The Right to Remember

Earlier this year, Mario Costeja-González won the right to be forgotten.  The Court of Justice of the EU ruled Google had to remove search results linking to a 1998 newspaper article about the foreclosure of his home (due to unpaid debts he later paid).  In the ultimate irony, he’s now permanently and widely remembered for precisely what he wanted everyone to forget (the Streisand Effect).

Now, search engines must consider requests from individuals to remove search results that:

appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive in the light of the time that had elapsed 

This raises the key question:  who judges this?  Something “irrelevant” to one person might be highly relevant to another.  Not surprisingly, Google is making its point by notifying Web sites when results are removed.

This decision raises fundamental questions about the right to inform & freedoms of speech and press.  The newspaper’s freedom to publish the foreclosure news is clearly protected, I am free to link to the news, and this blog post will eventually show up in search results.  It seems arbitrary that some have freedoms and some don’t.

For better or worse, search technology has permanently changed the privacy calculus.  Since the dawn of time we’ve enjoyed “practical obscurity“, where a lot of personal information was hard to identify, locate, or access. That’s changed, and legislators will now chase the issue with law and rulings in a never-ending game of Whac-a-Mole. For example, how long until someone finds ways to detect links that were removed and publishes them?

(Given this new world, a far better strategy for Mr. Costeja-González would be to generate new content and bury the foreclosure news in the noise.)

The Internet never forgets; plan accordingly.

If You’re Developing Any 3D Printing Tech, Don’t Buy A Stratasys Printer

I’ve written before about the risks of building on various Internet platform APIs (e.g. Facebook, Google, etc.) — many SDK agreements let the platform copy anything they want, while you have no recourse.

I just learned about a similar example in the hardware world. From Stratasys’s licensing agreement:

Customer hereby grants to Stratasys a fully paid-up, royalty-free, worldwide, non-exclusive, irrevocable, transferable right and license in, under, and to any patents and copyrights enforceable in any country, issued to, obtained by, developed by or acquired by Customer that are directed to 3D printing equipment, the use or functionality of 3D printing equipment, and/or compositions used or created during the functioning of 3D printing equipment (including any combination of resins, such as combinations relating to multi-resin mixing, color dithering or geometrical resin-mixture structure of the resin) that is developed using the Products and that incorporates, is derived from and/or improves upon the Intellectual Property and/or trade secrets of Stratasys. Such license shall also extend to Stratasys’ customers, licensors and other authorized users of Stratasys products in connection with their use of Stratasys products.

In simpler terms, if (a) you own a product subject to this license, and (b) invent something related to 3D printing, Stratasys and all of their customers have a right to use your invention without paying you.

(Technically, it says that your invention must incorporate, or be derived from, or improve upon their IP.  Given the breadth of their patents, they will argue anything in 3D printing meets this test.  They also include “trade secrets”, which are, well, secret.)

I’ve seen some audacious licensing agreements, but this one takes the cake!

The Disrupted Fight Back With Lobbyists

Is it just me, or does it seem like an increasing number of successful technology startups are running into growing legal and regulatory issues?  Specifically, the incumbents getting disrupted aren’t always fighting back in the market; they’re fighting back with lobbyists.

Consider these current examples:

Aereo.  This company receives free over-the-air signals (using mini antennas, one per subscriber) and streams them on-line.  The networks aren’t happy because they’re not getting paid the way cable companies have to pay.  This case is pending at the Supreme Court, and the press is comparing it to the 1984 Betamax ruling that made it legal to record TV shows at home.

Uber. There are so many lawsuits from taxi companies and associations, I don’t even know where to start.

Airbnb.  Cities want the hospitality tax (Airbnb is moving to collect taxes in New York, San Francisco, and Portland) and the hospitality industry doesn’t want the competition.

Tesla.  Can you name any other industry where a manufacturer can’t sell their own product?  Laws designed to protect auto dealerships from anti-competitive moves by their current manufacturers are now being used by dealers to prevent new manufacturers.

Google Fiber.  The ISP lobby has gotten limits on municipal broadband in 20 states, and a fairly extreme (restrictive) bill was proposed in Kansas (but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere).  ISPs don’t think it’s fair to compete with municipalities who take matters into their own hands to get competitive broadband service.

Every Bitcoin startup.  This one is so early in the Bitcoin era, most folks don’t even know where to start lobbying.  That didn’t stop my home state senator, Joe Manchin to call for a complete ban. It was embarrassing (he’s since backed off, a little).

What’s most interesting:  in every single case (except Bitcoin, too early), the consumers are very happy (often extremely so).  They’re enjoying the fruits of innovation and competition — exactly the way things are supposed to work.

By virtually any test of our fundamental policies regarding free markets, anti-competitive practices, and restraint of trade, these innovators should not have so much regulatory headwind!

Why Aren’t ISPs Surfing Moore’s Law?

Back in the mid-90s, I bought a new family PC for $3300. It had a few MB of RAM and a 386 processor.  In today’s dollars, it cost nearly $5000 — try spending that much on a PC today!

Recently, I built a machine with 32GB of RAM, a fast 4-core Intel processor, and 12TB of disk (raw size).  It is several thousands of times larger and faster in nearly every dimension than that old family PC, at less than half the cost.

Moore’s Law has settled in, and we now expect our technology to get dramatically faster, more capable, and cheaper over time. Flip phones are gone, and we’re carrying around personal supercomputers.  My phone’s built-in cameras (plural!) have better performance than my first digital cameras.  Ethernet went from 10mbits, to 100, and now a 5-port gigabit switch costs $18.  Compare the current model iPhone to the original, and a $500 TV to the same-priced model a few years ago.

Given this, why isn’t our Internet bandwidth keeping up?  Verizon just notified me that my monthly rate is going up $10 (with no speed increase).  As I wrote last week, Netflix has reported a speed drop in some cases and is now trying to figure out its relationship with ISPs.  Akamai reports that US speeds have stopped increasing in some cases, and are increasing more slowly in many other cases.  Projecting my PC experience, my Internet connection should now be a gigabit and cost $50/month.  Why isn’t it?

ISPs argue that networks are incredibly expensive to build.  That’s true: ISPs have spent tens of billions building out fiber networks, and governments have offered significant incentives.

But fiber is special:  unlike copper circuits, fiber bandwidth is usually limited by the endpoint technology.  Where DSL is often running as fast as the copper can stand, fiber links have much, much higher potential bandwidth.  The price-performance of endpoint gear (subscriber terminals and core routers) improves at rates closer to Moore’s Law.  For example, Verizon’s own FiOS terminals have moved from 622 mbits to 2.4 gbit link speeds since they first rolled out the service.

For the fiber now in the ground and on the poles, why isn’t bandwidth price-performance improving more quickly?

There’s an Internet Showdown Brewing

Back home in West Virginia, our Verizon phones have no 3G service. There’s no fundamental technical issue; Verizon and US Cellular just won’t enter a 3G roaming agreement.

This scenario captures a core net neutrality concern: are we moving to an Internet where our access is determined more by business agendas and less by technical issues?

Recently, streaming video demand has been forcing this issue. Netflix’s traffic has been growing, and measured throughput has dropped for some major ISPs (e.g. down 14% for Verizon in one month). Verizon is seeking payment to carry Netflix’s traffic, and Craig Silliman (Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs) has said that Verizon’s policy is to require payment from networks that send more data than they carry in return. “When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise”.

This is going to get more interesting.

Clearly, ISPs are maneuvering to “double dip”: subscribers pay for access to content, and now ISPs want content providers to also pay for access to subscribers. That’s not bad business if you can get it, but it makes you wonder if the ISPs are merely leveraging their powerful position. After all, Netflix is sending data to Verizon’s network because a paying Verizon subscriber asked for it!

The problem is ISPs sell “unlimited data” (effectively), but their networks are nowhere near the capacity needed for all subscribers using full bandwidth. The ISPs bet subscribers use only a small average bandwidth fraction. In the past, this model has worked well: legacy telephone and cable networks have relatively stable demand patterns.

Now, for the first time, these providers are surfing Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law. Advances in computation and network performance (not to mention billions of people on-line) are driving exponential demand for bandwidth, as well as an expectation that services will be better, faster, and cheaper over time.

Worse, ISPs have been famously unimaginative about future applications and bandwidth demand (e.g. comments by Time Warner’s CFO that customers don’t really want gigabit speeds). Your next TV will likely be 4K with IP-delivered video. Don’t forget video conferencing: HD-quality cameras are cheap and 4K cameras are a few hundred dollars. At some point, we’ll be able to look around a remote location with VR goggles.

Even worse, most ISPs are fundamentally conflicted: IP-streaming video competes with their own proprietary video offerings. However, should they be allowed to slow down and tax these new competitors? And if they charge content providers like Netflix, can they discriminate or must they offer identical terms to any content provider?

As I said, it’s going to be interesting.