March 2008


“Because it takes a village to take a village.” That’s brilliant.

For those who don’t follow the Democratic race incessantly, context is here and here.

Was yesterday’s groundbreaking deal between BitTorrent and Comcast on network management a triumph for regulation? That’s the storyline being widely peddled in the wake of yesterday’s announcement that the two would work together to solve network management problems.

At first, it looked like the announcement might signal an end to FCC involvement in the dispute.. That, at least, was the view of the sensible – but all too lonely – Commissioner Robert McDowell of the FCC. “[I]t is”, he said, “precisely this kind of private sector solution that has been the bedrock of Internet governance since its inception.”

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Scott Cleland sometimes cracks me up. You can infer why this time here.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has ramped up his blogging about REAL ID on the DHS Leadership blog. Accordingly, I’ve ramped up mine on Cato@Liberty. Here are pointers to the latest, in which I:

Fear the blog post!

Conflicts of Interest

by on March 28, 2008 · 2 comments

I found this aside from Dean Baker interesting:

I have had a policy of never commenting on news stories that mention me or CEPR to avoid the obvious problem of a conflict of interest on this blog. I complain to reporters directly if I think they misrepresented my comments.

Can somebody explain what the conflict of interest would be? I’m sure I don’t get anywhere near as much press as Baker does, but it’s never occurred to me that I shouldn’t link to and comment on the press I do get. Have I been committing some kind of policy analyst faux pas all this time?

The Ridiculous Dance

by on March 28, 2008 · 2 comments

A great post by Tom Lee. In a preceding post, he had pointed out (without getting into details) how easy it was to extract unencrypted MP3s from a couple of neat but legally-questionable music-sharing websites. He got some angry comments from folks who accused him of being a kill joy. He responds:

I don’t consider the current state of music sharing sites anything more than a temporary step in the music industry’s inevitable evolution. The point I want to make by all this is that the present state of affairs does not constitute a complete solution; we’re not done yet.

I don’t want to discount the well-made interface of Muxtape or the excellent aggregation and social features of the Hype Machine. They are both impressive sites and their creators deserve all the recognition they’ve received and more. But although these things add value, the essential underlying reason for these sites’ popularity is that they give music away for free.

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Interesting piece today by equity analyst Scott Berry on a site called Addressing the ongoing Comcast-Bittorrent imbroglio, he argues that ISPs are have promised an all-you-can-eat “broadband salad bar” at a fixed price. But that the model, he points out is breaking down due to increased demand. As he puts it:

…the growth of video is stealing the condiments, and file sharers are sneezing in the salad”.

ISPs have a choice, he says: “Limit how many trips each patron can make for salad. Or charge them for each trip. Comcast has tried the former. My bet is on the latter.”

Not very appetizing, but well put. Once again, it turns out there is no free lunch. Or at least one that hasn’t been sneezed into.

I’ve finally had a chance to flip through the FISA amendments the House passed a couple of weeks ago. The most striking thing about the bill is how long it is. At 120 pages, it’s twice as long as the RESTORE Act the House passed last fall. And frankly, I’m not sure it’s an improvement, although I don’t have the time or patience right now to read the whole thing in detail. What the Dems appear to have done (and I only skimmed it, so I’m probably missing some of the nuances) is to give some ground on the idea that the Bush administration “authorizations” can be used in place of traditional warrants for foreign-to-domestic communications, but then trying to avoid funny business by imposing an extremely robust system of judicial review of these “authorizations.” That’s certainly better than the Senate bill, which required courts to rubber-stamp the “authorizations.” Certainly, if we’re going to loosen the requirement that eavesdropping on individual Americans doesn’t require a warrant, we should do our best to protect our privacy in other ways. But the result is a bill that’s far more complex than it would have been if Congress had left the existing FISA framework in place and focused on clarifying those edge cases that technological changes have rendered obsolete.

Ultimately, however, none of this may matter very much. The administration has long since made it clear that they’re not interested in good-faith negotiations on this subject, and that they’d veto any legislation that preserves the principle of judicial review. Nor has the Senate shown any particular concern with preserving civil liberties. So in practice, the only FISA legislation that’s likely to pass while George W. Bush is in office would have been bad FISA legislation.

So what might matter the most about the latest House surveillance bill is that the House had the backbone to—again—pass legislation they knew the White House would veto. It’s now looking increasingly likely that neither side will budge, and that Congress won’t produce FISA legislation at all this year. That’s probably the best outcome we realistically could have hoped for. There’s a good chance that our new president will be more respectful of civil liberties than our current one. And hopefully at that point Congress and the new president will be able to craft surveillance legislation that makes the minor changes to the FISA regime that are necessary without gutting Americans’ privacy in the process.

Problem Solved

by on March 27, 2008 · 6 comments

Comcast and BitTorrent are working together to improve the delivery of video files on Comcast’s broadband network.

Rather than slow traffic by certain types of applications — such as file-sharing software or companies like BitTorrent — Comcast will slow traffic for those users who consume the most bandwidth, said Comcast’s [Chief Technology Officer, Tony] Warner. Comcast hopes to be able to switch to a new policy based on this model as soon as the end of the year, he added. The company’s push to add additional data capacity to its network also will play a role, he said. Comcast will start with lab tests to determine if the model is feasible.

Over at Public Knowledge, Jef Pearlman argues that the pioneering joint effort by Comcast and BitTorrent “changes nothing about the issues raised in petitions” before the FCC advocating more regulation, because Comcast and BitTorrent are “commercial entities whose goals are, in the end, to make sure that their networks and technology are as profitale as possible.”

Setting aside whether the pursuit of profit is a good thing or not, what this episode actually proves is that the Federal Communications Commission has done its job, the threat of regulation is a credible deterrent to prevent unreasonable discrimination by broadband service providers and we don’t need a new regulatory framework with the unintended consequences which regulation always entails.

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Listening to this latest panel at the 2008 Tech Policy Summit has given me a great idea. This panel is focusing on the topic of privacy and features:

Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor, (Session Host)
Leslie Harris, President and CEO, Center for Democracy & Technology
Joanne McNabb, Chief, California Office of Privacy Protection
Jules Polonetsky, Chief Privacy Officer, AOL

Anyway, on to my idea. The panel concluded that privacy policies are complicated and incomprehensible, but at the same time they didn’t seem to believe that they could be simple. This makes sense to me. Privacy policies deal with myriad legal issues, they concern lots of information, and that information is constantly changing. So, it seems that we’re never going to boil down these agreements to two or three paragraphs, let alone a crisp, short privacy slogan.

But clearly the economy contains many complicated transactions and complicated products targeted at consumers. People buy cars and computers and both products are improving all the time–suggesting that consumers are selecting the good products leaving the poor products to fade away.

That said, how is it that people pick these things? I know that many people come to me when they buy a computer and I advise them since I know a thing or two about silicon filled boxes. My dad’s a gear-head and advises people about cars. But outside of those informal networks there are other resources for buyers. CNET rates a ton of tech products. Car & Driver rates cars. Consumer Reports rates everything.

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