Archive for April, 2014

Hyperlocal Optimum

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

I recently wanted to accuse some people of pursuing a hyperlocal optimum. In this case, a heightened perception of the strength of their position, sensed only by themselves. I thought better of it as there were more charitable interpretations of their actions, and a similar pejorative exists for this use case: reality distortion field.

But, I thought, what a great term! Google search/scholar/books shows it being used exactly once so far, 41 days ago by user pholling in a forum about Manchester, England (emphasis added):

To fix all of this is not a trivial bit of work, it will require that city regions and broader regions work together to aim for the overall optimum and not their hyperlocal optimum. London does this to a large extent, but no other place in the England does.

I have no assessment of the quote as I know next to nothing about urban policy in England, but urban policy is surely a field in which the term hyperlocal optimum could be heavily applied. I’m not going to claim any particular urban policy constitutes pursuit of hyperlocal optima (note locality geographic and temporal), and I’ll admit there exist charitable interpretations of many such unnamed policies. But consider that:

  • In the next few decades, over 2 billion more people will live in cities. Simple calculation based on projected ~2050 population (now: 7 billion, 2050: 9 billion) and urbanization (now: .5, 2050: .7) gives 2.8 billion more (now: 3.5 billion, 2050: 6.3 billion).
  • Robots (most obviously in transportation and construction) will reshape cities as profoundly this century as autos did in the last, beginning now.
  • There will be calamities. Hopefully fewer than in the last century, but planning ahead for cities’ role in preventing and surviving such is better than hoping.

Hyperlocal action is fine, but please think globally and long-term always, and modify actions accordingly to break out of pursuit of mere hyperlocal optima.

I’ve not explicitly defined what makes a local optimum a hyperlocal optimum. Perhaps the difficulty of doing so explains why they term has until now only been used once before in the subset of the universe Google has indexed. My first use above implies that “hyper” indicates the local optimum is perceived, but perhaps not really even the local optimum. My second use above implies “hyper” denotes something about either relative scale (the global optimum is much, much better) or qualitative difference (the global optimum considers totally different parameters from the ones considered for the hyperlocal optimum). Probably the term hyperlocal optimum has no good use. I may still use it again when I fail to avoid stooping to the pejorative.

Many problems of the dominant topic of this blog can be seen as ones of escaping local optima. Joining with the cities topic, individual cities and other entities’ ongoing lock-in to proprietary software is an example of a local optimum that might be escaped through coordination with other cities. I’m not sure when (assuming against the above, that the term has some value) to apply the hyper prefix to such situations (another such is library lock-in to proprietary journal subscription and groveling for proprietary book purchases). Suggestions?

I might avoid commenting on this years’ mayoral election for my locality, Oakland. If any of the candidates seriously talk about any of the above macro challenges and opportunities, I will be pleasantly surprised. I think that my handwaving predictions after the last (2011) election held up pretty well, mostly unfortunately.

Without Intellectual Property Day [edit]

Saturday, April 26th, 2014
Without Intellectual Property Day by Parker Higgins of the EFF is quite good, and released under CC-BY. Clearly deserving of adaptation. Mine below, followed by a diff.

April 26 is the day marked each year since 2000 by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as “World Intellectual Property Day”, in which WIPO tries to associate its worldwide pushes for more enclosure with creativity.

Celebrating creativity is a good thing, but when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For the World Intellectual Property Organization, it may seem like creativity and “intellectual property” are inextricably linked. That’s not the case. In the spirit of adding to the conversation, let’s honor all the creativity and industry that is happening without a dependence on a system intellectual property.

There’s an important reason to encourage and promote creativity outside the bounds of increasingly restrictive laws: to the extent such creativity succeeds, it helps us re-imagine the range of desirable policy and reduces the resources available to enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism — in sum shifting what is politically possible. It’s incumbent on all of us who want to encourage creativity to continue to explore and utilize structures that reward creators without also restricting speech.

Comedy, Fashion, Cooking, Magic, and More

In the areas in which intellectual freedom is not typically infringed, there is tremendous innovation and consistent creativity outside of the intellectual property system. Chefs create new dishes, designers imagine new styles, comedians write new jokes, all without a legal enforcement mechanism to restrict others from learning and building on them.

There may be informal systems that discourage copying—the comedy community, to take one example, will call out people who are deemed to be ripping off material—but for the most part these work without expensive litigation, threats of ruinous fines, and the creation of systems of surveillance and censorship.

Contributing to a Creative Commons

The free software movement pioneered the practice of creating digital media that can legally and freely be shared and expanded, building a commons. The digital commons idea is being pushed in more areas than ever before, including culture, education, government, hardware design, and research. There are some projects we’re all familiar with — Wikipedia is perhaps the most prominent, creating an expansive and continuously updated encyclopedia that is freely accessible under permissive terms to the entire world.

Focusing on this year’s World IP Day theme of movies, there have been some impressive contributions the commons over the years. Nina Paley’s feature animation Sita Sings The Blues, which she released into the public domain, has spread widely, inspired more work, and earned her money. The short films from the Blender Foundation have demonstrated cutting-edge computer graphics made with free software and, though they’ve sometimes been on the receiving end of bogus copyright takedowns, have been watched many millions of times.

Kickstarting and Threshold Pledges

Finally, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indie-Go-Go have made a major splash in the last few years as another fundraising model that can complement, or even replace, copyright exclusivity. These platforms build on theoretical framework laid out by scholars like John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier in the influential “Street Performer Protocol” paper, which set out to devise an alternative funding system for public domain works. But most crowdfunded works are not in the commons, indicating an need for better coordination of street patrons.

Looking at movies in particular: Kickstarter alone has enabled hundreds of millions of dollars of pledges, hundreds of theatrical releases, and seven Oscar-nominated films (including Inocente, winner of the Best Documentary Short category). Blender Foundation is currently crowdfunding its first feature length film, Gooseberry.

***

The conceit of copyright and other “intellectual property” systems is that they can be calibrated to promote the progress of science and the useful arts. But the reality of these systems is corruption and rent seeking, not calibration. The cost is not just less creativity and innovation, but less freedom and equality.

It’s clear from real world examples that other systems can achieve the goal of promoting creativity, progress, and innovation. We must continue to push for both practice and policy that favors these systems, ultimately rendering “intellectual property” a baffling anachronism. In a good future, a policy-oriented celebration of creativity and innovaion would be called World Intellectual Freedom Day.

wdiff -n eff-wipd.html eff-wipd-edit.html |colordiff |aha -w > eff-wipd-diff.html
[-<p>Today, April 26,-]{+<p>April 26+} is the day marked each year since 2000 [-as "Intellectual Property Day"-] by the <a href="https://www.eff.org/issues/wipo">World Intellectual Property Organization [-(WIPO)</a>. There are many areas where EFF has not historically agreed with WIPO,-] {+(WIPO)</a> as "World Intellectual Property Day", in+} which [-has traditionally pushed-] {+WIPO tries to associate its <a href="https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/03/ustr-secret-copyright-agreements-worldwide">worldwide pushes+} for more [-restrictive agreements and served as a venue for <a href="https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/03/ustr-secret-copyright-agreements-worldwide">domestic policy laundering</a>, but we agree that celebrating-] {+enclosure</a> with creativity.</p>+}
{+<p>Celebrating+} creativity is a good [-thing.</p>-]
[-<p>As the saying goes, though:-] {+thing, but+} when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For the World Intellectual Property Organization, it may seem like creativity and <a href="https://www.eff.org/issues/intellectual-property/the-term">"intellectual property"</a> are inextricably linked. That's not the case. In the spirit of adding to the conversation, [-we'd like to-] {+let's+} honor all the creativity and industry that is happening <i>without</i> a dependence on a system intellectual property.</p>
<p>There's an important reason to encourage {+and promote+} creativity outside the bounds of increasingly restrictive [-laws, too. As Ninth Circuit Chief Justice Alex Kozinski eloquently explained in <a href="http://notabug.com/kozinski/whitedissent">a powerful dissent</a> some 20 years ago, pushing only for more IP restrictions tips a delicate balance against creativity:</p>-]
[-<blockquote><p>Overprotecting intellectual property is as harmful as underprotecting it. Creativity is impossible without a rich public domain. Nothing today, likely nothing since we tamed fire, is genuinely new: Culture, like science and technology, grows by accretion, each new creator building on-] {+laws: to+} the [-works-] {+extent such creativity succeeds, it helps us re-imagine the range+} of [-those who came before. Overprotection stifles the very creative forces it's supposed-] {+desirable policy <i>and</i> reduces the resources available+} to [-nurture.</p></blockquote>-]
[-<p>It's-] {+enclosure industries to lobby for protectionism -- in sum shifting what is politically possible. It's+} incumbent on all of us who want to encourage creativity to continue to explore {+and utilize+} structures that reward creators without also restricting speech.</p>
<h3>Comedy, Fashion, Cooking, Magic, and More</h3>
<p>In the areas [-known as copyright's "negative spaces,"-] {+in which intellectual freedom is not typically infringed,+} there is tremendous innovation and consistent creativity outside of the intellectual property system. Chefs create new dishes, designers imagine new styles, comedians write new jokes, all without a legal enforcement mechanism to restrict others from learning and building on them.</p>
<p>There may be informal systems that discourage copying—the comedy community, to take one example, <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/features/2014/the_humor_code/joke_theft_can_a_comedian_sue_if_someone_steals_his_material.html">will call out people</a> who are deemed to be ripping off material—but for the most part these work without expensive litigation, threats of ruinous fines, and the creation of systems [-that can be abused to silence lawful non-infringing speech.</p>-] {+of surveillance and censorship.</p>+}
<h3>Contributing to a Creative Commons</h3>
<p>The free software movement [-may have popularized-] {+pioneered+} the [-idea-] {+practice+} of creating digital media that can legally and freely be shared and expanded, [-but the free culture movement has pushed the-] {+building a commons. The digital commons+} idea [-further-] {+is being pushed in more areas+} than ever [-before.-] {+before, including culture, education, government, hardware design, and research.+} There are some projects we're all familiar [-with—Wikipedia-] {+with -- Wikipedia+} is perhaps the most prominent, creating an expansive and continuously updated encyclopedia that is freely accessible under permissive terms to the entire world.</p>
<p>Focusing on this year's World IP Day theme of movies, there have been some impressive contributions the commons over the years. Nina Paley's feature animation <i><a href="http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/">Sita Sings The Blues</a></i>, which she released into the public domain, has spread widely, inspired more work, and earned her money. The <a href="http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101002/20174711259/open-source-animated-movie-shows-what-can-be-done-today.shtml">short films from the Blender Foundation</a> have demonstrated cutting-edge computer graphics made with free software and, though they've sometimes been on <a href="http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140406/07212626819/sony-youtube-take-down-sintel-blenders-open-source-creative-commons-crowdfunded-masterpiece.shtml">the receiving end of bogus copyright takedowns</a>, have been watched many millions of times.</p>
<h3>Kickstarting and Threshold Pledges</h3>
<p>Finally, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indie-Go-Go have made a major splash in the last few years as another fundraising model that can complement, or even replace, [-traditional-] copyright exclusivity. These platforms build on theoretical framework laid out by scholars like John Kelsey and [-EFF board member-] Bruce Schneier in <a href="https://www.schneier.com/paper-street-performer.html">the influential "Street Performer Protocol" paper</a>, which set out to devise an alternative funding system for public [-works.</p>-] {+domain works. But most crowdfunded works are not in the commons, indicating an need for better <a href="http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/2013/08/10/street-patrons-missing-coordination-protocol/">coordination of street patrons</a>.</p>+}
<p>Looking at movies in particular: Kickstarter alone has <a href="https://www.kickstarter.com/blog/a-big-day-for-film">enabled hundreds of millions of dollars of pledges</a>, hundreds of theatrical releases, and seven Oscar-nominated films (including <i>Inocente</i>, winner of the Best Documentary Short category). [-Along with other-] {+Blender Foundation is currently+} crowdfunding [-sites, it has allowed the development of niche projects that might never have been possible under the traditional copyright system.&nbsp;</p>-] {+its first feature length film, <em><a href="http://gooseberry.blender.org/">Gooseberry</a></em>.</p>+}
<h3>***</h3>
[-<p>As the Constitution tells us,-]
{+<p>The conceit of+} copyright and other "intellectual property" systems [-can, when-] {+is that they can be+} calibrated [-correctly,-] {+to+} promote the progress of science and the useful arts. [-We continue to work pushing for a balanced law that would better achieve that end.</p>-]
[-<p>But it's also-] {+But the reality of these systems is corruption and rent seeking, not calibration. The cost is not just less creativity and innovation, but less freedom and <a href="http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/2014/01/30/tech-wealth-ip/">equality</a>.</p>+}
{+<p>It's+} clear from [-these-] real world examples that other systems can achieve [-that-] {+the+} goal [-as well. Promoting-] {+of promoting+} creativity, progress, and [-innovation is an incredibly valuable mission—it's good to know that it doesn't have-] {+innovation. We must continue+} to [-come through systems-] {+push for both practice and <a href="http://gondwanaland.com/mlog/2014/02/09/freedoms-commons/#regulators">policy+} that [-can-] {+favors these systems</a>, ultimately rendering "intellectual property" a baffling anachronism. In a good future, a policy-oriented celebration of creativity and innovaion would+} be [-abused to stifle valuable speech.</p>-] {+called World Intellectual Freedom Day.</p>+}

Sum of all questions

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

I thoroughly enjoyed memesteader Gordon Mohr’s Quora & Wikipedia: Might one ever bail out the other? Futures of ‘Qworum’ or ‘WiQipedia’ which posits two futures in which the sites respectively decline mostly due to internal failure — essentially not adequately dealing with spam and unscrupulous behavior in both cases, though the spam and behavior is different for each.

Both futures seem plausible to me, inclusive of the decline and bail out in each. I also take the medium term absolute decline and death of Quora and steep relative decline of Wikimedia as likely. This relative assessment isn’t a knock on Quora — it and many others waiting in the wings can get big or fail — commons-based projects don’t have much experience in trying to do that (but need to, or find some other way to maintain long-term competitiveness).

Of course “waiting in the wings” is an understatement: I suspect the decline of both Quora and Wikimedia will be less due to internal failure than to being outcompeted by new entrants. Mohr has long been rumored to be working on one, but I imagine there must be many entrepreneurs dreaming of taking a chunk of Wikipedia traffic. I enjoy the Kill Hollywood request for startups, but Kill Wikipedia seems like a more plausible target for VC-term investment. (My preference is to target proprietary monopolies for destruction through competition, replacing them with commons; long ago I even imagined a financially leveraged/risk-seeking approach, but more feasible ones badly needed still.)

Go read and enjoy Mohr’s post, take it at least semi-seriously, and reflect on the future. Doing so makes me pine for something which does not yet exist: combinatorial prediction markets for everything.

I hadn’t looked at Quora in some time. I note that it still requires logging in to read, but has added Google — previously Facebook login (or not) was the only choice. There have been at least semi-serious explorations of a Wikimedia general Q&A sister project, but I’m not sure if any of them are listed in project proposals.

Patent reform, parts deficient in commons

Friday, April 18th, 2014

A Five Part Plan for Patent Reform (pdf) by Charles Duan, Director of Patent Reform at Public Knowledge, is simultaneously good and deficient:

  1. Notes theoretical and observed problems with monopoly incentive story underlying patents, mixed empirical results, regulatory cause of strong positive results in one field (pharma), layers of abuse surrounding core in implementation, the existence of many non-monopoly incentives for innovation, conflicts between these and patents … and yet fundamentally accepts the noble origin role of monopoly incentives in protecting apple pie and correlation with some inventions — nevermind causality or counterfactual. Compare text “certainly many inventions through history, such as the light bulb, the airplane, and the photocopier, were invented by small inventors and protected by patents” and its citation (footnote 7, The Myth of the Sole Inventor)!
  2. Discusses commons (Open Innovation Communities) as evidence, and substantially better than typical writing doing so, as at least a concept of pro-commons reform is included: “One task for patent reform, then, is to consider adjustments to the patent system that better accommodate these alternate incentives for innovation. The goal of such adjustments is to better encourage these inventors incentivized by factors other than patents, and to ensure that patents do not stand in the way of those inventors.” As usual, commons regimes carved out of property defaults are mentioned (specifically GPL and DPL), but not as prototypes for default policy. Also, “it is important for these decisionmakers to reach out to inventing communities, even those that do not file for patents, and it is important for those communities to reach out to the Patent Office and other decisionmakers.” I think this also holds for “IP scholars” (which of course ought re-imagine themselves as commons scholars) and OIC participants/commoners — let’s talk about what concrete reforms would favor actually existing commons, and put those on the scholarly and policy agendas. A recent idea directly concerning patents that ought start down that long road, but many pertinent reforms may be indirect, favoring commons in other ways so as to change the knowledge economy which eventually determines what interests dominate.
  3. Innovation is assumed the top goal of policy, tempered only by conflict among incentives to innovate, and need to rein in unscrupulous behavior. No mention of freedom and almost none of equality (Joseph Stiglitz is quoted: “The alternative of awarding prizes would be more efficient and more equitable”), let alone as goals which trump innovation.

These three good/deficient pairs are endemic in intellectual property-focused discourse, e.g., see my recent reviews of IP in a World Without Scarcity and Copyright and Inequality — one of the reasons the latter is so great is that places equality firmly on the agenda.

A few other notes on A Five Part Plan for Patent Reform:

  • It’s not a plan, rather an exploration of “five key areas in which the patent system is ripe for reform.” The word plan doesn’t even appear in the text. Well worth reading, but don’t expect to find an actionable plan with five parts.
  • Notes that patent trolls existed in the 1800s (individual farmers were bullied to pay royalties for farm implements covered by patents), which is good (too often current discourse assumes intellectual property worked just fine until recently, with conflict caused by changing technology rather than by power and rent seeking), but then: “Analogously, as discussed above, farm technology was widely used in the nineteenth century, and patents on farm technology were hotly contested. Patents on those farm tools were effectively abolished. But that fix to the patent system did not prevent the software patent problems faced today—it ultimately was a Band-Aid rather than a cure. The same would be true of eliminating software patents. The fundamental issue is that the technologies of tomorrow are unknown, so targeting patent reform to one specific field of technology means that the same problems will only arise again in a different technological sector.” Sure, only abolishing all patents is sufficient, but this analogy seriously undersells the benefit of abolishing software patents: agriculture then was in relative decline of importance in the face of industrialization. Now, software is ascendant, and any technology of tomorrow that matters will involve software.
  • Focuses on FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing for standards. But RF (royalty free) licensing is required for any standard in which commons-based projects are first class participants (e.g., free/open source software and codec patents). No doubt unscrupulous behavior around FRAND and standards is a problem, but the solution is RF for standards.
  • From the Public Knowledge site, reading the paper requires first supplying an email address to a third party (gumroad). Annoying, but on par with PK’s newsletter practices (one of the many favoring tracking users at cost of usefulness to users). Better, the paper is released under CC-BY-SA, so I uploaded a copy to the Internet Archive. Best, Duan has published the paper’s LaTeX source.

Protect commons from patents

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Rob Landley has a good idea: software patents shouldn’t apply to public domain software. This is exactly the kind of commons-favoring reform that ought be topmost on the agenda of anyone who cares about a good [digital] future. It will take years for many such reforms to be feasible. This only means it is urgent for commoners of all free/open stripes to begin thinking of themselves collectively as a politically potent self-interested group, not as merely surviving through private opt-outs from increasingly bad regulation and reaction against apparent existential threats.

I’m a huge fan of the public domain and think that among private opt-outs, public domain instruments ought be used much more than they are. Landley makes an interesting case (historical and otherwise, read his full post) for limiting protection from software patents to public domain software rather than any free/open source software, but I disagree — in this reform step, it makes sense to protect developers and users of any free/open source software from patents with regard to that software.

Up to the last paragraph the rest of this post is dedicated to this disagreement (and in another sense of dedicated, to the public domain, as is everything by me), but don’t let that distract from my overall appreciation of Landley’s post — read the whole thing (his blog is also interesting overall, stylistically like early blogs, and it does have posts back to 2002, though I’ve only been following it approximately since the first link in previous paragraph: see link text “disagree”, appropriately enough).

Landley writes:

The reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source” is partly that open source is difficult to legally define

Public domain hasn’t got that problem. It avoids the whole can of worms of what is and isn’t: the code is out there with zero restrictions.

1) Existing law and regulation deals with “open source”, e.g. the U.S. Department of Defense and the Italian government. This is no significant obstacle. On the other hand, “public domain” has another problem: FUD about whether it is “legally possible” to put new works in the public domain and whether various public domain instruments “work”. This FUD needs to be combated, but I think it’ll be more effective to do so in part by getting public domain instruments recognized as free/open instruments by various gatekeepers than by dumping FUD on the same.

The price for freedom from patents should be zero restrictions: if the authors have no control over what people can do with it, why should uninvolved third parties have a say? Ideally the smooth, frictionless legal surface of the public domain should go both ways.

That’s the constitutional argument: freely redistributable, infinitely replicable code serves the stated constitutional purpose of copyrights and patents better than patents do. Releasing your copyrights into the public domain should also prevent patent claims on that code.

2) That’s a fine assertion, but it’s really outside the free/open source (and nearby) consensus on software patents: they should be abolished, i.e., one should not have to give up anything to be protected from them. Changing the focus to strategically demanding freedom from patents for free/open source software (while still agreeing they ought be abolished for all) would mark a huge shift in the imagination of the movement(s). Limiting the scope of protection to only public domain software: how is it imaginable to take that idea beyond an interesting blog post? I wish a huge constituency for public domain software existed, but as of now it is a rounding error.

3) Zero restrictions is a fine ideal (indeed, copyright and patent should be abolished entirely), but whether viewed as a “price” or grant of permissions, releasing work under any free/open license makes very significant grants. Attendant conditions may be annoying, self-defeating, necessary, or something else depending on one’s perspective (I try to view them charitably as prototypes for more effective regulation not based on copyright holder whim, but also think it is worthwhile to try to improve them, and, as above, encourage more use of public domain instruments) but obviously these licenses are adequate to facilitate vibrant commons projects (essentially all well known free/open source software, except for SQLite and djbware, which use public domain dedications), and it is the actual commons that needs to be favored, not some idealized zero friction symmetry between patent and copyright.

The historical reason to say “public domain” instead of “open source license” is possible legal precedent: back when software was unpatentable, it was also uncopyrightable. An awful lot of public domain software used to exist, and when people added copyrights to it, they opened it to patents as well. Software that _isn’t_ copyrighted, historically, also wasn’t patented. If somebody tries to enforce patents against public domain software, we can make a clear distinction and ask a judge to opine.

4) I’m not a lawyer, but I’d bet heavily against us winning. Happy to be wrong.

5) I’ve already mentioned size of the constituency for (2) and quantity of (3) free/open source software relative to only public domain software, but these bear repeating in the form of size of benefit. Protecting all free/open source software from patents would immediately benefit millions of free/open source software developers and users, and solve big problems for free/open source software and standards. There would be essentially no immediate benefit from only protecting public domain software from patents. Long term it would encourage more public domain software. To make that extremely lopsided trade off one has to believe that free/open source licenses are really, really awful relative to the public domain. I can understand that belief emotionally, but don’t think what evidence we have about success of various projects bears the belief out. Rather, the specific conditions (including none) just aren’t all that important so long as a minimum of permissions are granted. Exclusive public domain advocates may hate licenses, but licenses just don’t matter that much!

As the title of this post implies, free/open source software (inclusive of public domain software) is not the only commons threatened by patents that ought be favored through blanket protection from patents. Defining some of these (e.g., for seeds, 3D printing, general purpose robotics, and synthetic biology?) will be harder, in part because there may be no “well understood term in the trade” such as “open source”, but this is a much smaller hurdle (indeed, a sub-sub-task of) than organizing the relevant constituencies and making the case to the public and policymakers that favoring commons is indeed good policy.

Research proposal revelation proposal

Monday, April 7th, 2014

As far as I know Daniel Mietchen does the very best work to bridge Wikimedia sites and freely licensed Open Access research (previous motivated link), making both much more valuable. Others doing or to do comparable or better work: I’m sorry I don’t yet know of it, and I thank you.

Mietchen has grander ideas for making research inputs, outputs, and collaboration more open and…collaborative. I wrote about his Encyclopedia of Original Research proposal (sadly unfunded as yet) a couple years ago.

Now as part of the Knight News Challenge he has a proposal for opening up research proposals:

Ideas are drivers of change, in research as much as in society at large. Current research practice is to hide ideas as long as possible and to reveal them only in formal publications that “count” in research evaluation contexts. We want to change that.

Many ideas are lost in the current closed system, and so are opportunities to collaborate and improve those few that are actually being worked on. We propose to elaborate mechanisms that would allow a transition from the current secretive model to one in which sharing research ideas is the default and seen as an invitation for collaboration, for accelerating and improving research rather than as a breach of private property.

The brief proposal is packed with ideas for making that happen (I made some small suggestions in the comments, but everything good was latent or implied before). One conceptual thing I like about the proposal is that it sets up a commons-based information revelation regime; the case for intellectual property as a revelation regime may seem quaint, but there’s nothing like a wildly better commons-based system to finally demolish that notion.

It appears there are 11 days left in the public feedback stage of the Knight News Challenge. I encourage you to read the proposal, post feedback, and applaud.

Update 20140409: I’m now an officious collaborator on this proposal. Hopefully that strengthens (commitment) rather than weakens (conflict) my endorsement of the proposal.

How different would the net be without Firefox?

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

David Flanagan, latest making claim I’ve read many times:

Without Mozilla, there would have been no Firefox, and the internet would be very different today.

Mitchell Baker in only a few more words included a combined mechanism and outcome:

We moved the desktop and browsing environments to a much more open place, with far more options and control available to individuals.

Baker further explained Mozilla aims to make an analogous difference in the computing environment of today and the future:

Today we live in a different online era. This era combines desktop, mobile devices, cloud services, big data and a social layer. It is feature-rich, highly centralized, and focused on a few giant organizations that exert control over almost all aspects of the experience. Today’s computing environment is deeply in need of an open, exciting alternative that shows what the Open Web brings to this setting — something built on parts including Firefox OS, WebGL, asm.js, and the many other innovations being developed at Mozilla. It is comparable to the desktop computing environment we set out to revolutionize when we started Mozilla.

Mozilla needs to bring a similar scope of change to the new computing era. Once again, Mozilla needs to break down the walled gardens of online life and bring openness and opportunity to all. Once again, we have the chance to build products and communities in a way that no one else will.

(Baker’s post announced Brendan Eich as CEO, Flanagan lays out some information following Eich’s resignation. That crisis presumably changed nothing about evaluations of Mozilla’s previous impact, nor its plans for analogous future impact. The crisis just provided an opportunity for many to repeat such evaluations and plans. This post is my idiosyncratic exploitation of the opportunity.)

Those are important claims and plans, and I tend to strongly agree with them. My logic, in brief:

  • there’s a lot of scope for the net (and society at large) to be substantially more or less “open” than it is or might be due to relatively small knowledge policy and knowledge economy changes;
  • there’s a lot of scope for commons-based projects to push the knowledge economy (and largely as an effect, knowledge policy) in the direction of “open”;
  • due to network effects and economies of scale, huge commons-based projects are needed to realize this potential for pushing society in an “open” direction;
  • Mozilla is one of a small number of such huge commons-based projects, and its main products have and will be in positions with lots of leverage.

Independent of my logic (which of course I doubt and welcome criticism of) for agreeing with them, I think claims about Mozilla’s past and potential future impact are important enough to be criticized and refined rather than suffering the unremitting bludgeoning of obscurity or triviality.

How could one begin to evaluate how much and what sort of difference Mozilla, primarily through Firefox, has made? Some things to look at:

  • other free/open source software browser projects;
  • competition among proprietary browsers;
  • differences between Firefox and proprietary browsers in developing and implementing web standards;
  • all aspects of Mozilla performance vs. comparable (Mozilla is different in many respects, but surely amenable to many tools of organizational evaluation and comparison) organizations;
  • 2nd order effects of a superior (for a period, and competitive otherwise) free/open source browser, e.g., viability of free desktop (though never achieving significant market share, must be responsible for huge increases in consumer surplus due through constraint on proprietary pricing and behavior) and inspiration for other open source projects, demonstration of feasibility of commons-based competition in mass market.

It’s possible that such questions are inadequate for characterizing the impact of Mozilla, but surely they would help inform such characterization. If those are the wrong questions, or the wrong sort of questions, what are the right ones? Has anyone, in any field, taken evaluation of Mozilla’s differential impact beyond the Baker quote above? I’d love to read about how the net would have been different without Firefox, and how we might expect the success or failure of new Mozilla initiatives to produce different worlds.

These kinds of questions are also important (or at a minimum, interesting to me) for other commons-based initiatives, e.g., Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Empowered Mozilla?

Friday, April 4th, 2014

I don’t feel glad about Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, but it is probably for the best that it happened quickly. Even the President of the United States has changed his tune on same sex marriage since 2008. Apparently Eich really wanted to not even pretend to change his opinion and make up for it.

There is irony and danger in excluding holders of non-inclusive political opinions in the name of inclusivity. But the particulars of this instance make sense. (1) The excluded opinion isn’t just any. It’s in a class of opinions which deny equal rights to some people based on attributes they did not choose. Once society gets around to expanding the circle of moral equality to another group, advocacy against the expansion or for retraction quickly becomes an abomination suppressed on the free market; and not soon enough. I don’t see any way to avoid this. I suspect that the general case for socially (as opposed to legally: there should be no legal intolerance for even abominable opinions) tolerating diverse opinions is harmed if anti-equality opinions are treated as any other political opinion. (2) The opinion holder isn’t just anyone, but the symbol of a very public organization. Whether the chief executive should be such a central figure — certainly not when it comes to criminally powerful heads of nearly all states — is another question. I look forward to publicly holding the opinion that jurisdiction of birth serves as a legitimate reason for denial of equal rights becoming verboten for leaders, and in any educated company, at which point international apartheid must quickly crumble.

I hope that this brief crisis somehow spurs Mozilla to get back to its roots, even if in other respects Eich would have been the best leader to do that. For anyone who cares about the Mozilla mission, the crisis reveals a lot more about governance and communications problems at the organization than about Eich’s views, which were already known last year. I don’t think the crisis was only due to the outrage of marriage equality advocates. People expect better from Mozilla than the corporate/political PR style which Mozilla seems to have adopted: non-specific hype and if that doesn’t go over well reassure without directly addressing concerns. That approach could hardly be more calculated to provoke outrage among people who feel a part of the Mozilla community.

About crowd outrage, including destructive measures (promotion of browsers that are ethically far worse than Firefox), and Mozilla’s initial response of reassuring without directly addressing concerns (which horribly undersold Mozilla’s excellent practices and values, seeming to be offered as pathetic reassurance rather than the bedrock that they are): the whole thing reminds me of mass protest stemming from some legitimate issues, government refusal to directly address issues, and a rapid escalation to regime change as a non-negotiable demand, with destruction and opportunity creation for trolls quickly following.

Though in every recent case I can think of, the outraged crowd has good reason to be outraged, there is something “illegitimate” about obtaining change through packing the streets (or net), and certainly much dangerous about it: the collateral damage and opportunities created for the worst actors are enormous. Is there any hope for crowds or institutions to become “smarter” and more constructive? That’s in part what I was hoping for in the Mozilla case in my previous post.

I can think of approximately three possibilities; hopefully many more exist. (1) Better predictions about outcomes, i.e., any at all beyond self-serving punditry. Prediction markets are one possible, but so far failed (in the sense of near zero use), mechanism. Some outraged crowd members might pay attention to risk, and perhaps even tip the crowd into more rational behavior. Within regimes (inclusive of those controlling non-state organizations) better predictions might strengthen the hands of those who advocate for responding in a way not seemingly calculated to tip the crowd into regime change as a non-negotiable demand. (2) New “legitimate” arrangements which somehow promote directly addressing concerns rapidly, without allowing any mass of angry people to demand regime change. I don’t have any concrete ideas, but might be related to (3) new “legitimate” arrangements designed to encourage change without crisis, thus reducing the “need” for crisis. In many ways (2) and (3) are the function of “the market” and “culture” with emphasis depending on topic. But organizations (state, firm, or other) play a tremendous role, so institutional design is highly pertinent. One version of such institutional design, or at least call for such, is Roberto Unger’s concept of empowered democracy (from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

Unger’s proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock through the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.

I don’t have any comments on Unger’s proposed innovations (apart from skeptical curiosity), but the goal increasing (implied positive) change while reducing crisis seems one worthy of exploration, by organizations of all sizes.

Brendan Eich’s going away post:

Networks breed first- and second-mover winners and others path-dependent powers, until the next disruption. Users or rather their data get captured.

Privacy is only one concern among several, including how to realize economic value for many-yet-individually-weak users, not just for data-store/service owners or third parties. Can we do better with client-side and private-cloud tiers, zero-knowledge proofs and protocols, or other ideas?

Can a browser/OS “unionize its users” to gain bargaining power vs. net super-powers?

This is basically why I think Mozilla is so great and important. Lots of free/libre/open projects and organizations have good values. They largely don’t matter because network effects dominate. Huge organizations with good values are necessary, and all the better if they explicitly are thinking about the challenges imposed by the network effects of incumbents which embody poor values.

There’s no analogy worthy of making, and cringe when others try. But I’m glad that marriage equality advocates and their predecessors in struggles for civil rights succeeded in gaining bargaining power vs. the social super-powers of the day.

A plan for a plan to accelerate clarity on “NonCommercial” by 100%

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

After 11+ years, 4 major license suite versions, focused research, and movement education campaigns, Creative Commons achieved a quantum increase in the clarity of the definition of NonCommercial as used in some of (CC-BY-ND does not) its semicommons licenses:

not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.

In the next 11+ years, Creative Commons can improve this performance by precisely 100% — remove two more words from the definition. Nobody knows which words yet: discovery will take years of versioning, research, outreach, collaboration with NonCommercial definition reusers, and perhaps a party. The result, even if not intended to change the substantive meaning of the definition, will bring an unprecedented level of clarity to NonCommercial. We can only look forward to but not yet imagine the next one.