September 2008

[Not sure if someone else has mentioned this here yet, but… ] There’s a terrific piece by Paul Korzeniowski in Forbes this week about the Comcast-BitTorrent debacle called, “Feds and Internet Service Providers Don’t Mix.”  It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but I particularly like this passage:

For whatever reason, some believe ISPs should not be able to put any restrictions on the volume of information that any user transmits. That’s absurd. Per-bit and per-byte pricing models have long been used for data transmissions. In trying to build and sustain their businesses, carriers constantly balance their attractiveness and viability versus unlimited usage pricing models. By government decree, they no longer have that option. In effect, the FCC has decided to tell ISPs how to run their networks.

A related issue is Comcast’s reluctance to disclose its network management processes. The reason seems obvious. Carriers spend literally billions of dollars installing and fine-tuning their networks each year. If they can move traffic more efficiently from one location to the next than their competitors, it translates to a more profitable bottom line.  But network neutrality advocates maintain that Comcast has an obligation to open its network operation to the world. Why not have Kentucky Fried Chicken publish its original recipe or Coca-Cola tell us how it makes soft drinks?

Exactly. It gets back to a point I stressed in one of our podcasts on this issue about how “transparency” regulations are great in theory but in practice might have some rather profound implications.  More generally, there’s just the fact that it further puts the camel’s nose in the Internet tent by inviting regulators in to meddle more in the name of “transparency.”

As always, Richard Bennett has far more interesting things to say about the issue than me. Check out his essay about this same Forbes piece over at Circle ID.

Of Curves and Chaos

by on September 30, 2008 · 8 comments

Apologies for the non-technology post, but since the only topics of conversation these days are Wall Street, credit default swaps, and Putin’s flights over Alaska, I thought I’d post my review of Dave Smick’s new book The World is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy…the Mortgage Crisis Was Only the Beginning.

Me around the Web

by on September 30, 2008 · 4 comments

Three new pieces by me are up this week:

  • Over at Ars Technica, I’ve got the first installment of a three-part series on the future of self-driving cars. The technology has made tremendous strides in the last five years, and we’re now at the point where it’s less a science fiction concept and more an engineering challenge. Cars that can navigate simplified urban roads already exist in university research labs, and cars on the market today have simple forms of self-driving, including adaptive cruise control and automatic parking. Driven by safety concerns, these technologies will only get more sophisticated until (perhaps sometime in the 2030s) they converge with the academic research and make possible the first fully autonomous vehicle. In the next two installments, I’ll talk about the social implications of this shift and the new policy issues that are likely to arise as a result.
  • My inaugural post at Freedom to Tinker is up. Cato recently unveiled the latest edition of its Supreme Court Review, which included an article by F. Scott Kieff about the Quanta v. LG decision. Kieff argues that the high court’s unanimous decision on the patent exhaustion doctrine undermined the freedom of contract. I offer a different perspective on the decision. I’ll be posting at FTT regularly (including a follow-up post on Quanta this week) so I encourage you to subscribe, if you don’t already.
  • There’s an “ask the experts” feature at Cato on Campus, Cato’s website for college students. A student emailed in asking about the libertarian position on “intellectual property,” so explained the basic divisions among libertarians (which are largely the same divisions among non-libertarians) on the issue, and then gave three examples of changes I’d like to see to patent and copyright law.

  • If you find the title of this post provocative, you’ll be interested in a Cato Institute book forum on Friday, October 10th.

    In The Crime of Reason, Nobel laureate in physics Robert Laughlin argues that intellectual property laws and government security demands threaten the development of new knowledge. Without change, we risk bequeathing our heirs a world where knowledge is criminalized and our intellectual tradition of unfettered inquiry is lost.

    The event should be a fascinating inquiry into the role of information and information rules in our society. Thomas Syndor of the Progress & Freedom Foundation will comment. I’ll be your humble moderator. It’s noon on Friday, October 10th, at the Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. Luncheon to follow.

    You can register for the event here.

    This is a good article by Harvard professor Harry Lewis.  He worries that the ease of spreading lies on the Net puts us at risk of losing “a thoughtful, analytical, educated citizenry, capable of sharing responsibility for the long-term welfare of the nation.”  Here’s a excerpt from his piece:

    “If he wins, Barack Obama is going to be sworn in on a Koran instead of the Bible. Trig isn’t Sarah Palin’s baby, it’s her daughter Bristol’s. Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Here’s the list of books Palin wanted to ban from the library …

    All these claims — none of them true — turned up in the e-mail inboxes of millions of Americans this summer. In spite of both campaigns’ efforts to correct the record about their candidates, the rumors linger on and spread.”

    Register here for what looks like a very interesting event:

     In 1995, Internet entrpreneur Craig Newmark started Craigslist — an online community featuring free classified ads. Thirteen years later, Craigslist serves 567 cities in 55 countries and is a good example of how the power, reach and openness of the Internet can help turn a simple idea into a global phenomenon.

    As part of the ongoing “Google D.C. Talks” series, Craig — who still helps users in a customer service role at Craigslist — will speak about the founding of the future of Craigslist, the future direction of the Internet, and what public policy makers can do to keep the Internet and American democracy free, open and vibrant. For anyone who’s ever bought or sold a used piece of furniture or concert tickets on Craigslist, you won’t want to miss hearing from the man who started it all.

    Craig Newmark, Customer Service Rep & Founder, craigslist

    Alan Davidson, Director, Public Policy and Government Affairs, Google


    In my nearly 17 years of public policy work, I have never felt so vindicated about something as I did this weekend when I read Dan P. Lee’s Philadelphia magazine feature on “Whiffing on Wi-Fi.” It is a spectacularly well-written piece about the spectacular failure of Philadelphia’s short-lived experiment with municipally-subsidized wi-fi, which was called Wireless Philadelphia.  You see, back in April 2005, I wrote a white paper entitled “Risky Business: Philadelphia’s Plan for Providing Wi-Fi Service,” and it began with the following question: “Should taxpayers finance government entry into an increasingly competitive , but technologically volatile, business market?”  In the report, I highlighted the significant risks involved here in light of how rapidly broadband technology and the marketplace was evolving. Moreover, I pointed to the dismal track record of previous municipal experiments in this field, which almost without exception ended in failure. I went on to argue:

    Keeping these facts in mind, it hardly makes sense for municipal governments to assume the significant risks involved in becoming a player in the broadband marketplace. Even an investment in wi-fi along the lines of what Philadelphia is proposing, is a risky roll of the dice. [… ]  the nagging “problem” of technological change is especially acute for municipal entities operating in a dynamic marketplace like broadband. Their unwillingness or inability to adapt to technological change could leave their communities with rapidly outmoded networks, and leave taxpayers footing the bill.

    I got a stunning amount of hate mail and cranky calls from people after I released this paper.  Everyone accused me of being a sock puppet for incumbent broadband providers or just not understanding the importance of the endevour.  But as I told everyone at the time, I wasn’t out to block Philadelphia from conducting this experiment, I just didn’t think it had any chance of being successful.  And, again, I tried to point out what a shame it would be if taxpayers were somehow stuck picking up the tab, or if other providers decided not to invest in the market because they were “crowded-out” by government investment in the field.

    But even I could have never imagined how quickly the whole house of cards would come crumbling down in Philadelphia.  It really was an astonishing meltdown.  Dan Lee’s article makes that abundantly clear:

    Continue reading →

    I’ve posted a copy of the proposed bailout legislation online in html format, which is easier to read, copy, and paste. Considering its size and significance, I urge you to review it and share it with others.

    I pointed out before that my employer, the Cato Institute, has several experts on the bailout, and media producer Caleb Brown has ably drawn them out. Give a listen to his podcasts with Bill Niskanen, Jagadeesh Gokhale, Arnold Kling, and Gerald P. O’Driscoll. [all mp3 format]

    There are a couple of elements of the legislation where I might add some insight, so here goes.

    Congressional Oversight? Nope. $700 Billion Spent

    The bill made available Sunday devotes a good deal of verbiage to oversight of the proposed $700 billion bailout. But it doesn’t do anything to prevent that money being spent.
    Continue reading →

    More 419 Baiting

    by on September 28, 2008 · 9 comments

    Incidentally, I’ve been perusing, and it’s full of comedy gold. I think this one might be my favorite:

    Dead Parrot sketch – Scammer style! from on Vimeo.

    First the guy got the scammer to carve a bust of his own head. Then he claimed an African squirrel had eaten a hole through the bust, so he next got him to perform the famous Monty Python dead parrot sketch and ship him a DVD of the video. Needless to say he didn’t get the $25,000 he was promised. This story of a scammer they got to make a high-quality (if heavily accented) audiobook of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (twice, in fact, after the first one didn’t meet his standards) is hilarious as well.

    Two great podcasts

    by on September 28, 2008 · 4 comments

    Walking around campus has given me plenty of time to listen to podcasts lately, and I wanted to recommend the best of what I’ve listened to over the last couple of weeks:

  • Russell Roberts and Chris Anderson: I just recently started listening to Russ Roberts’s excellent podcast, EconTalk, and so I’ve been catching up on old episodes. In this installment from May, Roberts talks to Anderson about the themes of his forthcoming book “free.” I found it particularly interesting to listen to a smart libertarian economist who doesn’t focus on the economics of information industries work through these issues.
  • Russell Roberts and Hal Varian: Roberts talks to Hal Varian, Google’s top economist, about a wide range of issues. The most interesting for me was the discussion of open vs. closed platforms, but the whole thing is worth listening to.
  • This American Life on 419 vigilantes: This American Life is a radio show I’ve loved for years but only recently discovered they have a podcast available. Last week’s episode, which I unfortunately can’t link to because each episode is only up for a week, was a fascinating tale about people who bait African spammers (the ones who promise to send you EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS if you wire them $200 for business expenses). It focused on their greatest success to date: they managed to lure a guy into buying a one-way ticket from Nigeria to Chad, where he was promised that there would be someone waiting for him with a big sack of money. They then managed to send him on a wild goose chase lasting more than 100 days, which ended in a rebel-controlled town close to the Sudanese border. While the guy survived, his life was put in real danger by the incident.

    The host, Ira Glass, expressed moral qualms about the whole thing, pointing out that Chad is not a stable country, and the guy could easily have gotten caught up in civil unrest and been injured or killed. But the baiters had zero sympathy for the guy, arguing that they were just doing to him what he was trying to do to his own victims.

    Frankly, I’m with the baiters. While I don’t think I’d have the stomach to send a guy to Chad myself, I can’t work up any sympathy for the guy, even after hearing all the horrible things that happened to him. These people don’t have a bit of empathy for the people they defraud, and as far as I’m concerned, if others use the same tactics on them, they deserve whatever they get.

    Anyway, EconTalk and This American Life are two of my new favorite podcasts. They don’t focus primarily on tech policy, but the other content is also great. You should subscribe here and here, respectively.

    Update: A friend points out that the This American Life MP3s are available if you know where to look, so the link is now available. Thanks!