Catching up

I’ve been too busy to blog lately, what with the conferences, a white paper I’m writing about protocols and regulation, a recalcitrant editor (at a local paper,) and a new gig blogging for IEEE Spectrum’s Tech Talk. My observations on networking and policy will be appearing there for the while.

The focus over here is going to be pure politics and pure technology, with a little bit of baseball.

We’re in a silly season for politics at the moment:

* Pro-lifers committing murder
* Intellectuals practicing tribal politics
* Critics of tribal politics complaining about pronunciation
* Morons playing with statistics

The funniest among these (please note, there’s nothing funny about murder) is the conspiracy theory about Hillary fans among the car dealers getting off the shutdown hook. It comes as no big surprise that the source of the rumor is Doug Ross, the big net neutrality booster who used to comment here as “Director Blue” until I shut him off. The common thread is conspiracy theory, the essential philosophical basis of American politics.

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.

Recycling Garbage Abroad

Advocates of network neutrality regulations have been largely unsuccessful in advancing their agenda in the US. The one case in which they claim to have secured a victory was the Vuze vs. Comcast action in the FCC, which was severely tainted by Vuze turning to porn to resuscitate its dying business:

In a bid to increase their revenue, among other things, Vuze has added a catalog of HD adult videos to their BitTorrent client. For a few dollars a month Vuze users can subscribe to the latest hotness. Of course, all torrents on the erotica network are well seeded.

The same FCC commissioners who levied an unlawful fine against CBS for the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction ordered Comcast to give free bandwidth to a porn site. (Feeling good about that, Chairman Copps? [ed: OK, that was a cheap shot, but Copps and I know each other.])

Not deterred by this spotty track record, wannabe neutrality regulator Cory Doctorow trots out the well-worn arguments for the overseas audience in a Guardian column that stinks of Dow Chemical’s overseas pesticide dumping:

Take the Telcoms Package now before the EU: among other things, the package paves the way for ISPs and Quangos to block or slow access to websites and services on an arbitrary basis. At the same time, ISPs are instituting and enforcing strict bandwidth limits on their customers, citing shocking statistics about the bandwidth hogs who consume vastly more resources than the average punter.

Between filtering, fiddling connection speeds and capping usage, ISPs are pulling the rug out from under the nations that have sustained them with generous subsidies and regulation.

Doctorow supports his arguments with a series of fanciful metaphors since there aren’t any real abuses for UK subjects to be upset about. Here’s a portion of my reaction in the comments:

Let’s take a closer look at Doctorow’s non-metaphoric claims:

“Between these three factors – (1) reducing the perceived value of the net, (2) reducing the ability of new entrants to disrupt incumbents, and (3) penalizing those who explore new services on the net – we are at risk of scaring people away from the network, of giving competitive advantage to firms in better-regulated nations, of making it harder for people to use the net to weather disasters, to talk to their government and to each other.”

I’ve numbered them for easy reference. So where’s the proof that these things are happening? For (1) we have this:

“ISPs would also like to be able to arbitrarily slow or degrade our network connections depending on what we’re doing and with whom. In the classic “traffic shaping” scenario, a company like Virgin Media strikes a deal with Yahoo…”

How do we know that ISPs want to slow or degrade our access, which would seem to drive us to a different ISP? The metaphoric example is offered as the proof. See the relevance?

For problem (2) , Doctorow offers:

“Unless, that is, the cost of entry into the market goes up by four or five orders of magnitude, growing to encompass the cost of a horde of gladhanding negotiators who must first secure the permission of gatekeepers at the telcoms giants…”

The problem with this, of course, is that the barriers to entry for new search and video services are the edge caches Google would like to install in the ISP networks, which do in fact give them a fast lane to the consumer (why else would Google want them?) and raise obstacles to start-ups. But American neutralists say these entry barriers are good because their friend Google wants to erect them, not a telco. Double standard.

And for (3), the evils of metered billing, we have this lovely little thing:

“Before you clicked on this article, you had no way of knowing how many bytes your computer would consume before clicking on it. And now that you’ve clicked on it, chances are that you still don’t know how many bytes you’ve consumed..”

Please. Metered billing systems aren’t going to operate on the differences between web pages. If Doctorow believed what he said about the Pareto Curve, he’d certainly be able to appreciate the difference between reading a thousand web pages vs watching a thousand videos. High bandwidth consumers aren’t doing anything “innovative,” they’re most likely downloading free porn. Who is this guy kidding?

Doctorow’s fiction may be very enjoyable, but his understanding of the Internet and his policy prescriptions are nonsense. Read the book, take a pass on the law.

What’s especially sad is how Doctorow tries to pander to the overseas audience by using a tonne of Brit slang, going on about “punters,” “Quangos,” pounds and pence, and making a tube reference; NN is all about tribal ID, and he gets just that much of it.

Why Lawyers are Scorned

This is simply breath-taking:

Wholesale copying of music on P2P networks is fair use. Statutory damages can’t be applied to P2P users. File-swapping results in no provable harm to rightsholders.

These are just some of the assertions that Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson made last week in his defense of accused file-swapper Joel Tenenbaum.

Nesson founded the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

If he made this argument with a straight face, I predict a world-wide botox shortage.

There’s more:

Is Harvard Law professor Charlie Nesson crazy? As Nesson himself admits, “this does seem to be a question on many people’s minds.”

It’s not on my mind, nor on the minds of the students who serve as co-counsel:

The discomfort with strategy extends even to Nesson’s own students, who are doing much of the research and writing. Ray Bilderback, who is writing the “disclosures” about expert witness testimony, wrote that “all of this looks very bad from my perspective. I think that introducing our experts at this late stage to the very novel argument that we intend to raise at trial—an argument which has no real basis in case law or moderate academic scholarship—is a blunder that could have very serious consequences. At this point, I have no idea what our disclosures will look like. And they have to be filed TOMORROW. Bad, bad, bad. We should have been working on this for weeks rather than days.”

Read the whole thing, it’s even crazier than you think. Before it’s all over I expect to see Nesson invoking John Perry Barlow.

UPDATE: Here’s some more from The Register.

Blackberry dominates the world

Everybody knows we have our first Blackberry-toting president, but how many know that BlackBerry outsells Apple?

An aggressive “buy-one-get-one” promotion by Verizon Wireless helped RIM’s BlackBerry Curve move past Apple’s iPhone to become the best-selling consumer smartphone in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2009, according to market research firm The NPD Group.

RIM’s consumer smartphone market share increased by 15 percent to nearly half of the entire smartphone market in Q1 2009 versus the prior quarter. Apple’s and Palm’s market share both declined 10 percent each.

Part of this is driven by the new iPhone coming around in June, but Curve is not exactly state of the art in the Blackberry world. Take this as another example of conventional wisdom not being too wise.

What slows down your Wi-Fi?

The Register stumbled upon an eye-opening report commissioned by the UK telecom regulator, Ofcom, on sources of Wi-Fi interference in the UK:

What Mass discovered (pdf) is that while Wi-Fi users blame nearby networks for slowing down their connectivity, in reality the problem is people watching retransmitted TV in the bedroom while listening to their offspring sleeping, and there’s not a lot the regulator can do about it.

Outside central London that is: in the middle of The Smoke there really are too many networks, with resends, beacons and housekeeping filling 90 per cent of the data frames sent over Wi-Fi. This leaves only 10 per cent for users’ data. In fact, the study found that operating overheads for wireless Ethernet were much higher than anticipated, except in Bournemouth for some reason: down on the south coast 44 per cent of frames contain user data.

When 90% of the frames are overhead, the technology itself has a problem, and in this case it’s largely the fact that there’s such a high backward-compatibility burden in Wi-Fi. Older versions of the protocol weren’t designed for obsolescence, so the newer systems have to take steps to ensure the older systems can see them, expensive ones, or collisions happen, and that’s not good for anybody. Licensed spectrum can deal with the obsolescence problem by replacing older equipment; open spectrum has to bear the costs of compatibility forever. So this is one more example of the fact that “open” is not always better.

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.