The Switchboard: Five tech policy stories you need to read today

October 8, 2013

NSA's Utah Data Center is shown in this Thursday, June 6, 2013 file photo taken in Bluffdale, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, FILE)

Meltdowns hobble NSA data center. "Fiery explosions," melted metal and circuit failures are just a few of the symptoms afflicting the National Security Agency's new server farm in Utah. According to the Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman, the facility has suffered nearly a dozen malfunctions over the past year, destroying "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery" in the process. "The NSA chose Bluffdale, Utah, to house the data center largely because of the abundance of cheap electricity. It continuously uses 65 megawatts, which could power a small city of at least 20,000, at a cost of more than $1 million a month, according to project officials and documents."

IT giants back project to slash Internet costs worldwide. Internet access in some developing countries can cost households up to a third of their monthly income. Now Tim Berners-Lee is banding together with Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to bring that cost down — to less than 5 percent of monthly incomes, according to Computerworld. "[They hope] to do that by promoting a set of policy and regulatory best practices, like allowing spectrum to be used in new ways, banning excessive tariffs on telecom equipment and ensuring competition." Other members of the group include USAID and UK Aid.

Airbnb's 15,000 "landlords" in New York face scrutiny from prosecutors. New York's attorney general is demanding that Airbnb hand over data on thousands of its users in the area in an effort to root out alleged violators of state housing law. The law prohibits residents from establishing "illegal hotels." Bloomberg Businessweek suggests that even though the company has vowed to fight the subpoena, the damage may already be done: "Hosts will be much less likely to use a service if they’re vulnerable to legal crackdowns. Even the fear of fines could push down housing supplies and dampen enthusiasm for Airbnb in its most important market."

Judge rules for Amazon Web Services over IBM in CIA cloud case. Amazon's plans to build a cloud computing system for the intelligence community were challenged earlier this year when IBM contested the contract through a Government Accountability Office review. Monday, however, a federal judge ruled that Amazon's deal — worth up to $600 million — was valid, according to Federal Computing Week. "AWS’s original contract with the CIA, which FCW first reported in March, could stand as is, though it may yet include some modifications suggested by GAO."

Microsoft announces Azure for U.S. government. The Redmond-based company's new cloud service will be entirely housed within the United States and staffed by Americans, a key selling point for Washington. But as TechCrunch's Alex Wilhelm notes: "Azure for U.S. government customers, in a way, screams with irony, given the current news cycles that discuss the encryption cracking, Internet surveillance, and other secret practices that the United States government is undertaking through its intelligence arms. To flip that and require a separate instance of Azure to protect government data from any form of snooping is somewhat grimly humorous."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Timothy B. Lee · October 7, 2013