Category: Technology and Regulation

Last month Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced legislation from the previous Congress, this time as the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007, or GOFA (HT: Slashdot). According to the commentary on Slashdot, “GOFA would create a U.S.-government-designated list of ‘Internet restricting countries’ and would in most cases prohibit U.S.-based companies from censoring content or turning over users’ information to the governments of those countries.”

This law directly affects the situation of companies like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN who have been pretty roundly criticized for their practices in markets like China. Awhile back I discussed the complexity of these kinds of situations, attempting to recast the discussion within the context of this question: “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?”

Rep. Smith has repeated the oft-heard criticisms: “By helping dictators stifle free speech and spy on dissidents, American IT companies are putting profits before principles.” The Slashdot commentary notes that the major impact of the legislation is not likely to come in the area of censorship of Internet sites, but rather “where the law could make a difference is in the prohibition against turning over users’ personal data to law enforcement in censoring countries.” The piece also outlines why U.S. Internet companies might actually endorse such regulation, since it would give them bargaining power in negotiations with oppressive regimes.

Meanwhile, Google exec Sergey Brin has admitted that their policy of censoring web searches in accord with the demands of the Chinese government was ‘a net negative’ for their business, given the critical reaction from Western consumers and damage to the company’s reputation (HT: Slashdot).

Of course, given Google’s massive profit in 2006, including a fourth quarter near-tripling, the company can probably handle some short term negatives. And there’s speculation that Google’s growth may be a little too “hot” and so perhaps the fallout from Google’s practices in China, a net negative as it may be in itself, has done the company some good. After all, Google has now got a toehold in a hugely developing market.

Still, foreign companies have not been hugely successful so far in competition with domestic Internet companies in China, “partly because of regulatory restrictions that favor homegrown companies, but also because foreign companies often do not understand China’s Internet market, which is geared primarily to entertainment and mobile phones.”

What is clear is that the rise of economic freedom in China presents a multi-faceted challenge to the West to show how economic, religious, and political freedom are interwoven. Calvin College has received a $2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to educate Chinese scholars about “how philosophy, science, morality, economics and religious belief have interacted in the West.”

Other efforts are trying to include concerns about religious freedom within the broader context of human rights. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom is advocating that the U.S. government use the economic leverage represented by the Olympic Games, which come to China in 2008, to “pressure Beijing into reforming” its human rights practices (HT: ENI).

Joseph Loconte, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes in an extended essay in the current issue of Christianity Today, that “evangelicals could lobby for the creation of a U.S. Commission on Human Rights, in the same way they rallied in the 1990s for a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Perhaps adoption of the GOFA would be one small step in showing China just how the West views the relationship between freedom in various spheres of human activity.

Following up on my musings about the potential for the PlayStation 3 to position itself as the “family friendly” next-gen gaming system because of its on-board Blu-ray drive, it looks like Blu-ray is closing the gap on HD-DVD (HT: Slashdot):

VideoScan’s numbers indicate that during the seven days between Jan 7 and Jan 14, Blu-ray managed to close the gap of total discs sold since inception with HD DVD by over seven percentage points, suggesting that if the current trend continues, the two formats could be at disc sales parity within weeks.

And in news that might make the PS3 even more competitive, a senior exec at Sony said that “further slashing prices may be in store for the just-launched video game machine” (HT: Slashdot).

But the latest development is rather more disappointing. An enterprising and tenacious pornographer has found a way around Sony’s adult content ban by finding a Blu-ray replicator willing to copy their discs.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
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“ICANN Reviews Revoking Outdated Suffixes” (HT: Slashdot).

From the piece, “The Soviet Union’s ‘.su’ is the leading candidate for deletion.” A Google search turns up about 3 million sites with the .su suffix.

How exactly did the Soviet Union get a domain suffix? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and wasn’t yet highly commercialized. But it seems that the administrative record for the .su suffix was created just in time, on September 19, 1990, a little over a year before the formal dissolution of the union on December 8, 1991.

They say that technology drives culture (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”

Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,

Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.

Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.

Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?

McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.

But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.

“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”

At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.

We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?

A part of the pornification of culture is the pornification of technology.

G4TV, a cable network owned by Comcast Corp., has been covering the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) from Las Vegas this week and kicks off prime time special coverage tonight at 9pm ET. Of course, hip new gadgets like the iPhone (which actually was debuted at Macworld 2007) aren’t enough to appeal to “the male 18-34 audience and their fascination with video games, the Internet, broadband, technology, comics and animation.”

What’s missing from that list of interest? Porn, of course. That’s where the Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) comes in, serendipitously timed to match up with CES. G4TV is advertising dual coverage of both CES and AEE as “two days of gadgets and girls.”

But as one commenter in a G4 forum notes, “You know, there are female gamers/sci-fi fans too. Like, people who prefer to be thought of as more than pieces of sexy sex meat.”

She continues,

But, silly me, why should G4 care if women like games, right? So much easier to play to stereotypes and make commercials about how men need ‘balance’ (like tech and ‘sex’ (meaning, clearly, scantily clad skinny white women) equals ‘balance’). Yay for G4! Who cares about women!

Poo to your advertisements and your stupid anti-girl sex shows. I guess I’ll need to start looking elsewhere for my gaming and sci-fi needs.

You go, girl.

Of course, the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet is the stuff of legend (although often of the urban variety). While pornographic websites on the web are estimated to do over $2.5 billion in business annually and about one-quarter of web searches are porn related, a recent government study has found that 1% of Internet sites are porn-related (other estimates have put the range at 10% or higher).

Even so, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women admit accessing porn at work. This has led some, such as PJ Doland (HT: Slashdot), to entertain the idea of a NSFW (“not safe for work”) HTML attribute or tag that could be added to questionable content. Doland writes:

This isn’t about censorship. It is about making us all less likely to accidentally click on a[n objectionable] link when our boss is standing behind us. It is also about making us feel more comfortable posting possibly objectionable content by giving visitors a means of easily filtering that content.

An idea like this has the potential to achieve through voluntary measures what the proponents of the .xxx domain extension had hoped to accomplish by segregating explicit material from the rest of the web by an obvious marker.

Some church groups opposed the idea of a .xxx domain because they thought it would lend credibility to Internet pornography, and ICANN temporarily shelved the idea (although it may be revived).

Christian philosopher Albert Borgmann has written that “underneath the surface of technological liberty and prosperity there is a sense of captivity and deprivation.”

Augustine described the relationship between desire and deprivation in his Confessions this way:

The truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress (8.5.10).

It would be hard to imagine something on the Internet that contributes as much to this binding of the will to sin than pornography, making the work of groups like the XXXChurch (who are covering the AEE in their own way) all the more pressing.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, January 4, 2007
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From today’s WaPo:

About 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies launched in the past decade had at least one foreign-born founder, according to a study released yesterday that throws new information into the debate over foreign workers who arrive in the United States on specialty visas.

Scott McNealy, chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, “is among the advocates for an expanded visa program, writing editorials, calling members of Congress and supporting political action committees.”

He asks a pretty good question, I think: “Why would you have any arbitrary number on smart people?”

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
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A professor at MIT has been denied tenure and he claims that the reason is his opposition to embyonic stem cell research (his specialty is adult stem cell research). It is always impossible to know exactly what the motives are in these tenure battles unless one is personally involved, but it would not be surprising if his claim were accurate, given the high stakes (e.g., funding) inherent in this field. In any case, for many professors, “ideology” and “scholarship” are linked—their protestations notwithstanding—so efforts to determine whether decisions are made purely on the basis of scholarship or are influenced by worldview differences are often futile.

Anecdotally, I recently had a conversation with a seminary professor of moral theology who is collaborating with researchers at a first-rate scientific institution. The scientists are curious about the theologian’s moral arguments against embryonic stem cell research—but they are already focused on adult stem cell research, because they have concluded that that avenue shows much more promise for actual therapeutic results.

For a look at the morality of embryo treatment from a Reformed perspective, see this commentary by Acton’s Stephen Grabill.

For a basic but helpful summary of the Catholic Church’s view, see this Q&A from the USCCB.

According to the Church Report’s Jennifer Morehouse, Parents Television Council President L. Brent Bozell is renewing an argument for the FCC to require a la carte cable programming. “It’s time to let the market decide what it wants on cable programming,” says Bozell.

I’m sympathetic to this view. I would prefer the option to be able to pick and choose which cable channels I pay for and get access to, instead of having to decide on subscription levels which include a lot of channels I’m not interested in.

But here’s where Bozell loses me: “Families, according to Bozell, have to pay for dozens of channels they do not watch and find offensive.” They only have to pay for them if they choose to have cable TV. Families make clear which of their desires are more powerful when they are willing to “subsidize some of the most graphic content imaginable” rather than forego cable television.

The market in this sense is working, as it is illustrating that cable consumers do not have sufficiently high interest to make it worthwhile for cable providers to respond and offer a la carte services. The problem with the cable market in the end is not that cable providers aren’t being required to offer a la carte, but that there is a lack of competition in local markets, although that is changing in a few places. Increased competition might make offering a la carte services more of a realistic option to give particular providers a competitive edge.

So, in my case, for instance, my desire for a la carte is not stronger than my desire for cable television/cable internet as it is now (although I do only get the lowest “basic” level of programming). I think this is probably representative of the position of many of the cable consumers Bozell is talking about. In no way, however, am I being forced to “subsidize the cable industry’s raunch.”

More on families and parenting in an age of technology later today.

Karl Bode at Broadband Reports accuses various free-market think tanks of inconsistency and even hypocrisy in their approaches to the question of broadband internet regulation: “Wouldn’t banning towns and cities from offering broadband be regulation? And wouldn’t it be ‘un-necessary regulation’ considering companies like AT&T have discovered they can simply compete in the muni-wireless sector? Strange how such rabid fans of a free-market aren’t interested in allowing market darwinism to play out,” he observes (HT: Slashdot).

It seems to me not to be the case that the advocates of the municipal broadband compact aren’t in favor of competition. They simply want to guard against the unfair advantage that municipal and city governments would enjoy if they entered the internet provider business.

“While incumbent providers have every right to declare an area unprofitable, they should not have the right to then ban these communities from wiring themselves. These broadband black holes were created by the providers. They should either fill them or get out of the way, taking their cadre of subjective experts with them,” says Bode.

Actually, these “broadband black holes” have always existed…they just haven’t been noticeable until broadband was invented and the market began servicing surrounding areas. It’s not as if cable internet providers have taken away access these places previously had. Presumably their economies have not yet developed to the point where they can utilize this kind of technological innovation in a sustainable way.

But Bode doesn’t really understand the economics of markets: “Fans of a free market should be eager to see the organic free-market at work. If these municipal broadband operations are such a flawed idea: let them fail.”

It’s hard to put it any simpler than this: government-run services are not part of “the organic free-market at work.”

Despite Bode’s claims, there’s no real inconsistency here. And the fact that a current area may not be a profitable market for broadband provision does not mean that it will not be so in the future…but cities and municipalities wiring themselves and providing internet service on their own removes the possibility that these communities will ever be serviced by the market.

Update: Thanks to Broadband Reports for the equal time, noting my contrarian blog post along with a few others (all of which agree substantially with the original piece).

I also owe them thanks for noticing that I misspelled “noticeable” (corrected above), although, in due course, they mis-identified the Acton Institute as the “Action” Institute, a la “Action” Jackson, not Lord Acton.

Further Update: I’d also like to clarify that I’m not necessarily in favor of a federal-level restriction on the actions of city governments in this area. This may not have been obvious from my original post. I do think it is unwise for cities and municipalities to provide wireless access, but from this it does not follow that such should be outlawed. I was simply trying to clarify some of the reasons to oppose government provision of internet access and am not interested in defending the “municipal broadband compact” in detail.

Another one for the “is there anything they won’t try to regulate?” file:

Not every idea that sprouts in Brussels is good for you…

THE Government is seeking to prevent an EU directive that could extend broadcasting regulations to the internet, hitting popular video-sharing websites such as YouTube.

The European Commission proposal would require websites and mobile phone services that feature video images to conform to standards laid down in Brussels.

Ministers fear that the directive would hit not only successful sites such as YouTube but also amateur “video bloggers” who post material on their own sites. Personal websites would have to be licensed as a “television-like service”.

Viviane Reding, the Media Commissioner, argues that the purpose is simply to set minimum standards on areas such as advertising, hate speech and the protection of children.

But Shaun Woodward, the Broadcasting Minister, described the draft proposal as catastrophic. He said: “Supposing you set up a website for your amateur rugby club, uploaded some images and added a link advertising your local sports shop. You would then be a supplier of moving images and need to be licensed and comply with the regulations.”

Not that this is a big surprise; the European Union is practically synonymous with bureaucratic over-reach and hyper-regulation. But still, shouldn’t common sense kick in at some point?