Posts Tagged ‘Communications’

The High Water Mark, Again

January 5th

On her morning CNBC show Suvannah Guthrie reported that a California court has now revisited the questions of privacy and personal communications. In the reported California case the judge took a radically different approach from the Ohio case that was decided in December. In California the court decided that the police did have the right to information on the cell phone of an arrested man.

Perhaps the Ohio case was too convoluted in the first place (the plaintiff had the expectation of privacy but the evidence that had been illegally attained was not needed for conviction.) But now there are two cases that would seem to disagree with one another. There will no doubt be a Supreme Court case someday soon that will explore the question of the individual’s right to privacy for emails and other electronic communications and it will be a highly charged one.

The idea that electronic communications would be less private than written ones or even phone calls is a huge precedent. A letter is protected by a whole apparatus of postal rules, regulations and inspectors. A court order is needed to open the mail. Yet in the electronic world, in California at least, if someone were arrested (suspicion of some crime such as illegal substances or DUI) and if their phone were taken from them, the information pathway that would be opened (email, phone calls, applications) could be enormous.

The comparison with the Postal Service is a sharp one. I remember at a dinner in 2000 hearing Scott McNealy, the Chairman of Sun Microsystems, make fun of a “letter” as a secure transmission. After all a letter is made of flimsy paper and sealed with spit and handed to a government employee, he noted. The capacity of electronic communications to provide a secure channel far exceeded anything that the Post Office could do, he argued. Certainly he is right.

But what if, in spite of the technological capacity of the medium to protect a communication, the law chooses not to do so?

The high water mark of Internet Communications lasted 2 weeks.

Net Neutrality, Time to Take Sides

September 18th

In the modern equivalent of a story moving on the wire after the close of the stock market, The Wall Street Journal reported that the new FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, is expected to outline proposals on Monday to prevent Internet providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic. In Washington buzzword speak this is a “net neutrality” bombshell.

This is one of those issues where someone throws a pebble into a clear pool and the ripples expand forever. You have to decide whether you are going to think about this in terms of this month (Asian nations joining China in limiting internet access), this year (Internet companies agreeing to make it possible for China to limit Internet use and even more insidiously hand over the list of users) or this decade or two.

There was the battle between the phone and the cable companies over who would control network email services (before Telecom Reform in 1996) and then there was the fencing that was taking place over data traffic versus analogue voice before Judge Harold Green had broken up AT&T (1984) or …

Reading the story in the Wall Street Journal can make it tough to figure out who the good guys are. Are the good guys the ones who fight heavy-handed network blockers? Or are they the ones who are fighting government intrusion in the private marketplace? Are the good guys protecting us from network slowdowns from mobile video file sharing? It can give you a headache.

Balancing equities and regulating bandwidth are of course what governments do. So it would seem that with due concern for the technical issues involved, it should be hard to vote against the opportunities that serious net neutrality would create. No doubt the companies involved have some issues here. But the extraordinary social value that gets created when Internet services are allowed to innovate has been demonstrated. Net neutrality could be the next milestone.