March 26, 2017

Archives for December 2008

The DC Metro and the Invisible Hand

My friend Tom Lee has been pestering the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the agency that runs the DC area’s public transit system, to publish its schedule data in an open format. That will allow companies like Google to include the information in products like Google Transit. It seems that Google has been negotiating with WMATA for months to get access to the data, and the negotiations recently broke down, depriving DC-area transit users of the opportunity to use Google Transit. Reading between the lines, it appears that the sticking point is that WMATA wants Google to cough up some money for access to the data. It seems that WMATA earns some advertising revenue from its existing website, and it’s afraid that Google will undermine that revenue source.

While as a taxpayer I’m happy to see WMATA worrying about its bottom line, this seems like a pretty misguided decision. For starters, this really isn’t about Google. Google has been lobbying transit agencies around the country to publish data in the Google Transit Feed Specification. Although it may sound proprietary, the GTFS is an open standard. This means that absolutely anyone can download GTFS-formatted data and put it to new uses. Of course, Google has a small head start because they invented the format, but with Google making open-sourced tools available for manipulating GTFS files, the barrier to entry here is pretty small.

WMATA seems to have lost sight of the fact that it is a government agency accountable to the general public, not a profit-making business. It’s laudable that the agency is looking for new revenue sources, but it’s silly to do so in the way that’s contrary to its broader mission. And the amount of money we’re talking about here—DCist says the agency made $68,000 in ad revenue 2007—is truly trivial for an agency with a billion-dollar budget. Scuttling WMATA participation in Google Transit looks especially shortsighted when we consider that making schedule information easier to access would almost certainly bring additional riders (and, therefore, additional revenues) to the system.

Finally, and most importantly, WMATA should remember the point made by my colleagues in their recent paper: the most important uses for public data are often the ones that no one expects at the outset. Google Transit is great, and Metro riders will enjoy immediate benefits from being able to access schedule information using it. But there may be even more valuable uses to which the data could be put. And not everyone with a good idea for using the data will have the resources to negotiate directly with the WMATA for access. This is why it’s crucial that WMATA not only release the data to Google, but to make it freely and widely available to the general public, so that other private parties can get access to it. To its credit, Google has asked WMATA to do just that. WMATA should say yes.

Security Seals on AVC Advantage Voting Machines are Easily Defeated

On September 2, 2008, I submitted a report to the New Jersey Superior Court, demonstrating that the DRE voting machines used in New Jersey are insecure: it is easy to replace the vote-counting program with one that fraudulently shifts votes from one candidate to another.

In Section 10 of my report, I explained that

  1. There are no security seals on New Jersey’s AVC Advantages
    that prevent removal of the circuit-board cover;

  2. Even if there were security seals, physical security seals are easily defeated and would not significantly increase the security of elections in New Jersey.
  3. And in conclusion, one cannot achieve trustworthy elections solely by trying to ensure that a particular computer program is installed in the voting machine.

In October 2008, the State of New Jersey (and Sequoia Voting Systems) reacted by installing new security seals on the circuit board cover of voting machines in New Jersey. That is, they reacted to point 1 and ignored points 2 and 3.

In December 2008 I submitted to the Court a new report, and a new video, demonstrating how New Jersey’s new security seals can be removed and replaced without leaving evidence of tampering. It took me about 7 minutes the first time I tried it; I estimate it would take less than half that time with practice.

The video available here is now available in a compressed mp4 format, though it still takes a while to load. not well compressed and takes forever to load over the Internet; sometime in the near future I hope to make available a better-compressed video.

Three Flavors of Net Neutrality

When the Wall Street Journal claimed on Monday that Google was secretly backtracking on its net neutrality position, commentators were properly skeptical. Tim Lee (among others) argued that the Journal misunderstood what net neutrality means, and others pointed out gaps in the Journal’s reasoning — not to mention that the underlying claim about Google’s actions was based on nonpublic documents.

Part of the difficulty in this debate is that “net neutrality” can mean different things to different people. At least three flavors of “net neutrality” are identifiable among the Journal’s critics.

Net Neutrality as End-to-End Design: The first perspective sees neutrality as an engineering principle, akin to the end-to-end principle, saying that the network’s job is to carry the traffic it is paid to carry, and decisions about protocols and priorities should be made by endpoint systems. As Tim Lee puts it, “Network neutrality is a technical principle about the configuration of Internet routers.”

Net Neutrality as Nonexclusionary Business Practices: The second perspective see neutrality as an economic principle, saying that network providers should not offer deals to one content provider unless they offer the same deal to all providers. Larry Lessig takes this position in his initial response to the journal: “The zero discriminatory surcharge rules [which Lessig supports] are just that — rules against discriminatory surcharges — charging Google something different from what a network charges iFilm. The regulation I call for is a ‘MFN’ requirement — that everyone has the right to the rates of the most favored nation.”

Net Neutrality as Content Nondiscrimination: The third perspective sees neutrality as a free speech principle, saying that network providers should not discriminate among messages based on their content. We see less of this in the response to the Journal piece, though there are whiffs of it.

There are surely more perspectives, but these are the three I see most often. Feel free to offer alternatives in the comments.

To be clear, none of this is meant to suggest that critics of the Journal piece are wrong. If Tim says that Google’s plans don’t violate Definition A of net neutrality, and Larry says that those same plans don’t violate Definition B of net neutrality, Tim and Larry may both be right. Indeed, based on what little is known about Google’s plans, they may well be net-neutral under any reasonable definition. Or not, if we fill in differently the details missing from the public reporting.

Which bring me to my biggest disappointment with the Journal story. The Journal said it had documents describing Google’s plans. Instead of writing an actually informative story, saying “Google is planning to do X”, the Journal instead wrote a gotcha story, saying “Google is planning to do some unspecified but embarrassing thing”. The Journal can do first-class reporting, when it wants to. That’s what it should have done here.