On its face, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House of Representatives last Thursday to permanently legalize cellphone “unlocking” isn’t particularly groundbreaking. There seems to be consensus in Washington that consumers should be allowed to take their mobile devices to a different carrier—say, use your AT&T iPhone on the Verizon network after the initial service contract has expired. The practice was legal from 2006 through January of this year, thanks to an exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And after the Library of Congress allowed that exemption to lapse in January, President Obama and numerous lawmakers called for a quick fix. But the episode is symptomatic of a much larger problem with the nation’s digital copyright laws. And Thursday’s House bill, unlike its predecessors in the Senate, is the first to seriously address it. Fifteen years ago, Congress passed the DMCA in response to dramatic changes in the copyright landscape caused by the Internet and to implement two treaties from the UN’s intellectual property organization. In its most significant section, the DMCA outlawed users from bypassing access controls on software or hardware (like the mechanisms that limit a cellphone to one carrier), and the trafficking of tools to get around access or copy controls. Lawmakers included exemptions for backing up information and for some types of encryption research and repair, and put in place a system by which new exemptions could be approved (or revoked) by the Library of Congress every three years. Think about that for a second: The law governing all digital copyright in the U.S. predates Napster and can only react to technological innovation every 36 months — which might as well be three centuries given the pace of digital innovation over the last decade and a half. (MORE: Top U.S. Lawmakers Back Mobile Phone Unlocking Bills) The implications of the DMCA have been far-flung. Consumers are limited in what they can legally do with products they’ve purchased, even if they’re not infringing on copyright, and software makers must tread carefully around the law—in 2009 the DVD Copy Control
Tom Wheeler, a well-regarded venture capitalist and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist, is the frontrunner to be the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, according to top telecom analysts and D.C. policy sources. Wheeler, who is currently managing director at D.C.-based firm Core Capital Partners, is a longtime Obama loyalist. During Obama’s first presidential campaign, he and his wife Carol spent six weeks in Iowa, where they worked the phones and knocked on doors for the candidate. Wheeler also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama’s two presidential campaigns, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. Wheeler recently received a major boost when several prominent former Obama administration officials wrote a letter to the president supporting his candidacy. “Tom has had an impressive career in the telecommunications and high-tech field that makes him eminently qualified for this position,” the officials wrote. “He understands the importance of reclaiming the pro-competition, pro-innovation, pro-growth regulatory ideal.” Wheeler declined to comment for this story. (MORE: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Stepping Down After Contentious Term) The letter’s signatories included Susan Crawford, former Special Assistant to the President for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, and herself an oft-mentioned candidate for FCC chair. Crawford, currently a professor at Cardozo School of Law, is widely respected by the public interest community, and is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age. The letter was also signed by Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a well-known telecom public interest advocate and the former president of the Media Access Project. “After picking up some helpful endorsements to cover his left flank, former wireless and cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler appears to still have the inside track on becoming FCC chairman, in our opinion,” Stifel telecom analysts Christopher C. King and David Kaut wrote in a recent research report. “We believe he would be a capable chairman who is receptive to many wireless and cable policy arguments, but would feel pressure from rivals and critics of those sectors, including wireline telcos and broadcasters to demonstrate independence.” Despite that vote of confidence, many in the public interest community
Nick D’Aloisio has officially earned his seat at the cool kids’ table. The 17-year-old high school student this week sold his news-aggregator app Summly to tech giant Yahoo for a reported $30 million in cash and stock. While he’s finishing up his diploma, he’ll also start work at Yahoo’s London office. Meanwhile, Yahoo plans to enhance its own mobile apps with the technology developed for Summly, which uses an algorithm to automatically produce easily digestible summaries of news stories. The issue now isn’t what fancy car the teenager plans to buy with his millions. The real question is whether Summly, and now Yahoo, can take news stories from around the Web, present altered versions of them, and not run afoul of copyright law. A court ruling last week in New York against a Norway-based news aggregator has brought the issue of copyright infringement in the media world back to the fore. The Associated Press sued and defeated Meltwater, a subscription-based media-monitoring service, for providing snippets of news stories to clients without licensing the content from AP. Meltwater argued that posting a headline, lead paragraph and one or two other relevant sentences of a story constituted fair use under copyright law and was not so different from what Google provides when a user types a query into its search bar. But U.S. District Judge Denise Cote did not agree, writing in her decision: The news reporting and research upon which Meltwater relies was not done by Meltwater but by the AP; the copyrighted material that Meltwater has taken is the news reporting and research that AP labored to create … Permitting Meltwater to take the fruit of AP’s labor for its own profit, without compensating AP, injures AP’s ability to perform this essential function of democracy. (MORE: Is Facebook Losing Its Cool? Some Teens Think So) AP’s win marks a significant victory for media companies that feel they’ve lost control of their content in the digital age. News-industry heavyweights have tussled with aggregators before, but usually through threatening words or private settlements.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski will announce on Friday that he is stepping down, according to multiple reports. Genachowski, who became chairman in 2009, has presided over an agency that has grappled with contentious issues like U.S. broadband policy, cable and telecom industry competition, and media consolidation. In seeking to strike a centrist balance, Genachowski managed to alienate both public interest groups that have pushed for a more activist FCC on issues like media ownership and Internet openness, as well as industry giants, particularly AT&T, which had proposed buying T-Mobile before the FCC objected. Verizon Wireless is currently suing the FCC in federal court over the agency’s “network neutrality” rules. Genachowski’s announcement, which was expected, comes just days after another FCC commissioner, Robert McDowell, announced his plan to leave the agency. Their departures create two vacancies on the commission, which will be filled by candidates nominated by President Obama. The job of FCC chairman is particularly important, because the position wields significant power in shaping U.S. telecom regulatory policy. A spokesman for the FCC’s office of the chairman declined to comment on the reports of Genachowski’s impending departure, but Reuters reported that he informed his staff of his decision on Thursday. (MORE: As FCC Chief’s Term Nears End, Speculation Grows Over Possible Successor) Genachowski, a former Internet executive at media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC conglomerate, attended Harvard Law School with President Obama and later raised money for Obama. When he was appointed, public interest groups were optimistic that he would champion the open Internet principles at the heart of “network neutrality,” the idea that Internet providers shouldn’t discriminate against rival services. But public interest groups were dismayed when Genachowski ultimately settled on a compromise originally crafted by Google and Verizon Wireless that ensured net neutrality on wired networks, but did not extend the principle to wireless networks. “When Julius Genachowski took office, there were high hopes that he would use his powerful position to promote the public interest,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of public interest group Free Press said in a statement. “But instead of acting as the people’s champion, he’s catered
On June 30th, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski’s five-year term will expire, which has led to speculation that Genachowski might soon announce his departure. Although the FCC chair is not a cabinet-level position, D.C. chatter is already flying fast and furious about Genachowski’s replacement, because the FCC holds broad regulatory power over the most important media, communications, and technology companies in the United States. There is particular focus on Genachowski’s future in part because his term at the FCC has been so contentious. Throughout his tenure, he has tried to thread a centrist needle on issues like broadband policy, industry competition, and media consolidation. In doing so, he has managed to annoy almost every constituency, from public interest groups that have pushed for a more activist FCC, to industry giants who have bristled at some of his decisions. For example, Genachowski’s decision to approve Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal dismayed media reform advocates. On the other side of the ledger, his rejection of AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile infuriated AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. One might say that the fact that he’s displeased two historically opposed forces — public interest groups and industry titans — suggests that he’s actually done a relatively balanced job, but there is no doubt that he is not the most popular official in Washington, D.C. (MORE: Comcast’s NBCUniversal Deal: As One Media Era Ends, Another Begins) Whoever serves as the next FCC chairman — whether it’s Genachowski or someone else — will confront a host of difficult issues. The agency is currently preparing for a complex wireless spectrum auction next year. The FCC is also weighing new rules regarding media ownership. And the agency faces a closely-watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce its “Open Internet” rules. Meanwhile, the FCC still has a lot of work to do to help improve broadband speed, service, and competition in the United States. In short, the FCC chairman has a crucially important and difficult government job, which is why it’s vital that the public be informed about the future of the agency and its leadership. A spokesman for the FCC declined to comment on
The United States government is not going to be providing free WiFi Internet access to consumers anytime soon. That news may surprise anyone who read a startling Washington Post story on Sunday that seemed to confuse a fairly esoteric telecom policy proposal about the use of so-called “white space” wireless spectrum with some sort of free national wireless Internet access plan. The “free WiFi for all” story, which was passed around uncritically by Internet blogs and news sites, set off a furor because the notion cuts to the heart of ongoing battles over access to the Internet, the “digital divide,” and federal policy decisions that could have major implications for the telecom, cable, and technology industries. But the story was wrong, as Ars Technica pointed out. On Tuesday, outlets that repeated the bunk story began walking their reports back, in some cases apologizing for giving bad information to the public. The episode, which provoked a strong pushback from tech experts across the political spectrum, illustrates the perils journalists face when they uncritically re-print or “aggregate” information too hastily. Here’s the background: As part of the broadcast television industry transition from analog to digital signals, key wireless spectrum has became available. Wireless spectrum refers to the frequencies that are used by TV, radio, cell phones, satellite, and other devices. This spectrum is extremely valuable — worth billions of dollars — because it’s what enables Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless to make your smartphones and other mobile devices work. (MORE: Is Broadband Internet Access a Public Utility?) For several years, the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to figure out what to do with so-called “white spaces,” which are the slivers of wireless spectrum between the old analog TV channels. Everyone has known that this spectrum would eventually become available when the TV industry transitioned from analog to digital. For years, the government has been jockeying with the major broadcasters, cable companies, telecom firms, and public interest groups about how best to allocate this spectrum. The FCC’s proposed solution is to hold what’s known as an “incentive auction” for frequencies in
Aaron Swartz, the brilliant and mercurial young programmer who killed himself in Brooklyn last Friday, was memorialized in his hometown of Highland Park, Ill., Tuesday, as the shockwaves from his death reached Washington, D.C. As Swartz’s family and friends were grieving in Chicago, several Capitol Hill lawmakers expressed sadness and confusion over his death. One prominent U.S. lawmaker, Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), said she would introduce reforms to change the federal law at the heart of the case. In a bill called “Aaron’s Law,” Lofgren aims to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which Massachusetts prosecutors used to charge Swartz with over 30 years in prison. Swartz’s family has accused the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office with hounding the young activist over what they call a “victimless crime.” Specifically, Lofrgen’s bill would amend the existing law to distinguish between a terms of service violation and a federal data theft crime. “Lofgren’s bill is a good start,” Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig told TIME in a phone interview Wednesday morning. Lessig eulogized Swartz at the funeral Tuesday. Like many of Swartz’s friends, Lessig hopes that something positive will come out of the young programmer’s passing, he said. “The CFAA was the hook for the government’s bullying,” Lessig wrote on Reddit, the hugely popular Internet activist hub that Swartz helped launch. “This law would remove that hook. In a single line: no longer would it be a felony to breach a contract. Let’s get this done for Aaron — now.” (Read Lofgren’s bill here.) (MORE: Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Prompts MIT Soul-Searching) Swartz faced over 30 years in prison on federal data-theft charges for downloading articles from the subscription-based academic research service JSTOR. In 2011, Swartz allegedly broke into a secure MIT computer closet and hooked up a laptop in order to download JSTOR files, before he was arrested by local authorities. JSTOR later settled its civil complaint with Swartz, but MIT did not follow suit, giving Massachusetts federal prosecutors the implicit green light to go ahead with the prosecution, Lessig says. “The charges were ridiculous and trumped-up,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) told The Hill newspaper. “It’s absurd that he was made a scapegoat. I would hope that this doesn’t happen to
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched an internal investigation into the school’s involvement in the suicide of 26-year-old computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, MIT’s president L. Rafael Reif said on Sunday. Swartz was accused of breaking into MIT’s computer system in order to access academic articles and make them available for free on the Internet. Before he died last Friday, Swartz, who was a well-known computer programmer — but not an MIT student — faced a 35-year prison sentence on federal data-theft charges for illegally downloading articles from the subscription-based academic research service JSTOR. Swartz had allegedly broken into a secure MIT computer closet on at least one occasion and hooked up a laptop in order to download JSTOR files, before he was arrested in 2011 by Cambridge, Mass., police. Swartz, who was considered one of the brightest young minds in tech activism, hanged himself on Friday night in his Brooklyn apartment. He had been struggling with depression for many years. Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, was the first person to find him, according to the Wall Street Journal. There was no apparent suicide note, officials said. Swartz’s death cast a pall over the tech world and prompted soul-searching questions among policy experts and university officials — not to mention his grieving family and friends. Swartz’s passing triggered an outpouring of grief from those who knew him well, and the broader technology and Internet community. (MORE: Aaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26) MIT, one of the nation’s most prominent and respected universities, has come under criticism for its handling of the Swartz affair. In July 2011, JSTOR said it would drop any civil claims against Swartz. According to Lawrence Lessig, who runs Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was a fellow in 2011, MIT fell short by not following JSTOR’s lead. As if that wasn’t enough, hours after MIT issued its statement on Sunday, the university’s website was disabled by unknown cyberassailants. The Tech, an MIT school newspaper, reported: “MIT’s network fell to a denial-of-service attack Sunday evening, allegedly by the Internet activist group called Anonymous,