Archive for October 2009

Net Neutrality: The FCC Wants a Say

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In other government regulation of the internet news, the FCC is preparing to vote this month on two new net neutrality principles that would prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking lawful content transfer, and would require the ISPs to disclose their network management practices.

A concise definition of net neutrality is “a state in which users have the freedom to access the content, services, applications, and devices of their choice.” During the initial growth period of broadband internet the issue was often disregarded, as ISPs shoveled bandwidth to their customers with little restraint. However, in an effort to keep up with the mushrooming demand, cable companies may attempt to throttle individual usage, specifically excluding competition to the benefit of their own services. Comcast was recently accused of the practice of “traffic shaping,” in which it limited or completely blocked uploads of files over popular file-sharing software BitTorrent. The telecommunications industry also faces pressure from neutrality proponents, as seen in AT&T’s decision this month to allow customers to use voice over IP (VoIP) applications (such as Skype) on its celluar network, reversing its prior stance.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski believes that these mandates, combined with the non-binding “Four Internet Freedoms” adopted by the FCC in 2005, will help achieve the fundamental goal of “preserving the openness and freedom of the Internet.” He recently made a pitch at the Future of Music Coalition policy summit, targeting independent artists and labels that might otherwise be suffocated by collusion between big industry players, and giving a shout-out to musical backers of net neutrality including alternative rockers Wilco and Guster, who collaborated on a net neutrality benefit album in 2008. Leading the opposition to the proposed rules are the wireless carriers who have invested large amounts in building their the networks, along with the GOP, which is concerned that the regulations may lead to diminished investment in the burgeoning industry.

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October 19th, 2009 at 12:30 pm

The U.S. Government and the Internet: One Step Left, One Step Right

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ICANN took a giant step towards true internationalization last week when it signed a new agreement with the U.S. government that explicitly envisions a transition into privatization of the organization. Granted, the new agreement still gives the U.S. Department of Commerce a role in overseeing and coordinating ICANN activities, but ICANN accountability is now routed through internal processes instead of through the U.S. Department of Commerce.  This move is squarely aimed at criticism that ICANN is too U.S.-centric and doesn’t represent the global nature of the Internet.

But the U.S. government has not completely stepped out of regulating the Internet: on the contrary, the FTC has just passed new guidelines that extend existing regulations to mandate disclosure of conflicts of interests in blogger product reviews. For example, the guidelines now require that bloggers disclose any payment they’ve received for their endorsements and celebrity endorsers must disclose advertiser relationships even when their endorsements occur outside of traditional advertisements–clearly a warning to the Twitter crowd. Although a violation does carry potentially hefty fines, the FTC has hastened to give assurances that they’ll only target advertisers and “big fish” bloggers. Given the size of the blogosphere and the FTC’s limited resources, such a strategy may be the only practical approach to take. However, any attempt to regulate Internet content must run through a jungle of legal issues, with First Amendment, safe harbor and jurisdictional questions being only a few that spring to mind. The FTC will have to step carefully, since it could very well be the precedent-setter for this administration’s regulation of the Internet.

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October 8th, 2009 at 10:33 am

Facebook Sued for Violating Social Networking Patent

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The patent in question was filed by WhoGlue on May 9, 2002 and granted on July 17, 2007.  The patent very broadly covers “an information management system, method and computer program code and means for facilitating communications between user members of an online network.”  If such a patent were upheld, the cultural changes social networking is enabling could potentially come to a screaming halt.  Facebook predictably sees “no merit to this suit, and we will fight it vigorously.”

In their defense, WhoGlue says that they “didn’t patent something that we thought would be an opportunity to license,” instead they claim the system is “core to our business.” The patent appears to cover management of public and private information in interactions on a website. WhoGlue’s apparent goal is “to be the technology enabler behind the scenes for member-based organizations,” and they are so dedicated to this mission that they put this patent up for auction just a year after it was awarded. Current clients of WhoGlue include a handful of Alumni Associations, but it is not clear how taking down Facebook will advance the company’s “fundamental belief that technology is most effective when it strengthens an existing process or relationship.”  It appears that they are trying to use their technology to weaken existing relationships for Facebook’s 300 million members.

This is certainly not the first case of internet patents gone awry. Amazon was famously criticized back in 2000 for its patent holdings when it tried to sue Barnes and Noble for infringing Amazon’s 1-click buy patent. That suit settled out of court with undisclosed terms.  WhoGlue’s lawsuit against Facebook will likely settle out of court as well because of the cost of patent lawsuits.  Facebook’s valuation and popularity aside, it remains unclear how much WhoGlue should expect to receive in a settlement from a company that, arguably until recently, was struggling, but any amount received is likely to be a windfall for the less than 5 person company.

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October 4th, 2009 at 12:01 am

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