Open Source, Open Standards & Peer Production

I’m pretty rough on all the Internet and info-tech policy books that I review. There are two reasons for that. First, the vast majority of tech policy books being written today should never have been books in the first place. Most of them would have worked just fine as long-form (magazine-length) essays. Too many authors stretch a promising thesis into a long-winded, highly repetitive narrative just to say they’ve written an entire book about a subject. Second, many info-tech policy books are poorly written or poorly argued. I’m not going to name names, but I am frequently unimpressed by the quality of many books being published today about digital technology and online policy issues.

The books of Harvard University cyberlaw scholars John Palfrey and Urs Gasser offer a welcome break from this mold. Their recent books, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, and Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, are engaging and extremely well-written books that deserve to be books. There’s no wasted space or mindless filler. It’s all substantive and it’s all interesting. I encourage aspiring tech policy authors to examine their works for a model of how a book should be done.

In a 2008 review, I heaped praise on Born Digital and declared that this “fine early history of this generation serves as a starting point for any conversation about how to mentor the children of the Web.” I still recommend highly to others today. I’m going to be a bit more critical of their new book, Interop, but I assure you that it is a text you absolutely must have on your shelf if you follow digital policy debates. It’s a supremely balanced treatment of a complicated and sometimes quite contentious set of information policy issues.

In the end, however, I am concerned about the open-ended nature of the standard that Palfrey and Gasser develop to determine when government should intervene to manage or mandate interoperability between or among information systems. I’ll push back against their amorphous theory of “optimal interoperability” and offer an alternative framework that suggests patience, humility, and openness to ongoing marketplace experimentation as the primary public policy virtues that lawmakers should instead embrace. Continue reading →

You won’t find the words ‘government’ or ‘regulation’ in [this post at EFF’s blog]( by Micah Lee and Peter Eckersley. They’re just appealing to Apple’s better angels to drop its closed ways. I’ve explained before why that’s [a rational thing to do]( But will the EFF assure supporters like me that it will never endorse government enforcement of a “bill of rights” like the one Lee and Eckersley propose today?

What I like about EFF is that it is a pro-liberty group, but I hope I’m not wrong in assuming that they view liberty as I do: as [a negative concept]( They never come out and say it, but it sure sounds like the authors believe that if Apple doesn’t come around to seeing the virtues of openness and provide an escape hatch, then maybe they should be forced to. I get that impression from passages like this:

>When technology and phone companies defend the restrictions that they are imposing on their customers, the most frequent defense they offer is that it’s actually in their customers’ interest to be deprived of liberty: “If we let people do what they want with their pocket computers, they will do stupid things with them. You will be safer and happier in our walled compound than you would be outside.”

Imposing on their customers? Seems to me like the vast majority of Apple’s customers are *choosing* these restrictions. It’s not Apple that thinks its customers are stupid, and is therefore “imposing” a locked phone on them, it’s Lee and Eckersley who seem to have a low regard for customers’ preferences and want to impose an open device on them.

We can of course debate [whether customers are being short-sighted]( in the choice they’re making, whether the benefits of closed platforms [outweigh the costs](, and whether we have the best of [both]( [worlds]( right now, but you can’t say that customers are being “deprived of their liberty.” What liberty are they being deprived of? Does the EFF believe there is a positive right to mobile computers that run arbitrary code?

I repeat my plea: Can EFF assure us that it will not support government regulation of computer manufacturers?

The folks at the Concurring Opinions blog were kind enough to invite me to participate in a 2-day symposium they are holding about Brett Frischmann’s new book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources. In my review, I noted that it’s an important book that offers a comprehensive and highly accessible survey of the key issues and concepts, and outlines much of the relevant literature in the field of infrastructure policy.  Frischmann’s book deserves a spot on your shelf whether you are just beginning your investigation of these issues or if you have covered them your entire life. Importantly, readers of this blog will also be interested in the separate chapters Frischmann devotes to communications policy and Net neutrality regulation, as well as his chapter on intellectual property issues.

However, my review focused on a different matter: the book’s almost complete absence of “public choice” insights and Frischmann’s general disregard for thorny “supply-side” questions.  Frischmann is so focused on making the “demand-side” case for better appreciating how open infrastructures “generate spillovers that benefit society as a whole” and facilitate various “downstream productive activities,” that he short-changes the supply-side considerations regarding how infrastructure gets funded and managed. I argue that: Continue reading →

Over at, [I write about]( last week’s flap over Apple kicking out famed security researcher Charlie Miller out of its iOS developer program:

>So let’s be clear: Apple did not ban Miller for exposing a security flaw, as many have suggested. He was kicked out for violating his agreement with Apple to respect the rules around the App Store walled garden. And that gets to the heart of what’s really at stake here–the fact that so many dislike the strict control Apple exercises over its platform. …

>What we have to remember is that as strict as Apple may be, its approach is not just “not bad” for consumers, it’s creating more choice.

Read [the whole thing here](

Wired’s Brian Chen writes today about the “damage” caused to Apple’s competitors and there own developers by products announced at yesterday’s WWDC keynote, making several claims that are bit dubious, the most suspect of which was this claim about Apple’s new cloud-focused trio:

Now, here’s why iCloud, iOS 5 and Lion pack such a deadly punch against so many companies: Together, they strengthen Apple’s lock-in strategy with vertical integration.

While I don’t doubt that Apple is indeed going to deal a very deadly punch to many competitors with their version of cloud computing for consumers, I think using the term “lock-in” is going to far.  True lock-in would mean driving consumers down a one-way street where their data can’t be moved to another platform (think Facebook prior to late last year) or driving up switching costs through cancellation fees ala the telecom industry.  Apple, on the other hand, is offering consumers a truly compelling user experience, not holding them hostage.

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What I hoped would be a short blog post to accompany the video from Geoff Manne and my appearances this week on PBS’s “Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman” turned out to be a very long article which I’ve published over at

I apologize to Geoff for taking an innocent comment he made on the broadcast completely out of context, and to everyone else who chooses to read 2,000 words I’ve written in response.

So all I’ll say here is that Geoff Manne and I taped the program in January, as part of the launch of TechFreedom and of “The Next Digital Decade.”   Enjoy!



Anyone who knows me will attest to my status as an Apple fanboy. (I type this on my new 11″ MacBook Air, which I managed to resist purchasing for a full week after it was announced.) Hopefully they’ll also attest to my ability to put consumer preference aside when considering logical arguments because today I want to suggest to you that Apple’s business strategy is good for the open internet.

Apple has come under fire by some supporters of an open internet and open software platforms such as Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Wu, who argue that Apple’s walled garden approach to devices and software will lead us to a more controlled and less innovative world. In particular, they point to the app store and Apple’s zealous control over what apps consumers are allowed to purchase and run on their devices. Here’s the thing, though: Every Apple device comes with a web browser. A web browser is an escape hatch from Apple’s walled garden. And Apple has taken a backseat to no one in nurturing an open web. Consider this: Continue reading →

[Last week’s episode of Econtalk]( featured Russ Roberts talking to Tom Hazlett about Apple vs. Google and open vs. closed business models. Tim Lee has already [addressed]( some concerns about Russ and Tom’s treatment of the topic, which I won’t rehash here. But I did want to comment on this statement by Russ (at minute 33):

>The idea that you shouldn’t buy Apple stuff, which I’ve actually seen people say, because it’s somehow immoral because [Steve Jobs] is so controlling, is a bizarre idea. I’m not quite sure where it comes from. It comes from some of the freedom of the internet and the stuff we’ve become accustomed to.

Russ then likens a personal conviction to avoid closed products to some of his readers’ feelings of entitlement that they have a right to post a comment on his blog, and to a stranger thinking he has the right to take hot dogs from Russ’s backyard grill. I don’t think I have to explain why these analogies don’t hold up. What I would like to point out is that abstaining from certain products on moral grounds (and even hectoring friends to do the same) is not at all bizarre behavior. We see it all the time by animal lovers who won’t buy leather or products tested on animals, or people who avoid buying diamonds from conflict areas. I’m sure there are products Russ wouldn’t buy on moral grounds.

So if you honestly believe (and I don’t) that patronizing Apple will help contribute to the closing of the Internet, and you value that openness, especially for political reasons, you would be acting perfectly rationally by boycotting Apple. And such an act would have nothing to do with anti-capitalism because, as Tom Hazlett points out, open business models are perfectly compatible with capitalism.

Now stay tuned. In another post later today I’ll suggest why in fact Apple may be good for the open internet.

DIY News and Commentary

by on October 13, 2010 · 1 comment

What a delight it has been to watch the rescue of the Chilean miners on a live feed, without commentary from any plasticized, blathering “news reporter.” Of course, there are editorial judgments being made by the camera crews and on-scene director, but it is refreshing to make my own judgments based on what I see happening and what I see on the faces of the miners, their wives, and standers-by.

As my friend, the curmudgeonly @derekahunter notes, “There’s really nothing worse than listening to a reporter attempting to fill time while waiting for something to happen.”

Meanwhile, I’ve been chasing down some intemperate commentary on Twitter about the recent discovery of explosives in a New York cemetery. One Fred Burton, identified on his Twitter feed as Vice President of Intelligence for STRATFOR and a former counter-terrorism agent, Tweeted at the time that these explosives seemed like “a classic dead drop intended for an operative.”

But now we know the explosives are old, they were dug up and laid aside in May or June of 2009, and someone recently found them and decided to report them. That is not consistent with a dead drop, and Burton was wrong to speculate as he did, starting an Internet rumor that needlessly propagates fear.

As a public service, I’m doing a little bit to cut into Burton’s credibility, which should cause him to think twice next time. The winning Tweet is not mine, though. It’s @badbanana’s: “Military-grade explosives found at NYC cemetery. Hundreds confirmed dead.”

In summary, it’s a do-it-yourself news and commentary night. I’m making my world and re-making yours (just a tiny bit), rather than all of us sitting around being fed what to think.

My article for CNET this morning, “The end of software ownership…and why to smile,” looks at the important decision a few weeks ago in the Ninth Circuit copyright case, Vernor v. Autodesk.  (See also excellent blog posts on Eric Goldman’s blog. Unfortunately these posts didn’t run until after I’d finished the CNET piece.)

The CNET article took the provocative position that Vernor signals the eventual (perhaps imminent) end to the brief history of users “owning” “copies” of software that they “buy,” replacing the regime of ownership with one of rental.  And, perhaps more controversially still, I try to make the case that such a dramatic change is in fact not, as most commentators of the decision have concluded, a terrible loss for consumers but a liberating victory.

I’ll let the CNET article speak for itself.  Here I want to make a somewhat different point about the case, which is that the “ownership” regime was always an aberration, the result of an unfortunate need to rely on media to distribute code (until the Internet) coupled with a very bad decision back in 1976 to extend copyright protection to software in the first place.

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