July 15, 2020

Archives for August 2003

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.