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Archive for March, 2011

33 Bits of Nonsense

In a recent Politico op-ed Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) wrote, “Online trackers claim the information they collect is anonymous and helps enhance the user’s experience. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is it only takes 33 ‘bits’ of information to uniquely identify someone.” While she was certainly not the first one to make this statement (indeed Arvind Narayanan at Stanford dedicates his blog “33 Bits of Entropy” to this topic), this assertion—that individuals can be identified with 33 bits of data—is quickly becoming one of the most misused and overused “facts” in the current data privacy debates to argue that virtually all information should be considered personally identifiable information (PII).

Consider the following statements:

  • Rep. Speier, who recently introduced “Do Not Track” legislation, used the above statement to support the claim that “There is no longer any anonymity on the Web— unless we mandate it.”
  • FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz noted that “We used to have a distinction 10 years ago between personally identifiable information and non-PII. Now those distinctions have broken down.”
  • Computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and VitalyShmatikov wrote that “Just as medieval alchemists
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Agriculture Innovation: When a Fish is More Than Just a Fish

The Food and Drug Administration seems to be moving closer to approving genetically modified salmon for sale in the United States.  While 80 to 90 percent of corn and cotton in the United States are genetically modified (GM) this would be the first time a GM animal is sold for human consumption.  The fish developed by AquaBounty Technologies has an added growth gene that enables it to grow twice as fast and fifty percent larger.  Opponents, ranging from fishermen and their regional elected officials to environmentalists and religious groups, have begun calling AquaBounty’s salmon “Frankenfish” and claiming that a GM fish would endanger consumers, infect local stocks, destroy the environmental ecosystem, and generally constitute playing God.  Two pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress that would either ban the fish outright or require a “transgenic” label.

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The Anti-Choice Privacy Fundamentalists

One of the fundamental debates around privacy is whether certain activities should be opt-in or opt-out.  However, lately it seems that giving users the ability to opt-in is not enough for the most hardline privacy fundamentalists. They do not even want to give consumers the right to choose.

I do not want to rehash the debate on opt-in vs. opt-out, but I do want to discuss the current level of choice afforded Internet users.  First, let’s be clear: even when users do not “opt in” as it is traditionally understood (i.e. giving affirmative assent), users still have choice. Users express this choice when they opt to use or not to use a particular website or service. There may be no formal “I do” or ceremony, but a choice is still made, and it is no less real than a common-law marriage.

Websites have privacy policies and users can choose to read them. If users have strong privacy preferences, then they have the option to read the policy. This is the entire basis behind the current notice and choice system we have today (which contrary to unsubstantiated claims in the recent

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For Innovation, “Open Standards” Good, “Disruptive Standards” Better

The “innovation policy” community has a touching faith in the power of an “open standard”, a technology protocol that is not controlled by a single player in the ecosystem but is the result of a — more or less — open process involving any interested party.  And there’s a lot to be said for openness.

Sadly, not all open standards spur innovation, and not all innovative standards are open.  As an example of the former, consider the original Web Services protocols, which were open but mind-numbingly difficult to implement.  Web services didn’t start to take off until the REST-ful variant (a much simpler “lightweight” protocol) gained traction.  As an example of the latter, consider the standards connected with writing, publishing, and monetizing apps in the iPhone/iPad ecosystem: tightly controlled by Apple (a consideration which vexes the app developer community considerably) but nonetheless spurring explosive innovation.

In sizing up the innovative potential of a standard, I prefer the idea of a “disruptive standard”, by analogy with Clay Christensen’s “disruptive technology”.

A disruptive technology is an inferior technology which is, however, “good enough” for its marketplace, and, because it is cheaper or

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U.S. PTO looking at innovation measures — but needs to look at previous work

Here is an interesting short bit from FastCompany – Patent Director: “Patent Filings Do Not Equal Innovation,” U.S. Needs New Measure.  According to this short piece:
“David Kappos, director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, says the United States needs new ways to measure innovation and also to give fast-track status to green technologies.
First, Kappos says his office is looking at new ways of measuring innovation. After all, open-source software, which explicitly rejects traditional intellectual property rights, powers large parts of the technology industry, such as the Android mobile operating system. Additionally, corporations often take out huge pre-emptive patents to prevent competition from forming.
‘Patent filings do not equal innovation, by any stretch,’ says Kappos. While his solution to the problem may not completely satisfy those eager to see the United States move beyond the patent paradigm, Kappos is pressing experts and universities to come up with new measures of innovation, such as job creation and job growth that arise from a particular idea.”


While I applaud efforts by the PTO to look for broader measures of innovation, I hope they won’t be re-inventing the

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AT&T Embraces Internet TV

I enjoyed Charlie Sheen’s performance in Major League, the movie where he played pitcher Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Wild Thing is an all-over-the-place fastballer who terrifies hitters as Ryne Duren did for Mickey Mantle’s Yankees while wearing eyeglasses with lenses as thick as Coke bottles. Lately Sheen has been as erratic as Wild Thing’s fastball, and I had to wonder if he didn’t get control of the Free Press publicity machine when I read their reaction to the AT&T usage caps announced yesterday. First, the facts:

AT&T is going to set a soft limit of 150 Gigabytes/month for their ADSL customers and 250 Gigabytes for their VDSL+ (U-Verse) customers. To put these numbers in context, if you watch Netflix seven hours a day, seven days a week, you won’t have a meaningful social life, but you won’t exceed your cap.

The accounting is straightforward: According to Netlfix, they stream videos at an average rate of 1.5 Mbps into the AT&T network, which works out to 675 Kilobytes per hour. That comes out to 222 hours of streaming TV per month, or 7 hours a day plus change, for

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Nuclear Crisis in Japan: A Time for Discussion Not Knee-Jerk Reaction

Authors Note: Although it goes without saying, the earthquake/tsunami catastrophe in Japan is a grave humanitarian crisis that must be dealt with immediately and collectively and I’m thankful to see that the international community is readily helping Japan’s people in every way it can.  My comments below focus on the domestic impacts of one of its crisis – nuclear energy – but in no way is meant to lessen or marginalize the many more (and vast) challenges endangering the citizens of Japan.

A national conversation is beginning to take shape in the United States about the safety and efficacy of producing electricity from nuclear energy.  It’s a conversation that has started off on the wrong foot.  Many thought leaders and policymakers are calling for halting all new plant construction and many commentators are stating that the so called U.S. ‘nuclear renaissance’ is over.  In fact, the conversation is already beginning to move to the extremes without any thorough discussion.  It’s this type of knee-jerk, short sighted reaction to energy policy that has put the United States into the energy bind it’s in now: uncertain energy

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A Chinese Restaurant Menu Instead of Bumper Stickers

Stop the madness!  Purge “tax and spend liberal,” and “corporate welfare proponent” from your label lexicons.  Don’t use phrases such as “industrial policy” and “cut spending across the board” and “big business giveaways” unless you really know what they mean.  The near-death experience with the economy in 2008-9 and painfully slow recovery are the result of often well-intentioned but ultimately flawed policies championed by Democrats and Republicans alike over the last 30 years.  Individual consumers also bear some of the burden.  Times and circumstances have changed. We must rethink our economic policies and realize that bumper stickers don’t amount to thoughtful policy debates.  We need a Chinese menu approach for reviving our economy in the years ahead.

It is time for both liberals and conservatives to acknowledge that their respective orthodoxies are not enough to jumpstart American innovation and competitiveness.  Both sides need to revisit their assumptions about taxes, trade, regulations, public research and development investments and education.  Business and labor groups need to stop fueling the partisan divide and make it easier for political leaders to think about national interests not groups’ interests.  Maybe even have a joint U.S.

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Fat Pipe Dreams in North Carolina

There’s a big fight going on in North Carolina over rural broadband. Representative Avila and Senator Apodaca have introduced bills that would place some fairly light restrictions on the business practices of municipal (government owned and operated) broadband networks that have drawn the ire of network equipment vendors and out-of-state muni broadband activists.

Charges and counter-charges are flying fast and furious. Well-travelled muni broadband consultant Craig Settles says the authors are in the pockets of Time-Warner Cable, and urges people around the country to lobby NC legislators to kill the bills:

The battle is now fully joined in NC. But it’s not just their fight, and it’s not a fight solely about broadband. This fight affects everyone who believes that communities deserve the freedom to choose their own best solutions to key problems involving economic development. Communities own the problems of this terrible economy.

Philip Dampier, the supporter of former New York Congressman Eric Massa who joined the broadband policy fight when Time Warner was experimenting with metered pricing, is even more shrill than Settles:

But Marilyn Avila does not care. She is only working for the

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A Roadmap for America’s Energy Future? Hardly

For the second time in eight months, a coalition led by California Rep. Devin Nunes has proposed their Roadmap for America’s Energy Future (H.R. 909). The plan, introduced in the House last week, is advertised as a set of “comprehensive and forward thinking initiatives designed to address both the short and long-term energy needs of the United States.” Nunes and company deserve some credit for trying to straddle the market-and-drilling approach on the right with the green-deployment-now approach on the left; but, calling it a comprehensive energy policy solution? Far from it: the plan would do little more than drive fossil fuel development with some marginal progress on nuclear and renewables, while generally ignoring the need to drive innovation in the energy sector.

First, the key components: the bill would open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the outer continental shelf (OCS) to drilling for oil & gas, codifying the aggressive five-year leasing program (PDF) proposed, quite literally, during the Bush Administration’s waning hours. It would also restore Bush Administration plans to open roughly 2 million acres of western lands in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to … Read the rest