if you don’t–that will deter 99.9% of the people who might try to log in. And I’d certainly be open to the idea that the remaining .1% should be liable for criminal sanctions.

A more tech-savvy reporter likely would have made fun of the bumbling flatfoots who think checking your email on a wide-open computer network is a felony. Of course, a more tech-savvy policeman wouldn’t have made an arrest in the first place.

A hearty, bellowing but gentlemanly “shout out” to the Liberty Belles, a new blog that seeks to inject a lady’s touch to the discussion of libertarian issues. One of the resident bloggers, Anastasia, is a CEI intern this summer. Her blogging conveys her witty, interesting, and energetic persona – and will surely be matched by the four other belles. So check them out! From their blog:

We stand for free minds, free markets, free…Well, let’s say we don’t mind you holding the door for us, we just don’t want the government doing it. For too long, the word on the street has been that the movement for freedom and limited government lacks its Lady Liberty. Women’s voices are largely absent from the conversation, despite the calls and catcalls of our fellow men.