Tag: Internet

Free Trade on the Internet

This is from a recent speech by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR):

Today, the Internet represents the shipping lane of 21st Century goods and services. It is reshaping global commerce just like social media is reshaping societies. But right now the trade rules don’t neatly apply to the digital economy, despite the growing number of protectionist barriers popping up. The most recent WTO rules were written before the Internet.

It’s time for the digital economy to be within the Winners Circle by keeping data flows open and ensuring that foreign markets aren’t more legally hazardous than the U.S.

This is an important point. With regard to international trade in goods, the impact of the Internet has been significant, but only within certain limits. With the exception of goods for which electronic versions have been developed, you still need to make the goods at a factory and ship them around the world.  

With services, by contrast, the Internet revolution has been greater. A number of services that used to be difficult to trade internationally at all are now tradable with the click of a mouse. To use an example I’ve written about recently, online higher education services are taking off. Someday soon it may be just as convenient for a Washingtonian to get a degree from Melbourne University in Australia as it is to do so from Georgetown.

One problem, though, as Senator Wyden points out, is that many of our international trade rules were written in the pre-Internet era. This became apparent during the WTO dispute over online gambling. The rules could barely fit with this new industry.

FCC Takes Eye Off Ball, Leaves Court in Defeat

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit served the Tennis Channel a crushing blow, essentially holding that government agencies cannot tell cable operators what networks should be disseminated to consumers.  

The court found that the FCC had made an unforced error in ruling that Comcast had acted illegally against the Tennis Channel by refusing to distribute it as widely as Comcast’s own sports networks, Golf Channel and Versus.  This was a challenge based on Section 616 of the Communications Act, which gives the FCC authority to prevent “multichannel video programming distributors” from restraining the ability of unaffiliated “video program vendors” from competing “fairly by discriminating” – a broad power that the FCC still managed to abuse here.

Initially, the Tennis Channel contracted with Comcast to distribute its content on Comcast’s less broadly distributed sports tier.  It later approached Comcast with a proposal to reposition the channel onto a tier with broader distribution.  Comcast backhanded this proposal, citing financial impracticability – a basic analysis of whether such a move would make sense given ratings, market demand, etc.  An FCC administrative law judge, without citing contrary financial studies (or even a video replay) then corrected what he deemed to be marketplace “discrimination” and ordered Comcast to pay $375,000 to the government and make the Tennis Channel more widely available to consumers.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit smashed that finding of unlawful discrimination. Indeed, substituting the judgment of an administrative agency for a freely agreed distribution deal for no good reason flouts basic principles of administrative and contract law.  Even in this day of government overreach, it’s just not cricket!

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion warrants special attention – and applause.  He concluded that Section 616’s prohibition on discrimination only applies when a distributor possesses market power and that Comcast has no such advantage in the national video programming distribution market. According to Kavanaugh, applying Section 616 to a video programming distributor that lacks market power is not only outside the lines of the Communications Act, but the First Amendment as well.

That is, when Comcast distributes specific channels, it’s transmitting speech.  Overruling a cable operator’s programming choices thus interferes with editorial discretion to select and transmit a protected form of speech.  Courts should continue to umpire federal agencies that grant themselves the power to distort the marketplace of ideas.

For more on this case and the important First Amendment and rule of law issues it raises, see Randolph May of the Free State Foundation.

A Dogged Insistence on Real Numbers

The Freakonomics blog has an excellent post on the bills in Congress popularly known as SOPA and PIPA. The “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act” aka the “PROTECT IP Act” would attempt to frustrate online copyright violations by tinkering with the inner workings of the Internet.

Would amending the Internet be justified? The post is called “How Much Do Music and Movie Piracy Really Hurt the U.S. Economy?”:

Supporters of stronger intellectual property enforcement … argue that online piracy is a huge problem, one which costs the U.S. economy between $200 and $250 billion per year, and is responsible for the loss of 750,000 American jobs. These numbers seem truly dire: a $250 billion per year loss would be almost $800 for every man, woman, and child in America. And 750,000 jobs – that’s twice the number of those employed in the entire motion picture industry in 2010. The good news is that the numbers are wrong …

Freakonomics’ authors picked up two good authorities: Cato’s own Julian Sanchez and Cato’s own (adjunct) Tim Lee. It’s nice to see Cato scholars getting high-profile credit for their dogged insistence on real numbers, something Congress routinely fails to exhibit.

Losses from violations of copyright law are hard to calculate.

There are certainly a lot of people who download music and movies without paying. It’s clear that, at least in some cases, piracy substitutes for a legitimate transaction … In other cases, the person pirating the movie or song would never have bought it. This is especially true if the consumer lives in a relatively poor country, like China, and is simply unable to afford to pay for the films and music he downloads. Do we count this latter category of downloads as “lost sales”? Not if we’re honest.

And there’s another problem: even in the instances where Internet piracy results in a lost sale, how does that lost sale affect the job market? While jobs may be lost in the movie or music industry, they might be created in another. Money that a pirate doesn’t spend on movies and songs is almost certain to be spent elsewhere. Let’s say it gets spent on skateboards — the same dollar lost by Sony Pictures may be gained by Alien Workshop, a company that makes skateboards.

The challenges go deeper: The theoretical arguments about intellectual property laws are a congeries. Libertarian advocates of statutory intellectual property protection will cite Ayn Rand, who was a stalwart on defending creations of the mind as property. But a coherent system of rights does not produce conflicting claims, and intellectual property laws seem to exalt the property of some at a cost to the liberty of others. The some, in this case, are the music and movie industries, the others, Internet content companies and users.

This area still needs a good deal of sorting out. For the time being, a firm insistence on real numbers is a good thing. Serious empirical work is sorely needed. Killing off bogus numbers can only go so far.

But Don’t We Really Need Government Research?

It’s a valuable public good, research is, isn’t it? Think of where we’d be without it! I mean, it was government research that came up with the Internet, for heaven sake.

That’s a response to the argument I made last week against government funding of scientific research. Moving away from public funding of scientific research would solve the problem of private companies capturing publication spoils from research that taxpayers funded.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did indeed come up with and popularize the protocol called TCP/IP, which the Internet uses. (Everyone’s use of the protocol really makes the Internet what it is, of course, but nevermind that.)

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

My guess—and it’s only that—is that we would have had the Internet some decades earlier if not for government interventions in telecommunications. We probably would have had multiple, competing “Internets,” actually, adopted more slowly than the Internet we got. (In a chapter of Privacy in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, I explored how government has accelerated the development of computing and communications, overpowering society’s capacity to adjust, with negative consequences for privacy.)

Support for government-funded research requires one to elide opportunity costs, the things foregone when one thing is chosen. As I said before, tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt. In the absence of taxation to support research, the money would go to the public’s priorities as determined directly by the public in manifold spending and investing decision. Taxation and spending on government research is merely the substitution of centralized, political decision-making for a distributed, direct decision-making system. Its supporters are generally going to be beneficiaries of that system—elites, in short.

Even these beneficiaries of the status quo tend to agree that political decisions about funding for scientific research are warped. The solution to that problem, they’ll say, is fixing the political system—that is, creating a political system that is not so political.

Such a breakthrough is as unlikely as the invention of water that is not wet. Perhaps we can put DARPA on both projects.

The New SOPA: Now With Slightly Less Awfulness!

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is slated to take up the misleadingly named Stop Online Piracy Act, an Internet censorship bill that will do little to actually stop piracy. In response to an outpouring of opposition from cybersecurity professionals, First Amendment scholars, technology entrepreneurs, and ordinary Internet users, the bill’s sponsors have cooked up an amended version that trims or softens a few of the most egregious provisions of the original proposal, bringing it closer to its Senate counterpart, PROTECT-IP. But the fundamental problem with SOPA has never been these details; it’s the core idea. The core idea is still to create an Internet blacklist, which means everything I say in this video still holds true:



Let’s review the main changes. Three new clarifying clauses have been added up front: the first two make clear that SOPA is not meant to create an affirmative obligation for site owners to monitor user content (good!) or mandate the implementation of technologies as a condition of compliance with the law (also good!). But the underlying incentives created by the statute push strongly in that direction whether or not it’s a formal requirement: What else do we imagine sites threatened under this law because of user-uploaded content or links will do to escape liability? A third clause says the bill shouldn’t be construed in a way that would impair the security or integrity of the network—which is a bit like slapping a label on a cake stipulating that it shouldn’t be construed to make you fat. These are all nice sentiments, but they remind me of the old philosophers’ joke: “You’ve obviously misinterpreted my theory; I didn’t intend for it to have any counterexamples!”

The big changes in the section establishing court-ordered blocking of supposed “rogue” sites appear to be intended to respond to the objections of cybersecurity professionals and network engineers, who pointed out that requiring falsification of Domain Name System records to redirect users from banned domains would interfere with a major government-supported initiative to secure the Internet against such hijacking. The updated language explicitly disavows the idea of redirection, removes a hard five-day deadline for compliance, and (crucially) says that any DNS operator (like your ISP) has fully satisfied its obligations under the statute if it simply fails to respond to DNS queries for blacklisted sites.

This is bad for transparency, in both the engineering and democratic senses of that term, insofar as it makes a government block indistinguishable from a technical failure, but it does, in a sense, address the direct conflict with DNSSEC. But as network engineers point out, a well-designed application implementing DNSSEC isn’t just going to give up when it doesn’t get a valid, cryptographically signed reply: it’s going to try other DNS servers (including servers outside US jurisdiction) until it finds one that answers.

There are two possibilities here. The first is that application designers don’t design their software properly to implement DNSSEC for fear of liability under the statute’s anti-circumvention provisions, which would be a Very Bad Thing. The second is that they’re assured they won’t be held liable for good design, in which case this whole elaborate censorship process—which was never going to be particularly effective against people who actually want to find pirated content—becomes a truly farcical pantomime, in which nobody running reasonably up-to-date clients even notices the nominal “blocking,” beyond a few seconds delay in resolving the “blocked” site. Now, if we’ve got to have an Internet censorship law, a completely impotent one is surely the best kind, but it becomes a bit mysterious what the point of all this is, beyond providing civil libertarians with a chuckle at the vast amount of money Hollywood has wasted ramming this thing through.

The other big change is to the private right of action, which previously would have allowed any copyright holder to unilaterally compel payment processors and ad networks to cut off sites that it merely accuses of infringement, or enabling infringement, or (in a baffling specimen of tortured language) taking “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability” that the site would be used for infringement. That last little hate crime against English is mercifully absent from the revised SOPA, and it makes clear that only foreign sites are covered, and a judge is now required to actually issue an order before intermediaries are obligated to sever ties.

Which ultimately goes to show that the original proposal was so profoundly wretched that you can improve it a great deal, and still have a very bad idea. This is still, as many legal scholars have correctly observed, censorship by slightly circuitous economic means. The involvement of a judge should (knock on wood) weed out the most obviously frivolous complaints, but it still makes it far too easy for U.S. corporations to effectively destroy foreign Internet sites based on a one-sided proceeding in U.S. courts.

These changes are somewhat heartening insofar as they evince some legislative interest in addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised thus far. But the problem with SOPA and PROTECT-IP isn’t that they need to be tweaked in order to get the details of an Internet censorship system right. There is no “right” way to do Internet censorship, and the best version of a bad idea remains a bad idea.

The Lives of Others 2.0

Tattoo it on your forearm—or better, that of your favorite legislator—for easy reference in the next debate over wiretapping: government surveillance is a security breach—by definition and by design. The latest evidence of this comes from Germany, where there’s growing furor over a hacker group’s allegations that government-designed Trojan Horse spyware is not only insecure, but packed with functions that exceed the limits of German law:

On Saturday, the CCC (the hacker group) announced that it had been given hard drives containing “state spying software,” which had allegedly been used by German investigators to carry out surveillance of Internet communication. The organization had analyzed the software and found it to be full of defects. They also found that it transmitted information via a server located in the United States. As well as its surveillance functions, it could be used to plant files on an individual’s computer. It was also not sufficiently protected, so that third parties with the necessary technical skills could hijack the Trojan horse’s functions for their own ends. The software possibly violated German law, the organization said.

Back in 2004–2005, software designed to facilitate police wiretaps was exploited by unknown parties to intercept the communications of dozens of top political officials in Greece. And just last year, we saw an attack on Google’s e-mail system targeting Chinese dissidents, which some sources have claimed was carried out by compromising a backend interface designed for law enforcement.

Any communications architecture that is designed to facilitate outsider access to communications—for all the most noble reasons—is necessarily more vulnerable to malicious interception as a result. That’s why technologists have looked with justified skepticism on periodic calls from intelligence agencies to redesign data networks for their convenience. At least in this case, the vulnerability is limited to specific target computers on which the malware has been installed. Increasingly, governments want their spyware installed at the switches—making for a more attractive target, and more catastrophic harm in the event of a successful attack.

Welcoming a New Common Noun: ‘the Mubarak’

Officials in London are looking everywhere but the mirror for places to affix blame for the recent riots. Beyond the immediate-term answer, individual rioters themselves, the target of choice seems to be “social media.” Prime Minister David Cameron is considering banning Facebook, Twitter, and Blackberry Messenger to disable people from organizing themselves or reporting the locations and activity of the police.

Nevermind substantive grievance. Nevermind speech rights. We’ve got scapegoats to find!

[Events like this are nothing but a vessel into which analysts pour their ideological preconceptions, so here’s a sip of mine: Just like a spoiled child doesn’t grow up to be a gracious and kind adult, a population sugar-fed on entitlements doesn’t become a meek and thankful underclass. Also: people don’t like it when the police kill unarmed citizens. Which brings us to some domestic U.S. ineptitude…]

Two-and-a-half years ago, a (San Francisco) Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed an unarmed man on a station platform in full view of a train full of riders (video). Sentenced to just two years for involuntary manslaughter, he was paroled in June. This week, upon learning of planned protests of the killing that may have disrupted service, BART officials cut off cell phone service in select stations, hoping to thwart the demonstrators.

[Update: A correspondent notes that the BART protest was in relation to another, more recent killing.]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly criticized the tactic in a post called “BART Pulls a Mubarak in San Francisco.” It’s the same technique that deposed Eqyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak used to try to prevent the uprising that toppled him.

What’s true in Egypt is true in the U.K. is true in the United States. People will use the new communications infrastructures—cell phone networks, social media platforms, and such—to express grievance and to organize.

Western government officials may think that our lands are an idyll compared to the exotic savagery of the Middle East. In fact, we have people being killed by inept law enforcement in the U.S. and the U.K. just like they have people being killed by government thugs in the Middle East. What seems like a difference in kind is a difference in degree—and it’s no difference at all to the dead.

Among the prescriptions that flow from the London riots and BART’s communications censorship are the intense need for greater professionalism and reform of police practices. Wrongful killings precipitate (rightful) protest and (wrongful) violence and looting. Public policies in the area of entitlements and immigration that deny people a stake in their societies need a serious reassessment.

But we also need to keep in mind the propensity of government officials—in all governments—to seek control of communications infrastructure when it serves their goals. From the perspective of the free-speaking citizen, centralization of communications infrastructure is a key weakness. It gives fearful government authorities a place to go when they want to attack the public’s ability to organize and speak.

The Internet itself is a distributed, packet-switched network that generally resists censorship and manipulation. Internet service, however, is relatively centralized, with a small number of providers giving most Americans the bulk of their access. In the name of “net neutrality,” the U.S. government is working to bring Internet service providers under a regulatory umbrella that it could later use for censorship or protest suppression. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are also relatively centralized. It is an important security to have many of them, and to have them insulated from government control. The best insulation is full decentralization, which is why I’m interested in the work of the Freedom Box Foundation and open source social networks like Diaspora.

The history of communications freedom is still being written. Here’s to hoping that “a Mubarak” is always a failure to control people through their access to media.

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