Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Protocol Politics and IPv6...

What's going to happen when the Internet runs out of addresses? It may seem far-fetched to the casual user, but there is a finite supply of 4.3 billion IP addresses built into the current system, and we're on pace to reach that number within a few short years. Will it be cyber-doomsday?

Not likely. This problem was recognized, and a solution was put in place, over a decade ago. A new system of Internet addresses - called IPv6 - was designed to replace the current system - IPv4 - that would expand the address base from 4.3 billion to 340 undecillion. As always, when speaking in mathematical terms, if you haven't even heard of such a number, that means it's unfathomably large.

The problem is that the world is dragging it's feet in deploying IPv6 (which, by the way, is NOT backwards-compatible).

Why? This is the question pursued in Laura Denardis' book, Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance. In it, she details the process behind how IPv6 was created, but her main argument is that such protocols are political in nature, and that their ultimate design reflects the values of the winners in the conflict that preceded them.

This is not a new argument. Scholars such as Lawrence Lessig and Milton Mueller have written books on the politics of code and how decisions over technical standards and protocols are inherently political, embodying certain core political values at the expense of others. Entering that ongoing conversation, Denardis is simply adding a new supporting example into the mix. In my opinion, her main contribution is not the rehashed argument, but the research she presents on how certain civil liberties - privacy, chief among them - is architected into the code itself. Her IPv6 case study profiles the various actors and conflicting interests that characterized the conflict during the formulation process, and that is the book's most valuable contribution.

It seems that there are two issues at play here: First, the politics over designing the protocol; and second, the politics of its deployment (or lack thereof). It's worth noting the distinction between the two when conceptualizing the roles of the various actors and conflicts involved.

Who knew a technical protocol like IPv6 could be so riveting :-)
  

Monday, February 20, 2012

One Thing Congress Can Agree On... Wireless Spectrum

Who says the spirit of bipartisanship in Washington is dead? On Thursday, both Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on auctioning off wireless spectrum.

Ho-hum, right? Not so fast. This is actually pretty important.

The way it works is that, for decades, the FCC auctions off broadcast licenses to radio and television stations. But these days, with television being transmitted principally by cable and satellite, reserving such a large swath of the wireless spectrum for television is unnecessary and grossly inefficient.

Thus, this new policy aims to reallocate spectrum away from television broadcasters (who will be compensated for voluntarily giving it up) and instead grant it to the highest bidders at auction. Most likely, these will be major players in the digital space like AT&T and Verizon, or even potential new entrants like Google. The auction is expected to raise about $25 to $30 billion for the government's coffers, helping to offset the cost of extended payroll tax cuts included in the bill.

Some other nice perks of the plan... First, part of the auction proceeds will go towards finally building a dedicated public safety network that police and fire departments have been clamoring for since 9/11. Second, new bands of unlicensed airwaves, or "whitespaces", will be created for building more expansive and robust Wi-Fi networks.

From a political perspective, President Obama and the Democrats get a job-creating program that serves the president's goal of increasing the nation's high-speed digital infrastructure (plus, of course, the payroll tax cut extension), while Republicans get what they also see as a job-creating program based on private market-based mechanisms (and, of course, a way to offset the cost of the aforementioned tax cuts).

Reading some of the comments and reactions, a lot of people are expressing concerns about the government "selling the airwaves" which are a public good. However, these concerns are missplaced. What is at auction is not ownership of the spectrum, but only licenses to use it for a limited and specified amount of time. The public still owns the airwaves; the licenses are merely switching hands from one set of corporations to another. And really, nobody thinks that leaving spectrum in the hands of television broadcasters makes any sense.

What should result from all this is: 1) better high-speed wireless broadband for consumers, 2) more robust WiFi networks, and 3) a sorely needed public safety network for emergency first-responders. Throw in a glimmer of hope on the bipartisanship front and you almost have to wonder how members of Congress made this one look so easy.
  

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chertoff's Take On the Clash Between Cloud Computing and Privacy...

The European Union has always had far stronger data privacy laws than the United States, for better or worse. Michael Chertoff, the former Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, writes in a Washington Post op-ed today that we are now on the brink of a major "clash" in privacy laws between the two sides.

At the heart of the debate is how to handle extra-jurisdictional cloud-based services. See, these days, when companies store their data, they don't do it primarily on their own hard drives or within their company's own private network. They increasingly use cloud computing - meaning they pay a third-party firm to store their data for them. This can be a problem from a privacy perspective because the protection of people's private information is normally regulated by national laws, but if that data is located in a cloud based outside of a given nation's territorial borders, it's often a mystery as to which nation has jurisdiction and which laws even apply.

Here's why Chertoff claims we are on the brink of a major clash over this issue. A recent E.U. press release asserts that "companies who direct their services to European consumers should be subject to EU data protection laws". This might not seem so significant except that it's a fundamental shift that essentially sets forth a policy of: we don't care where your company is based, nor where you store your data; if you want to make your service available to European consumers, you will have to follow E.U. law.

Simply put, the fundamental question about international Internet governance over the next decade is going to be whose law dictates control — and the Europeans are making a bold play to say that the answer is "Europe's."

The big fears whenever there are such conflicts between competing legal regimes are that 1) regulatory uncertainty could lead to a stifling of innovation and entrepreneurship, 2) the Internet could be balkanized with ever-more fragmented regulations, and 3) a "race to the bottom" could occur as countries compete to attract commercial cloud services by minimizing privacy protections.

Chertoff argues that the solution is for "U.S. diplomacy [to] urgently focus on dissuading Europe from unilateral action while developing a comprehensive 'Western' approach to cloud privacy."

He doesn't say anything more about what this "Western" approach might look like. Would it more closely reflect U.S. or E.U. privacy legal traditions (which are significantly different from each other)? How would you overcome the political obstacles of convincing citizens the benefits of favoring the other's tradition, or set of cultural preferences, over their own? This is no small task.

Lacking more detail, Chertoff's main point seems to be, simply, that we should avoid conflict in this arena.

It's a point well taken, but in the meantime we're left in the muddle, searching, with no resolution in sight.
  

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Digital Divide Lives On...

As the Internet continues to become increasingly essential to the global culture and economy, those with Internet access - and the skills to maximize benefits from it - are at an ever-greater advantage than those without. This distinction between the Internet haves and have-nots is what is referred to as the Digital Divide, and new statistics from the McKinsey Global Institute show how the U.S. is lagging behind other countries.

Consider...

  • The Internet is responsible for 21% of all economic growth in developed nations.

  • 100 million U.S. households lack high-speed Internet access.

  • 46% of the poorest households don't own a computer, but only 4% of the wealthiest go without one.

  • Minorities have lower rates of Internet access than whites by roughly a 72% to 57% margin.

  • More than twice as many rural households use dial-up as urban households, and nearly 1 in 10 Americans in rural areas have no broadband available at all.

  • Globally, the U.S. ranks 12th for Internet access and 14th for broadband penetration.

  • This last statistic is often explained by a lack of competition. 96% of Americans have access to two or less service providers, resulting in higher costs.

  • Emerging technologies are far more expensive in the U.S. than abroad. For example, Verizon Fios service costs 2.5 times as much as comparable service in Amsterdam, 5 times as much as in Paris, and 6 times as much as in Hong Kong.