April 14, 2024

Joining Princeton's InfoTech Policy Center

The Center for InfoTech Policy at Princeton will have space next year to host visiting scholars. If you’re interested, see the announcement.

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?

Online Symposium: Future of Scholarly Communication

Today we’re kicking off an online symposium on The Future of Scholarly Communication, run by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton. An “online symposium” is a kind of short-term group blog, focusing on a specific topic. Panelists (besides me) include Ira Fuchs, Paul DiMaggio, Peter Suber, Stan Katz, and David Robinson. (See the symposium site for more information on the panelists.)

I started the symposium with an “introductory post. Peter Suber has already chimed in, and we’re looking forward to contributions from the other panelists.

We’ll be running more online symposia on various topics in the future, so this might be a good time to bookmark the symposium site, or subscribe to its RSS feed.

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.

Princeton's Center for IT Policy Seeks Associate Director

The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton, of which I am Director, is looking to hire an Associate Director. Here’s a description of the job:

The Associate Director’s job will be to serve as a core organizer and evangelist for the Center. Working with the existing Center leadership,the Associate Director will help to orient, plan, and manage events such as workshops, speaker series and policy briefings; develop and maintain materials such as the center website, workshop reports, brochures and newsletter; track the Center’s accounts and budget; and assist in grant-writing and fundraising as appropriate. More generally, the Associate Director will help push the Center through its startup phase, by providing full-time attention to the Center’s growth and development.

[…]

The ideal candidate will have at least a bachelor’s degree, with some academic training or background in technology policy, will be comfortable working with academics across a range of disciplines, and will have strong communication, management, and organizational skills.

We plan to have an Associate Director in place by September 1.

For more information or to apply for the job, visit the university’s job listing page.