September 19, 2017

Archives for March 2007

Testifying at E-Voting Hearing

I’m testifying about the Holt e-voting bill this morning, at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on House Administrion, Subcommittee on Elections. I haven’t found a webcast URL, but you can read my written testimony.

OLPC: Too Much Innovation?

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is rightly getting lots of attention in the tech world. The idea – putting serious computing and communication technologies into the hands of kids all over the world – could be transformative, if it works.

Recently our security reading group at Princeton studied BitFrost, the security architecture for OLPC. After the discussion I couldn’t help thinking that BitFrost seemed too innovative.

“Too innovative?” you ask. What’s wrong with innovation? Let me explain. Though tech pundits often praise “innovation” in the abstract, the fact is that most would-be innovations fail. In engineering, most new ideas either don’t work or aren’t really an improvement over the status quo. Sometimes the same “new” idea pops up over and over, reinvented each time by someone who doesn’t know about the idea’s past failures.

In the long run, failures are weeded out and the few successes catch on, so the world gets better. But in the short run most innovations fail, which makes the urge to innovate dangerous.

Fred Brooks, in his groundbreaking The Mythical Man-Month, referred to the second-system effect:

An architect’s first work is apt to be spare and clean. He knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing, so he does it carefully and with great restraint.

As he designs the first work, frill after frill and embellishment after embellishment occur to him. These get stored away to be used “next time.” Sooner or later the first system is finished, and the architect, with firm confidence and a demonstrated mastery of that class of systems, is ready to build a second system.

This second is the most dangerous system a man ever designs. When he does his third and later ones, his prior experiences will confirm each other as to the general characteristics of such systems, and their differences will identify those parts of his experience that are particular and not generalizable.

The general tendency is to over-design the second system, using all the ideas and frills that were cautiously sidetracked on the first one. The result, as Ovid says, is a “big pile.”

The danger, in the second sytem, is the desire to reinvent everything, to replace the flawed but serviceable approaches of the past. The third-system designer, having learned his (or her – things have changed since Brooks wrote) lesson, knows to innovate only in the lab, or in a product only where innovation is necessary.

But here’s the OLPC security specification (lines 115-118):

What makes the OLPC XO laptops radically different is that they represent the first time that all these security measures have been carefully put together on a system slated to be introduced to tens or hundreds of millions of users.

OLPC needs to be innovative in some areas, but I don’t think security is one of them. Sure, it would be nice to have a better security model, but until we know that model is workable in practice, it seems risky to try it out on millions of kids.

Viacom, YouTube, and Privacy

Yesterday’s top tech policy story was the copyright lawsuits filed by Viacom, the parent company of Comedy Central, MTV, and Paramount Pictures, against YouTube and its owner Google. Viacom’s complaint accuses YouTube of direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement, and inducing infringement. The complaint tries to paint YouTube as a descendant of Napster and Grokster.

Viacom argues generally that YouTube should have done more to help it detect and stop infringement. Interestingly, Viacom points to the privacy features of YouTube as part of the problem, in paragraph 43 of the complaint:

In addition, YouTube is deliberately interfering with copyright owners’ ability to find infringing videos even after they are added to YouTube’s library. YouTube offers a feature that allows users to designate “friends” who are the only persons allowed to see videos they upload, preventing copyright owners from finding infringing videos with this limitation…. Thus, Plaintiffs cannot necessarily find all infringing videos to protect their rights through searching, even though that is the only avenue YouTube makes available to copyright owners. Moreover, YouTube still makes the hidden infringing videos available for viewing through YouTube features like the embed, share, and friends functions. For example, many users are sharing full-length copies of copyrighted works and stating plainly in the description “Add me as a friend to watch.”

Users have many good reasons to want to limit access to noninfringing uploaded videos, for example to make home movies available to family members but not to the general public. It would be a shame, and YouTube would be much less useful, if there were no way to limit access. Equivalently, if any copyright owner could override the limits, there would be no privacy anymore – remember that we’re all copyright owners.

Is Viacom really arguing that YouTube shouldn’t let people limit access to uploaded material? Viacom doesn’t say this directly, though it is one plausible reading of their argument. Another reading is that they think YouTube should have an extra obligation to police and/or filter material that isn’t viewable by the public.

Either way, it’s troubling to see YouTube’s privacy features used to attack the site’s legality, when we know those features have plenty of uses other than hiding infringement. Will future entrepreneurs shy away from providing private communication, out of fear that it will be used to brand them as infringers? If the courts aren’t careful, that will be one effect of Viacom’s suit.