May 30, 2024

Archives for January 2008

Scoble/Facebook Incident: It's Not About Data Ownership

Last week Facebook canceled, and then reinstated, Robert Scoble’s account because he was using an automated script to export information about his Facebook friends to another service. The incident triggered a vigorous debate about who was in the right. Should Scoble be allowed to export this data from Facebook in the way he did? Should Facebook be allowed to control how the data is presented and used? What about the interests of Scoble’s friends?

An interesting meme kept popping up in this debate: the idea that somebody owns the data. Kara Swisher says the data belong to Scoble:

Thus, [Facebook] has zero interest in allowing people to escape easily if they want to, even though THE INFORMATION ON FACEBOOK IS THEIRS AND NOT FACEBOOK’S.

Sorry for the caps, but I wanted to be as clear as I could: All that information on Facebook is Robert Scoble’s. So, he should–even if he agreed to give away his rights to move it to use the service in the first place (he had no other choice if he wanted to join)–be allowed to move it wherever he wants.

Nick Carr disagrees, saying the data belong to Scoble’s friends:

Now, if you happen to be one of those “friends,” would you think of your name, email address, and birthday as being “Scoble’s data” or as being “my data.” If you’re smart, you’ll think of it as being “my data,” and you’ll be very nervous about the ability of someone to easily suck it out of Facebook’s database and move it into another database without your knowledge or permission. After all, if someone has your name, email address, and birthday, they pretty much have your identity – not just your online identity, but your real-world identity.

Scott Karp asks whether “Facebook actually own your data because you agreed to that ownership in the Terms of Service.” And Louis Gray titles his post “The Data Ownership Wars Are Heating Up”.

Where did we get this idea that facts about the world must be owned by somebody? Stop and consider that question for a minute, and you’ll see that ownership is a lousy way to think about this issue. In fact, much of the confusion we see stems from the unexamined assumption that the facts in question are owned.

It’s worth noting, too, that even today’s expansive intellectual property regimes don’t apply to the data at issue here. Facts aren’t copyrightable; there’s no trade secret here; and this information is outside the subject matter of patents and trademarks.

Once we give up the idea that the fact of Robert Scoble’s friendship with (say) Lee Aase, or the fact that that friendship has been memorialized on Facebook, has to be somebody’s exclusive property, we can see things more clearly. Scoble and Aase both have an interest in the facts of their Facebook-friendship and their real friendship (if any). Facebook has an interest in how its computer systems are used, but Scoble and Aase also have an interest in being able to access Facebook’s systems. Even you and I have an interest here, though probably not so strong as the others, in knowing whether Scoble and Aase are Facebook-friends.

How can all of these interests best be balanced in principle? What rights do Scoble, Aase, and Facebook have under existing law? What should public policy says about data access? All of these are difficult questions whose answers we should debate. Declaring these facts to be property doesn’t resolve the debate – all it does is rule out solutions that might turn out to be the best.

2008 Predictions

Here are the official Freedom to Tinker predictions for 2008, based on input by Alex Halderman, David Robinson, Dan Wallach, and me.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

(2) Copyright issues will still be gridlocked in Congress.

(3) No patent reform bill will be passed. Baby steps toward a deal between the infotech and biotech industries won’t lead anywhere.

(4) DRM-free sales will become standard in the music business. The movie studios will flirt with the idea of DRM-free sales but won’t take the plunge, yet.

(5) The 2008 elections will not see an e-voting meltdown of Florida 2000 proportions, but a bevy of smaller problems will be reported, further fueling the trend toward reform.

(6) E-voting lawsuits will abound, with voters suing officials, officials suing other officials, and officials suing vendors (or vice versa).

(7) Second Life will jump the shark and the cool kids will start moving elsewhere; but virtual worlds generally will lumber on.

(8) MySpace will begin its long decline, losing customers for the first time.

(9) The trend toward open cellular data networks will continue, but not as quickly as optimists had hoped.

(10) If a Democrat wins the White House, we’ll hear talk about reinvigorated antitrust enforcement in the tech industries. (But of course it will all be talk, as the new administration won’t take office until 2009.)

(11) A Facebook application will cause a big privacy to-do.

(12) There will be calls for legislation to create a sort of Web 2.0 user’s bill of rights, giving users rights to access and extract information held by sites; but no action will be taken.

(13) An epidemic of news stories about teenage webcam exhibitionism will lead to calls for regulation.

(14) Somebody will get Skype or a similar VoIP client running on an Apple iPhone and it will, at least initially, operate over AT&T’s cellular phone network. AT&T and/or Apple will go out of their way to break this, either by filtering the network traffic or by locking down the iPhone.

Feel free to offer your own predictions in the comments.

New York Times Magazine on e-voting

This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has an article by Clive Thompson on electronic voting machines. Freedom to Tinker‘s Ed Felten is briefly quoted, as are a small handful of other experts. The article is a reasonable summary of where we are today, with paperless electronic voting systems on a downswing and optical scan paper ballots gaining in popularity. The article even conveys the importance of open source and the broader importance of transparency, i.e., convincing the loser that he or she legitimately lost the election.

A few points in the article are worth clarifying. For starters, Pennsylvania is cited as the “next Florida” – a swing state using paperless electronic voting systems whose electoral votes could well be decisive toward the 2008 presidential election. In other words, Pennsylvania has the perfect recipe to cause electoral chaos this November. Pennsylvania presently bans paper-trail attachments to voting systems. While it’s not necessarily too late to reverse this decision, Pennsylvania’s examiner for electronic voting systems, Michael Shamos, has often (and rightly) criticized these continuous paper-tape systems for their ability to compromise voters’ anonymity. Furthermore, the article cites evidence from Ohio where a claimed 20 percent of these things jammed, presumably without voters noticing and complaining. This is also consistent with a recent PhD thesis by Sarah Everett, where she used a homemade electronic voting system that would insert deliberate errors into the summary screen. About two thirds of her test subjects never noticed the errors and, amazingly enough, gave the system extremely high subjective marks. If voters don’t notice errors on a summary screen, then it’s reasonable to suppose that voters would be similarly unlikely to notice errors on a printout.

Rather than adding a bad paper-tape printer, the article explains that hand-marked optical tabulated ballots are presently seen as the best available voting technology. For technologies presently on the market and certified for use, this is definitely the case. A variety of assistive devices exist to help voters with low-vision, zero-vision, and other issues, although there’s plenty of room for improvement on that score.

Unfortunately, optical scanners, themselves, have their own security problems. For example, the Hart InterCivic eScan (a precinct-based optical scanner) has an Ethernet port on the back, and you can pretty much just jack in and send it arbitrary commands that can extract or rewrite the firmware and/or recorded votes. This year’s studies from California and Ohio found a variety of related issues. [I was part of the source code review team for the California study of Hart InterCivic.] The only short-term solution to compensate for these design flaws is to manually audit the results. This is probably the biggest issue glossed over in the article: when you have an electronic tabulation system, you must also have a non-electronic auditing procedure to verify the correctness of the electronic tabulation. This is best done by randomly sampling the ballots by hand and statistically comparing them to the official totals. In tight races, you sample more ballots to increase your confidence. Rep. Rush Holt’s bill, which has yet to come up for a vote, would require this nationwide, but it’s something that any state or county could and should institute on its own.

Lastly, the article has a fair amount of discussion of the Sarasota fiasco in November 2006, where roughly one in seven votes that were cast electronically were recorded as “undervotes” in the Congressional race, while far fewer undervotes were recorded in other races on the same ballot. If you do any sort of statistical projection to replace even a fraction of those undervotes with the observed ratios of cast votes, then the Congressional race would have had a different winner. [I worked as an expert for the Jennings campaign in the Sarasota case. David Dill and I wrote a detailed report on the Sarasota undervote issue. It is our opinion that there is not presently any definitive explanation for the causes of Sarasota’s undervote rate and a lot of analysis still needs to be performed.]

There are three theories raised in the article to explain Sarasota’s undervote anomaly: deliberate abstention (voters deliberately choosing to leave the race blank), human factors (voters being confused by the layout of the page), and malfunctioning machines. The article offers no support for the abstention theory beyond the assertions of Kathy Dent, the Sarasota County election supervisor, and ES&S, Sarasota’s equipment vendor (neither of whom have ever offered any support for these assertions). Dan Rather Reports covered many of the issues that could lead to machine malfunction, including poor quality control in manufacturing. To support the human factors theory, the article only refers to “early results from a separate test by an MIT professor”, but the professor in question, Ted Selker, has never published these results. The only details I’ve ever been able to find about his experiments is this quote from a Sarasota Herald-Tribune article:

On Tuesday [November 14, 2006], Selker set up a computer with a dummy version of the Sarasota ballot at the Boston Museum of Science to test the extent of the ballot design problems.

Twenty people cast fake ballots and two people missed the District 13 race. But the experiment was hastily designed and had too few participants to draw any conclusion, Selker said.

Needless to say, that’s not enough experimental evidence to support a usefully quantitative conclusion. The article also quotes Michael Shamos with some very specific numbers:

It’s difficult to say how often votes have genuinely gone astray. Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined voting-machine systems for more than 25 years, estimates that about 10 percent of the touch-screen machines “fail” in each election. “In general, those failures result in the loss of zero or one vote,” he told me. “But they’re very disturbing to the public.”

I would love to know where he got those numbers, since many real elections, such as the Sarasota election, seem to have yielded far larger problem rates.

For the record, it’s worth pointing out that Jennings has never conceded the election. Instead, after Florida’s courts decided to deny her motions for expert discovery (i.e., she asked the court to let her experts have a closer look at the voting machines and the court said “no”), Jennings has instead moved her complaint to the Committee on House Administration. Technically, Congress is responsible for seating its own members and can overturn a local election result. The committee has asked the Governmental Accountability Office to investigate further. They’re still working on it. Meanwhile, Jennings is preparing to run again in 2008.

In summary, the NYT Magazine article did a reasonable job of conveying the high points of the electronic voting controversy. There will be no surprises for anybody who follows the issue closely, and there are a only few places where the article conveys “facts” that are “truthy” without necessarily being true. If you want to get somebody up to speed on the electronic voting issue, this article makes a fine starting place.

[Irony sidebar: in the same election where Jennings lost due to the undervote anomaly, a voter initiative appeared on the ballot that would require the county to replace its touchscreen voting systems with paper ballots. That initiative passed.]

2007 Predictions Scorecard

As usual, we’ll start the new year by reviewing the predictions we made for the previous year. Here now, our 2007 predictions, in italics, with hindsight in ordinary type.

(1) DRM technology will still fail to prevent widespread infringement. In a related development, pigs will still fail to fly.

We predict this every year, and it’s always right. This prediction is so obvious that it’s almost unfair to count it. Verdict: right.

(2) An easy tool for cloning MySpace pages will show up, and young users will educate each other loudly about the evils of plagiarism.

This didn’t happen. Anyway, MySpace seems less relevant now than it did a year ago. Verdict: wrong.

(3) Despite the ascent of Howard Berman (D-Hollywood) to the chair of the House IP subcommittee, copyright issues will remain stalemated in Congress.

As predicted, not much happened in Congress on the copyright front. As usual, some bad bills were proposed, but none came close to passage. Verdict: right.

(4) Like the Republicans before them, the Democrats’ tech policy will disappoint. <ionly a few incumbent companies will be happy.

Very little changed. For the most part, tech policy issues do not break down neatly along party lines. Verdict: right.

(5) Major record companies will sell a significant number of MP3s, promoting them as compatible with everything. Movie studios won’t be ready to follow suit, persisting in their unsuccessful DRM strategy.

Two of the four major record companies now sell MP3s, and a third announced it will soon start. I haven’t seen sales statistics, but given that Amazon’s store sells only MP3s, sales can’t be too low. As predicted, movie studies are still betting on DRM. Verdict: right.

(6) Somebody will figure out the right way to sell and place video ads online, and will get very rich in the process. (We don’t know how they’ll do it. If we did, we wouldn’t be spending our time writing this blog.)

This didn’t happen. Verdict: wrong.

(7) Some mainstream TV shows will be built to facilitate YouTubing, for example by structuring a show as a series of separable nine-minute segments.

I thought this was a clever prediction, but it didn’t happen. The biggest news in commercial TV this year was the writers’ strike. Verdict: wrong.

(8) AACS, the encryption system for next-gen DVDs, will melt down and become as ineffectual as the CSS system used on ordinary DVDs.

AACS was defeated and you can now buy commercial software that circumvents it. Verdict: right.

(9) Congress will pass a national law regarding data leaks. It will be a watered-down version of the California law, and will preempt state laws.

There was talk about doing this but no bill was passed. Verdict: wrong.

(10) A worm infection will spread on game consoles.

To my knowledge this didn’t happen. It’s a good thing, too, because the closed nature of many game consoles would make a successful worm infection particularly challenging to stamp out. Verdict: wrong.

(11) There will be less attention to e-voting as the 2008 election seems far away and the public assumes progress is being made. The Holt e-voting bill will pass, ratifying the now-solid public consensus in favor of paper trails.

Attention to e-voting was down a bit. Despite widespread public unhappiness with paperless voting, the Holt bill did not pass, mostly due to pushback from state and local officials. Rep. Holt is reportedly readying a more limited bill for introduction in January. Verdict: mostly wrong.

(12) Bogus airport security procedures will peak and start to decrease.

Bogus procedures may or may not have peaked, but I didn’t see any decrease. Verdict: unclear.

(13) On cellphones, software products will increasingly compete independent of hardware.

There was a modest growth of third-party software applications for cellphones, including some cross-platform applications. But there was less of this than we predicted. Verdict: mostly wrong.

Our overall score: five right, two mostly wrong, five wrong, one unclear. Next: our predictions for 2008.