The Future of Free Ice Cream and How to Stop It

I’m reading Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and I’m having a hard time granting plausibility to the book’s thesis. Zittrain writes as follows:

As ubiquitous as Internet technologies are today, the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity – and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. (p. 8 )

As examples, he contrasts the Apple II, a classic of early personal computing, to the iPhone of today. The first is wide-open to outside development, insecure, not always dependable, and susceptible to hacking by both friendly and unfriendly parties. The second is sterile, secure, and, we are told, entirely under the thumb of a now much more sinister corporation. Unless we do something, that corporation’s control over information technology will, he believes, quickly morph into state control as well. Zittrain seeks a world that is open to the personal computer, which he views as as a device that enables a particular computing ethos – one of open, freewheeling exchange and innovation. The iPhone represents that world’s antithesis, and the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

Although I’m certainly concerned about civil liberties and privacy issues on the Internet, I have a lot of questions about Zittrain’s thesis.

First, the example he uses is far from perfect. The Internet abounds with descriptions of iPhone hacks, many of them well-documented and remarkably successful. The menacing control exists, but it’s often a paper tiger. And although Apple didn’t originally publish an iPhone software development kit, it does now. So which one is it? Is the iPhone still not hacky enough? Or should we find another, better example? But the hacking community delights in finding supposedly uncrackable devices, and in cracking them – often within days of release. Offhand, I can’t think of a single recently released Internet-enabled device that someone hasn’t hacked. (Another of Zittrain’s purported bad examples, the Xbox 360, supports an avid hacking community, albeit with far less support from Microsoft. It isn’t a community for everyone, but then, hacking isn’t for everyone. Neither is macrame.)

Second, it seems pretty obvious that there’s room, and demand, for both kinds of devices, relatively secure and relatively open. It’s not got to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not like “the Internet” is ever only going to be one thing. We can’t expect every user of every new device to master the very steep learning curves entailed by the wide-open do-it-yourself user interfaces that Zittrain clearly favors.

Some products will sell to some markets because they are relatively secure, common-sense, and uniform. Other products will sell to other markets because they are open to change, because they require high-level knowledge, and because with that knowledge comes the power to extensively modify the device itself, often at your own risk. So much the better – let everyone take their choice.

Indeed, the very same person may want devices at opposite ends of the continuum. A highly dedicated computer hobbyist, of the type who writes his own software or mods his store-bought devices in his spare time, might still want a reliable telephone for calling 911 in an emergency. (Given our now-extensive ability to mod the iPhone, this may simply entail buying a second iPhone.) We need not be afraid of any of this.

Nor need we be afraid of present trends toward greater security. Present trends do not necessarily continue indefinitely into the future. Indeed, they almost never do, and information technology is no exception to the rule. As Zittrain himself does a good job of documenting, there’s been quite an ebb and flow in approaches to information technology over the decades, from security to openness and back again. It puzzles me why he believes that today’s trend is somehow different.

Third, and most importantly, I don’t think that the relevant comparison is between the iPhone and the Apple II PC. A better comparison might be between the iPhone and the clunky, wall-bound telephones of 25 years ago: now these were sterile, non-generative devices, subject to command and control! It would be interesting to take an iPhone back in time, and show it to telephone users in 1984.

“Wow,” they’d say, “you people in the future must love all the creative outlets this thing allows you. Sound and video, games, even some kind of new paperless… letter-writing. Encrypted paperless letter-writing, if you wanted. You can talk to all your friends, set up appointments, read the news, or just spend all day tinkering around with it, kinda like we do with our Apple computers. To get all the same creative outlets, we’d have to buy maybe five or six different devices, all of them very expensive. And together they’d be big enough to take up a whole room of the house. But the iPhone fits in the palm of your hand!”

To which, we’d have to reply, “Yeah, but see, there’s this guy named Jonathan Zittrain, and he says it’s not ‘generative’ enough…”

The Guantanamo Bubble Pops

Within a day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, he has asked the military commissions judges to halt all trials in Guantanamo.  All indications point toward detainees being tried in federal courts.  This is a good decision for a couple of reasons.

First, the military commissions play into the propaganda game that terrorists thrive on.  It confirms their message that normal courts can’t address the threat that they pose.  In fact, the opposite is true.  When you convict a terrorist and lock him up with murderers and rapists, you take away his freedom fighter mystique.

Second, the trial of Omar Khadr was about to start.  Khadr fought alongside a band of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and allegedly killed Special Forces medic Christopher Speer with a hand grenade.  Khadr deserves to be locked up, and letting his military commission trial start would create a Double Jeopardy issue if we interrupt the proceedings somewhere down the road and move him to federal court.

President Obama is also circulating a draft order for the closing of detainee operations at Guantanamo.  The memo sets a 12 month deadline for deciding whether to try, release, or continue holding each detainee.  Good move.

Cuba: 50 Years Later

January marks 50 years since the Cuban Revolution. In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Project Coordinator for Latin America Juan Carlos Hidalgo discusses Fidel Castro’s takeover, the result of the revolution and offers advice to the Obama administration on reengaging with the small island nation.

“Cuba went from being one of the richest countries in Latin America to one of the poorest,” Hidalgo says. “After 50 years, the revolution has failed the Cubans.”

Behold Your Government in Action

The U.S. Senate is a busy place.  Lately it has been spending billions and billions over and above the trillions in unfunded liabilities.  Given all this activity, who would have imagined that the senators could find the time to pass a resolution about the emergency plane landing in the Hudson river in New York?

I’m not a historian or political science expert, but this Senate is clearly determined to be the very best we have ever had.  What a record pace they are setting!

House GOP Insists Pelosi Hold States to Same Bailout Rules as the Big Three

Here’s an excerpt from a letter that House Republicans sent today to Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

We applaud your recent decision to require the “Big Three” automakers to submit a restructuring plan to Congress before either chamber would consider legislation providing additional federal aid to the auto industry.  Unfortunately, the $87 billion allocated for more Medicaid money for states doesn’t appear to hold them accountable for ensuring that the tax dollars are spent wisely.  Similar to what was requested of the automakers, we believe it is necessary to require our nation’s Governors to submit formal budget plans for their respective Medicaid programs detailing how additional funds will be spent before Congress considers any legislation to provide a temporary increase in the federal Medicaid match.

Seems reasonable, especially since the states’ irresponsible behavior is what got them into this mess in the first place.

The governors will probably squeal over such a requirement, which would indicate either that they have no plans for how to spend the money or that they would rather not share their plans publicly.

Pentagon 1, Obama 0

Planning for the 2010 federal budget began in 2008. The Office of Management and Budget instructed agencies to prepare documents for the incoming administration showing “current services baselines” and program estimates for the coming fiscal year. That means “just explain what you’re spending now and project it forward for next year.” The idea was to allow the Obama appointees to shape the budgets quickly when they came into office.

The Pentagon, however, went through its normal budgeting process. It produced a budget that defied existing plans and expectations that FY 2009 would be the last year of the massive defense buildup that began in the last years of the Clinton administration. It adds $60 billion to the defense baseline above FY 2009 levels and $450 billion in planned spending over five years.

Many observers saw this as an attempt at a bureaucratic fait accompli, a move to lock the Obama administration into higher defense spending. According to this week-old story from CongressDaily, it worked. Megan Scully writes:

President-elect Obama’s choice for the no. 2 civilian slot at the Pentagon Thursday said he does not plan to make sweeping changes to the Defense Department’s fiscal 2010 budget request, which has been drafted.

When Obama decided to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, I asked whether we were keeping this defense budget and suggested that doing so would show that Obama will let the military services (who largely control the drafting of their budgets) push him around. For some time, the position of Democrats has been to give the Pentagon what it wants, either for fear of opening a line of attack for Republicans or because of agreement on the virtue of massive defense budgets.

This story suggests that little has changed. The FY 2010 increase will make any future decrease harder to achieve for political and programmatic reasons. This is one more sign that Obama’s occasional talk of realism and restraint in foreign and defense policy should not be taken seriously.

Clearly, the idea of scrubbing the budget “line by line” does not apply to agencies run in Virginia.

The Obamacare to Come…

In Barack Obama’s inaugural address, he once again made it clear that he intends to fix our “too costly” health care system in order to “raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.” This is to be expected. Then-candidate Obama made health care reform a major issue during the campaign, and his actions sincesuch as naming former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle as both Secretary of Health and Human Services and White house “health czar”—suggest that health care reform remains at the top of his agenda.

But what will Obamacare look like? The president has not yet released a plan, but from his campaign statements, the plan outlined by Senate finance committee chairman Max Baucus, a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Secretary Daschle’s book, it’s possible to glimpse at the basic components.

Mandates: Almost certainly President Obama will propose a mandate on businesses to provide health insurance to their workers. There may or may not be an exemption for small business or some type of tax credit to offset costs. And, while President Obama opposed an individual mandate during the campaign, all the other Democratic plans embrace such a requirement, and the logic of President Obama’s plan leads inexorably toward an individual mandate.

Minimum Benefits Package: Both President Obama and congressional Democrats have long supported a requirement that all insurance plans offer a standard minimum package of benefits.

Regulation: All the Democratic plans call for a host of new regulation on insurers, including insurers to accept all applicants regardless of their health (guaranteed issue) and would forbid insurers from basing insurance premiums on risk factors such as health or age (community rating). There may also be a requirement that insurers pay out a minimum amount of premiums in benefits.

Subsidies: Low- and likely middle-income Americans will be subsidized. The changes in the SCHIP program passed by the House earlier this week, allowing states to subsidize children from families earning up to 400 percent of the poverty level, suggests the direction that any reform bill will take.

Imposed Cost-Effectiveness: Secretary Daschle, in particular, has called for a government panel to study the comparative effectiveness of various treatments and establish standards of practice for providers. A key battle will be over whether these standards become mandatory, effectively denying patients a full choice of treatments.

A Government-Plan: Both the president and leading Democratic health reformers embrace the concept of a government health care program similar to Medicare operating in competition with private health insurance.

The net result of a plan based on these concepts will be a system in which, while privately-owned health insurance will continue to exist, the government makes all the important decisions. As my colleague Michael Cannon has pointed out, that’s “socialized medicine” no matter how it is disguised.  And, it is bad news for American patients, health care providers, and taxpayers.