May 30, 2024

Archives for May 2005

Moving to New Server

I’ll be moving this site to a new server over the next few days, so there may be a few glitches. Please let me know if any problems persist.

Broadcast Flag and Compatibility

National Journal Tech Daily (an excellent publication, but behind a paywall) has an interesting story, by Sarah Lai Stirland, about an exchange between Mike Godwin of Public Knowledge and some entertainment industry lobbyists, at a DC panel last week. Godwin argued that the FCC’s broadcast flag rule, if it is reinstated, will end up regulating a very broad range of devices.

Godwin said any regulations concerning digital television copy-protection schemes would necessarily have to affect any devices that hook up to digital television receivers. That technical fact could have far-reaching implications, such as making gadgets incompatible with each other and crimping technology companies’ ability to innovate, he said.

“I don’t want to be the legislator or the legislative staff person in charge of shutting off connectivity and compatibility for consumers, and I don’t think you want to do that either,” he told a roomful of technology policy lobbyists and congressional staffers. “It’s going to make consumers’ lives hell.”

Godwin’s talk drew a sharp protest from audience member Rick Lane, vice president of government affairs at News Corp.

“Compatibility is not a goal,” he said, pointing out that there are currently a plethora of consumer electronics and entertainment products that are not interoperable. Lane was seconded by NBC Universal’s Senior Counsel for Government Relations Alec French, who also was in the audience.

To consumers, compatibility is a goal. When devices don’t work together, that is a problem to be solved, not an excuse to mandate even more incompatibility.

The FCC and Congress had better be careful in handling the digital TV issue, or they’ll be blamed for breaking the U.S. television system. Mandating incompatibility, via the Broadcast Flag, will not be a popular policy, especially at a time when Congress is talking about shutting off analog TV broadcasts.

The most dangerous place in Washington is between Americans and their televisions.

Is the FCC Ruling Out VoIP on PCs?

The FCC has issued an order requiring VoIP systems that interact with the old-fashioned phone network to provide 911service. Carriers have 120 days to comply.

It won’t be easy for VoIP carriers to provide the 911 service that people have come to expect from the traditional phone system. The biggest challenge in providing 911 on VoIP is knowing where the caller is located.

In the traditional phone system, it’s easy to know the caller’s location. The phone company strings wires from its facility to customers’ homes and offices. Every call starts on a phone company wire, and the phone company knows where each of those wires originates; so they know the caller’s location. The phone company routes 911 calls to the appropriate local emergency call center, and they provide the call center with the caller’s location. One big advantage of this system is that it works even if the caller doesn’t know his location precisely (or can’t communicate it clearly).

Things are different in the VoIP world. Suppose I’m running a VoIP application on my laptop. I can make and receive VoIP calls whenever my laptop is connected to the Internet, whether I’m at home, or in my office, or in a hotel room in Zurich. My VoIP endpoint and my VoIP phone number can be used anywhere. No longer can the carrier map my phone number to a single, fixed location. My number goes wherever my laptop goes.

How can a VoIP carrier know where my laptop is at any given moment? I’m not sure. The carrier could try to see which IP address (i.e., which address on the Internet) my packets are coming from, and then figure out the physical location of that IP address. That will work well if I connect to the Net in the simplest possible way; but more sophisticated connection methods will foil this method. For example, my VoIP network packets will probably appear to come from the Princeton computer science department, regardless of whether I’m at my office, at home, or in a hotel somewhere. How will my VoIP carrier know where I am?

Another approach is to have my laptop try to figure out where it is, by looking at its current IP address (and other available information). This won’t work too well, either. Often all my laptop can deduce from its IP address is that there is a fancy firewall between it and the real Internet. That’s true for me at home, and in most hotels. I suppose you could put a GPS receiver in future laptops, but that won’t help me today.

We could try to invent some kind of Internet-location-tracking protocol, which would be quite complicated, and would raise significant privacy issues. It’s not clear how to let 911 call centers track me, without also making me trackable by many others who have no business knowing where I am.

Tim Lee at Technology Liberation Front suggests creating a protocol that lets Internet-connected devices learn their geographic location. (It might be an extension of DHCP.) This is probably feasible technically, but it take a long time to be adopted. And it surely won’t be deployed widely within 120 days.

All in all, this looks like a big headache for VoIP providers, especially for ones who use existing standard software and hardware. Maybe VoIP providers will take a best-effort approach and then announce their compliance; but that will probably fail as stories about VoIP 911 failures continue to show up in the media.

Of course, VoIP carriers can avoid these rules by avoiding interaction with the old-fashioned phone network. VoIP systems that don’t provide a way to make and receive calls with old-fashioned phone users, won’t be required to provide 911 service. So the real effect of the FCC’s order may be to cut off interaction between the old and new phone systems, which won’t really help anyone.

Why I Can't Tinker with my Household Cleaner

John Mark Ockerbloom emailed an interesting story about Federal regulation of tinkering with household chemicals, which I quote here with permission:

I just washed our kitchen floor tonight. And (I admit guiltily)I haven’t done it in a while– usually I “let” my wife do it. So I look at the small print on the label of our Lysol All-Purpose Cleaner to remind me what to do, as I fill a bucket with water. And there I see the words “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”

And I get to wondering: what law? And why? It’s all well and good that, for now at least, I can tinker with my digital TV signal, and I’m right with you at wanting to be able to tinker with my software. But supposing I like hacking cleaners or chemicals instead of code– why can’t I tinker with my cleaner like I should be able to with my computer?

Maybe, I think, it’s just like one of those overbroad warnings you sometimes see affixed to copyright notices. And I start to think about what the *real* regulation might be– using it to make a drug? An explosive? Poison? What can I really do with this, and what can’t I? And why?

15 minutes after firing up Google, I think I have my answer. Technically, under federal law I really *can’t* do anything with it other than what the label tells me to do– unless it’s to use a lower dose than what’s on the label. The relevant law appears to be in Title 7, Chapter 6, Subchapter II: Environmental Pesticides. 7 USC 136j tells me it really is illegal to use pesticides in a manner inconsistent with the labeling. And “pesticide” is defined in 7 USC 136 (u). I don’t see that it obviously includes my Lysol bottle, but another web page tells me that the EPA considers this definition to include disinfectants. My Lysol bottle claims to disinfect, so I gather this makes it a pesticide, and therefore subject to this federal law, and thus illegal to hack, as it were.

Now, my question: is this legal overreaching, and if so, where exactly is the overreach? I can see a legitimate reason for a government (if not federal, than at least state) to stop people from polluting the environment, as might occur if they dump too much bug killer– or even household cleaner– into the air or water. But can they really prevent me from doing anything other than what the labeler allows with my cleaner? (Like try to mix it with other ingredients to make a safer cleaner, or doing cleaner-vs-Twinkie endurance experiments, or seeing if I can separate some ingredients from the rest– in all cases being careful to contain and control the liquid and its vapors, and keep them on my property?) Or is the EPA, or Congress, overstepping its powers somehow?

And if not, then is there anything stopping Congress from giving, say, the FCC broad powers to prohibit using, say, digital media or devices in a manner inconsistent with the labeling their manufacturers give them? (There might be the First Amendment… or there might not be. It’s not clear it would apply in all electronic tinkering cases, and cases like Pacifica show that it can overridden in some cases where it would seem to apply.)

I’d be interested in finding out more, before I start seeing notices saying “it is illegal to record this program in a manner inconsistent with the presence of commercials” on my TV…

He also notes this:

I do see that it’s possible to get an “experimental use permit” to tinker with things considered pesticides, described in 7 USC 136c. Though it sounds like it’s not trivial to get; among other things, there’s a sentence in 136c that states “The Administrator may issue an experimental use permit only if the Administrator determines that the applicant needs such permit in order to accumulate information necessary to register a pesticide under section 136a of this title.”

Course Blog: Lessons Learned

This semester I had students in my course, “Information Technology and the Law,” write for a course blog. This was an experiment, but it worked out quite well. I will definitely do it again.

We required each of the twenty-five students in the course to post at least once a week. Each student was assigned a particular day of the week on which his or her entries were due. We divided the due dates evenly among the seven days of the week, to ensure an even flow of new posts, and to facilitate discussion among the students. The staggered due dates worked nicely, and had the unexpected benefit of evening out the instructors’ and students’ blog reading workload.

To be honest, I’m not sure how religiously students read the blog. Many entries had comments from other students, but I suspect that many students read the blog irregularly. My guess is that most of them read it, most of the time.

We told students that they should write 400-500 words each week, about any topic related to the course. As expected, most students wrote about the topics we were discussing in class at the moment. Some students would read ahead a bit and then post about the readings before we discussed them in class. Others would reflect on recent in-class discussions. In both cases, the blogging helped to extend the class discussion. A few students wrote about material outside the readings, but within the course topic.

One of the biggest benefits, which I didn’t fully appreciate in advance, was that students got to see the writing their peers submitted. This was valuable not only for the exchange of ideas, but also in helping students improve their writing. Often students learn about the standard of performance only by reading comments from a grader; here they could see what their peers were producing.

To protect students’ privacy, we gave them the option of writing under a pseudonym. Seven of twenty-five students used a pseudonym. Students had to reveal their pseudonym to the instructors, but it was up to them whether to reveal it to the other students in the course. A few students chose pseudonyms that would be obvious to people in the course; for example, one student used his first name. Most of the others seemed willing to reveal their pseudonyms to the rest of the class, though not everyone had occasion to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing. Most of it was good, and some was top-notch. Comments from peers, and from outsiders, were also helpful. However, it seems unlikely that many outsiders would read such a course blog, given the sheer volume of postings.

The logistics worked out pretty well. We used WordPress, with comment moderation enabled (to fend off comment spam). We sent out a brief email with instructions at the beginning, and students caught on quickly.

On the whole, the course blog worked out better than expected, and I will use the same method in the future.

[If any students from the course read this, please chime in in the comments. I already submitted course grades, so you can be brutally honest.]