Archive for April, 2008

Lessig stars at the Stanford FCC hearing

After Comcast admitted to stuffing seats at the FCC hearing at Harvard Law School February 24th, the FCC decided another hearing was necessary. They chose to hold it at Stanford April 17 and I’m watching the FCC’s videocast of the event, which is oddly appropriate, since the focus of the hearing is video on the internet.

After an introduction by Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, FCC Chairman Martin explained that every ISP, excepting Lariat Networks from Lariat, Wyoming, was invited and declined to attend this hearing: Comcast, Verizon, Time/Warner, and AT&T. Comcast has stated it is working with an industry consortium on a Consumer Bill of Rights. The hearing begins with each of the FCC commissioners making a statement, then proceeds through panels and then opens to questions.

Commissioner Copps states that a free internet is a requirement for the type of growth, a fact we’ve seen from Silicon Valley. If network operators consolidate their control, which is more likely with fewer network operators, they’ll prevent inventors from bringing their innovations to consumers and make investing more risky. So Copps wants to eliminate and punish discrimination.

Indicating how huge this issue has become, Commissioner Adelstein states that 45k dockets were filed with the FCC for this hearing, and the vast majority of them came from public citizens. He warns that the recent consolidation across internet providers from the backbone to the largest service providers will lead to more FCC regulation. He advocates greater competition in the broadband market place since 90% is dominated by cable and telephone companies. This gives the companies who control the “last mile” (the distance from the backbone to the consumer’s computer) the ability to discriminate over packets that reach end users. He’s concerned about allegations like Verizon’s refusal to send pro-life text messages and AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam online. He would like a 5th principle on the FCC policy statement to address this as well as enforcement and compliance. Broadband providers should declare in clear plain English what their policies are.

Commissioner Tate applauds the industry-wide effort to create a bill of rights for P2P users and ISPs. She has a strong preference for industry based collaborative solutions over direct regulation.

Commissioner McDowell wants to ensure that the FCC takes the anticompetitive allegations, such as the text messaging one, seriously. Comcast is alleged to have manipulated packet allocation of video – video is something Comcast provides and runs the pipes for other competitor, so Comcast appears to discriminate against
bit torrent for anticompetitive reasons not just for traffic management. McDowell, like Commissioner Tate, would like to see the industry develop is own solutions to these problems such as what might come from the industry consortium Comcast is involved in and says “engineers should solve engineering problems not politicians.”

Chairman Martin states the four principles the FCC adopted in August 2005 in their internet policy statement (“Powell’s Four Freedoms”).

1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Larry Lessig, Professor at Stanford Law School, is the first speaker on the first panel.

Lessig reminds us that companies are out to make profit and we shouldn’t trust them with public policy. The architecture of the internet has given us openness, transparency, and freedom and in a market with few firms, they can manipulate this architecture to weaken competition. It is important to note that the original openness of the internet has given us an enormous amount of economic growth – he likens the process to the electricity grid: it is transparent and open and anyone can do anything on it, as long as you know the protocols. It doesn’t ask if the TV you plug in is Panasonic or Sony and doesn’t allocate electricity based on that info. He advocates that for us to depart from this model requires a very strong demonstration that the proposed change will advance economic growth and that competition will continue.

We can’t just wait and see, says Lessig – witness the text messaging and bit torrent problems we have already. He reiterates the argument that venture capitalists needs stability about the vision of the future in order to invest. Thus the FCC needs to make a clear policy statement that net neutrality is a core principle of the internet infrastructure. In fact, Lessig says, the failure of the FCC to create
a clear policy about this is the reason for the hearing today. So the FCC needs to regulate things it understands, but is that sufficient to assure that what happens at the network level doesn’t destroy neutrality? Lessig gives two examples of such regulation, calling them “Powell’s Four Freedoms Plus.”

Plus 1) The zero price regulation: this is built into Representative Markey’s proposed bill: if data are prioritized, all data of that type must be prioritized without a surcharge. Lessig is against this: this blocks productive discrimination and so stops spread of broadband and thus growth. For example, iFilm wants fast pipes and he doesn’t care for email so these services can be differently prioritized, but iFilm’s competitors should find themselves subject to different discrimination practices by the provider.

Plus 2) Zero discrimination surcharge rules. Discrimination surcharge occurs if you have a provider that says Google pays x but iFilm pays 2x. Lessig explains this is a problem because it creates an incentive for a destructive business model such that the provider can inflate the premium price by maintaining scarcity in ordinary network provisions. This rule does allow for nondiscriminatory tiered pricing: ie. a surcharge for video but everyone pays the same price for that video privilege. Lessig’s advice is that the FCC should start here with a target of getting to broadband as a commodity like wheat – where there the market is characterized by fundamental competition in the provision of the commodity which drives the price down.

The role of net neutrality in FCC regulation. Lessig thinks net neutrality should be a very central principle, but a heavy weight and not an absolute bar. This means that countervailing notions that don’t compromise the incentive to produce open networks are ok.

When asked a question about how the commission should respond to claims that customers get less broadband then they pay for, Lessig says “the most outrageous thing about this story is you can’t get the facts straight.” He says if there were penalties for a company that misrepresents what’s going on during an investigation there would be more clarity right now.

Lessig explains that even if there were sufficient competition this is not enough to ensure net neutrality. He cites Barbara van Schewick, who is an assistant professor at Stanford Law School, co-director (with Lessig) of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and an upcoming panelist.

von Schewick claims that markets won’t solve the problem of content discrimination on the internet. Consumers need to have in depth and standardized disclosure, and even this is not enough because there are market failures. Providers have the incentive to block applications that use lots of bandwidth and don’t translate into higher profits. This harms application innovation, aside from discouraging investment since the blocking behavior is unpredictable. Network providers need to manage networks in a nondiscriminatory way.

Robb Topolski, a panelist and Software Quality Engineer, says tests he has done show that Comcast was blocking packets at 1:45am rather than at times of congestion like they claim. Topolski also notes that, there is a general complaint form provided by the FCC but no one knows about it. He also notes that routers manage network traffic on their own – it may not be optimal but it would be better than waiting on the provider industry to self-regulate. Interestingly, consumers seem to be testing networks themselves and tools are even appearing to monitor
cellphone use by consumer (see Skydeck.com, the company started by panelist Jason Devitt).

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

Last Thursday April 10 MIT hosted a debate/discussion between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein (audio can be found here). Both are Harvard Law Professors (Sunstein coming here from Chicago in the fall) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion became very philosophical. Both have written prolifically on technology and our future, especially Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and Sunstein’s Infotopia and Republic.com 2.0. Henry Jenkins is moderating. he is co-director of Comparative Media Studies and Professor of Humanities at MIT. Jenkins is using those three books as the basis for his questions.

The first question Jenkins poses asks for metrics on how to measure the quality of online democracy. He quotes from both Sunstein and Benkler’s books to set off the dueling:

Sunstein1: “Any well functioning society depends on relationships of trust and reciprocity, in which people see their fellow citizens as potential allies, willing to help, and deserving of help when help is needed.”

Sunstein2: “A well functioning society of free expression must have two distinct requirements: first, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance, and second, many or most citizens have a range of common experiences.”

Benkler: “The new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.”

Jenkins asks the professors to give the current space a grade. Sunstein ranks it a C- since there is still babble and chaos and cruelty, even though there is order and brilliance and ingenuity. He likes Benkler’s idea of a self-reflective culture willing ot appraise itself, but his sense is that the internet is the opposite of self-reflection and provides only for entrenchment of pre-existing views.

Benkler gives a higher grade than C- and ascribes this to the importance of the degree of constraint on action being lower on the internet – this is determinative of how evaluate “normative life lived as a practical matter”. He agrees that a well-functioning society depends on trust and reciprocity but finds this in existence on the web through pervasive collaboration. He contrasts this with the authority driven approach traditionally used by the main stream media.

Benkler states that Sunstein takes too passive a view of citizenship in his description of the requirements of a system of free expression. He doesn’t envision citizens as passively exposed to streams of information and equipped with some pre-existing common frame of reference. Benkler imagines a capacity to act, intake, and filter for accreditation and salience, and ultimately set the current agenda. He sees freedom of expression manifested in part by participating in production of the agenda and claims this view will make the networked public sphere more attractive than Sunstein sees it, which will have the result that main stream media will appear more attractive.

At this Sunstein concedes his grade of C- was probably too harsh and he meant it in comparison to a realistic ideal, rather than a historic comparison. We’re doing better than in 1975. In response to Benkler’s point about passivity he states that his calls for exposure to new materials and shared experiences are only necessary conditions and they act as a counterweight to the notion that with unlimited free choice comes a capacity for self-sorting of internet communication. His sense is that “real internet geeks” come close to being libertarians in the University of Chicago tradition, so this notion of capacity becomes idealized as follows: if you are sovereign over your choices we have reached the ideal. Sunstein resists this and says we need to judge by outcomes: in a well functioning system you don’t construct a Daily Me and your attention needs to be grabbed or else you’ll never realize your interest in other issues. Self-sorting alone is too risky to be a reliable mechanism for people to get a good understanding of issues, so his two conditions become necessary features of the web and preconditions for a well functioning democratic society.

He thinks this paints a picture of people’s interaction with the web as more passive than what he meant. Active citizenship is fueled by shared experiences and unanticipated exposure to new materials and ideas. He cites national holidays like Martin luther King day or July Fourth and enabling us to see each others as involved in a common enterprise. This engenders a participatory approach to societal life among citizens.

Benkler responds that the difference between his and Sunstein’s position is power and context, freedom and constraint. He questions whether Sunstein’s proposed necessary condition of a common experience would result in something closer to traditional main stream media being desirable, where the sharing of experience was often through a government controlled agency or a newspaper. Benkler defines an elite as someone who can affect the agenda and observes that today that is a few million versus how it used to be a few thousand. So power is being diffused in myriad different ways. The example he gives is from the net roots of the Democratic party: citizens can now move their donations to marginal seats away from the war chest of safe seats rather than this being an internal decision by the party bosses. This freedom, what Benkler calls the “I can affect” freedom, is what he is interested in.

The second question Jenkins poses also starts with quotes, and he asks whether we are in danger of excessive fragmentation on the web:

Continue reading ‘Cass Sunstein and Yochai Benkler at MIT – Our Digitized World: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.’

Amartya Sen at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University: Global Solidarity, Human Rights, and the End of Poverty

This is a one day conference to commemorate Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” in his 1967 speech at Stanford, and heed that speech’s call to create a more just world.

Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum introduces the event by noting that economic justice is the main theme of King’s legacy. He references King’s 1948 paper where he lays out his mission as a minister, in which his goal is to deal with unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. He doesn’t mention civil rights. So the effect of Rosa Parks was to turn him in a difference direction from his original mission, to which he returned, which is the gulf between rich and poor. Gonnerman reminds us of the interdependence of global trade and how, even before we leave the house for work, we have used products from all parts of the globe, rich and poor. He quotes King that the agony of the poor enriches the rest.

Thomas Nazario, founding director of The Forgotten International, outlines the face of poverty. He lists the 5 problems in the UN Millennium Report as the charge for the coming generation:

1. global warming
2. world health, including basic health and pandemic avoidance
3. war and nuclear proliferation
4. protection of human rights
5. world poverty

He describes world poverty in two ways: the first is by focusing on the gap between rich and poor. He says there are about 1000 billionaires and claims their money could provide services to half the people on Earth. The second way is to focus on the suffering associated with poverty. Nazario shows us some compelling images of poverty and busts some myths: children do go through garbage and fight rats and other vermin (usually dying before age 5); impoverished people tend to live around rivers since the riverbank is common land since it floods regularly; images of Ethiopia in the 1980’s war, conflict and famine (he notes that when there is extreme poverty, there is extreme fragility of life – any perturbation in the environment will cause death). He says 6 million children die before the age of 5 of hunger and lack of medical care. He also busts the myth that most of the poverty in the world is in Africa – it is in Asia, especially in India. There are 39 million street children in the world, often living in sewers. Of course, poverty is a cause of illiteracy not only because of the cost of education but because the impoverished children usually work to survive.

Amartya Sen is Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and HIstory, Harvard University. He is a 1998 nobel prize winner in economics and I wrote a book review here of his book _Development as Freedom_. His talk has two components: he speaks first about global poverty and next about human rights. He begins by noting that hope for humanity, as Martin Luther King emphasized, is essential for these topics. Sen hopes the easily preventable deaths of millions of children is not an inescapable human condition and the fatalism about this in the developed world recedes. He also takes on the anti-globalization viewpoint by noting that globalization can be seen as a great contributor to world wealth. He insists globalization is a key component to reform, as there is an enormous positive impact to bringing people together, but the sharing of the spoils needs to be more equitable. Sen advocates a better understanding of economics to help us reform world development institutions, but with a caveat: “a market is as good as the company it keeps.” By this he means that circumstances such as the current conditions governing the distribution of resources or the ability of people to enter market transactions for example, depend on things such as the availability of healthcare and the existence of patents and contract laws conducive to trade.

Sen distinguishes short run and long run policies. In the long run the goal is to keep unemployment low in all countries (so for example he advocated government help in training and job location for Americans whose jobs have become obsolete due to technological progress). In the short run it is essential to have an adequate system of social safety nets that provide a minimum income, healthcare, and children’s schooling (which has long run effects of people’s adaptability in the workforce). Sen eschews economic stagnation and the rejection of economic reform.

Sen is very concerned that the fruits of globalization are not being justly shared and, even though globalization does bring economic benefit for all, he sees this inequality as the root of poverty. He also warns people not to rely on “the market outcome” as a way of washing your hands of the problem since the outcome of the market relies on a number of factors, such as resource ownership patterns, various rules of operation (like antitrust and patent laws), that will give different prices and different income equality.

Sen, consistent with his hopeful theme, notes important things subject to reform and change:

1. an adequately strong global effort to combat lack of education and healthcare
2. improving existing patent laws and reduction of arms supply

For the first point, there is a need for further worldwide cooperation to combat illiteracy and provide other social services. Sen suggests immediate remedies such as halting the repression of exports from poor countries, and other longer term remedies like reconsidering the 1940’s legacy of global institutions such as the UN, and reforming patent systems that prevent getting drugs to poor countries. After all, understanding and modifying incentive structures is “what economics is supposed to be about.” Continuing the second point, Sen believes the globalized trade in arms causes regional tension and global tension from the trade. This isn’t a problem confined to poor countries, on the contrary, the G8 consistently sell more than 80% of arms exports (with about 2/3rd of American arms exports going to developing countries). The Security Council of the G8 were also responsible for more than 80% of the global arms trade (witness this issue has never been discussed in the Security Council). There is a cascade effect here – warlords can rely on American or Russian support for their subversion of economic order and peace (Sen mentions Mobutu as a case in point and the example of Somalia I have blogged about is another one with the American support for Ethiopia). To change this we need to reform the role of ethics, which Sen generalizes into a discussion of human rights.

The contraposition of opulence and agony makes us question the ethicality of the status quo, and regardless it is hard to change since with the status quo the power goes with the wealth. Jeremy Bentham in 1792 called natural rights “nonsense on stilts” and Sen notes this line of dismissal is still alive today when people question how a right can exist in the absence of legislation. Bentham says a right requires the existence of punitive treatment for those who abrogate them. Sen says the correct way of thinking about this is utility based ethics, not examining the foundational grounds. For him, this means an ethics that makes room for the significance of human rights and human freedom.

If human rights are a legitimate idea, how is it useful for poverty eradication? Moral rights are often the basis of legislation, such as the inalienable rights basis of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (its 60th anniversary is in 2008) inspired many countries to bring about this legislative change. Quoting Herbert Hart, Sen notes that the concept of a right belongs to morality and is concerned when one person’s action is limited by another – this is what can appropriately be made “the subject of coercive human rules.” So using this Sen provides a motivation for legislation. Sen also points out a motivation for the ethics of human rights through monitoring the behavior of the powerful and governments, like Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and many others do.

Sen relates King and Gandhi in their call for peaceful protest, and thus enacting social reform that way. Sen believes religion plays a large part in social reform (Sen is an atheist but King invoked God frequently), but he says the argument does not rest on the religious components. Following King, Sen discusses the story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan and boils it down to the question of how a neighbor is defined. In the story Jesus argues with a lawyer’s limited conception of duty to one’s neighbor using strictly secular reasoning. Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a wounded man in need who was helped eventually by the Good Samaritan: Jesus asks the lawyer, when this is over and the wounded man reflects on it, who was the wounded man’s neighbor? The lawyer answers that the man who helped him is the neighbor, which is Jesus’s point. Using this understanding of the story Sen concludes the motivation to treat others as equals is not what matters – what matters is that in the process a new neighborhood has been created. Sen says this is a common understanding of justice and pervasive since we are linked to each other in myriad (growing) ways. “The boundaries of justice grow ever larger in proportion to the largeness of men’s views.” Shared problems can unit rather than divide.

Sen concludes that no theory of human rights can ignore a broad understanding of human presence and nearness. We are connected through work, trade, science, literature, sympathy, and commitment. This is an inescapably central engagement in the theory of justice. Poverty is a global challenge and there are few non neighbors left in the world today.

To whom to these human rights apply? Obviously everyone. Quoting Martin Luther King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Sen decries “the fierce urgency of now” to “make good on the promises of democracy” and to make “justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog

The Internet Drives Election Results in Malaysia

On March 8, elections were held to the Malaysian parliament. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, who lost its two-third majority in parliament, had held power since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. In the months leading up to the election, accusations had been flying about corruption and a system designed to keep the ruling party in power. 40,000 people are reported to have marched in Kuala Lumpur in November of last year demanding electoral reform. The government’s reaction targeted online media: the country’s most prominent blogs and news websites were blocked, including Malaysia Today at about 3:30pm, which began the day of the protest with minute-to-minute reports such as “Walkers are gathering in hundreds near Jalan Melayu (Malaya Road) Gate” and directing readers to as yet unblocked sites. In April of 2007, in a by-election in the town of Ijok, it was a Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who reported that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old.

The power of blogs and online news outlets is established in Malaysia. Malaysiakini, a website, is the most popular news outlet in the country (and incidentally was available only sporadically after about 3:30pm during the protest of November 10, 2007). In the March 8 elections, Jeff Ooi, a member of Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), won a three way race for a seat in parliament and now blogs on his political blog Screenshots, from within Parliament. In fact, five of Malaysia’s newly elected parliamentarians are bloggers.

Blogs are unusually powerful in Malaysian politics. According to a USINFO state report by Stephen Kaufman released today, “Weblogs (blogs), text messages and copies of
Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information
sources for voters ahead of Malaysia’s March 8 parliamentary elections.” On March 25, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the BN’s strategy of ignoring blogs and online media was responsible for his party’s losses in this election. He states the BN “certainly lost the Internet war” and that is was “a serious misjudgment” to rely only on government controlled newspapers and television to communicate their campaign message. Dr. Abu Hassan Hasbullah, a University of Malay Media Studies Lecturer, reports 70% of voters were influenced by blogs, claiming that the main stream media does not report on pertinent government corruption or on religious and racial tensions. Hasbullah claims that the BN had two websites and one blog in 2004, while the opposition had thousands of blogs. Voice of America reports readership of the country’s independent blogs surpasses that of print media.

What is interesting about this change in news delivery and citizen communciation is difficult for the government to completely control. Malaysiakini.com’s Steven Gan says “It’s not going to be easy” to impose government restrictions on bloggers and the internet. “I always describe like [this]: Press freedom is like toothpaste, in a sense. When you squeeze a little bit of it out, it’s going to be very hard to put it back in again.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog