June 2006

Here’s the second and final in my series of World Cup technology stories.

On the way back from Germany, we had an extended layover in Reykjavik, due to “technical reasons.” Oh, thank goodness. Wouldn’t want a delay due to sociological reasons.

The time for the Round of 16 game between Portugal and Holland was drawing near, and many of the soccer fans in the airport wanted to see the game. The staff of the airline and airport were pretty much ignoring requests for access to a television. But there was a WiFi node in the airport.

So we set off looking for a way to follow the game.

A buddy of mine went to the BBC site that streams radio, while I went looking for video, assuming that some hacker out there would have put together a way to get bootleg television feeds.

The BBC was looking quite satisfactory until game-time rolled around, when it switched over to an announcement that “contractual restrictions” prevent streaming of game content outside the UK. I’m aware that people spoof their IP addresses to avoid that restriction and had considered doing that, but I was looking for bigger game.

Sure enough, the second click on my search for streamed World Cup video brought me to a site that explained how it was done. Within a few minutes, I had download TVU Player and found the China TV feed (with play-by-play in Chinese), and then the ESPN feed. With much satisfaction (and occasional breaks for buffering), we watched Portugal go ahead 1-0 as we waited for and boarded the flight back to the U.S.

SO, here’s a clever little tool, made in China, that allowed me to watch the media I wanted to watch where I wanted to watch it. OR, here’s a piracy device that allowed me to evade and circumvent the contractual restrictions that FIFA has placed on broadcast of its intellectual property.

Which is it? Entertainment or theft? (I looked at the advertising placards that lined the field. Does that change your opinion?)

Those wacky Chinese officials are at it again. Apparently they’ve grown tired of just pestering those curious critters who type “Tiananmen Square” or “Falun Gong” into their search engines. So, they’re upping the ante and going after anyone who reports on natural disasters, industrial accidents, or health and security hazards without prior state permission.

Yes, you read that right: Reporting the news will soon be a crime in China. According to this report in today’s Wall Street Journal, a new bill being considered in China’s Parliament would “make reports on the handling of and status of public emergencies without approval” or “issue false reports” punishable by fines of between $6,000 and $12,000.

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[This essay builds on Friday’s blog entry on “Social Networking and Child Protection.”]

At last week’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference entitled “A Dialog on Social Networking Web Sites,” several law enforcement officials argued that expanded data retention mandates were needed to adequately police online networks and websites for potentially criminal activity. (In this case, child pornography or child predators were the concern, but data retention has also been proposed as a way to police online networks for terrorist activities among other things).

This push for expanded data retention was hardly surprising. In recent months, members of Congress and the Department of Justice have floated new proposals to require Internet Service Providers (ISP) and others (including search engines and social networking sites) to retain data on their customers and traffic flows for long periods (typically between 6 months and two years). These proposals mimic data retention laws that are being implemented in the European Union.

Let’s step back and consider this issue from two very different perspectives.

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Ed Felten wraps up his excellent series on high-tech wiretapping by considering the risks of abuse created by the existence of pervasive wiretapping infrastructure:

The best argument against content-triggered wiretaps is the risk of abuse. By “abuse” I mean the use of wiretaps, or information gleaned from wiretaps, illegally or for the wrong reasons. Any wiretapping regime is subject to some kind of abuse–even if we ban all wiretapping by the authorities, they could still wiretap illegally. So the risk of abuse is not a new problem in the high-tech world.

But it is a worse problem than it was before. The reason is that to carry out content-triggered wiretaps, we have to build an infrastructure that makes all communications available to devices managed by the authorities. This infrastructure enables new kinds of abuse, for example the use of content-based triggers to detect political dissent or, given enough storage space, the recording of every communication for later (mis)use.

Such serious abuses are not likely, but given the harm they could do, even a tiny chance that they could occur must be taken seriously. The infrastructure of content-triggered wiretaps is the infrastructure of a police state. We don’t live in a police state, but we should worry about building police state infrastructure. To make matters worse, I don’t see any technological way to limit such a system to justified uses. Our only real protections would be oversight and the threat of legal sanctions against abusers.

I think this is a good point, but I think it’s actually much worse than that. Here’s the problem: the ultimate safeguard of our freedom is the possibility of public backlash. When Richard Nixon was caught abusing the power of the presidency, the resulting public backlash forced him out of office. In my opinion, President Bush has also been caught abusing the powers of his office, but so far there’s been no comparable public outrage.

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As Congress draws closer to passing significant telecommunications reforms, it’s clear that a larger issue serves as a backdrop to the hot topics of net neutrality, cable franchise reform, and municipal WiFi. That is, will the Internet be treated like telecommunications, or the other way around?

New technologies have caused a convergence in the communications sector so that the phone company can also be the cable company and vice versa. Indeed, an Internet company can also provide cable and phone services. EBay bought Skype, an Internet phone company that offers free calling, Microsoft is moving into the IPTV space, and Google offers voice services integrated with features like instant messaging.

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Yesterday I spoke at a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference entitled “A Dialog on Social Networking Web Sites.” It featured dozens of industry, technology, law enforcement and government experts discussing how to protect children on social networking sites. I spoke on the final panel of the day on “The Public Policy Challenges of Social Networking” and was up against two state AGs: Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. They both favored various regulatory measures to address concerns about online safety, including a complete ban on anyone under the age of 16 on social networking websites.

My response follows.

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Every week, I look at a software patent that’s been in the news. You can see previous installments in the series here. This week’s software patent was highlighted by last week’s ruling that Microsoft had to pay its holder $6.1 million.

This is the relevant patent. None of the news stories I could find said which patent it was, probably because the inventor’s name is listed as Carlos Amada in the patent while, the news stories all give it as Carlos Amado. The patent is extremely long, weighing in at more than 20,000 words. It describes, in great detail, the features of a graphical database program that Mr. Armado apparently developed in the early 1990s. From the description, it sounds like it may have been an impressive piece of software, with many useful features integrated in a user-friendly manner.

Is this patent obvious? And did granting it likely promote innovation? I’ll explore those questions below the fold…

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Reading Jim Gattuso’s post about Google and network neutrality, it occurred to me that Eric Schmidt’s argument here only makes sense if we assume that the broadband companies are run by morons:

Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody–no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional–has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.

I think it’s safe to say that Verizon, Comcast, et al want to make as much money as possible. So her’s my question: If you were a telco executive trying to maximize revenue from your shiny new fiber network, how would you set your prices?

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IPI has a new article up arguing that the DMCA shouldn’t be repealed because it would violate our treaty obligations. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly persuasive argument, given the amount of weight the United States carries in the international arena, and given that the anti-circumvention provisions of WIPO were inserted largely at the urging of the Clinton administration. If American policymakers thought that the DMCA was bad policy, I doubt they’d have too much difficulty getting the relevant provisions of WIPO changed.

I also didn’t think this paragraph was quite right:

The case commonly mentioned regarding the chilling effects on research of the DMCA anticircumvention provisions involved Princeton professor of computer science Edward Felten, who received a threatening letter from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) regarding his proposed publication of results from a test of a new protection mechanism. (He was able to crack it.) Even after the RIAA backed off, Felten took the case to court to try to have the DMCA struck down, but was unsuccessful. His efforts were not “chilled” so much as he was seizing an opportunity to try to get the DMCA struck down in court.

This isn’t how I’ve generally heard the story told. According to news reports at the time, Felten’s goal was a declaratory judgment that publishing their paper would not be a violation of the DMCA. Although I suspect Prof. Felten would have jumped at an opportunity to get the DMCA struck down in court, I don’t think that was his goal in this case. He was simply seeking a ruling that the DMCA wasn’t applicable to his particular situation.

Update: I’ve looked up the original lawsuit. Felten and his colleagues sought “a Declaration from this Court that publication of the paper is lawful.” It then offered two specific arguments. First it argued that the plaintiffs did not violate the DMCA, and second it alleges that to the extent that the DMCA prevents the publication of security research, it’s in violation of the First Amendment.

So Hollaar’s interpretation has more merit than I initially gave him credit for. I’m still not sure I see how this proves that Felten’s speech wasn’t chilled, though. The RIAA did send Felten a letter stating that publishing the paper “could subject you and you research team to actions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” That would certainly have a chilling effect on my speech if I were in Felten’s shoes. The fact that the RIAA “backed off” after their threat succeeded in preventing the publication of the paper at the Information Hiding Workshop hardly proves that Felten had nothing to worry about.

Could Google execs go to jail for bit discrimination? Theoretically, yes, according to a proposal by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). Submitted as an amendment to the telecom bill now being marked up by the Senate Commerce Commitee, DeMint’s proposal would make it unlawful to “prioritize or give preferential or discriminatory treatment in the methodology used to determine Internet-search results based on an advertising or other commercial agreement with a third party.” Any person found in violation would face a maximum fine of $5 million or imprisonment for up to one year.

The plan seems targeted at Google’s sponsored links system, under which users get prominently placed, paid for, links with their search results. (The paid content is separate from the non-paid results, which are not influenced by payments).

For the record, this is a terrible idea. And, I’m willing to bet that Sen. DeMint thinks so too. Instead, the amendment seems intended to underscore Google’s uncomfortable position in the net neutrality debate. While the company has spearheaded the call for net neutrality for telephone and cable firms, its own practices–and power–mirrors that of those companies.

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