Tag: ars technica

Cyber-Intrigue and Miscalculation

If you haven’t been following the intrigue around Wikileaks and the security companies hoping to help the government fight it, this stuff is not to be missed. Recommended:

The latter story links to a document purporting to show that a government contractor called Palantir Technologies suggested unnamed ways that Glenn Greenwald (author of this excellent Cato study) might be made to choose “professional preservation” over his sympathetic reporting about Wikileaks. A later page talks of “proactive strategies” including: “Use social media to profile and identify risky behavior of employees.”

Wikileaks has no employees. I take this to mean that the personal lives of Wikileaks supporters and sympathizers would be used to undercut its public credibility. Because Julian Assange hasn’t done enough…

While we’re on credibility: This may well be Wikileaks’ rehabilitation. Wikileaks erred badly by letting itself and Julian Assange become the story. We’re not having the discussion we should have about U.S. government behavior because of Assange’s self-regard.

But now defenders of the U.S. government are making themselves the story, and they may be looking even worse than Wikileaks and Assange. (N.B.: Palantir has apologized to Greenwald.) That doesn’t mean that we will immediately focus on what Wikileaks has revealed about U.S. government behavior, but it could clear the deck for those conversations to happen.

The concept of “miscalculation” seems more prominent in international affairs and foreign policy than other fields, and it comes to mind here. Wikileaks and its opponents are joined in a negative duel around miscalculation. The side that miscalculates the least will have the upper hand.

Remember, the FCC Is Our National Censor II

Last week, I referred obscurely to “folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet’s regulator,” cautioning that this same Federal Communications Commission is our national censor.

A friendly correspondent points me to an article in Ars Technica about the demand for speech controls coming from the same groups that want the FCC to control the Internet’s infrastructure, groups such as Free Press, the Media Access Project, and Common Cause.

Is there a parry to the charge that this is a demand for censorship? The signatories to the regulatory filing “respectfully request[] that the FCC … inquire into the extent and effects of hate speech in media, and explore possible non-regulatory ways to counteract its negative impacts.”

The filing does not contain the words “First Amendment” or “free speech.” It means “non-regulatory” the way a cop eyeballing someone and slapping his palm with a billy club is “non-regulatory.”

The FCC is experienced with “non-regulatory” coercion. Hearings in Congress have explored how the agency uses arm-twisting to get what it wants outside of formal regulatory processes. As law professor Lars Noah testified in 1999:

Arm twisting refers to an agency’s use of threats either to impose a sanction or withhold a benefit in hopes of encouraging nominally voluntary compliance with a request that the agency could not impose directly on a regulated entity. This informal method of regulation often saddles parties with more onerous regulatory burdens than Congress had authorized, accompanied by a diminished opportunity to pursue judicial challenges.

An FCC with the power to regulate Internet access services would use it to control Internet content.  There’s no place for the FCC in monitoring or administering speech controls, nor in controlling our communications infrastructure, the Internet.

Consumer Protection for Intellectuals

Nate Anderson at Ars Technica has a good write-up of the New America Foundation’s interesting proposal for labeling of broadband services, something akin to the nutrition labels we have for food.

Labeling and disclosure are better than direct regulation of the terms on which goods and services can be sold, of course. Labeling does not presume to decide unalterably what factors are or will be the most salient to consumers. But it does seek to channel those interests, and it does presume that consumers discover information that is important to them via labels. (I dealt with some of these concepts in my recent post about privacy notices.)

What labeling is really about, I believe, is pushing consumers to focus on the terms that intellectuals believe are most interesting. Smart people’s interests often match up with everyone else’s, but not always. Anderson’s write-up wonders aloud “whether requiring disclosure of the ‘maximum round-trip latency to border router’ will do more than induce eye glaze among most broadband users.”

I want my ISP to give me a live tech-support person that can solve the problem with my wifi router, but that didn’t make it into New America’s labeling plan. Any labeling plan will likely be either overinclusive or underinclusive or both, obscuring and omitting the most relevant information.

Yes, labeling is “market-friendlier” than regulation dictating what broadband providers can and can’t offer. But if we believe that markets discover the dimensions of goods and services that are salient to consumers, we can also believe that markets discover what information consumers want, and how they best learn it.

Many years ago, I spoke to a panel of regulators about a financial privacy “short notice” project that — heck — may still be going on. I passed around a small package from which I had eaten baby carrots the previous day. Along with a nutrition label, it had a picture of a cornucopia spilling forth vegetables and fruits, with the legend “Five a Day!” This, I suggested, communicates more salient information to consumers than nutrition labels: eat more fruits and vegetables. “But I use nutrition labels,” countered a well-meaning regulator, extrapolating from her own experience to that of all Americans.

Commerce is alive with trade names, trademarks, symbols, messages, notices, and signals about the content, quality, and desirability of goods and services. Consumers get much more relevant, actionable information this way, I think, than through mandated labels.

They do not intellectualize about these things, but that’s fine. Time is scarce, and it’s not worth it for people to intellectualize about the details of most purchases. Those who do, and those who talk about it, press the market toward what is good for all. The average consumer can gather just enough information to be relatively confident of being satisfied overall with any purchase. On the whole, consumers and markets will gravitate toward products and services that make all better off.

There may be consumer demand for organized, industry-wide labeling in some areas, of course. It’s a fine thing if there is. 

Anderson takes NAF’s plan to be a call for a government mandate, but the write-up itself is vague, saying that broadband providers “should” do various things and observing the absence of a legal requirement for notice. It takes pains to use the passive voice when ordinary speech would identify what actor should establish a labeling regime. 

If only there were a label about that salient feature of the proposal!