Second Hearing in Internet Privacy tomorrow

From House Energy and Commerce:

Energy and Commerce Subcommittee Hearing on “Behavioral Advertising: Industry Practices and Consumers’ Expectations”

Energy and Commerce Subcommittee Hearing on “Behavioral Advertising: Industry Practices and Consumers’ Expectations”
June 16, 2009

The Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet and the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will hold a joint hearing titled, “Behavioral Advertising: Industry Practices and Consumers’ Expectations” on Thursday, June 18, 2009, in 2123 Rayburn House Office Building. The hearing will examine the potential privacy implications of behavioral advertising.


* Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy
* Scott Cleland, President, Precursor LLC
* Charles D. Curran, Executive Director, Network Advertising Initiative
* Christopher M. Kelly, Chief Privacy Officer, Facebook
* Edward W. Felten, Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs, Princeton University
* Anne Toth, Vice President of Policy, Head of Privacy, Yahoo! Inc.
* Nicole Wong, Deputy General Counsel, Google Inc.

WHEN: 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 18

WHERE: 2123 Rayburn House Office Building

This is the second in a series of hearings on the subject of behavioral advertising. I’ll predict that the Democrats will praise Google, the Republicans will criticize them, and nobody will pay much notice to Yahoo.

I only know four of the six personally, I need to get out more.

How Hard is it to Find Authors?

One of the mind-boggling facts about the Google book deal is the number of so-called “orphan works” there are. According to Brewster Kahle, most books published since our current copyright regime was adopted in 1923 are orphan works:

But the settlement would also create a class that includes millions of people who will never come forward. For the majority of books — considered “orphan” works — no one will claim ownership. The author may have died; the publisher might have gone out of business or doesn’t respond to inquiries; the original contract has disappeared.

Google would get an explicit, perpetual license to scan and sell access to these in-copyright but out-of-print orphans, which make up an estimated 50 to 70 percent of books published after 1923. No other provider of digital books would enjoy the same legal protection. The settlement also creates a Book Rights Registry that, in conjunction with Google, would set prices for all commercial terms associated with digital books.

For the archivist who makes money by advertising and resale, orphan works are uniquely convenient: not only do you not have to obtain permission to republish, you also don’t have to share revenues with anyone. Taken together, those facts certainly don’t motivate digital book sellers to expend any effort to find the authors or their heirs.

Now imagine how this would change if someone developed a tool for searching the Internet. Surely the information is out there on most published authors, their heirs, and their whereabouts, so as long as someone is diligent enough to sift through it, evaluate it, and interpret it, they can be found. I wonder how long it will be until a bright young pair of graduate students in the computer science program of a major university set themselves to solve the problem of Internet search.

Not to be sarcastic or anything.

Interlocking Directorates

The New York Times reports that regulators have an interest in the structure of the Apple and Google boards of directors:

The Federal Trade Commission has begun an inquiry into whether the close ties between the boards of two of technology’s most prominent companies, Apple and Google, amount to a violation of antitrust laws, according to several people briefed on the inquiry.

I doubt this will go very far, as the interlocking directors (Eric Schmidt and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson,) will simply resign before any enforcement action is imminent, but it does raise some interesting questions about the market for mobile phone operating systems, currently split between Apple, Google, Microsoft, Palm, and a few others. These systems are rife with limitations, each of which could be considered a network neutrality violation when viewed in just the right way.

I imagine Apple itself might wish to give Dr. Schmidt his walking papers before he becomes an anti-trust problem, which he actually isn’t at this point. The FTC’s interest in this obscure situation is probably a signal that the Administration wants to be viewed as an anti-trust hawk without doing anything substantial.

But this is what the law calls an “occasion of sin.” Dear me.

Nice Outings

My talk at the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group went very well. It was a huge room, seating probably 500 or so, and over half-full. I talked about how some of the crazier ideas about net neutrality are potentially becoming mainstream thanks to the politics in the nation’s capitol and some of the personnel choices made by the Obama Administration. The selection of Susan Crawford for the FCC Transition Team is a cause for alarm. Susan is as nice a person as you’ll ever want to meet, and quite bright and well-intentioned, but her position that ISPs and carriers have no business actively managing packets is poison. I got a healthy round of applause, and several people thanked me for my remarks afterwards. Very few people know how dependent e-mail is on the DNS Blacklists that members of this organization maintain, and that’s a real shame.

Last night I took the short trip up to Mountain View to see Jeff Jarvis’s talk about his book What Would Google Do? The audience, about 25 people more or less, was a lot less impressed with Google than Jeff is, and it occurred to me that Google really is vulnerable on the search front. I can imagine a much more effective search methodology than the one Google employs, but getting the venture capital to build a rival infrastructure isn’t going to happen.

I told Jeff (an old friend of the blog who’s driven a lot of traffic this way over the years) that what he likes about Google isn’t Google as much as it’s inherent qualities of the Internet. He more or less knows that, but the packaging of open networks, distributed computing, and free expression is easier when you concretize it, and that’s what his book does. I read it as a sequel to Cluetrain.

Doubts about Broadband Stimulus

The New York Times has a front page story today on the broadband stimulus bill which features an extensive quote from Brett:

Critics like Mr. Glass say the legislation being developed in Congress is flawed in various ways that could mean much of the money is wasted, or potentially not spent at all — arguably just as bad an outcome given that the most immediate goal of the stimulus measure is to pump new spending into the economy.

An “open access” requirement in the bill might discourage some companies from applying for grants because any investments in broadband infrastructure could benefit competitors who would gain access to the network down the line.

Meeting minimum speed requirements set forth in the House version could force overly costly investments by essentially providing Cadillac service where an economy car would be just as useful. And some worry that government may pay for technology that will be obsolete even before the work is completed.

“Really the devil is in the details,” Mr. Glass said. “Yes, there is $9 billion worth of good that we can do, but the bill doesn’t target the funds toward those needs.”

The bill is still very rough. Some critics cite the bill’s preference for grants to large incumbents, others highlight the amorphous “open access” provisions and the arbitrary speed provisions as weaknesses. The only interest groups that appear altogether happy with it are Google’s boosters, such as Ben Scott of Free Press. This is a flip-flop for Free Press, who only last week was urging members to call Congress and ask that bill be killed.

A particularly odd reaction comes from friend of the blog Jeff Jarvis, who took time out from pitching his love letter to Google What Would Google Do? to tear into the article’s sourcing:

I found myself irritated by today’s story in the New York Times that asks whether putting money from the bailout toward broadband would be a waste. The question was its own answer. So was the placement of the story atop page one. The reporter creates generic groups of experts to say what the he wants to say (I know the trick; I used to be a reporter): “But experts warn…. Other critics say…. Other supporters said…”

I wish that every time he did that, the words “experts,” “critics,” and “supporters” were hyperlinked to a page that listed three of each.

It’s an obvious case of a story with an agenda: ‘I’m going to set out to poke a hole in this.’

The odd bit is that five people are named and quoted, and the terms “expert” and “critic” clearly refer to these named sources. It’s boring to repeat names over and over, so the writer simply uses these terms to avoid the tedium. It’s clear that Brett and Craig Settles are the critics and experts. Jeff seems not to have read the article carefully and simply goes off on his defensive tirade without any basis.

It’s a given in Google’s world that massive government subsidies for broadband are a good thing because they will inevitably lead to more searches, more ad sales, and more revenue for the Big G. But while that’s clearly the case, it doesn’t automatically follow that what’s good for Google is good for America, so it behooves our policy makers to ensure that the money is spent wisely, without too many gimmicks in favor of one technology over another or too many strings attached that don’t benefit the average citizen.

Raising questions about pending legislation and trying to improve it is as American as baseball, and the article in the Times is a step in the right direction. It may not be what Google would do, but it’s good journalism.

I want to make sure that the broadband money is spent efficiently, so I would bag the open access requirement (nobody knows what it means anyway) and give credit all improvements in infrastructure that increase speed and reduce latency.

The bill needs to support all technologies that have utility in the Internet access space, wireless, coax, and fiber, but should encourage the laying of new fiber where it’s appropriate, and high-speed wireless in less-populated areas. Eventually, homes and businesses are pretty much all going to have fiber at the doorstep, but that doesn’t need to happen overnight.

The People’s Movement (for Google)

I did a podcast with the folks at The Technology Liberation Front on Google’s edge-caching system:

This week we saw a new kerfuffle of sorts develop over the revelation in a Monday front-page Wall Street Journal story that Google had approached major cable and phone companies and supposedly proposed to create a fast lane for its own content. What exactly is it that Google is proposing, and does it mean – as the Wall Street Journal and some others have suggested – that Google is somehow going back on their support for Net neutrality principles and regulation? More importantly, what does it all mean for the future of the Internet, network management, and consumers. That’s what we discussed on the TLF’s latest “Tech Policy Weekly” podcast.

Google’s genius at creating a citizen’s movement to boost their bottom line needs more praise, but this is a start.

My Google piece in The Register

Thanks to the miracle of trans-Atlantic collaborative journalism, here’s my quick take on Google’s caching scheme:

Network Neutrality, the public policy unicorn that’s been the rallying cry for so many many on the American left for the last three years, took a body blow on Sunday with the Wall Street Journal’s disclosure that the movement’s sugar-daddy has been playing both sides of the fence.

The Journal reports that Google “has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content.”

Google claims that it’s doing nothing wrong, and predictably accuses the Journal of writing a hyperbolic piece that has the facts all wrong. It’s essentially correct. Google is doing nothing that Akamai doesn’t already do, and nothing that the ISPs and carriers don’t plan to do to reduce the load that P2P puts on their transit connections.

A lot of questions remain about Google’s public policy flexibility and how wise their server farm strategy has been, and we’ll deal with them as Google answers our questions.

Google Gambles in Casablanca

I’m shocked.

Google has been caught red-handed negotiating deals with ISPs to host servers inside the building, just like Akamai does. The semi-technical press thinks this is some sort of a game-changing event:

The celebrated openness of the Internet — network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic — is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principal [sic] known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

Oh my goodness, where do I begin? Google already has a fast lane to most Internet users today thanks to their network of mega-data centers around the world, which I’ve written and spoken about at some length. These systems are wired directly to public Internet exchange points in high population areas and effectively move Google’s traffic to a higher priority than all but three competing routes: Akamai’s servers hosted inside ISP premises, Limelight’s private network wired directly to ISP networks, and the ISPs’ own content. Google’s desire to host servers (or routers, it could be either) inside ISP networks is a move calculated to improve on the ROI on the existing network of server farms and to blunt the Akamai advantage. It makes more sense to wire directly to the ISPs through private arrangements than to stress the public Internet infrastructure any further.

One thing that this deal doesn’t do is change the Internet infrastructure. Arrangements like this already exist, predating the kerfuffle over fast lanes created out of thin air by public interest advocates three years ago.

The Internet is not a network, it’s a complex set of agreements to interconnect independently owned and operated networks in various ways. There is no standard agreement, and this story doesn’t report on a new one. What it simply shows is that money buys performance in the technology space, and that should come as no surprise to anyone. Google has to do something like this to avoid being clobbered by ISP-friendly P4P as well as by Akamai.

Yes, Virginia, network neutrality is a myth, and it always has been.

UPDATE: Google’s response to the WSJ piece does nothing but muddy the waters. Net Neutrality advocates have insisted on a wall of separation between content and infrastructure, and this deal, if it happens, brings down that wall. I’m happy with that, because I don’t see the prohibition on expedited delivery as a good thing. But Google should admit they’ve come around to my way of thinking about the Internet instead of insisting nothing has changed. See my write-up in The Register.

UPDATE 2: The spin that Google’s supporters are producing around this issue is a marvel for those of us who appreciate the major league curveball. This subtle piece of nuanced distinction by Dave Isenberg deserves some sort of prize:

The concern of Network Neutrality advocates is not with access but with delivery. The fear is that Internet connection providers would charge for expedited delivery of certain content to the end user, and in so doing would put themselves in the business of classifying which content gets enhanced delivery.

Wow. Caching speeds up delivery, otherwise there would be no reason to do it. Google has paid for expedited delivery of its content in effect, regardless of the spin. What counts is bits on the wire, and Google is out to ensure theirs are better situated than yours are.

Don’t be fooled by the spin, this is a distinction without a difference.

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Bye bye G1

After suffering with the Google phone for 4 weeks, I took it back to T-Mobile yesterday (the contract says you only have 14 days, but I live in California where the time limit on an upgrade return is 30 days.) Jeff Turner describes the G1 appropriately: Like Windows 2.0, it’s good enough that you can tell it’s going to become the standard some day, but it’s not really usable in its present form. The main gripes I had with it are, in no particular order: poor battery life, dropped calls, a crappy Bluetooth implementation, unusable e-mail, a pathetic keypad, and a dearth of applications. My previous phone was a Blackberry Curve, which did everything that it did extremely well; if the Curve could do 3G I’d have got a replacement for the one I lost in London. But it doesn’t, so I’ve gone to a Sony Ericsson TM506, a feature phone that does phone things extremely well, has a built-in GPS (that doesn’t seem to work very well) and may possibly be used as a modem to tether a laptop to the 3G network (that feature seems to be controversial as Sony Ericsson supports it and T-Mobile may not; see update below.)

It’s basically a stop-gap until there’s a competent Blackberry for T-Mobile’s 3G network, which unfortunately uses oddball frequencies in the US.

The G1 has a high return rate owing to the generally pathetic implementation of Android by HTC. And I also don’t like sharing all the information about my personal life that Google wants. But that’s another story.

It’s clear the the iPhone has changed the game for mobile devices and the entrenched cell phone suppliers are struggling to catch up. I don’t doubt that Apple will continue to dominate the mobile device space for at least the next year or two, so I may just have to accede to reality and jump on that bandwagon.

UPDATE: Tethering works, I get close to 800Kbps at home, the Bluetooth limit, but the quota is pathetic: 100 MB/mo, and that’s not going to last long. Presumably, it downgrades to EDGE when the 3G quota is exhausted. The phone doesn’t have a standard USB connector, so I tethered over Bluetooth using the very nice PC Suite from Sony-Ericsson. It guides you through the Bluetooth hookup and makes accessing the Internet through the phone a point-and-click operation, even on a Mac.

It’s nice to use stuff that’s well engineered, isn’t oversold, and actually works, (except for that GPS, which must be defective on my phone.) including the GPS.

The 100MB/mo quota for $20 for the TM506 makes no sense compared to the 10GB/mo they sell for $25 to G1 customers unless Google is paying a subsidy to T-Mobile. If they are, Steve Jobs must be laughing all the way to the bank.