May 30, 2024

Archives for August 2003

Bizarro Compliments

To a technologist, law and policy debates sometimes seem to be held in a kind of bizarro world, where words and concepts lose their ordinary meanings. Some technologists never get used to the bizarro rules, but some us of do catch on eventually.

One of the bizarro rules is that you should be happy when the other side accuses you of lying or acting in bad faith. In the normal world, such accusations will make you angry; but in bizarro world they indicate that the other side has lost confidence in its ability to win the argument on the merits. And so you learn to swallow your outrage and smile when people call you a scoundrel.

Which brings us to Brigid Schulte’s electronic voting article in this morning’s Washington Post. The article reports that the computer scientists’ campaign for more secure (and less secret) electronic voting technology is getting some real traction, especially in light of the recent Johns Hopkins report detailing severe flaws in a Diebold e-voting product. The computer scientists’ progress is certified, bizarro style, by none other than the head of the Federal Election Commission’s Office of Electrion Adminstration:

“The computer scientists are saying, ‘The machinery you vote on is inaccurate and could be threatened; therefore, don’t go. Your vote doesn’t mean anything,’ ” said Penelope Bonsall, director of the Office of Election Administration at the Federal Election Commission. “That negative perception takes years to turn around.”

You can’t buy that kind of bizarro endorsement!

Guided Voting

Eugene Volokh offers an interesting post on “guided voting,” a simple idea with important implications.

Voters often rely on the recommendations of others, such as political parties, interest groups, or well-informed individuals. For example, if I have a friend on the local school board and I trust her judgment about school-board matters, I might follow her advice about how to vote in the next school board election. This may be a perfectly rational decision for me to make – my friend’s choices may advance my beliefs more than my own decisions would, if the differences between her political views and mine are outweighed by her superior understanding of school board issues. Many voters would probably feel the same way about taking voting advice from political parties or interest groups.

Prof. Volokh suggests that if voting is done over the Net, then some centralized web site could provide guided voting services to users. The user would tell the site how his vote should be determined, and the site would then prepare a little computer program designed to cast the user’s votes in accordance with his preferences. A voter might choose to accept advice from several sources, with some procedure for resolving disagreements among those sources.

From a purely technical standpoint, guided voting could be used with any voting technology. With non-electronic technology, a guided voting service could print out a sort of checklist that the voter could take into the voting booth. With electronic voting technology, the guided voting service could print out some kind of bar code, which the voter might feed into a scanner in the voting booth.

This might seem at first like a questionable idea, but it doesn’t differ much from what many people already do. Most people make up their minds before they reach the polling place. And most people, I would expect, rely heavily on the recommendations of others in deciding how to vote. Guided voting is just another step down a well-trodden road.

The more problematic aspect of Prof. Volokh’s post is in his suggestion that recommenders collect and use statistics about how many votes they are influencing.

Moreover, guided voting would for the first time let groups actually measure exactly how influential its recommendations are. The [system’s] organizers can tell each group how many voters in each district followed its recommendation. They can even count the votes in which this group’s recommendation made the difference, rather than just being redundant of the other recommendations that the voter was following.

So when group X comes to a legislator to lobby him about some issue, it won’t just say “We have 2000 members in your district” or “We’ll spend $30,000 in your district on this issue.” Rather, it will for the first time be able to say “Our recommendation last election changed 15,000 votes in your district. What will you do to make sure that we recommend you next time?”

These kinds of statistics are not a necessary consequence of guided voting. Although Prof. Volokh’s centralized-website system would gather these statistics, a less centralized guided voting system need not do so. And in my view, it’s important to maintain the secrecy of each vote, so that nobody can tell for sure who is voting for which candidate.

In any case, some kind of guided voting seems inevitable, given the complexity of many ballots and the advance of technology.

Email Redesign Not Helpful

Some have argued that we can address the spam problem by redesigning SMTP, the basic email-handling protocol used on the Net. Eric Rescorla rebuts that argument with a clear and cogent explanation of why the real problems lie elsewhere. Required reading for those who want to understand what can be done about spam.

The case for replacing SMTP (which Eric rebuts) reflects a general fallacy about the Internet. The fallacy goes like this: the Internet was not originally designed with security in mind; the Internet as designed fails to provide some desired security guarantee; therefore if we redesign the Internet we can achieve the desired guarantee. The error, of course, is in the hidden assumption that the desired guarantee is achievable at all. In the case of spam, there doesn’t seem to be a technical solution.


Seth Finkelstein points to a rather sloppy analysis by Peter Davies of the Felten v. Recording Industry lawsuit. There is enough of this sort of thing going around that I feel compelled to rebut it.

[Background on the lawsuit: In 2001, recording industry organizations threatened to sue me and seven of my colleagues if we published a paper we had written that discussed certain technology. They argued that publishing the paper would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. We filed a lawsuit, asking the court to rule on the question of whether our publication of the paper would be legal.]

For starters, Davies gets basic facts wrong. He says that the International Information Hiding Workshop, at which we wanted to publish our paper, was organized by the recording industry. In fact, it was an independent, refereed scientific conference.

Amazingly, Davies also misstates the final resolution of our case, saying that “[t]he case was settled in the end without a result.” In fact, no settlement was agreed to by the parties. After we filed our lawsuit, the recording industry parties conceded our right to publish our paper, which was the main result we sought. Once we had the right to publish the paper, our constitutional challenge to the DMCA was dismissed as moot.

Davies appears to think that we should just have gone ahead with publishing our paper, daring the recording industry to sue us. Seth Finkelstein rightly criticizes him for this.

To people like Davies, the Felten case is just an abstract topic for speculation. Let me assure you cases like this look much different if you are Felten (or any of the other would-be defendants: Bede Liu, Scott Craver, Min Wu, Dan Wallach, Ben Swartzlander, Adam Stubblefield, and Drew Dean).

I am happy to admit that if we had gone ahead and published the paper without any lawsuit, the odds were only 50/50 that we would have been sued, and we probably would have won the lawsuit.

Probably, I would have kept my house.

Probably, I would have kept my job.

When it’s not your house on the line, when it’s not your job, then probably may be enough. To people like Davies, who had nothing personally at risk, a lawsuit would have been no more than a scholarly conversation piece.

For me and my colleagues, probably wasn’t enough. Even a 99% chance of getting to keep our houses and savings wasn’t enough. Nor should it be. I am still outraged when people like Davies suggest that it’s not a problem if researchers have to put so much at risk just to write or speak on certain topics of public interest.

Bring on the Subpoena-Bots!

A few years ago I was summoned for jury duty. The summons was an old-fashioned computer-printed document spit out by an IBM mainframe computer down at the county courthouse. Procedural rules required that prospective jurors be chosen by an officer of the court, so a judge had apparently deputized the mainframe as an officer of the court. For some reason I found this concept, of a computer as deputized legal officer, endlessly amusing.

Now the same concept is being applied at the Federal level. But in this case the computer isn’t even owned and run by the court. It’s run by the recording industry.

The recording industry, you see, is barraging the Federal courts with requests for subpoenas to compel Internet Service Providers to identify their customers who are alleged to be offering copyrighted music for download. Seth Schoen has read many of these subpoenas and he reports that “they’re obviously generated by a script”, that is, by a computer program.

Congress created the special subpoena provision that the RIAA is using here, a provision that requires the court to rubber-stamp any subpoena request made by a copyright holder who claims to have a good-faith belief that its copyrights are being infringed. Given this relatively low standard for issuance of a subpoena, the advent of subpoena-bots should come as no surprise.

Of course, big copyright owners aren’t the only people allowed to use subpoena-bots. Virtually everything that anybody writes is copyrighted, so this subpoena power is available to every writer or artist, even down to the humblest newbie blogger. Want to know who that anonymous critic is? No problem; send your subpoena-bots after them.