Articles by Andrew Grossman

Andrew Grossman formerly wrote for the TLF.

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Never forget.

Is it any wonder that Vista took 8 years–and that there’s no firm market date for incremental update Windows 7–when even minor changes require updating thousands of pages of technical documentation for a team of state antitrust regulators?

For the depressing details, read today’s “Joint Status Report” filed by 17 states, the District of Columbia, the DOJ, and Microsoft.

The government’s continued meddling with Windows, some 9 years after it was branded an “abusive monopoly” and following the Vista’s fizzling, boggles the mind. In a way, the company’s efforts to sic the antitrust attack dogs on rival Google really are a desparate attempt to level the playing field.

Yesterday, the Senate unanimously approved legislation to delay the transition to digital TV to June 13. The House is expected to follow suit as soon as this afternoon.

Under current law, television stations would cease broadcasting analog signals on February 18, potentially inconveniencing dozens of Americans who rely on over-the-air signals and have yet to purchase a subsidized converter box. “They’ve had several years to do so, but who could blame them for getting distracted?,” asks Joel Johnson. “Television has been pretty awesome over the last few years.”

Members of Congress, fearful of a flood of telephone calls following the switchover, are taking the matter seriously. “I warn those who would stand in the way, who dismiss my sense of urgency, that should they force us to keep to our current course, it is the American public who will bear the brunt of their opposition,” said Sen. John Rockefeller, sponsor of the legislation. “We owe our citizens so much more than this.”

Rockefeller is adament that Congress will not allow any further delay past June 13.

But, say observers, even that date is not carved in stone. In the weeks leading up to the switchover, Newsweek and the Consumers Union are expected to track down and interview “at-risk consumers” unprepared for the transition, which may spark further congressional action. Without still more months of heavy public-service advertising on the transition, they are expected to argue, “rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country could be left with blank television screens.”

Only last week, President Barack Obama issued a new government-wide policy on FOIA requests mandating a “presumption in favor of disclosure” and directed his OMB to get to work fast on an “Open Government Directive,” with specific mandates for agencies, that achieves “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” That task is a tall order for the 120-day deadline Obama set.

So no doubt this week’s day-long conference presented by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy and American University’s Washington School of Law will attract some attention from those within the Administration charged with getting the new policy out the door. Indeed, the conference’s aim seems particularly pragmatic–organizers intend to end the day with “an on?site consensus prioritization of policy changes, to be formally delivered to the Obama Administration.”

For a clue of what to expect in that “prioritization,” look to the agenda. Participants include representatives from OMB Watch, the National Security Archive, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Constitution Project, and the ACLU. (It is a bit disappointing that no one from Mercatus–e.g., co-blogger and transparency guru Jerry Brito–or Cato or the like is on the agenda, as there’s a lot of consensus on these issues across partisan and ideological lines.) Also participating are many journalist-types and several current and former officials (though only one that I can tell with much experience in a transparency-averse agency).

So expect a tight focus on national-security matters and executive branch records–i.e., the bugaboos of the Bush era–with perhaps less attention paid to openness in the regulatory policymaking process. Then again, Obama’s choice of Cass Sunstein as regulatory czar may drive the discussion in that direction, given his strong work on the value of openness and dissent.

For those in town interested in attending the event, registration still appears to be open.

Forget net neutrality and the growing Googleplex. The real threat to Internet freedom comes from plain old criminal law.

In three weeks time, Missouri housewife Lori Drew will face trial for entering false personal details when she signed up for a MySpace account. Her indictment alone, whether or not she is convicted, should frighten anyone who’s ever filled out a form online.

The case, which captured the tabloid media when it broke last year, turns on unusual facts. Drew, posting as a teenage boy, created the MySpace account to probe why a neighbor’s daughter, Megan Meier, had broken off a friendship with her own daughter. She gave a few others access to the account, and things quickly spiraled out of control. Before long, “Josh Evans” (the fictional teen) and Meier were an online couple, and soon after that, they were hurling insults at one another on public message boards.

Meier, already suffering from depression, was devastated by Josh’s turnabout. A final private message from the Evans account–“The world would be a better place without you”–pushed her over the edge. Twenty minutes after receiving it, Meier hung herself in her closet.

Even though she was not responsible for the worst of the messages (according to a prosecutor who investigated the case but declined to file charged), Lori Drew mislead an emotionally troubled youth, and that was surely wrong.

But it’s more problematic to say that it’s a crime.

The theory of the prosecutor behind this case would make all Internet users criminals. Continue reading →

From triumph to terror—that’s the likely emotional rollercoaster of the denizens of the “/b” message board on the 4chan website who hacked into Gov. Sarah Palin’s email account earlier this week. The toasts of the left-learning Internet on Tuesday, by this morning they knew themselves to be in the crosshairs of the FBI and Secret Service.

Next stop: jail. That’s the law, and it’s a fair punishment for digital breaking and entering.

According to British tech tabloid The Register, the hackers accessed Palin’s Yahoo account by way of a proxy, relaying all traffic through it to cloak their identities. The proxy’s owner promises to make his log data available to authorities, and it’s probably only a matter of time before that leads to living, breathing (nervous, sweating?) people.

The most likely charge is hacking. Federal law prohibits virtual trespassing for the purposes of stealing information. So cracking the password to a governor’s email account and perusing her messages is a clear violation. The punishment: criminal fines and imprisonment of up to 5 years.

Throw in a few conspiracy offenses—according to reports, a slew of “/b-tards” were in on the act—and the prison term could double.

No, going after a major party’s vice presidential candidate was not smart: Police and prosecutors put extra effort into famous crimes.

As for the media publishing Palin’s emails and family photos, shame on them, but it’s not against the law. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court held that they have a First Amendment right to publish materials of public importance, even if illegally obtained, so long as the media doing the publishing committed no wrong itself.

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right. No one deserves to have their private correspondence stolen (not, as per the AP, “leaked”) and posted online for the world to see. It speaks to Palin’s classiness that nothing objectionable—not even a cuss—has come to light. Too bad that the press and online gossip-mongers don’t share that trait and take the material down.

Tim’s thoughtful analysis of the slow adoption of the IPv6 protocol turned my mind to a long-standing topic of interest: the illusory value of elegance in technology. A corollary: In technology, as in life, revolutions are rightly rare and usually only visible in hindsight.

The IPv6 transition is a good example of the difference between policy and implementation. This transition raises all sorts of broad policy issues, given its potential costs and the potential for disruption. For certain kinds of network applications, carefully tuned to use existing Internet infrastructure, the transition will be difficult and costly. In some cases, things may just stop working. At the least, those who work on Internet applications and infrastructure will have to learn all the minute details of the new system and its implementation, a surprisingly deep pool of knowledge, while their IPv4 experience fades into irrelevance. These are no small things.

When naive engineers (and those who think like them) drive policy, their recommendations are often to scrap existing systems and start anew with something that’s more elegant that eliminates “cruft” and the like. It’s a fun engineering task to go back to first principles and start over with what we know now that we may not have known when creating earlier standards. It is a rewarding intellectual exercise.

But “muddling through,” as in other domains, is often the best choice in tech policy.

Continue reading →

Bad Directions

by on January 4, 2008 · 0 comments

People will believe anything a GPS tells them:

Bo Bai, a computer technician from Sunnyvale who said he was merely trusting his car’s global positioning system when he steered onto the tracks, was cited for obstructing a railroad crossing, officials said this afternoon.

“As the car is driving over the tracks, the GPS system tells him to turn right, and he turns right onto the railroad tracks,” said Brucker. “That’s how it happened.”

Brucker added, “He tried to stop the train by waving his arms, which apparently was not totally effective in slowing the train.”

Among the GPS-gullible, I include myself. Especially in unknown territories, I’ll try whatever the GPS tells me, that blanket warning and disclaimer at its startup notwithstanding. This seems to be a field ripe for litigation.

Credulity also opens opportunities for hacks, and that’s just what’s under development in Italy, it seems:

Two Italian hackers have figured out how to send fake traffic information to navigation systems that use a data feature of FM radio for real-time traffic information. Using cheap, off-the-shelf hardware, they can broadcast traffic data that will be picked up by cars in about a one-mile radius, the hackers said during a presentation at the CanSecWest event here.

“We can create queues, bad weather, full car parks, overcrowded service areas, accidents, roadwork and so on,” Andrea Barisani, chief security engineer at Inverse Path, a security company.

Perhaps a reason to be wary of bootlegged or discount map-data. Or wary of unlikely instructions from any electronic device.

Via Obscure Store, here is “The Office” segment where Michael trusts his GPS too much

Reading the tea leaves of delay, Reuters reports (via Drudge) that the DOJ may be gearing up to derail the planned merger, announced 10 months ago, between the nation’s two satellite radio providers:

The delay may be due to the complexity of the issues raised by the merger of the only two U.S. satellite radio companies — or because the Department of Justice (DOJ) is putting together a case to block the deal in federal court, analysts at Stifel Nicolaus said in a research note on Thursday.

Alternatively, top officials at DOJ may be leaning toward approval but might still be weighing arguments from staffers who oppose the deal, Stifel Nicolaus said.

Only in the mind of a regulator or a terrestrial radio broadcaster (i.e., competitor) could this proposed merger present issues of great complexity–the only issue on the table is the market definition, which may be contentious but is not overly complex, except perhaps to those who wish to make it so.

My suggestion: The FCC and DOJ should look at who’s opposing this merger in defining the market.

If this is a complex case, antitrust enforcement is, whatever its merits or lack thereof, just broken. It’s a wonder that any proposed merger gets through review, no matter the outcome.

For more on the merger, check out these thoughtful posts by TLF’s Adam Thierer:

  1. XM + Sirius = Good Deal (for the Companies and Consumers)
  2. More on XM-Sirius

A Bear Stearns report examines at the economics of the Wall Street Journal knocking down its paid-subscription wall: revenue is currently pegged at $78 million annually, based on an estimated 989,000 subscribers paying $79/year. Including non-subscriber traffic, the company claims 122.4 million monthly page views. Based on an estimated CPM of $6 and a few other assumptions about sell-through rate and ad impressions per page, Wang arrives at the 12x conclusion.

Still, as Joseph Weisenthal notes, “$78 million in revenue only accounts for an estimated 4 percent of Dow Jones revenue, so from a strictly financial stance, it doesn’t much matter either way to News Corp.,” the Journal‘s new owner.

Where I work, we’re very wary of static economic analyses: why should a huge change (e.g., raising tax rates) have no impact on behavior (e.g., hours worked)? Yes, certainly, lowering the cost of getting Journal content to $0 will undoubtedly bring a surge in readership–maybe 12X, maybe more, maybe less. That’s not the interesting question.

The big question for media watchers should be, how will the Journal react?

Continue reading →

(This is in response to a thoughtful post by Adam, who beat me to the punch, and to a controversial recent article (“Long Live Closed-Source Software!“) by the free-thinking Jaron Lanier that Adam discusses.)

No one needs to say “Long live open-source software,” because it is what it is and isn’t going anywhere. Think of it as the ground beneath our feet.

As Lanier explains, closed source is the font of nearly all paradigmatic innovation–the great revolutionary leaps. Open source contributes iterative innovation, such as the best kernel scheduler for variable workloads–this is a problem it is possible to work out slowly, with small changes over a period of years. It is also a problem that doesn’t matter at all to most users–good enough is good enough, though better is, of course, better.

Where the two forms of development come together most interestingly is the use of open source as a stepping stone for closed-source radical innovation. Asus, for example, didn’t have to step forward and create its own OS from the ground up for its EeePC. Even though the thing sports an interface unlike those in most Linux distributions, the underlying guts are the same. Would something like the EeePC even be possible without open source? Could a manufacturer afford to undertake the great expense, and gamble, of working out an OS for itself? Free software lets businesses take chances on projects that would otherwise be too expensive to devise and products that would otherwise be too expensive to market.

Continue reading →