Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Where Copyright Enforcement Collides With Network Management

ArsTechnica brings us this story about the fascinating next step in the arms race between online filesharing and the content industries. A new P2P client, developed by the University of Washington, integrates BitTorrent into a social-networking-type framework that renders it impractical for any user to determine the ultimate origin of files he downloads.

The way this apparently works is that a user installs the client and links to his buddies (who have likewise linked to their buddies). When he runs a search it will poll the buddies to see if anyone has the desired file. If not, it will search the buddies' buddies, expanding outward until it finds the file. The file is then routed back to the original user through each intermediate buddy and, significantly, the source of the file is anonymized at each step so that each client is aware only of its immediate neighbors. Consequently an MPAA executive searching the network for infringing files would have no idea which users to sue. They would not have IP addresses or any other identifying information for anyone beyond their immediate circle of friends (supposing, for the sake of argument, that MPAA executives have friends).

It's a great system for people who want to avoid being sued for copyright infringement. The flip side, however, is that routing files through a bunch of intermediate steps rather than directly from the ultimate source to the downloader is hugely inefficient. You burn a lot of network resources to achieve anonymity. This is where the interests of the content industries knock heads with the interests of the ISPs. The ISPs have long had a love-hate relationship with filesharing as it is a network management challenge, but also a great value proposition for their customers. This is less true now, but in the early days filesharing was one of the primary drivers for consumer adoption of broadband. Not only would ISPs be better off with the straight BitTorrent model, but BitTorrent could be optimized to prefer nearby nodes, thereby increasing its efficiency and lowering the burden of filesharing on ISPs. This can be done to some extent by software alone, but could be further enhanced through the cooperation between the software developers and the ISPs. Moreover, the FCC's decision in the Comcast case makes clear that the ISPs are on dangerous ground when they attempt to interfere with filesharing software. Optimization of filesharing software, rather than an escalating battle, seems the sounder option for them.

How this conflict gets resolved is unclear. In the near term there is little that the ISPs can do about it. But at least they may start to become involved in the policy battles over copyrights and filesharing, and one could hope that the significant collateral damage inflicted by this fight, combined with its general futility, could lead to more intelligent policy. It is interesting to note that the adverse parties in this conflict (the big ISPs and major content providers) are the same parties that appear to be aligned on the same side of the Hulu-Boxee story I posted earlier. I don't see any interplay between the two issues at this point, but it's something to watch for.

As an aside, the article quotes the creators of the software as stating that its intent is, in part, to create a platform free from the prying eyes of an oppressive government. This is likely BS. While this software would make it considerably more difficult to track a file to its source, it is not impossible. With access to the PCs of the intermediate users (or, more likely, the logs of their ISPs) it is still possible to track a file back to its original source. While this is impractical in the context of a copyright claim, it is not something I would want to stake my life or liberty on where an oppressive regime is concerned.

ps. Public service announcement: This is unbelievably awesome.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How the Surge Became One of the Biggest Swindles in the History of American Foreign Policy

In February 2006 Al Qaeda bombed the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. The attack was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's crowning achievement, setting off the bloodiest and most grisly phase of the civil war in Iraq. The escalation of the war and the brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by all sides helped to turn American public opinion decisively against the war and played no small role in the wins of the Democratic party in the November 2006 mid-term elections. While many inside and outside of Washington were finally ready to start looking for an exit, the Bush administration, its legacy already inescapably tied to the war in Iraq, decided to double down. President Bush announced the troop surge on January 10, 2007, and the additional troops began entering Iraq before the end of that month.

Midway through 2007 the levels of violence began to tail off, and by the end of the year attacks and casualties had fallen to their 2004-05 levels. In September 2007 General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker reported to Congress that while virtually none of the political objectives of the surge had been met, the military objectives of the surge were being met. Over the course of 2008, it became conventional wisdom among political talking heads of all stripes that, notwithstanding the failure to achieve the political objectives, the surge had succeeded. John McCain prevailed in the 2008 Republican primaries largely on the basis of having been a champion for the surge. Mainstream newspapers called out Democratic candidate Barack Obama for failing to admit that he had been wrong about the surge. And Obama, for his part, seemed content to support this conventional wisdom on the basis that if the surge had worked, then it must be time to bring the troops home. This conventional wisdom has been augmented by the fact that the decline in casualties and violence has generally taken Iraq off the front pages. For the past year the conflict has been largely out of sight and out of mind, which itself serves as evidence of the apparent success of the surge and also diminishes public discussion that might lead to challenges of the conventional wisdom.

Lately, however, something odd has started to happen. Thoughtful and serious people, with whom I often agree, are employing the apparent success of the surge as justification for a much longer term commitment to keeping troops in Iraq (e.g. Thomas Ricks and Andrew Sullivan). Let me put aside for the moment the fact that I don't believe that the surge was the primary cause for the decrease in violence in Iraq (in fact, it probably wasn't even the secondary cause). Even if we assume that the surge was solely responsible for the decline in violence, the fact that we are today not one iota closer to solving the basic structural political challenges of Iraq than we were three years ago should reveal the surge to all as the utter failure that it is. In truth it stands as a testament to the hollowness and stupidity of the entire endeavor in Iraq from day 1. The question of how to resolve the ethnic/sectarian divisions of Iraq was at the top of every critic's list of objections before the war started in 2003. Here we sit in 2009 and still no one has the first fucking clue how to resolve this problem. And yet Ricks and Sullivan would have us keep tens or hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq for at least another 5 years in hopes that someone can pull a rabbit out of a hat and make everything better. I hate to be the one to break it to these fellas, it ain't gonna happen.

When I go back and look at what I wrote about Iraq two or three years ago, I see little that has occurred to change my evaluation. It's true that the decline in violence has bought us some time (although the levels of violence have been ticking up again, possibly in reaction to last month's elections). But time for what? There still appears to be little prospect for political reconciliation, meaning that whatever fallout will result from an American withdrawal will happen whether we withdraw this year or in 2015. And our presence in Iraq continues to cost us the lives of our servicemen and an immense amount of money, strain our military capacity and limit our effectiveness in Afghanistan, and hinder our efforts to repair relations with Arab and Muslim nations. The opportunity costs of remaining in Iraq are substantial, and the benefits of staying appear to be minimal. It's time to bring this misadventure to a close.

I remain of the opinion that we should be prepared to intervene again if things spiral too badly out of control, but I do not believe that we will see a serious effort towards political reconciliation until we force the issue by drawing down our forces. We have no better options than to try it and see what happens. The surge has not altered that equation. It has only delayed us, at significant cost, from asking the hard questions and making the hard decisions for the past two years. Now is the time to do what needs to be done.

Photo credit Zoriah

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Understanding an Economic Apocalypse

This is tremendously useful:

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Darwin Posters

I love this:


The New Battleground for IPTV

The battle over net neutrality has always been, first and foremost, a battle about who gets to provide video services over the Internet. As such, I think that what just happened between Hulu and Boxee could have significant implications for the future of telecommunications in the US.

Spurred on by the massive success of YouTube, online video has made huge strides in recent years. We're now seeing multiple competing sources for online movies and TV. One of the last remaining hurdles for these providers to overcome is to make the move from consumers' computer monitors to their televisions. One potential route for this to happen is through gaming consoles. Another route is through dedicated hardware, basically a set-top box that connects to the Internet and serves videos. Boxee makes one such device. The key to commercial success for any such device is access to content, and Boxee had until recently been planning to get content from, among other sources, streaming video provider Hulu. Hulu carries content from numerous TV networks, including Fox, NBC, Comedy Central, PBS, and Sci Fi. One could imagine Boxee, with support for Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and various other sources posing a legitimate threat to traditional cable and fiber video services (e.g. Comcast or FiOS).

The emergence of such a free-standing IPTV service would be an important development that could break the video content market wide open and end the stranglehold that the big cable companies and telcos currently have over it. So it is disturbing to see that the powers that control Hulu (Fox and NBC) nixed Hulu's deal with Boxee. I assume that the scenario played out more or less as Marc Hedlund describes in the article. But it's not entirely clear what the motivation of the content providers is here. I think Hedlund is probably right that the advertising contracts probably work differently for online viewing that for traditional TV viewing, and the the networks have some profit incentive to protect their TV advertising. But this should be a temporary limitation--as new contracts are entered or old contracts are renewed there is no reason why fee structures shouldn't be adjusted to reflect the new reality that Internet video may be viewed on TVs as well as computer monitors. And to that extent, one might think that the networks would have some interest in seeing Boxee get off the ground and build some viewership so that the networks would be able to turn around and sell access to those viewers to potential advertisers. Instead they seem inclined to strangle Boxee in the cradle.

It's possible this is just a negotiating tactic and the networks want to squeeze a few dollars out of Boxee before they acquiesce in the Boxee-Hulu deal. But it's also possible that there are greater philosophical differences at work. It could be that the networks are cozy with cable operators and the telcos (or are frightened of them) and don't want to rock the boat. Or that the networks are concerned about their future in a world of IPTV. There's really no such thing as a "channel" on IPTV. And what, exactly, is a television network with no channels? Ultimately I do think there would be an important role for the networks in an IPTV environment, something more akin to what movie studios do: picking potential projects, then financing, producing, and marketing them. But it would be a big change, and if we've learned anything from the struggles of old content industries on the Internet so far it's that big incumbents are extremely resistant to embracing change. Additionally, even though the networks will still be important in an IPTV universe, they will certainly be subject to new competition. It would be far cheaper and easier for independently produced content to gain an audience via IPTV than it is in the traditional video market.

In any case, if the networks are inclined to fight IPTV, they are in position to set back its progress considerably. Without major network support, IPTV is likely doomed to being a supplementary service to traditional video rather than a direct competitor with it. This would be a bad result for consumers and a bad result for both the telecom market and the video content market, but sadly I'm not sure that it is irrational from the standpoint of the networks. I'm also not sure, at this point, that there is much that can be done from a regulatory standpoint to push the networks towards IPTV, but we should be on the lookout for opportunities to do so.

Brad DeLong Takes a Stand

Brad DeLong, econ professor at Berkley (and respected blogger) has written a letter to the school's administration requesting that it terminate the employment of law professor John Yoo. I thank him for it, and hope others will join him. I've found it quite disturbing for several years now that Yoo has been treated as a respectable and important member of the legal academia. The man should count himself lucky that he is not in prison for war crimes and have the good sense to otherwise remain out of sight. DeLong's letter is well worth reading. The actions Yoo took for the Bush administration were blatantly unethical, and a lot of people suffered and died behind the bogus legal cover he provided the administration. He is an embarrassment to the school and the profession. And that's to say nothing of Jay Bybee sitting on the 9th Circuit.

Being a Bully Isn't the Best Bet

First, I should note that I have been greatly enjoying Foreign Policy mag's expanded blogger lineup (Tom Ricks, Dan Drezner, Stephen Walt, and Marc Lynch). It's quite an impressive group of analysts, and part of my regular reading routine these days. Walt recently pointed out a great paper on international relations by Todd Sechser. Walt summarizes it as follows:
[G]reat powers often fail to get their way when they issue coercive threats (which is surprising at first glance), and that this problem may in fact get worse the more powerful they are. The basic logic here concerns reputation: weak states will worry about giving in to a great power’s demands (even when the demands are fairly minor), because they will fear that the great power will just demand more later. So they resist now, to enhance their reputation for being stubborn and to convince the great power to leave them alone in the future. The core of the problem is that a very powerful state can’t make a credible commitment of restraint; it can’t reassure the weak state that it really, truly, wants just a modest concession, one that the weak state might be willing to grant if it were confident that this would be the only demand. And the bigger and stronger the coercing state is, the harder it is for that state to reassure the weak power that its aims are actually limited.
It's not a shock that coercive threats against other states are generally unsuccessful (I think that's been a semi-regular theme of foreign policy discussions on this blog), but I think the point about being able to credibly commit to restraint is useful. This is one of the great values of international institutions. It has long been fashionable for conservatives (generally, but often liberals too) to scoff at the UN for hindering our ability to get things done. Ironically, the fact that working through institutions like the UN does to some extent tie our hands can make them more useful. A commitment to work through institutions in which our actions are restrained and other parties have meaningful voice makes our actions less threatening and more constructive.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Silver on Progressivism

So I have to concede that after having been a serious Nate Silver junkie throughout the election season, I hardly looked at for a couple of months after the election was over. Increasingly, however, I've been drawn back as a regular reader. I think this post goes a long way to explaining why. I have from time to time expressed a certain amount of frustration with the liberal bloggers and netroots (as here or here). The online liberal community seems to have a heavy tilt towards economic populism and hyper-partisan demagoguery that I tend to find repellent. Some of the more prominent bloggers (e.g. Matt Yglesias) are lighter on the economic populism, but still tend to be heavy-handed partisan footsoldiers. Silver comes closer to mirroring my own views than any of the other bloggers I currently read. The discussion at linked above does a pretty good job of sorting out the differences. Like Silver, Obama clearly falls into the "rational progressive" category--in fact, he probably represents the prototypical ideal of rational progressivism. I expect we'll see plenty of argument over the next 4 or 8 years between the rational progressives and the radical progressives over the direction of the Obama administration. At least I hope so, because the conservatives are, frankly, too stupid to bother arguing with lately.