Articles by Jerry Brito

Jerry is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and director of its Technology Policy Program. He also serves as adjunct professor of law at GMU. His web site is

As you know doubt have heard, Silk Road has been shut down by the FBI and its alleged operator, Ross Ulbricht, has been arrested. I've been getting a lot of questions about this and what it means for Bitcoin. Here are some initial thoughts.

The price of Bitcoin is dropping. What does that mean? It means that speculators are speculating. That said, here's how I'm going to read it: If the main value of Bitcoin is that it can be used to buy drugs on Silk Road (as some contend), then we should see the value drop to zero is short order. If Bitcoin has other value, we should see it weather this jolt. One year ago a Bitcoin traded for about $14. As I type this, it's hovering at about $118 $127.

How did they catch the guy? Good question. I don't know the answer, but that won't stop me from speculating. I will point out two things. First is this from the criminal complaint against Ross Ulbricht:

During the course of this investigation, the FBI has located a number of computer servers, both in the United States and in multiple foreign countries, associated with the operation of Silk Road. In particular, the FBI has located in a certain foreign country the server used to host Silk Road's website (the "Silk Road Web Server"). Pursuant to a mutual Legal Assistance Treaty request, an image of the Silk Road Web Server was made on or about July 23, 2013, and produced thereafter to the FBI.

OK. So how did the FBI "locate" the servers that hosted the Silk Road Tor hidden service? The FBI has recently admitted that they have exploited vulnerabilities in Tor to identify users. Could it be that they exploited some vulnerability in this case? I look forward to finding out.

That said, here is another possibility. Also according to the criminal complaint (emphasis added),

On or about July 10, 2013, [Customs and Border Patrol] intercepted a package from the mail inbound from Canada as part of a routine border search. The package was found to contain nine counterfeit identity documents. Each of the counterfeit identification documents was in a different name yet all contained a photograph of the same person.

That person was Ulbricht and the package was addressed to him. Maybe it was from this lead that the FBI was able to begin the process of identifying the servers, once they had a suspect. If so, and if this indeed was a "routine" search, then the authorities got completely lucky!

Finally, I'll point out that Bitcoin was in no way involved in the identification of the suspect. In fact, in the criminal complaint the FBI argues that because the blockchain (Bitcoin's public ledger) is pseudonymous, that it is not useful in tracing transactions. I don't think that's quite right, but that's how the FBI sees it in this case. So, in this case at least, the privacy Bitcoin affords was not compromised in any way.

UPDATE: As I think about this some more, it's clear that the FBI was able to identify Ross Ulbricht because he posted his Gmail address to the Bitcoin Talk forum using the same username that first mentioned Silk Road ever. So, what are the chances that the CPB search that turned up the package of fake IDs bound for Ulbricht was routine? If it was routine, it was routine in the sense that packages to people on a watchlist might be routinely searched. I'm still not clear how the FBI got from identifying a possible suspect to locating the server for the Silk Road Tor hidden service.

How do you seize Bitcoins? I'm surprised by how many times I've been asked this question. It's amazing what it is that people seize upon in a story. < cough > I don't know how the authorities have carried out the seizure, but it's not to difficult to conceive how it could be done. Basically they would have to get the private keys to the suspect's Bitcoin addresses. (Think of it essentially like getting the password to an account.) They could either get that with his cooperation or if he had stored it somewhere now accessible to the authorities. Once they have the private keys, they would be able to transfer the bitcoins and I imagine that they would transfer them to a Bitcoin address that only they control.

UPDATE: So I got ahold of the seizure order and indeed I was correct that this is how the government will try to go about seizing the bitcoins. From the court order:

The United States is further authorized to seize any and all Bitcoins contained in wallet files residing on Silk Road servers, including those servers enumerate in the caption of this Complaint, pending the outcome of this civil proceeding, by transffering the full account balance in each Silk Road wallet to a public Bitcoin address controlled by the United States.

But to be clear, to seize bitcoins you do need to get the "password" that controls them. You can't just go to an intermediary and order that an account be frozen as you can do with traditional financial intermediaries like banks or PayPal.

I'll be tweeting and posting more as I learn more about what happened, but those are my initial thoughts. Shoot me any questions or thoughts you have. I'm at @jerrybrito on Twitter. And by the way, you can follow all the coverage of the Silk Road arrest and seizure on my site Mostly Bitcoin.

Over the past year, as the debate over internet radio royalty rates has raged, I have been a lonely voice calling for the repeal for compulsory licensing of digital performance rights altogether. I did so at the Cato event for my book, Copyright Unbalanced, in January at a State of the Net panel, and in my Reason column. The reaction I often received was either one of outrage by the Pandoras of the world, or condescension for my naive optimism. Well, optimism can pay off. Yesterday Rep. Mel Watt, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, introduced the “Free Market Royalty Act,” which among other things gets rid of compulsory licensing.

The problem with the compulsory licensing scheme is twofold: Not only does it rely on federal bureaucrats to set the rates that artists must accept for their music (rather than allowing a free-market negotiation take place between copyright holders and those who want to broadcast their songs), but it also allows Congress to pick winners and losers by assigning different royalty rate standards to different users. As I explained in Reason:

While AM, FM, cable and satellite radio, and Internet radio services like Pandora can all opt for compulsory licenses, they each pay different royalty rates. The rates are set by a panel of government lawyers called the Copyright Royalty Board, and they have the effect of favoring some business models over others. Internet radio services pay over 60 percent of their revenue in royalties, while Sirius XM, the only satellite radio company, pays only 8 percent. AM and FM radio aren’t subject to a digital sound recording right, so it pays zero.

Watt’s bill would blow all this up, making terrestrial broadcasters, Internet radio services, and the rest to give up their price-fixed compulsory licenses and have to negotiate in a market the rates they pay. This truly levels the playing field, especially vis-a-vis interactive music services like Spotify and Rdio that have never benefited from compulsory licenses.

Whether you talk to supporters of Rep. Chaffetz’s Internet Radio Fairness Act or Rep. Nadler’s Interim FIRST Act, they each will say their bill is the true fre market approach, and that their rate-setting standard would best approximate a market. To them I say, nothing better approximates a market than the market itself, so if they are truly concerned about ensuring a free market level playing field, here is the way to do it.

One advantage of compulsory licensing is that it can reduce transactions costs. The Watt bill retains some of this advantage by designating SoundExchange, a nonprofit agency, as the common agent for copyright owners to facilitate negotiations, but allowing labels and artists to retain the right to opt-out and negotiate on their own. If this bill passes, I think we’ll see some very interesting experimentation with business models on the part of both the artists and the radio stations.

Finally, looking at the) press coverage of this bill, what has gotten the most attention is that it would, for the first time, require terrestrial AM/FM radio stations to negotiate and pay royalties for the sound recordings they broadcast. The way I see it, it’s not clear to me why broadcasters deserve yet another subsidy, so I shed no tears for them if this bill passes. Broadcasters argue that they provide promotional value for the songs they broadcast, that this benefits copyright holder, and that they should therefore continue to pay nothing. If it is indeed the case that airplay provides substantial promotional value, that will be taken into account in the course of negotiations and we should expect the ultimate rate to reflect that. Indeed, you can even imagine an outcome where the free market rate for terrestrial stations would remain at zero, or even that copyright holders would want to pay the stations. That’s the beauty of the market, so let’s unleash it.

Randall Stross discusses his recent book: The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups. Stross’s behind-the-scenes look at Y Combinator details how the seed fund has been able to produce young entrepreneurs and successful startups such as Dropbox and Airbnb. Stross also discusses Y Combinator’s early history, the typical Y Combinator participant, the fund’s rate of return, the gender gap in the program, and the reason Silicon Valley has become the epicenter for startups.


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Earlier this week NTIA petitioned the FCC to adopt a rule requiring wireless carriers to unlock the cell phones of customers and former customers who request it, and today the New York Times editorialized in support. While such a rule would solve the immediate problem of cell phone unlocking, it would be a band-aid solution that avoids dealing with the real problem: the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions.

As I’ve explained before, the cell phone unlocking issue is just one symptom of a greater problem, namely that it is illegal for you or any third party you contract to unlock content that you own. This affects not just phones, but also e-readers, music and video players, and even garage door openers and printer cartridges in the view of some. So I have to disagree with CDT when it says, “Perhaps the best feature of the NTIA’s approach is that it skips the absurd debate over copyright and DMCA exemptions and treats phone unlocking as what it is – a telecom issue.”

Cell phone unlocking, despite what the name might lead you to think, is not a telecom issue; it’s a DMCA issue. You can see this if you think about all the restrictions that remain in place even if the FCC were to adopt the NTIA’s proposed rule. For example, the rule forces carriers to unlock your phone at your request, but it would still be illegal for you to unlock your own phone, or to have a third party (such as a competing carrier that wants your business) unlock your phone.

Bottom line: It’s really strange to solve a problem created by Section 1201 of the DMCA by turning to the FCC to force carriers to give up their rights under the DMCA. Indeed, it removes a contractual possibility from the market because under the rule a carrier could no longer contract with a consumer to keep the phone unlocked for the duration of the contract. That’s an option that should be available to carriers and consumers. Any fix to this DMCA-created problem must leave the freedom to contract alone. The better way to address cell phone unlocking is to have the FCC stay out of what is an issue that Congress needs to address. Rep. Lofgren’s Unlocking Technology Act, for example, does just that.

Seriously Uncompromising

by on September 23, 2013 · 2 comments

Many “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation over the NSA’s mass surveillance to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about how much privacy and liberty we are willing to trade for security, which they argue is a “choice we have to make.” Today at Reason I argue that until we have good reason to trust the oversight mechanisms that we are told will keep the system honest—or indeed trust the mechanisms for formulating such an oversight regime—civil libertarians have no reason to feel sheepish about obstinately refusing to make that “choice we have to make.”

Yesterday the MPAA issued a report commissioned from the global PR firm Millward Brown looking at "the role of search in online piracy." This coincided with the RIAA's Cary Sherman testimony before the House IP subcommittee that search engines are not doing enough to protect his industry from piracy. Here are some thoughts on the new report and the issue generally.

The report tries to ascertain how much of the traffic to infringing content is sent there by search engines. To measure this, the report employs "a customized, hybrid approach" that doesn't merely look at whether the visit to an infringing URL came from a link on a search page. Instead, it looks at whether a user searched for a "qualifying" search term within 20 minutes of reaching the infringing URL. "Qualifying" search queries, the report says, are associated with attempts to find illegal content and include "domain terms like '1Channel' and 'sidereel', generic terms like 'watch movies online' and movie and TV title-based terms like 'Dark Knight Rises'." As the report puts it, "This holistic approach contrasts with a more narrow definition that counts search only when a visit is preceded by a visit to a search engine."

The report is clear that "this method did not seek to indicate the degree to which infringing content appears on search engine results pages themselves," but merely sought to show that search engines "influenced the path" users took to reach infringing content. It concluded that "approximately 20% of all visits to infringing content were influenced by a search query from 2010-2012."

I have a couple of concerns with this methodology. First is that it implicitly puts search engines on the hook not just for linking directly to infringing content (for which there is a notice-and-takedown process available), but also for "influencing the path" that a user takes on their web travels. As we all know, correlation is not causation, so it's not clear to me that because I searched for "transformers" 15 minutes before I visited the URL for a pirate stream of Game of Thrones that necessarily means that the search engine influenced me in any way, and much less should be responsible for my behavior.

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No doubt I won’t be the only one to point out how funny it is that today’s New York Times front page exposé on the excesses of the Renewable Fuel Standard puts the blame on Wall Street firms trading in the market for ethanol credits. But I also want to make a comparison to intellectual property.

As the headline puts it, “Wall St. Exploits Ethanol Credits, and Prices Spike,” Yet ethanol credits are a thing that affect the price of gasoline only because the government created them out of thin air and mandated their use. Having created a new commodity–and a mandatory one for many refiners–it’s no surprise speculators entered the market. Yet this is how the NYT describes it:

The banks say they have far less influence in the market than others are suggesting, and are doing nothing wrong. But the activities, while legal, could have consequences for consumers.

See that? It’s the perfectly legal activities of the banks that will have consequences for consumers. I’d say it’s the entire program itself, created out of thin air by the government, that allows for these activities in the first place.

Because Congress and the EPA didn’t accurately predict future gasoline consumption (shocker that) they set the amount of ethanol that refiners must blend into gasoline too high. Refiners are on the hook to use more ethanol than possible, which forces them to buy ethanol credits instead. So of course commodity speculators are going to play in this made-up market, but it’s not the players we should be hating, it’s the game.

And for the record, I don’t mean to excuse the banks. I don’t know enough about this issue, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the banks had a hand in getting the government to create this market. If they did, then that’s par for the crony capitalist course.

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Thomas Rid on cyber war

by on September 3, 2013 · 0 comments

Thomas Rid, author of the new book Cyber War Will Not Take Place discusses whether so-called “cyber war” is a legitimate threat or not. Since the early 1990s, talk of cyber war has caused undue panic and worry and, despite major differences, the military treats the protection of cyberspace much in the same way as protection of land or sea. Rid also covers whether a cyber attack should be considered an act of war; whether it’s correct to classify a cyber attack as “war” considering no violence takes place; how sabotage, espionage and subversion come into play; and offers a positive way to view cyber attacks — have such attacks actually saved millions of lives?


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Last week, the Mercatus Center released “Bitcoin: A Primer for Policymakers” by yours truly and Andrea Castillo. In it we describe how the digital currency works and address many of the common misconceptions about it. We also analyze current laws and regulations that may already cover digital currencies and warn against preemptively placing regulatory restrictions on Bitcoin that could stifle the new technology before it has a chance to evolve. In addition, we give several recommendations about how to treat Bitcoin in future.

As I say in the video that accompanies the paper, Bitcoin is still very experimental and it might yet fail for any number of reasons. But, one of those reasons should not be that policymakers failed to understand it. Unfortunately, signs of misunderstanding abound, and that is why we wrote the primer.

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Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.


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