Articles by Sonia Arrison

Sonia Arrison is an author and policy analyst who has studied the impact of new technologies on society for more than a decade. A Senior Fellow at the California-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and a columnist for TechNewsWorld, she is author of two previous books (Western Visions and Digital Dialog) as well as numerous PRI studies on technology issues. A frequent media contributor and guest, her work has appeared in many publications including CBS MarketWatch, CNN, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. She was also the host of a radio show called "digital dialogue" on the Voice America network and has been a repeat guest on National Public Radio and CNN's Headline News.

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report accusing Kevin Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, of being deceptive and opaque in his management of the agency’s affairs. That a politician would pull such moves is no surprise, but the report should send a strong signal to the incoming Obama administration.

“Chairman Martin withheld important and relevant data from the other Commissioners during their consideration of the 13th Annual Video Competition Report in an apparent attempt to enable the Commission to regulate cable television companies,” the report states.

This finding was one of many pointing out how the Chairman wielded his power inappropriately.

It is common knowledge that Chairman Martin personally dislikes the cable companies. This animosity seems to be what drove his reintroduction of a rule to require a 30-percent market share cap on cable companies. In 2001, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a similar cap; since then, competition in the video services market has skyrocketed.

When asked why Chairman Martin would reintroduce a rule already rejected by the courts, Joy Sims, a spokesperson for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, simply said, “Look at the House report issued today.”

One man’s vendetta, the report reveals, has the ability to influence an entire industry. To those who marvel at that reality, Berin Szoka of the Progress and Freedom Foundation explains that “the FCC is one of the most unaccountable agencies. The problem is not isolated to Chairman Martin, but was probably worse under him because of his war on cable.”


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The financial crisis currently consuming the U.S. has led tech industry leaders, such as Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, to speak out in favor of quick Congressional action. Tech stocks, as well as general stocks, have plummeted, and there is confusion over why this crisis is happening and spreading so fast. One explanation that makes a lot of sense draws on network and information theory.

“[The U.S.] market economy is nothing more than a vast, parallel-processing information network,” explains noted economist John Rutledge in his new book Lessons From a Road Warrior. Network theory, the examination of interconnected systems, can help us understand the current market crisis, because it can aid in identifying and understanding cascading information network failures.

When a “super node” in a network goes down, for example, it has the potential to take down the whole system, since these key nodes are connected to many others. Perhaps the most familiar crash of this sort is a power blackout. If a storm or accident takes down a single power line, it can lead to a power loss for a whole city. That type of crash, Rutledge explains, is exactly what is happening now.


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This is a good article by Harvard professor Harry Lewis.  He worries that the ease of spreading lies on the Net puts us at risk of losing “a thoughtful, analytical, educated citizenry, capable of sharing responsibility for the long-term welfare of the nation.”  Here’s a excerpt from his piece:

“If he wins, Barack Obama is going to be sworn in on a Koran instead of the Bible. Trig isn’t Sarah Palin’s baby, it’s her daughter Bristol’s. Obama refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance. Here’s the list of books Palin wanted to ban from the library …

All these claims — none of them true — turned up in the e-mail inboxes of millions of Americans this summer. In spite of both campaigns’ efforts to correct the record about their candidates, the rumors linger on and spread.”

Nine months after Barack Obama, John McCain has unveiled his own technology plan for America. At last, both candidates can be graded for their long-term friendliness to the tech sector. You can read my analysis here, but the upshot is that Obama has multiple weaknesses, particularly when it comes to taxes, property rights, labor and government waste that harms America’s tech sector. McCain’s weakness is the transparency issue, but overall he looks better positioned than Obama on issues that matter most to innovators in the tech community.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter on this blog (here, here, and here) about how to properly view the FCC’s recent Comcast decision. My take is that while everyone is focused on questions of market failure, we are in the midst of a huge government failure. Read my full explanation here.

This is nice to see, especially given his recent comments about Internet use…

When it comes to the Internet, Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently said that he’s “an illiterate who has to rely on his wife for any assistance he can get.” In an era where the Internet is playing an ever greater role, does such an admission matter, and does it say anything important about the age gap between McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama?

This is not the first time a politician has come under fire for sweeping claims about the Internet. Recall, for instance, Al Gore’s comment that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Everyone knows that DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) drove the creation of the Net, not the former vice president, but his comment made for many jokes on late-night shows.

McCain, of course, made quite the opposite assertion, but is he really the “illiterate” he mentioned or is something else going on? His campaign aides say he’s fully capable of browsing the Web and that he has a Mac and uses it several times a week. Senator McCain will get “hip points” for using a Mac; nevertheless, he clearly doesn’t think being Internet savvy is an important branding strategy. This may bother some, but many politically active technology entrepreneurs don’t seem to be upset.


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Personalized medicine is touted as the wave of the future, but recent government action points to problems for Americans looking to join the health revolution. Last week, California’s Department of Public Health issued cease-and-desist letters to 13 genetic testing startups, threatening to deny service to consumers curious about their DNA.

“Any laboratory offering genetic tests to California residents must be licensed as a clinical laboratory in California. The tests must be ordered by a licensed physician and validated,” reads a statement on the department’s Web site. 23andMe didn’t require a physician’s note when this author and many others used its service, so it seems the company, along with most of the others, may be in trouble.

Despite this threat, 23andMe this week maintained that it is in compliance with California law and is continuing to operate in the state at this time. However, not all genomics firms are taking such an aggressive stance.

Sciona, which tests genes in order to offer nutritional and fitness advice, also received a cease-and-desist letter. The company’s reaction was to yank its US$299 products off the market in both California and New York, another state that is targeting the industry.

Those attempting to read their own genetic data, not somebody else’s, find it appalling that government would stand in the way. One’s genome contains important personal information that each individual should be able to access, without a doctor acting as gatekeeper. Tests like the ones 23andMe supply not only imply possible futures, but also reveal a lot about one’s past. There is something frighteningly Orwellian about government bureaucrats deciding that individuals are not allowed to view their body’s map without official permission.

It is appropriate, of course, for government agencies to enforce the laws on the books, which is what the California’s Department of Public Health is doing. However, when the old rules are so out of sync with the current health landscape provided by new technology, that calls for new rules. As with anything in the technology industry, the faster things are fixed, the better.


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So-called consumer groups may be calling for antitrust action against Google right now, but Intel is actually facing charges.  Unfortunately, antitrust has come to be used by under-performing companies to slow down their competitors in the the hyper-competitive tech sector.  This trend is not only bad news for consumers, but it may put American companies at risk now that foreign governments are getting more interested in the game.  Here’s my recent article on the issue.

At last week’s UCLA Technology & Aging Conference, representatives from Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Toyota and other big-name firms discussed how technology is reshaping lifestyles for older individuals. However, important policy implications directly connected to these new tools went unspoken.

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that can monitor the status of older individuals, face-recognition video systems that allow two-way video calls when someone simply enters the room, and robot-assisted remote telesurgery are just a few of the amazing systems described at the conference.

Eric Dishman, Intel’s director of product research and innovation, discussed his company’s goal of getting “rid of the nursing home” and putting “technologies in people’s homes.” Dishman is working from a distributed computing point of view, where caregiver expertise can arrive across time, and medical technology can be distributed from outdated institutions to an individual’s most frequented location.

Technology like RFID tags connected with wireless networks can help create an “always on” health monitoring system, thereby transitioning society away from a “mainframe” medical model and redirecting it toward a smaller, more personalized, PC-type model. This is a great idea, yet the unspoken truth is that this type of communication requires healthy, innovative networks. That raises a key question about Net neutrality, an issue spun and respun by many.

Essentially, it involves a fight over whether network operators, such as Verizon or Comcast, are allowed to continue to set the price for their services and prioritize information that rides on their pipes.

History shows that government regulatory and price controls have a negative effect on innovation, and applying them to the Internet — as Net neutrality advocates want to do — would be disastrous for rolling out newer, faster and more efficient network services. This makes one wonder if Intel’s research and innovation department ever talks with its lobbying arm, because in 2006 the company foolishly jumped on the Net neutrality bandwagon.


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