March 21, 2006
Don't Miss Cato vs. the DMCA

When organizations all around the political spectrum can agree a law is broken, you'd think that would lead to quick passage of the bill to fix it. Unless that law is the DMCA's anticircumvention.

The Libertarian Cato Institute has released a terrific report (PDF link) documenting ways the Digital Millennium Copyright Act hinders innovation:

Why won't iTunes play on Rio MP3 players? Why are viewers forced to sit through previews on some DVDs when they could have fast-forwarded through them on video? Why is it impossible to cut and paste text on Adobe eBook? In a just released study for the Cato Institute, Tim Lee, a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, answers these questions and more.

The new legislationís most profound effects will be on the evolution of digital media technologies. We have grown accustomed to, and benefit from, a high-tech world that is freewheeling, open-ended, and fiercely competitive. Silicon Valley is a place where upstarts like Apple, Netscape, and Google have gone from two-man operations to billion-dollar trendsetters seemingly overnight. The DMCA threatens to undermine that competitive spirit by giving industry incumbents a powerful legal weapon against new entrants.

Sound copyright policy has obvious attractions for advocates of small-government and deregulation. Copyright has become more regulatory and more market-crippling as it expands, and the DMCA is a case in point. As Lee describes, the DMCA has been (ab)used to prevent competitive development of audio and video players, cable boxes, and even, for a time, printer cartridges. Instead of a free-market rush toward the best technology to meet public demand, we get a trickle of major-label "approved" devices that must be bug-compatible: region-coded DVD players and can't-record cable boxes.

I don't agree with Cato on everything, but this report is spot-on. Let's hope it inspires more in Congress to join Reps. Boucher, Doolittle, and Barton in support of the DMCRA.

Posted by Wendy at 04:38 PM
March 20, 2006
Google ordered to give DOJ URLs, not searches

Just catching up here. By order issued Friday, Judge Ware directed Google to produce the list of 50,000 URLs requested by the government (whittled down from its previous request for all), but not the search queries DOJ had also asked for.

Judge Ware held that given the limited explanation of the government's planned use of the information, the two requests were "duplicative." As search queries were more likely to implicate both Google trade secrets and user privacy, those were dropped.

Interestingly, the court reviewed user privacy concerns independent of the goodwill concerns Google had raised, although that examination was not necessary to its ruling.

[S]earch queries themselves may constitute potentially sensitive information. ... Even though counsel for the Government assured the Court that the information received will only be used for the present litigation, it is conceivable that the Government may have an obligation to pursue information received for unrelated litigation purposes under certain circumstances regardless of the restrictiveness of a protective order. The Court expressed this concern at oral argument as to queries such as "bomb placement white house," but queries such as "communist berkeley parade route protest war" may also raise similar concerns.

Posted by Wendy at 05:42 PM
March 15, 2006
U.Mich. Press Looking for Great Tech Writing

The University of Michigan Press is looking for a few good tech-bytes -- to include in a book of the year's best technology writing. They've launched an open call for nominations, inviting suggestions for the best articles, essays, and blog posts of 2005. These are clueful publishers -- instead of suing Google, they're working to enhance the visibility of their authors on-line and off-.

Here's a chance to pull together the explanations of technology and its celebrations and criticisms; pieces that sparked an "Aha!" or a good laugh. Since it's planned for both print and online publication, it's also a chance to bring the blog-world to those who read only dead trees. I'll be helping to read the nominated pieces, so I hope you'll help by suggesting some good ones.

Taking a cue from the open-source movement, we're asking readers to nominate their favorite tech-oriented articles, essays, and blog posts from the previous year. The competition is open to any and every technology topic--biotech, information technology, gadgetry, tech policy, Silicon Valley, and software engineering are all fair game. But the pieces that have the best chances of inclusion in the anthology will conform to these three simple guidelines:

  1. They'll be engagingly written for a mass audience; if the article requires a doctorate to appreciate, it's probably not up our alley. Preference will be given to narrative features and profiles, "Big Think" op-eds that make sense, investigative journalism, sharp art and design criticism, intelligent policy analysis, and heartfelt personal essays.
  2. They'll be no longer than 5,000 words.
  3. They'll explore how technological progress is reshaping our world.

If you have a favorite, head over to to send your suggestions.

Posted by Wendy at 12:35 PM
Google and the DOJ: I'm Feeling Watched

Newswires and other media were buzzing yesterday over the Justice Department's subpoena to Google for search terms and URLs. The buzz got louder when Judge Ware indicated in court that he was likely to order Google to respond, at least in part. (Londoners might have seen me interviewed on the BBC news.)

The story converged the public's interest in everything Google with concern about government spying and the erosion of privacy online -- even if little of that privacy was ever directly at issue here. The government asked for search terms and a selection of URLs, not the IP addresses that could most directly link terms to the users who searched for them; its stated purpose was not to investigate individuals but to gather pieces that would help DOJ defend the Child Online Protection Act, a prohibition on showing material "harmful to minors" that has been on constitutional hold since its enactment in 1998. Google opposed the request, saying it called for trade secrets, was unduly burdensome, and further, that it might chill some of the search engine's users.

Even more than an actual privacy violation, the subpoena raised the preception of a privacy breach. News of the subpoena started many people thinking about how much of their personal lives they turn over to search engines -- and how little they know about what happens with that information next. With a government intent on listening to communications without warrants, could this subpoena be the first step toward a broader sweep of search engine records for other purposes? Our current privacy laws don't do a great job of protecting the information we turn over to third parties, such as search engines. Google could help protect privacy by keeping less data, but its business interests won't always align with its users' privacy wishes. The interest in the DOJ-Google subpoena shows we need to do better.

When a newspaper obtained records of then-Judge Bork's video rentals duringn 1987 hearings on his nomination for the Supreme Court, the public and members of Congress were similarly shocked that these records were so easily available. In response, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act, prohibiting disclosure of video tape rental records without a warrant or court order. Though limited to sale or rental of "prerecorded video cassette tapes or similar audio visual materials," the VPPA stands out as one of our strongest privacy protection laws.

The DOJ's subpoenas for search records should be web searches' "Bork moment." Search engines, and our comfort in using them unobserved, are a key part of the Internet's vitality. If no current law protects us against government Googling our Google records, it's time to draft a law that does.

Posted by Wendy at 08:39 AM
March 01, 2006
ICANN Capitulates

In the face of nearly unanimous opposition from the ICANN "constituencies," the ICANN Board has approved settlement with VeriSign. VeriSign (which had sued ICANN when ICANN forced it to shutter the SiteFinder disservice), learns that lawsuits lead to better contracts (quasi-perpetual hold on .com, complete with datamining and price raises); the domain name registrars and other ICANN participants learn that cooperative behavior is less productive than lawsuits; and the rest of us learn that unless we can foot the bill for lawyers of our own, our voice in the ICANN "policy development process" is meaningless. My tremendous respect for the directors who voted against the settlement.

Posted by Wendy at 09:23 AM