Intellectual property as theft

I’ve been dipping into a new (and free to download but you can choose to support it by paying for a paperback or Kindle copy from Amaxon) book by Rufus Pollock, The Open Revolution. I’m not great at reading whole books online, hence the dipping. What I’ve read, though, I really like. It states: “This book is about making as much as possible of that information available to as many people as we can, since wealth, information and the opportunity to create them are now profoundly entwined”  – the information in question being private, digitally recorded and stored information, anything that could be patented or copyrighted.

The book starts by underlining that any property rights – and all economists agree well-defined property rights are fundamental to economic growth – are defined by politics and law and social norms. The argument that the intellectual property rights that currently prevail are problematic for the digital economy has been made before, and is forcefully made again here. The book argues for ‘open information’, that “can be universally
and freely used, built upon and shared.

The book looks at patent and copyright protection, and draws the link to the accumulation of significant digital market (and political) power. It then jumps from the unquestioned powers such as Google and Facebook to a chapter on music streaming and Spotify – a marvellous service and one that can hardly be described as exercising undue power, especially when facing up against the recording industry titans. Pollock argues for replacing Spotify’s commercial model, which involves it in policing copyright protection, with a state-sponsored streaming model whereby governments collect a tax and allow citizens to access any streamed music:

“With no fee per track and no limitation on use, this all-you-can-eat buffet is a prototype for how one aspect of the Open world would operate. Money would of course have to be collected somehow to fund it, but instead of ten dollars a month to Spotify, this
could be a special fee incorporated in your taxes or added to your internet or mobile bill. This money would then be distributed according to usage, through remuneration rights fees.”

Subscription models are also of course all-you-can-eat ones and so similarly fit well the low or zero marginal cost economics of online. The difference between Spotify and this government-sponsored version of music streaming is scale: the more users pay, the lower the average fee. This is the rationale for public service broadcasting, so in effect we already have this model in the UK. My household pays an absolutely bargainiferous £2.89 per week to have access to a vast array of content for which the BBC has dealt with all the IP negotiations. I’m a huge fan of this model. But I don’t see why poor old Spotify – another marvellous service – should be prevented from asking for £10 a month for its streaming services.

So I’m with the book on the over-reach of IP laws in the digital age. I’d strongly argue for intense regulatory scrutiny of the advertising funded model of Google and Facebook, which might force them to an alternative business model – a flat fee, and utility regulation for some of their services perhaps. Some jurisdictions have started inquiries into the online ads market, almost a duopoly. But I’m not persuaded  public versus private ownership and control of the access services is the central issue. For sure, given that digital goods are essentially public goods and natural monopolies, there’s a free riding issue which argues for tax financing, but the first step must be to tackle the ridiculous IP laws.

There’s also a deeper question, I think, which is what one is paying for when it comes to fees to access digital content. The book argues: against “restrictions on which BBC programmes are freely accessible (having, of course, been paid for by the British public) and when, and where, to digital watermarks, paywalls around newspapers…”

Well, I happen to know something abuot restrictions on online acccess to BBC programmes, having chaired the original iPlayer approval process. One source of restriction is indeed a byzantine set of rights – different broadcast platforms in different countries may have specific rights to certain ‘windows’ or time periods. The licence fee payer in these cases has only paid for limited access rights, much as one might wish the limits to be less retrictive and the costs lower. Another source of restrictions was the desire on launching the BBC’s online services not to foreclose potential competing services, a worthy application of competition policy, and also not to cannibalise too quickly the BBC’s own linear services and commercial offer. These restrictions have been relaxed over time. The licence fee also buys not just the intangible asset of programmes – and I’m all for making the archive as freely available as possible – but also the continuing costs of investing in new content. The high initial fixed costs have to be covered. Similarly, I’m all in favour of newspaper paywalls – how else is new journalism going to get financed?

Anyway, this is as far as I’ve got. It is – as will be obvious – a stimulating read, although some of this will be familiar to those who have engaged with the ‘open’ argument before (eg James Boyle’s The Public Domain or Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture). I’d be interested to hear other people’s reactions to these arguments. Although quibbling, I’m broadly very sympathetic to them. I’ll be buying a hard copy to read it properly….

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Cyborgery

With two Eurostar trips in one day on Monday ( to take part in the AFSE Conference in Paris) I raced through Mark O’Connell’s To Be A Machine. It’s an account of the Silicon Valley-centric transhumanist movement – Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, Peter Thiel and Google funding research into immortality, uploading brains out of the feeble human body to alternative ‘substrates’, and so on. It’s a superbly-written book, respectful of its subjects while clearly disagreeing wholly with them – and successfully making the case that this is a religious rather than a scientific movement. The book manages to be both full of insight and very funny. I was aware of this movement – thanks to my ISC colleague Richard Jones’s book ‘Against Transhumanism’ (the clue is in the title) – but had no real idea of its reach among brilliant and influential people one would have never have imagined to be so – well, bonkers is the only word that comes to mind. Bonkers and yet in some cases powerful and very much worth taking seriously for the questions their belief-set raises.

Well worth a read.

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AIs, humans and chess

Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking is a compelling read. Timed for the 20th anniversary (last year) of his famous defeat by the chess computer Deep Blue, it’s a combination of the tale of his engagements with computers through the course of his chess career (including his view about IBM’s bad behaviour in the famous contest) with reflections on computers and human intelligence. Chess is of course a great lens for these reflections, being in many ways emblematic of intellectual skills.

Kasparov convincingly portrays himself as an optimist about technology, including AI. He sees it as an other tool used by humans, albeit one we haven’t yet figured out to use. He points out also that when some application becomes very familiar, we stop calling it AI and start calling it, oh, Siri. After all, we don’t call our fancy new washing machine a robot, but it is. Anyway, although not a chess afficionado, I enjoyed reading the book and agree with its call for some deep thinking about how to use these amazing, human-invented, new technologies.

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Learning about (machine) learning

Last week I trotted off for my first Davos experience with four books in my bag and managed to read only one – no doubt old hands could have warned me what a full-on (and rather weird) experience it is. The one (and that read mainly on the journeys) was The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos. I was impressed when I heard him speak last year & have been meaning to read it ever since.

The book is a very useful overview of how machine learning algorithms work, and if you’ve been wondering, I highly recommend it. On the whole it stays non-technical, although with lapses – and I could have done without the lame jokes, no doubt inserted for accessibility. The book also has an argument to make: that there is an ultimate ‘master algorithm’, a sort of Grand Unified Theory of learning. This was a bit of a distraction, especially as there’s an early chapter doing the advocacy before the later chapters explaining what Domingos hopes will eventually be unified.

However, the flaws are minor. I learned a lot about both the history of the field and its recent practice, along with some insights as to how quickly it’s progressing in different domains and therefore what we might expect to be possible soon. Successive chapters set out the currently competing algorithmic approaches (the book identifies five), explains their history within the discipline and how they relate to each other, how they work and what they are used for. There is an early section on the importance of data.

As a by the by, I agree wholeheartedly with this observation: “To make progress, every field of science needs to have data commensurate with the complexity of the phenomena it studies.” This in my view is why macroeconomics is in such a weak state compared to applied microeconomics: the latter has large data sets, and ever more of them, but macro data is sparse. It doesn’t need more theories but more data. Nate Silver made a simliar point in his book The Signal and the Noise – he pointed out that weather forecasts improved by gathering much more data, in contrast to macro forecasting.

Another interesting point Domingos makes en passant is how much more energy machines need than do brains: “Your brain uses only as much power as a small lightbulb.” As the bitcoin environmental disaster makes plain, energy consumption may be the achilles heel of the next phase of the digital revolution.

I don’t know whether or not one day all the algorithmic approaches will be combined into one master algorithm – I couldn’t work out why unification was a better option than horses for courses. But never mind. This is a terrific book to learn about machine learning.

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From ‘Arab Spring’ to Fake News

I’m late to Zeynep Tufekci’s excellent Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. It analyses the impact of social media on political events such as the Arab Spring – remember that? – and Occupy. Her thesis is that online organization is a powerful political tool when combined with offline organization, but cannot substitute for it; and the evidence presented here from a range of mass protests certainly convinces me. The problem mass socially-networked protests have lies in their norms of decision making, which are slow and non-hierarchical. This makes them unable to change tactics quickly when hostile authorities respond to the protest, and so the moment passes. If, however, there is a parallel offline organisation with more conventional decision-making structures, the political protest can adapt and continue.

The book is informed by the author’s experiences visiting protests since long before Twitter and Facebook (and this makes it an engaging read). There is a lot of intriguing detail. Why, she asks, do longer-lived protests like Occupy Wall Street or Gezi Park set up libraries? Even clinics and clothing exchanges are probably unnecessary. She argues that the spirit of protest involves expressiveness – taking part is a meaningful or even joyful activity, often with a sense of ritual or transcendence..

A later interesting section of the book concerns the way authoritarian governments are fighting back against protests using social media themselves – not so much by cutting off the internet (which happened more in the early, Arab Spring, days than it does now) as by flooding social media with confusion and false information. I think the book was written before we all became familiar with the phrase Fake News, but here it is presented as a tactic of repression. Even in tightly controlled China, online comment is rarely shut down unless it looks like becoming organised offline action.

All in all, a highly recommended book, albeit not a particularly cheering one. The Arab Spring feels a long time ago, those days when democracy looked like it was still spreading rather than retreating. Tufekci herself ends on a slightly positive note, reporting a conversation with a young activist (one of Sain’s Indignados) about where things might go. The young woman replies with a phrase echoing one the Zapatistas used much earlier: “We will keep walking and keep asking questions.” As long as pepole have the energy to keep on, there’s hope.

I read the book on my trip to the ASSA meetings, also reading Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, a second book by the wonderful new discovery Mick Herron, and Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc. All highly recommended.

Price: £5.75
Was: £7.99

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