September 28, 2023

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!

Workshop: Computing in the Cloud

I’m excited to announce that Princeton’s Center for InfoTech Policy is putting on a workshop on the policy and social implications of “Computing in the Cloud” – the trend where companies, rather than users, store and manage an increasing range of personal data.

Examples include Hotmail and Gmail replacing desktop email, YouTube taking over as a personal video platform, and Flickr competing with desktop photo storage solutions. Facebook, Myspace and other social networks have pioneered new kinds of tools that couldn’t exist on the desktop, and more new models are sure to emerge.

I’m confident that this trend will reshape tech policy, and will change how people relate to technology. But I don’t know what the changes are. By drawing together experts from computer science, industry, government and law, I hope the Center can help those of us at Princeton, and workshop participants from around the country, get a better sense of where things might be headed.

The workshop will be held on the Princeton campus on January 14 and 15, 2008. It will be free and open to the public. We will have a series of panel discussions, interspersed with opportunities for informal exchanges of ideas. We’re still putting together the list of panels and panelists, so we haven’t yet published a schedule. If you’re interested in attending or want to get email updates about the workshop, please email David Robinson (dgr at princeton dot edu).

Here are some of the possible themes for panels we are exploring:

  • Possession and ownership of data: In cloud computing, a provider’s data center holds information that would more traditionally have been stored on the end user’s computer. How does this impact user privacy? To what extent do users “own” this data, and what obligations do the service providers have? What obligations should they have? Does moving the data to the provider’s data center improve security or endanger it?
  • Collaboration and globalization: Cloud computing systems offer new sharing and collaboration features beyond what was possible before. They make shared creation among far-flung users easier, allow or require data to be stored in many different jurisdictions, and give users access to offerings that may be illegal in the users’ home countries. How will local laws, when applied to data centers whose user base is global, affect users practice? Do these services drive forward economic growth — and if so, what effect should that fact have on the policy debate?
  • New roles for new intermediaries: Cloud services often involve new
    intermediaries such as Facebook, MySpace, eBay, and Second Life, standing between people who might have interacted more directly before these services emerged. To what extent are these services “communities”, as their providers claim? How much control do users feel over these communities? How much control do and should users actually have? How does the centralized nature of these intermediaries affect the efficiency and diversity of online experiences? Can the market protect consumers and competition, or is government oversight needed?
  • What’s next: What new services might develop, and how will today’s services evolve? How well will cloud computing be likely to serve users, companies, investors, government, and the public over the longer run? Which social and policy problems will get worse due to cloud computing, and which will get better?

Greetings, and a Thought on Net Neutrality

Hello again, FTT readers. You may remember me as a guest blogger here at FTT, writing about anti-circumvention, the print media’s superiority (or lack thereof) to Wikipedia, and a variety of other topics.

I’m happy to report that I’ve moved to Princeton to join the university’s Center for Information Technology Policy as its new associate director. Working with Ed and others here on campus, I’ll be helping bring the Center into its own as a leading interdisciplinary venue for research and conversation about the social and political impact of information technology.

Over the next few months, I’ll be traveling the country to look at how other institutions approach this area, in order to develop a strategic plan for Princeton’s involvement in the field. As a first step toward understanding the world of tech policy, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.

One great source is The Creation of the Media by Princeton’s own Paul Starr. It’s carefully argued and highly readable, and I’ve found its content challenging. Conversations in tech policy often seem to stem from the premise that in the interaction between technology and society, the most important causal arrow points from the technologies into the social sphere. “Remix culture”, perhaps the leading example at the moment, is a major cultural shift that is argued to stem from inherent properties of digital media, such as the identity between a copy and an original of a digital work.

But Paul argues that politics usually dominates the effects of technology, not the other way around. For example, although cheap printing technologies helped make the early United States one of the most literate countries of its time, Paul argues that America’s real advantage was its postal system. Congress not only invested heavily in the postal service, but also gave a special discounted rate to printed material, effectively subsidizing publications of all kinds. As a result much more printed material was mailed in America than in, say, British Columbia at the same time.

One fascinating observation from Paul’s book (pages 180-181 in the hardcover edition, for those following along at home) concerns the telegraph. In Britain, the telegraph was nationalized in order to ensure that private network operators didn’t take advantage of the natural monopoly that they enjoyed (“natural” since once there was one set of telegraph wires leading to a place, it became hard to justify building a second set).

In the United States, there was a vociferous debate about whether or not to nationalize the telegraph system, which was controlled by Western Union, a private company:

[W]ithin the United States, Western Union continued to dominate the telegraph industry after its triumph in 1866 but faced two constraints that limited its ability to exploit its market power. First, the postal telegraph movement created a political environment that was, to some extent, a functional substitute for government regulation. Britain’s nationalization of the telegraph was widely discussed in America. Worried that the US government might follow suit, Western Union’s leaders at various times extended service or held rates in check to keep public opposition within manageable levels. (Concern about the postal telegraph movement also led the company to provide members of Congress with free telegraph service — in effect, making the private telegraph a post office for officeholders.) Public opinion was critical in confining Western Union to its core business. In 1866 and again in 1881, the company was on the verge of trying to muscle the Associated Press aside and take over the wire service business itself when it drew back, apparently out of concern that it could lose the battle over nationalization by alienating the most influential newspapers in the country. Western Union did, however, move into the distribution of commercial news and in 1871 acquired majority control of Gold and Stock, a pioneering financial information company that developed the stock ticker.

This situation–a dynamic equilibrium in which a private party polices its own behavior in order to stave off the threat of government intervention–strikes me as closely analogous to the net neutrality debate today. Network operators, although not subject to neutrality requirements, are more reluctant to exercise the options for traffic discrimination that are formally open to them, because they recognize that doing so might lead to regulation.

Behind the iPhone Frenzy

Let me say right up front that I have not accepted the Jesus Phone as my personal Lord and Savior. The iPhone might turn out to be insanely great. It might become the best-selling mobile phone ever. Or it might not.

Either way, the iPhone’s arrival and the attendant frenzy mark the beginning of a new phase in the mobile phone world – a phase based on the radical notion that it’s possible to make a pocket-sized device that is a pretty good phone and a pretty good networked computer at the same time.

From a purely technical standpoint, this isn’t surprising at all. Phones are basically computers, and we know how to cram a decent computer into a small, low-power package. The engineering isn’t trivial but we know it can be done. Apple might have modestly better engineering, and significantly better human-factors design, but what they’re doing has been technically possible all along.

Yet somehow it hasn’t happened, because the mobile carriers don’t want it to happen. They have clung to their walled garden models, offering limited, captive services rather than allowing easy development of Internet applications for mobile devices. An open system would provide more benefit overall, but most of that benefit would accrue to consumers. The carriers would rather get a big share of a small pie, than a small share of a big pie.

In most markets, competition keeps this kind of thing from happening, by forcing producers to account for consumer preferences. You would expect competition to have forced the mobile networks open by now, whether the carriers liked it or not. But this hasn’t happened yet. The carriers have managed to keep control by locking customers in to long contracts and erecting barriers to the entry of new devices and applications. The system seemed to be stuck in an unstable equilibrium. All we needed was some kind of shock, to get the ball rolling downhill.

Only a company with marketing muscle, design mojo, and a world-historic Reality Distortion Field could provide the needed bump. Apple decided to try, in the hope of selling zillions of the new, more capable devices. The real significance of the iPhone, whether it succeeds or fails in the market, is that it will trigger the transition to more open networks. Once people see that a pretty good phone can be a pretty good mobile computer, they won’t settle for less anymore; and mobile networks will be pried open.

Whether or not the Jesus Phone achieves worldly success, it will succeed in its own way by convincing people that the world can be different.

What's the Biggest Impact of IT on Copyright?

On Saturday I gave a talk (“Rip, Mix, Burn, Sue: Technology, Politics, and the Fight to Control Digital Media”) for a Princeton alumni group in Seattle. The theme of the talk is that the rise of information technology is causing a “great earthquake” in media businesses.

Many people believe that the biggest impact of IT is that it allows easy copying and redistribution of all types of content. To some people, this is the only impact of IT.

But I argue in the talk that the copying issue is only one part of IT’s impact, and not necessarily the biggest part. The main impact of IT, I argue, is that computers are universal devices that can perform any operation on digital data (except those operations that are inherently undoable and therefore can’t be done by any device).

I stress universality over copying in the talk for two reasons. First, it’s a point that most people miss, especially non-techies. Second, it lets me hint at the most important tradeoff in copyright/tech policy, which is how copyright sometimes stands in the way of developing powerful technologies for creating and communicating. Most people are quick to see the advantages of strong copyright in the digital world, but slow to see the price we’re paying for it.

This debate – whether IT is primarily a copying machine, or a creative tool – seems to run deeply throughout the online copyright debate. Those who see copying as the main impact of IT don’t much mind restricting digital technologies to further their copyright aims. But those who see creativity as the main impact of IT aim to protect the vitality of the IT ecosystem.

I come down on the creative side. I think the biggest long-run effect of IT will be in changing how we communicate and express ourselves. This is not to say that copying doesn’t matter – it clearly does – but only that we need to take the creative effects of IT at least as seriously as we take copying.

As I say in the talk, if IT’s impact is like an earthquake, file sharing is not the Big One, it’s only the first tremor.

(Thanks to Ed Lazowska, whose email exchange with me after the talk triggered this post.)