November 2008

I have previously extolled the virtues of soma fm.

I do so again by noting that they are encouraging a bit of soma fm t-shirt chic – or by the looks of things, perhaps t-shirt geek.

As Masnick has said more eloquently, you give away the stuff that people could take, and sell the stuff they could not.

[Hat tip to Richard Bennett for the recommendation here..] I haven’t had a chance to read through the entire thing yet, but this new study by Nemertes Research seems worthy of attention: “Internet Interrupted: Why Architectural Limitations Will Fracture the ‘Net.” From the exec sum:

In 2007, Nemertes Research conducted the first-ever study to independently model Internet and IP infrastructure (which we call “capacity”) and current and projected traffic (which we call “demand”) with the goal of evaluating how each changes over time. In that study, we concluded that if current trends were to continue, demand would outstrip capacity before 2012. Specifically, access bandwidth limitations will throttle back innovation, as users become increasingly frustrated with their ability to run sophisticated applications over primitive access infrastructure. This year, we revisit our original study, update the data and our model, and extend the study to look beyond physical bandwidth issues to assess the impact of potential logical constraints. Our conclusion? The situation is worse than originally thought!

We continue to project that capacity in the core, and connectivity and fiber layers will outpace all conceivable demand for the near future. However, demand will exceed access line capacity within the next two to four years. Even factoring in the potential impact of a global economic recession on both demand (users purchasing fewer Internet-attached devices and services) and capacity (providers slowing their investment in infrastructure) changes the impact by as little as a year (either delaying or accelerating, depending on which is assumed to have the greater effect).

This is a subject that my colleague Bret Swanson has written a great deal about, so I’m sure he’ll be commenting on this study at some point.  Even if you don’t agree with the conclusion Nemertes reaches, as Richard Bennett notes, the report is well worth reading just the background information on public and private peering, content delivery networks, and overlay networks.

Over the past year, I have been monitoring a very interesting trend with important ramifications for the future of Internet policy. State Attorneys General (AGs) — often in league with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) — have been striking a variety of “voluntary” agreements with various Internet companies that deal with child safety concerns or other online issues. These agreements require the companies involved to take various steps to alter site architecture and functionality, commit to stop certain practices, or take steps to block certain users (ex: predators; escort services) or types of content (ex: child porn; online “discrimination”) altogether.

To begin, let me be very clear about one thing: Some of these activities or types of content warrant a law enforcement response. That is certainly the case with child pornography or predation, for example. However, as I will note down below, there is a legitimate question about whether state officials and a non-profit private organization should be crafting legal or regulatory policies to address such concerns for a global medium like the Internet. Regardless, these agreements are creating a new layer of Internet regulation (almost extra-legal in character) that is worthy of exploration.

First, let me itemize some of these recent “voluntary” agreements between Internet companies and the AGs and/or NCMEC:

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Scrap E-Verify

by on November 24, 2008 · 9 comments

The 111th Congress and the new Obama administration should scrap “E-Verify.” The federal government’s inchoate immigration background check system is the culmination of 20 years’ failure to create a tolerable “internal enforcement” program for U.S. immigration law. Rather than building on past failure, the new Congress and president should pull the plug on E-Verify and reform immigration law so that it aligns with the nation’s economic need for labor.

More here.

How about nothing.

My Cato colleague Gene Healy has a book out that is essential reading for people who think that all things turn on the presidency. The folks at the Family Online Safety Institute should read The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.

Because the subject line of the email they sent me promoting their “Safe at Any Speed” conference about online safety is: “What Will the Obama Administration Do . . . ?”

Please: Nothing, nothing, nothing. It is, and shall forever be, the responsibility of parents to raise their children, including by guiding kids’ access to and use of the online world. Adam pointed you last week to a report that appears to do a good job of keeping things in perspective.

It’s nice to see that FOSI is involving people like Adam and First Amendment lawyer nonpareil Bob Corn-Revere in their conference. The next thing they should do is move it out of Washington to where the parents are. And don’t ask what presidents will do about online safety.

Why Be an Internet Optimist?

by on November 24, 2008 · 19 comments

Kevin Donovan has a thoughtful post about “The Durable Internet.” He asks:

Now, there are examples of trickle down and mass rebellion. Tim does a nice job in “The Durable Net” of exploring these and does the most to bring me closer to faith in lay users. He cites the Digg rebellion against censorship and the fight for open IM protocols. But in my observation, very few non-technical folks use Adium or the other IM unifiers. In fact, iChat and AIM are dominant defaults. As for the Digg example, the users of Digg tend to be technically inclined and the cost of posting a hex code and pushing “Digg” are so minimal that, yes, even my mother could do it (though I doubt she would).

It is possible that the select few will be motivated enough to free their own iPhone or create tools to detect violations of the end-to-end principle, but I worry that the critical mass will not be reached. Although 40% of Saudis are disturbed by Internet censorship, I’d be willing to bet that 40% do not nor can they make use of Tor or Psiphon or the other anti-censorship technologies. These are the people who would suffer from a non-generative, non-neutral future if the technical few do not successfully defend their interests.

I’m mostly thinking out loud, so I’d love to hear your thoughts: are users capable of protecting their interests?

In my paper, I go into a lot of detail with specific examples in which open technologies persevered in the face of organized resistance. But let me step back and make a more general point about the underlying argument of that section of the paper: In a nutshell, we should be optimistic about the future of open platforms for the same reason we’re in favor of open platforms in the first place. Put simply, they work better. Open platforms harness the distributed knowledge of millions of people and produce ecosystems that is greater than the sum of their parts. Closed platforms are hampered by the limitations of central planning, and as a result they tend to be sterile, inflexible, and incapable of keeping up with developments on more open platforms.
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A fantastic post from Matt Yglesias:

The basic business outlook is very focused on the key role of the executive. Good, profitable, growing firms are run by brilliant executives. And the ability of the firm to grow and be profitable is evidence of its executives’ brilliance. And profit ultimately stems from executive brilliance. This is part of the reason that CEO salaries need to keep escalating — recruiting the best is integral to success. The leaders of large firms become revered figures. Not only important because, in practice their decisions are significant. But they become celebrities and dispensers of advice and wisdom. Their success stems from overall brilliance, and thus they must have enlightening things to say on a variety of subjects.

The thing about this is that if this were generally true — if the CEOs of the Fortune 500 were brilliant economic seers — then it would really make a lot of sense to implement socialism. Real socialism. Not progressive taxation to finance a mildly redistributive welfare state. But “let’s let Vikram Pandit and Jeff Immelt centrally plan the economy — after all, they’re really brilliant!”

But in the real world, the point of markets isn’t that executives are clever and bureaucrats are dimwitted. The point is that nobody is all that brilliant. Nobody really has a reliable method of surveying the scene and accurately gauging What Is To Be Done. But in a market economy, we don’t need anyone to have such a method. Instead, a bunch of people get to do some inquiries into the issue and then give it their best shot. And the ones who are wrong will fail. And the ones who are right will succeed.

This is spot-on, and it’s a theme that I’ve blogged about in the past. One of the reasons I think that Matt’s point isn’t more obvious is that most industries are relatively homogenous, and so it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different forms of industrial organization.

One of the things that makes the software industry industry interesting is that you have genuine institutional experimentation. You have 2-person startups toppling multi-billion-dollar firms. You have free software projects embarrassing proprietary software companies with budgets three orders of magnitude larger. You have venture capital firms investing tens of millions of dollars and angel investors investing tens of thousands. And so we get some real data on how efficient different forms of economic organization are. And it turns out that the centralized, bureacratics ones tend to be massively wasteful, relative to other ways of organizing software development.

Of course, software is special in part because their primary output is made of infinitely reproducible bits. You need a certain minimum of capital to start a car company or a bank. But still, it’s worth keeping in mind that the inefficiency of central planning isn’t limited to the government—the government just happens to be the largest bureaucracy with the least competition. But other organizations exhibit the same problems in proportion to their size and lack of competition. The larger an organization is, the more dysfunctional it’s likely to be and the harder it will be to reform. Which is one of the many reasons I hope Congress let’s GM collapse under its own weight.

In her latest column, Media Post media market guru Diane Mermigas wonders how long it will be before we see a traditional over-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV network (like ABC, NBC, CBS, or Fox) dump their old broadcast business altogether and just move all their properties to cable and satellite TV. And, in response to Mermigas, Cory Bergman of Lost Remote argues, as I did last week, “the real future of TV is not linear cable, but non-linear video delivered seamlessly via IP to multiple devices, including your TV set. But mass adoption of this approach is still several years away.”

Bergman is right. It would be foolish to think any traditional network is going to rely exclusively on IP-based distribution any time soon; they see it as more of a compliment (or another product window). But Mermigas may be on to something in predicting that broadcast networks may soon be looking to get out of the OTA television business altogether and essentially become “a glorified general entertainment cable network.”

The strain on their dysfunctional paradigm is emanating from a devastating recession and the ongoing digital revolution. Both are permanently altering the rules of play for the networks. A case can be made for at least one of the Big 4 broadcast networks emerging as a glorified general entertainment cable network within the next several years. The economic advantages: more steady ad revenues and consistent subscriber fees as content is distributed cross-platform.

It would be a bold move that a free-spirited company such as News Corp. might already be contemplating for its Fox Broadcast TV Network, or NBC Universal for its peacock network. Industry analysts increasingly wonder how an independent CBS can prattle on under the crumbling old rules. In a world of exploding access and choices, the prime-time ratings (even with Live plus 3 configurations) spell diminishing returns. For Disney, ABC’s general entertainment status is on par with ESPN in sports; the new multi-platform model is in place except for formally moving the ABC TV Network to the cable side of the ledger.

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Nice to Be Wanted

by on November 23, 2008 · 7 comments

“The doggone law. The consarned law. The lousy, frickin’, nit-pickin’, noveau-Prussian, freedom-crushin’ . . . .” Nice to Be Wanted twangs the sad tale:

Like Sensible Khakis and Take Up the Flame, Nice to Be Wanted comes with a license allowing pretty free non-commercial use. Also like those songs, this one requires commercial licensees to tithe 10% to a good cause—here, the Institute for Justice.

We all owe IJ thanks for its Good Works. I owe IJ a special “thank you,” for inspiring the lines in Nice to Be Wanted about the plight of the “charmin’ lady down New Orleans’ way.” Alas, her tale rings all too true. May she—and may we all—win greater freedom to pursue our livelihoods. Go get ’em IJ! (The bit about “pumped his own gas” also draws from a real-world inspiration: just scroll down to Oregon Revised Statute § 480.330.)

I plan at least a few more of these videos, by the way. Subscribe to my channel to catch them all. My efforts remain pretty raw for now, granted; Nice to Be Wanted comes from only the second take of my first visit to a recording studio. Please share your suggestions about how I might improve. (You can skip, “Suck less,” though. I’m already working on that, thanks.)

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia and Technology Liberation Front.]

At Stanford Law School, I am a member of the Stanford Law and Technology Association and the Center for Internet and Society. I write for CIS’s publication, Packets. I just published a piece summarizing the recent Third Circuit case once again holding the Child Online Protection Act unconstitutional. When the decision was released back in July, Adam Thierer wrote a wonderful post here on it. Adam’s and my pieces are complementary. Though Adam gave a nice assessment of COPA’s future, my summary goes into a bit greater detail on the court’s legal reasoning. If you’re interested in the law or in the constitutional principles involved, you may want to check out this interview with my brother, who was a counsel on the case.