July 10, 2010
Matthew Butcher’s hockey teammates started a memorial fund for him last week. Some of these friends had known him for as many as twelve years. Few had ever met him in person.
These friends all played an online video game called Subspace. The game came out in 1997 — making it one of the earliest massively multiplayer online games — and it has a simple premise: fly around in 2-d spaceships shooting at each other. Even though the game was commercially abandoned shortly after its release, devoted users reverse engineered it and released an open source version so they could keep playing and add security improvements.
The game’s genius was that users could reinvent it — they can setup their own gaming servers, with a unique map and altered settings. One of these user-generated versions attempts to emulate hockey: users “check” each other by shooting their guns, and control a fiery ball inside a rink shaped arena.
The Realistic Subspace Hockey League (RSHL), where players form teams and try to win a coveted trophy, just wrapped up its 16th season. They keep stats, and even make their own editions of Sportscenter.
More importantly, they chat. The last time I checked in on the RSHL was about 5 years ago. I found familiar names from my playing days like Matthew (or white_0men as he was known in-game), as well as many, many new players. In fact, most of the current players only picked up the game relatively recently, well after it was commercially abandoned.
But when I asked them why they still played, they all said roughly the same thing — they liked talking to each other, meeting people who were older and younger, who had different jobs, lived in different places. Some players come to the Zone just to watch others play and catch up with friends. (In fact, when I played, my dial-up connection was so bad that sometimes all I could do was chat.)
Last week I got an email that brought me back to Center Ice, the website hub where the hockey players congregate. white_0men was killed during a robbery at his business in Los Angeles, and his friends were alerting all players, past and present, about the donation fund for his family and a memorial message thread (now hundreds of messages long).
This may seem strange, although perhaps less so to the 80 million active users of Farmville or any number of other online games. Glancing through the Center Ice message board, I thought about what some of the other threads might look like to an outsider. Forum chatter may seem silly, obnoxious, to some even profane.
Yet Center Ice is certainly a community, and not merely in a virtual sense.
If you’re interested in learning more about how this community is composed, shaped, and regulated, here is what I wrote about life in Subspace in 2005.
May 17, 2009
In Bucharest, neighborhoods formed their own networks in order to bypass incumbents and meet their own needs. Later, these networks transformed into small businesses.
My understanding is that the state of affairs is a bit different now, but these networks were quite normal 5 years ago.
Not quite the same as what Tim Wu and I proposed.
But this is a neat demonstration of why ownership is attractive to consumers, and could be attractive to carriers.
“In addition to entering an area with tremendous support already lined up, Lyse also does something innovative: it allows prospective customers to dig their own fiber trenches from the street to their homes. In return, customers can save about $400. “They can arrange things just the way they want,” says Herbjørn Tjeltveit of Lyse, which makes for happier customers; apparently, nothing angers a Norwegian more than having some faceless corporation tunnel through his flower garden.
“The scheme also appeals to a Norwegian sense of thrift and do-it-yourselfness, says Tjeltveit, and he speculates that it has an additional benefit: customers who put some sweat equity into bringing their Internet connection from the street to the basement are more likely to be invested in the product and the company. (The obvious downside is that passionate customers are more likely to complain whenever they see shortcomings in the product.)
“So far, 80 percent of all customers have elected to do their own trenching, following the instructions and timeframe provided by the company. A technical team still has to come out to pull the fiber from the street through the ducting to the house and then make the proper termination, but much of the tough manual labor is avoided.
“A new fiber deployment can certainly be expensive, but Lyse has insulated itself from much of the risk. The model works, too; the company is now the main fiber-to-the-home provider in Norway, where it covers half the municipalities, and its customer churn rate has stayed quite low. As for the future, Lyse can ramp up the speed dramatically once all that precious fiber is in the ground; its partners are already testing both 100Mbps and 1,000Mbps connections.”
February 24, 2009
I’ll be speaking on Homes with Tails, or Measurement Lab, or something else. In any case, I’ll be there, and you should too.
F2C: Who, What, When, Where, Why
WHO: F2C is a meeting of people engaged with Internet connectivity and all that it enables, including
* citizens and
F2C is shaped by universal connectivity and the plunging capital requirements of information production, which, in turn, are changing many of our fundamental economic and social assumptions.
WHAT: A two-day meeting inside the beltway where the creators of the future of the Internet meet to engage in mutual learning and exploration.
WHEN: 8:00 AM on March 30 through 5:00 PM on March 31, 2009. List of confirmed speakers and bare-bones program here.
WHERE: AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring MD. More travel, lodging and venue details here.
WHY: It is written that Freedom of the Press is only for those with presses. The Internet now makes Freedom of the Press available to about 3,000,000,000 people, almost half of Earth’s humans. At F2C: Freedom to Connect, we explore how this changes the fundamental operating assumptions of society, and ask, “What next?”
January 28, 2009
When an Internet application doesn’t work as expected or your connection seems flaky, how can you tell whether there is a problem caused by your broadband ISP, the application, your PC, or something else? It can be difficult for experts, let alone average Internet users, to address this sort of question today.
Last year we asked a small group of academics about ways to advance network research and provide users with tools to test their broadband connections. Today Google, the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, and academic researchers are taking the wraps off of Measurement Lab (M-Lab), an open platform that researchers can use to deploy Internet measurement tools.
Researchers are already developing tools that allow users to, among other things, measure the speed of their connection, run diagnostics, and attempt to discern if their ISP is blocking or throttling particular applications. These tools generate and send some data back-and-forth between the user’s computer and a server elsewhere on the Internet. Unfortunately, researchers lack widely-distributed servers with ample connectivity. This poses a barrier to the accuracy and scalability of these tools. Researchers also have trouble sharing data with one another.
M-Lab aims to address these problems. Over the course of early 2009, Google will provide researchers with 36 servers in 12 locations in the U.S. and Europe. All data collected via M-Lab will be made publicly available for other researchers to build on. M-Lab is intended to be a truly community-based effort, and we welcome the support of other companies, institutions, researchers, and users that want to provide servers, tools, or other resources that can help the platform flourish.
Today, M-Lab is at the beginning of its development. To start, three tools running on servers near Google’s headquarters are available to help users attempt to diagnose common problems that might impair their broadband speed, as well as determine whether BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled by their ISPs. These tools were created by the individual researchers who helped found M-Lab. By running these tools, users will get information about their connection and provide researchers with valuable aggregate data. Like M-Lab itself these tools are still in development, and they will only support a limited number of simultaneous users at this initial stage.
At Google, we care deeply about sustaining the Internet as an open platform for consumer choice and innovation. No matter your views on net neutrality and ISP network management practices, everyone can agree that Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they’re getting when they sign up for broadband, and good data is the bedrock of sound policy. Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and, by advancing network research in this area, M-Lab aims to help sustain a healthy, innovative Internet.
You can learn more at the M-Lab website. If you’re a researcher who’d like to deploy a tool, or a company or institution that is interested in providing technical resources, we invite you to get involved.
November 20, 2008
Download the full paper here.
Homes With Tails: What if You Could Own Your Internet Connection?
by Derek Slater and Tim Wu
America’s communications infrastructure is stuck at a copper wall. For the vast majority of homes, copper wires remain the principal means of getting broadband services. The deployment of fiber optic connections to the home would enable exponentially faster connections, and few dispute that upgrading to more robust infrastructure is essential to America’s economic growth. However, the costs of such an upgrade are daunting for private sector firms and even for governments. These facts add up to a public policy challenge.
In this paper, we propose and describe a new way to encourage broadband deployment. Most proposals have focused on deployment as a problem for firms and for government. For firms, the question is how a company can justify investments in a fiber infrastructure without a “killer app” – a new and proven revenue source that is different from what is available from existing copper wires. For governments, the questions consider how they might build and operate their own networks, convince or pay existing carriers to do so, or encourage market entrants to arrive and save the day.
Our intuition is that an innovative model holds unrealized promise: household investments in fiber.
Consumers may one day purchase and own fiber connections that run from their homes. They would then be able to connect to a variety of service providers, including today’s Internet, television, and telephone services, as well as ultra-bandwidth intensive services of the future. Consumers would have the opportunity not only to get a fast broadband connection, but also benefit from greater competition and lower prices in the retail service market.
We call this property model “Homes with Tails,” for the fiber would form part of the property right in the home. Key facets of our approach include:
1. A “condominium” model for fiber ownership, in which individual strands of fiber are sold to consumers, while maintenance and other collective needs are managed jointly.
2. Private firms and municipalities could consider selling fiber connections based on this model; and
3. Governments could consider using various mechanisms to support consumer purchases, including a tax credit to homeowners or renters who purchase a broadband connection.
The idea of customer-owned fiber may seem odd, but it is important to remember that many items that consumers buy today would have seemed very strange not long ago. Until the personal computer, a computer was something that only large companies owned. For decades, telephones were available only for lease, not for purchase. Home fiber could be the next technology that moves into the realm of consumer property.
That said, the goal of this paper is rather limited: to outline what customer-owned fiber might look like and suggest why it is worth investigating further. We do not suggest that this model is the panacea for broadband policy challenges; rather, it might serve as part of a broader solution. Furthermore, there are many empirical questions and obstacles to successful implementation that cannot be fully evaluated at this time. In particular, no market for consumer purchase of fiber currently exists, and there is a collective action problem in deploying a network of this sort. The only way to truly test this model’s feasibility is to attempt to implement it. Below, we describe one trial that is already ongoing in Ottawa, Canada, and more experiments of this kind would provide important insights.
In the end, the intuition behind this paper is as old as property theory: that people will spend more on and value more that which they own.
November 12, 2008
Tim Wu and I are going to be presenting our forthcoming paper about customer-owned last-mile broadband connections — ”Homes With Tails” — next Friday at the New America Foundation.
For more on the concept, see my previous post. We’ll post the v1.0 of the paper early next week.
If you’d like to come to the event, here are the details, or see below.
Homes With Tails: What if You Could Own Your Internet Connection?
America’s path to becoming a broadband leader is uncertain. Few dispute that deploying fast, universal, and affordable broadband is imperative, but the costs of robust network infrastructure are daunting for the private sector and governments.
In a forthcoming New America Foundation working paper, Tim Wu and Derek Slater propose an innovative way to drive broadband deployment: a model that encourages consumers to purchase and own the “last-mile” connection that runs into their home. By purchasing their own fiber optic connections, consumers would be able to connect to a variety of service providers. This model holds the potential for higher broadband speeds, greater competition, and lower Internet service prices.
The idea of customer-owned fiber may seem odd at first, but buying items like personal computers, answering machines or even telephones was also unheard of only a few decades ago. Home fiber could someday become a must-have technology.
Join the authors for a presentation and discussion of this new proposal, and learn more about “Homes With Tails.”
Start: 11/21/2008 – 12:30pm
End: 11/21/2008 – 1:30pm
New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave NW 7th Floor
Washington, DC, 20009
July 23, 2008
What if you could own your internet connection?
It may sound strange, and it’s certainly not what we’re used to. Today we have a “carrier-centered” model; phone and cable companies spend billions to build, operate, and own the “last-mile” connection — the copper, cable, or fiber wires that come into your house. Individual consumers then pay for particular services, like phone service or Internet access.
In turn, we tend to think about broadband deployment in carrier-centric ways. If we want to see super-fast fiber connections rolled out to consumers, the main question appears to be whether carriers have appropriate incentives to invest.
But there’s no law of nature that says this is the only possible model. Many businesses, governments, universities, and other entities already own their own fiber connections, rather than leasing access to lines. It may also be possible to find ways for consumers to purchase their own last-mile strands of fiber.
Here, as anywhere, there would be certain advantages that come with ownership over renting. No one necessarily needs to own skis or a car, but many of us do. If you owned your own fiber, you’d be able to connect it to a service provider of your own choosing. Over time, you might save money, and it could make your house more valuable to have a fiber “tail.”
This may all sound rather abstract, but a trial experiment in Ottawa, Canada is trying out the consumer-owned model for a downtown neighborhood of about 400 homes. A specialized construction company is already rolling out fiber to every home, and it will recoup its investment from individual homeowners who will pay to own fiber strands outright, as well as to maintain the fiber over time. The fiber terminates at a service provider neutral facility, meaning that any ISP can pay a fee to put its networking equipment there and offer to provide users with Internet access. Notably, the project is entirely privately funded. (Although some schools and government departments are lined up to buy their own strands of fiber, just like homeowners)
The main challenges with this model are economic, rather than technical. Most importantly, ownership has to be made appealing and affordable to consumers. The construction company is using conservative estimates that only 10% of homeowners will sign up and there will be a per-customer cost of $2700. If you assume 50% take-up, then the per-customer cost drops to $1100. Both figures might seem like a lot, but people pay for a variety of improvements to their home — like remodeled kitchens, or a deck — that also cost large sums.
This model faces other significant obstacles as well and it may only be possible in certain circumstances, if it’s practical at all. But the only way to really figure that out is to experiment. Cable television started out as CATV — community antenna television, an experiment by individual entrepreneurs and rural towns to deliver broadcast signals across longer distances. The Internet started as an experiment in the research community before becoming the worldwide network we know today.
It’s also worth considering that, as recently as a few decades ago, personal telephones were unheard of — the telephone was owned by Bell and simply part of the network. Similarly, the very idea of a “personal” computer used to seem ridiculous, and people relied on sharing access to mainframes. Sure, there are differences between owning your own computer and your own internet connection, but perhaps one day we may see that the differences weren’t as great as we thought.
Even if this experiment fails, it can be a worthwhile data point in discussions about broadband deployment. We need as much creative thinking as we can get to determine how to deliver fast, open Internet for everyone.
The Ottawa trial was driven forward by Bill St. Arnaud, Chief Research Officer at CANARIE, a nonprofit research group devoted to promoting advanced network infrastructure in Canada. If you want to learn more about this idea, check out his presentations here.
March 27, 2008
Jim Griffin has been telling everyone to “monetize the anarchy” for essentially the entire decade. This solution was on the table dating back to Napster. The idea has long percolated within the entertainment & tech community (read: the pholist). Many, many others contributed to its development, including academics Terry Fisher, Neil Netanel, and Jamie Love (focusing more on a compulsory version), as well as organizations like EFF and the Berkman Center. I remember FMC’s Walter McDonough at the Berkman-Gartner Digital Media Conference in 2003 saying something to the effect of, “We all know we’re headed towards collective licensing anyway, right? Why can’t we just admit it?”
And yet for so long it seemed like this win-win solution would never truly break into the mainstream, including the major record labels. For awhile, many recoiled at the mere mention of collective licensing. (At the extremes were folks like Jim DeLong and Patrick Ross from PFF, who compared it to a “socialist gulag” and called it a “terrifying model.”)
Jim Griffin’s hiring suggests that voluntary collective licensing is finally getting the attention and investment from key rightsholders that it so richly deserves. It’s a good day for rightsholders, artists, innovators, and music fans. Hopefully, this is just the beginning….
February 14, 2008
December 2007: Copyright for Canadians
Feb. 13, 2008, Google Public Policy blog: “Here in Canada, where there is an ongoing debate about how to best implement the WIPO Copyright Treaty, Google has joined with a number of other Canadian and international companies who have a shared vision of balanced copyright. The Business Coalition for Balanced Copyright has issued a two-page position paper calling for a ‘balanced ‘package’ approach for a strong Canadian copyright regime.’”
Feb 13, 2008, Michael Geist: “Canadian DMCA on Hold?“
February 13, 2008
Today, Rep. Ed Markey and Chip Pickering introduced bipartisan legislation to help preserve Internet freedom and explicitly make “net neutrality” a guiding principle of U.S. broadband policy. The bill would affirm that the Internet should remain an open platform for innovation, competition, and social discourse, free from unreasonable discriminatory practices by network operators. It would also require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to solicit input on the nation’s broadband policy from ordinary Americans by conducting eight “broadband summits” around the country and seeking comments online.
As we’ve discussed before on this blog, innovation has thrived online because the Internet’s architecture enables any and all users to generate new ideas and technologies, which are allowed to succeed based on their own merits and benefits. Some major broadband service providers have threatened to act as gatekeepers, playing favorites with particular applications or content providers, demonstrating that this threat is all too real. It’s no stretch to say that such discriminatory practices could have prevented Google from getting off the ground — and they could prevent the next Google from ever coming to be.
While regulations on certain types of discrimination is one way to help preserve the Internet’s openness, other remedies including expanding broadband competition and market-based initiatives may be important complements. Rep. Markey’s legislation sets a sound course towards properly putting all the options on the table, by adopting the proper general principles and asking the FCC to address the right kinds of questions.
As important, Internet users themselves will get a chance to answer those questions. From the start, the heart and soul of the movement for net neutrality has been the grassroots — the thousands and thousands of ordinary Americans who have already spoken up for Internet freedom on sites like Save The Internet and beyond.
Net neutrality is too often painted as just about particular companies’ competing interests, but that’s missing the point. Rather, net neutrality and broadband policy are — and should be — about what’s ultimately best for people, in terms of economic growth as well as the social benefit of empowering individuals to speak, create, and engage one another online using the wide panoply of innovations available to them. In other words, broadband policy should come from the bottom up.
January 30, 2008
Broadband deployment in the U.S. is at best disappointing and at worst a crisis. The United States lags behind other countries in broadband uptake per capita, ranked 15th in the latest Organisation for Economic Co‐operation and Development (OECD) data. While consumers in Sweden and Japan are starting to zoom ahead with 20 and even 90 megabit/second connections delivered over fiber connections, U.S. consumers pay more for less, with only DSL and cable available in most markets. Some rural areas lack broadband altogether.
“[T]his paper proposes the creation of a new federal Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) that, together with matching funds from the states and the private and/or public sector, should be used to build open, big broadband networks of at least 100 Mbps (scalable upwards to 1 Gbps) to every home and business by 2012. U.S. state governors and foreign heads of state have found the resources to subsidize broadband deployment; the U.S. federal government should as well.”
Though some dispute how bad U.S. consumers have it, everyone can agree that the U.S. can – and should – do much better. Deploying faster, universal, and ubiquitous broadband is essential to sustaining the Internet as an engine for economic growth, innovation, and social discourse. Whether or not one agrees with EDUCAUSE’s particular strategy, the paper demonstrates that a clear, concerted national broadband strategy of some kind is required to reach that bigger, better broadband future.
November 13, 2007
If code is law and architecture is policy, then a Summer of Policy is a natural complement to Google’s Summer of Code. That’s exactly what Google announced yesterday — a new Policy Fellowship program offering $7,000 stipends for undergraduate and graduate students to dive deep into the tech policy world with top-flight organizations like EFF and Public Knowledge.
I would’ve been thrilled to see this when I was a student, and I’m thrilled that it exists now. It’s a fantastic opportunity for any aspiring tech policy geek. Check out the site for more details.
November 11, 2007
If you haven’t already read Sonia Katyal’s “Privacy v. Piracy” and “The New Surveillance,” you should. The articles have proven quite prescient — with the Sony DRM rootkit and AT&T’s announcement about forthcoming ISP-level filtering, the notion of “piracy surveillance” has become increasingly relevant.
She recently sent me a new article, “Semiotic Disobedience,” which she’d appreciate feedback on.
“In this Article, I seek to introduce another framework to supplement
Fiske’s important metaphor: the phenomenon of “semiotic
disobedience.”Three contemporary cultural moments in the world – one
corporate, one academic, and one artistic – call for a new understanding
of the limitations and possibilities of semiotic democracy and underline
the need for a supplementary framework. As public spaces have become
converted into vehicles for corporate advertising – ads painted onto
sidewalks and into buildings, schools, and other public spaces – product
placement has soared to new heights of power and subtlety. And
throughout, the law has generously offered near-sovereign protection to
such symbolism through the ever-expanding vehicle of intellectual
property protection. Equations between real property and intellectual
property are ubiquitous. Underlying these themes is a powerful linkage
between intellectual and tangible property: as one expands, so does the
“Just as previous discussions of civil disobedience focused on the need
to challenge existing laws by using certain types of public and private
property for expressive freedoms, today’s generation seeks to alter
existing intellectual property by interrupting, appropriating, and then
replacing the passage of information from creator to consumer. This
Article suggests that the phenomenon of semiotic disobedience offers a
radically different vantage point than Fiske’s original vision, one that
underlines the importance of distributive justice in intellectual
property. Thus, instead of interrogating the limits of First Amendment
freedoms, as many scholars have already done, I argue that a study of
semiotic disobedience reveals an even greater need to study both the
core boundaries between types of properties – intellectual, real,
personal – and how propertization offers a subsidy to particular types
of expression over others.”