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Dave Farber's Year In Washington 52

Tim O'Reilly writes "Dave Farber is not only a great technologist (one of the founding fathers of the Internet) but also one of the people most concerned with technology and society (co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example). This brief report on Dave's year as Chief Technologist of the FCC gives a few impressions of the policy makers in Washington D.C. Well worth a read, and immensely credible to those of us who know Dave." (Read More.)

"One highlight:

Washington is a town with very, very few technical people advising the top levels of decision-makers. In an era where technology has such an impact on our economy, that is dangerous. Most of the senior people are lawyers and economists with little knowledge of science and technology. They get their information largely from the few technical people on their staffs and from hordes of lobbyists.

For those who don't know it, Dave's IP (Interesting People) email list is a previous generation of the same spirit that led to slashdot. The interesting people on the list send interesting tidbits to Dave, who forwards them on (or not) depending on whether he finds them interesting. Dave does no reformatting or cleanup of submissions, so the stuff is sometimes a bit hard to read, depending on how many times it's been forwarded, but the content is almost always worthwhile. And Dave's own pieces are almost always worth a read. They range from what's new and hot in Akihabra (Dave's a gadget guy) to what Dave had to eat on that same trip to Tokyo. There's a leaning towards stories that hit the intersection between technology and policy, but lots of other goodies come by here too.

For web archives going back to mid-1993, see"

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Dave Farber's Year In Washington

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  • Can't stop laughing.
  • by e_lehman ( 143896 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @03:58PM (#384933)

    The cynical stuff we see on-camera comes from a media fascination with partisanship and conflict rather than from politicians being two-faced. Media people choose to point the camera at conflict, not thoughtful policy discussion. They prefer soap opera drama over substantive concepts. Fox News is the worst offender. They cast EVERYTHING in terms of an American left-right political struggle. That's just not a very meaningful way to look at the world, but I guess that's the way Rupert Murdoch likes it.

  • by jeffsenter ( 95083 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @04:05PM (#384934) Homepage
    This also could be because the good old boys in Washington don't differ all that much deep down inside. The interpretation depends on your perspective. Do you believe that America's politicians are working for the good of the country or not?
  • It's like a Star Trek episode where everything can be solved by reversing the polarity of the isolinear chips.

    The problem of copyright, of encryption exportation, etc. is created by society because of political interests. One can't just play the technology trump card to eliminate those things. You have to work to understand each side of the argument. It requires communication, learning, debate, and dialogue. It takes time. Lots of time. This is the basis behind law and politics, and is why it lags behind technical progress.

    One can reason (using mathematical inquiry or the scientific method) about technology. One cannot reason so easily about emotions, vested interests, traditions, law, history, and politics.
  • He's a gay asshole.
  • At least now I know who this guy is.

    r. ghaffari
  • by charvolant ( 224858 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @06:21PM (#384938) Homepage
    The existence of strong encryption technologies, software that defeates copyright-protection ... Technical problems can only be solved technical solutions

    These two examples are social problems.

    Strong encryption technologies are -- until quantum computing arrives, at least -- pretty much a solved technological problem. The problems it poses are ones like: "Does society, as a whole, want to allow anyone to hide the evidence of their activities? Including that guy collecting protection money? Including those kidnappers? Including that serial killer?" or "Does society, as a whole, want to allow a government that can erase all records of their activities simply by forgetting a few passwords?&quot Human-rights trials for nasties like the Khmer Rouge or the Stazi often have to use the records that they, themselves, have gathered. Nice of us to give them an "instant erase" button on a plate.

    Similarly, the copyright-breaking software is, pretty much, a solved technical problem. But the question remains as to how much reward a creator should be given and how that reward is gathered and distributed. Nobody wants copyright-breaking software in and of itself; what they want is the stuff that is copyrighted -- the creative work. If copyright-breaking software helps dry up the source of readily available of creative work, then it's a net loss. Looks like a social problem to me.

    And technical problems can be solved by non-technical solutions. A way of solving a problem is to make the root of the problem go away. If you reduce the burglary problem to insignificance, all those technical problems to do with the control of laser-cannon in home security also vanish.

    This touches on a larger question. How much responsibility do the creators of software owe to the rest of society? Most software has unforseen consequences. (As do grandiose political programs, but I'm talking about the software domain, here.) Technologies such as strong encryption can have quite large societal consequences, not all of them begnin. When does everybody else get a say? Is releasing them without the general agreement of society an abuse of power?

    I'm just not that impressed with arrogant, power-hungry techheads, as well.

  • I don't think America's politicians are working for anyone but themselves. Even if they mean to do good, there is no way central planning is going to solve problems in healthcare, electricity, labor, the environment, etc. Successful large corporations have learned the power of distributed decision making. Without it, a corporation will fall apart. No matter how brilliant (or evil) you think Gates, Ellison, McNealy, Gerstner, etc. are, they know that no one man can have complete control over every aspect of their company. We would be much better off if we had an incredibly small federal government, much smaller state government, and a reasonable size local government. Society has many problems and one centrally planned solution is not the right idea. Of course, this decentralization would take a tremendous amount of power away from the politicians. They certainly do not want this.
    Stuart Eichert
  • by wytcld ( 179112 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @06:26PM (#384940) Homepage
    "walking a fine line between not regulating the Internet to death and keeping it the open, vibrant network it is today"

    Say again? No, that makes sense, to keep it open and vibrant it has to be regulated, but not to death. ?? But this is in the context of the Time/AOL merger, so it's Time/AOL that has to be regulated, but not to death? Why not?

  • Al Gore (one of the founding fathers of the Internet) has been in Washington for 8 years, but never appeared on Slashdot.
  • Doesn't it bother anyone that something as complicated as political philosophies are thought of as a 1-Dimension left-to-right line?

    It bothered Jerry Pournelle so he came up with a two dimensional plane of political ideology. I'm very sorry that I can't give you a link or any more information on it... I can't even remember in what book I read it in.

    But, really, there are enough people out there who admit to being both socially liberal and financially conservative that I think another party/direction would make sense. (Hmm... I wonder who in there right minds would be socially conservative but financially liberal... that doesn't even make sense!)

    "All my base are belong to them!"
  • I think that a far more revealing quote would be:
    With respect to technical information, Washington is a mushroom farm.
    Keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit until you've got what you want.

    If you're living in or near Washington, I suggest you contact you favorite rep, and offer your services.

  • Hehe - the way you phrased it all I could think of was:

    Liver transplant victim: Eeeaghurghargh!

    wife: Ah well - it's all for the good of the country isn't it?

  • >>Society has many problems and one centrally planned solution is not the right idea.
    Each village has its own time zone.
    Each county has its own standard for weights and measures.
    Each state decides whether to drive on the left or the right.
    Each state decides whether AC or DC, what frequency, what voltage.
    Central Planning runs into problems when the planners are separated by many layers from the realities of the situation.
    It's not that simple. To get an idea, watch a bunch of CSPAN/CSPAN2.
  • by Wellspring ( 111524 ) on Monday March 05, 2001 @02:10AM (#384946)

    It's a little more complicated than that.

    • Reps aren't usually the ones you see. Those old white guys spouting opinions on your network are, typically, other journalists-- typically ones promoted to the level of Pundit. When congressmen/senators/appointees are interviewed, they are typically given only a few seconds, and are put into situations where there is a strong opponent right next to them. Even then, they are typically gracious to their colleagues. The media works very hard to keep them at each others' throats. But usually, they just stick a few real leaders in between hoards of the media elite, who are paid to be jerks.
    • This happens because the media benefits from conflict. A news story about a learned debate between a tax cut of N% and a cut of (.95)N% just won't earn ratings. So they find the one guy in congress who is storming mad about it, and interview him. That's, IMO, why Sen. McCain gets so much media attention: he isn't easily pigeonholed by party, and is more often at odds with other Senators about something than his colleagues.
    • The legislative process is fundamentally boring and consensus driven. It consists of legislative assistants (working for the various committees and in the Member's personal offices) getting together and hammering out a budget based largely on that agency's requests. It takes months and is filled with formal letters requesting fair consideration from other members, then rushed markup sessions where priorities are set and horses traded. The members themselves only set goals and targets; they personally negotiate only if things break down. This is totally unreportable. For one thing, the people who are doing the work are between 25 and 35 years old-- way too young to look like Government Officials. For another, they won't talk to the press-- that's what press secretaries are for, to shield legislative staff from reporters (with the occasional senior staffer who does off the record interviews). So the press interviews the only people who will still talk to them: each other.
    • Sit down with a stopwatch one night on the nightly news and record how much time people with real political power (someone with a position in the government) speaks. Then do the same with crossfire (on a night when they have anyone who actually does policy-making for a living at all). You just don't have time to be thoughtful.
    • One excellent point I drew out of the report was the shortage of technical people. You have no idea how easy it is to get into politics and be in a position of at least moderate influence. The trick is to always work to put more into your efforts than you ever want to take out. Find some state rep or state senator who you agree with on most issues. Then contribute your most valuable resource: time. With recent layoffs, this shouldn't be a problem for some of us. Read Heinlein's book, Take Back Your Government.

      You won't get everything you want, but you'll gain a new respect for our leaders, and also help them make good decisions about many of our most critical issues in technology.

  • Law is basically common sense and a certain amount of semantic logic. It doesn't take an expert to grasp the basics. Case-law is where it gets to be very, very complicated and requiring the prodigious feats of memory. The basics of law are somewhat more accessible than say the basics of computing.

    The thing is that a lot of technical people like Farber and even to a lesser degree myself (I worked on the regulation of securities markets in Central Asia) can contribute to the policy and regulatory processes.

    A lawyer is very specialised though and typically does not understand technology very well. To understand this, just look at some of the stuff on the DMCA, etc.

    Perhaps we should have the non technical policymaker preceding their briegfings with I am not a technician or IANATto warn us that they are outside their area of professional competence.

    That the legislators are often out of their depth is beyond doubt. If you knopw technology and/emd can communicate, I can only suggest that slashdot readers follow in Farber's footsteps.

  • I took a look at his "interesting-people" page along with his personal webpage and he really seems to like to toot his own horn. It makes me question the motivation for the whole interesting people page... is it "hey some cool info crossed my desk, check this out" or is it the ultimate name dropping scheme "hey look who *I* know"?

    Add to this his "farberisms" (inventing quirky sayings and then stamping his name all over them) and the fact he can't seem to post enough pics of himself, his vacation spot etc, and he really comes across like a pompous ass.

    The very act of claiming to have invented a phrase or "being the father of a technology" is not something you should be pinning on yourself as far as I'm concerned. If you "done well" then don't worry, other people will notice on their own time.

    If this seems ranty then I apologize... I've always admired selfless devotion along the lines of mother theresa but I don't have a lot of patience for magniloquence.

  • I thought it was left vs really left... or maybe right and a bit up vs right and and further up...

    Doesn't it bother anyone that something as complicated as political philosophies are thought of as a 1-Dimension left-to-right line?

    But not only is it left vs right... it's conservative vs liberal! Supposedly meaning the same thing as left and right--but not actually--while further making any solid classifications ambiguous.

    And with the conservatives being about 60% liberal and the liberals being about 60% conservative (leaving out if these are lefties or righties--much less the variance they exhibit) this makes calling names very difficult. For some reason, the 40% that's named right is the only part anyone really cares about.
  • >But, really, there are enough people out there
    >who admit to being both socially liberal and
    >financially conservative that I think another
    >party/direction would make sense.

    That's called being Liberal. If you're both socially and financially "liberal" you're socialist. If you look at, for instance, the Liberal party in Canada, they are quite capitalistic, but believe in balancing that by spending public dollars on education and health-care. At least that's what they claim they believe in, though they've moved more conservative in the last few decades.

    But you're right that your country could use more political parties, in a democracy, having a choice of only 2 parties, which are pretty much the same, is a facade.
  • I found it refreshing to read his reflections on DC and working here. As a resident of Washington DC it is nice to see someone who recognizes that there are very hard working people here, like many cities. This city takes a lot of flak, but I love this place.

    He is right that people in the technology industry don't have the ears of the policy makers though. I think it is getting better, and it helps to have a healthy technology culture very close in Fairfax County.

  • part of the problem is that the majority of americans would rather rail against the 'other party' than try to understand issues and policies.
  • Washington is a town with very, very few technical people advising the top levels of decision-makers. In an era where technology has such an impact on our economy, that is dangerous. Most of the senior people are lawyers and economists with little knowledge of science and technology. They get their information largely from the few technical people on their staffs and from hordes of lobbyists.

    Given the recent insanity with changes to Australian copyright law, other ill-conceived legislative changes and the lack of action against spam, and it becomes evident that Canberra has the same lack of technical expertise advising Cabinet, Parliament and the major political parties as the U.S.

  • Well, of course they lack technical expertise. Would you really have government run by a bunch of people like Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, and Richard Stallman.

    Wow, that would be scary. :-)

  • When are people going to stop talking about "bipartisanship" as if it's a good thing? The term itself gives me the creeps, and it seems more like a misnomer for the type of "one party, two heads" situation that Nader was warning about during the election.

    Maybe "unipartisanship" is a better word for it than bipartisanship.

    Now don't get me wrong, politics could definitely be more civil, professional and focused on issues instead of personality and ideological blow-harding. But that wouldn't be bipartisan-ness.. that would just be professional and serious. Bipartianism rings of too much of a removal of conflict and debate.

    But having at least two (and preferably more) parties with differing views is how a democracy is supposed to work. Through a slow and messy process of debate and consensus, the final product is refined. What Washington really needs is things like campaign finance reform so politicians can focus on research and debate and their constituents, instead of paying for the next election. It needs it's electors to demand real debate, not useless personality bashings that would be better placed in courts or panels, instead of clogging an already slow legislature.

    So hopefully this bipartisanship stuff will pass. Demand your politicians to be more diplomatic and professional, not for them to act like one big family.

  • speaking of, I coulda sworn he was making license plates by now. oh well.
  • You'll have to excuse Tim O'Reilly for that one — he's just an out-of-touch old codger trying to kiss some ass. How sad and lame.

  • Dave Farber once gave a guest lecture at University of Toledo on Freedom of Speech and Society. His passion and charisma truly inspired those of us at the lecture.

    Here's the beginning of the transcript of the speech. Sorry, no links, since the whole transcript was only available internally to Utoledo students.

    "I am a faculty member of the Computer and Information Science Department and of the Electrical Engineering the University of Pennsylvania. I also teach in our new Telecommunications and Networking MS program and am on the Faculty Council of the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management of the Wharton School.

    At UPenn, I am Director of the Distributed Computer Laboratory -- DSL where, with Prof. Jon Smith, we manage leading edge research in High Speed Networking. Research papers of the DSL are available in its electronic library.

    Some of my early academic research work was focused at creating the worlds first operational Distributed Computer System -- DCS while I was with the ICS Department at the University of California at Irvine. After that, I was with the Electrical Engineering Department of the University of Delaware, I helped conceive and organize CSNet, NSFNet and the NREN.

    My industrial experiences are extensive, Just as I entered the academic world, I co-founded Caine, Farber & Gordon Inc. (CFG Inc.) which became one of the leading suppliers of software design methodology. I am also on a number of industrial advisory boards including Metricom, COM21, Earthlink, Intertrust , Covad, Torrent and the DICE Company...."

    I hope this is helpful!


  • Dude, its time to go "Stan" on his ass.
  • by Kyobu ( 12511 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @06:02PM (#384960) Homepage
    Now, you raise a good point. I certainly agree that principled opposition is important on many issues. The Democrats have been coddling the Republicans since the Resident was sworn in, and it's time for that to change. That's not what I meant in my post, though.

    Debate, not argument, is the essence of politics. Constructive conflict is good; shouting is not, except when it's necessary, as in the Ashcroft controversy--there, even the antidemocratic tactic of filibustering was warranted on account of the Republicans' absolute dereliction of their responsibilites. Bush was acting as if he'd won the Presidency by a landslide, and he still seems to think that, and that's not OK.

    In general, though, politics is best approached with a constructive mindset. Since this article is about the FCC, I might take the example of media regulation. Clearly, allowing one company to own too many media outlets in one region is strongly against the interests of the residents of that region, because doing so diminishes the range of voices they may hear. Since at least some Republicans are not in the pockets of the News Corp. and Time Warner, it is their responsibility and that of all principled people to act as their conscience dictates and act constructively, instead of shouting at the top of their lungs about "an out-of-control regulatory machine" or some such nonsense as their party line demands.

  • She's definitely cute (gotta love those Levantine lips...), but I think you would do better to speak with her directly. From the pics, I would say that her /.-posting namesake [] is definitely a phoney. Thanks though, for making this sid interesting.

    If you love God, burn a church!
  • >>How much responsibility do the creators of software owe to the rest of society? Most software has unforseen consequences. (As do grandiose political programs, but I'm talking about the software domain, here.)

    Programmers should be allowed to write whatever they want (so long as it doesn't endanger human life) and lawyers should be allowed to say what they want.

    This leads to conflict. And the short term results may be sub optimal. But if you try stifle expresion, you put civilization in danger.

  • Yeah, and the problem with Slashdotters is that they believe every social problem requires a technical solutions, and that they should be the ones giving it.

    Here come the flames...


  • Dave Farber is not only a great technologist (one of the founding fathers of the Internet)

    Cool, excellent. My question is, who exactly are the founding fathers of the Internet? Is there any definitive list of such? Or are people earning this title retroactively as we notice that they were influential "in the beginning"?

    (I'm not trolling, I'm actually quite curious, but since every other post I've ever written has been modded a troll, you might as well nail this one too!)

  • ...two things I see here that we should all seriously think about.

    1. There are actually a lot of really good people in government who do care about our well-being, contrary to popular, media-driven beliefs. They actually do want to learn about these issues from more than their own viewpoints. They want to see all sides of the picture.

    2. We need to bring more technology-oriented consulting firms into Washington to help them with this! Everything government does is dictated by information and oftentimes that information is garnered from 3rd-party sources, whether they be personal experts in their field, like Dave here, or they be organizations with a team of experts and advisors. I bet if some people opened up some more tech-consulting firms in downtown D.C., they'd get a lot of business. Does anyone know of a list of the current consulting agencies that focus on tech-related stuff for government agencies?


  • Would you really have government run by a bunch of people like Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, and Richard Stallman.

    And wouldn't that be just what we need? Some guy in DC insisting that the senate call him the GNU/President, or he'll have the GNU/Secret Service whack them all?

  • Come on, which (made-up) news story would you read/watch/listen to first (i.e. pay the most attention and therefor generate the most potential sales to advertisers):

    • Arab-Isreali Conflict Intensifies
    • Indian Factions Settle Differences
    Journalism is nothing more than the material in between the ads. It's sole reason for existence is to attract viewers to said ads[1]. Therefore, whatever the news media perceives as being attractive to the largest number of audience members they prioritize coverage of. This is why car wrecks come before cattle prices in the evening news, and cattle prices are all there is in the 5am farm report (<-- central texas).

    The media will always focus on what is bad and/or exceptional before it focuses on what is good or normal becuase that attracts more attention ("1 Dead in Schoolbus Collision" vs. "37 Survive Schoolbus Collision" or "17000 cars didn't collide on day of schoolbus collision").

    [1] My fiancee recently received her Bachelors in Journalism and derived particular black humor from a quote to this effect from somebody like Cronkite or Murrow. Apparently said to a junior reporter, paraphrased it was something like "Never forget that all you are is filler in between advertisements."

    News for geeks in Austin: []
  • holy disillusioned batman... i mean, come on... it's an often-discussed topic that the media only reports on topics that bring viewers, i.e. human conflict. don't try and tell us that all government employees are bad just because a few are. that's ignorant. I won't touch your discussion of the US waging war on various countries, because that's an entirely different issue, IMHO.

    However, I have to say that your comments about profs do kind of piss me off. I don't know where you go/went to school, but the profs that i deal with here [] are dedicated and intelligent, and in all likelihood, worked their asses off to get where they are. Most of them are probably a hell of alot smarter than you or I.

  • At this point I would rather be hearing about "Indian Factions Settle Differences", preferably while being in India.


    In fact, at any point in the past or future.

    What's up with this?
    Human nature thrives on other peoples troubles more than on their triumphs?
  • I don't really have anything against Al Gore (except that he cost Nader the election :) but he is NOT in the same league as David Farber!
  • Well, yeah, I acknowledge a slight bias in assuming the person I was responding to was in America (I'm in America). :-) I admit that being in a given locality of a major story will tend to make you be more interested in it.

    News for geeks in Austin: []
  • by AntiNorm ( 155641 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @03:17PM (#384972)
    Has he ever responded to his interview []?

    Check in...OK! Check out...OK!
  • Fox News is the worst offender. They cast EVERYTHING in terms of an American left-right political struggle.
    I think Fox News is quite good. And, btw, almost everything is left vs. right. (The middle is for people who contradict themselves and can't make up their minds.)
  • Wow, first time I saw a news story exceed two screen lengths on the front page. A record.

    I see that the (Read More) directive is there, but somehow it isn't necessary, is it?

    The funny part was when it said there was another 1400 bytes to read. Hey, it's long enough already! Just paste it on the end, so we don't have to click a link for the last paragraph!

    Next thing you know, the top 5 comments will be on the front page as well...
  • by Kyobu ( 12511 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @03:21PM (#384975) Homepage
    When our elected representatives are off-mike and off-camera, they show a genuine interest in the issues they deal with and a bipartisan spirit that I had not expected to see.

    I think this is interesting. So much posturing and counterproductive argument goes on in Washington these days (and almost always has, I guess) that it's depressing, especialy for politics nerds like me who think that politics is not inherently evil, but can be a force of good. It's good to hear that some politicians are earnest and wish for progress, but it's unfortunate that most of them do not extend this spirit to their public personae.

  • Next thing you know, the top 5 comments will be on the front page as well...

    No, the First Post should be on the front page!

  • by Roblimo ( 357 ) on Sunday March 04, 2001 @03:20PM (#384977) Homepage Journal
    Dave Farber agreed to a Slashdot interview [] back in January. I sent the questions but he never returned the answers despite several resendings and requests.

    Other than that, he seems like a decent guy.

    - Robin

  • When our elected representatives are off-mike and off-camera, they show a genuine interest in the issues they deal with and a bipartisan spirit that I had not expected to see.

    So when are they "real?" When they are off-camera, or when they are on? Farber implies that their off-camera persona is genuine and their on-camera persona is false.

    I'll grant that at least one of the personae is false, but I wouldn't rule out that they both are.
  • Who fuckin cares about stinkin Australia?
  • is that it believes there are social solutions to techinical problems. The existence of strong encryption technologies, software that defeates copyright-protection, and other technological thorns in legislators' sides cannot be wiped away with poorly thought out and overly restrictive legislation.

    Technical problems can only be solved technical solutions, but it is impossible to convince arrogant power-hungry politicians that they cannot control the advancement of technology in the same way they control other aspects of modern society.

  • It was a posting mistake. Fixed now. :)

    - Robin
  • I was lucky enough to attend a special lecture that David Farber gave at my university last week and he said that he actually considers himself to be a grandfather of the internet, not a father.

    He also made a funny comment about Microsoft. He was having trouble with his PowerPoint presentation and said that ever since he testified against Microsoft, his software hasn't worked the same.

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. -- Thomas Alva Edison