April 26, 2009

Torture: Liz Chaney vs. the U.S. Census Bureau

Greetings. Dick Cheney's daughter Liz is now making the interview rounds, defending her Dad's views on the definition of "torture" -- in particular his continuing insistence that waterboarding is not torture.

In a fascinating interview on MSNBC, Liz claims that since the U.S. SERE program (misspelled as "SEER" in the linked item) employed limited duration exposure to similar techniques in training, the frequent and lengthy application of those techniques in non-training situations does not constitute torture.

Unfortunately for Liz and Dick, the entity that operates that training program itself called those techniques torture, and took lengths to explain why they should not be used against adversaries, as I've previously noted. I guess the ex-VP and his daughter literally didn't "get the memo."

All of this discussion about waterboarding inspired me to spend some time on the topic deep within the marvels of Google Book Search. There seems to be no question among historical observers about how to categorize waterboarding.

For example, in Punishment and Reformation: A Study Of The Penitentiary System (1895 and 1910), by Frederick Howard Wines, LL.D., Special Agent of the 11th U.S. Census on Crime, Pauperism, and Benevolence; and assistant director of the 12th U.S. Census; the author includes a long chapter describing historical torture techniques.

In his discussion of the Spanish Inquisition, we find the following text:

"In the torture chamber, the three principal forms of coercion were by the cord, by water, and by fire. In the second of these, which has not been described, the body was extended at full length upon a frame so constructed as to bend it slightly backward and to elevate the feet above the head; the face was covered with a wet cloth, kept wet by constantly falling drops of water which had to be swallowed, in order to prevent suffocation."

That's an exact description of waterboarding, of course.

If Cheney and others wish to argue that it's permissible to use torture to accomplish ostensibly positive ends (in fact, the same precise rationale provided by the Spanish Inquisitors) then they're free do so. But let's get past this argument about whether or not the U.S. engaged in torture. It did. Use the word: torture. Accept the history and the comradeship of other historical proponents of torture throughout time.

Stop pussyfooting around. Get out there and proclaim to the world that you're damn proud to support the use of torture in the name of the United States of America, and that naturally you support its use by any other country that feels the need to do so in its own defense.

Embrace your inner torturer. If nothing else, that's the intellectually honest thing to do.


Posted by Lauren at 01:40 PM | Permalink
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April 25, 2009

Crucifying Craigslist

Category: Storage Services
I have a small, tightly padded box available for rent. You can put almost anything you wish into it. Rates available upon request.

Greetings. As I write this, Google News shows over 2500 entries for the search term "craigslist killer" -- and many more for similar searches. Was someone at Craigslist killed? Did someone at Craigslist kill anybody?

Of course not. As you probably know by now, "Craigslist Killer" has become the media shorthand for references to alleged robber and killer Philip Markoff, who reportedly used Craigslist to find potential victims to finance what appears to have been a gambling obsession.

Since it has become so popular to blame open communications and the Internet in particular for most of society's problems these days, it perhaps was to be expected that mainstream media would home in on the Craigslist connection. But why?

Ads similar in every respect to the "erotic services" ads for which Craigslist is being condemned are available from openly accessible newspaper racks and vending machines in virtually every major city. To the extent that prostitution is an issue, I've seen absolutely no statistics to suggest that there have been measurable changes in its incidence with the arrival of Craigslist in a city. The world's "oldest profession" has managed to flourish -- with all of its attendant risks -- since the dawn of civilization, it is not a creation of the Internet. It will continue even if our technological civilization collapses, so long as humans exist.

Media reports are spending at least as much time with their concerted effort to crucify Craigslist as they are on the alleged killer himself, and the gambling connection that apparently drove the robberies eventually leading to murder.

In a particularly disgraceful interview example, ABC News' Martin Bashir asked Craigslist founder Craig Newmark if he "regarded himself as a law-abiding citizen of America." One can only assume that "enhanced interrogation techniques" might be next on the agenda after a question like that. (Full disclosure: Craig is a founding signatory of my NNSquad [Network Neutrality Squad] project, but I have never discussed with him nor anyone else at Craigslist any aspects of Craigslist policies or operations.)

Rather than concentrate on the risks that persons placing ads knowingly take, or on the gambling industry that has ruined and continues to ruin vast numbers of lives via everything from casinos to lotteries, the media focus on Craigslist represents a clear and present danger to free speech on the Internet.

The implicit argument being made by Craigslist detractors is that if Craigslist closed down its "erotic services" category, or someone manually pre-approved the millions of ads that are posted in Craigslist generally, that events such as the Markoff case wouldn't exist.

But as the example ad at the beginning of this posting demonstrates, there are myriad ways to camouflage erotic solicitations, in any number of innocent appearing categories and manners. The most likely result of closing down the Craigslist erotic services category would be the movement en masse of such ads to disguised forms spread throughout most other categories, where persons uninterested in such ventures will likely be confused in disconcerting ways.

At the very least, the collection of all erotic ads in a clearly labeled category -- call it a red light district if you must -- helps to avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that disguised ads could easily engender. And in fact, explicit ad categories have also been an effective tool for law enforcement use.

More broadly, the "blame the indexer" sensibility that seems to be spreading is of great concern, as legislators and other officials seem to be increasingly viewing control over search engines like Google as key avenues toward censoring what their citizens will be allowed to learn about or access. We're seeing an accelerating trend toward blaming such services for the existence of content that they index, rather than the creators and owners of the actual content itself.

This is not a totally black and white situation -- I have previously suggested that very limited "dispute resolution mechanisms" be considered to deal with unusual search query results problems.

But generally by far, blaming the messenger is an underhanded and historically popular scapegoating technique used throughout the ages as a diversionary tactic.

Trying to blame Craigslist for a gambling-induced, robbery-gone-wrong murder of a victim who posted an erotic services ad may be great for scoring quick political and popular appeal points, but it's completely wrong-headed from the standpoints of logic, fairness, and ultimate impacts.

Category: Tools
I have a very long and hard post digger available for rent. It will meet all of your gardening needs. I can rent it out by the day or the hour. Looking forward to discussing with you in more detail.


Posted by Lauren at 12:10 PM | Permalink
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April 24, 2009

Actual U.S. JPRA Torture Document Available as PDF

Greetings. As an addendum to Torturegate, the Internet, Obama's Error, and Startling Candor from Fox News, now available is the actual two page note from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) to the Pentagon, describing strong concerns over the use of torture.

The note was reportedly part of the materials related to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the Bush administration was preparing to authorize. You may have heard proponents of these techniques noting that they were used (in limited duration contexts) in training programs to help U.S. personnel prepare for their possible infliction by enemy forces.

JPRA itself administered those training programs (SERE). Their attaching of these concerns (in 2002) regarding torture to the associated interrogation technique materials strongly implies that they themselves viewed the actual non-training use of such techniques to be torture.

You can read the actual scanned PDF document for yourself.


Posted by Lauren at 04:58 PM | Permalink
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The Weird and Wacky World of iPhone Censorship

Greetings. One of the key elements that the purveyors of censorship often want in their arsenal is secrecy. It isn't enough to ban particular materials, it's also extremely convenient to obscure or completely hide the mechanisms by which censorship is performed, and to keep hidden from public view the lists of items that are banned. After all, if you know in detail what's banned, you might become even more interested in them, or try to use this knowledge to work around the prohibitions.

Of course, such secrecy has another particularly diabolical effect as well -- it allows for the easy banning of materials in nonsensical, arbitrary, error-prone, or completely inappropriate ways, even when judged under the official terms of whatever censorship regime is currently in force.

In the Internet realm, we see all of these effects in the worlds of content filtering, both privately operated and government mandated. The "family jewels" of most Internet filtering systems are the secret lists of banned sites -- for the revelation of these can easily reveal sites that have been inappropriately blocked.

The other related element of secrecy -- obscuring the process through which censorship decisions are made -- is often equally important to preserving censored environments.

This latter aspect comes into direct play in the controversies over Apple's dictatorial control over iPhone and iPod applications. The removal from the Apple app store of an obnoxious "baby shaking" game after protests, has brought into the spotlight the arbitrary, secretive, contradictory, and seemingly nonsensical aspects of Apple's application approval process. Of particular note are the implications that Apple is especially sensitive about any applications that might offend anyone in a current political context.

We're brought inevitably to the question of why Apple should be playing application approval God for these devices in the first place, especially in a manner where the approval or rejection process is anything but transparent or open to scrutiny.

Contrast this with Google's attitude toward their Android OS and G1 phone, where not only can virtually any application be posted in the Android Market immediately without prior approval, but users can choose to install whatever apps they wish directly to their phones and bypass the Market completely in an entirely private manner.

I know of only two applications that have been pulled from universal access on the Android Market -- one involving PC tethering over T-Mobile, and the other the capturing of YouTube videos -- both of which can perhaps arguably be viewed as violating specific terms of service related to the cellular carrier and YouTube themselves. Notably, both of these applications continue to be available for download directly to Android phones from non-Market sites, and while it is supposedly theoretically possible for them to do so, Google has not made any attempts that I am aware of to disable their use.

In essence, Apple's iPhone/iPod application ecosystem has the elements of being designed for "children" who need to be controlled and guided in every aspect of their interactions with the devices, while Google's view is that users are generally adults who are best able to make their own decisions in these regards.

Would protests cause Google to ban a "baby shaker" application from Android Market? I don't know the answer to that, but since such an app could be installed by any G1 owners without using the Market in any case, the question has a wholly different significance than it would in Apple's tightly controlled iPhone/iPod application environment.

Apparently there are well over a hundred iPhone/iPod apps that are oriented toward farting and have passed successfully through Apple's application approval process -- yet a countdown clock to Obama's inauguration was banned, with Steve Jobs chiming in on that particular ban to say that he didn't see any point in "offending" people.

The world of censorship is a Bizarro World indeed.


Posted by Lauren at 08:42 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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April 23, 2009

Torturegate, the Internet, Obama's Error, and Startling Candor from Fox News

Blog Update (April 24, 2009): Actual U.S. JPRA Torture Document Available as PDF

"And now your highness, we will discuss the location of your hidden rebel base."
-- Darth Vader -- Star Wars -- 1977

Greetings. It is now very clear that President Obama significantly misjudged and underestimated the intensity of reactions related to the George W. Bush Administration's "enhanced interrogation" (torture) policies. Instead of relegating the associated issues to the past, the (completely appropriate) release of the Bush-era torture memos has exploded a slowly smoldering flame into a vast firestorm, and Obama's declaration that U.S. policy has changed in these regards will not prevent the conflagration.

The waterboardings, shackles, collars, leashes, stress positions, beatings, extraordinary renditions, and host of other horrors promulgated by Bush and his underlings in the name of national security, have created a snowball that may well grow to rival the likes of any previous scandals that this nation has ever endured.

And in many respects, the topic of torture is more fundamentally important than most of the issues that have grabbed our collective attention in the past. Bill Clinton's sexual excesses and even Richard Nixon's Watergate seem to pale in comparison to the ancient and utterly basic ethical and moral issues surrounding torture.

Thanks to the Internet, we'll have a front row seat as these events unfold, in a manner impossible in the past. Every possible Net venue is already being utilized to disseminate, discuss, analyze, and otherwise ponder the basic "good vs. evil" aspects of this situation. This is the Internet at its finest.

Various military personnel who were condemned as renegades at Abu Ghraib are taking to the airwaves and the Net to proclaim their relief at the memos revelations that -- indeed as they had claimed all along -- the pattern of their behaviors was dictated from the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Now preserved on the Internet for all time is a remarkably candid (warning: and profane) outburst yesterday by Shepherd Smith, a popular Fox News anchor, who verbally exploded in reaction to suggestions that torture might be OK "if it produced results."

Mr. Smith indeed hit the heart of the matter dead center. The GOP and ex-torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney have been attempting to push the degrading concept that torture not only is acceptable if it can be shown to work, but that even discussing the issue may have violated the privacy rights of associated parties. I view these lines of argument as nothing less than pure evil. One can only imagine how Cheney's outspoken "logic" may affect the futures of our own brave military men captured in future conflicts. God help them from our adversaries who will quote Cheney and his cronies as justification for those foreign torturers.

We are about to embark on a televised and Internet-enabled investigation of the modern incarnations of a most ancient evil -- torture -- as was applied under cover of authority, and with our national honor and pride victimized as a result of those activities.

You probably remember all of the attention paid to Bill Clinton's affair, even if you're too young to remember Watergate. "Torturegate" (I haven't heard anyone say this yet in the media, but I'm sure they will!) seems likely to rise to similar or even higher levels of global focus -- and for damned good reasons.

This is going to be a learning experience like none other. We are about to explore in the most graphic sense possible what it means to be Americans, in terms of goals, ethics, morality, and simple humanity. For how we behave under stress and attack tells far more about us than our behavior on better days.

Fasten your seatbelts.


Update: AP is reporting that by May 28 a "substantial number" of prisoner abuse photos reaching "far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib" will be released by the federal government. These apparently are being released as the result of an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit dating back to 2004. The Bush administration had reportedly (and unsurprisingly) refused to release the photos in question.

Additional Note (April 24, 2009): The photos to be released now reportedly number in the hundreds.

Posted by Lauren at 06:43 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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April 19, 2009

YouTube: Susan Boyle, Jim Nabors, Tiny Tim, and Mrs. Miller

Greetings. A few days ago a friend of mine sent me a note suggesting that a PhD in behavioral psychology awaited the first student to explain the sudden popularity of instant celebrity amateur singer Susan Boyle -- courtesy of YouTube. Is this a phenomenon restricted to the Internet age?

The answer would appear to be no, though the Internet in general -- and YouTube in particular -- certainly do provide a new vector for this relatively unusual form of "ugly duckling" singing stardom.

Does Boyle really sing that well? Or is it the contrast with her appearance and speaking voice that has triggered most of the attention? Would a beautiful babe with the same exact singing performance be so much in the spotlight? The crowd's instantaneous, enthusiastic positive reaction to Boyle's singing voice -- before they'd heard more than a few words in the now famous YouTube video -- lends considerable weight to the theory that contrast is the key. The uplifting song she sung also played nicely into the mix.

Unusual singing sensations have a fascinating history. A look back a few decades provides some interesting examples each with their own unique characteristics. Let's explore a few, via YouTube of course.

Jim Nabors has created a long and successful career from contrasting his Gomer Pyle persona, complete with squeaky speaking voice, with his beautiful baritone singing voice -- early on providing the kind of startling contrasts that we might now associate with Susan Boyle, or Andy Kaufman's original "Elvis" routine for that matter. These were calculated shticks of course, but achieved great popularity in their times.

However, there's no requirement that you sing well to achieve ugly duckling singing fame. The exact opposite can also be true.

Frumpy Mrs. Elva Miller achieved considerable fame in the mid-60s by virtue of her horrendous singing voice. Herbert Khaury ("Tiny Tim") became a global celebrity during much the same period, combining a fake falsetto voice (similar in some respects to that of Jim Nabor's character persona's voice) with a highly annoying falsetto singing voice and style (in reality, he like Nabors was a baritone). Khaury's rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" achieved global fame, even triggering references in then contemporary television programs such as Lost in Space (where the robot performed Tiptoe as punishment for Dr. Smith!)

Genuine folks or characters by design, bad singing or good, Susan Boyle is but the latest in a long line of showbiz wonders that spend variable amounts of time in the usually fleeting spotlight, to the amusement and bemusement of vast global audiences.

In the age of YouTube, it seems reasonable to expect that we'll be treated to ever more fascinating singing performances by "unusual" instant celebrities, courtesy of the Internet.

Whether you feel that this is a prospect to be gleefully anticipated or doubtfully dreaded, it's going to happen.

A bunch more potential PhD opportunities may indeed be waiting in the wings.


Posted by Lauren at 09:56 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 16, 2009

Bulletin: Time Warner Reportedly to "Shelve" Bandwidth Cap Plans

Greetings. In an extremely brief item that moved this afternoon, AP has reported that "following mounting public and political outcry," Time Warner Cable is "shelving" plans for capped/metered Internet use. The article also suggests that this "capitulation" bodes ill for future efforts of this sort.

Obviously, there will be a great deal more to say about this story as details become available, and the reactions of other ISPs who have implemented or have been moving toward bandwidth caps (including Comcast, AT&T, etc.) will be interesting to observe. The related implications could potentially impact literally every aspect of Internet use.

Will I need to revise "Once Upon a Time" (Understanding Bandwidth Caps) to provide a happy ending after all? It's still really too early to know. But today's development is certainly quite fascinating.

There's an old slogan that goes "Power to the people!" Perhaps in the context of the Internet, "Bandwidth for the people!" should be a new rallying cry.

Stay tuned.


Posted by Lauren at 03:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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Domino's YouTube Nightmare - Videos are Forever

Greetings. When some moronic Domino's Pizza employees shot videos of themselves doing mostly unmentionable things to pizza ingredients, then the results ended up on YouTube, the giant pizza chain was launched into a public relations nightmare of truly deep dish proportions.

What's notable for us isn't the disgusting antics themselves, or the question of whether or not the "modified" food products ever actually went out to customers. What's really interesting is yet another example of the immense asymmetric impact that such videos can have, and their rapid dissemination around the world, despite a version of the video being pulled from YouTube after a copyright (!) claim by one of the perpetrators (I do find this particular instance of DMCA invocation to be rather amusing).

However, the videos in their various nauseating incarnations are still widely available all over the Net, and I dare say will remain so in perpetuity. If you haven't had a meal recently and your masochistic streak is showing, a quick Google Search for:

dominos pizza video

and exploration of the resulting links will keep you in stitches -- or some sort of altered mental state -- for quite some time. This isn't for the squeamish, though.

There's no obvious way that Domino's could have prevented this situation, and they're clearly the victims in the drama.

But the take home lesson here is that the raw power of YouTube, other video sites, and the web of e-mail and social networking applications that now seemingly entwine everything, are fundamentally changing our foundational concepts of privacy, information control, intellectual property, and so much more. Pine as some might for the "good old days," the Internet has changed the world, and woe to he who ignores or refuses to accept this fact.

What toppings did you want on that pizza again?


Posted by Lauren at 12:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 14, 2009

Warning: AT&T's New "Spouse Stalking" Cell Service

Greetings. Earlier this month, the disturbing news circulated of a man who shot his five children and himself after discovering his wife with another man -- reportedly through the use of GPS cell phone tracking. While details regarding the GPS aspects of the case haven't yet appeared, AT&T has now introduced a new service that may gladden the heart of spouse stalkers all over the country.

Called FamilyMap, the service allows the account owner to track the location of other cell phones in the account over the Internet or on their own cell phones. While this concept isn't particularly new, the manner of implementation that AT&T has chosen for this service is quite alarming.

Rather than following the conventional procedure of requiring confirmation from a cell phone that its user wishes to permit tracking, FamilyMap allows for the activation of tracking based solely at the discretion of the account owner. A tracked phone is supposed to receive a single text message informing its user that they will henceforth be tracked -- but if that message is ignored, missed, or never received at all, tracking will apparently still commence.

The tracked phone will not show any indications that its location is being monitored, except reportedly for the attempted sending of another text message to that phone -- but only once a month.

The abuse potentials of this situation are obvious. It is difficult to comprehend why AT&T would create a tracking service that doesn't require positive confirmation of the target for activation before initiating "silent" tracking for weeks.

AT&T is demonstrating exactly the wrong way to deploy a location-based mobile service. We can only hope that they realize their mistake and change FamilyMap policies -- before someone is hurt or killed after being unknowingly tracked by a spouse or someone else in a shared account situation.

Shame on you, AT&T.


Posted by Lauren at 09:01 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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April 13, 2009

Conspiracy Freaks Galore: The Amazon "Censorship" Flap

Greetings. Does the Internet provide an ideal growth medium for bizarre conspiracy theories? I don't know about "ideal" -- but we saw an example over the weekend of how people still love to blame conspiracies, even in cases where that belief simply makes no sense at all if you spend more than ten seconds really thinking about it.

On Sunday I started receiving e-mails from folks pointing me at various postings suggesting that Amazon had deployed an evil plan by purposely banning vast numbers of books from their sales ranking and related systems. What was really driving anger was the belief that the list of "banned" works was heavily skewed toward gay, lesbian, and other sexually-related themes.

These rumors were reportedly fueled largely by an avalanche of (necessarily short) Twitter postings, many of which seemed to represent the digital equivalent of "piling on" rather than exploring the illogic of the presumed circumstances.

And illogical they were. The range of the almost 60K books that had "vanished" was so broad, even including health books and classics, that it seemed obvious that a tagging error of some sort was the root cause -- and as is traditional with many such failures had come to fruition during a weekend, and a holiday weekend at that.

The issue was indeed tied to a cataloging problem, but even now, there are folks still writing around the Net who refuse to believe this, and who insist that "there must be more going on!" But think. What possible reason would Amazon have had to conduct such a purge? Did a right-wing religious group mysteriously buy a controlling interest? Did Bezos develop a sudden suicidal urge? No matter how you slice it, for Amazon to have purposely implemented such a broad action just didn't make any logical sense.

I'm reminded in some ways of the recent glitch at Google that caused all search results to be tagged as potential malware for a brief time. "Google must have been hacked! There's no other possible explanation," people were screaming. But in reality, the Google problem was caused by a relatively simple data entry error, and apparently Amazon's problem was of a very similar nature.

There are a couple of lessons to be remembered from all this.

One is that many of our technical systems are extremely complex and can be subject to asymmetric failures -- that is, a very small change or error can quickly propagate into massive effects. We're still learning how to minimize these kinds of risks.

The second teachable point is all about human nature, not technology.

People love conspiracy theories. Pick your topic. Google. UFOs and alien autopsies. The JFK assassination. Amazon, and on and on. Why do so many of us insist on complicated explanations and insanely unlikely levels of secrecy, when much more straightforward explanations make so much more sense?

I'm not a psychologist or a sociologist -- I never got far beyond introductory courses in either of those topics. But I'll bet it's all about the feeling of losing control. People simply don't wish to believe that simple errors can cause such widespread technical failures -- some sort of directed conspiracy to suppress particular points of view somehow seems much more palatable. Similarly, the concept of a dysfunctional lone gunman being able to change the course of world history is more than many people can handle.

In both of these examples, to accept the simple explanations is to emotionally accept the relative fragility of our systems and lives -- and that's something very difficult for many of us to do.

That's not to say that there can't be real conspiracies. But humans being the blabby creatures that we are, conspiracies are tough to maintain, especially over long periods of time. In theory, the really successful conspiracies would be the ones that we not only don't find out about in detail, but that we never would even suspect exist at all.

Unfortunately, I'm not permitted to discuss those ...


Posted by Lauren at 09:01 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Tipping Point: Banks to Taxpayers: "We Own You!"

Greetings. Bank of America is in the process of busily notifying credit card holders of massive interest rate hikes -- apparently in "small groups" of only about four million at a time -- so as not to inundate the call center reps who would otherwise have to deal with the righteous indignation of all the shafted customers at once. Bank of America was of course another winner of the "bundles of bailout billions" from taxpayers.

To say that these guys still "just don't get it" would be a colossal understatement. They continue to live in Fantasy Land, apparently convinced that if they just pretend that everything is "business as usual" they can successfully keep following "standard operating procedure" by squeezing every last drop of blood from customers and taxpayers -- and somehow nobody will notice.

But hey there banker guys -- Congress is finally starting to really notice what's going on -- thanks to untold millions of angry constituents screaming for your blood. And Congress tends to react in knee-jerk ways that indeed may often be ill-advised, but could still alter your lives as effectively as a discount castration.

The world has changed. Keep pulling these stunts and you're liable to find out firsthand how Huey Long came to power so many years ago. Your present course may drag this country -- and probably the world -- into a popular uprising that would certainly be damaging to you, and most likely create one hell of a mess for the rest of us as well.

A serious attitude change in your entire way of doing business is called for. Get with the program. Show some balls -- while you're still permitted to have them.


Posted by Lauren at 11:44 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 12, 2009

"Once Upon a Time" (Understanding Bandwidth Caps) -- Stand-alone Link Available

Greetings. I received an unexpected number of requests for a stand-alone link to my posting yesterday of a folk tale analogy related to the ongoing ISP bandwidth caps controversies. Most of these requests came from educational, privacy-oriented, and other sites who either wanted to post the piece in full or preferred a page separate from my embedded blog version.

I don't recall ever doing this for a previous blog posting before, but I've gone ahead and adapted the blog posting into a separate page:

"Once Upon a Time" - Understanding Bandwidth Caps

Feel free to link as desired.



Posted by Lauren at 12:13 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 11, 2009

"Once Upon a Time" - Understanding Bandwidth Caps

Greetings. In response to Big ISPs to Customers: Bend Over and Close Your Eyes and Time Warner on up-sells and competition (in their own words), I received a number of requests for a "simple" explanation of the ISP bandwidth caps controversy.

Fair enough. I'm a big fan of non-technical analogies to explain technical issues, so let's give this a try.

We start with the given that unlike any other service you access on the Internet, your ISP is (for the vast majority of people) their access point to 100% of Internet services from their home or business. It doesn't matter what video you want to play, which Google searches you wish to make, nor what porn site you feel like browsing -- you do it all through your ISP ...

- - -

Once upon a time there was a beautiful village nestled deep in the mountains.

The residents of this isolated hamlet had always been cut off from easy access to the outside world. Crude footpaths allowed for very slow and tedious transit in and out, with only very expensive and limited helicopter flights available as an alternative. Not only that, they had no stores or services of their own, making everyday living a gigantic hassle.

One day ISPEYD Enterprises arrived in town and offered a fantastic deal. They'd build a modern high-speed tunnel from the village to the big cities on the other side of the mountains. Residents would only need to pay a fixed monthly fee for unlimited access to the tunnel. ISPEYD would also be building stores and setting up other services for the local residents.

The village folk jump at the offer. ISPEYD builds the tunnel, and does open a variety of shopping venues and other services in the village.

Everybody seems to love the tunnel for a few years, even though ISPEYD seems to be pretty secretive. ISPEYD refuses to provide statistics about how many people are using the tunnel or how it is being used, claiming that this is "proprietary transportation network information." Be that as it may, the tunnel seems to work pretty well, and since it's really the "only game in town" anyway, virtually everyone pays the monthly access fee.

As time goes by, residents of the village are quite glad to have the tunnel, because all manner of exciting new services -- many of them free! -- are rapidly appearing in the cities, accessible in a practical manner only via the tunnel itself.

One day there's a surprising insert in the ISPEYD billing envelope that arrives in residents' mailboxes.

The insert announces not only an increase in rates to use the tunnel and the implementation of "slow" and "fast" lanes at different price points, but also describes caps on how many trips you're allowed to make per month, depending on how much you pay. ISPEYD says that this is necessary to protect the tunnel from traffic congestion, but in their ads around town they begin to promote the added benefits of subscribing to the higher-priced tunnel access tiers nonetheless.

Many of the villagers become concerned. They're now accustomed to all sorts of free or cheap services in the cities, but the relatively limited services that ISPEYD makes available in the village are much more expensive. If it gets too pricey to use the tunnel, the villagers realize that they'll have no choice but to buy almost everything from ISPEYD.

The village elders ask ISPEYD to justify their new tiered and capped pricing system. The company replies that they're a private firm and don't have to provide such information. ISPEYD says that they own the tunnel and they'll manage it however they see fit. ISPEYD also announces that they're thinking about using cameras in the tunnel to view the contents of cars passing through -- to see what sorts of items people are buying in the cities, so that ISPEYD can use this information for marketing purposes.

The tunnel's owners also remind the villagers that they are not permitted to use the tunnel for serving the needs of people who might want to enter the village from the city -- this is called the "no servers" prohibition in the ISPEYD Tunnel Terms of Service (ITTOS) to which all residents of the village are required to abide.

The villagers suddenly understand their predicament. ISPEYD is now in virtually total control of all commerce in and out of the community, and can on its own volition at any time increase tunnel rates, limit tunnel access, and otherwise manipulate the situation to their own commercial benefit, by purposely making it prohibitively expensive for villagers to routinely patronize non-ISPEYD services.

While ISPEYD continues to insist that they're not trying to stifle competition and that all of their changes and restrictions are justified to avoid clogging the tunnel in the future, nobody in the village has enough information to know if this is really true. ISPEYD insists that any attempt to regulate the tunnel would be disastrous, potentially stopping them from expanding services and perhaps even preventing them from continuing with existing tunnel maintenance.

The village is trapped. They no longer love the tunnel -- but they have to use it. Meanwhile, public filings and speeches by the ISPEYD CEO reveal plans to nudge villagers to the higher-priced tunnel tiers as rapidly as possible, and continue to express concerns about how cheap and free services outside the many villages that ISPEYD serves with tunnels are undercutting ISPEYD's own higher-priced service offerings within those communities.

- - -

Like any analogy, this one is imperfect. But I'm sure you get the idea.

The moral of the story?

"A tempting transport tunnel 'tis a tool that may tilt the terrain toward a tethered taste of treachery, unless we take the trouble to test the team's total typical truthfulness today and tomorrow."

And we won't necessarily live happily ever after ...


Posted by Lauren at 02:37 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 10, 2009

Big ISPs to Customers: Bend Over and Close Your Eyes

Greetings. It's no longer a matter of handwriting on the wall -- the equivalents of big billboards and skywriting are now making it abundantly clear what big telecom has in store for us, and Time Warner's new bandwidth cap plans are but a mere taste of toadstools to come. No matter how creatively they try to spin their press releases, telecom is taking the elevator to profits, and subscribers are being left with -- that's right boys and girls -- the shaft.

What we seem to be looking at here in the U.S. -- in direct contrast to many other countries in the world -- is a race to the bottom, with ISPs doing their damndest to chain up customers in ways that will help assure preferential use of ISPs' own video and other offerings, which themselves are typically free of all bandwidth caps.

The apparent lack of capping plans so far where effective competition is present (e.g. FiOS overbuilds) would seem to be about as obvious of a smoking gun as Lt. Columbo himself would ever wish to see. It's all about driving down demand for outside Internet services and herding customers (with a cattle prod) into the walled gardens.

The vast variations in proposed caps between different service providers are creating exactly the kind of situations that telecom communications regulation could help avoid -- enormous differences for customers based solely on where they happen to be living.

Bandwidth caps are too important of a parameter, not just for usage today but for what sorts of Internet innovation and usage we'll see tomorrow, to be arbitrarily set and changed by ISPs in the current extremely limited competition U.S. Internet environment.

It's well past time for Internet users from the size of Google down to grandmothers in Ogden, Utah to start demanding effective positive changes.

By the way, Time Warner in my neck of the woods has increased prices on everything yet again this month, and their customer service reps have become utterly uncooperative -- unless you'll go for a massive up-sell. That's assuming you can understand what they're saying. The TW Colorado Springs call center at least has clear connections. But much of the time -- even during the day -- you can end up routed to a call center in Argentina, apparently connected through a VoIP system running at 110bps -- at least it sounds that way. The audio quality is always so incredibly bad that one longs for two tin cans with a string as an alternative. It's just another thorn to ramp up anger through the roof. I'm told that a lot of customers complain about this. But hey, when you own the balls and there's no referee you get to play however you want, right?

Just like the banks who are now massively jacking up credit card interest rates after getting vast government bailouts -- at a time when many ordinary middle-class citizens can hardly keep the lights lit and food on the table -- big telecom has us all in their sights, just like deers in the crosshairs of a hunter's high-powered rifle.

There's no polite way to say this: We are indeed getting royally screwed.


Posted by Lauren at 09:26 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 09, 2009

In Stunning Surprise, French Reject Oppressive Internet Law!

Greetings. To the shock of the legislation's supporters and detractors alike, the horrendous and oppressive proposed "Three Strikes" Internet law that I discussed yesterday has been soundly rejected by the French national assembly, by a vote of 15 - 21.

Since the vast majority of observers on both sides of this debate had expected the legislation to be approved, the result is nothing short of stunning, and calls into question the entire rationale of those who would use intellectual property concerns as an excuse to trample upon the basic liberties and rights of Internet users.

Whether the legislators who voted down the proposal did so out of careful analysis, primal fear of political repercussions, or some other combination of factors is currently unclear -- nor can France or any other country assume that new attempts to trample basic concepts of fairness won't reemerge repeatedly related to the Internet (or in other aspects of our lives, for that matter).

But today at least is a good day for the Internet and its users.

Vive la France!


Update: In fact, word is already out that the bill will be resubmitted to the legislature as soon as possible, for further votes when a higher percentage of the legislators are present. One way or another, these efforts will drive the rapid adoption of encryption/VPN technologies for file sharing and most other Internet applications -- a positive development even if it comes about through such unfortunate legislative measures.

Posted by Lauren at 09:07 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 08, 2009

French Law Would Bring "Les Miserables" Reasoning to ISP Users

Blog Update (April 9, 2009): In Stunning Surprise, French Reject Oppressive Internet Law!

Greetings. The proposed new super-surveillance, anti-piracy ISP law is advancing rapidly in France, with supporters promising to reopen Devil's Island and launch new prison galleys for violators.

OK, there's actually no talk of Devil's Island or galleys, and apparently no plans (yet) for bringing back la guillotine, but Inspector Javert would likely still be mightily pleased by the law's lack of basic balance.

This article in today's New York Times gives a good overview of the proposal's various bizarre aspects.

Among the wacky provisions:

-- Handing enforcement powers to ISPs and third parties hired by ISPs

-- Guilty until proven innocent (always speeds up the process!)

-- Making it illegal to have Wi-Fi hotspots that aren't "properly" filtered

-- And other related concepts with the kind of public "appeal" that proved so problematic for Louis XVI

Unaddressed in the article is the question of what happens to people who are "cut off" from their ISPs under such laws. Can they go to another ISP? Is there an "evil users" blacklist to prevent this? If someone is refused service by all ISPs, how will they (and presumably their family members) function in a world where Internet access is increasingly assumed for all manner of basic commercial and governmental functions?

There is debate regarding whether or not the law will pass constitutional muster in France, but the supporters of the measure seem to have forgotten what the phrase Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is all about.


Posted by Lauren at 11:45 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 07, 2009

Privacy vs. Crawling: Digging Deeper into "Newspapers vs. Google"

Greetings. Lots of strong reactions arrived in response to yesterday's AP Declares War on Google and Others, But the Collateral Damage Will Be Ours.

These covered quite a range, but among the most interesting, were:

-- The assertion that Google and Yahoo ignore "robots.txt" (this is clearly an inaccurate claim when robots.txt is used properly)

-- Several declarations amounting to "It's a violation of a site's privacy if a search engine crawls it without explicit permission -- (My response: such material should not be exposed in non-password protected areas of publicly accessible Web sites in the first place.)

and finally a whole bunch of:

-- Please explain more about the battles between newspapers and Google -- it's still too confusing.

I feel your pain. When a system is under stress the way that all manner of media and content are today in the Internet world, simple explanations can only take us so far.

Here's one example. We know (see yesterday's piece for details) that there's a great deal of animosity being directed toward news aggregators (like Google News) by newspapers, media moguls, and other organizations.

But the battle lines aren't always clear. Google News not only indexes newspaper sites and the AP articles on those sites, but also displays full text (for limited periods of time, as far as I know) the full text of many AP items. Does Google do the latter without explicit permission from AP?

Of course not. In fact, the agreement that permits this apparently started back in 2006.

So what's all the yelling about? There are a couple of factors in play. One is that except for locally generated content, Internet access to newspaper sites renders much of the materials on these sites largely fungible -- that is, interchangeable. A national or international AP item on newspaper A's site will ordinarily be exactly the same as, or very similar to, that same item over at newspaper B's site -- both of which are equally accessible over the Net.

This (among other issues, such as wire service subscription costs) have triggered increasing friction between wire services such as Associated Press and their client newspapers. And from a local newspaper's standpoint, an AP article that can be viewed standalone on Google News is one that a potential reader no longer needs to view at a newspaper site, where they'd be exposed to other materials that the site offers.

Since AP itself makes this scenario possible, something of a love/hate relationship becomes inevitable, and the result is not only considerable confusion, but a lot of angry finger pointing as well.

I suspect we can all agree that if a Web site displays significantly large or complete versions of copyrighted materials from newspapers (whether wire service related or not) without explicit permission, it's likely a copyright violation.

But attempting to marginalize the validity of "fair use" -- as some participants in this debate are apparently doing -- is also wrong. Likewise wrong-headed are various other arguments being made against the propriety of search engine indexing, certain forms of "deep linking," and assorted other Internet-specific methodologies.

History tells us that these sorts of technology-based disruptions are nothing new, and in fact are to be expected. What's more, the initial, knee-jerk reactions to these situations are often proven to be highly counterproductive and in retrospect sometimes just plain silly.

Television, we were told, would destroy both radio and the motion picture industry. Free commercial television broadcasting, the warnings came, would be rendered a mere memory by the rise of "Pay TV" services (I still remember anti-pay-TV ads with a drawing of an old TV set attached to big hoses, leading to a coin collection box). Now we're blasted with "The Internet is destroying the newspaper industry."

To be sure, none of these media forms have stayed unchanged in the face of technological advancement and competitive alterations, but they have all survived, largely because they've continued to bring value to their readers, listeners, and viewers -- a structural dynamic that can persist so long as we will it -- with our eyes, ears, and wallets -- to do so.

It would be exceedingly helpful if instead of "mad as hell" pronouncements from the newspaper industry, we instead worked toward a mutually beneficial future where access to information would continue to expand, rather than be artificially constrained on the heels of protectionist rhetoric.


Posted by Lauren at 12:21 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 06, 2009

AP Declares War on Google and Others, But the Collateral Damage Will Be Ours

"Of course you realize, this means war!" -- Bugs Bunny -- "Bully for Bugs" (1953)

Greetings. Believe it or not, when I discussed the ongoing problems of the newspaper industry yesterday in From Hell It Came: Will "Free" Destroy the Internet As We Know It?, I didn't realize that the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) meeting was being held in San Diego this week, or that the Associated Press board would choose their meeting at that venue to declare war against Internet news aggregators.

Some of the language being bandied about is quite remarkable. AP's chairman, apparently channeling character Howard Beale's famous monologue from the film Network (1976), was quoted as exclaiming to applause that "We are mad as hell and we are not going to take it any more!" Notably, AP also took this occasion to announce some price breaks for their media clients, who have reportedly sometimes been using similar language to explain their recent cancellations of AP contracts.

Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal was quoted in an Australian newspaper as saying that, "There is no doubt that certain Web sites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet."

"Madness!" "Parasites!" See, I wasn't kidding around with my horror movie analogy yesterday.

The battle preparations apparently go beyond the usual threats of lawsuits, to include talk of diverting users of news aggregation sites away from their selected stories to special "landing pages" instead (no word on how this might be accomplished, though "referrer"-based diversions seem like one likely technique).

While Google was not specifically named in most of the pronouncements as The Enemy per se, it's clear to all observers that Google -- and their "Google News" service -- are at the top of the pack when it comes to the designated villain list.

Coincidentally (?), Google CEO Eric Schmidt is scheduled to deliver the keynote tomorrow at the NAA meeting. (Free advice -- check for improperly grounded microphones at the podium before handling them!)

Seriously, these controversies are indeed Big Issues, but to my mind remain essentially orthogonal to the situations that I was describing yesterday regarding the "free" vs. "paid" Internet content dilemma. Search indexing is not the same as being a content provider, given any normal usage of these terms -- and treating Search like conventional content could be devastating to people's legitimate access to information.

That Google and others derive economic benefit from Search is a given, obviously. But the logical result of a major move toward a "pay to index" methodology on the Internet would likely not only be a massive distortion of how Web pages are indexed, but also the triggering of a major and harmful skew to the basic nature of search engines themselves.

It's easy to see why. As things stand right now, any Web site, including at any newspaper, can use the "robots.txt" exclusion method to control how any well-behaved indexing robot will crawl (or not crawl) their site. Any site that wants to keep Google or other search engines out completely, or even limit them individually or collectively to indexing specific pages, can do so.

But if the Internet paradigm shifts to a "pay me or you can't index my site" structure, we've taken an already complicated situation and stirred it up
into a maelstrom.

Search engines would be faced with making economically-based value judgments regarding which sites could affordably be included in their index for users to query. "Those sites are garbage, but they're free -- so they get in." "These sites have the quality info, but they're too expensive this year -- they get left out."

Meanwhile, many Web sites themselves might be tempted to try game the search system in various new ways -- perhaps by making "teaser" materials free to index and then charging the big bucks for anyone wanting to index the real meat --
Web site indexing brought down to the level of late night infomercials.

Immediately lost in a regime where many search engine index crawling decisions move to a "pay indexing" basis would be the trust of search engine users. They could never really be sure if search results actually represented an honest reality, or if those results had been hopelessly limited, distorted, and skewed by the complexities and charge-based bottom lines of the associated indexing permission fee structures imposed by Web sites onto search engines.

I have a great deal of admiration for Associated Press. Their reporters and other personnel are top notch in the truest sense, and in my opinion represent the quintessential essence of quality journalism.

I also fully support the right of any site to control if and where it is indexed, and by whom. That's what robots.txt is for.

But if we open up the Pandora's box of what would effectively be "indexing charges" and associated fee-based indexing limitations, I believe that we'd be going down a path that would be extremely damaging to Internet users, and we risk ultimately decimating the quantity and quality of important information available to us all.


Posted by Lauren at 06:24 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 05, 2009

From Hell It Came: Will "Free" Destroy the Internet As We Know It?

Greetings. A truly scary horror story doesn't need to begin with a bang. Rather, some of the most bone chilling of sagas enter stage left with a whimper, then head inexorably toward a climax of terror through a series of seemingly innocent events and linkages. By the time a victimized protagonist realizes what's actually happening, it's usually too late for easy escape. The classic film Rosemary's Baby is a perfect example of this sort of scenario in action.

But whether horror arrives quietly from an icy comet in deep space, from a tiny bacterium on the wind, or via a swinging blade whose arc increases from barely perceptible high in the ceiling to a whooshing mass of steel slicing through flesh and bone, we don't always recognize fictional dangers at first glance.

Nor do we win awards as a species for understanding the risks in real-world situations until the optimum time for action has already passed. Like most other animals our primary focus is on short-term gains. This pretty much holds true in all aspects of life -- including our dealings with the Internet.

A number of recent events bring cause to wonder if some basic tenets of the Internet today aren't leading us toward some major disruptions that could themselves be plenty scary.

The specter of newspaper closings should be seen as a warning clarion call. Closing and threatened shutdowns aren't just affecting small towns anymore, but are moving into the most major of cities. One very recently terminated big city newspaper had its footprint firmly planted in three successive centuries.

When newspapers downsize or cease their normal operations, a great deal of journalistic talent typically vanishes at the same time. And this is something that we ignore at our own peril in the Internet world.

Relatively few Internet news sources are of true journalistic quality. Many bloggers -- myself included -- never took a single journalism class, and are really hard-core techies who got pulled into a policy analyst/commentator role over the years. While we're sometimes able to break new "headline" stories, we're often set on the trail of interesting material from mainstream journalists who have already done the initial legwork. As newspapers fade from the scene, "news" on the Internet could degenerate into an endless stream of corporate press releases and self-serving "pay to play" articles.

It is true that some shuttered papers valiantly have declared that they will continue in Web-only forms. But since the vast majority of online newspapers are free to viewers, where is their continuing revenue source in an age when Craigslist has decimated the value of traditional classified ads? How will those journalists continue to be paid for their work?

And this brings us directly to a fundamental question. Can so much Internet content and so many Internet services stay "free" to users forever? Speaking for myself, I never imagined in the early days of the ARPANET that decades later so much information would ever be available on a non-usage-sensitive basis. Free news, free search, free music, free videos -- and that's just the legitimately "no charge" stuff, I'm not even considering the illicit flows.

It seems to be largely a historical accident that it worked out this way. Early services were often started without charge as an introductory tactic, but with poor uptake for charged versions, and competitive pressures making it ever more difficult to succeed with paid service models, something of a snowball effect took hold. Various attempts at "micropayment" services have floundered.

The newspapers, initially offering their contents for free as an inducement toward physical paper subscriptions, have become trapped in this mode as increasing numbers of people simultaneously moved toward reading all of their news online -- and usually for free, of course! So many of us now view news as fungible -- and newspapers as "just so twentieth century" that any attempt to charge for general interest online news simply pushes those readers to competing free sources.

So we've ended up in a mostly advertiser-supported Internet world, much like commercial television and radio. But even the ad-based Internet may be threatened.

I routinely receive unsolicited, excited proclamations of the latest and greatest in Web site ad blocking plugins and programs, promising to expunge every ad -- from the most obnoxious pop-up flash displays to the most polite of text-based advertisements.

If ad blockers ever become routinely employed by most Internet users -- even assuming the cat-and-mouse technical battles that would then ensue, it is not inconceivable that the economic basis of the Internet as we know it today would be at risk.

The Internet will go on -- but it might look very different indeed, especially in terms of how much information individual Internet users could afford to access if they have to pay directly for most services. The disparity between the information rich and the information poor, which the Internet has moved toward eliminating, could once again well up into full bloom. For somebody has to pay for the data centers and circuits, for the software engineers and technicians, and for all the rest of the instrumentalities that make the Internet the wonder that it is.

It's natural enough to want "something for nothing" -- especially when we've gotten it that way all along. Starting to charge for anything that used to be free is always difficult. But the evil twin of "free" in some cases may be a vampire-like sucking dry of the very resources that provide our Internet sustenance.

We should be very careful about what we wish for. And we need to stay very alert for the seemingly unconnected events that start small, but can end up affecting us all in ways that most of us have not planned on, and are not prepared for ... much like that shimmering glint of razor-sharp steel moving slowly down from the ceiling, swinging ever more widely back and forth, back and forth, back and forth ...


Posted by Lauren at 05:38 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Can You Believe That Online Map Data?

Greetings. There's a excellent piece in the Los Angeles Times today discussing how geocoding errors can result not only in clusters of inaccurate data being displayed within online maps, but also in the spread of that bad data to other databases and systems. Of course, all manner of critical factors and decisions concerning services, privacy, and so much else can end up being based on such data.

This "garbage in, garbage out" truth should be obvious, but we all too often tend to look at colorful online maps and just assume that they're accurate. Yet the underlying assumptions of the mapping system designers play a major role in the results when geocoded data in particular is in error or cannot be interpreted properly.

A map, like a picture, may be worth "a thousand words" -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that those words are always a reflection of reality.


Posted by Lauren at 09:24 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 03, 2009

Senators Propose Massive Federal Control Over Cybersecurity and Internet

Greetings. I'll keep this brief for now. Two U.S. Senators (reportedly Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe) have proposed new legislation that would provide for a massive increase in federal involvement into key aspects of "cybersecurity," plus direct impacts on the global Internet's operations, control, and even the "certification and licensing" of related personnel.

The draft bill, a copy of which I have archived here, is of such broad and encompassing scope that I won't even try to critique it in detail yet. I urge you to read through it for yourself -- and hold on to your hats.

Thought experiment: How will the rest of the world react to this proposal?


Posted by Lauren at 03:26 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 02, 2009

Sling Media Slings Bull at Slingbox Faithful

Greetings. Sling Media, purveyors of the popular Slingbox line of devices that stream home television or other video/audio sources over the Internet, have just slung a smelly slug of excrement at their loyal customers and fans.

Slingboxes permit users to quickly and easily stream content from -- and pretty fully remotely control -- their home cable boxes, TiVos, and the like. Because it's a hardware-based solution, it has proven much easier to use than free software-based systems such as Orb (which require capture cards and significant CPU resources) for many users, this despite Sling's move to encrypted data streams that shut out "unofficial" player applications.

While the primary modality of Slingbox usage is streaming to specialized programs and embedded Web players (which have been included with the cost of the device), a big attraction of Slingbox has been its mobile apps -- such as the Slingbox player for Windows Mobile cell phones -- which actually works remarkably well, even at quite low, non-3G speeds. Even though this is an extra-cost item, it has proven to be very popular.

For months now in the Slingbox world, anticipation has been riding high in anticipation of an iPhone version of the Slingbox mobile app, and speculation has been rampant that an Android version (e.g., for the HTC/Google G1 cell phone) is also in the works.

But now comes word from Sling -- not an April Fools' joke unfortunately -- that the iPhone app will only be compatible with new model (mostly HD-oriented) Slingboxes, and that owners of existing models will be out in the cold.

Many Slingbox owners are livid, and it's easy to see why. We already know that Sling streams will play just dandy at low speeds, even into limited architectures like Windows Mobile. To allow for backwards compatible streaming of standard definition video into the mobile applications for the iPhone or other mobile platforms simply cannot be a rocket science level project.

So there is only one likely reason that Sling Media is going down this non-backwards-compatible path -- simple greed.

The first indications of Sling Media's greedy nature surfaced when they locked down their data to try prevent the implementation of unapproved applications, as noted above. But with Sling's new incompatibility manifesto, we see their greed in its full flowering, and what it portends for the future of the Slingbox platform is not at all encouraging.

Rather than upgrading to newer Sling devices, I would urge current Slingbox owners -- and anyone else thinking about the purchase of Sling Media products, to instead wherever possible consider the use of Orb or similar services that operate using standard protocols, and devote whatever time and resources that they can to the development of open source software-based and hardware-based Internet video streaming systems. Sling Media's proprietary approach is no longer acceptable.

As it stands right now, as far as I'm concerned, Sling has slung its last.


Posted by Lauren at 03:06 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

China to Require Internet Licenses -- But the Battle is Already Lost

Greetings. Less than a week after YouTube access was restored in China (it apparently reappeared last Friday, but this wasn't reported as widely as the original blocking), word is coming from China that most (all?) Internet content providers will officially need to obtain government licenses to legally disseminate their materials on the Internet. The usual (for China) list of "prohibited topics" will be attached to this expanded licensing requirement.

The idea of licensing users of the Internet one way or another is not a new one by any means. I regularly need to "educate" upset parties who approach me with the erroneous concept that if only everyone using the Internet were fully identified at all times, the Net would become an online nirvana free of spam, scams, scums, bums, pimps, porn, and all that pesky political content that they so abhor.

What's really interesting about the situation in China regarding the Internet is how utterly bizarre it obviously has become. The Chinese, with the clear goal of a "soft landing" into the financial and development world of the 21st century without the baggage of broad political or speech freedoms, have become an object lesson in the confusion that results when governments attempt to manage Internet content. (Presumably the Australian government, bent on its own vast Internet censorship track, is hoping to avoid China's mistakes -- but failure here too is ultimately inevitable.)

Direct access to particular Internet sites from China is blocked, then unblocked. New rules for Internet users appear, and are promptly evaded. Deals for controlled content arise, while simultaneously other services from the same entities inevitably facilitate Chinese access to "forbidden fruits" of the Net. Enforcement of Internet-related rules in China is necessarily spotty, tending to focus on political or the most egregious (by Chinese standards) violators.

Yet the Chinese citizenry by and large -- in much the same manner that they've been doing for thousands of years -- typically find ways to work around the oppressive bureaucracy.

Unless China cuts itself off entirely from the Internet -- a virtual if not physical impossibility -- the trend lines are clear. The Chinese people will continue to obtain ever greater access to the vast array of unapproved Internet content. Attempts to restrict this access may protect some Chinese bureaucrats' jobs for a period of time, but the thrust of history in the long run is clear -- information in the hands of the people is the ultimate political power, and it's simply not possible to control the benefits of the Net in a micromanaged manner.

Once you plug that jack into the Internet router, you are part of the global community in a manner that civilization has never before seen. Governments around the world continue to assume (or at least hope) that the Net can somehow be bent to their wills like any other technology with an origin in the sphere of defense and military research.

But by enabling effectively unrestricted communications between people anywhere on the planet, in ways both infinitely extensible and mutable, it becomes more obvious every day that the Internet -- in one form or another -- is a game changer not of years, or centuries, but of millennia.

There will be ups and downs, struggles with censorship, and continuing battles to minimize the privacy threats that have accompanied the rise of the Net.

But the Internet and its vast potential for two-way communications is already arguably weaving itself more deeply into our psyches than the telegraph or telephone, perhaps even more so than printing, newspapers, and books themselves.

Where precisely this will lead us is not clear. But lead us it will, the protests of governments and Luddites alike notwithstanding. The Internet is the purest and most fundamentally egalitarian form of communications yet developed by mankind.

Get used to it.


Posted by Lauren at 10:04 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 01, 2009

Google Announces Merger with Major TV Networks

[ Of possible interest ... -- Lauren ]

April 1, 2009

Google Announces Merger with Major TV Networks

Mountain View, CA (VTX) -- In a move sending shock waves throughout the Internet and broadcasting worlds, Internet services giant Google today announced a merger between Google and the four major U.S. commercial television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX) plus cable news operations CNN and FOX News.

The new corporate name for the merged entity will be "Google."

In the first entry of the new official "Google TV Blog" that appeared this morning, Google VP for Television Programming Quality and Viewer Experience, Harvey Flint, noted that, "Google hopes to rapidly bring the changes associated with our 'don't be evil' corporate philosophy to these acquired properties, especially FOX News."

Among reported major changes already being planned for the broadcast networks under the Google regime will be a requirement that commercial breaks take place at exactly ten minute intervals, to allow for dependable synchronization with Google's YouTube viewers.

Industry reaction to the announcement has been generally favorable.

Longtime broadcasting columnist Rhoda Grant of Multitudinous Channel magazine commented that, "Considering how badly broadcasters have screwed up by mishandling the Internet Revolution themselves, there's no way that Google can possibly make things any worse. And besides, I own Google stock."

There were some cautionary observers. Barney Blase, owner of a small rural ISP in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, complained that, "All this emphasis on video is ridiculous. There's nothing worthwhile that can't be accomplished via dial-up acoustic modems and punched paper tape."

Executives of the acquired broadcasting networks were unavailable for comment, reportedly due to their attending of a hurriedly arranged meeting to update their "LinkedIn" profiles.

VTX-2009-04-01 GOOG001

Posted by Lauren at 03:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein