May 2007

Via Ars Technica, here’s a Quad-Cities Online report on the state of Illinois using $1 million in taxpayer dollars to fund litigation in support of an unconstitutional ban on video game violence. The money was taken from other budget areas, including public health, welfare, and economic development.

The ideal would be to give the money back to taxpayers. It rightly belongs to them. But given the choice between using the funds to erode free speech rights or using them to support the welfare state, I’ll take the welfare state.

Three Eras of Copying

by on May 29, 2007 · 10 comments

Randy Picker has been doing an excellent series of posts on the evolution of copying technologies. Today’s installment is particularly good:

In the monk era—the pre-printing press era—all copying was done by hand. These were manuscripts copied one-by-one in the scriptorium. There weren’t strong advantages—economies of scale if we are going to be economists—in producing second copies. All copies were expensive and the author/publisher, having produced one copy of the work, was no better situated to make another copy of the work than would be any holder of the work. To be sure, the technology of copying—the ability to read and write—may not have been widely distributed, so this was a key way in which copies were controlled, but presumably only the literate were much interested in copies anyhow, and for the literate, the costs of producing the second copy were high but roughly identical to the costs of the author.

The printing press changed all of that. The printing press obviously lowered printing costs generally, but note what it did for second-copy costs. Those costs dropped dramatically for publishers but changed very little for someone in possession of a physical copy of the book. Before, in the handcrafted era of the monks, publishers and copy holders faced the same, very high, second-copy costs. In the Gutenberg era, the author/publisher was much better situated than a copy recipient to produce another copy. That cost advantage served as an important way in which the effective rights of the author/publisher to control copies were made meaningful. This is not to say that we didn’t have piracy, but it was of a different sort, say a printer running a secret print runs for a pirate.

Continue reading →

Matthew Ingram does a good job of explaining what’s wrong with this story on how Heinz’s user-generated ad contest didn’t work very well:

” If any of the advertisers quoted in the New York Times story were told by a “Web 2.0? advisor that they could somehow outsource ad production to “the crowd” and wind up with something just as good as what they produce in-house, then they should sue. But I suspect they weren’t told that. They may have wished that was true, but if wishes were horses then beggars would ride, as my mother used to say (actually, she still says that). Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 has more on the subject.

As a number of people (including commenters on Scott’s post) have pointed out, however, whether an ad is technically or even creatively as slick and well-crafted as a Madison Avenue spot isn’t the only factor that needs to be considered. In some cases, a quirky, user-created ad like the one Global Nerdy likes, or like the Diet Coke and Mentos video, might actually work better. And getting people to “engage” with the brand may be even more important than the actual technical brilliance of the ad.

I think there are three other factors here that are worth keeping in mind. First, it sounds like part of the problem is that they did too little—not too much—to harness the wisdom of crowds. Users can not only produce ads–they can filter them too. If there were a ton of ads submitted and most of them were crap, why not have the crowd help weed out the bad stuff? Set up a site showing all the submissions (and making it easy to embed them in other sites) and let website visitors vote on the best selections. You probably don’t want to just run whatever the crowd suggests, but you could choose 10 or 20 finalists that way, and then you can pick the best 5 from those.

Continue reading →

New Model

by on May 29, 2007

Via Luis, a great Buckminster Fuller quote:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Tom Coseven left a comment making some good points about last week’s podcast and wireless Carterfone. I also got an email raising some of the same objections, so let me see if I can address them.

First, in response to Tom’s first point, I didn’t mean to give the impression that Carterfone was an antitrust decision. My point was simply that the policy rationale for regulatory intervention is much stronger when you have a single, government-protected monopoly than it is when there are four (relatively) lightly regulated incumbents. Whether or not you want to call them an “oligopoly,” it’s clearly more likely that market competition will discipline network operators in a 4-firm industry than in a 1=firm industry. And on the margin, that makes the case for regulatory intervention weaker.

Here’s Tom again:

On the subject of implementation of an open access requirement, it could be done quite easily. The GSM and CDMA standards allow for very transparent connectivity at the device level with no affect on your visual voice feature you use as an example. Those kind of widgets sit at a higher layer on the phone. Either the phone has the software or it doesn’t (sort of like a downloaded game).

Part of the problem here is that I have yet to see a specific explanation of what a “Wireless Carterfone” rule would actually say. If we’re just talking about a rule that says “network operators must allow any GSM or CDMA (as the case may be) phone to connect to their network,” that’s certainly a pretty clear rule, and it may not lead to any problems. However, I have the impression that two of the four carriers (the GSM ones) already respect this rule. So if that’s all we’re talking about, the rule seems kind of superfluous. Anyone who wants the freedom to attach the phone of their choice can sign up with T-Mobile or AT&T.

Continue reading →

Apparently I can get a Dell Dimension E520N pre-loaded with Ubuntu for $429. That’s with an Intel Core 2 Duo, 1 GB of memory, and a 250 GB hard drive. The budget machine from Ubuntu hardware vendor System 76 appears to cost $785 if outfitted similarly.

I’m sure I could get an even cheaper system if I put it together myself, but I frankly am not that interested in hardware. I’m perfectly happy to give Dell $50 or $100 to save me the trouble of figuring out which hardware has good Linux support and then comparison shopping for the best deals.

But I’m curious what y’all think: are there other Linux hardware vendors with more competitive prices? Am I likely to have compatibility or other problems with the Dell systems?

Also: Jeremy Reimer at Ars reports that the “Windows tax” appears to be about $50.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing Wednesday on the Internet tax moratorium demonstrates the necessity of making the ban on state and local taxation of Internet access services permanent. Another temporary extension simply guarantees opponents another chance to overturn it down the road, and creates the possibility they can win new concessions in the meantime.

The hearing showed than opponents are still determined to gut the moratorium. Harley Duncan, the Washington representative of state and local tax administrators, rehashed the old argument that the moratorium is unnecessary, because “the economic evidence is that state taxation of Internet access charges has little or nothing to do with the adoption of Internet services by consumers or the deployment of services by industry.” And he cites a new Government Accountability Office conclusion that taxing Internet access is “not a statistically significant factor influencing the adoption of broadband service at the 5 percent level. It was statistically significant at the 10 percent level.” Even assuming this conclusion is valid, it still doesn’t mean anything. Because once states and localities are allowed to impose taxes on Internet access, they won’t hold the line at 5 percent.

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, James Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, and Joe Weisenthal of Techdirt. Topics include,

  • Dennis Kucinich wants to bring back the fairness doctrine,
  • Tim Wu wants to attach Carterphone-style regulations to the winners next year’s spectrum auction, and
  • Nicholas Negroponte, head of the One Laptop Per Child program, wants to be the only one distributing cheap laptops to third-world children.

Continue reading →

We suck less,” said Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin to shareholders yesterday at the firm’s annual meeting, comparing the firms dismal performance to that of XM Radio. While perhaps better than sucking more, the statement could not have cheered investors.

Satellite radio investors looking for optimism, would have been better off reading a letter from Senate antitrust subcommittee chairman Herb Kohl, sent Wednesday to the FCC and to the Justice Department. The proposed XM-Sirius merger, he said should be rejected, since there aren’t any competitors to the two. Old-fashioned terrestrial radio, he wrote, just can’t compete with satellite’s “tremendous variety” of formats, “far superior sound quality” all provided on a commercial-free basis. Kohl similarly dismisses Internet radio and MP3 players, finding they also provide no alternatives for consumers.

It must have come as a surprise to satellite investors — who have never seen a profit — that they hold such a stranglehold on the market. It would no doubt be a surprise to consumers as well – hundreds of millions of whom do not subscribe to either satellite service, along with countless others who use iPods instead of radio. These consumers have no alternative to satellite radio service — according to Kohl — they just don’t know it yet.

Unfortunately for any shareholders hoping to start raking in monopoly profits, Kohl is wrong. There is no satellite stranglehold on radio, and no lack of competitors. And that competition will continue — or even increase — if the proposed merger takes place. For U.S. consumers, that doesn’t suck at all.

The North Carolina social networking bill, S 132, passed the Senate yesterday and is on its way to the House. This bill should concern all e-commerce companies, not just sites like MySpace. The definition of a "commercial social networking site" could still encompass many different websites — and the trend is for including more social networking components to all sorts of sites. And as I said in a previous post, age verification just won’t work.