Blown To Bits

Archive for February, 2009

The iPhone and the DMCA: i is for “imprisonment”

Saturday, February 14th, 2009 by Hal Abelson

iPhones are prisons: iPhones have software locks to ensure that the only applications that run on them are applications you get from Apple.  The Trusted Platform Module (TPM) technology for constructing such locks is explained in chapter 6 of Blown to Bits, illustrated there with the fictitious example of Fortress Publishers.   Now Apple is playing the role of Fortress, and the example is anything but fictitious.

The process of removing those TPM locks, a process called jailbreaking, violates the anticircumvention provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Apple wants to keep it that way.

As chapter 6 of B2B explains, Congress in the DMCA charged the Librarian of Congress with conducting hearings every three years on proposed exemptions.¬† In 2006, Americans got the right to undo the lock-in on their mobile phones for the purpose of shifting to a new service provider.¬† Last October, the Electronic Frontier Foundation requested a new exemption to let smart-phone owners undo the locks for the purpose of letting the phones run legally-acquired software of their choosing.¬† In the words of EFF, this would “foster competition in the software market, thereby encouraging innovation and expanding consumer choice.”

When we we buy computers, we’re used to the idea that we can use them to run whatever software we like, and that for someone to create new successful software requires only talent and ideas, not permission from Apple or MIcrosoft.¬†¬† Jonathan Zittrain’s highly recommended book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (see my review of Zittrain’s book in American Scientist) argues that this “openness” in the personal computer is has been a critical enabler for the digital explosion’s enormous outpouring of innovation.

Not so for the smart phone, if Apple has its way.

Yesterday Apple filed an objection to the proposed exemption, on the grounds the letting users run unauthorized software could result in “potential damage to the device and other potential harmful physical effects.”¬† More to the point, Apple says that the lock-in is necessary for their business model for the iPhone (Apple gets 30% of the proceeds from applications sold through the iPhone Store) and argues that the DMCA doesn’t give the Copyright Office the power to make decisions based on business models.

This is another example, like the ones in chapter 6, of why the DMCA’s anticircumvention provision might be better described as an anticompetition provision.¬†¬† Congress passed this in 1998 in an attempt to crack down on music file sharing.¬† It didn’t work; and as I blogged last September, the recording industry itself is largely abandoning DRM for software distribution. Yet anticircumvention remains as a legal club that enables technology lock-in and prevents competition in areas having little connection to the original motivation for the law.

Fairness Doctrine Redux

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The abominably misnamed “Fairness Doctrine” seems to be gathering steam for reinstatement. I have no political axe to grind here; I’m an information free-marketeer. Can you imagine any court going along with the proposition that by government regulation, editorial opinions in newspapers have to be politically balanced? Given the First Amendment, it is hard to think of anything more un-American.

The argument goes that the airwaves are different; they are public property and there are only so many to go around. As a national resource, they should be distributed “fairly,” so that a range of views can be heard.

There are so many things wrong with this argument from a purely philosophical point of view that it’s hard to know where to begin. Should truth and falsehood be equally represented, and if not, who is to decide whether someone’s claimed truth is actually false? Do Darwin and Usher get equal time to express their views on the age of the earth?

But the fundamental problem here is that spectrum scarcity, which is the premise for its nationalization and government control, is artificial. Chapter 8 explains the reasons, but my evidence could not be simpler. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of broadcast radio stations coexist around you right now. They are called cell phones. Modern radio technology is much more efficient than that of the 1930s when the present schemes for allocating broadcast licenses were legislated.

The case for the government to dictate content of radio broadcasts is very week philosophically, but without its technological foundation, it collapses completely.

Democracy Now!

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I was on this TV show this morning. I actually stayed on long after the telecast ended, as Amy Goodman used the book as a freebie for their fundraising campaign. You can view the video here.

Facebook’s Lawyers Screw Up Digital Redaction

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

On pages 73-77 of Blown to Bits, we go through three cases in which editors electronically redacted documents to remove sensitive information, not realizing that the way they were doing the redaction changed only the way the document appeared on the screen. The internal representation of the document still included the redacted text, which a simple cut and paste operation disclosed.

Not the most fascinating part of the book, I’ll bet. In fact, I’ll bet some of you skipped over it fairly quickly.

These were serious mistakes with big consequences. I hadn’t heard any recent reports of similar failures.

But the underlying problem hasn’t gone away. The electronic “document” metaphor is too convincing. It’s easy for a editor to infer that what is happening on the screen is what is really happening to the computer file.

A few days ago, it was disclosed that the value put on Facebook at the time the settlement with ConnectU was a lot less than it might have been, had the value been based on Microsoft’s subsequent purchase of a percentage of Facebook. How do we know? The imputed value (and ConnectU’s settlement) were inadvertently revealed by Facebook’s lawyers. Revealed how? Here is the account offered by

Large portions of that hearing are redacted in a transcript of the June hearing, but The Associated Press was able to read the blacked-out portions by copying from an electronic version of the document and pasting the results into another document.

How embarrassing. Moral: read Chapter 3. And remember it!

Added 2/13:¬†Here is the actual PDF. Go to page 22. At the bottom is some whited out text preceded by the word “REDACTED”. Select the white space on the screen (you can do this with any PDF reader) and copy it, then paste it into your usual wordprocessor. Like magic, the $65 million dollar figure appears!

Updates: Stimulus Censorship, Tracking for Taxes

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Here is news on both of yesterday’s posts.

First, it appears that the anti-net-neutrality, pro-ISP-censorship language did not make it into the Senate version of the Stimulus bill. But Public Knowledge reports that Senator Feinstein is still hoping to include it in the “compromise” (who knew that a compromise could include things in neither bill between which it is a compromise?) and urges you to again let your voices be heard. (Here, by the way, is the actual amendment. The reference to “reasonable” network management practices is a dead giveaway that what the ISPs will do will not be reasonable — just as Senator Feinstein calling this an “uncontroversial amendment” is a good signal that it’s highly controversial!)

On the vehicle tracking front, today’s Herald makes clear that the Commonwealth is just exploring Oregon’s system. A GPS keeps LOCAL track of where the car is moving around and occasionally uploads the MILEAGE TOTAL, not the trajectory, perhaps when the vehicle is at a gas station. There are lots of privacy problems with this technology, and I am disappointed that Governor Patrick seems not to care. But at least we have a little better picture now what he’s talking about.

Censorship in the Stimulus Bill

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Some outrageous, utterly non-stimulative censorship language is being written into the stimulus package at the behest of the telecomm and entertainment industries. I transcribe this alarm directly from Public Knowledge. Please help!

Say No to Copyright Filtering in Broadband Stimulus

Hollywood’s lobbyists are running all over the Hill to sneak in a copyright filtering provision into the stimulus package. The amendment allow ISPs to “deter” child pornography and copyright infringement through network management techniques. The amendment is very, very controversial for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, infringement can’t be found through “network management” techniques. There are legal uses for copyrighted works even without permission of the owner.
  2. Second, it would require Internet companies to examine every bit of information everyone puts on the Web in order to find those allegedly infringing works, without a hint of probable cause. That would be a massive invasion of privacy, done at the request of one industry, violating the rights of everyone who is online.

Right now, we need you to contact a few key Senators: Majority Leader Harry Reid, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee Daniel Inouye, and Chairman of the Commerce Committee Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of the Finance Committee Max Baucus, and senior member of the Appropriations Committee Senator Barbara Mikulski, and tell them to leave out this controversial provision.

Fax a message to these Senators NOW


Call these Senators NOW via Cause Caller

Tracking Your Car in Massachusetts

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Buried in a story about Governor Patrick’s plans about the Massachusetts gas tax is an interesting detail:

Patrick is also considering a new system that would charge drivers based on the miles they travel. Those trips would be measured by a chip installed in a vehicle inspection sticker.

No more information is provided, and I couldn’t find anything on the Commonwealth’s web site. It sounds vaguely like the Oregon proposal about which I previously blogged, which didn’t make a lot of sense as it was described — a GPS monitor used only to log miles traveled, which would be uploaded at gas stations when you refilled your car. This sounds different, but I don’t even understand the theory here. For a “chip” (an RFID presumably) to be embedded in a “sticker,” it would have to be a passive device, no battery, and could be read only from a distance of a few inches or at most a foot or two — not the active RFIDs like the ones in toll booth transponders. How would such a “chip” be used to track how many miles you’ve driven?

The 90,000 Sex Offenders Booted Off Myspace

Saturday, February 7th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I’ve been waiting until I read something intelligent about it before commenting further on the widely publicized story that 90,000 registered sex offenders had been removed from Myspace, mentioned last week on this blog. The Connecticut Attorney General took this big number as proof of what he’s been claiming all along, that social networking sites are a new form of danger to children and need to be regulated and controlled to keep bad people away from unsuspecting, innocent children. The AG’s enthusiasm for trumpeting this statistic is part of a vicious and anti-scientific campaign to discredit the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report (see here and here and here for my earlier comments about this task force and its report). He doesn’t like the facts, so responds by denying them and then erecting a distracting sideshow.

Now danah boyd has done the math and made a few other important observations too. On the math front first: given the number of Myspace members, the density of sex offenders on Myspace is not high; in fact, it’s significantly lower than it is in the general public.

An observation that will surely excite an “even one is too many” response from Blumenthal and his fellow AGs, as though every registered sex offender is pedophile with a record of raping children. Hardly; you can wind up on the sex offender registry for all kinds of reasons, including plea deals in he-said-she-said rape cases involving two college students. (See Chapter 7 of Excellence Without a Soul for the long, sad story of one such case.)

But the most important observation is that mental model of danger is all wrong. It would do far more good to focus on vulnerable children and their Internet behavior than to try to purge the Internet of possible predators. There is a pretty good profile of what kinds of kids get into trouble, and it’s not the sexually innocent 11-year-old children of vigilant parents in suburban America. It’s older and sexually aware kids, kids with troubles, often family troubles, kids who crave affection and attention and explore liaisons in search of something that’s missing in their lives. The sad thing about the AGs’ ranting about Myspace pedophiles is that it distracts attention from the place where child endangerment could actually be addressed — with the children.

Harvard’s Librarian on the Google Monopoly

Friday, February 6th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Robert Darnton, a historian and head of Harvard’s library system, has an important article in the New York Review of Books, called Google and the Future of Books. It lays the utopian Enlightenment vision of a “Republic of Letters” side by side with the development of the Internet. Darnton explains beautifully how the Enlightenment ideal failed to come about (through professionalization and commercialization of knowledge), and warns that we are about to miss another opportunity because of the settlement hammered out between the publishing industry and Google about copyright issues with the Google Books project. The most poignant passage is the following:

Looking back over the course of digitization from the 1990s, we now can see that we missed a great opportunity. Action by Congress and the Library of Congress or a grand alliance of research libraries supported by a coalition of foundations could have done the job [of digitizing the world's books and making them available over the Internet] at a feasible cost and designed it in a manner that would have put the public interest first. … We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit.

The article is simple and clear, if a bit tough to read from the 02138 zip code. For Harvard has one of the greatest of university libraries, and though Darnton doesn’t say it, he knows perfectly well that those who came before him at Harvard signed a bad deal with Google, utterly without consultation and public discussion, under unseemly circumstances — as I (as well as others) have previously blogged. We at Harvard helped squander the Enlightenment dream.

How Much of the Cost of a Car is Electronics and Software?

Thursday, February 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A friend passed along this brief article from IEEE Spectrum. Among its interesting claims:

For today’s premium cars, “the cost of software and electronics can reach 35 to 40 percent of the cost of a car,” states [German professor Manfred] Broy, with software development contributing about 13 to 15 percent of that cost. He says that if it costs US $10 a line for developed software—a cost he says is low—for a premium car, its software alone represents about a billion dollars’ worth of investment.

Of all the staff hours in the entire program to build the [GMC Yukon] Two-Mode Hybrid transmission…some 70 percent…were devoted to developing the control software.

IBM claims that approximately 50 percent of car warranty costs are now related to electronics and their embedded software, costing automakers in the United States around $350 and European automakers €250 per vehicle in 2005.

On the other hand, the article claims that it takes 100 million lines of code to drive all the microprocessors in a car — that seems exaggerated, but perhaps true. There are many ways to do the accounting on LOC metrics.