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F & F


Brad Templeton on Usenet Policy, Spam and Reinventing the Phone
posted by mpawlo on Wednesday July 30, @02:55PM
from the brain-picking dept.
Civil Liberties 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 came along.

# 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 Kazaa)?

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 copy protect.

# 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 explain this?

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 participate?

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 law.

# 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 accessible email?

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 property.

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 concensus.

# 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 a donation?

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 with problems.

# 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 money.

# Being around the Internet for so long - what is your greatest fear for the future?

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 to bloom.

# And finally, how does one end up doing fine-art panoramic landscape photography?

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 same time.

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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  • The Eldred Case
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  • A bounty on spammers
  • 'isn't just the law, it's a good idea'
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    Brad Templeton on Usenet Policy, Spam and Reinventing the Phone | Login/Create an Account | Top | 6 comments | Search Discussion
    The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not responsible for them in any way.
    fp (Score:0)
    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 31, @02:12PM (#913)
    first post! oh wait; that's not such a big thing here.
    [ Parent ]
    • Re:fp by Anonymous Coward Thursday July 31, @02:19PM
    Free press (Score:0)
    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 31, @04:13PM (#917)
    I think he hit on a huge thing that isn't really mentioned much anymore. That the mainstream news and media are not free press. They are more like a regulated press - that's guarenteed not to piss off the congress to much, or federal bureaucrats too much. It is sad, because TV could have been cutting edge, the next great thing, like the internet is today. On the frontiers of education, research, and filled with things more usefull than sitcoms. Instead they just sort of fizzled.
    [ Parent ]
    Spam (Score:0)
    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 31, @04:36PM (#918)
    I really think the best solution is to have email by invitation only, but where an anonymous or unsolicited person can contact you by taking a 30 second turing test. A small price to pay for someone who really wants to contact you, but a nightmare for someone trying to send out 10million emails per day.
    [ Parent ]
    • Re:Spam by btempleton (Score:1) Thursday July 31, @04:55PM
    good replies (Score:1)
    by scubacuda (scubacudaNO@SPAMiname.com) on Thursday July 31, @06:29PM (#920)
    User #483 Info | http://www.greplaw.org/
    Good replies to /. posts, Brad [slashdot.org].

    Here [slashdot.org], here [slashdot.org], and here [slashdot.org].

    There are a thousand forms of subversion, but few can equal the convenience and immediacy of a cream pie. Noel Godin

    [ Parent ]

    Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition. - Isaac Asimov

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