March 2009

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication this week to focus solely on the Web, a transition that frightened some in the publishing business, coming so shortly after the Rocky Mountain News shut down. However, as many in the tech industry are aware, this is simply a form of “creative destruction” that should boost both choice and economic activity in the longer term.

“Creative destruction,” a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, means exactly what it says — the process by which a new technology or structure replaces the old and builds a new infrastructure. This is how progress happens and capitalism moves ahead. For a clear example, think back a century or so, when Henry Ford released his first prototype automobile, relegating the horse and buggy, and the buggy whip industry, to obsolescence.

Most would agree that such creative destruction resulted in a good outcome for society. Yet, not everyone is willing to let such revolutions take place without a fight. Indeed, some politicians have proposed bailing out newspapers, as the federal government has done for failing automakers.

“The media is a vitally important part of America,” said Frank Nicastro, who represents Connecticut’s 79th assembly district and advocated for a state government bailout of The Bristol Press. Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hinting at federal intervention to help the embattled San Francisco Chronicle.

Read more here.

Yochai Benkler ponders the death of the newspaper:

Critics of online media raise concerns about the ease with which gossip and unsubstantiated claims can be propagated on the Net. However, on the Net we have all learned to read with a grain of salt between our teeth, like Russians drinking tea through a sugar cube. The traditional media, to the contrary, commanded respect and imposed authority. It was precisely this respect and authority that made The New York Times’ reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq so instrumental in legitimating the lies that the Bush administration used to lead this country to war.

This is a fantastic insight, and indeed, it’s precisely the insight that we libertarians apply to the regulatory state. That is, just as a decentralized media and a skeptical public is better than the cathedral style of news gathering, so too are decentralized certification schemes and a skeptical public better than a single, cathedral-style regulatory agency “guaranteeing” that businesses are serving consumers well. Most of the time the regulators will protect the public, just as most of the time newspapers get their stories right. The problem is that no institution is perfect, and the consequences of failure are much more serious if you’ve got a population that’s gotten used to blindly trusting the authority figure rather than exercising healthy skepticism. Regulatory agencies are single points of failure, and in a complex economy single points of failure are a recipe for disaster.

Will Wilkinson makes the related point that journalists are prone to journalistic capture that’s very much akin to the regulatory capture that plagues government agencies.

Worried that decentralized news-gathering sources won’t be able to do the job the monolithic newspapers are leaving behind? Jesse Walker has a great piece cataloging the many ways that stories can get from obscure city council meetings to popular attention.

What a victory for privacy and personal responsibility is Chris Soghoian’s Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out (or “TACO” – documented and downloadable here). It signals to the 27 ad networks with well-configured opt-out cookies that you don’t want them to track you.

It’s a technical solution that empowers (and places responsibility with) the user to exercise dominion over his or her personal information. No need for law and regulation. No need to go pleading to politicians and bureaucrats for help.

It’s also a little more efficient than my method of controlling tracking, which is to take a glance at cookies as Web sites ask to set them on my computer.

(The answer is usually “no,” but it’s very interesting to see who all wants to get a glance at me when I visit any site. It’s a lot more than just ad networks, btw. I have no idea why people think ad-network tracking is bad and tracking by others is a matter of indifference.)

Now, Chris and I always find something to disagree about, so for good measure I’ll note that I disagree with his goal of switching targeted advertising from opt-out to opt-in. Continue reading →

By Mike Palage,  PFF Adjunct Fellow & former ICANN Board  Member

TPI’s Tom Lenard and Larry White released a study yesterday entitled ICANN at a Crossroads:  A Proposal for Better Governance and Performance (PDF).  ICANN is, indeed, at a crossroads:  A number of critical Internet governance issues will be decided over the next 6-12 months-such as:

  • How to roll out new gTLDs like .BLOG, which I’ve discussed here and here (PDF).
  • ICANN’s future as an increasingly independent organization, which I’ve discussed here

There is an acute need to better educate the public and policymakers about these complex issues and about how ICANN works-something that will be addressed by my upcoming primer on ICANN.  For that reason, I welcome TPI’s contribution to this important debate about the future of the Internet.  I share TPI’s concerns about the inadequacy of mechanisms currently in place to ensure ICANN’s accountability and the absence of any checks on ICANN’s ever-expanding budget. 

But I strongly disagree with TPI’s conclusion that:

ICANN should remain a nonprofit organization, but it should be governed by and accountable to its direct users: the registries and the registrars.  The seats on ICANN’s board could be rotated among the major operators in a manner that would reflect the diversity of viewpoints among the registries and registrars.

Having worn many hats in the ICANN eco-system-as a consultant for both registries and registrars and as a business user and IP attorney-I must say that adopting this model of direct-user control would be suicidal for ICANN.  Filling the ICANN Board with registries and registrars would create at least the appearance of a cartel, allowing those opposed to ICANN’s underlying model of public/private-partnership to capture the organization.  Neither capture by private interests opposed to the “public” part of the model nor a counter-attack by those who object to the “private” part of the model would be a good thing for Internet users or ICANN stakeholders.

Having invested over 10 years of my life in ICANN’s diverse and inclusive public/private partnership model, I speak from first-hand experience that ICANN is far from perfect as an organization.  I’ve often feared that ICANN is heading in the wrong direction and I’ve never hesitated to say so. But despite these shortcomings, the various stakeholders I work with in the seemingly byzantine “ICANN process” remain as committed as ever to the principles set forth in NTIA’s 1998 White Paper as the foundations of Internet governance.  The staying-power of this shared belief in a common set of principles among all stakeholders reaffirms my faith in the public/private partnership-whatever other changes need to be made.

Lenard and White are right about one thing:  We do need a new model for ensuring ICANN’s accountability after the expiration of ICANN’s current relationship with the U.S. Government.  But the model they suggest isn’t it—as Steve Delbianco has pointed out.

Earlier this month, Google made news when it announced that its cloud computing productivity suite Google Docs had suffered a technical glitch that temporarily compromised a subset of users’ shared documents. After becoming aware of this glitch, Google notified its users via email and posted an entry to the Official Google Docs Blog that offered a more detailed explanation of what happened.

It turns out that a bug in Google’s permissions code was causing certain documents that had been shared by their author with other users but subsequently unshared to remain visible to those users. By the time Google notified its users, the bug had already been resolved, and Google estimates that only around 0.05% of all documents were vulnerable due to the glitch. As to how many documents were actually viewed by unauthorized parties, it’s unclear at this point.

All in all, the Google Docs glitch, while troubling, seems relatively minor as far as bugs go. Nevertheless, the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Mark Rotenberg jumped on the chance to attack Google, as he often does when Google makes news for anything privacy-related. Yesterday, EPIC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that called on the FTC to investigate Google’s privacy safeguards, order Google to shut down all cloud computing services—including Gmail, which has 26 million users—pending a thorough privacy evaluation, and force Google to pay $5 million to a fund that would be setup for “privacy research.”

Watchdog activist groups like EPIC can play a useful role in the public discourse on privacy, helping to publicize unsavory behavior by companies and educating consumers about keeping data secure. Unfortunately, however, these groups’ admirable focus on protecting privacy sometimes edges on the myopic, causing them to overreact to data breaches and sometimes even call for regulatory interventions that are decidedly anti-consumer. EPIC’s latest complaint about Google is a classic example of this.

Continue reading →

TLF reader mwendy points me to this Eben Moglen paragraph, presumably as evidence of his anti-libertarian agenda:

“…Moreover, there are now many organizations around the world which have earned literally billions of dollars by taking advantage of anarchist production. They have brought their own state of economic dependency on anarchist production to such a high level, that they cannot actually continue operating their businesses without the anarchists’ products. They, therefore, now begin to serve as founders, mentors, and benefactors, for anarchism. They employ our programmers and pay them wages. They assist our programmers in gaining additional technical skill and applying that skill more broadly. They allow me to heavily fund a carefully constructed law firm in New York, to train only lawyers to represent only anarchists on only the payrolls of the big companies which produce the money to pay for the legal representation of anarchism. They have to do that. They need anarchism to be legally solid. They do not want it to fail. They want the anarchist legal institutions that we have created to become stronger over time, because now their businesses depend upon the success of anarchist production.

“In other words, we have reached a very important moment, a moment noticed some hundred years ago by my collaborators Marx and Engels. We have reached the moment at which the bourgeois power sources have turned the crank on invention to the point in which they are actually fueling their own downfall. They have created the necessary structures for their replacement and the forces which are speeding up that replacement are their own forces, which they are deliberately applying because the logic of capitalism compels them to use those new forces to make more money, even though in the long run it speeds the social transition which puts them out of business altogether. This is a very beautiful feeling…”

As I said before, Moglen is not the guy I’d pick to sell free software to libertarians. But I don’t think this passage is as outrageous as mwendy thinks. According to Wikipedia, anarchism “is a political philosophy encompassing theories and attitudes which consider the state, as compulsory government, to be unnecessary, harmful, and/or undesirable.” That certainly sounds like a laudable goal to me. I don’t personally think it’s possible to achieve a stateless society, but there are plenty of self-described anarchists who take fundamentally libertarian policy positions.
Continue reading →

Former Washington State Governor Gary Locke will likely face some grilling questions at his confirmation hearing tomorrow in the Senate. But will he face any questions about the future of the Internet?

Senators will likely grandstand over the census, the bailout, and the AIG bonuses. The future of Internet governance, however, will surely be sacrificed at the altar of politics. But as my colleague Mark Blafkin writes in his blog post,  Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but the next Secretary will have a large role in determining its future:

As part of the Joint Project Agreement (JPA), the Department of Commerce is set to sever its agreement to backstop the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) at the end of the year.  While the Department of Commerce plays no role in the day-to-day management of the Internet, it has played an important role in both holding ICANN accountable for its promises regarding private sector-leadership, and protecting ICANN from institutional capture.  We should be thinking about asking these questions:

  • Before the U.S. Government gives up oversight of ICANN, how do you believe the security of the core infrastructure of the Internet can be protected? For example, should NTIA agree to ICANN’s plan to take over all security management for the Internet root zone?
  • How will ICANN’s accountability be ensured in the absence of Department of Commerce oversight – especially accountability to the private sector stakeholders?
  • If ICANN is fully privatized, what can be done to protect ICANN from capture by foreign governments or the United Nations, which has asserted its own right to manage “Critical Internet Resources” – not the private sector?

These questions are of interest to many in the Internet governance community, if not Commerce Committee.

I recently subscribed to the Software Freedom Law Center’s podcast, and just finished listening to episode 5, in which SFLC director Eben Moglen talks about the history of copyright and patent law. It’s a bracing talk that’s bound to be controversial with a lot of people. And in particular, it’s framed in a way that’s not at all calculated to appeal to libertarians. With what I suspect is deliberate irony, he even uses the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” to describe what free software is all about.

Nevertheless, what struck me in listening to his talk was that even though Moglen’s rhetoric seems almost calculated to alienate libertarians used to aligning themselves with the political right, it’s awfully hard for libertarians to actually object to the substance of what the SFLC and the Free Software Foundation are doing. A quarter century ago, when Richard Stallman was upset with the trend toward away from free software, he didn’t run to Congress seeking legal changes. Rather, he sat down and started building an alternative. One that we know today as the GNU/Linux operating system. He did so without a penny of government support, and without expropriating any resources from his proprietary competitors.

And in the process, he provided a powerful counterexample to many of the standard tropes of copyright and patent debates. In a world where some of the most popular websites on Earth are built on the LAMP stack, it’s awfully hard to argue with a straight face that creativity will only happen if creators are given monopoly rights in their creations. The rest of us can argue until they’re blue in the face about what a world with weaker copyright or patent protections would look like, but Stallman and company have bypassed that debate entirely by offering an existence proof of what an alternative world would look like. It’s awfully hard to argue something can’t happen when it obviously has.

Which I think is what gives Eben Moglen the credibility to deploy what I might otherwise regard as absurdly overwrought rhetoric. Most revolutionaries preach about the utopia that will exist in the future. In contrast, Moglen is talking about a utopia that’s being built as we speak. And happily for libertarians, it’s a utopia that’s being built without a shot being fired, or a tax dollar being spent.

I have been asked to testify at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Thursday, March 19, 2009. It is entitled “Preventing Stimulus Waste and Fraud: Who Are the Watchdogs?” [PDF] and it will focus on accountability for stimulus spending. I will talk about how third parties can build interesting tools to help citizens find and sort spending, jobs, and performance information if only government provides the data in a complete, timely, and standardized manner.

As a way to illustrate the concept of crowdsourcing to the Committee (and to make myself seem smarter than I am) I thought I would ask you all to help me edit the testimony. I have set up a wiki with my draft written testimony on it. Please feel free to add anything I may have missed and to make any changes you see fit.

To contribute, you will need to click the “Edit” button and then ask for permission to edit the wiki (it doesn’t let me give automatic access). I will grant you permission immediately. My testimony is due by C.O.B. tomorrow, and I will incorporate all changes that I would feel comfortable testifying to.

Thanks for your help!

Firefox logoAs noted in the first installment of our “Privacy Solution Series,” we are outlining various user-empowerment or user “self-help” tools that allow Internet users to better protect their privacy online-and especially to defeat tracking for online behavioral advertising purposes. These tools and methods form an important part of a layered approach that we believe offers an effective alternative to government-mandated regulation of online privacy.

In the last installment, we covered the privacy features embedded in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) 8. This installment explores the privacy features in the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox 3, both the current 3.0.7 version and the second beta for the next release, 3.5 (NOTE – The name for the next version of Firefox was just changed from 3.1 to 3.5 to reflect the large number of changes, but the beta is still named 3.1 Beta 2). We’ll make it clear which features are new to 3.1/3.5 and those which are shared with 3.0.7. Future installments will cover Google’s Chrome 1.0, Apple’s Safari 4, and some of the more useful privacy plug-ins for browsers . The availability and popularity of privacy plug-ins for Firefox such as AdBlock (which we discussed here), NoScript and Tor significantly augments the privacy management capabilities of Firefox beyond the capability currently baked into the browser.  In evaluating the Web browsers, we examine:

(1) cookie management;
(2) private browsing; and
(3) other privacy features

Continue reading →