Saturday, June 30, 2007

An iPhone post...

So I'm waiting for the iPhone to "activate", by which I mean get a signal from at&t that will tell the phone to start its web-browser and wifi interfaces. That doesn't appear to be happening any time soon, but I feel I have to blog something related to the iPhone.

This article from has an interesting comment about the social norms of waiting in line. The article points out that while it's rude to jump ahead of people to buy the first iPhone, it's not illegal.

This is a good starting point to ask what sorts of social norms should be regulated by the government. Stephen Landsburg points out that our social norm may be the best way, and using economic theory, it might be better to always put the latest arrivals at the head of the line. Computer scientists who study queuing theory have their own ideas of a "fair" way to stand in line. Other cultures have different social norms. For example, the Chinese government is now worried that Western norms will clash with Chinese norms (they take cuts) during the Olympic games in a couple years. Governments attempting to regulate social norms are in danger of forcing us to follow what may turn out to be bad norms.

Despite this, a lot of people want social norms regulated. The British government is heading that direction. Lawrence Lessig, board member of the EFF, argues that the government should regulate social norms on the Internet.

In many ways, the government is already regulating the social norms of the Internet without people quite realizing it. Electronics Arts (EA) have published their Terms of Service that you must agree to in order to play their games. Among those terms are: You will not exploit any bug in the Service or in any EA product to gain unfair advantage in the game and you will not communicate the existence of any such bug (either directly or through the public posting) to any other user of the Service. This a good social norm on one hand (we don't like cheaters) and a bad one on the other (we don't like restriction in our freedom to speak). Unfortunately, the courts have ruled in the Bnetd case that such restrictions might be enforceable. Before you argue that the government should regulate social norms, you might ask yourself if you are willing to have the government side with the wrong norm (pro-speech or anti-cheating).

As we ask the government more and more to regulate and police the Internet, how much longer are we going to get away with not paying for those services? What I mean here is that the more the government gets involved in governing the Internet, the more they are going to want to tax it. If companies like EA want the government to regulate virtual money in their games, the government is going to want to tax that virtual money.

What we have here is both the right (businesses like EA) and the left (groups like the EFF) campaigning for the government to regulate and police social norms on the Internet. I predict the situation will get worse. I'm suggesting that we should resist all such attempts by the government, even if we agree with the norm they want to regulate (such talk won't make you NetNeutrality guys happy).

Grr. I've written this long diatribe and my iPhone STILL hasn't activated. Maybe I should fuzz something else this weekend. I wonder if anybody has tested Opera recnetly...


Mike Myers said...

Lawrence Lessig's editorial aside for a moment, I object to this blog's continuing to dismiss and pigeonhole the EFF as "the left." They are not some PAC or 527 group with a partisan agenda.

The EFF's mission is fairly narrowly defined, and not associated with any particular political party. The EFF routinely opposes certain bipartisan legislation (e.g. copyright law related) and favors other bipartisan legislation (e.g. e-voting reform related).

The left/right term is inherently both "loaded" and limited in descriptive power, but even if you consider just its meaning in terms of free market economics, it is hard to see why you would pin the EFF to one or the other "side" on the axis. EFF is against government regulating technology when it means requiring copyright protection mechanisms that prevent fair use. Can this be colored as "pro-business" or "anti-business?" The EFF has a mission to prevent abusive technology patents and protect innovation. Again, this is a position ostensibly in service of a free market.

So, using perjorative labels like left and right does a disservice to honest discussion of issues in this case. It would be fair to describe the EFF as "populist" (and this blog has) but the derisive tone and the implication that the EFF equals advocation of some kind of nanny state, really turns me off.

Robert Graham said...

NetNeutrality is a leftist nanny-state law.

The EFF blindly supports anything that attacks a large corporation. They proudly point to the Sony Rootkit case as a victory, but it was just raping Sony on trumped up charges.

The Grokster case was another good example. If the EFF had a strategic plan for protecting our P2P rights, they never would have argued that case to the supreme court. They would be picking the cases they can win to set good precendent, rather than allowing cases like Grokster to set bad precedent. Their blind leftist populism endagers our electronic freedoms.