Tag: wikipedia

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!

To Edit or Not to Edit … Wikipedia

On Wikipedia’s list of Wikipedia controversies, you can read up on U.S. congressional staff edits to Wikipedia, which drew attention in mid-2006 because edits coming from Capitol Hill often sought to whitewash the pages of members of Congress. Most Hill staff know better than to do that now, but attention to Wikipedia editing in Congress has spiked again thanks to a new Twitter feed: @congressedits.

(How does it work? Congress has fixed, known IP addresses, and Wikipedia displays the IPs of users who are not logged in. Scan Wikipedia for edits coming from those IP addresses and you know which edits are being done by non-logged-in, Capitol Hill Wikipedians.)

So, is congressional Wikipedia editing bad? Not necessarily.

In a recent 90-day period, there were almost 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. This makes Wikipedia a major source of information about congressional activity for average Americans. Getting content on Wikipedia from some of the most knowledgeable potential editors — congressional staff — could help Wikipedia deliver government transparency on a grand scale, positioning the public to demand better outcomes.

For this to happen, though, Wikipedians on the Hill must navigate Wikipedia rules around notability, neutrality, and conflicts of interest. Perhaps more challenging, Capitol Hill’s consensus on Wikipedia editing must shift from aversion to embrace.

We’ll be discussing congressional Wikipedia editing and the sea change to government transparency it might produce at a noon-time session on the Hill August 18th. The event is open to all, but Hill staff interested in improving congressional and government transparency are particularly welcome to join the discussion.

The Internet Is Not .gov’s to Regulate

Imagine that Congress passed a law setting up a procedure that could require ordinary citizens like you to remove telephone numbers from your phone book or from the “contacts” list in your phone. What about a policy that cut off the phone lines to an entire building because some of its tenants used the phone to plot thefts or fraud? Would it be okay with you if the user of the numbers coming out of your phone records or the tenants of the cut-off building had been adjudged “rogue” users of the phone?

Cutting off phone lines is the closest familiar parallel to what Congress is considering in two bills nicknamed “SOPA” and “PIPA”—the “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the “PROTECT IP Act.”

Julian Sanchez has vigorously argued several points about these bills. Here, I’ll try to describe what they try to do to the Internet.

Simplifying, every computer and server has an IP (or “Internet Protocol”) address, which is a set of numbers that uniquely identify its location on the Internet. The IP address for the server hosting Cato’s Spanish language site, elcato.org, for example, is 67.192.234.234.

Now, these numbers are hard to remember, so there is a system that translates IP addresses into something more familiar. That’s the domain name system, or “DNS.” The domain name system takes the memorable name that you type into the address bar of your computer, such as elcato.org, and it looks up the IP address so you can be forwarded along to the IP address of your choice.

One of the major ideas behind SOPA and PIPA is to cut Internet sites that violate copyright out of the domain name system. No longer could typing “elcato.org” get you to the Web site you wanted to visit. Much of the debate has been about the legal process for determining whether to strike out a domain name.

But preventing a domain name lookup doesn’t take the site off the Internet. It just makes it slightly harder to access. You can prove it to yourself right now by copying “67.192.234.234” (without the quotes) and plugging it into your address bar. (The Internet is complicated. Some of you might be directed to other Cato sites.) Then come back here and read on, por favor!

The government would require law-abiding citizens to “black out” phone numbers—or Internet service providers to do the same with domain names—for this little effect on wrongdoing? It doesn’t make sense. The practical burdens on the law-abiding Internet service provider would be large. “Blacking out” an entire building—just like a Web site—would cut off the lawful communications right along with the unlawful ones. It’s through-the-looking-glass information control, with enormous potential to obstruct entirely lawful communications and impinge on First Amendment rights.

Which is why many Web sites today are “blacking out” in protest. In various ways, sites like Craigslist.org, Wikipedia, and many others are signaling to their visitors that Congress is threatening the core functioning of the Internet with bills like SOPA and PIPA. And threatening all of our freedom to communicate.

The Internet is not the government’s to regulate. It is an agreement on a set of protocols—a language that computers use to talk to one another. That language is the envelope in which our communications—our First-Amendment-protected speech—travels in hundreds of different forms.

The Internet community is growing in power. (Let’s not be triumphal—government authorities will use every wile to maintain control.) Hopefully the people who get engaged to fight SOPA and PIPA will recognize the many ways that the government regulates and limits information flows through technical means. The federal government exercises tight control over electromagnetic spectrum, for example, and it claims authority to impose public-utility-style regulation of Internet service provision in the name of “net neutrality.”

Under the better view—the view of freedom behind opposition to SOPA and PIPA—these things are not the government’s to regulate.

Today, at Least, Britannica Rules the Web

Congratulations to Wikipedia for going dark for a day in protest of the “online piracy” bills being considered in Congress.

But what do we do for information today? You know, we’ve gotten used to being able to find information now. So here’s an idea: Try the original encyclopedia, the one written (in most cases, ahem) by scholars and experts, Britannica.

You could start with their article on libertarianism. Or indeed their article on censorship. And then move on to the columns that I wrote there for most of 2011, on such topics as the debt ceiling crisis, the French Revolution, the founding documents of the United States and the Communist Party of China, the false charge of isolationism, marriage equality in 1967 and 2011,  government waste (“this is the business you have chosen”), the Stonewall protests, the triumph of feminism, and why Keynes threw towels on the floor. Good heavens – that ought to keep you busy on Wednesday.

And then Thursday at noon, as Wikipedia and other sites reopen, you can go down to Capitol Hill at noon to see a panel of experts explain what’s wrong with the bills that the websites are protesting.

Oprah Escapes the Long Arm of the Law

oprahThe Washington Post reports on the latest ruling by the Federal Election Commission:

William Lee Stotts of Cordova, Tenn., filed a complaint in October alleging that Obama’s appearance on Winfrey’s popular talk show during the Democratic primaries amounted to an unlawful campaign contribution that gave him an ‘an unfair advantage over the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, who were deprived such an opportunity.’

The FEC decided that Winfrey was a media entity and thus qualified for the “media exemption” from the campaign finance laws. Without that exemption, Obama’s appearance would have become an electioneering communication and thereby a violation of McCain-Feingold.

The FEC provides a timely reminder that we no longer have a unified First Amendment. Congress shall indeed “make no law” regarding the freedom of the media, including the freedom to publicize a presidential candidacy. That’s a good thing, by the way. The bad thing is the rest of us are expected to make do with Congress making all kinds of laws limiting freedom of speech. Some animals, I suppose, are more equal than other animals.

Solve the Financial Crisis (and Make Some Serious Money)

Peter Van Doren and I have been puzzling over this very interesting NYT op-ed on home foreclosures by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan Koniak. If G&K’s story is right, then shouldn’t there be an opportunity for some clever financiers to help struggling homeowners keep their houses, help banks and other investors repair their balance sheets — and the financiers could help themselves to piles of cash in the process?

G&K argue that all three parties to a home mortgage — the homeowner, the lender, and the loan servicer who works as a go-between — currently face grim financial prospects:

  • Many homeowners are “underwater” — that is, they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are now worth. According to First American Core Logic, some 20% of mortgages were underwater as of December 2008. The percentage varies greatly from state to state, with 55% of mortgages underwater in Nevada, but only 7% in New York. The homeowners who are underwater include not just those who purchased with little down payment, but also many people who put down the traditional 20 percent when they bought in 2005 or 2006, at the peak of the real estate bubble. According to Case-Shiller index data, house prices nationwide have fallen 27% (as of December) from their May 2006 peak. Some local markets have experienced more dramatic declines, highlighted by Phoenix’s 46% slide. Rental prices are now far below many homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments, and lots of underwater homeowners will have to make payments for years before they have some equity stake in their homes. Many of those homeowners would rather default and risk foreclosure. G&K’s op-ed includes this figure showing that defaults increase dramatically as homeowners sink further and further underwater. Given their current options, default is rational.
  • The mortgage lender faces heavy losses if the home enters foreclosure. According to G&K, ”the subprime bond market now trades as if it expects only 25 percent back on a loan when there is a foreclosure.”
  • The servicer also is at risk. According to G&K, the servicer is obligated to continue paying the lender its monthly payment even if the borrower is in default. That obligation only lifts at foreclosure.

Because of the servicer’s obligation, the servicer has strong incentive to push for quick foreclosure. However, the homeowner and the mortgage lender would likely benefit from a loan modification — even a significant write-down of principal — because that would keep the homeowner in his house and it would deliver a better return to the lender than the 75% loss from foreclosure. G&K thus argue that government, instead of continuing to bail out the banking industry and struggling homeowners (and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars), should simply require that the lenders write down the mortgage principal.

But is government action needed? Couldn’t some private actors accomplish the same thing — and make some serious scratch in the process?

A financial wizard with sufficient backing could approach a troubled lender and offer, say, 50% of the original loan amount in order to take some of the toxic mortgages off the lender’s hands. Now, the lender won’t be happy with selling at a 50% loss, but that certainly beats a 75% loss, so the lender would grudgingly agree. The financial wizard would then approach the homeowner and offer to write down the mortgage principal to, say, 60% on condition that the homeowner purchase mortgage insurance. The homeowner should jump at the offer because it would put him back above water, purchasing a home that’s worth more than its debt. Finally, the financial wizard would get the servicer to release its control over the loan, because the servicer would want to be freed from the risk of having to cover the payments to the lender. The financial wizard would then pocket a cool 10% of the original mortgage’s value.

That is not chump change. G&K estimate some 8 million homes could be foreclosed upon in the coming years. Assume the original mortgage on each of those houses is $199,025 (95% of the median sale price of new U.S. homes in January 2004, about halfway up the bubble); that 10% would represent almost $160 billion.

Of course, if the bank proves recalcitrant and demands more than 50%, or the homeowner demands a write-down of more than 40% or he’ll walk away, that would cut into the profits. And the financial wizard would have to cover his costs and possible risk premiums. Still, at least in theory, there would seem to be a significant pile of money on the table.

So why isn’t this happening? Are there no money-loving financial wizards out there?

To some extent, they are. Last week, the NYT reported that some former Countrywide executives have formed a firm called PennyMac that, with financial backing from hedge funds and other investors, purchases toxic mortgages from insolvent banks at low prices, modifies the loans to increase homeowners’ likelihood of making payments, and profits from the rekindled mortgage revenue stream. In the particular case reported in the NYT, PennyMac paid 38 cents on the dollar. But PennyMac seems like very small potatoes compared to the $160 billion that may be on the table. And the banks were forced to sell the loans because they had been taken over by the FDIC.

So why aren’t there more firms doing what PennyMac is doing, or following the strategy that Peter and I have laid out above? And why aren’t banks lining up to offload their toxic mortgages (or to do the write-downs themselves and pocket the 10%)? Peter and I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. As G&K note in their op-ed, banks and other investors who’re currently saddled with toxic assets may be waiting for some form of government rescue that would enable them to recoup far more than the 50% or so that would be offered by our financial wizards.
  2. Banks are keeping bad mortgages on their books at values much higher than the 25 to 40 cents on the dollar observed in the rare sales of troubled assets, and so the banks are unwilling to sell the assets for 50 cents on the dollar. (Remember that PennyMac is purchasing assets from banks that have been taken over by the FDIC — in other words, these are forced sales.) The banks (and their managers) may strongly prefer to keep the assets on their books rather than sell them at a 50% loss.
  3. The transaction costs involved in this scheme (e.g., analyzing the toxic assets to determine which ones to buy, negotiating with the delinquent and at-risk homeowners) are prohibitively large.

Government can address (1) by committing not to bail out the investors. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how reliable that commitment would be, especially given government actions so far in this financial crisis.

Fixing (2) is difficult. Accounting rules could be changed to force the banks to lower their book values for bad mortgages, but it would be difficult to get that accounting change passed quickly. Besides, some accounting experts argue that, in stressful times, accounting rules should have more wiggle room rather than less.

As for (3), the PennyMac guys claim that the work is difficult. But c’mon, there could be a $160 billion payday for the guys who can figure it out.

So, come on you money-loving financial wizards: your country needs you!

Work, Social Production, and Inequality

Matt Yglesias links to an interesting discussion about the growth of activities that raise our standard of living without being captured in economic statistics. Wikipedia is a great example of this: it’s tremendously valuable to hundreds of millions of Internet users, but because it’s given away for free that value is not reflected in our economic statistics.

I think this general insight is right, but I don’t agree with John Quiggin’s conclusions about the social implications. In particular, Quiggin writes:

It seems unlikely that large inequalities in income are beneficial to anyone except the recipients of high incomes.

If improvements in welfare are increasingly independent of the market, it would make sense to shift resources out of market production, for example by reducing working hours.

The first point ignores the fact that rich people are a crucial part of many public-spirited enterprises. Jimmy Wales was able to finance the initial development of Wikipedia (then called Nupedia) because he had previously earned profits building commercial websites. The Ubuntu project, creators of an extremely popular Linux-based operating system, is supported to the tune of millions of dollars a year by successful entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. Brewster Kahle used the profits from his successful Internet businesses to build the Internet Archive, a crucial repository of public domain works. John Gilmore, who made his fortune as one of Sun’s first employees, has used his wealth to promote a variety of free software projects, including GNU radio and Gnash. I could provide plenty of other examples.

The important thing to recognize is that these projects could only exist because of the combination of their founders’ expertise and their money. Without cash, these folks would have been unable to provide the support necessary to get these projects off the ground. But even more important, these projects also wouldn’t have succeeded without their deep understanding of their fields. Only someone with years of experience in the software industry would have the judgment and the relationships necessary to make a project like Ubuntu successful.

In particular, if the policy option on the table is to reduce inequality by redistributing wealth from rich people to the government, there’s absolutely no reason to think that the federal government could support these kinds of projects with anything like the degree of success that these private actors have done. Congress has plenty of cash, but members of Congress and their staff haven’t the faintest clue what it takes to build an operating system. Moreover, they wouldn’t even know how to tell a competent operating system designer from an incompetent one, so if they sought outside expertise they’d likely get bad advice.

I think it’s a little bit surprising that Matt would endorse Quiggin’s argument about working hours. If you read Matt’s blog, it’s obvious that he works a lot more than the 1824 hours/year national average. I suspect that Matt works so much in part because his job involves goofing off on the Internet and because he’s excited about the mission of his non-profit employer. Moreover, I’d wager that a large fraction of Matt’s readers read his blog at their jobs while they’re theoretically “on the clock.” In other words, one of the most important but unmeasured ways that our standard of living has improved in recent decades is that more and more of us are blessed with white collar jobs with intellectually-engaging work, pleasant working conditions, and the flexibility to spend time at the office doing things like reading blogs.

Probably the best illustration of these trends is Google. Google is, of course, a fabulously profitable company. It’s also a company that’s famous for the long hours put in by its employees—one reason they offer their employees free food and other perks is so they’ll be less likely to go home in the evenings. At the same time, Google has a policy of “20 percent time” that officially encourages employees to spend company time working on personal projects that may or may not contribute to the company’s bottom line. And Google is also one of the most enthusiastic users and supporters of free software, employing a number of key free software developers such as Guido Van Rossum and Jeremy Allison.

There is, in other words, no particular reason to think that the growth of the non-monetary sector of the economy can or should lead to reduced working hours, on average. Rather than using higher wages or shorter working hours to attract employees, firms may increasingly compete for workers by giving workers more interesting work and more on-the-job flexibility. Indeed, it seems likely that an increasing fraction of the time the Labor Department considers as time spent “working” actually consists of employees reading blogs, editing Wikipedia, and otherwise contributing to the richness of the non-commercial sector of the Internet.