June 16, 2024

Archives for December 2007

Three Down, One to Go: Warner Music to Sell MP3s

Warner Music will sell music through Amazon’s online store without DRM (copy protection) technology, according to a New York Times story by Jeff Leeds. This is a big step for Warner, given that earlier this year Warner CEO Edgar Bronfman said that selling MP3s would be “completely without logic or merit.”

The next question is whether Warner will make a deal with Apple to sell MP3s on iTunes too. The NYT article says Warner plans to do so, but the LA Times implies the opposite. The two other majors that sell MP3s are split on this point, with EMI selling MP3s through multiple stores including iTunes, and Universal Music selling MP3s through other online stores but refusing to do so through iTunes. Is Warner willing to inconvenience its customers in order to undercut Apple?

By the way, the Times article makes a simple but common mistake, in saying that “the industry faces increasing pressure to bolster digital music sales as its traditional business — selling CDs — suffers a sharp decline.” CDs are digital too, and they lack DRM (attempts to add DRM to CDs failed disastrously), but news stories and commentary often ignore these facts. I guess “Warner to adopt another DRM-free digital format” wouldn’t seem quite so newsworthy.

Three of the four majors (all but SonyBMG) now sell MP3s. It’s only a matter of time before the last domino falls, and the industry can move on to the next stage in its evolution.

Obama's Digital Policy

The Iowa caucuses, less than a week away, will kick off the briefest and most intense series of presidential primaries in recent history. That makes it a good time to check in on what the candidates are saying about digital technologies. Between now and February 5th (the 23-state tsunami of primaries that may well resolve the major party nominations), we’ll be taking a look.

First up: Barack Obama. A quick glance at the sites of other candidates suggests that Obama is an outlier – none of the other major players has gone into anywhere near the level of detail that he has in their official campaign output. That may mean we’ll be tempted to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about him – but if so, I guess that’s the benefit he reaps by paying attention. Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch tech primary provides the best summary I’ve found, compiled from other sources, of candidates’ positions on tech issues, and we may find ourselves relying on that over the next few weeks.

For Obama, we have a detailed “Technology and Innovation” white paper. It spans a topical area that Europeans often refer to as ICTs – information and communications technologies. That means basically anything digital, plus the analog ambit of the FCC (media concentration, universal service and so on). Along the way, other areas get passing mention – immigration of high tech workers, trade policy, energy efficiency.

Net neutrality may be the most talked about tech policy issue in Washington – it has generated a huge amount of constituent mail, perhaps as many as 600,000 constituent letters. Obama is clear on this: He says requiring ISPs to provide “accurate and honest information about service plans” that may violate neutrality is “not enough.” He wants a rule to stop network operators from charging “fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications over others.” I think that full transparency about non-neutral Internet service may indeed be enough, an idea I first got from a comment on this blog, but in any case it’s nice to have a clear statement of view.

Where free speech collides with child protection, Obama faces the structural challenge, common to Democrats, of simultaneously appeasing both the entertainment industry and concerned moms. Predictably, he ends up engaging in a little wishful thinking:

On the Internet, Obama will require that parents have the option of receiving parental controls software that not only blocks objectionable Internet content but also prevents children from revealing personal information through their home computer.

The idealized version of such software, in which unwanted communications are stopped while desirable ones remain unfettered, is typically quite far from what the technology can actually provide. The software faces a design tradeoff between being too broad, in which case desirable use is stopped, and too narrow, in which case undesirable online activity is permitted. That might be why Internet filtering software, despite being available commercially, isn’t already ubiquitous. Given that parents can already buy it, Obama’s aim to “require that parents have the option of receiving” such software sounds like a proposal for the software to be subsidized or publicly funded; I doubt that would make it better.

On privacy, the Obama platform again reflects a structural problem. Voters seem eager for a President who will have greater concern for statutory law than the current incumbent does. But some of the secret and possibly illegal reductions of privacy that have gone on at the NSA and elsewhere may actually (in the judgment of those privy to the relevant secrets) be indispensable. So Obama, like many others, favors “updating surveillance laws.” He’ll follow the law, in other words, but first he wants it modified so that it can be followed without unduly tying his hands. That’s very likely the most reasonable kind of view a presidential candidate could have, but it doesn’t tell us how much privacy citizens will enjoy if he gets his way. The real question, unanswered in this platform, is exactly which updates Obama would favor. He himself is probably reserving judgment until, briefed by the intelligence community, he can competently decide what updates are needed.

My favorite part of the document, by far, is the section on government transparency. (I’d be remiss were I not to shamelessly plug the panel on exactly this topic at CITP’s upcoming January workshop.) The web is enabling amazing new levels, and even new kinds, of sunlight to accompany the exercise of public power. If you haven’t experienced MAPlight, which pairs campaign contribution data with legislators’ votes, then you should spend the next five minutes watching this video. Josh Tauberer, who launched Govtrack.us, has pointed out that one major impediment to making these tools even better is the reluctance of government bodies to adopt convenient formats for the data they publish. A plain text page (typical fare on existing government sites like THOMAS) meets the letter of the law, but an open format with rich metadata would see the same information put to more and better use.

Obama’s stated position is to make data available “online in universally accessible formats,” a clear nod in this direction. He also calls for live video feeds of government proceedings. One more radical proposal, camoflaged among these others, is

…pilot programs to open up government decision-making and involve the public in the work of agencies, not simply by soliciting opinions, but by tapping into the vast and distributed expertise of the American citizenry to help government make more informed decisions.

I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds exciting. If I wanted to start using wikis to make serious public policy decisions – and needed to make the idea sound simple and easy – that’s roughly how I might put it.

The Return of 3-D Movies

[Today’s guest post is by longtime reader and commenter Mitch Golden. Thanks, Mitch! If you’re a Freedom to Tinker reader and have a great idea for a guest post, please let me know. – Ed]

Last Friday I was at a movie preview for a concert movie called U23D, which, as you will correctly surmise, was a U2 concert filmed in digital 3D.

A few weeks ago I saw the new film Beowulf, also in 3D.

As I look out the office window to the AMC Loews on 84th St, I see that the marquee is already pitching Hannah Montana 3d, not due out until February.

And outside that same theater is a 3d movie poster for the upcoming Speed Racer movie.

Suddenly everything is floating in space, after decades of flatness. What gives?

Those of us who frequent Freedom To Tinker know that there are two approaches for producers operating in our world of nearly-zero-cost copying. The option most often pursued thus far by the content industries has been to pin hope on a technological fix – DRM – and then use political muscle to get governments around the world to mandate its use. Thus far this strategy can only be said to have been pretty much a total train wreck for all the parties involved – from the record industry to Microsoft – and it has had the disastrous side effect (from their point of view) of persuading an entire generation – and then some – that the media companies are “the man” and so file sharing is not immoral.

Of course the other option – thus far being resisted strenuously by the record labels – is to try a new business model. Sell the customers something better than what they can get for free. Maybe – just maybe – that’s what’s going on here.

As you doubtless know, there’s nothing new about 3d movie or photos. In fact, they go back nearly to the very beginning of photography. To make the 3d effect work, you just need to present different images, shot from slightly different perspectives, to the two eyes. While various systems have been invented over the years to do this (see the wikipedia page on the subject for a bit of the history of the technology), they all to a greater or lesser extent shared the common faults that (a) the theater had to install special equipment (including a more expensive screen that reflects polarized light without depolarizing it), (b) the film was bigger and more difficult to handle, and (c) splicing the film print when it broke required careful treatment to avoid getting the two eyes out of sync. So it just wasn’t quite worth it.

So why are we seeing these movies again now? One possibility is that the explanation for the renaissance of 3d is just that digital technology solves some of these problems (especially b and c), and so filmmakers are interested in trying again.

However, I think it’s possible there’s something else going on. Could it have something to do with the fact that a 3d movie cannot be pirated?

According to IMDB, the LA premier of Beowulf was on November 5, 2007 and the film was officially released in the US on November 16. On the other hand, according to vcdquality (a news site that announces the “releases” of films into various darknets) it was already available for file sharing by November 15.

Isn’t it just possible that the studios were thinking: Hey guys, I know you could just download this fantasy flick and see it on your widescreen monitor. But unless you give us $11 and sit in a dark theater with the polarized glasses, you won’t be seeing the half-naked Angelina Jolie literally popping off the screen!

Maybe the studios have learned something after all.

The "…and Technology" Debate

When an invitation to the facebook group came along, I was happy to sign up as an advocate of ScienceDebate 2008, a grassroots effort to get the Presidential candidates together for a group grilling on, as the web site puts it, “what may be the most important social issue of our time: Science and Technology.”

Which issues, exactly, would the debate cover? The web site lists seventeen, ranging from pharmaceutical patents to renewable energy to stem cells to space exploration. Each of the issues mentioned is both important and interesting, but the list is missing something big: It doesn’t so much as touch on digital information technologies. Nothing about software patents, the future of copyright, net neutrality, voting technology, cybersecurity, broadband penetration, or other infotech policy questions. The web site’s list of prominent supporters for the proposal – rich with Nobel laureates and university presidents, our own President Tilghman among them – shares this strange gap. It only includes one computer-focused expert, Peter Norvig of Google.

Reading the site reminded me of John McCain’s recent remark, (captured in a Washington Post piece by Garrett Graff) that the minor issues he might delegate to a vice-president include “information technology, which is the future of this nation’s economy.” If information technology really is so important, then why doesn’t it register as a larger blip on the national political radar?

One theory would be that, despite their protestations to the contrary, political leaders do not understand how important digital technology is. If they did understand, the argument might run, then they’d feel more motivated to take positions. But I think the answer lies elsewhere.

Politicians, in their perennial struggle to attract voters, have to take into account not only how important an issue actually is, but also how likely it is to motivate voting decisions. That’s why issues that make a concrete difference to a relatively small fraction of the population, such as flag burning, can still emerge as important election themes if the level of voter emotion they stir up is high enough. Tech policy may, in some ways, be a kind of opposite of flag burning: An issue that is of very high actual importance, but relatively low voting-decision salience.

One reason tech policy might tend to punch below its weight, politically, is that many of the most important tech policy questions turn on factual, rather than normative, grounds. There is surprisingly wide and surprisingly persistent reluctance to acknowledge, for example, how insecure voting machines actually are, but few would argue with the claim that extremely insecure voting machines ought not to be used in elections.

On net neutrality, to take another case, those who favor intervention tend to think that a bad outcome (with network balkanization and a drag on innovators) will occur under a laissez-faire regime. Those who oppose intervention see a different but similarly negative set of consequences occurring if regulators do intervene. The debate at its most basic level isn’t about the goodness or badness of various possible outcomes, but is instead about the relative probabilities that those outcomes will happen. And assessing those probabilities is, at least arguably, a task best entrusted to experts rather than to the citizenry at large.

The reason infotech policy questions tend to recede in political contexts like the science debate, in other words, is not that their answers matter less. It’s that their answers depend, to an unusual degree, on technical fact rather than on value judgment.

Computing in the Cloud, January 14-15 in Princeton

The agenda for our workshop on the social and policy implications of “Computing in the Cloud” is now available, along with information about how to register (for free). We have a great lineup of speakers, with panels on “Possession and ownership of data“, “Security and risk in the cloud“, “Civics in the cloud“, and “What’s next“. The workshop is organized by the Center for InfoTech Policy at Princeton, and sponsored by Microsoft.

Don’t miss it!