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Why I don't believe in robots

My new Guardian column is "Why it is not possible to regulate robots," which discusses where and how robots can be regulated, and whether there is any sensible ground for "robot law" as distinct from "computer law."

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The Internet should be treated as a utility: Susan Crawford


Susan Crawford (previously) is America's best commentator on network policy and network neutrality. In this interview with Ezra Klein, she makes the case for treating Internet access as a utility -- not necessarily a right, but something that markets do a bad job of supplying on their own. She describes how regulatory failures have made America into a global Internet laggard, with enormous damage to the nation's competitiveness and potential, and provides a compelling argument for locating the market for service in who gets to light up your fiber, not who gets to own it. Drawing on parallels to the national highway system and the electrification project, Crawford describes a way forward for America where the Internet is finally viewed as "an input into absolutely everything we do," and not merely as a glorified video-on-demand service.

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FCC adds 100MHz of spectrum to the commons

The FCC has unanimously voted to open up 100MHz of spectrum at the bottom end of the 5GHz band, redesignating them as open spectrum, under rules similar to those that created the original Wifi boom. Previously, the spectrum had been exclusively allocated to a satellite telephony company. Adding more open spectrum is amazingly great news, and even better is the bipartisan support for the move, which was attended by very promising-sounding remarks from commissioners from both parties about the value of open spectrum as a source of innovation and public value.

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FDA rules make it nearly impossible for beer makers to give their grain to farmers for feed


Joe sez, "There's a new FDA rule that will make it nearly make it financially impossible for small craft brewers to give their grain away to farmers for animal feed. I work for a small brewery and all of us there are very upset about this and the general disregard for sustainability. At the end if the article linked there's direct FDA links that cover their proposal."

Leftover brewing grains have been fed to livestock since the dawn of agriculture, so this is a pretty radical shift. The proposed new requirements for animal feed handling stipulate that the feed has to be dried, analyzed and packaged before being donated to farmers (the spent grains are generally given away at the end of the brewing process), at substantial expense.

It's clear that food safety is important, but I'm not convinced that the stringency of this rule is commensurate with the risk.

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Korean plastic surgeon removes towering jars of excised jawbones after fine

A Gangnam, Seoul plastic surgeon who did a roaring trade in excising womens' jawbones to give them V-shaped chins was forced to remove the towering jars of thousands of jawbone fragments with which he decorated his office. Photos of the jars spread online, resulting in a visit from a local official, who fined the surgeon about $3000 and ordered the display removed.

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23andMe vs. the FDA in less than 4 minutes

At what point does interesting-but-potentially-incorrect-or-misleading information become a potential threat to health? How do you regulate a product that current regulations were never set up to handle? The University of Michigan's Risk Science Center put together this quick cartoon that neatly summarizes the problems and questions at the heart of the FDA's crackdown on 23andMe, which Xeni wrote about on Monday.

A couple of other smart takes on this that have come out in the past couple of days:
• Genomics expert Michael Eisen delves deeper into the question of how we should regulate personal genetic testing.
Journalist David Dobbs rounded up some diverse opinions. You should pay attention to his blog. He's been doing a lot of great reporting on genetics and culture and is planning on publishing a longer piece on the 23andMe stuff later this week.

Meet your newest meat safety problem

A faster meat safety program, with fewer government inspectors and more inspectors employed directly by the meat companies themselves, is associated with higher levels of contaminated meat. So why is the USDA planning to expand this program nationwide? Maggie 26

Hospitals ignore regulations meant to keep medical costs lower

A new study finds that out-of-network medical bills aren't just high, they're often illegally high — with hospitals ignoring regulations meant to keep you out of debt when you get sick out of state. Maggie

Anonymizing is really hard really, so why is the EU acting like it's easy?

My latest Guardian column is "Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty," a look at the absurdity of having privacy rules that describes some data-sets as "anonymous" and others as "pseudonymous," while computer scientists in the real world are happily re-identifying "anonymous" data-sets with techniques that grow more sophisticated every day. The EU is being lobbied as never before on its new data protection rules, mostly by US IT giants, and the new rules have huge loopholes for "anonymous" and "pseudonymous" data that are violently disconnected from the best modern computer science theories. Either the people proposing these categories don't really care about privacy, or they don't know enough about it to be making up the rules -- either way, it's a bad scene.

Since the mid-noughties, de-anonymising has become a kind of full-contact sport for computer scientists, who keep blowing anonymisation schemes out of the water with clever re-identifying tricks. A recent paper in Nature Scientific Reports showed how the "anonymised" data from a European phone company (likely one in Belgium) could be re-identified with 95% accuracy, given only four points of data about each person (with only two data-points, more than half the users in the set could be re-identified).

Some will say this doesn't matter. They'll say that privacy is dead, or irrelevant, or unimportant. If you agree, remember this: the reason anonymisation and pseudonymisation are being contemplated in the General Data Protection Regulation is because its authors say that privacy is important, and worth preserving. They are talking about anonymising data-sets because they believe that anonymisation will protect privacy – and that means that they're saying, implicitly, privacy is worth preserving. If that's policy's goal, then the policy should pursue it in ways that conform to reality as we understand it.

Indeed, the whole premise of "Big Data" is at odds with the idea that data can be anonymised. After all, Big Data promises that with very large data-sets, subtle relationships can be teased out. In the world of re-identifying, they talk about "sparse data" approaches to de-anonymisation. Though most of your personal traits are shared with many others, there are some things about you that are less commonly represented in the set – maybe the confluence of your reading habits and your address; maybe your city of birth in combination with your choice of cars.

Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty

UK press-regulation defines "press" so broadly as to include tweeters, Facebook users, bloggers


UK regulations may soon regulate all tweeters, bloggers, and other people who post on the Internet as part of a new system of press regulation.

Today in London, Parliament is the in throes of a closed-door horse-trading exercise over "Leveson" -- that is, the Leveson Inquiry in to the bad behavior of the British press, whose tabloids got caught illegally spying on people (from MPs and Lords down to grieving parents of murdered children), bribing cops high and low, and otherwise engaging in shenanigans that were pretty awful. Strangely, although all of these things were already illegal (but were not vigorously investigated by cops and politicos who were beholden to the press for lucrative "columns," gifts, and favourable coverage), the English political establishment has decided that the real problem is that the press isn't regulated enough.

The Tories want the press regulated without a specific law -- they favour an obscure instrument called a Royal Charter. Labour and the LibDems want a press-regulating law. All of the coverage of this issue today is about the difference between these two options. What neither of them are talking about is Schedule 4, which establishes that the new rules will cover "a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)" where publication "takes place in the United Kingdom" and relates to "news or information about public affairs" or "opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs."

In a nutshell, then: if you press a button labelled "publish" or "submit" or "tweet" while in the UK, these rules as written will treat you as a newspaper proprietor, and make you vulnerable to an arbitration procedure where the complainer pays nothing, but you have to pay to defend yourself, and that will potentially have the power to fine you, force you to censor your posts, and force you to print "corrections" and "apologies" in a manner that the regulator will get to specify.

As Alec Muffett writes, "anyone who says 'Yes, but this is all about 'smoke filled rooms' and controlling Murdoch, they’d never do it to bloggers' has no memory of any previous overreach of powers by the state, police or other regulators."

UK Bloggers & Tweeters: Be aware that the Royal Charter re: #Leveson is also aimed at regulating *you* (Thanks, Hal!)

Susan Crawford should run the FCC!

Andrew Rasiej sez, "If you're disappointed in the speed, quality, and cost of broadband service in the US you should learn about Susan Crawford who is the greatest US expert on the state of broadband and how the Federal Communications Commission has failed to properly regulate and spur competition or innovation in the marketplace. She has just published an OpEd in the New York Times which could easily be titled 'If I were Chairwoman of the FCC' and she published a book called Captive Audience which details the way various incumbent broadband related companies have gamed the political process and behaved unfairly in protecting their turf. Those who would like to see her actually named should sign this White House petition and send the same to their friends and colleagues. She is like the Elizabeth Warren of telecom and would fundamentally change the status quo."

To get there, the federal government needs to pursue three goals. First, it must remove barriers to investment in local fiber networks. Republican and Democratic mayors around the country are rightly jealous of the new, Google-built fiber network in Kansas City, Mo., which is luring start-ups from across the country. And yet in nearly 20 states, laws sponsored by incumbent network operators have raised barriers for cities wanting to foster competitive networks.

In response, Congress must act to restore local communities’ right to self-determination by pre-empting these unfair and anticompetitive state laws. We must also create infrastructure banks that provide long-term, low-interest financing to support the initial costs of building these networks.

Second, the F.C.C. must make reasonably priced high-speed access available to everyone. In the 20th century, we made a commitment to provide universal telephone service to every American and to subsidize that utility service for our poor and rural neighbors. High-speed Internet access is now undisputedly the dominant communications technology of our era. We need to make sure that subsidies are available for competitive companies willing to extend world-class service to more Americans.

The F.C.C.’s Connect America Fund, which is supposed to promote such expansion, is mostly funneled back through existing communications companies. This isn’t the way to encourage new wired network providers to enter local markets. Nor will voluntary programs run by local monopoly cable distributors like Comcast meet our country’s needs.

Finally, the F.C.C. must foster more competition by changing the rules that keep the status quo in place. There is a raft of regulations and processes at the F.C.C. that incumbents wield to maintain their market power, including rules about access to programming and to telephone poles that favor existing providers. The agency has ample administrative power to fix these details and to gather the information it needs to develop and enforce effective policies.

How to Get America Online

Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age

(Thanks, Andrew!)

Public Resource liberates global building codes, include the Eurocode -- free the law!

Rogue archivist Carl Malamud sez,

Public.Resource.Org today released 10,062 public safety documents covering 24 countries and 6 regions, including the European Union. The release is documented in a README file and accompanied by 12 tables of supporting documentation.

Some of these standards were obtained directly from the web sites of national standards bodies, such as Ecuador and Thailand which make their standards freely available. A couple thousand were scraped from the World Trade Organization web site, which maintains a repository of mandatory notifications made by member countries. We spent $180,410.73 to obtain the rest of the documents, such as the mandatory building code of Europe, the Eurocode.

These standards were published in order to promote public education and public safety, equal justice for all, a better informed citizenry, the rule of law, world trade and world peace, this legal document is hereby made available on a noncommercial basis, as it is the right of all humans to know and speak the laws that govern them.

This law is your law. Enjoy!

Twelve Tables of Codes (Thanks, Carl!)

New FCC rules will let a single company own a town's ISP, newspapers, 2 TV stations and 8 radio stations


Josh from Free Press sez, " FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to gut existing rules that limit media consolidation. This is bad news for people who care about the effects of too much media in too few hands. Genachowski's proposed plan would make our media less diverse, create local media monopolies and ultimately mean less news. This rule would allow ONE company to own a daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in your town. And that one company could be your Internet provider, too. Scary."

No More Media for Murdoch [Petition to FCC]

Britain's free press cringes in anticipation of coming regulation; plutocrats and oligarchs celebrate

Writing in The Spectator, Kirsty Walker describes the chilling effect the UK's Leveson Inquiry (which is investigating illegal phone/email interception and systematic harassment by UK papers, especially tabloids) is having on legitimate reporting. The UK is already the best place in the world for rich and powerful people who want to use libel law to silence unflattering accounts of their actions. But with Leveson heading for its conclusion and the spectre of official press regulation (through which the government would license reporters and news outlets, and could remove those licenses at will), reporters and their editors are under increasing pressure from the world's dictators and local plutocrats.

Before the Leveson inquiry, I had received less than a dozen PCC complaints in my career and never had one upheld. But when I left, complaints were coming in at a rate of at least one a month. All required mini-investigations. Even foreign dictatorships know how to frighten Fleet Street. The last complaint I was asked to deal with was from a dictator, the King of Bahrain, who didn’t like the way I referred to criticism of his regime following the deaths of 40 people in anti-government protests.

Like 99.99 per cent of British journalists, I never hacked a phone or bribed a public official. During my long career in the House of Commons, I tried my utmost to be fair. If a story didn’t quite stack up, I would abandon it. A small handful of journalists did hire private investigators to do some horrific things, but there are laws in this country to deal with them.

How do we know that Lord Leveson’s report will encourage the rich, the powerful, the venal and the pompous to intimidate journalists and frighten papers into not covering stories? Because the prospect of it has done so already. How do we know that an elite will attempt to decide what it is appropriate for the rest of us to read about over our cornflakes? Because Leveson is already doing exactly that. This is the judge who read a 200-word article in the Times about how The Thick of It was planning to satirise him in one episode — and promptly asked the editor of that paper whether it was ‘appropriate’ for him to run the piece. It is all too easy to guess what a judge with such an attitude to newspapers will do for press freedom.

What the papers won’t say (Thanks, Marilyn!)

Why lavatory ashtrays are mandatory on nonsmoking flights

Matt Simmons, who writes the Standalone Sysadmin blog, has been wondering why there are ashtrays in airplane toilets, even though you aren't allowed to smoke anywhere on or near an airplane, and you haven't been allowed to do so for quite some time. It turns out that airplane toilet ashtrays are mandatory: "Regardless of whether smoking is allowed in any other part of the airplane, lavatories must have self-contained, removable ashtrays located conspicuously on or near the entry side of each lavatory door, except that one ashtray may serve more than one lavatory door if the ashtray can be seen readily from the cabin side of each lavatory served." (Code of Federal Regulations for airworthiness). Simmons explains why:

The plane can not leave the terminal if the bathrooms don’t have ashtrays. They’re non-optional.

That’s an awfully strange stance to take for a vehicle with such a stringent “no smoking” policy, but it really does make a lot of sense. Back in 1973, a flight crashed and killed 123 people, and the reason for the crash was attributed to a cigarette that was improperly disposed of.

The FAA has decided that some people (despite the policies against smoking, the warning placards, the smoke detector, and the flight attendants) will smoke anyway, and when they do, there had better be a good place to put that cigarette butt.

Engineering Infrastructures For Humans (via Digg)