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Archive for February, 2009

Why you should read this book . . .

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

. . . I’ve been doing a bunch of book “events” of various kinds, with a bunch more to come, and I’ve worked up a short talk about the book that explains, as best I can, why it’s worth reading:

I know my job – to summarize the book, and to do in such a way that is not only coherent to those of you who have not read it, interesting to those of you who have, and which implants the desire in those of you in the first category to rush out and buy it and read it immediately.

This is a hard book to summarize in 500 words/15 minutes. If I could do that, I would have written a blog posting instead of a book. This book actually began as a kind of blog posting back before there were blogs, back in 1995 with a little essay I wrote on “Jefferson in Cyberspace” for the EFF. But I found that I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to tell in 500 words (or a 15 minute talk). that’s why I wrote a whole book.

What’s it about? It’s the Internet, through Thomas Jefferson’s eyes. What would he make of it? What ideas would he bring to the table about it? What features would he think are important, what unimportant, in it, and why. That’s got to be interesting – if I pull it off. Whether I pull it off or not I leave to others – I think I do. It turns out, there’s a lot of interesting stuff we can learn about the Net by seeing it through Jefferson’s eyes, and a lot we learn about Jefferson when we try to look at something through his eyes. Guaranteed, or your money back! [I can also promise you magnificent prose – because I use much of Jefferson’s own writings to tell the story]

As an aside: Jefferson’s taken kind of bad rap over the last 10 years or so. Unfairly, I think. But that’s really neither here nor there. The proof’s in the pudding, as they say – I’m just trying to extract something useful from his thinking. The Internet can be a very difficult thing to think about – how does it work? who built it? where is it, exactly? is it a “place”? we talk about it as if it were, but we know that it really isn’t, that it’s really a . . . well, what is it, exactly? What’s going on out there? and who runs it? and whose law governs it? I’ll take help from wherever I can get it. Jefferson was a really smart guy

[You’ve probably heard the wonderful JFK quote: at a dinner at the White House honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners, Kennedy noted that it was “the greatest collection of talent ever gathered in that building, with the exception of when Jefferson dined alone.”]

and I think his ideas help.

So what do we learn about the Internet through Jefferson’s eyes? Again if I could tell you, I would just tell you. I can’t. It’s sort of a long story . . . not that long, but too long for tonight.

But I can give you the flavor by answering the first question most people have when they hear about the book, which is: What’s up with that moose??

You may already know the story. In 1787, Jefferson had the complete skeleton and carcass (with antlers) of an American moose, 7 feet tall at the shoulders, shipped to him in Paris (where he was serving as the American Minister to the court of Louis XVI), re-assembled, and installed in the entrance hall of his residence.

It’s an amusing little episode, Jefferson at his most lovably eccentric; if any of you saw the popular film from a few years back, “Jefferson in Paris,” you might recall that it was used for just that purpose in the film.

But lovable eccentricity aside, what was he up to? What did he care about, and why did he care so much about it, to go to the expense (which was considerable) and trouble (which was immense) to do this? And In 1787! one of those turning-point years in history when there was a lot of other stuff, to put it mildly, on his plate? He called the moose, in a letter to a friend, “an acquisition more precious than you can imagine.” Was he serious?

It turns out he was serious, and he was indeed up to something – something important.

He was trying to understand the principles of scale, the laws governing the growth and size of things – how you can make small things big, or big things small. He shipped a moose to Paris because he was engaged in an argument about animal scale, a global debate about the relative size of New World versus Old World animals. A number of European scientists – the very best of them, in fact – had advanced a theory that animals in the New World were actually smaller, degenerate, versions of their Old World counterparts. Jefferson thought the theory was hogwash (as true as the fables of Aesop); he spent a huge amount of time over a 10-year period refuting it. The moose — the largest of the known New World quadrupeds (along with the bison) — was thus to be the coup de grace, as it were, the final nail in the coffin for this “degeneracy” theory.

OK – it turns out he was right, but so what? So animals don’t get smaller in the New World. Why should I care about that?

Because the principles of scaling are of profound importance. The study of size and scale helped Jefferson solve one of history’s great “political” scaling problems. It was called the Problem of the Extended Republic, or sometimes “Montesquieu’s Law.” It went something like this: what was then called “republican government” — government by the People, government in which the governed control the governors – couldn’t scale; it could only work in small communities, and you could never get it to work over large territories. Many people – including many very smart people, like Alexander Hamilton, who was no dope – believed it, and thought that the 13 United States might already be too big a territory for republican government to succeed.

Jefferson thought that was hogwash too. He spent much of his life trying to figure out how to “scale up” republican institutions so that they could span the entire continent. And he did! He did figure it out, and he did scale them up! It was largely Jefferson’s plan that ended up guiding US expansion westward and the administration of the territory west of the Alleghenies. [If you don’t know the story or how he did that, read the book. It was an ingenious masterstroke, and it helped bring about something that was unthinkable in the 1780s to most people: a republic covering a territory so big that nobody in 1787 even had the faintest idea how big it was, from Atlantic to Pacific!

The only thing more incredible than the plan he came up with to scale up republican government is the fact that most of it actually came to pass.

So when it comes to questions of scale, he was up to something very big and very important.

And it turns out that questions of growth and scale are of the deepest importance for understanding the Internet. For one thing, the Internet is a phenomenon that is defined entirely by its scale.

This is a simple point, but it’s one that’s hard for many people to grasp. The network we call “the Internet” was just one of dozens of different kinds of “internets” – inter-networks. The ITU had developed one inter-networking scheme, the IEEE, the telephone companies had their inter-networking scheme, the European governments had developed one, IBM had lots of them [does anyone remember SNA?], DEC, Wang, Xerox. The world was awash in inter-networking schemes, and there were thousands upon thousands of actual “inter-networks” built using one or the other of these inter-networking schemes. One of them started growing at a prodigious rate out of nowhere in the late 1980s; that’s the one we now call “the Internet.” It’s just the big one. That’s why we call it “the” internetwork, or the Internet – it’s the one that everybody in the world, it seems, can get on. As I put it in the book, in what I regard as the best sentence in the whole book: It’s not big because it’s “the Internet,” it’s “the Internet” because it’s big.

So understanding the Net means understanding how it grew so fast and got so big – how it scaled/scales. The Internet adds 10,000 blogs a day! – how does it manage that? Why did it grow so fast and not any of the other inter-network?

Thinking about it this way is useful, because it makes one realize: it’s not fore-ordained that it can keep growing. If the Internet were a bridge holding 10,000 cars a day, we would instinctively understand that it might not support 10 million or 10 billion cars per day. The Internet’s like that, too. No, we won’t wake up tomorrow and find that the Internet’s “not there.” That would be odd. But we could wake up tomorrow and find that it can’t carry the load anymore, that it can’t keep doing what it has been doing so well up to now.

And there’s another reason we need to understand the principles of scale on the Internet. Like Jefferson, we face, on the Net, a scaling problem in the design of our law and our institutions for applying and enforcing law. Jefferson helped scale up republican institutions so they could work at Continental scale – a remarkable achievement. We need to do something similar. The Internet is a global phenomenon, like it or not, and we need to scale our institutions up once again, to a global scale.

It’s a profound challenge. I don’t pretend to know how to do that. I don’t know that anybody knows how to do that; I don’t see a lot of good ideas floating around about how to do that. The U.N.? We tried that, actually. It’s one of the stories I tell in the book. The U.N. built an Internet but it didn’t get big. Some international treaty? But what would it say – about free speech? Or copyright infringement? Or fraud? The people of the world have very different views on these questions – how can we have a global place where they all meet and communicate and do business with one another?

I’m not even saying that Jefferson’s answer is the right one. Maybe his ideas will work (again), maybe they won’t. But we need, collectively, to get to work on that, and figure it out.

So this book is the start of that conversation.

A few more words. I know there are still a lot of people out there who regard this whole Internet thing as fundamentally trivial – a diversion, maybe, entertaining but ultimately irrelevant – it’s like TV, or a giant videogame, or the Oscars. At a time when we are understandably pre-occupied with a truly profound global economic crisis, maybe it seems silly to spend our time thinking about the Net and its problems; if we are all foraging for roots and berries in a few years, surely “governing the Internet” will seem pretty insignificant. So let’s leave academic and esoteric questions about the Internet aside, and take care of more important things.

Well, I disagree, and I hope the book gives people ammunition to resist that kind of thinking. I don’t think the Internet is trivial – I think it represents a stunning transformation of our information ecosystem, with the potential (which it has already partially realized) to empower individuals and their communities, to provide global access to information, and to create enormous wealth. The Internet is not trivial because it can help pull us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into, because the Internet is a powerful engine – quite possibly the most powerful one we have – for growth and trade and communication, and we’re going to need all that. So it would surely be good to know that we can keep it going, and keep it growing.

And if none of that makes you want to read this book, how about this: The Omens are with me. As those of you who know me know, I did most of the work on this book in Vermont, where I spend my summers. It’s 10 or 12 summers’ worth of work. The day I send off the final version of the manuscript – my corrections to the final copyedited version, the last time I will see this book prior to publication – I go to the Post Office to send it off to Oxford Press, and when I come back there is a male moose standing in the meadow in front of our house. (I swear on my mother’s grave that this is all true — and my wife will back me on this). With the full rack, as they say. And he stayed for a day and a half so everyone in the neighborhood could see him.

I know, I know – there are no omens anymore. This isn’t ancient Rome.

But then a couple of weeks ago the news came that they’re digging the foundation for the new Thomas Jefferson Law School and they unearth, directly underneath the building, a complete fossilized skeleton of … not a moose, but a mammoth!! Seriously! Here I go and write this book, which really is all about Jefferson’s obsession with size and scale, which is organized completely around his search for really, really big animals, and they go and find a mammoth under the Thomas Jefferson Law School a month after the book comes out??!

So read the book.

Writing like Jefferson?:

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Tyler Cowen, over on the “Marginal Revolution” blog, has this to say (without elaboration) about the book:

“This book is written in the style of Jefferson in at least one way. I mean that as praise.”

Interesting . . . I wonder what way he had in mind — and how could writing like Jefferson in any way be something other than praise?

Google Caught in Jurisdictional Whack-a-Mole:

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

In a kind of reprise of the well-known Yahoo! case (involving a French lawsuit against Yahoo! for displaying Nazi memorabilia on its auction website in violation of French law) from a several years ago, four Google executives are facing criminal charges in an Italian court arising out of a third-party posting of a video at a Google site:

The Italian case relates to a three-minute movie uploaded to Google Video’s Italian site in 2006. In the video, four teenagers from the Northern city of Turin are seen teasing a boy with Down syndrome. After Google received two complaints about the content, the company says it removed the clip within 24 hours. But Italian officials, who didn’t return calls for this article, argue the video should never have been allowed to be uploaded in the first place.

Google concedes the content caused offense. In a statement the company says: “As we have repeatedly made clear, our hearts go out to the victim and his family. We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished.”

There’s a great deal one can say about this — indeed, one might even say you could write a whole book about it! At one level, it illustrates an interesting and important difference in substantive law: US law, through sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act (oddly enough), provides intermediaries (like Google here) a very broad immunity from liability for third-party-provided content, while Italian law (I take it, not knowing much about Italian law) does not. It’s an important difference, because it reflects (presumably) a real difference of opinion, and of values, and of policy.

The hard question is: how can we realize the benefits of a truly global communications medium like the Net — the first truly global medium we’ve ever come up with, and whose promise is unimaginably immense — while different sovereigns impose their different visions of the good onto network traffic? We do not have a good answer for that, at the moment. The conventional wisdom here leads to results that are absurd: to summarize (see chapter 11 of the book for more detail): Italy can legitimately assert jurisdiction over Google if Google’s conduct is having “significant effects” within Italy, and Google has tangible assets (machines, offices, typewriters, servers) that are located in Italy (or executives who might set foot someday on Italian soil). Viewed from Google’s perspective, and the question “With what law does Google have an obligation to comply?”, the conventional wisdom says that Google has the obligation to comply with the law of all sovereigns within whose territory it has tangible assets, or where its executives might travel. In the book, I call this “Jurisdictional Whack-a-Mole.”

“If you (or your assets) pop up in Singapore, . . . Wham!! Singaporean law can be – can legitimately be – applied to you. Your daughter’s junior high school newsletter, once posted on the Web, is subject to Malaysian, and Mexican, and Latvian law, simultaneously, because it may be having “significant effects” in one (or all) of those countries, and . . . the school’s obligation to comply with those laws is defined by the likelihood that it has assets in any one of them, or that any of its officers might travel to any of them.

That’s a strange kind of law – law that only gets revealed to the interacting parties ex post, and which can therefore no longer guide the behavior of those subject to it in any meaningful way.

This is a really hard problem, and it is one that we need to solve. If I had a simple solution that I could summarize in a brief blog posting, I would do so — and I would not have felt the need to write a whole book about it. That’s one of the reasons I’m hoping that this website becomes a focus for some discussion about all this, because I’m pretty certain that we could use more discussion about it.