May 2007

With the release last month of its report on Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children, the FCC teed up the issue of regulating televised violence and tossed it over to Congress with a recommendation that lawmakers go ahead and swing for the fences. And Congress appears ready to oblige, although not necessarily in the way some at the FCC had originally envisioned.

You will recall that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin used the FCC’s violence report as another opportunity to engage in his monomaniacal, Moby Dick-like quest to impose a la carte regulation on cable and satellite operators. Martin argued that “Requiring cable and satellite television providers to offer programming in a more a la carte manner would be a more content neutral means for Congress to regulate violent programming and therefore would raise fewer constitutional issues.” But it doesn’t appear that the chairman is going to get his whale this time around.

Continue reading →

Tech Policy Weekly from the Technology Liberation Front is a weekly podcast about technology policy from TLF’s learned band of contributors. The shows’s panelists this week are Tim Lee of the Cato Institute, Braden Cox of the Association for Competitive Technology, Prof. Randy Picker of the University of Chicago Law School, and Eric Bangeman of Ars Technica. Topics include,

  • Technological progress drives change in copyright law,
  • Major League Baseball criticizes Slingbox over its place-shifting technology, and
  • states consider new regulations of social networking sites.

There are several ways to listen to the TLF Podcast. You can press play on the player below to listen right now, or download the MP3 file. You can also subscribe to the podcast by clicking on the button for your preferred service. And do us a favor, Digg this podcast!

Continue reading →

I’m reading Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet, an excellent history of the Internet starting with its origins as the ARPANET in the 1960s. The most interesting things I’ve learned about so far is the heated battled between the TCP/IP protocol, which was favored primarily by the computer science research community, and the competing X.25 protocol, which was favored by the telecom industry. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know anything about this argument before I picked up Abbate’s book. What’s striking about it is how similar it sounds to arguments today. From page 161:

The operators of public data networks argued that ARPA’s TCP/IP failed to provide adequate control over network operations. For instance, a Telenet spokesman noted that, whereas X.25 was capable of controlling the flow of packets from each individual connection, TCP could only act on an entire host’s output at once. If one of the network connections from a host malfunctioned and flooded a TCP/IP network with packets, the network’s only defense would be to cut off the entire host, thus unfairly penalizing the others users on that host. Users of the research network might accept the inconvenience with resignation, but paying customers of a public data network would certainly protest. With regard to the business of running a network, the [Post, Telephone, and Telegraph Authorities] pointed out that IP had not been designed to allow networks to exchange the type of information that would be required for access control or cost accounting… TCP/IP had not been designed for a network serving as a public utility, with service guarantees and access charges. X.25 had been.

Continue reading →

In recent years there has been a trend toward the use of trade agreements as a means of bullying smaller nations into adopting copyright and patent policies favored by domestic special interest groups in the United States. Over at the EFF blog, Gwen Hinze has the goods:

In exchange for the promise of increased access to U.S. agricultural and textile markets, , U.S. trading partners are being required to rewrite their IP laws. For instance, the last nine U.S. free trade agreements signed since 2002 have required trading partners to adopt the U.S./ EU copyright term of life of the creator plus 70 years, create laws banning the circumvention of DRM (or technological protection measures) modeled very precisely on the controversial DMCA, and to treat temporary reproductions of copyrighted works (such as in computer memory) as copyright infringement. The FTAs also require trading partners to broaden their patent laws. The Central American Free Trade Agreement also required extended protection of test data, seemingly directed at precluding registration of generic pharmaceuticals.

I agree with James Surowiecki that there’s a symmetry between the “intellectual property standards” in these recent trade agreements and the “labor and environmental standards” that left-wing groups have long demanded be appended to trade deals. Free traders have always argued, correctly, that labor and environmental laws have nothing to do with trade, and that decisions about such laws should be decided by the ordinary political process in each country, not by international pressure.

Precisely the same argument applies to copyright and patent issues. I think there are good policy arguments to oppose longer copyright terms and anti-circumvention rules on their merits. But even if you think those are good policy, they certainly don’t belong in trade negotiations. Trade negotiations should be focusing on trade barriers. Failing to protect the copyright on Mickey Mouse until 2019, or permitting the sale of DVD players that will fast forward through commercials, is not a trade barrier.

We free traders should be just as outraged about these demands as we would be if a Democratic administration demanded changes to other countries’ labor or environmental laws in exchange for a trade agreement. The president and the USTR have only so much political capital in these negotiations. Had they not included the copyright and patent provisions among their demands, they most likely would have been able to obtain larger reductions in genuine trade barriers.

“Cyber War”

by on May 30, 2007 · 2 comments

Via Yglesias, Robert Farley thinks that we’re not giving enough attention to economic “cyber war”:

Lots of work has been done on “cyber war”, the promise and vulnerability of networked military organizations. Less attention has been paid to the economic prospects of cyber warfare, and to the ability of states to exert power and coercion through a new set of tools. When Russia tries to coerce its neigbors through threatening to destroy their economic and governmental activity, it becomes a problem for NATO and consequently the United States.

Frankly, I think this is silly. Most of the IT infrastructure that’s really critical for the functioning of a modern economy—power plants, ATM networks, air traffic control, etc—is physically separated from the public Internet. Even semi-critical infrastructure like stock exchanges and supply chain systems tend to be over-engineered for fault tolerance.

And indeed, this is confirmed by the news coverage of the incident. The opening bullets report that “parliament, ministries, banks, media targeted.” But when you get further down the story, you learn that the websites of these institutions were targetted. Now maybe the Estonia is different, but I doubt most people would even notice if Congress’s website were brought down for a few days by a DDOS attack.

I suppose it would be a bit of a pain if I wasn’t able to check CNN or my bank account balance. But that’s not “cyber war.” It’s petty vandalism. It deserves the attention of network security experts at the companies whose websites were targetted, of course, but it’s ridiculous to get NATO involved or to act as though Russia engaging in this kind of “cyber warfare” is even remotely on par with Russia launching cruise missiles against Estonian targets.

This site tracks the value of some “black market” goods from pirated movies to body parts and human trafficking. Missing: Murder for Hire, though Kidnapping is represented.

One ought to distinguish at least two types of markets represented here; a) those in which the goods being sold do indeed “belong” to the seller who wishes them to “belong” to the buyer. Markets for illegal drugs for example. “Belong” is in quotes because from a legal standpoint there are no “property rights,” rather, the rights are those that would exist at law just as with any other planted produce or chemical stew if it were not for regulatory bans. Then there is b) the rights in question have been wrested away unlawfully from a third person and appropriated by the seller, who then transfers them to the buyer. Human trafficking, for example, and piracy.

Continue reading →

The Washington Times recently reported that “A media watchdog group is criticizing Delta Air Lines for making the graphic HBO series ‘Rome’ and other bawdy shows available for in-flight viewing after a passenger complained that children could see nudity and sex scenes.” Apparently, the offending material was shown on overhead movie screens during a May 6 flight from Atlanta to Duesseldorf, Germany. According to the Times article:

Delta officials say the programs were intended as an option for viewing on private screens in the back of the airplane’s seat and were shown on the public overhead screens by mistake. “As soon as our flight attendants became aware it was being shown, it was cut off and we made an immediate apology to passengers,” said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta.

But a passenger who lodged a complaint with the captain during the flight and got the flight attendants to cut off the program, also notified the media activist group Morality in Media, which fired off a news release about the incident to the press last week.

I found this incident interesting because I’m about to release a new book entitled “Parental Controls and Online Child Protection: A Survey of Tools and Methods.” As the title implies, it’s a broad survey of everything on the market today that can help parents deal with potentially objectionable media content, whether it be on broadcast TV, cable, music, cellular phones, video games, the Internet, or social networking websites.

Continue reading →

Previous installments (1, 2, 3, 4 & 5) in this series have documented how our government seems to have a difficult time keeping tabs on laptops and personal information. The latest on this front comes from the Energy Department which notified Congress yesterday that it has lost 1,415 laptop PCs over the past six years. However, according to this report in Government Computer News, the DOE stressed that none of the laptops contained classified information. I guess that qualifies as good news on this front.

Cheap UAVs

by on May 29, 2007 · 8 comments

One of the most exciting things about technological progress, from a libertarian perspective, is that as technologies get cheaper, they get harder and harder for the state to regulate. The prolific Chris Anderson has the latest example: he’s built an unmanned aerial vehicle for under $1000. He explains his motivations here:

The main aim of this project is to both make the world’s cheapest full-featured UAV and the first one designed to be within the reach of high school and below kids, as a platform for an aerial robotics contest. Like the Lego FIRST league, but in the air.

But there is another aim, which I ended being asked about a lot at Maker Faire. At the moment the FAA regulations on UAVs are ambiguous (we believe that by staying below 400 feet and within line-of-sight we’re within them). But there is a good deal of concern that as small and cheap UAVs become more common, the FAA will toughen the rules, making activities such as ours illegal. I hope this project will illustrate why that approach won’t work.

By creating a UAV with Lego parts and built in part by kids, we haven’t just created a minimum UAV, we’ve created a reductio ad absurdum one. If children can make UAVs out of toys, the genie is out of the bottle. Clear use guidelines (such as staying below 400 feet and away from tall buildings) would be welcome, but blanket bans or requirements for explicit FAA approval for each launch will be too hard to enforce. The day when there was a limited “UAV industry” that could be regulated are gone.

Government regulation almost always works by controlling intermediaries—usually large companies. As more and more technologies come within reach of individuals, using off-the-shelf parts, it will be harder and harder for the government to control them. I say bring it on.

Randy Barnett mocks George Lucas for his walled garden approach to mash-ups:

According the Wall Street Journal this morning, the fan-created videos will run along with commercials “with Lucasfilm and Eyespot splitting the proceeds.” Asked about why Lucasfilm will allow this use of their images, a spokesman said, “If someone wants to commercialize it, that’s where we’ve drawn the line.” So it’s OK for Lucasfilm to commercialize the creative efforts of Star Wars ™fans, but not the other way around.

But the laugh is really going to be on Lucasfilm because, as we all know, people won’t invest scarce time producing creative works that others want to watch without the financial incentives provided by intellectual “property” rights granted for “limited times” (i.e. in perpetuity). So it is safe to predict that no one will contribute any mashups to the new website. Boy, will that be embarrassing for them!