January 2010

Lots of good things in The Washington Post today following up on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic address last week about the importance of global Internet freedom. First, The Post has published a powerful supporting statement from Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, entitled, “Tear Down These Virtual Walls.” Bildt notes that:

Two decades ago a wall made of concrete, built to divide the free and unfree, was torn down. Today it is the freedom of cyberspace that is under threat from regimes as keen as dictatorships past to control and limit the possibilities of their citizens. They are trying to build firewalls against freedom.  At the end of the day, I am convinced they are fighting a losing battle — that cyber walls are as certain to fall as the walls of concrete once did.

He then goes on to argue that, following Secretary Clinton’s address last week, “We should now forge a new transatlantic partnership for protecting and promoting the freedoms of cyberspace. Together, we should call for all these walls to be torn down.” He continues:

Much like the way the rule of the law is critical to protecting the freedoms we enjoy as citizens in our societies, and international law protects the peace between our nations, we must seek to shape the rules that will protect the rights and the freedom of cyberspace.

Importantly, The Washington Post itself also editorialized today about “The Internet War.” Continue reading →

Most of you have probably already seen this but Pingdom recently aggregated and posted some amazing stats about “Internet 2009 In Numbers.”  Worth checking them all out, but here are some highlights:

  • 1.73 billion Internet users worldwide as of Sept 2009; 18% increase in Internet users since previous year.
  • 81.8 million .COM domain names at the end of 2009; 12.3 million .NET & 7.8 million .ORG
  • 234 million websites as of Dec 2009; 47 million were added in 2009.
  • 90 trillion emails sent on the Internet in 2009; 1.4 billion email users worldwide.
  • 26 million blogs on the Internet.
  • 27.3 million tweets on Twitter per day as of Nov 2009.
  • 350 million people on Facebook; 50% of them log in every day; + 500,000 active Facebook applications.
  • 4 billion photos hosted by Flickr as of Oct 2009; 2.5 billion photos uploaded each month to Facebook.
  • 1 billion videos served by YouTube each day; 12.2 billion videos viewed per month; 924 million videos viewed per month on Hulu in the US as of Nov 2009; + the average Internet user in the US watches 182 online videos each month.

And yet some people claim that digital generativity and online innovation are dead!   Things have never been better.

The deadline for the Google Policy Fellowship is Monday, January 25The Progress & Freedom Foundation, where Adam Thierer, Adam Marcus and I work, is participating again this year, as are the Competitive Enterprise Institute (home to the TLF’s Ryan Radia, Wayne Crews & Alex Harris) and Cato Institute (Jim Harper & Julian Sanchez).

The deadline for the Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program, run by the Institute for Humane Studies, is Sunday January 31. PFF, CEI and Cato are all participating, as are the Pacific Research Institute (Sonia Arrison), the Reason Foundation (Steve Titch) and the Washington Policy Center (Carl Gipson). Descriptions are available here (just select “technology” on the right). Also participating, for the first time, is the Space Frontier Foundation, on whose board I sit and for which I served as Chairman in 2008-2009.

If you look through our recent posts, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the diverse array issues we all cover, and who focuses on what. There’s certainly no shortage of interesting technology policy work to be done!

Both programs run 10 weeks and offer stipends. The Koch Program (which I participated in) is specifically geared towards those interested in free market ideas, and includes an excellent retreat, ongoing series of lectures, and group research project. As a “Koch-head” myself (class of 2000), I can attest to the quality of the program and the value of the alumni network. The Google program is in its third year but will, I’m sure, develop a valuable alumni network of its own.

Of course, most of our think tanks would probably be happy to have extra help around, so if you’re interested in an internship during the school year or over the summer, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of us. We may not necessarily be able to pay you but, hey, no one ever went into the think tank world to get rich!

With China’s Internet filtering back in the spotlight, this is as good a time as any to rewatch Clay Shirky’s excellent TED talk on the political implications of the ongoing media revolution—with a fascinating case study of a recent episode in the People’s Republic.

Two points that probably deserve emphasis. The first is that the explosion of user generated content in one sense makes the control of search engines even more important for a regime that’s trying to limit access to politically inconvenient information. You can block access to Amnesty International, and you can even try to play whack-a-mole with all the mirrors that pop up, but when the ideas you’re trying to suppress can essentially crop up anywhere, a strategy that relies on targeting sites is going to be hopeless. The search engine is a choke point: You can’t block off access to every place where someone might talk about the Tiananmen massacre, but if you can lock down people’s capacity to search for “Tiananmen massacre,” you can do the next best thing, which is making it very difficult for people to find those places. There are always innumerable workarounds for simple text filters (“Ti@n@nm3n”) but if people are looking for pages, the searchers and the content producers need to converge on the same workaround, by which point the authorities are probably aware of it as well and able to add it to the filter. It’s the same reason people who want to shut down illegal BitTorrent traffic have to focus on the trackers.

The second point, however, is that social media also erodes the value of the search engine as a choke point, because it transforms the community itself into the search engine. For many broad categories of question I might want answered, I will get better information more rapidly by asking Twitter than by asking Google. Marshall McLuhan called media “the extensions of man,” because they amplify and extend the function of our biological nervous systems: The screen as prosthetic eye, the speaker as prosthetic ear, the book or the database as external memory storage. The really radical step is to make our nervous systems extensions of each other—to make man the extension of man. That’s hugely more difficult to filter effectively because it makes the generation of the medium’s content endogenous to the use of the medium. You can ban books on a certain topic because a static object gives you a locus of control; a conversation is a moving target. Hence, as Shirky describes, China just had to shut down Twitter on the Tienanmen anniversary, because there was no feasible way to filter it in realtime.

An analogy to public key encryption might be apt here. The classic problem of secure communications is that you needed a secure channel to transmit the key: The process of securing your transmission against attack was itself a point of vulnerability. You had to openly agree to a code before you could start speaking in code. The classic problem of free communication is that the censors can see the method you’re attempting to evade censorship. Diffie-Hellman handshaking solves the security problem because an interactive connection between sufficiently smart systems lets you negotiate an idiosyncratic set of session keys without actually transmitting it. A conversation can similarly negotiate its own terms; given sufficient ingenuity, I can make it clear to a savvy listener that  I intend for us to discuss Tienanmen in such-and-such a fashion, and the most you can do with any finite set of forbidden terms and phrases is slow the process down slightly.

This is a big part of why, pace folks like Tim Wu, I’ll still allow myself to get into the spirit of ’96 every now and again. They can, to be sure, resolve to shut down Twitter and try to throw enough people in jail to intimidate folks into “self discipline,” as they charmingly term it. But the strategies of control available become hugely more costly when the function of the medium is less to connect people with information than to connect them to each other.

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially stands for the proposition that free speech is free speech regardless of the speaker. The 5-4 majority for the Court ruled that “We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. Both history and logic lead us to this conclusion.” (at 25)  Echoing its early decision in Bellotti, the Court noted that “Political speech is ‘indispensable to decisionmaking in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.’” (at 33) “All speakers, including individuals and the media, use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech. The First Amendment protects the resulting speech, even if it was enabled by economic transactions with persons or entities who disagree with the speaker’s ideas.” (at 35) “There is simply no support for the view that the First Amendment, as originally understood, would permit the suppression of political speech by media corporations.” (at 37)

Somehow this has proven controversial, even radical, to some.  But, as George Will correctly notes, “This was radical only because after nearly four decades of such ‘reform’ the First Amendment has come to seem radical. Which, indeed, it is. The Supreme Court on Thursday restored First Amendment protection to the core speech that it was designed to protect — political speech.”  Essentially, the decision gets Congress out of the game of picking who, or what platform, deserves full First Amendment protection when it comes to uttering political speech. And there’s nothing radical about that.

Indeed, as Justice Kennedy noted for the majority, there is nothing surprising about this reasoning once you realize that almost every other type legislative or regulatory speech restriction has been struck down as a violation of the First Amendment. “The law before us is an outright ban [on political speech], backed by criminal sanctions,” Kennedy noted (at 20).  “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” (at 33)  Think about this for a second: Criminal sanctions or jail time for political speech! How in the world did we get to the point in this nation where criminalizing political speech became acceptable to our legislators?  Ignoring the obvious answer—it’s all about protecting incumbents—what is really “radical” here is not that the Supreme Court setting us back on the right path, but that our legislative branch has veered so far off of it.

Continue reading →

Is privacy a broadband issue? We think not. Privacy is based on what consumers care about, not the speed of the pipe.

NetChoice filed comments today with the FCC, which were in response to the agency’s request for comments on online privacy issues. The FCC asked for comments on the use of personal information, identity management services and privacy protections across broadband applications. The questions raised in the request were drafted entirely by the Center for Democracy and Technology, and are an attempt to inject the privacy debate into discussion of the National Broadband Plan.

Our comments took a nuanced approached—we focused our response on the appropriateness of this inquiry as it relates to Internet privacy issues. While we assert that the FCC doesn’t have the legal authority if it were to act, we focus the bulk of our comments on how the FTC has already established jurisdiction and occupies the online privacy issue area. We also highlight how the FCC’s ability to regulate broadband pipes as infrastructure does not convey jurisdiction to regulate that which flows over the pipes as information. Importantly, privacy is not a broadband issue:  the privacy policies of the ends (consumers and online services) are not defined by the middle (the speed of the communications pipe).

Privacy is an important issue not because it is specific to broadband; rather, because privacy is a consumer-driven expectation that must be met regardless of transmission technology.

    Following up from Adam’s post on Hillary Clinton’s speech on global Internet freedom, here’s an interesting blog post from Nora von Ingersleben at ACT. Nora was the lucky (and only) person at the event to ask a question to our Secretary of State. Her question centered upon the practical–while it is well-and-good that companies should “do the right thing”, there are real-world consequences when a company doesn’t comply with a legal request. How can off-shore employees be protected?

    QUESTION: Nora von Ingersleben with the Association for Competitive Technology. Madame Secretary, you mentioned that U.S. companies have to do the right thing, not just what is good for their profits. But what if I am a U.S. company and I have a subsidiary in China and the Chinese Government is coming after my guys for information and, you know, we have resisted but now my guys have been taken to jail, my equipment is being hauled away. In that situation, what can the State Department do? Or what will the State Department do?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we obviously speak out on those individual cases. And we are, as I said, hoping to engage in a very candid and constructive conversation with the Chinese Government. We have had a positive year of very open discussions with our Chinese counterparts. I think we have established a foundation of understanding. We disagree on important issues with them. They disagree on important issues with us. They have our perspective; we have our perspective. But obviously, we want to encourage and support increasing openness in China because we believe it will further add to the dynamic growth and the democratization on the local level that we see occurring in China.

    Brad Smith, Microsoft’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel addressed the Brookings Institution earlier this week calling for government to get involved to enhance the safety, security and privacy of the “Cloud.” (Here’s a transcript of his remarks)

    Smith alluded to the fact that cloud computing is undergoing a powerful transformation and correctly pointed out that, even though millions of Americans are using cloud computing platforms today (and have been for years), a far majority of them have no real concept of what cloud computing actually is or does — and neither to most policymakers.

    This speech was very well timed, given the current Google-China kerfuffle from the past couple of weeks. Essentially, who is in charge of the data in the cloud? How can we guarantee that best practices are being used by providers? And, what role will the federal government play in the regulation of this powerful emerging technology? Continue reading →

    There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Google’s recent acquisitions of Teracent (ad-personalization) and AdMob (mobile ads), as well as Apple’s response, buying AdMob’s rival Quattro Wireless. Jeff Chester, true To form, quickly fired off an angry letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, ranting about how the Google/AdMob deal would harm consumer privacy with the same vague fulminations as ever:

    Google amasses a goldmine of data by tracking consumers’ behavior as they use its search engine and other online services. Combining this information with information collected by AdMob would give Google a massive amount of consumer data to exploit for its benefit.

    Yup, that’s right, it’s all part of Google’s grand conspiracy to exploit (and eventually enslave) us all—and Apple is just a latecomer to this dastardly game. It’s not as if that data about users’ likely interests might, oh, I don’t know… actually help make advertising more relevant—and thus increase advertising revenues for the mobile applications/websites that depend on advertising revenues to make their business models work. No, of course not! Greedy capitalist scum like Google and Apple don’t care about anyone but themselves, and just want to extract every last drop of “surplus value” (as Marx taught us) from The Worker. (Never mind that in 4Q2009 Google generated $1.47 billion for website owners who use Google AdSense to sell ads on their sites—up 17% over 4Q2008—or that Apple has a strong incentive to maximize revenues for its iPhone app developers.) Internet users of the world, unite!  You have nothing to lose but all those “free” content and services thrown at your feet! Continue reading →

    It’s my pleasure to welcome Carl Gipson as our latest contributor to the Technology Liberation Front.

    Carl is the Director for the Center for Small Business, Technology and Telecommunications at Washington Policy Center where he regularly writes about current technology policy issues. He’s also the author of The Fallacy of Network Neutrality, RFID: Balancing Technology and Privacy, Restrict VOIP Regulations to Federal Standards and more. Carl is also is a voting member of the Telecommunications and I.T. Task Force with the American Legislative Exchange Council.  He holds a degree in Political Science from Western Washington University.

    We look forward to Carl’s contributions to the TLF and we welcome him to our merry band of cyber-liberty loving radicals!

    P.S. You can follow Carl on Twitter here.