Category: Technology and Regulation

News broke yesterday of an audacious violation of Apple Computer’s intellectual property rights (IPR) in China. This expat blogger posted photos of three sham Apple Stores she discovered in the city of Kunming—the stores have been set up by some entrepreneurial chap hoping to capitalize on the company’s Chinese popularity.

The story was slightly amusing, especially in light of Apple’s recent earnings announcement. (“They totally did it again,” said one analyst. It was also revealed that Apple now sits on enough cash in hand to buy 100% of Goldman Sachs at its current market value.) It seems that the Apple brand is now so valuable that the Chinese are counterfeiting the company’s retail outlets to sell Apple’s own products at full price. As one employee of the fake store said when reached by the Wall Street Journal,

It doesn’t make much of a difference for us whether we’re authorized or not. I just care that what I sell every day are authentic Apple products, and that our customers don’t come back to me to complain about the quality of the products.

But that’s precisely why Apple’s IPR must be protected. The company is one of the most innovative ever—their graphical user interface, popularization of the computer mouse, iPod music player, and touch-screen devices have dragged the technology sector forward, to say nothing of their design contributions—and that innovation would not have been supported without protections for the company’s intellectual property.

The U.S. Constitution justifies the establishment of IPR in giving Congress the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

As David H. Carey explains in his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property,

If allowing some techonology to be patented benefits society in the long run more than it costs society temporarily to forego unrestricted use of that technology, then such patents are morally defensible.

The Apple Store “experience” is tightly bound up with the company’s products (remember how miserably Dell stores failed?), and part of allowing Apple temporary exclusive use of its inventions is allowing it to sell them as it sees fit.

There is also the question of trademark, which exists primarily for the protection of consumers, so that when I buy a tube of Crest toothpaste from a CVS I know that I’m not getting a Chinese imitation accidentally laced with cyanide, stocked by a shyster posing as a reputable franchisee.

Whatever employees of these fake Apple Stores may say—and according to the blogger who broke the story, none of the stores’ sales force realized at the time that they weren’t working for Apple—it’s China! Would you buy an iPhone from one of the fake stores? The Chinese government has a responsibility to its citizens to enforce Apple’s trademarks and protect its citizens from fraud.

By pure coincidence, I can illustrate the importance of protecting IPR in China: Yesterday, about the time this story was hitting the internet, my father went to the Apple Store in Dallas (an authentic one) and purchased an iPad. While he is away for a week on a theology course, Apple’s device will give him access to email and other business tools, so that he can grow in virtue and keep his business running at the same time (and once they debut the iSpankings app, he’ll be able to keep his kids in line, too). He chose an iPad over any number of other devices because his IT guy—who doesn’t like Macs, as IT guys never do—told him it would do the job best.

Except for the U.S.’s protection of IPR, that market solution wouldn’t have been possible.

I usually feel sorry when I see the latest news about data compromise, hacks, or identity theft.  Though I feel for the victims, I also think about the individuals carrying out the act.  Society rightly looks down on such behavior, especially if the victims are everyday people.

What about when a high profile organization or government is hacked?  What if an organization of questionable reputation is targeted?  The online group Anonymous often aims at high profile targets with their hacks, DDoS attacks and other planned invasions.  By making the decision to compromise organizations, even questionable ones, Anonymous assumes responsibility for its actions.  Individuals that are a part of this online group hide their real identity to commit acts that are illegal.

Growing up, I believe most young people interested in computing are aware that there is a “wrong path.”  As in, property damage and theft are wrong.  This path includes learning how to break into different types of computer systems to seek information or modify a system’s behavior, typically for reasons advantageous to the hacker.  Anyone that is involved with technology knows this path exists.  Luckily, most of us are taught to respect others’ property, even if that property is digital.  What’s more, this activity undermines the rule of law and the ability of people to freely create wealth (see Acton’s Core Principles).

Computer programming is an important craft.  It’s simple to learn a little programming, but as you advance in skill the tasks become easier to perform.  Whether it is building a website, desktop computer application, or a small game, many people obtain enjoyment out of building unique and useful tools and products.  However, the same skills can be used to make an application that tricks people, steals their information or prevents their computer from functioning properly.  Individuals who make these keyloggers, trojans and worms typically do so out of greed or hate.

People break into computer networks or systems with malicious intent are called black hat hackers.  As you might expect, there are also white hat hackers.  White hats break into computer networks and systems too, but instead of taking advantage of the system’s weakness, they notify the owner of the system about the vulnerability so they may fix the problem.  Computer security is a classic case of good versus evil.  You might even call it one of those moral issues that are clearly black and white.

What stops black hats from becoming white hats?  Unfortunately, if there were no black hats there would also be no need for white hats.  Most white hats start out as black hats since learning the craft requires knowledge of breaking into systems.  White hats make a legitimate living through consulting and by working in organizations to ensure systems are secure.  They (hopefully) have a strong sense of right, especially if they start out as a white hat.

Even if you don’t know someone who works in computer security, it’s likely that your favorite IT person deals with security on a daily basis.  The IT professional that the white hat informs must secure their system against compromise, which requires knowledge of how hackers break in.  System owners are stewards of activity and information they manage.  They have the same access that hackers have to information stored in computers they work with.  Their job is to protect that information as well as ensuring its proper use within the system.

If the system administrator fails at their job, unsuspecting individuals using the system lose something.  It might be privacy, financial information, their own computer’s security or even their identity.  Black hats and hackers like the ones from Anonymous abuse gaps in security for their own amusement, personal reasons and notoriety.  They lack basic concepts of morality and are especially void of respect for any IT professional or individuals on the receiving end of their attack.

We’ve launched a redesigned Acton PowerBlog but there’s more to it than just a visual update.  You’ll find the following enhancements:

  • A simpler look that seeks to better emphasize important features of the blog
  • Convenient tab navigation on the right for frequently used items
  • Increased real estate for blog posts like the one you’re reading
  • Increased emphasis on social media including:
    • New links near the top right and bottom of the page to Acton’s key social pages
    • A live Facebook page stream on the right so you can see what’s happening without leaving the blog
    • More “Like” and send buttons on front page blog posts (not just the first one)
  • A new comment system that preserves all old comments while adding increased functionality
  • A better subscribe page with more feed links and information

The new comment system is probably the largest change after the redesign itself.  With this system (called Disqus) you no longer have to type your name and email every time you want to comment.  Now you can login with an account from a number of websites including Facebook, Twitter, and Disqus itself in order to comment here.  You can also give feedback on comments by liking and replying to them.  If you have a Disqus account you can build a “commenter reputation” and your comments will carry more social weight with people seeking higher quality insights.

We welcome your feedback in the comments for this post.

 

The traditional Drupal logo

Last week I attended Drupalcon Chicago 2011.  Acton Institute’s website runs the Content Management System called Drupal.  It is a highly customizable website publishing tool that powers around 1.7% of the Internet.  Drupal scales: you can use it for a personal  website, but very large outfits use Drupal including the White House and Grammy.

As you may know, open source software is free.  Anyone can download the package and begin using it or view the internal code.  Open source also means the software is coded by programmers who are not paid for their work.

How can such a model exist?  It exists because customers hire developers to support and implement their websites using the platform.  At this point, the “free” software can require a substantial investment of money and staff time to tailor or customize the open source software to an organization’s specific needs. Still, the model promotes learning for aspiring developers because they can dig into the system early on without paying to see if it is something they’d like to pursue.  If it is something they like they can program, design, or provide consulting using the platform for clients willing to pay for it.  If the developer doesn’t want to continue working with the platform they are free to stop without having sacrificed money figuring out they don’t want to work with it.

The (potential) Drupal 8 logo, introduced at Drupalcon

While attending Drupalcon I didn’t expect to find much related to Acton’s message.  However, I was surprised to find a lot of what you might call ethical questions discussed throughout the conference.  Web developers attended sessions seeking the right way to approach problems people have building websites.  One session included a panel consisting of the Lullabot team speaking openly about what standard Drupal development rates are.  All of the sessions at Drupalcon were aimed at empowering developers to do things the right way and to improve the way the web is presented.

There is a healthy competitive market in the Drupal community.  Many vendors promoted their web hosting and development services on the exhibit floor.  The biggest sponsors had session rooms named after them and their logos were posted everywhere around the conference.   Because Drupal is open source, there are few barriers for new development shops to use it which increases competition.  Seasoned firms compete for the business of high profile clients that receive millions of web visits a month.

There is a competitive ecosystem in not only the Drupal community, but in the open source web development community overall.  By making the tools used to create the web free, more technical people are created who can fulfill the needs of organizations willing to pay for services.  And a lot of thriving for-profit businesses are formed within this ecosystem.

If you’re interested in the Drupalcon keynotes they are available online.

After hearing about an established Christian publisher recently launching an official blog for their products, I did some thinking about the relationship between the traditional publication outlets and social media.

I’m sure that traditional publishers have a relatively large budget for print advertising, but it seems that they are very slow to hire professionals to do serious social media work, blogging, and online advertising. This seems true at least in the academic markets and relative to their print marketing outreach. And the blogs that publishers do have are usually not very good, although there are exceptions.

All this is true even though there are a number of reasons why digital advertising is better than traditional print. With digital advertising and outreach you can get real numbers in terms of reactions in real-time, seeing almost immediately what is effective and what isn’t. But you are also engaging people in a place where they are much more likely to buy and doing so is far easier.

If someone sees an ad in a magazine, they have to either stop what they are doing and go to a computer or pick up the phone, or remember to do so later after they’re done reading the magazine. When you reach someone on a website, Twitter feed, or a blog, they already poised to buy in that they are always one click away from Amazon, where they already have an account set up, and so on.

And despite many of the rumors of the death of blogging, I liken the relationship of blogging to social media to the relationship of journalism to blogging. Without blogs and the kinds of content generated on blogs, there’s far less to drive social media, just as without journalistic content there’s far less to drive blogging. So I don’t see blogging going away any time soon, but the turnover rate of blogs will continue to be high because of the variety of competitive voices and sources for news, commentary, and promotion. The kinds of transition over at First Things in recent years, which has really become a full-service complement to the print publication, seems to me to be a good model for established publications looking to broaden their digital footprint.

So even though it may seem odd that an established publisher is just now forming an institutional blog, there are some good reasons why starting a blog now is a good idea.

To keep abreast of some of the things going on with Christians and new media, keep an eye on the Christian Web Conference.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.

The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, also known as Cape Town 2010, was reportedly the target of an cyber attack. The official statement from the congress says, “The sophisticated computer network developed for sharing Congress content with the world was compromised for the first two days of the Congress.”

“We have tracked malicious attacks by millions of external hits coming from several locations,” said Joseph Vijayam, IT Chair of The Lausanne Movement, sponsor of the gathering. “Added to this was a virus brought into the centre on a mobile phone.”

Officials are holding off making public claims about the source of the attack. “We have a pretty strong indication, but one can never be absolutely certain, so we prefer not to share our suspicions,” said Vijayam.

But a prominent evangelical blogger, Andrew Jones, who is attending the conference speculates regarding the attack: “…now we have heard that 95% of these internet hits came from the country of China, and the 66 locations were also situated in China, and that account of a Chinese fellow taking photos of Congress participants before running away, and this has caused us to consider China at least as a potentially suspicious candidate.”

This is on the heels of roughly 200 Chinese Protestants having been denied departure from China to attend the congress. More on that story below the break.
(more…)

I’ve been meaning to write something on the “locavore” phenomenon, but nothing has quite coalesced yet. But in the meantime, in last Fridays’s NYT, Stephen Budiansky does a good job exploding the do-gooderism of the locavore legalists. Here’s a key paragraph:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

I’ve never liked the idea that its somehow immoral for me or my family to consume mangoes, even though they don’t grow all that well here in Michigan.

And as Budiansky points out, the only way to grow them locally would be to invest large amounts of capital and energy in artificially transforming the climate (via a greenhouse, for instance).

This is to say nothing of the virtue of interconnectedness that comes about when, for instance, I buy mangoes that originate in India, China, or Mexico and someone else buys cherries grown here in Michigan.

There’s something in the Bible about “doing unto others.” If you want other people to buy stuff from you, visit your town, and so on, you ought to be eager to reciprocate.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 24, 2010

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and chairman of HeadHeartHand Media, announces the release of a new video product, God’s Technology, a product about “training our children to use technology to God’s glory.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Murray over lunch one day, and I look forward to seeing his presentation of “a Christian response to the digital revolution.” Dr. Murray blogs here.

You can see the trailer for God’s Technology below.

God’s Technology Trailer from Puritan Reformed on Vimeo.

We at Acton have been among the loudest critics of clergy and other religious leaders who undermine economic freedom (and therefore prosperity, including for the poor) by advocating more extensive government intervention in economic affairs.

So we should be the first to applaud when clerics strike a blow for freedom. Kudos to the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.

Monasteries may seem an unlikely venue for capitalist ferment, but in fact they hold an important place in the history of economic development in the West. In the medieval period, for example, they were centers of industrial activity, such as milling and tanning.

The monastic tradition’s insistence on self-sufficiency continues, spurring contemporary marketing of monkish products from coffee to chocolate to … caskets.

It’s the coffin business that got St. Joseph’s in trouble. By selling its pine boxes without a funeral director’s license, the monastery violates state law. So the abbey is suing the State of Louisiana in federal court.

It’s a classic case of what economists call “barriers to entry”: regulations put in place by existing businesses or professionals to limit competition and thereby drive up prices and compensation. Usually the vested interest posits some rationale concerning the public good (e.g., not just anybody should be allowed to practice medicine…), but frequently enough the reasoning is pretty thin (e.g., should you really need a license to cut hair or drive a taxi?).

The negative consequences of such barriers are the same as those attending any artificial limiting of competition: inflated prices, deflated supply, decreased employment opportunities for those who need them most (those who cannot afford the fees or tuition associated with credentialing and licensing).

Thus, Abbot Justin Brown, in words that might warm the heart of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman:

We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone — even monks — can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.