November 2006

I almost choked on my morning coffee when I saw the headline last week that Novell and Microsoft announced a deal to make their software work together. As someone who once employed VMware to use Word on a machine running Linux OS, I have to say that I was both surprised and thrilled. And, as someone who closely followed the Microsoft antitrust cases in both the US and Europe, I was astounded. I wish I could call Judge Jackson right now and ask him why he thinks these two competitors who once looked to be arch enemies are now joining forces (Novell accused MS of antitrust violations and sued over WordPerfect). But of course Jackson didn’t think Microsoft had any competitors, so perhaps he wouldn’t really understand the question.

The fact that Microsoft and Novell are now teaming up to provide consumers with something they have been clamoring for (interoperability) is proof that the marketplace can deliver benefits to consumers without government help even if the two competitors have a bad history.

Techdirt points out an especially serious example of e-voting gone wrong:

In one of the stories we spotted yesterday about e-voting glitches, it was amusing to see (at the very, very bottom) the idea that “no major problems” were reported for e-voting in Florida. Florida and Ohio, of course, are the two places where e-voting stories have raised the most questions, and there had already been a number of reports of e-voting problems in Florida voting last week when their early polls opened. So, it looks like ABC may need to revise that “no major problems” report, as the EFF points us to a report saying that 13% of the electronic responses in Sarasota County included no vote for Congressional Representative. That means that somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000 people who voted for other things, like governor, appear to have not voted for House Representative–and no one seems to have a good explanation. It’s certainly possible that all those people decided to go “none of the above,” but it seems unlikely–especially since similar undervoting was not seen in other counties covered by the same Congressional district. Also, there were complaints all day about the e-voting machines not properly recording votes in that county. So, while people are asking for a recount… there’s nothing to recount since the machines did not record the votes. Amusingly, the EFF also notes that the very same county had a referendum on the ballot about the e-voting machines, and the people overwhelmingly voted to scrap the machines and bring back paper ballots. So what was it the press was just saying about no major glitches with e-voting?

One of the things that makes computers incredibly useful is that automate routine tasks so they can be done without human supervision. That’s fantastic for most tasks, but it’s a disaster when the task at hand is recording votes, because it means that if there’s a programming bug, it will do things the same wrong way with each and every voter. And because the counting process is totally opaque, no one notices until it’s too late.

E-voting machines may streamline the voting process, but that’s actually not a benefit at all. A slow, labor-intensive voting process means there will be more human eyes around to spot mistakes early enough that they can be corrected. But because we delegated the process to a computer, there were no human beings in a position to notice the problem.

With this afternoon’s concessions of defeat by Senator George Allen and Conrad Burns, the GOP’s loss of the Senate is official. Tech policy played little role in this political earthquake, despite much early rhetoric by neutrality regulation supporters that it would be a big part of the debate. Yet, ironically, the final two dominoes to fall were both members of the Senate Commerce Committee, and key players in tech policy debates. Allen in particular will be missed by free-market supporters, as well as the tech industry (he ranked number one in the Senate on tech policy in a recent CNET survey.) Burns, a longtime communications subcommittee chair, had a more mixed record. He was an early supporter of telecom reform, but in recent years seemed to focus more on protecting rural state perks.

The headline news, however, is the change at the top of the committee. Senator Ted Stevens–who was made famous by Jon Stewart and YouTube for describing the Internet as a “series of tubes”–is out.

Supporters of markets will shed few tears over Steven’s ejection from the chairman’s seat. The champion of Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” proponent of a $3 billion scheme to subsidize television, and author of a telecom bill with $5.2 billion more in subsidies, he hardly represented Adam Smith’s values. We are tempted, in fact, to crack a smile.

But not too big a smile. While Stevens may be out, he is replaced by Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Although of different parties, Stevens and Inouye always had a close working relationship–Stevens, in fact, always referred to Inouye as his “co-chairman.” While Stevens would be hard to beat in the pork department, Inouye is no shirker (its a fair bet he can take credit for the special rules for “states comprised entirely of islands” in this year’s telecom legislation).

This isn’t to say there aren’t differences. Stevens, for instance, was somewhat opposed to neutrality regulation, while Inouye somewhat supportive. But in many other areas, it’ll be hard to spot a difference. In fact, on many issues–such as telecom subsidies–Inouye could be more successful at getting Stevens’ agenda adopted than Stevens was.

As I suggested earlier, settle in for a few interesting years.

I’m getting a lot of calls from reporters this week asking about what the Democratic takeover means for technology policy issues and First Amendment matters. My answer on both counts: Not much.

On the free speech front, the results of this election will probably have very little effect. Democrats and Republicans are now birds of a feather on these matters. Democrats used to be considered the party of the First Amendment, but I have a hard time finding any defenders of the First Amendment left in that party. I spend as much time dealing with new speech regulations from Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman as I do any Republican in Congress. Thus, I suspect that, despite the shift in power, Congress will continue pushing for more media and Internet regulation just as they have been for the past 10 years. It’s a never-ending cycle and the only competition left between the two parties is the race to see who can regulate faster and more extensively than the other.

On the communications and broadband regulatory front the differences may be a bit more pronounced between the parties, but not too much so. To try to get a better feel for what Democratic rule might bring us I thought I’d take a look at a few items in the “Innovation Agenda” they produced before the election. (It can be found online here and here is the PDF).

From what I see it here, it sounds like the Democrats believe that spending a lot of taxpayer dollars on federal pork projects is the best way to improve America’s technological competitiveness.

Continue reading →

Jim Harper persists in posting hist best stuff over at that other blog instead of here. Yesterday, he noted that one of the big losers in New Hampshire’s state legislative races was the REAL ID Act:

Jeb Bradley was one of “several Washington officials . . . urging state senators to support Real ID” when the state legislature was considering a bill to reject it. He was defeated by Carol Shea-Porter, a surprise victor who enjoyed little help from national Democrats. Here’s Shea-Porter speaking at an anti-REAL-ID rally.

Representing the Second District, Charlie Bass was an original co-sponsor of the REAL ID Act, and he touted that fact on his Web site. His replacement is Paul Hodes. Hodes is not a full-throated critic of REAL ID, but he did tell AP, “I do not favor creating a new central federal database using the permanent images of these documents. . . . A piece of paper is not the solution to securing our borders from terrorism. We need to better coordinate our existing law enforcement databases and watch lists.”

The Republican leadership of the state senate gutted and killed New Hampshire’s bill to reject REAL ID earlier this year. In a debate Monday, Republican Senate President Ted Gatsas said “There’s no question REAL ID makes sense.” Ted Gatsas will no longer be Senate President. Democrats took control of the New Hampshire State Senate for only the second time since 1911. Gatsas’ re-election bid was too close to call overnight, but it now appears he narrowly beat back his Democratic opponent.

As to REAL ID opponents, Governor John Lynch was re-elected. Voters gave control of the New Hampshire Executive Council (an additional legislative body that would have to approve the acceptance of federal funds for implementing REAL ID) to Democrats for good measure.

I don’t really understand why opposition to REAL ID would be considered a Democratic issue. Aren’t the Republicans supposed to be the party of federalism?

Dingell in the Middle

by on November 9, 2006

The once and future chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, John Dingell, recently supported strong net neutrality regulation (to prevent “private taxation of the Internet”) and opposed cable franchise reform. Now he has warned the FCC that it ought to postpone consideration of the AT&T-BellSouth merger until next year. These positions suggest Dingell believes there are benefits of regulation.

Perhaps he does. Yet, this is the same man who forcefully advocated deregulation when Congress debated the Telecommunications Act of 1996. During the floor debate on Aug. 2, 1995, Dingell noted:

… the rates of AT&T, MCI, and Sprint fly in perfect formation. They fly like the formation of the nuts and bolts in an aircraft, all tied together by invisible forces, which has led to a situation where they all make money and nobody gets into that because of the behavior of Judge Green and his law clerks and a gaggle of Justice Department lawyers and three floors of AT&T lawyers, who have been foreclosing the participation of any other person in or outside of the telecommunications industry.

Regulation, although meant to benefit consumers, was exploited by the regualted entities to maintain higher prices even though computers and fiber optics were driving down the cost of providing service.

Continue reading →

Via Luis, here’s a good analysis of the ominous aspect of the Microsoft-Novell deal:

This is not a religious argument about open source, it’s a matter of respect for a community that works together, and the wishes of creators. If I write something and put it under the GPL, then I want it under the GPL where all of us working on it can use it. I don’t want it to be made proprietary, for someone else’s benefit, due to some shady deal and legal technicality. Commercial yes (and encouraged), proprietary no.

In Novell’s world, if I write something and GPL it, Novell will try to convince customers to buy support from Novell instead of from me (the original author) because of some nebulous, unspecified, almost-certainly-bullshit “IP issues” hinted at by Microsoft and legitimized by Novell for the price of $348 million.

Continue reading →

Pogue on Zune

by on November 9, 2006 · 8 comments

Reader Steve R. points out David Pogue’s scathing review of the Zune:

PlaysForSure bombed. All of them put together stole only market-share crumbs from Apple. The interaction among player, software and store was balky and complex–something of a drawback when the system is called PlaysForSure.

“Yahoo might change the address of its D.R.M. server, and we can’t control that,” said Scott Erickson, a Zune product manager. (Never mind what a D.R.M. server is; the point is that Microsoft blames its partners for the technical glitches.)

Is Microsoft admitting, then, that PlaysForSure was a dud? All Mr. Erickson will say is, “PlaysForSure works for some people, but it’s not as easy as the Zune.”

So now Microsoft is starting over. Never mind all the poor slobs who bought big PlaysForSure music collections. Never mind the PlaysForSure companies who now find themselves competing with their former leader. Their reward for buying into Microsoft’s original vision? A great big “So long, suckas!”

And he doesn’t much care for the WiFi sharing feature:

Continue reading →

Spam Wars: A New Hope

by on November 9, 2006 · 4 comments

PJ, our webmaster, has installed the Akismet comment spam filter, which appears to have largely solved our spam problem. Which is a good thing, because we got about 1000 spam comments in the last 24 hours. Before, a couple hundred per day were getting through. So far today, it’s been catching all of them.

The downside is that it seems to occasionally catch a legitimate comment. I can’t actually blame the software. I mean, commenters like “Jim Harper” sure sound sketchy–it’s no wonder the filters were confused. But if your comment gets caught in the filter, please let me know by emailing tlee -at- and I’ll see if I can fish it out of the spam folder for you.

Also, this is a good time to mention that our web hosting is generously provided by PJ Doland Web Design, which is also responsible for the site design. (The content is entirely our fault) PJ is fanatical about things like standards compliance, clean designs, open source software, and reliability, so please check him out next time you’ve got a web design or web programming project.