Category: Technology

Tech Law Prof as Prognosticator

fortune teller.jpgMy appearance on David Levine’s Hearsay Culture show recently showed up on iTunes–somewhat ironically given my repeated criticisms of the great and terrible Jobs. As I listened to part of the show, I was struck by how much the legal analysis of search regulation was dependent on future business and technology developments. If Google’s dominance in the market continues to grow, then one range of regulatory regimes seems necessary. But if there are diverse successful search engines, a wholly different approach is plausible.

The whole exercise reminded me of Warren Wagar’s fascinating book, A Short History of the Future, which tries to envision the next 200 years of world history. Projecting tech trends that far out must in part be in an exercise in fantasy–but on the other hand, the very process of doing so is a humbling reminder of how much events depend on utterly contingent developments that came before.

For that reason, perhaps, the old “long-form” scholarship of the big law-review article may be becoming increasingly ill-suited for rapidly changing areas of technology. Perhaps that’s why the recent Wu-Yoo debate on net neutrality, or Wu’s even more recent take on the future of indie movie gatekeeping, is so refreshing. It makes little sense to develop a vast architectonic theory for a mandala of protean corporate players.

On the other hand, we can’t let the mere mutability of the tech landscape cow us into passivity. There is no neutral baseline in these fields–they are already so saturated with government intervention in the form of IP rights, regulation, etc., that it makes no sense to characterize any given “noninterventionist” move as promoting the unalloyed efflorescence of the market. Whoever wins any given battle among content providers, intermediaries (like search engines) and network operators (like phone and cable co’s), the result will be due to a lot of prior lobbying and shaping of the law–whatever stance legislators and regulators take heretofore.

Photo Credit: LongView/Flickr, “Pike’s Fortune Teller.”

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The Hottest Internet Startup of 1960

Some legal research the other day unearthed a hilarious-in-retrospect account of the first online legal research service — a (pre-)internet startup from almost 50 years ago whose success-and-seediness story is eerily similar to those of more recent tech startups:

Law Research Service is a child of the computer age. In 1960, Hoppenfeld, a lawyer with some background in computer technology, perceived that computers could greatly facilitate legal research. He concluded that a practical system could be developed in which thousands upon thousands of court opinions would be fed into a computer, so that when a legal problem was submitted to the machine it would then select and retrieve all the relevant precedents . … [L]awyers would … pay an annual subscription and a small fee per inquiry. … Similar ideas for marrying computers to the law have been put forth but it seems that LRS was the first such legal information retrieval system to be tried commercially.

Sanders suggested a public offering which would raise not only enough money to cover the LRS’s debt … but would permit LRS to expand its computer library to cover decisions of the federal courts as well as those of the New York courts then already on tape.

Globus v. Law Research Service, 418 F.2d 1276 (2d Cir. 1969) (emphases added to the phrases that made me smile). I just wanted to share this as a nifty piece of legal history trivia, not so much comment on it… but I do have two quick points to make in the “more things change, the more they stay the same” department:

(1) The reported case was a now-familiar type of securities fraud lawsuit: alleging shady practices to raise capital for a tech startup.

(2) Between the financing problems and the “small” fee per inquiry business model: Is there something in the genetics of tech startup visionaries that they assume they can provide huge quantities of information to the masses without much means of actually making money?

Searching for Search Law

I’ve been writing and speaking on search engines a bit this past week, first at Hofstra’s Reclaiming the First Amendment Conference and later on David Levine‘s Hearsay Culture radio show. If you want to hear that show, just hop on KZSU Live tonight at 8PM EST (5PM PST). Or you can wait till it shows up on iTunes…but due to copyright concerns, you’ll miss out on Dave’s superb selection of engine-related music that will accompany the live broadcast. (Nevertheless, any tech law fans will want to subscribe to Levine’s show–he has a knack for enlivening legal topics with all manner of social, political, and economic discussions.)

Whatever you think about government regulation here, search engines are one of the most important tech phenomena to be shaped by law in the 21st century. A few prophetic scholars (like Niva Elkin-Koren and Helen Nissenbaum) saw this about 5 years ago; I’m part of a group building on their work to theorize it now. Our guest blogger Eric Goldman just covered a search conference in Haifa (and a prior Yale confab); he’s also got some very interesting pieces promoting the wisdom of laissez-faire here. James Grimmelmann’s The Structure of Search Law does a nice job of simultaneously describing search law as it stands and proposing modest steps for its development.

As for my own views, I’m afraid I’ll have to refer you to my podcast (and a forthcoming paper I’m co-authoring with Oren Bracha). But if anyone wants to recommend other search law scholarship in the comments, please feel free. I hope to highlight some interesting European work on the topic in a future post.

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And now, from the Department of Ironic Advertising

Boing Boing

This weekend, Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing ran a story about DRM problems with Apple’s new iPhone; this follows up on prior Boing Boing posts criticizing Apple’s DRM, such as Apple’s iTunes/iPod tying.

And who is sponsoring these posts? Take a look at the page: One of the sponsors is Nike+.

Now, Nike+ is a pretty really cool idea (as Cory himself pointed out earlier). You put a chip in your running shoes, and a little doohickey on your iPod, and your iPod suddenly tells you your pace, distance, and so on. That’s really cool. (It’s actually one major reason I’m considering buying an iPod nano; I may actually get one if I can finesse a way to buy it with Amex rewards points). But Nike+ is also, frustratingly, tied to a single type of MP3 player — the iPod nano. Which kinda-sorta makes it a really strange sponsor for a series of posts blasting Apple’s business model for “lock-in” and calling the iPod line “a roach-motel: customers check in, but they can’t check out.”

Dream Makers, Dream Breakers

stars.jpgI recently saw Dreamgirls, a well-marketed movie that’s largely about Barry Gordy-style marketing of music from the 50s to the 80s. Although there’s a lot to viscerally enjoy in the film, I kept analyzing the action from a lawyerly angle. Compulsory licenses, payola laws, restrictive entertainment industry contracts–all play pivotal roles in the movie. Each becomes a tool in the hands of a mogul and his enemies, as they struggle for fans and creative control.

Later in the weekend, I heard an interview with hip-hop impresario Ryan Leslie, who aims to be a 21st century starmaker. After scoring a perfect 1600 on the SAT, Leslie went to Harvard at 15, and is now precociously producing videos with Hollywood icons. Leslie’s career promises to be a lot less destructive than that of prior industry powerbrokers (for some spoiler-revealing reasons I’ll disclose after the jump). But what few fully realize is how important the law is to such a development.

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What Would Europe Do?

Muni Wifi Router.jpgI went to a few trying panels at the annual law prof conference, but overall I felt presentations in my fields were great. (Perhaps it’s just like Congress–people hate the institution but love their own representative). My two favorite panels were on the internet & telecommunications, and on health insurance. But I felt the latter was ultimately more satisfying than the former, largely because many of the health scholars were deeply aware of comparative health policy, but the internet/telephony panel focused very tightly on U.S. policies.

That’s not to say the internet/telephony panel was at all bad–many big names in the field were there, they directly argued with one another, and a high-level senate staffer injected some political realism into what could have become a speculative discussion. Perhaps the most compelling arguments for the status quo (as opposed to “net neutrality intervention“) were offered by Christopher Yoo, who put forward a quasi-Gilderian vision of Darwinian competition unleashing quantum advances in communication services. For example, Yoo said it would be foolish for the FCC to protect Google from “gouging” by broadband networks, since the danger of such discrimination might just drive Google to massively invest in a satellite network to provide a third alternative to the the telephone/cable duopoly. Some would say it’s that duopoly that’s largely responsible for the US’s pathetic ranking of 21st in the world (right behind Estonia) in broadband penetration.

That makes a lot of sense as far as it goes, and reminds me generally of Schumpeterian visions of innovation–let monopolies rack up rents so they’ll either use profits to innovate or provoke someone else to swipe their customers. But another, gentler vision animates some European policy on the matter, where most customers get much lower prices for much faster services than Americans do.

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Fisking Posner on Inequality

In a recent post on the B-P blog, Richard Posner addresses soaring inequality. In the U.S., “since 1980 the percentage of total personal income going to the top 1 percent of earners has risen from 8 percent to 16 percent.” He concedes a few bad effects from this situation, but ultimately concludes that, aside from upping the estate tax, nothing should be done. My favorite part of the post involves Posner’s speculation that “[m]assive philanthropy directed abroad can interfere with a coherent foreign policy;” fortunately, the administration is already on the case.

It’s astonishing how assiduously Posner ignores the work of Robert H. Frank. In 20 years of rigorous articles and books, Frank has documented over and over the ways that growing inequality harms society. Some of us in the legal profession have applied his theories; Cass Sunstein on cost-benefit analysis, Richard McAdams in Relative Preferences, and my own work on luxury health care and the rise of low-volume, high-margin business models in IP.

But in this post, and even in longer treatments of the subject, Posner ignores the leading American theorist on the consequences of economic inequality. Frank takes his libertarian critics seriously, but somehow falls under the Posner’s radar. (Even in articles published in Westlaw, where a search for [au(posner) and (“robert frank” or “robert h. frank”)] got no hits evidencing engagement with Frank’s work on inequality.)

In what follows, I try to “fisk” Posner’s account of the effects of inequality.

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Law & Technology Theory

prometheus.jpgI just wanted to plug a new forum that Gaia Bernstein, Jim Chen, and I recently launched–Law & Technology Theory. The big question we’re addressing is whether our experience of past regulation of technologies teaches generalizable lessons for future policy. Gaia has nicely summarized some of the key issues we’ll be considering:

Whether [a theory of law & technology] should have broad principles that apply to all technologies or whether it should offer narrower principles relevant to different categories of technologies?

[Can we] formulate a theory that differentiates on the basis of the social values or institutions a new technology destabilizes?

Our “virtual symposium” will host an international group of scholars with a wide range of theoretical commitments. We’ll be publishing the proceedings in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, and Technology this Spring. We hope you’ll consider reading and commenting as the discussion progresses. (Some of us will also be at the IASTS conference in Baltimore this February.)

By the way, on a completely untheoretical note, I have to say that the travel time involved in this symposium is great–zero! By developing a forum somewhere between a blog and a conference, we’re trying to promote a new kind of academic exchange. We hope it ends up being a bit more inclusive than the average conference circuit, which can be inhospitable to those who have a tough time traveling.

Art Credit: Elsie Russell, Prometheus (1994).

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Spam, Spam, and More Spam

computer6a.jpgAccording to CNN:

The number of “spam” messages has tripled since June and now accounts for as many as nine out of 10 e-mails sent worldwide, according to U.S. email security company Postini. . . .

“E-mail systems are overloaded or melting down trying to keep up with all the spam,” said Dan Druker, a vice president at Postini.

His company has detected 7 billion spam e-mails worldwide in November compared to 2.5 billion in June. Spam in Britain has risen by 50 percent in the last two months alone, according to Internet security company SurfControl.

The United States, China and Poland are the top sources of spam, data from security firm Marshal suggests.

About 200 illegal gangs are behind 80 percent of unwanted e-mails, according to Spamhaus, a body that tracks the problem.

Experts blame the rise in spam on computer programs that hijack millions of home computers to send e-mails.

Net Neutrality: Law, Money, and Culture

dailyshow01.jpg

Bill Moyers enters the fray in the raging legal debate over net neutrality tonight, with a documentary on PBS. The Wu/Yoo debate on the topic gets the central issues on the table: should we permit dominant ISP’s (like Verizon and Comcast) to discriminate among the “bits” on their networks, giving more rapid service to preferred sites? I’ve offered some tentative thoughts on the matter, and these continue in that vein.

The net neutrality battle may offer us a classic efficiency-equity tradeoff. Imagine a world where everything on the internet came to you four times faster, but dominant ISP’s could cut deals with certain sites that made their content come 10 times faster. On many classic economic accounts, that would be Pareto-optimal–everyone’s better off. As some very smart people (like Philip Weiser) have claimed, that differential pricing could finally lead to revenue levels that would remedy the US’s unacceptably slow pace of getting people connected to broadband (and faster) networks.

But on the other hand, what about the competitive disadvantage of those unable to cut the deals? Compare this article reprinted in the Boston Pilot (the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s official paper) touting net neutrality and this piece from Brookings-AEI disparaging it as a form of “price control.” The economists just tend to miss the cultural importance of media consolidation. That’s what convinced me that the stakes are ultimately a “battle for mindshare” (to use Hannibal Travis’s evocative metaphor), and can’t be cast in simple economic terms.

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