May 30, 2024

Archives for 2003

Techno-Lockdown Not Likely

Steven Levy, in Newsweek, offers a dystopian vision for the future of the Internet:

Picture, if you will, an information infrastructure that encourages censorship, surveillance and suppression of the creative impulse. Where anonymity is outlawed and every penny spent is accounted for. Where the powers that be can smother subversive (or economically competitive) ideas in the cradle, and no one can publish even a laundry list without the imprimatur of Big Brother. Some prognosticators are saying that such a construct is nearly inevitable. And this infrastructure is none other than the former paradise of rebels and free-speechers: the Internet.

Pretty scary! Fortunately, it’s not gonna happen.

To understand why, let’s rewind, as Levy does, to the early days of Internet mania, when many saw the Net as an anarchist utopia that didn’t have laws, and didn’t need them. A few contrarians like Larry Lessig argued that the Net wasn’t inherently immune from control and regulation, and that society would bring its norms, and government its laws, to the Net. And indeed that is what happened.

This should have been obvious, considering the pervasive connections between our on-line and off-line lives. I write and publish this posting in cyberspace; but at the same time I’m sitting in a chair in Princeton, New Jersey, watching the sun rise out my back window. I have one foot in cyberspace and one foot in meatspace. And how can one foot be bound by laws and the other be immune? The rules of cyberspace and the rules of meatspace will necessarily be similar – any big disparity between them will be resolved by changing the rules on one side or the other.

For the same reason, a locked-down Net can’t really happen, at least not here in the free world. For how can one foot be enslaved while the other is free? To lock down the Internet is to disconnect it from everyday life, from the life where I can send an invitation, or a business memo, or a home movie to anyone at any time, where I can read whatever I like without asking a censor’s permission.
We might go some short distance down the road of control, but ultimately the rules of cyberspace are firmly tethered to the rules of meatspace. And in the rules of meatspace – at least where I’m lucky enough to live – lockdown isn’t allowed.

This isn’t to say that we should ignore the forces of control, or that we should acquiesce in whatever small victories they may be able to win. We need to be vigilant and fight for the right to build and use new technologies. It’s that struggle that keeps the Net connected to the freedoms we enjoy in the real world. It’s that struggle that keeps techno-lockdown in the realm of speculation and not reality.

Abusable Technologies Awareness Center

That’s the name of a new group blog on cyber-security, at, to which I’ll be contributing. There are nineteen contributors, including some of the most prominent researchers in the field. I’m excited to be associated with such an eminent group, and I have high hopes for ATAC.

Freedom to Tinker will continue as always. Any of my ATAC postings that seem relevant to Freedom to Tinker readers will be linked to or duplicated here. But if you’re interested in cybersecurity, you should read ATAC so you can hear from the other panelists.

Devil in the Details

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about compulsory license schemes for music. I’ve said before that I’m skeptical about their practicality. One reason for my skepticism is a concern about the measurement problem, and especially about the technical details of how measurement would be done.

To split up the revenue pool, compulsory license schemes all measure something – some proxy for consumer demand – and then give each copyright owner a share of the pie determined by the measured value. Most proposals require measuring how often a song is downloaded, or how often it is played.

Most compulsory license advocates tell us what they want to measure, but as far as I know, nobody has gone into any detail about how they would do the measurement. And based on the thinking I have done on the “how” question, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer.

So here is my challenge to compulsory enthusiasts: tell us, in technical detail, how you propose to do the measurements. You don’t have to give us working code, but do tell us which programs you would write or modify, and what specifically they would look for. Tell us how you would cope with backward compatibility, and the diverse formats in which people download and store music. Tell us how you would deal with non-PC platforms such as Macs, Linux boxes, and iPods, as well as non-traditional network setups such as public WiFi access points.

The devil is in the details; so show us the details of your plan.

Voting Machine Vendors To Do … What?

In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Krim reports on a new effort by the e-voting machine vendors to do … something or other. The article, which is titled “Voting-Machine Makers to Fight Security Criticism”, doesn’t quite say what they’re planning to do. The following two paragraphs come the closest to revealing their plans:

Electronic-voting-machine companies announced yesterday that they are banding together to counter mounting concerns about whether their machines are secure enough to withstand tampering by hackers.

The leading voting-machine companies, which argue that their systems are safe, have yet to put forward any proposals on addressing the concerns. But under the umbrella leadership of the Information Technology Association of America, the industry hopes to foster conversation that includes security experts, academics, local elections officials, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency overseeing technical standards.

In other words, although they “have yet to put forward any proposals”, they hope to have some conversations with people. Amusingly, the chairman of the ITAA calls this “an inflection point in the history of voting in this country.”

You’ve really gotta wonder how a non-story like this got onto page 2 of a major newspaper.

Reflections on the Harvard Alternative Compensation Meeting

Yesterday I attended a daylong workshop at Harvard Law School about alternative compensation systems for digital media. It was a great meeting, with many interesting people saying interesting things. There was a high density of other bloggers, including Ernie Miller, John Palfrey, Derek Slater, Aaron Swartz, and Eugene Volokh, and I hope to read their reactions to the meeting. (Eugene has already posted a brief recap.)

The morning focused on mandatory license systems, such as those proposed by Fisher and Netanel. The conversation immediately turned to the core problem, which strategic behavior by users, intended to channel the system’s revenues to their friends. Examples include Eugene Volokh’s “Second Amendment Blues” scenario, in which the NRA releases a song and NRA members obsessively download and play it, and my scenario in which I play and play my brother’s off-key rendition of “Feelings”. The result is that tax money gets channeled to the NRA or my brother, rather than to real artists. Everybody agreed that this cannot be eliminated, but there are some things you can do to reduce the distortion it causes. (And don’t forget that the goal is only to be less inefficient than the current system.) Two issues remained largely unexplored. First, some have suggested that social norms will cause most people to avoid gaming the system, out of a feeling of obligation to artists. We don’t know how strong those norms will prove to be. Second, some people expressed concern that people will find other perverse ways to respond to the off-kilter incentives that a mandatory license creates. It seems to me that we can predict most of the first-order effects of a mandatory license, but we haven’t thought much about second- and third-order effects.

There was also some discussion about the “porn problem” – the fact that some of the media material consumed under the license will be pornographic, and there will be strong political opposition to any system that causes the government to send checks to porn publishers. (Excluding porn from the system raises other legal and practical problems.) One response is to propose a system in which each person gets to designate the destination of their own tax money. That helps the political problem somewhat, but I still think that some people would object to any system that treats porn as a legitimate kind of content.

At the end of the morning I was a bit less pessimistic than before about the advisability of adopting a mandatory license. But I’m still far from convinced that it’s the right course.

The afternoon discussion was about voluntary license schemes. And here an interesting thing happened. We talked for a while about how one might structure a system in which consumers can license a pool of copyrighted music contributed by artists, with the revenue being split up appropriately among the artists. Eventually it became clear that what we were really doing was setting up a record company! We were talking about how to recruit artists, what contract to sign with artists, which distribution channels to use, how to price the product, and what to do about P2P piracy of our works. Give us shiny suits, stubble, tiny earpiece phones, and obsequious personal assistants, and we could join the RIAA. This kind of voluntary scheme is not an alternative to the existing system, but just another entrant into it.

This is not to say that a few ISPs or universities can’t get together and cut a voluntary deal with the existing record companies (and other copyright owners). Such a deal would still be interesting, and it would lack some of the disadvantages of the more ambitious mandatory license schemes. Of all of the blanket license schemes, this would be both the least risky and the easiest to arrange. But it hasn’t happened yet. (Penn State’s deal with Napster doesn’t count, since it’s just a bulk purchase of subscriptions to a service, and not a blanket license that allows unrestricted use of music on the campus.)

All in all, it was a very instructive and fun meeting. Big thanks to the Harvard people for arranging it. And now, due to a big snowstorm, I get to spend an extra day or two in lovely Cambridge.