Broadcasting & Cable reports that Ben Scott is leaving the radical outfit, Free Press, for the (hopefully not so radical) U.S. State Department. There, he will advise the State Department on "innovation policy."
Of all the times I have read or heard him speak, the one moment that sticks out in my mind most was an odd exchange five years ago with Senator Byron Dorgan on S. 2686 (regarding this), the 109th Congress' attempt to impose stultifying Net Neutrality mandates on network providers. I say odd only in that, if you don't know how hearings work, questions are scripted. Senators pitch softball questions to favorable witnesses to back up the truths asserted by the inquisitor. For the Democrats on hand, Scott was the "home team" during a hearing run by Republicans (they still had the Congress and could control the hearing agenda).
Andrew Keen recently asked me to sit down and chat with him as part of a new series of video interviews he is conducting for Arts + Labs called "Keen on Media." You can find the discussions with me here (or on Vimeo here). Keen asked me to talk about a wide variety of issues, but this first video features some thoughts about the tensions between the free culture movement and those that continue to favor property rights and proprietary business models as the foundation of the economy. Consistent with what I have argued in the past, I advocated a mushy middle-ground position of preserving the best of both worlds. I believe that free and open source software has produced enormous social & economic benefits, but I do not believe that it will or should replace all proprietary business models or methods. Each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they should continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.
Two Cheers for the Treasury Department on Internet Freedom!
The Treasury Department today announced that it would grant the State Department's December request (see the Iran letterÂ here) for a waiver from U.S. embargoes that would allow Iranians, Sudanese and Cubanese to download "free mass market software ... necessary for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the internet such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking."
I'm delighted to see that the Treasury Department is implementing Secretary Clinton's pledge to make it easier for citizens of undemocratic regimes to use Internet communications tools like e-mail and social networking services offered by US companies (which Adam discussed here). It has been no small tragedy of mindless bureaucracy that our sanctions on these countries have actually hampered communications and collaboration by dissidents--without doing anything to punish oppressive regimes. So today's announcement is a great victory for Internet freedom and will go a long way to bringing the kind of free expression we take for granted in America to countries like Iran, Sudan and Cuba.
But I'm at a loss to explain why the Treasury Department's waiver is limited to free software. The U.S. has long objected when other countries privilege one model of software development over another--and rightly so: Government should remain neutral as between open-source and closed-source, and between free and paid models. This "techno-agnosticism" for government is a core principle of cyber-libertarianism: Let markets work out the right mix of these competing models through user choice!
Why should we allow dissidents to download free "Web 2.0" software but not paid ones? Not all mass-market tools dissidents would find useful are free. Many "freemium" apps, such as Twitter client software, require purchase to get full functionality, sometimes including privacy and security features that are especially useful for dissidents. To take a very small example that's hugely important to me as a user, Twitter is really only useful on my Android mobile phone because I run the Twidroid client. But the free version doesn't support multiple accounts or lists, which are essential functions for a serious Tweeter. The Pro version costs just $4.89--but if I lived in Iran, U.S. sanctions would prevent me from buying this software. More generally, we just don't know what kind of innovative apps or services might be developed that would be useful to dissidents, so why foreclose the possibility of supporting them through very small purchases?
So, do I need to remind everyone of my ongoing rants about Jonathan Zittrain's misguided theory about the death of digital generativity because of the supposed rise of "sterile, tethered" devices? I hope not, because even I am getting sick of hearing myself talk about it. But here again anyway is the obligatory listing of all my tirades: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 + video and my 2-part debate with Lessig and him last year.
You will recall that the central villain in Zittrain's drama The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It is big bad Steve Jobs and his wicked little iPhone. And then, more recently, Jonathan has fretted over those supposed fiends at Facebook. Zittrain's worries that "we can get locked into these platforms" and that "markets [will] coalesce [around] these tamer gated communities," making it easier for both corporations and governments to control us. More generally, Zittrain just doesn't seem to like that some people don't always opt for the same wide open general purpose PC experience that he exalts as the ideal. As I noted in my original review of his book, Jonathan doesn't seem to appreciate that it may be perfectly rational for some people to seek stability and security in digital devices and their networking experiences--even if they find those solutions in the form of "tethered appliances" or "sterile" networks to use his parlance.
Every once and awhile I find a sharp piece by someone out there who is willing to admit that the see nothing wrong with such "closed"platforms or devices, or they even argue that those approaches can be superior to the more "open" devices and platforms out there. That's the case with this Harry McCracken rant over at Technogizer today with the entertaining title, "The Verizon Droid is a Loaf of Day-Old Bread." McCracken goes really hard on the Droid -- which hurts because I own one! -- and I'm not sure I entirely agree with his complaint about it, but what's striking is how it represents the antithesis of Zittrainianism:
Of the many tech policy-related books I've read in recent years, I can't recall ever being quite so torn over one of them as much as I have been about Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. There were moments while I was reading through it when I was thinking, "Yes, quite right!," and other times when I was muttering to myself, "Oh God, no!"
The book is bound to evoke such strong emotions since Lanier doesn't mix words about what he believes is the increasingly negative impact of the Internet and digital technologies on our lives, culture, and economy. In this sense, Lanier fits squarely in the pessimist camp on the Internet optimists vs. pessimists spectrum. (I outlined the intellectual battle lines between these two camps my essay, "Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology's Impact on Society.") But Lanier is no techno-troglodyte.Generally speaking, his pessimism isn't as hysterical in tone or Luddite-ish in its prescriptions as the tracts of some other pessimists. And as a respected Internet visionary, a gifted computer scientist, an expert on virtual reality, and a master wordsmith, the concerns Lanier articulates here deserve to be taken seriously-- even if one ultimately does not share his lugubrious worldview.
On the very first page of the book, Lanier hits on three interrelated concerns that other Net pessimists have articulated in the past:
Loss of individuality & concerns about "mob" behavior (Lanier: "these words will mostly be read by nonpersons--automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.")
Dangers of anonymity (Lanier: "Reactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies.")
"Sharecropper" concern that a small handful of capitalists are getting rich off the backs of free labor (Lanier: "Ultimately these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.")
Again, others have tread this ground before, and it's strange that Lanier doesn't bother mentioning any of them. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, AndrewKeen, and Lee Siegel have all railed against the online "mob mentality" and argued it can be at least partially traced to anonymous online communications and interactions. And it was Nick Carr, author of The Big Switch, who has been the most eloquent in articulating the "sharecropper" concern, which Lanier now extends with his "lords of the computing clouds" notion. [More on that towards the end.]
There was a very interesting front-page article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey Fowler wondering whether Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia, was dying because of new posting guidelines which have apparently led to a drop off in the number of volunteers contributing to the site. In their article ("Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages"), Angwin and Fowler note that:
In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzed Wikipedia's data on the editing histories of its more than three million active contributors in 10 languages. Eight years after Wikipedia began with a goal to provide everyone in the world free access to "the sum of all human knowledge," the declines in participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia's ability to continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy. Errors and deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its reliability.
The article suggests that new posting and editing guidelines may have something to do with the drop:
But as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world's largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule -- and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp. "People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen," says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. "Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It's too many cooks in the kitchen."
Let's say it's true that the new guidelines have resulted in fewer people contributing. Is that that automatically a bad thing? I suppose it depends on other variables that are harder to measure. Namely, quality metrics. This is where every discussion about Wikipedia gets sticky.
One might have thought European Commission antitrust regulators had their hands full with harassing Microsoft about the "Browser Ballot" (our comments) and fining Intel, but apparently they're already looking for new targets so they can "stay busy": Sun disclosed on Monday that the EC had objected to the "combination of Sun's open source MySQL database product with Oracle's enterprise database products and its potential negative effects on competition in the market for database products."
It's difficult to see how Oracle's takeover of Sun would reduce competition in the intensely competitive database market. Since Sun's MySQL software is open source and uses the strongly "copyleft" GNU General Public License (GPL) v2, Oracle will have little control over its future evolution. If Oracle decided to stop updating MySQL tomorrow, anyone in the MySQL development community could simply "fork" the project. Oracle knows this. (Do the European regulators?) If anything, Oracle's proposed acquisition of Sun indicates that they are embracing the business model of commercial open source. In Sun's case, that has meant striving to lead the best collaborative project possible and making money on providing the best product support.
European antitrust regulators should be celebrating this deal, rather than obstructing it.