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Brad Templeton on Usenet Policy, Spam and Reinventing the Phone
posted by mpawlo
on Wednesday July 30, @02:55PM
from the brain-picking dept.
Mr Brad Templeton should be no stranger to the long-time Greplaw readers. Still the chairman of the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation might be a new acquaintance to many Greplawers, and this CDA fighter's strong opinions on subjects ranging from spam, copyright policy and Internet regulation demand quite an audience. Greplaw is therefore happy to provide you with a fresh pick of Mr Templeton's brain.
# Who is Brad Templeton?
Well, with luck the web page explains that. My foundation is as
a technologist. I've been lucky enough to play at the start of
many of the recent technology revolutions. I was shown a mainframe
computer for the first time as a teenager in 1976, and within a couple of
years I was deep into early PCs and sold a game to Personal Software,
the company that sold Visicalc. I joined on as their first
employee and got to write more games, work a tiny bit on Visicalc and
demo it at its launch. Then they hired me to write VisiPlot, the
companion product for the PC. Funny thing is, to do all this, we
needed Arpanet accounts, and I quickly realized that networking people
was going to be the real application for these computers. In the
80s I played around a lot with that, wrote compilers and other tools,
including many of the popular system tools for Commodore computers.
# Clarinet Communications is often referred to as the world's first
dotcom. What did the company do and why did you sell it?
By the late 80s I was spending so much time on the net I decided I
had to make my living there or get away from it. It seemed that
a news and content company would be an obvious first application, though
everything had to be done from scratch. That's how I started
ClariNet. It delivered an electronic newspaper to people over
the internet and UUCP. At the time everybody felt the NSF "AUP"
(Acceptable use policy) forbade you from doing a business over the
net. I got Steve Wolff (who ran NSFNet) to agree that if I was
selling information to legit Arpanet users, that fit in the AUP,
and thus ClariNet became the first business created to use the
internet as a platform.
I sold it 8 years later because the dotcom boom made it impossible
for me to compete with companies losing more money than my total
sales just to see what would happen. I needed the resources of
a bigger company.
# You were involved in the early days of Usenet. Today, Usenet news seems
to me to be only slightly more useful than the average Nigerian scam
letter. Are you disappointed?
Not at all. What's amazing is that even though USENET has stagnated
and not added much new since the 80s, it's still the best way to
read an online conversation. None of the web message boards come
even close to the speed and ease of use. USENET suffers from the
classic tragedy of the commons. Nobody owns it, so nobody can take
the initiative to innovate in it and improve it. Each web site has
an private owner who is responsible for fixing and improving it.
USENET requires the agreement of a committee of thousands before
somebody can take a bathroom break.
Only when people have used the anarchic part to defy that common
ownership -- striking out on their own against spam, creating
special moderated groups (as I, among others, did) does anything
get done. Yet it amazes me that today no news web site is as good
for reading your news feed as a ClariNet newsgroup, which gives you
fast local access, and keeps track of your preferences and what you
have seen and not seen.
And the distributed net is supremely efficient. I remember in the 96
Olympics the traffic brought the big websites to their knees. No
ClariNet reader saw even a hiccup. The data was pre-fed to their
local networks, faster than any web site could ever be, even under
the heaviest load.
# Could a different Usenet policy or architecture provide more signal and
less noise and how would you form such a policy?
USENET needs a way to give people ownership
of their own areas with the freedom to innovate.
# Is that possible with the current technical architecture?
Not with the exact architecture. The key is to change it, to
sit back and ask what it does well, and rebuild it around those
concepts. I have an article at /brad/newuse.html on my website.
# How did you come up with the idea to rec.humor.funny?
Well, the open chaos of net.jokes (as it was called at the time) was
notorious. It was 99% comment and 1% jokes. I felt it clearly
called for somebody to do more than just moderate the conversation.
Instead, I wanted to try doing real editorial control, picking out the
wheat from the chaff with subjective decisions.
I proposed it to USENET's new (but already broken) voting system, and
it didn't pass, but in anarchic fashion, I did it anyway. Giving
people 2 messages a day instead of 200 was just what a lot of them
wanted, and within a year or 2 it was the most widely read thing on
the net. In fact, as far as I know it kept that title until Yahoo
# Do you have any other favourite newsgroups that you recommend?
There are still tens of thousands of newsgroups. The best ones are
the ones that match your specific interests and which are small
enough to be manageable. You'll find worthwhile groups for fans
of specific TV shows or products. I read the Tivo newsgroup for
example as I am interested in PVRs (see /brad/tvfuture.html)
and the digital photography newsgroup though it has gotten too big.
And rec.humor.funny still.
# Did you make any money out of the newsgroup or was it just for fun? Do
you think it is feasible to make money on information that is freely
available on the Internet (no matter if it is rec.humor.funny or through
I did try putting together some jokebooks based on the picking I
had done. I sold small quantities, nothing I would call making money.
However, doing comedy made me notice how popular Dave Barry's writing
was on mailing lists. Nobody paid for it, but I wanted to see if
you could make a legitimate channel for it and sell it. Barry's
syndicators said no, but the bug stayed with me and I signed up
much bigger content from newswires like UPI and eventually gathered
all the content of a typical newspaper, though with a focus on
technology for my audience.
I eventually got Dave Barry, though I doubt I would ever have made
a business selling just that. It's very hard to sell individual
bits of content. What people will pay for is a service that gives
them what they want on a regular basis. People will pass around
individual articles all the time, but it's very hard to pirate
an entire service. With fixed pricing for a bundle of content,
I made it so people who passed around single articles weren't
depriving me or the sources of revenue. There was no need to
# I read somewhere that you refer to broadcast media as a second-class
medium compared to printed media in a First Amendment aspect. Can you
The TV networks cut a deal with the FCC, or were forced to. They
get this gift of spectrum from the government, and in exchange don't
have all the freedoms a newspaper has. Censorship of the 7 dirty
words, equal access rules etc. Fear of losing their licence.
They are so desperate to keep that licence -- it's a licence to print
money now -- that they're in the way of the spectrum being opened up.
# How does this relate to the Internet?
Not a lot, other than if that spectrum were made unlicenced, there
would be an internet-like explosion of communications tech in wireless.
In fact, that's already going on, with just a few tiny bands opened up.
Oddly, a reverse of that tragedy of the commons I spoke about above,
because spectrum allows sharing very nicely with everybody doing their
own thing. The FCC that wrote the rules 60 years ago didn't
realize how it could really work.
Internet press are fortunately treated as paper press, thanks to...
# You were - through ClariNet - a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case to
get the USA's Communications Decency Act overturned. Why did you choose to
I've been an advocate of free speech for a long time, and had been
an EFF supporter since it began. (Mitch Kapor, who founded the EFF,
had been my boss 23 years ago at Personal Software/Visicorp -- strange
how it all comes together.)
Not only was I publishing news, but in the late 80s the rec.humor.funny
newsgroup had gotten banned at Stanford and my own Alma Mater, the
University of Waterloo, for publishing politically incorrect jokes.
It has been a harrowing experience, being called a computer Nazi on
the front page of the newspaper, and rededicated me to the free
speech cause. When the CDA came around, I was still publishing the
jokes, and the news as well, and I wanted to help strike down that
# Why were you called a computer Nazi?
As I said, politically incorrect jokes. And one that (picked at
random from a pool by the computer) was posted on a bad anniversary.
Then there were good jokes written about the reaction to the joke and
the reaction to the bad. I got accused of leading an international
network of bigots. (That I would be considered Jewish under Jewish
law -- though I hold no religion -- seemed lost on them.)
# Have you been monitoring The Eldred Case and do
you draw any parallels to the CDA Supreme Court case?
Surprisingly few. Of course Larry Lessig, who tried the case, is
on the EFF board with me and a friend. ACLU v. Reno had the court
recognize the important nature of the internet and declare it to be
fully protected. Eldred really wasn't asking an internet-specific
question, but instead asking deep questions about the role of
copyright and the meaning of the enabling clause for it in the
U.S. constitution, both on and off paper.
I support Larry's current push to simply require those who want long
term copyrights to register that desire somewhere in order to
keep the rights. Indeed, I could easily see that going back
earlier than 50 years.
# When it comes to Disney and other large corporations I agree with
professor Lessig that it is possible that only works that are worthwhile
from a commercial point of view will be renewed, but I guess that in
practice Disney and others will rather pay the tax than miss out on a
possible opportunity. Poor people - like my children should they not make
a lot of money on their own - will have to abandon the copyright or get a
mortgage. And they might only benefit on moral rights grounds from
extending the copyright. Where is the justice in that?
Larry's proposal is for a fee of a dollar, so it's a question of
the will, not the money. Yes, big outfits will have paid staff to
make sure they keep the registrations on file, and small fry won't.
If it weren't for the problem of false claimants, I would go even
less than a dollar and propose you just declare ownership on any
search-engine indexed web page with a magic string.
# Speaking of the Eldred case, what do you think of Professor Lessig's
spam solution, A bounty on spammers?
We debate that one a lot. I'm afraid I am much less optimistic about
it than he is. The majority of current spam is already illegal.
The most common spam I see is from that famous Nigerian prince. That's
a confidence trick -- a felony -- and the law is powerless against it.
Laws not even as strong as criminal law won't do much.
Frankly, we don't use bounties that often, unless you are Usama bin
Ladin. I'm loathe to try them out first in the speech area.
I think there are other approaches worth trying, which focus on
bulk mail, and have no collateral damage in person to person mail.
Spam is after all, the abuse of bulk mail.
# What if you introduced an Ombudsman instead of using bounties? The
Ombudsman would supervise the compliance with Lessig Spam Act.
There are already 30 spam laws out there in states which are having
zero effect. Many of them have the state AG enforce the law, some
have private rights of action, akin to a bounty. There is already
such a right for recorded voice phone calls. I even tried it out,
even going to court once and winning the $500. It wasn't worth it
though. (Larry's proposed bounty is much higher than that.)
Bounties are cute, and could indeed be effective but there's a
wild west nature to them I would keep away from speech law. There
are reasons we don't use them very often.
The current total failure of existing spam laws, and the fact that
a large proportion of spam is already fraudulent and thus criminal,
should be demonstration enough that this approach isn't enough,
especially when it is fraught with speech-law peril.
# In respect of spam, you have written that the U.S. First amendment
'isn't just the law, it's a good idea'. But is there not a risk
that free speech arguments may actually kill the open and freely
Spam is, in spite of our frustration, a comparatively recent problem.
I don't think we have exhausted our arsenal against it. So while that
"good idea" is indeed not a suicide pact, I don't believe we are
even close to the point of giving up our 1st amendment principles and
beliefs in exasperation over spam.
And I get 300 a day.
# How should we obtain a 'proper balance' between the right to
communicate and the right to not receive spam?
We already have established that balance in society. In a free
society, unsolicited communication between individuals is allowed.
You also have the right not to be harassed, to tell people to go
away, or put up a No-Trespassing sign. When it comes to the law,
these rules are already well established.
The government should never make it the default that communications
are banned, but it can give individuals the power to put up that
sign, as it does in the Federal do-not-call list.
Unfortunately, the law is not a powerful tool here. The net is
global. Indeed, I fear the telephone do-not-call list will prove
useless after it is deployed. Already, I notice more and more of
my phone solicitations are done by cheaper labour in India.
Telephony has become as global and cheap as E-mail, but some
people don't know that yet.
I believe that to do the least collateral damage, we must focus
on what was new in E-mail that spammers exploit, which is bulk mail.
In the past a stranger has had the right to come up to you on the
street and talk to you about anything, but a robot that comes up
to 10,000 strangers at once is another story. That's a behaviour
we can regulate both with law and technology.
# Feel free to elaborate, I am still not sure I get it.
When the spam problem arose, the natural intuition for many was to
say, "Hey, my E-mail server is my private property, free speech
issues don't apply here." And indeed, the internet is built
entirely on private property. You can't send a packet to anybody
outside your own network without using somebody else's private
But after a while, you wonder if this ability to ignore the 1st
amendment (in private solutions) is a bug or a feature. There
are two centuries of history and hard-won rights found in 1st
amendment jurisprudence. If we move to a world where all
communication flows over private property, do we want to give all
that up and start from scratch? That's what I mean when I say it's
not just the law, but a good idea. There are some important
principles that we cherish in that history, and even if we are
not legally bound to them in private networks, we are morally bound
if we are replacing the old commons with private property.
Particularly if we start building monopoly-style blacklists that
won't let anybody communicate unless they follow our rules about
the content of their messages.
Many of the battles are on this line. Intel wanted to get incoming
E-mail defined as trespass to chattels. The EFF made a successful
argument to strike down that doctrine. Not that I don't think Hamidi
is a spammer and that Intel shouldn't have ways to stop him, but
defining electronic signals as akin to physical trespass is troublesome
(and the court agreed.)
The RIAA is hoping for a world where they control not just the music
they release but all the devices that can play it. The MPAA already
got pretty far with DVDs, since you still can't build a DVD player
without a licence from their DVDCCA. They hope that if they can
stamp out all the open formats, they'll create a private regime where
they can protect their copyrights with DRM. We worry about the
effect on free speech if you can't build or use the very platforms
the speech travels over without getting permission from somebody.
# You are the chairman of the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. What does your average chairman-day look like?
The board doesn't work day to day at the office, but everybody at
the EFF lives and breathes E-mail and we have many internal lists
where we learn news and discuss the issues. I'm one of the more
active board members, but everybody puts in a lot. I'm certainly
not "in charge" of the EFF. I became chairman more for my role as
a conciliator and moderator, trying to bring opposing forces to a
# Are the internal lists accessible for non-EFF individuals or is this
where the transparency stops?
The lists are too high volume as it is; they wouldn't work if they had
more people on them. I don't think complete transparency of that
order is a virtue, for the same reason David Brin's Transparent Society
has problems. People don't act as freely and openly when they feel
they are being watched by the world. The EFF publishes a great deal
about what we do, which members can and do read to help them decide
if they want to continue supporting. Transparency of internal debate
may make sense for bodies with governmental power, like ICANN, but even
then it has its drawbacks.
# Pardon the interruption, I had to ask. You were talking about the board work. Please continue.
The ACLU has a joke that I steal -- if you agree with us 75% of the
time you should donate some money. If you agree with us 50% of the
time you should be on the board.
The issues the EFF deals with are novel and contentious, and we are
rarely all of one view. I'm much more pro-IP than John Perry Barlow for
example. Every dime I've made in my life, and every dime my parents
made to feed me has come from publishing, or software, or music.
Even with that I know how far overboard the big content companies have
gone in the copyright crisis, however.
IP is taking up a lot of the EFF's time, in part because we've become
the real leader on that issue, getting there first, trying the hard
cases. We also are worried about our roots issues -- freedom of
speech, surveillance, encryption and privacy -- which are under
some of the greatest threats they have seen in recent times.
# A lot of Greplaw readers are interested in the EFF and want to
contribute. How should you contribute if you do not have the funds to make
We do bring in a select number of legal interns. Our staff all work
extremely hard for less pay than they could make out in the for-profit
world. Practicing attorneys willing to do pro-bono work with experience
in our areas are always welcome. We also keep a directory of lawyers
willing to take on cases in these areas for free or at reduced rates
(or just with great expertise) since we are contacted daily by people
# More exactly - whom should be contacted?
To volunteer legal services contact Cindy Cohn, our legal director.
People with legal problems mail to ask (at) eff.org.
# If you choose the three - and only three - most important issues for the
EFF - what would they be?
Two of the EFF's core issues -- freedom of speech and surveillance --
remain even more important today than they ever were. But the
growing issue right now is certainly intellectual property and
copyright -- in particular when such areas of law start affecting
freedom of speech, freedom to do research and to build software,
freedom to publish and reverse engineer, all of which are happening
under the DMCA.
# Looking at the world around us, it seems like we're getting more
filters, more censorship, more patents, more copyright and less freedom on
the Internet. Has the EFF failed?
We've won a number of significant victories, some of which have been
talked about in this interview, and many more recent ones which
are outlined on our web site. We've also had significant losses,
such as the 2600 case where the court ruled an online magazine could
not publish the results of important reverse engineering of how to
play a DVD.
But all these cases are coming because of a tremendous explosion of
freedom that has been going on around us, thanks to the computer.
This is a rare juncture in history. We're in the middle of
a revolution and we know it. The main tide, in spite of the
setbacks is still towards victory. I admit to getting a little
more scared of late, after the Patriot Act and the DMCA. What
we're doing is vitally important. Even those who would be champions
of those laws would agree that it's vital to have a healthy
campaign to oppose them and provide checks and balances. However,
some of these laws and proposed new ones are so scary that we need
to do more than provide balance. That's how we spend our member's
# Being around the Internet for so long - what is your greatest fear for
I fear people will buy into the idea that there is an inherent tradeoff
between fundamental rights and safety, so that everything that
frightens us shifts that balance and takes away rights. A lot of
people seem to believe this and say it. It's a scary world and it's
going to get nastier for a while. Rights lost take a long time to
come back, indeed they usually only come back in revolutions.
So many times when people make this tradeoff it's just because they
didn't think hard enough how to keep rights and increase safety at
the same time. We need a force in society to push for that, and
it's a daunting task. Many people don't worry about lost rights or
privacy until after they are taken away.
# And your greatest hope?
In spite of all these forces, great new media of freedom keep
flourishing. Bloggers and WiFi and tunnels through the great
Firewall of China. The opponents of freedom are on the defensive.
It's nasty, because they tend to over-react and work to protect
their established turfs. 9/11 showed them taking a forward leap,
grabbing new powers when the opportunity arose. But mostly, these
bad laws and bad situations are happening because some new freedom
has sprung on the landscape that frightens certain powerful interests.
My great hope is that new things I haven't yet imagined will continue
# And finally, how does one end up doing fine-art panoramic landscape
Back in 96 my staff bought me an early digital camera. It was very
low-res by today's standards, but digital cameras change the way
you photograph. They make you think more like a pro, shooting
everything many times to get the perfect shot. It was fun.
With unlimited "film", I got the urge in certain places to capture
the entire scene, to take a shot that nobody had ever photographed
before. The giant sweep of panoramas was an obvious channel to
this. I did my first one by hand, then later people wrote
software tools to make it much easier.
It's led to me building some of the biggest photographs in the world,
hundreds of millions of pixels -- bigger than photoshop can load.
Printed out, they capture as much as the human eye can see standing
in a spot, which is indeed something novel in the right place.
And a great way to combine passions for technology and art at the
Plus I'm back at a new vision. Later this year you'll see my
reinvention of the phone call itself. My dad had 9 or so different
careers in his life, so shifting around like this is just
normal in our family.
# Reinventing the phone call? Do we really need more communication?
Very pertinent question indeed, which my system definitely answers.
A large part of it involves getting rid of the concept of the phone
call as interruption.
Mr Brad Templeton was interviewed by Mikael Pawlo.
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