At a dinner at DLD we were discussing the issue of libel and I was surprised to find one participant defending the UK law that allows Lord McAlpine to sue individuals who (re)tweeted an allegation against him. Apparently the amounts asked for depend on follower count. This approach seems to run counter our views of the importance of free speech which makes libel suits very difficult in the US. But as I started to think more about it I do believe we have a problem that may need some kind of solution.
I am not convinced yet that we need some new regulation and have no idea what form it should take. But I have written about information cascades before and they are real as in fact the example of Lord McAlpine example illustrates. Also, I was pretty revolted when I read about what’s happening with so-called revenge porn sites and the take down businesses that are associated with them. The latter seem to be something that could be targeted by existing laws against extortion. But I am not sure how to deal with the sites themselves.
The problem repeating a wrong allegation and the sharing of personal picture or film are both acts that have existed (the latter probably as long as pictures or films). But with the Internet the reach and hence impact of these have been magnified extraordinarily. Again — I don’t know what the right thing to do is here, but it would be naive to say there isn’t a problem here — just as naive as thinking that simply applying existing laws is likely to be the solution.
The proposed PROTECT IP act is an improvement on COICA, but still makes the wrong trade-offs between protecting copyright holders and defending the integrity of the Internet.
There are several major modifications from the COICA draft. The key ones are first that only the DOJ can initiate procedures against foreign web sites that would result in exclusion of these sites from DNS and second that for domestic websites the only type of injunctive relief available is financial (no advertising support, no financial transaction processing) and there is no DNS exclusion for domestic sites. Caveat emptor: this is based on my own reading of the law which you can find here as a PDF (in past legal debates I have discovered too many people copying wrong readings of laws from each other).
At first blush these might seem like a sufficiently good compromise position. What do we care if a few foreign torrent sites are no longer part of DNS in the US? And why not cut off the financial air supply for US sites that are copyright infringers?
Here is why we should care: the US should be the global leader in defending unfettered access to and usage of the Internet by citizens everywhere. Once we compromise the integrity of a basic service such as DNS in the name of copyright protection, we have no moral authority left to object to other nations manipulating the Internet for reasons that they consider expedient, such as suppressing political opposition. We cannot really criticize China for having a firewall once we start blocking foreign sites or cutting off domestic ones from their revenues on an injunctive relief basis, meaning without the other side being able to fight this in a court of law before the action is imposed as opposed to ex-post facto (yes, there are notice provisions in the PROTECT IP act but these are meaningless as currently drafted since there is no clear notice period and no ability to remedy).
This bill is the result of trying to impose the economics of scarcity by law into the realm of digital abundance. The sponsors of the bill refer to the sale of counterfeit goods as one reason for this bill but that strikes me as a red herring. This bill really appears to be about protecting publishers, music labels and movie studios in their existing form. I will argue in upcoming posts that employment in entertainment and intellectual property sectors can be helped more by embracing an open Internet than by fighting it and that on top of everything else PROTECT IP won’t even be effective on the terms laid out by its sponsors (for fairly obvious technical reasons, such as direct TCP/IP access).
I still follow German politics a bit, if for no other reason than talking to my parents and friends who live there. But right now there are interesting things happening there that are relevant to US politics. Germany has federal elections coming up on September 27 and had state elections in three states last week. The state elections showed a fascinating split with two smaller parties, “The Left” (“Die Linke” and the “Free Democratic Party” (“FDP”), scoring major gains. The Left is a combination of a reconstituted party from the former East Germany with a splinter group from the SPD (which is Germany’s center-left party and closest to the Democrats in the US). The FDP is a party that favors free market economics but tends to be liberal on social issues as well (there is no obvious equivalent in the US — the libertarians probably come closest).
What makes this interesting is that these two parties line up fairly well with two groups in society that are impacted very differently by the economic changes that we are facing. The Left represents primarily workers in traditional industries who are facing layoffs and folks who are already unemployed. The FDP, by contrast, represents primarily entrepeneurs, managers and employees at high growth businesses. With five separate parties in Germany (at the national level) this economic rift in society is more easily detected in the electoral results than here in the US. The net outcome appears to be a situation where there are not enough votes in the center to achieve reform and where the extremes will block each other.
In a two party system, such as the US, the economic condition and its impact on voting is obscured by other issues (in the US these are primarily social/cultural issues). Still the influence of the economic forces at work appears to be part of what is driving the difficulties over healthcare reform. My fear is that as time goes on, the gap between those benefitting from the fundamental economic changes we are epxeriencing and those suffering from the same changes will grow so large as to make it very difficult to have a center that can accomplish meaningful changes.
I just ran across an article titled “Skilled Immigrants on Why They are Leaving the U.S.” in BusinessWeek (via Techmeme). It is not surprising to find diminished job prospects in the U.S. as a key reason, but I was shocked to read that the wait time for a Green Card for Indian and Chinese citizens is now 10 years (that’s a decade!). That is a very long time for anybody to wait and live with the uncertainties faced by visa holders. Just entering the country when you are here on a visa can be a challenge, especially if you are coming in through a major airport. And that was true even before 9/11/2001 when I was flying frequently into JFK and BOS on a student visa.
It would be a mistake to think of this problem as a nuisance to handful of foreigners. For starters, according to this article from earlier in the year, the total number of skilled professionals (doctors, engineers, etc) waiting for a Green Card had already reached 1 million in 2006 (wonder what it is now!). More importantly though is that immigration has been a key aspect of entrepreneurial and high tech activity in the US. From the same article:
Despite the fact that they constitute only 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley’s technology companies and contributed to more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor’s degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), eBay (EBAY), and Yahoo! (YHOO).
I was very lucky, in 1997 — just as I was starting my first company — I married Susan Danziger and received a Green Card shortly thereafter. I have since become a US Citizen and as such now sincerely hope that we can achieve some kind of immigration reform that will stop this brain drain. With every one who returns because they are tired of waiting we are potentially losing a chance at the next breakthrough company (which might very well be targeting the Indian or Chinese markets!).
When I first came here as an exchange student at age 16, I fell in love with the US. Compared to my native Germany, I felt a wonderful sense of possibility. That is still the case today for many of the businesses we look at and invest in, but I worry about the future of the US.
There appears to be a parallel between the US today and Great Britain at the end of the colonial period in the 20th Century. Great Britain expended its resources on ruling a large empire. Those resources were not available for investment in domestic infrastructure. In the meantime there was a rapidly growing country — the US — that had essentially no foreign obligations and was pursuing a policy of non-intervention allowing it to accumulate resources (despite the brief Spanish-American war and the engagement in WWI). I believe this internal focus accounts for the US ability to marshal huge resources during WWII and for its rise to global superpower.
Now it seems we are in the position of Great Britain. We are expending huge resources in Iraq and to a lesser degree Afghanistan while our infrastructure at home is crumbling (the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is only the most literal example). At the same time, China’s economy is growing rapidly, while China has virtually no foreign obligations. I am not suggesting that there will be some cataclysmic event such as WWII that will precipitate the fall, but rather that we don’t have the wherewithal to compete effectively in a global economy marked by high oil prices and a rapidly globalizing market for labor (due to the Internet).
Having lived here now for nearly half of my life, having become a US citizen, and raising three children here this is does not feel abstract or removed, but like a worry about “my” country. The most worrying part about it is that none of the candidates likely to be on the ballot in November appears to be even acknowledging the extent and true sources of our challenge (let alone have a plan for how to deal with it). Thomas Friedman hits it on the head in his column “Who Will Tell the People?”