17 January 2014

Elephant-in-the-Room Internet Link Sausages

Non Sequitur, 16 Jan 2014

Policy arguments seldom take place in a vacuum, nor are they truly bivalued "My way or the Apocalypse." There's always an alternative — of sorts — and pretending that whatever fills the vacuum hypothetically created by one's disfavored straw-man may not be an improvement.

  • Here's a list of scientific ideas "ready for retirement" from some scholars with at least some familiarity with science. It's an interesting list, but it's missing a fundamental concept: The laboratory, and more-broadly expertise in data-gathering, as the scientist's primary domain — because it shouldn't be. Everyone needs to know how to gather data.
  • Flowers on the grave or in the attic? The truly interesting thing — to an intellectual property nerd — is how this all relates to the concepts of "copyright," of "authorship," of "designation of origin justifying trademark status"... and of "consumer deception." I'm sure there's a manuscript up in the attic with some answers...
  • This is what the Google Books project should have been: Which is to say, "not evil."
  • President Obama proposes limits on the NSA's phone data collection that will be utterly insufficient for two reasons (that neither he nor any other political figure can control). The first is that no intelligence apparatus in history has been able to resist the temptation to use capabilities, regardless of purported restrictions on their use; if the capability exists to sweep the data in, it will happen, even under democracies otherwise committed to respecting civil rights. The second is that private actors are not bound by government restrictions in quite the same (arguably, in any) way, meaning that it's all going to be done with even less oversight. It all sounds like Kafka runs the intelligence community now, doesn't it?
  • Earlier this week, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC's current "network neutrality" rules for the internet were not properly adopted and therefore void (PDF). One must acknowledge that under the cramped precedent and interpretation of the Administrative Procedures Act, this is a defensible result... and in a sense inevitable, given gridlock, lobbying, etc. in Congress combined with the feckless FCC appointments of Presidents Clinton and Bush II. On substance, it's a bad decision — content agnosticism is essential to the function of virtually any complete communications system — but the Court did not rule against net neutrality itself; it was the method by which the particular regulations were adopted that failed.

    That said, the real problem with the ruling is that it is necessarily predicated on a decade-old factual record (and that's the FCC's and Congress's fault, not the court's). The 'net's ownership and functional structure have changed radically since the evidence supporting the particular rules adopted was gathered. To list only one obvious example, in 2002 (when one of the major studies was done), there wasn't an oligopolist broadband provider that also owned a Big Four television network; now there is. Many of the objections are focused too much on player identities rather than class-of-data conflicts. Comca$t has even less incentive than most broadband providers to play fair with non-cable-TV-like entertainment purveyors like Netflix, Hulu... and Amazon and Apple, which are both ramping up provision of downloadable and streaming multimedia. In short, that means that this ruling could well inhibit e-book distribution, too. This is a more-subtle, and more-dangerous, issue than one might expect... because all it would take to cripple access would be to treat Overdrive (the dominant e-book and streaming-media provider for public libraries in the US), which is too economically small to seem significant, as a disfavored provider "just like" Netflix. Too, this leaves the potential of effectively viewpoint-discriminatory restrictions justified by "we just couldn't reach an equitable agreement for premium access speeds!" all too available, particularly in those parts of the country — rural areas — with the most-restricted menu of potential broadband providers... where the "alternative" providers tend to be much more willing to censor unpopular opinions (just watch a local news broadcast in "farm country" some time). And small publisher/author cooperatives — particularly those espousing nonmajority (or disfavored-by-entrenched-minority) views — are at least equally vulnerable, whether in mutlimedia or "merely" textual form.

    Of course, some commentators will claim that this is a great thing because it means that the government "won't be regulating" the 'net. Others will, for partisan and ideological reasons, claim that this is actually a win for the government or at most a minor speedbump on the way to suppression of innovation and private enterprise (the source of that particular observation is particularly unsurprising, either as to publisher or as to authors). For all the problems with government regulation of communications (see previous link sausage), one must remember that private quasiregulation is apt to be worse... and is certainly less accountable, however difficult it may be to make the government accountable. It's only a couple of centuries since the Salem witch trials... which were not driven by governmental actors. And any charming trust in the willingness of private enterprise to provide a fair and open forum without a regulatory gun held to its head has never met Faux News, or the MPAA rating system. In short: Frying pan, meet fire.