August 2010

On the podcast this week, Danny Sullivan, an expert on the internet search industry and editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, discusses search neutrality.  He explains the concept of search neutrality and discusses a recent New York Times editorial suggesting Google’s search algorithm should be subject to government oversight or regulation.  Sullivan points out flaws inherent to the notion of search neutrality and discusses competition in the search engine industry. He also imagines what it might take to topple Google from its perch atop internet search.

Related Readings

Do check out the interview, and consider subscribing to the show on iTunes. Past guests have included Clay Shirky on cognitive surplus, Nick Carr on what the internet is doing to our brains, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash on crowdsourcing, James Grimmelman on online harassment and the Google Books case, Michael Geist on ACTA, Tom Hazlett on spectrum reform, and Tyler Cowen on just about everything.

So what are you waiting for? Subscribe!

How many times can FCC Commissioner Michael Copps declare the Internet dead?  Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher bombastically bellowing sermons warning of the impending End Times, Commissioner Copps has made a hobby out of declaring the Internet dead and buried unless drastic steps are taken right now to save cyberspace! The problem is, he’s being saying this for the past decade and yet, despite generally laissez-faire policy in this arena, the Internet is still very much alive and well.

His biggest beef, of course, is Net Neutrality regulation—or the current lack thereof.  He fears that without such a “Mother, May Iregulatory regime in place, the whole cyber-world is heading for eternal damnation.  Echoing the fears of other Internet hyper-pessimists, Copps concocts grand conspiracy stories of nefarious corporate schemers hell-bent on quashing our digital liberties and foreclosing all Internet freedom.

Way back in 2003, for example, Comm. Copps delivered a doozy of a sermon at the New America Foundation entitled, “The Beginning of the End of the Internet.” In the speech, Copps lamented that the “Internet may be dying” and only immediate action by regulators can save the day. Copps laid on the sky-is-falling rhetoric fairly thick: “I think we are teetering on a precipice . . . we could be on the cusp of inflicting terrible damage on the Internet. If we embrace closed networks, if we turn a blind eye to discrimination, if we abandon the end-to-end principle and decide to empower only a few, we will have inflicted upon one of history’s most dynamic and potentially liberating technologies shackles that make a mockery of all the good things that might have been.”

But that’s hardly the only such fire-and-brimstone sermon that Rev. Comm. Copps has delivered about the death of the Internet. Continue reading →

[I am currently helping Berin Szoka edit a collection of essays from various Internet policy scholars for a new PFF book called “The Next Digital Decade: Essays about the Internet’s Future.”  I plan on including two chapters of my own in the book responding to the two distinct flavors of Internet pessimism that I increasingly find are dominating discussions about Internet policy. Below you will see how the first of these two chapters begins. I welcome input as I refine this draft. ]

Surveying the prevailing mood surrounding cyberlaw and Internet policy circa 2010, one is struck by the overwhelming sense of pessimism about our long-term prospects for a better future.   “Internet pessimism,” however, comes in two very distinct flavors:

  1. Net Skeptics, Pessimistic about the Internet Improving the Lot of Mankind: The first variant of Internet pessimism is rooted in general skepticism regarding the supposed benefits of cyberspace, digital technologies, and information abundance. The proponents of this pessimistic view often wax nostalgic about some supposed “good ‘ol days” when life was much better (although they can’t seem to agree when those were). At a minimum, they want us to slow down and think twice about life in the Information Age and how it is personally affecting each of us.  Other times, however, their pessimism borders on neo-Ludditism, with proponents recommending steps be taken to curtail what they feel is the destructive impact of the Net or digital technologies on culture or the economy. Leading proponents of this variant of Internet pessimism include:  Neil Postman (Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology), Andrew Keen, (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture), Lee Siegel, (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob), Mark Helprin, (Digital Barbarism) and, to a lesser degree, Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) and Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch and The Shallows).
  2. Net Lovers, Pessimistic about the Future of Openness: A different type of Internet pessimism is on display in the work of many leading cyberlaw scholars today.  Noted academics such as Lawrence Lessig, (Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It), and Tim Wu (The Master Switch The Rise and Fall of Information Empires), embrace the Internet and digital technologies, but argue that they are “dying” due to a lack of sufficient care or collective oversight.  In particular, they fear that the “open” Internet and “generative” digital systems are giving way to closed, proprietary systems, typically run by villainous corporations out to erect walled gardens and quash our digital liberties.  Thus, they are pessimistic about the long-term survival of the wondrous Internet that we currently know and love.

Despite their different concerns, two things unite these two schools of techno-pessimism.  Continue reading →

I’m at the mid-point of an online debate hosted by the on the proposition: “This house believes that governments must do far more to protect online privacy.”

I’m on the “No” side. In my opening statement, I tried to give some definition to the many problems referred to as “privacy,” and I argued for personal responsibility on the part of Internet users. I even gave out instructions for controlling cookies, by which people can deny ad networks their most common source of consumer demographic information if they wish. Concluding, I said:

Government “experts” should not dictate social rules. Rather, interactions among members of the internet community should determine the internet’s social and business norms.

In the “rebuttal” stage, which started today, I dedicated most of my commentary to documenting how governments undermine privacy—and I barely scratched the surface.

Along with surveillance program after surveillance program, I discussed how government biases protocols and technologies against privacy, using the Social Security number as an example. I don’t know what syndrome causes many privacy advocates to seek protection in the arms of governments, which are systematic and powerful privacy abusers themselves.

Nonetheless, I’m opposing the “free lunch” argument, which holds that a group of government experts can come up with neutral and balanced, low-cost solutions to many different online problems without thwarting innovation. Right now the voting is with the guy offering people the free lunch, not the guy arguing for consumer education and personal responsibility.

You can vote here.

I don’t have a great deal to add to coverage of last week’s big patent story, which concerned the filing of a complaint by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen against major technology companies including Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. Diane Searcey of The Wall Street Journal, Tom Krazit at CNET, and Mike Masnick on Techdirt pretty much lay out as much as is known so far.

But given the notoriety of the case and the scope of its claims (the Journal, or at least its headline writer, has declared an all-out “patent war”), it seems like a good opportunity to dispel some common myths about the patent system and its discontents.

And then I want to offer one completely unfounded theory about what is really going on that no one yet has suggested. Which is: Paul Allen is out to become the greatest champion that patent reform will ever know.

Continue reading →

[Fellow members of the Society for the Prevention of Vice, I urge you to take immediate action to continue our crusade to clean up America’s media marketplace by ridding it of the scourge of media hyper-violence.  A clip has come to our attention that merits particular concern and I hope you will agree something must be done by our government before such filth gets widespread dissemination. So, please join me in signing this petition to the FCC to take action now—for the children—before such unspeakable acts of violence are mimicked by millions of youth across America.]


TO: Julius Genachowski, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

FROM: Adam Thierer, President, Society for the Prevention of Vice (formerly known as the Society for Soft Pillow Fights)

RE:  Another example of unspeakable media violence that must be stopped

Dear Chairman Genachowski:

A video has come to our attention that displays, once again, the media industry’s utter disregard for human decency and the dignity of life, and we hope you will agree something must be done to stop its dissemination before it is too late.  In this video:

  • A man’s nose is seemingly twisted off his face (as he screams in agony) and then his face is forced onto a grinding machine while sparks fly off his burning flesh (he again screams in agony);
  • A shoe with an extended spike is inserted into a man’s head and then his eyeball and then his ear lobe (he screams in agony each time);
  • The man who was impaled with said shoe spike then bites the offender’s foot (he, too, screams in agony);
  • A blow-torch is used to light a man’s buttocks afire (he screams in agony);
  • A man climbs a pole, plays with live electrical wires, is then is electrocuted after chewing on said wires, and then falls to the ground still shaking from the voltage running through his body (he screams in agony);
  • A wrench is dropped on a man’s head (he screams in agony) and he then uses said wrench to hit another man over the head and violently twist his nose with it (he screams in agony); and
  • Finally, the electrocuted man has a light bulb inserted into one ear and a screwdriver into the other (he screams in agony and then, bizarrely, he laughs to end the clip — as if he is mocking the depravity of what we have just witnessed!)

I have attached a clip of this unspeakably evil carnival of pain, but I warn you that it could forever darken your soul. Can you imagine, sir, if earlier generations of American youth had seen this? Could America have produced “The Greatest Generation” if the youth of the World War II era had grown up watching such filth?  We now know from several psychological studies that children will mimic whatever they see on the screen. If they see such depictions of violence in media, they will reenact it themselves in the real world. In other words, “monkey see-monkey do.”  Please, on behalf of all those signing this petition, and for the sake of our children, I beg you to help us put a stop to this moral outrage before our great civilization decays and withers away in a sea of media hyper-violence such as this:  Continue reading →

So, the GAO recently released a report on the wireless industry and found that:

The biggest changes in the wireless industry since 2000 have been consolidation among wireless carriers and increased use of wireless services by consumers. Industry consolidation has made it more difficult for small and regional carriers to be competitive. Difficulties for these carriers include securing subscribers, making network investments, and offering the latest wireless phones necessary to compete in this dynamic industry. Nevertheless, consumers have also seen benefits, such as generally lower prices, which are approximately 50 percent less than 1999 prices, and better coverage.

Now, if you are a self-described “consumer advocate,” I would hope the bottom line here is pretty straightforward and refreshing: Prices fell by 50% in 10 years. That alone is an amazing success story. But that’s not the end of the story. The more important fact is that prices fell by that much while innovation in this sector was also flourishing.  Do you remember the phone you carried in your pocket — if you could fit it in your pocket at all — ten years ago?  It was a pretty rudimentary device.  It made calls and… well… it made calls.  Now, think about the mini-computer that sits in your pocket right now.  Stunning little piece of kit. It can text. It can do email. It can get Internet access. You can Twitter on it. Oh, and you can still make calls on it (but who wants to do that anymore!)

The point is, this is a great American capitalist success story that everyone — especially “consumer advocates” — should be celebrating.  So, what does Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn have to say?

“These trends do not bode well for consumers, despite any benefits of the moment,” she told Ars Technica.

Wait, what?  Continue reading →

The Washington Post editorializes this morning on the “Google-Verizon” proposal for government regulation of the Internet:

For more than a decade, “net neutrality” — a commitment not to discriminate in the transmission of Internet content — has been a rule tacitly understood by Internet users and providers alike.

But in April, a court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission has no regulatory authority over Internet service providers. For many, this put the status quo in jeopardy. Without the threat of enforcement, might service providers start shaping the flow of traffic in ways that threaten the online meritocracy, in which new and established Web sites are equally accessible and sites rise or fall on the basis of their ability to attract viewers?

What a Washington-centric view of the world, to think that net neutrality has been maintained all this time by the fear of an FCC clubbing. Deviations from net neutrality haven’t happened because neutrality is the best, most durable engineering principle for the Internet, and because neutral is the way consumers want their Internet service.

Should it be cast in stone by regulation, locking in the pro-Google-and-Verizon status quo? No. The way the Internet works should continue to evolve, experiments with non-neutrality failing one after another . . . until perhaps one comes along that serves consumers better! The FCC would be nothing but a drag on innovation and a bulwark protecting Google and Verizon’s currently happy competitive circumstances.

I’ll give the Post one thing: It represents Washington, D.C. eminently well. The Internet should be regulated because it’s not regulated.

“If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

As a cyber-libertarian, I’ve been lucky enough to work with people of all ideological stripes in pursuit of various public policy objectives.  I’ve made selective alliances with people on the Right on economic policy issues (like opposing Net Neutrality regulation, Internet taxes, etc) and also worked closely with folks on the Left on speech and culture issues (content controls, anonymity, online safety concerns, etc).

While engaging with with people on both sides of the political fence, I’m often struck by some of their internal inconsistencies.  Conservatives, for example, talk about a big game about personal responsibility on some issues, but quickly abandon that notion when they claim media content or online speech should be regulated by the State (typically “for the children.”)  In this essay, I’d like to discuss interesting inconsistencies on the political Left, especially among advocates of strong privacy regulation (most of whom tend to be Left-leaning in their worldview).  In particular, here are the two things I find most interesting about modern privacy advocates:

(1) Most privacy advocates are vociferous First Amendment supporters, yet they abandon their free speech values and corresponding constitutional tests when it comes to privacy regulation.  When it comes to proposals to regulate media content or online speech, most folks on the Left have a very principled, clear-cut position: people (or parents) should take responsibility for unwanted information flows in their lives (or the lives of their children). In particular, they rightly argue that the many user empowerment tools on the market (filters, monitoring software, other parental control technologies) constitute a so-called “less-restrictive means” of controlling content when compared to government regulation.

Advocacy groups that I have a great deal of respect for and work with quite closely on these issues–such as EFF, CDT and ACLU—all take this position.  Generally speaking, they argue that, when it comes to speech regulation, “household standards” (user-level controls) should trump “community standards” (government regulation). And in Court—where I frequently file joint amicus briefs with them—they repeatedly employ the “less-restrictive means” test to counter government efforts to regulate information flows.

But when it comes to privacy, they throw all this out the windowContinue reading →

The Washington Post reports today on an article coming out in Foreign Affairs in which Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III reveals a successful 2008 intrusion into military computer systems. Malicious code placed on a thumb drive by a foreign intelligence agency uploaded itself onto a network run by the U.S. military’s Central Command and propagated itself across a number of domains.

The Post article says that Lynn “puts the Homeland Security Department on notice that although it has the ‘lead’ in protecting the and domains, the Pentagon — which includes the ultra-secret National Security Agency — should support efforts to protect critical industry networks.”

The failure of the military to protect its own systems creates an argument for it to have preeminence in protecting private computer infrastructure? Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security will reveal how badly it has been hacked in order to regain the upper hand in the battle to protect us.