Farhad Manjoo

The Tech-Savvy Supreme Court

[Commentary] The two major technology-related decisions handed down by the Supreme Court this week have been widely greeted by people in the tech industry as one win and one loss.

The win involved cellphone privacy: The court, siding with tech policy advocacy groups, ruled that the police must obtain a warrant to search the phones of people they arrest.

The loss was Aereo, the brazen TV streaming start-up. The court ruled against the company, which created a cablelike service without paying broadcast networks for the rights to their content.

But when you examine the rulings, a different conclusion emerges. These were both wins for the industry, because they revealed something that should be quite gratifying for every technologist: The Supreme Court understands technology.

At a broad level, it understands the Internet and how the worldwide network has transformed our understanding of the law. More than that, the justices (aided, surely, by their Snapchatting clerks) seem to understand some of the deeper distinctions between various kinds of tech, distinctions that are vital to how we should regulate the gadgets now infiltrating our lives.

Why Did Amazon Make a Phone? A Conversation With Jeff Bezos

A Q&A with with Jeffrey Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, about their new Fire phone and Amazon’s goals in the smartphone business.

Asked why he arrived late into the phone market, Bezos answered: “I think in the whole evolution of this, we’re still pretty early. I don’t want to judge before all the facts are in, but I think this wireless thing is going to be big.”

He added: “If we go back in time just five, six, seven years, we’re talking about different players -- Nokia, Blackberry and others. Things change very rapidly in this area.”

Amazon’s Tactics Confirm Its Critics’ Worst Suspicions

[Commentary] Amazon is confirming its critics’ worst fears and it is an ugly spectacle to behold. For years, authors and publishers have warned that Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ book-selling giant, would one day use its power for ill.

Sure, so far, Amazon has marketed itself as a book buyer’s best friend. It sells books at terrifically low prices, it delivers them amazingly quickly, and it constantly invents new technologies to improve the way we read. Amazon has also invested heavily in publishing new authors and it has pushed exciting new formats made possible by electronic distribution. Yet the literary community has always greeted Amazon’s moves with suspicion.

The fear is mostly about the future. What will happen to books when Amazon controls the entire industry? How will authors and publishing houses reckon with Amazon’s unchecked power? Most recently, as part of a contract dispute with the publisher Hachette, we’re seeing Amazon behaving at its worst. The company’s willingness to nakedly flex its anticompetitive muscle gives new cause for concern to anyone who cares about books -- authors, publishers, but mainly customers.

Did Regulators Break the Internet or Did They Save It? Yes.

[Commentary] Ten years from now, we’ll look back on the moment federal regulators broke the Internet as we know it. Or we will look back on it as just another time they managed to push through a fragile, hodgepodge compromise that kept the Internet just barely functioning fairly, at least until the next telecommunications giant initiates a court case that once again casts the future of the network in doubt.

In other words, whatever happens, it’s hard to see a really great outcome to the proposal on so-called network neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission moved to adopt.

The FCC’s actual proposal was quite a bit more legalistically opaque than FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested. Worse than that, it was all over the place. Though it’s cloaked in the language of an “open Internet,” much of the proposal can be read as an effort to let every side think it will get something out of the new rules.

Rather than come anywhere close to preventing anything, the new proposal’s main goal is to ask the public to comment on the right course for regulating Internet openness. Given the considerable technical and legal expertise necessary to even understand this issue, the FCC’s request for public comment on network neutrality seems about as useful as the Interior Department asking for public feedback on the best way to manage the Hoover Dam.

Alibaba IPO May Unleash Global Fight Over Users

The largest technology stock offering in history is looming, but few in Silicon Valley seem to care. The initial public offering expected soon in the United States by Alibaba Group Holding, China’s largest e-commerce company, could surpass the amount raised in the initial public offering (IPO) of Facebook.

It would not even be surprising if it surpassed the combined amounts raised in the IPO’s of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, AOL and Yahoo.

But unlike the flurry of attention that accompanies high-profile floats by American tech stars, Alibaba’s stock offering has barely registered among the valley’s tech set. San Francisco’s artisanal toast bars have not been abuzz with commentary on Jack Ma, Alibaba’s chairman, and Palo Alto’s Tesla dealerships aren’t bracing for a surge in new buyers.

In interviews, a few Silicon Valley investors said they didn’t expect the offering to be a big deal in the markets they follow, though they declined to speak on the record about their apathy. The issue isn’t that the valley is ignorant of the rise of Chinese Internet giants. It’s more that American tech firms have long been spurned and surprised by China’s tech market, and many here aren’t sure how to gauge the ambitions of the giants like Alibaba now bent on crossing the Pacific.

The Cloud Industry Needs Aereo to Win. But Consumers Need Something Better.

[Commentary] The best way to think about Aereo, the company at the center of this week’s Supreme Court battle over the future of computing, is as an example of legal performance art.

Aereo is based entirely on a legalistic leap of faith: If it’s legal to set up an antenna and record a TV show at your own house, which it is, shouldn’t it also be legal to rent an antenna and server space at a big data center, and then stream the show over the Internet to your computer, tablet or set-top box?

It’s a clever argument, one that highlights the extreme lengths that tech companies go to in order to avoid copyright restrictions. The argument is designed to show off the similarities between Aereo and more traditional cloud services like Dropbox -- services that the Supreme Court would have to strive mightily to separate out of any ruling against Aereo.

But for all its cleverness, Aereo is also a gimmick. Aereo is a for-pay, middleman service whose sole function is to let you stream TV shows that are already freely available over the air. For consumers, the best outcome of this case is for Aereo to win, and then scare broadcasters into streaming their content directly to users, either for free or for a lower price than Aereo charges.