December 2003 Archives
December 31, 2003
The latest from Cato's TechKnowledge Newsletter draws attention to the pernicious idea that there shold be a UN for the Net. Excerpt:
There's mounting evidence that the Internet's good old days as a global cyberzone of freedom -- where governments generally take a "hands off" approach -- may be numbered.
In fact, a few weeks ago, delegates from 192 countries met in Geneva to discuss how the Internet should be governed and what steps should be taken to solve the global "digital divide" and "harness the potential of information" on behalf of the world's poor. Also on the table at the session -- the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society -- was the question of domain name management and how much protection free speech and expression should receive on the Net.
The real issue, however, is whether a "United Nations for the Internet" is on the way. There was discussion at the recent conference of whether Internet decision making should be shifted from largely private management to the United Nations. Another summit is scheduled for 2005. ...
But others have suggested that international treaties or adjudication by the World Trade Organization might offer the better approach. Still others assert that the best answer is to do nothing because the current unregulated Web environment has helped expand free speech and commerce globally for companies, consumers and citizens alike.
We favor the latter. But to the extent pure laissez-faire is not an option, "country of origin" standards may provide the best default solution. That is, government should only exert authority over those actors who physically reside within the confines of their traditional geographic borders. In this sense, an origin-based jurisdictional methodology protects sovereignty while giving meaning to the notion of "consent of the governed" in an online setting.
The great advantage of the Net is precisely the ability to reach as many people as possible and overcome artificial restrictions on trade or communications at traditional geographic boundaries. The Web, whatever problems it has raised, has provided far more opportunity and freedom to mankind. The United Nations appears eager to assume greater control over the Net, not because of its failures, but because it undermines members' authority. That sounds like the best reason ever to make sure a United Nations for the Internet never becomes a reality.
Haven't had much call to praise much that Gerhard Schroeder has said of late, but I give him props for this quote in a recent editorial in the WSJ:
Focusing our energies solely on distributing prosperity as equitably as possible within society is not enough. We must at the same time do all in our power to nurture the sources of future prosperity.
After all, Germany, with few natural resources and high labor costs, can only safeguard and enhance prosperity through innovative products, through application of knowledge and skills. Therefore it is only right that, following the reforms to the social security systems, we should begin to devote more attention to innovation. Only thus can we sustainably improve the climate for greater growth and employment.
Plenty of reasons to question the benefits of Kyoto and and to be wary of the costs, as noted in this piece from the Competitive Enterprise Institute: An Improved Climate. Excerpt:
Every year, environmental alarmists claim we have taken another step on the road to ruin. This year, they claim 2003 was the third-hottest year ever, and that its heat waves, floods, and tornadoes are evidence of global warming that will bring global catastrophe.
But, despite their claims, statist environmentalists will remember 2003 as a very bad year for their credibility. Above all, we should remember 2003 as the year that saw the death of the most economically damaging idea ever to come out of the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. ...
That is all good news, since the Kyoto treaty would devastate the economies of the industrialized world. One study shows that even Great Britain, the only major economy on course to meet its Kyoto targets, will lose 4 percent of its GDP and 1 million jobs as a result.
For Russia, struggling to pull itself out of its post-communist slump, the problem would be even greater. Small wonder that President Vladimir Putin's chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, said recently, "Considering that the Kyoto Protocol is restricting economic growth, we must say it straight that it means dooming the country to poverty, backwardness and weakness."
In 2003, more and more people realized alarmism over climate change is based on uncertain science and bad economics. If that trend continues in 2004, it could be a very good year indeed.
Bewre the "precautionary principle." Iain Murray points out that this was a major theme in "Finding Nemo." Excerpt:
Many thousands of children and their parents were entranced this year by Pixar's excellent movie Finding Nemo, whose combination of inventiveness, comedy, and emotion made it an early candidate for the Best Picture Oscar (though given last year's precedent, Best Documentary should not be beyond its grasp). Yet it contributed something to the world besides making so many people happy. It is one of the most powerful statements in a long time against a pernicious and retrograde idea that has enthused regulators and nanny statists all over the world.
That idea is the so-called "Precautionary Principle," which, broadly speaking, says that no new technology should come into use unless we are certain that it will do no harm to life or the environment. The European Union is so enthusiastic about this idea that it is not only looking to enshrine the principle in its proposed constitution, but is even thinking of applying it retroactively, by testing chemicals that have been in everyday use for centuries to see whether they are safe enough by today's standards. A moment's thought reveals the Precautionary Principle to be an insidious idea: If applied throughout history, it would have left us trapped in caves, without tools or fire. It is a worldview that sees any risk as unacceptable, even if this condemnation costs us the chance to progress. ...
In the DVD edition, the film's director, Andrew Stanton, comments that "the movie is about the battle of hope versus fear, optimism over pessimism; it's half-full versus half-empty.... You can either hide in life or you can enter it, take your chances and engage." The philosophies of Finding Nemo and the Precautionary Principle stand in stark opposition to each other — which makes the movie's popularity very good news.
December 30, 2003
I posted about this topic earlier and it got a fair amount of attention, so here is an excerpt from a recent WSJ editorial on the subject. (Also read this more detailed piece and this piece as well, both from Tech Central Station on the subject.)
This is a story of politics and lawyers trumping science and medicine. It concerns thimerosal, a preservative that was used in vaccines for 60 years and has never been credibly linked to any health problems. Nonetheless, a small but vocal group of parents have taken to claiming that thimerosal causes autism, a brain disorder that impairs normal social interaction. The result has been an ugly legal and political spat that has spilled into Congress and is frightening some parents from vaccinating their children against such deadly diseases as tetanus and whooping cough.
Like night follows day, the dispute has also brought in the trial lawyers. Vaccine makers are supposed to be protected from lawsuits by 1986 legislation, but the lawyers are exploiting loopholes to file billion-dollar suits that threaten to punish the few companies that still make vaccines.
Congress tried to fix this by including a liability provision in homeland security legislation a year ago. But three Northeast Republican Senators -- Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Lincoln Chafee -- demanded it be taken out until Congress could have a full airing of the thimerosal-autism issue. The Senators haven't yet honored their side of that deal.
Perhaps that's because if they did their position would be exposed as scientifically untenable. The claim is that thimerosal, an organic mercury compound, can cause neurodevelopmental disorders. But study after study has shown that there is simply no such link.
A 2002 University of Rochester study compared the blood mercury levels of infants who'd received vaccines with and without thimerosal. All had levels well below the super-cautious EPA safety standard. This was followed last March by a study published in Pediatrics magazine, in which researchers compared the physical manifestations of autism and mercury poisoning. They found that the symptoms weren't the same, nor were the brain tissues similar.
Perhaps the best evidence comes from Denmark, one of those European nations that likes to monitor most everything about its citizens. Researchers recently examined the health records of all children born in Denmark from 1971 to 2000 for autism diagnoses. Though Denmark eliminated thimerosal from its vaccines in 1992, the researchers found that the incidence of autism continued to increase. A second research team reviewed the records of nearly 500,000 Danes vaccinated for pertussis. They also found that the risk of autism and related disorders didn't differ between those vaccinated with thimerosal and those without.
None of this is to deny that the incidence of autism may be rising, though there is a dispute about why. The definition of the disease has broadened in recent years, encompassing even mild learning disabilities, and doctors have become better at diagnosing it. Some statistics show that as autism diagnoses rise, those for mental retardation fall -- suggesting children were previously misdiagnosed. Parents are also more keen to have a proper diagnosis, because many schools now offer more extensive educational services for autism than they do for other disorders.
December 29, 2003
Tis the season to debunk holiday myths: Urban Legends Reference Pages: Christmas.
Was the modern image of Santa Claus created by Coca-Cola?
Does the Bible say that exactly three wise men travelled from afar on camels to visit the infant Jesus as he lay in the manger?
Are poinsettia plants poisonous to humans?
Does the term Immaculate Conception refer to the conception of Jesus by the Virgin Mary?
Find the answers here.
I've quoted James Glassman often before on R21 (such as here, here, and here) and so I feel obligated to point out this expose, "Meet the Press" by Nicholas Confessore, to provide the proper context. While I stand by my posts and believe that Glassman's arguments and reasonings, in the pieces I cited, were sound R21 readers can make up their own minds.
James Glassman and TCS have given birth to something quite new in Washington: journo-lobbying. It's an innovation driven primarily by the influence industry. Lobbying firms that once specialized in gaining person-to-person access to key decision-makers have branched out. The new game is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which officials make policy decisions, which means funding everything from think tanks to issue ads to phony grassroots pressure groups. But the institution that most affects the intellectual atmosphere in Washington, the media, has also proven the hardest for K Street to influence--until now.
December 27, 2003
Essential reading for anyone interested in technology and public policy from Bill Gurley's "Above the Crowd" newsletter. Excerpt:
On October 6, 2003, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case of Brand X Internet vs. FCC that has the potential to delay the progress of the Internet in the United States by certainly years and potentially decades. Through its actions, the Ninth Court has "invited" the fifty independent and natural bureaucratic state-based public utility commissions directly into the fold of the Internet. ...
Some will argue, as does Judge Sidney Thomas of the Ninth Circuit, that opening the cable networks to competitive carriers will directly benefit consumers. The enormous problem with this argument is the prima facie evidence suggesting the opposite. Clearly stated in the Ninth Circuit opinion, 70% of all broadband users use cable modem services as compared with 30% for DSL. Cable companies, free to compete without the shackles of regulation, represent over two-thirds of all broadband users in the U.S. DSL, supposedly advantaged by its open connectivity and therefore supposed increased competitiveness, represents less than one-third. If regulated open-access is such a great thing, why are cable modems such a compelling value proposition for consumers? And why were the RBOCs slow to roll out DSL?
The bottom line is that we tried an experiment in DSL and it failed. Attempting to increase competition by mandating that a company invest in infrastructure and then share that infrastructure with competitors is simply not a market-based solution. Companies, naturally motivated to take market share, not give it away, are simply not effective at appropriately enabling competition. If you want to increase competition, add holistic competitors, not partial ones. This type of solution had a huge positive impact when PCS licenses created a third cellular alternative in most U.S. cities. Solutions such as cable overbuilding can accomplish this as well. Notably, a WISP in Cerritos, California recently announced an eight square mile 802.11 coverage zone based on Cellular-WiFi equipment from Tropos Networks*. This solution will offer ubiquitous broadband of greater than 1MB throughout the entire city. These solutions are the ones that will successfully advantage the customer while avoiding the overt dangers of increased regulation.
We should all know by now that rather than increasing competition, regulation typically reinforces monopolies and oligopolies. Startups will not and cannot prevail in heavily regulated industries. They lack the required resources and capital to manage fifty different utility commissions on a hundred different regulatory issues. For this same reason, you will never see a startup deliver an automobile in the U.S. as the regulatory red tape swamps all efforts. Increased regulation will do nothing more than ensure that new competitors and innovative solutions are permanently locked out of the market.
December 26, 2003
From Henry Miller: Tech Central Station - Al Gore, Our Christmas Fruitcake. Excerpt:
Gore's patronizing, apocalyptic and overwrought "Earth in the Balance" offers disturbing insights into its disturbed author. In it, Gore trashed the empirical nature of science for disconnecting man from nature. "But for the separation of science and religion," he lamented, "we might not be pumping so much gaseous chemical waste into the atmosphere and threatening the destruction of the earth's climate balance." He ignored that but for the separation of science and religion, we would still be burdened with the notion that the sun and the planets revolve around the Earth. (Recall that historians call the last epoch when religion dominated science the Dark Ages.)
It gets worse. Throughout the book, Gore employed the metaphor that those who believe in technological advances are as sinister, and polluters are as evil, as the perpetrators of the World War II Holocaust. He accused Americans of being dysfunctional because we've developed "an apparent obsession with inauthentic substitutes for direct experience with real life," such as "Astroturf, air conditioning and fluorescent lights . . . Walkman and Watchman, entertainment cocoons, frozen food for the microwave oven," and so on. Makes you wonder why he bothered to create the Internet.
December 5, 2003
December 4, 2003
December 3, 2003
Sonia Arrison covers a clear example of mission creep in this piece on the effort to regulate cheap Internet telephony. This is a classic problem: even when regulations are initially well-intended, they take on lives of their own and forget their initial rationality. Regulating VOIP will only help aggrandize regulators, and will hurt innovation and consumers. Excerpt:
By using the Internet's infrastructure, VOIP makes calls much cheaper than traditional phone companies can provide. This is great news for consumers and bad news for traditional phone companies. But many regulators don't welcome it either.
Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) in a number of states including California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are working to strangle VOIP with mammoth regulations that were crafted for the outdated infrastructure of the old phone companies. In one of those states, Minnesota, the issue recently went before a federal court.
Fortunately for consumers, Judge Michael Davis of the district of Minnesota ruled that VOIP cannot legally be regulated like the old telecom dinosaurs because VOIP is a data-based information service not a telephone service, and thus not subject to the same telecommunications rules. This ruling is a win for innovation, but unfortunately the battle is not over. For instance, California's PUC maintains that VOIP providers must submit to state regulation or face disciplinary action.
That pioneers of this revolutionary technology are forced to defend themselves against public servants who are supposed to have the consumer's interest in mind is disturbing. This is one more reason why the entire convoluted telecommunications regulatory machine should be dismantled. The 1996 Telecommunications Act was enacted to create a "pro-competitive, deregulatory national policy framework," but instead the last seven years have been filled with regulatory wrangling and burdensome lawsuits.
December 2, 2003
A clear example of how regulators can be out of touch with what consumers want and work against their interests. Check out this story, "Why it's time to rein in ICANN," by Sonia Arrison who hits the nail on the head:
Recently, bureaucrats at the United Nations revealed their desire to take over ICANN's functions, but business and other policy leaders argue that it's time to finish genuine privatization of the domain name system. That the organization is facing increased pressure from these radically different viewpoints goes to show the inherent instability of its quasi-regulatory nature. The best solution in this case is to allow market forces to take over so decisions can be made in a more efficient and cooperative manner....
By positioning itself as Internet gatekeeper to determine whether Site Finder or some future service must get its stamp of approval, ICANN is doing a disservice to consumers and revealing rather clearly that, despite claims to the contrary, its desire to run the Internet is strong.