Vice Squad
Saturday, March 31, 2007
WTO Rules for Antigua Again

Imagine that you lose a civil case as a defendant, and the court orders you to abate a nuisance, say, by ceasing to engage in some activity. You don't stop, and the plaintiff returns to the court. You are asked to explain your failure to comply, and you say, basically, I thought I was always in compliance -- my activity did not constitute a nuisance. You wouldn't be surprised if the court mentions that your contention was already rejected in the original trial.

Well, that is essentially what has happened in the World Trade Organization dispute between Antigua in the US. The US was found to be engaged in discriminatory behavior by allowing some domestically-based internet betting on horse racing, while preventing Antigua-based firms from offering a similar service to US bettors. The US was supposed to alter its legislation to eliminate the discriminatory treatment, but it did no such thing -- rather, when hauled back into the WTO dispute process the US claimed that its rules had always been non-discriminatory. (The one piece of new US legislation that was connected to internet gambling was the October 2006 attempt to curtail web betting by targeting payment intermediaries. But horse racing was explicitly exempted, precisely to protect the existing domestic trade.) On Friday, the WTO announced that it did not find the US-non-argument to be compelling. The decision was widely expected, in part because of an unauthorized leak of an interim report in January.

The original dispute was a near-complete victory for the US. Antigua had targeted all forms of internet gambling, but only prevailed in the case of horse racing because of the legal internal trade in the US. This small bone that the WTO tossed to Antigua was more than the US was willing to tolerate, it seems.

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Friday, March 30, 2007
XXX X'ed

Do you know that common internet problem, when you are searching for some adult-themed material and you can't decide whether the best domain names end in .org, .gov, .edu, or .com, among others? For years now, some public-spirited individuals have been hoping to solve that problem, by creating the .xxx domain for the exclusive use of pornographic sites. But this week, the folks in charge of domain names, the super-mysterious ICANN, said ICANNT for the third time to the .xxx domain. Some of those opposed to the proposed domain cited the possibility that the voluntary registry, once established, might be made mandatory for pornographic sites, and ease the way for censorship. Further, ICANN might then find itself in the censorship game, as its decisions as to what sites merited the .xxx domain would determine (in combination with censorial legislation) the access of users to the sites. The forces include some strange bedfellows, pornographic sites that fear a slippery slope towards censorship along with religious groups that fear that an .xxx domain might further legitimize pornography.

ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is responsible for giving every human a unique name ending with .abc, where a,b, and c can be any alphabetic string, as well as tattooing a universal product code on every human. Or maybe it "is responsible for the global coordination of the Internet's system of unique identifiers" -- url, upc, the whole thing is quite confusing. If you are worried that ICANN is above the law, do not fear. Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu argue, in Who Controls the Internet?, that the US and other national governments are the ultimate authorities, though the US has permitted ICANN to develop "a form of technocratic self-governance [page 182]."

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Thursday, March 29, 2007
Snus Review

A report (129-page pdf here) has just been released that reviews previous research on the health effects of snus, the smokeless tobacco product popular in Sweden. The main finding of the report coheres with the standard wisdom, that snus use is much less dangerous than smoking, which is not to say that snus is perfectly safe. There is one outlier piece of research in the review, which was sponsored (that is, the newly-released review was sponsored) by the New Zealand Ministry of Health, indicating that snus use by construction workers in the 1970s led to significantly greater cardiovascular disease and overall mortality, though many subsequent studies failed to replicate that finding. The anomaly might be explained in part by a move to milder snus over time. Another point stressed by the report is that we still are quite unsure about the health effects of long-term snus use.

The review is careful when it looks (pages 79-81) at whether the promotion of snus will lead to lower aggregate harms to health. Surely any current smoker who fully switches to snus is better off, assuming that he or she would have continued to smoke in the absence of snus. But among the complicating factors are that perhaps switching to snus prevents a cessation of tobacco use that otherwise would have occurred, or snus might be used as a supplement to smoking. Further, some people might initiate tobacco use via snus and then migrate to cigarettes. Nevertheless, if snus really holds as little risk to health as it appears to hold, then its introduction is almost sure to reduce negative health effects in the short to medium term.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007
More Media Coverage of the Alcohol Monitoring Ankle Bracelet

In today's Chicago Tribune there is a story reprinted from the Denver Post about the use of Vice Squad fetish SCRAM, the "Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor," in Colorado. SCRAM is the ankle bracelet that uses perspiration on your skin to calculate your blood-alcohol content; some courts are requiring SCRAM for alcohol-related offenders. The monitoring isn't really continuous: it's hourly, but that is much more frequent than with most other alcohol-monitoring technologies. Since 2003, more than 2,000 Coloradans have been outfitted with the ankle bracelet at one time or another, and currently, according to a spokesperson for the manufacturer, 8,000 bracelets are in use nationally. Today's article also notes that the significant monetary cost to the wearer -- about $12 daily and a set-up fee of $50 to $100 -- has led to the ankle bracelet being nicknamed SCAM by some of its customers.

Vice Squad last noted the SCRAM bracelet in February, when the Attorney General of South Dakota was sporting one.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007
The NY Times Goes Casino Wacky

Sunday, March 25, 2007, seemed like a normal enough day, but somehow it was something of a gambling bonanza at the Gray Lady (and today is something of a Vice Squad milestone, our first use of that weird "Gray Lady" sobriquet for the New York Times). Not one, not two, but three substantial articles that centered on casinos, of all places. Someone at the SEC might want to check for unusual trading activity in gambling stocks late last week.

Article #1: The Business section holds a story about the world's largest betting locale, Macao. Mostly we learn a good deal about the fellow who for 40 years held a monopoly on casino gambling in Macao, but now he is being forced to share. He shared before, too, with some unsavory groups, but the extent to which he was forced to do so remains unclear. His new sharing is with some of the major players in the international casino world, such as MGM Mirage and Steve Wynn. The erstwhile monopolist (not monogamist, apparently) has had 17 children with 4 wives, and has opened a casino in Pyongyang. He also enjoys ballroom dancing.

Article #2: The special Style Magazine featured Spring 2007 travel, including a short piece on how casinos have become packaged with lots of upscale non-gambling offerings. Here we learn, parenthetically, that "Ceasars Forum in Las Vegas is North America’s highest-grossing shopping area per square foot," and we also hear again about some of those new competitors in Macao.

Article #3: The Sunday Styles section leads with a description of what it is like to watch virtually non-stop college basketball for days at a time at a Las Vegas casino. A healthy interest in alcohol, nicotine, and gambling seems to lend some appeal to the activity. (The article is titled "Victory Never Smelled Worse" -- you'll have to read it for the explanation (though a reasoned guess should suffice), Vice Squad has its limits.) You will not be surprised to learn that gender balance is not the rule.

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Monday, March 26, 2007
Unconventional Bundling

Many people smoke when they drink, so it isn't surprising to find bars that also sell tobacco products. (Smoking and gambling also seem to go together.) But somehow vice attracts rather odd pairings, too. Recently we mentioned the iPod FM-transmitter/alcohol breathalyzer combination. In a similar vein comes today's bundled good. Do you know those data storage devices for USB ports? Well now, it seems, you finally can acquire such a memory stick that also happens to double as an absinthe spoon. Is this a sign of a progressing or a declining civilization?


Sunday, March 25, 2007
Comparative Drug Harms

The Lancet recently published an article ranking twenty drugs, legal and illegal, according to their potential for harm. (The article is here, though a free registration is required.) They had groups of experts score each of the substances along nine dimensions of harm, on a four-point scale, from 'zero' representing no risk to 'three' representing extreme risk. The dimensions comprised three categories: physical harm (acute, chronic, intravenous); dependence (intensity of pleasure, psychological, physical); and social harm (intoxication, health-care costs, other). The nine individual scores were averaged for the overall assessment, which ranked heroin as the most harmful drug. Cocaine was second, alcohol fifth, tobacco ninth, cannabis eleventh, LSD fourteenth, ecstasy eighteenth, and the least harmful of the twenty ranked drugs was Vice Squad fetish khat. The authors note that their ranking does not cohere with the scheduling of drugs that is the basis for drug policy and enforcement.

The harms of drugs, of course, are dependent upon the public policies that are adopted towards them. The authors note as much when they caution against direct comparisons in their rankings between the legal alcohol and tobacco and the illegal drugs. But I think that this point could be further stressed. The Swiss experiment with heroin maintenance (along with subsequent heroin maintenance trials) shows that even with that drug, harms can greatly be reduced through easy availability of a standardized dose in a controlled setting. Dependence responds to policy, too; for instance, a prohibition that renders availability sporadic and purity uncertain lends a gambling element to drug acquisition that itself can be addictive for some users. Nevertheless, rankings such as the one in The Lancet can be helpful in highlighting the inordinately repressive control regime that has been adopted towards marijuana, hallucinogens, ecstasy, and, in the United States (though not in Britain), khat.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007
COPA Redux

When the Child Online Protection Act last went before the Supreme Court, the preliminary injunction preventing its enforcement was kept in place. Nevertheless, a full hearing at the district court level still had to take place, and the Supremes expressly noted (in keeping with their decision on internet filters in libraries) that a look at advances in filtering technology would be in order. The district court opinion (84-page pdf) was handed down earlier this week, and Judge Lowell Reed struck down COPA as inconsistent with the First and Fifth amendments to the Constitution.

One important element in Judge Reed's reasoning was the notion that filters installed on individual computers (or through portals such as AOL) are quite effective at screening kids from adult content. Indeed, it seems as if filtering technology has made vast strides in the last five years or so. Another element is that age verification (via credit cards or otherwise), which would have been required of commercial adult-oriented websites under the terms of COPA, is not yet at the same level of reliability, and such barriers are costly for websites (or web surfers) to implement and maintain.

COPA is a content-based restriction on speech -- speech that is legal for adults -- and as such is subject to 'strict scrutiny' by the courts. This means that COPA can only be upheld if it is narrowly tailored to achieve the compelling government interest of keeping kids away from internet smut, and if there do not exist alternatives, less restrictive upon speech, that similarly serve the government interest. Judge Reed ruled that the US had not shown that other alternatives are less effective than COPA -- because COPA would not apply to foreign-based websites, there is a strong case to be made that filters are more effective than COPA at shielding kids from internet pornography. And COPA's under and over-inclusiveness indicates that it is not narrowly tailored, either. Oh yeah, COPA was ruled to be vague and overbroad, too.

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Saturday, March 10, 2007
Federal Drug Prosecutions Continue to Trend Downward

The good folks at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), at Syracuse University, keep close track of the goings-on at the Department of Justice. TRAC's latest report for November 2006 shows that the number of new narcotics/drugs prosecutions are down by more than one-fifth from five years ago. Don't worry though, the federal courts are still clogged with drug cases -- the number of new drug prosecutions for November, 2006 was 1,889, the lowest monthly total for the last five years. That is more than the number of new prosecutions for lawbreaking concerning weapons, civil rights, official corruption, environment, organized crime, government regulations, and white collar crime -- combined.
Friday, March 09, 2007
Finland, Alcohol, and Adam Smith

Finland rightly feared cheap booze from Estonia, and countered with a significant cut in the domestic alcohol tax. The cheaper alcohol (which would have occurred in any case, either through domestic sales or from Estonian imports) brought more alcohol-related problems. But is this a temporary phenomenon, a binge when the price of alcohol falls, followed by the re-imposition of the previous level of sobriety, such as it was? "Finns drank less alcohol on average last year for the first time in a decade, as the novelty of Baltic 'booze-cruises' to buy cheaper liquor abroad faded..." Don't get too excited: Finns still drink 11 percent more alcohol than they did before Estonia joined the EU.

Adam Smith would have predicted the binge and the sobering, perhaps even a more widespread sobriety, judging from his words in Book IV, Chapter III, Part II, of the Wealth of Nations:
...if we consult experience, the cheapness of wine seems to be a cause, not of drunkenness, but of sobriety. The inhabitants of the wine countries are in general the soberest people in Europe; witness the Spaniards, the Italians, and the inhabitants of the southern provinces of France.... When a French regiment comes from some of the northern provinces of France, where wine is somewhat dear, to be quartered in the southern, where it is very cheap, the soldiers, I have frequently heard it observed are at first debauched by the cheapness and novelty of good wine; but after a few months residence, the greater part of them become as sober as the rest of the inhabitants. Were the duties upon foreign wines, and the excises upon malt, beer, and ale to be taken away all at once, it might, in the same manner, occasion in Great Britain a pretty general and temporary drunkenness among the middling and inferior ranks of people, which would probably be soon followed by a permanent and almost universal sobriety.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007
Some Sensible Analysis of Drug Policy

London's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has included within its membership luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, and Tom Stoppard. Following a two-year study, today an RSA commission released a report on illegal drugs in Britain. (The report, a 335-page pdf, is available from this webpage.) The report attacks the demonisation of illegal drugs, and argues for a harm reduction approach that would move the criminal justice system away from the center of drug policy. Here's the opening part of paragraph 6 in the Summary of the report:
6 The use of illegal drugs is by no means always harmful any
more than alcohol use is always harmful.The evidence suggests
that a majority of people who use drugs are able to use them
without harming themselves or others.They are able, in that
sense, to ‘manage’ their drug use.They are breaking the law in
possessing illegal drugs, but they are not breaking the law in any
other way.
Though the report does not explicitly endorse legalisation, its call for harm reduction to be adopted as the touchstone of drug policy would suggest a regulated, legal regime for the currently illicit drugs. Given the potential benefits of some drug use, I do not believe that harm reduction should be the ultimate social goal. (If one adopted 'harm reduction' towards a non-vicious risky activity like downhill skiing, for instance, the resulting policy might permit skiing only upon slightly inclined slopes. Such a policy would not receive much support, I would imagine.) Nevertheless, this report points in the direction of desirable drug policy reform, in Britain as elsewhere.

Here's the Guardian story, from which I first learned of the report's release.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Update on S&M Trial

In late February we mentioned the impending end of a trial of a man in Brooklyn who engaged in severe sadomasochistic activities and also maintained an S&M website. The jury was out for a week, and cleared him of an obscenity charge stemming from the material on the website. But for his treatment of his one-time live-in "slave," the defandant was convicted of sex trafficking and forced labor.

I have no insights into the merits of these verdicts, but the guilty findings will probably lead people in the extreme S&M community to seek more explicit, more detailed, more frequent, and more verifiable forms of consent. That is a development that, in general, I think is for the best.

The not guilty verdict for obscenity is interesting, too, as it suggests that the jury felt that one of the three prongs of the Miller formulation was not met. Could it be that the S&M activities portrayed are not "patently offensive" according to Brooklyn community standards?


Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Different Kinds of Vice Squads

The vice squads in question are those formed of couples living in sin in North Dakota (and in Florida, and North Carolina, and...). The cohabitants are sex criminals -- that is, their crime is cohabitation. There is talk of legalizing cohabitation in North Dakota, but who knows, maybe cohabitants from the rest of the union would be drawn there; perhaps this is why two attempts to repeal the N.D. law against "open and notorious" quarters-sharing have failed.

Speaking of different Vice Squads, other demands have kept us away from the blog recently, but we hope to rectify these late sins of omission.


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