Category: Technology

2

What Does It Mean to Be Interoperable?

PlugsInteroperability and content protection (a/k/a DRM) have been much in the news lately. As Deven blogged below, the French DADVSI law recently passed the French Parliament and then last week was modified by the Constitutional Council. Meanwhile, Apple is grappling with Norwegian regulators over the interoperability issue as well. And Randy Picker recently raised the issue of interoperability and video game servers over on the University of Chicago blog.

In the abstract, most people are in favor of interoperability, just like they are in favor of lower taxes, bigger houses, and better-tasting beer. But when it gets down to nuts and bolts, what’s the best way to provide for interoperability? More specifically, does an interoperable content-handling device need to protect the content in exactly the same way as the original device (which would arguably limit the amount of innovation)? Is there some sort of threshold of “good enough” protection that could be identified and mandated (and if so, by whom)? Or is it solely up to one party to decide?

Of course, there are many who hate content protection in all its forms; their answer is no doubt that the law should provide the broadest exception for interoperability possible, because that weakens content protection the most. This post is not really aimed at those people; debating the limits of an interoperability exception with diehard content protection opponents is a bit like discussing Carthaginian-Roman relations with Cato the Elder.

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4

Can Dead People Still Vote on an Electronic Voting Machine?

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With close votes apparently the norm for now and recounts causing all sorts of upheaval, one group has claimed that a certain electronic voting machine can easily be manipulated to change votes.

According to the Open Voting Foundation (OVF), Diebold’s TS voting machine has a major security flaw. (Note: The group and site are quite new. The link is to a press release on the home page, so it may move). OVF asserts that “with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

OVF’s President has stated “Diebold has made the testing and certification process practically irrelevant,” … “If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election, anything is possible with the Diebold TS — and it could be done without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.”

In addition, OVF claims that the model in question lacks a verified paper trial against which votes could be cross-checked. For those who want to see the innards of the machine OVF has posted pictures and the most important one is of the boot configuration.

Why does this matter? If this assertion is correct, “in the TS, a completely legal and certified set of files can be instantly overridden and illegal uncertified code be made dominant in the system, and then this situation can be reversed leaving the legal code dominant again in a matter of minutes” it appears that dead people can again vote and entire groups of votes can be excluded. As VerifiedVoting details the Help America Vote Act may have great potential to eliminate punch cards and other dubious voting systems but just because new technologies are available that does not mean that we should blindly assume the dangers of voter fraud and election rigging are gone. They may indeed simply be harder to detect.

HT: Slashdot

7

Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative Redstate.com would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”

13

Tin Men

As a follow-up to my post about an apparently sleazy car sales tactic a few days ago, I thought I’d point you to a fascinating undercover look at the world of car sales from Edmunds.com. The reporter spent 3 months as a new car salesman, part of it at a high-pressure showroom dedicated to a Japanese brand, and the other at a “no-haggle” dealership for an American brand. In general, the article reminds me of the movie Boiler Room, as well as my own brief career in high-pressure sales (don’t ask). The traditional car lot is a shark pit of deceptive maneuvers aimed at separating marks from their money. The “no-haggle” lot seems much better, but it also seems like it’s not doing a lot of business.

There’s evidence the Internet is changing the whole business:

I was already beginning to see the impact of the Internet because of something that happened during my first few days there. [The reporter talked to a man waiting in the maintenance area, who tells him he got an “awesome deal” on one of the dealership’s new SUVs — $300 below invoice.] I asked how he did it. He said he checked prices on the Internet. He then called the fleet manager and made the deal over the phone.

I had a schizophrenic reaction to this. Part of me admired the fact that he had outfoxed the dealer. But the car salesman side of me was angry that I never “got a shot at him.” It seemed like just a matter of time before people who, in the past, walked onto our car lot, would be on the Internet making deals.

The salesmen are only vaguely aware of this developing trend. I was standing on the curb next to George and we saw one of these high-demand SUVs ready for delivery.

“Another damn Internet sale,” George said. “Why don’t they turn that car over to us? We’d get a grand over sticker. Instead they’re selling it at invoice. Does that make sense?” As the days passed I noticed more and more cars marked “carsdirect.com.” And as I approached people on the car lot they often informed me that they were here to see the fleet manager. More Internet customers.

This indicates that wealthier, computer-savvy customers may be circumventing the sleazy sales tactics, leaving the sharks to prey only on poorer, less-informed customers. It could develop into yet another element of the “poor tax.”

HT: Consumerist

4

Video Games as Art?

Half-Life CoverSo I’m listening to one of my favorite soundtracks — from the game, Half-Life. Video games are becoming more and more like cinematic experiences. (In many cases, they are being converted into really bad cinematic experiences, such as the Doom movie or Alone in the Dark, but that’s not my point right now.) In addition to soundtracks, video games like Half-Life have plots, scenes, characters, and dialog. A lot of this is rudimentary — the dialog, for example, is pretty limited, and character development is sparse — but it adds a level of depth and complexity to games that only recently were as simple as Space Invaders.

Still, as Roger Ebert pointed out last year, it’s silly to think they rival movies as story-telling formats:

“[V]ideo games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Ebert got a lot of hate-mail from gamers for this comment, but I think he’s essentially correct that games are inferior story-telling devices, at least given today’s technology. The more interesting question is whether the loss of “authorial control” that Ebert correctly ascribes as the fundamental difference between a game and a movie makes games “inherently inferior” as narrative devices.

Half-Life and Half-Life 2 illustrate both my points and Ebert’s.

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8

Cyberspace as Marchland

Wind Farm at South Point, HIThe picture I provided to Dan for his introductory post was taken at South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, which my wife and I visited last month on our honeymoon. South Point is, as the name implies, the southernmost point on the Big Island and therefore the southernmost point in the United States. It is accessible only via an 11-mile-long, one-lane, barely paved road that cuts directly through a sparsely inhabited, windswept plain to the ocean. At the end of the road, the only signs of life are the makeshift parking lot for visitors, a nondescript navigational beacon, and a rickety pair of boat launches. The area is as isolated as it looks. Although other parts of the island are booming, particularly the area around Kona, the south side of the island, and South Point in particular, has been left behind. The guide books all warn against paying for parking at the nearby “Visitor’s Center;” in fact it is an abandoned building, and the people charging are squatters, not state employees. The proprietor at one of the B&B’s we stayed at told us that people go to live at South Point when they don’t want to be found.

The area is also littered with the remains of failed business ventures. One of the more spectacular of these is the wind farm just north of South Point, pictured above. I have no idea who built the wind farm, or why. But there are now several dozen wind mills standing in various states of disrepair. A few still spin, making a plaintive low whistle that you can listen to if you stop the car and turn the engine off (your entertainment mileage may vary). Most are rusted in place. Several have one or more blades missing. The scene reminded me of what Shelley must have had in mind when he wrote Ozymandias, thinking of Luxor and knowing little of ancient Egypt’s history:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The whole thing strikes me as an apt metaphor for cyberspace. Getting there requires tying South Point and Ozymandias to colonial America, turbulence, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and peer-to-peer filesharing.

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1

The Political Wikipedia

Confused about the latest Propositions on the ballot? Wonder who the heck is on Team America? What is the One America Committee? And to what the Center for Responsive Politics responds?

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Jimmy Wales has come to the rescue and declared independence from the hurly-burly of FoxNews, CNN, talk radio, and the like by launching Campaigns Wikia.

He declares: “I am launching today a new Wikia website aimed at being a central meeting ground for people on all sides of the political spectrum who think that it is time for politics to become more participatory, and more intelligent.”

And in what strikes me as a Yocahi Benkler-evoking moment Wales writes:

This website, Campaigns Wikia, has the goal of bringing together people from diverse political perspectives who may not share much else, but who share the idea that they would rather see democratic politics be about engaging with the serious ideas of intelligent opponents, about activating and motivating ordinary people to get involved and really care about politics beyond the television soundbites.

Together, we will start to work on educating and engaging the political campaigns about how to stop being broadcast politicians, and how to start being community and participatory politicians.

So what do you all think? Can a Wiki or Wiki approach change the way politics runs in the U.S.? While you formulate your answer note there is an irony here. Remember that a little while back Wikipedia changed its anyone can edit policy to have protected and semi-protected pages. Furthermore, Wikipedia had to investigate and block edits from certain Congressional IP addresses precisely because the politicians has been editing content with spin and the like.

There is also the question of just how well Wikipedia and the Wiki method work. I will get to that after I have read some articles I have found that tackle the question in an engaged way and I think merit some reflection.

1

New Casebook (Privacy, Information, and Technology)

Spinoff Cover 2e.jpgApologies for the self-promotion, but in time for this fall semester, Paul Schwartz, Marc Rotenberg, and I will be publishing a short paperback casebook of about 300 pages entitled PRIVACY, INFORMATION, AND TECHNOLOGY (Aspen Publishers, forthcoming mid-July 2006), ISBN: 0735562548.

This book is intended to be an inexpensive volume that adapts the cyberspace and technology materials from our full-length casebook, INFORMATION PRIVACY LAW (Aspen Publishers, 2d ed. 2006). The full-length casebook is about 1000 pages; the shorter paperback book is a more streamlined volume of about 300 pages, focusing exclusively on cyberspace, databases, and technology. Aspen informs me that this shorter paperback adaptation will probably sell at a price between $30 and $35.

The book might be useful as a supplement for cyberlaw or information law courses for instructors who want in-depth coverage of information privacy issues for between 2 to 5 weeks.

More information about the book is here. If you’re interested in getting on the list to obtain a review copy of the book (available in mid-July), please send an email to Daniel Eckroad.

The table of contents is available here. A summary of the book’s contents is after the fold.

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7

Baseball, books, and property rights

Alan Schwarz has an interesting new article in the New York Times on the baseball statistics case. (The article cites, among others, Eugene Volokh.) A few of the more interesting snippets (this is all fair use, I tell you!):

“If anything, this case is even more impactful if the court rules for the players, because it will speak to any time you use a name in a commercial venture,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at U.C.L.A. “What if you use a historical figure’s name in a historical novel? Or other games, like Trivial Pursuit? How about ‘Jeopardy!’? Would they be liable as well? That seems to be the logical consequence of this. How do you identify what is news, and other times when there’s communication of factual information?” . . .

“Fantasy leagues are an intermediate case,” said Rod Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond Law School. “This could become like the Grokster case in the music-downloading world, where the Supreme Court could be asked to draw that line between the benefits of public use and ownership of property.” Fame, Mr. Smolla said, “belongs in part to the people who earn it and the public that gives it.

There you have the basic arguments. The difficulty comes in determining the place of baseball statistics on a continuum. On one end of the continuum are items that look a lot like property, such as detailed compilations of Derek Jeter’s batting average over the past ten seasons. On the other end are basic facts known to every Tom, Dick and Harry at every sports bar in America, like the fact that Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400. A detailed list of World Series winners back to 1901 looks more property-like; “the White Sox won it last year” doesn’t. And so forth.

Complicating matters further, the statistics case will play out in a world where ideas about property itself may be somewhat in flux. An interesting piece by Kevin Kelly ran in the NYT magazine last Sunday, about the effects of digitizing intellectual property. Kelly’s article argued that:

In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. . .

Copies don’t count any more. Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain in meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library.

There’s a lot of truth to Kelly’s argument, and it applies to much more than just books. It certainly applies in the baseball statistics case, and that reality is going to be the backdrop that determines how the case affects property rights.

Thus, Eugene’s ‘Jeopardy!’ example is a good one. We can all imagine Alex Trebek and a ‘Jeopardy!’ answer of “This baseball player was the last to hit .400.” (“Question: Who is Ted Williams?”) The real emphasis is not on the definition of property per se, but rather on what are acceptables uses of the property. This is because in a world of low-marginal-cost copying, no one can prevent me from going to MLB.com and assembling lengthy lists of player statistics. And I don’t harm MLB or anyone else if I collect such copies. What MLB wants is control over how I can use such lists.

Single-Payer Music Care?

Les bon temps roulez! It appears the French legislature has picked up on the conversation started by one of Christine Hurt’s posts here a few weeks ago on the iPod, and wants to do something about Apple’s iTunes lockout of rival music sellers and players. The IP blogosphere is abuzz over the move, which directly challenges Apple’s aggressive efforts to leverage dominance in the portable-player market into a monopoly over digital music retailing.

Libertarians are likely to applaud moves like this, as this Cato Institute Report demonstrates. But I want to push the dialogue in an even more market-oriented direction. Since we’re thinking big here, why don’t consumers take some self-help measures? The recording industry is extraordinarily concentrated, provoking antitrust investigations left and right. So why don’t consumers form buyers’ cooperatives? If the “big four” own 90% of the music, why don’t consumers form four or so buyers’ groups that will negotiate access to music? Each would manage a library with about one-fourth of recordings. That seems to be the model behind Europe’s efforts to hold down health care costs—have one or a few big players form a monopsony (or oligopsony?), and bargain down the price.

Now I’m not saying that’s always the best solution for health care—as Cutler, DiMasi, and others have noted, a lot of innovation is funded by the fragmented buying pool in the U.S. system. But while I care a lot about innovation in health care, I’m a bit agnostic about innovation in music. Can we reliably say that the whole lot of music composed and performed after 1980 is worth more than J.S. Bach’s oeuvre? I don’t know. So I don’t care if “single-payer music care” ends up reducing revenues to the culture industries. Admittedly, in the end, I think it would actually help those industries, as William Fisher so skillfully documents in his Promises to Keep. But that’s another post…