May 29, 2009

In My Hand: An Original Physical Twitter Tweet!

Greetings. A couple of days ago someone noted to me that the 140 character limit of Twitter messages ("tweets") wasn't much longer than the capacity of old IBM punch cards (80 characters). This is true, and there's a somewhat delightful irony in the fact that after so many decades of pushing for ever more data capacity, we've found ourselves speeding forward into the past in terms of highly constrained individual messages.

But wait a minute ... Haven't I seen ...? Yes, I remember now. It's in my ancient computing history collection somewhere. Where can it be?

Lessee now. Is it under the old 300 bps acoustic modem? No. Behind the ancient ARPANET Resources handbook? Not there either. What about wedged in near the roll of punched paper tape with a Star Trek game written in BASIC?

AH! Success. Found it! An original, unused, physical, 140 character Twitter Tweet! To think, it all started with this -- though you'd have to be pretty careful trying to get this baby into an IBM 082 sorter, and this format was only useful for EBCDIC tweets, of course.

But here it is.

Twitter: Do Not Bend, Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate!


Posted by Lauren at 03:33 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 27, 2009

Time Warner Cable Subscribers Ripped Off by Unannounced HD Changes

Greetings. Truth be told, there are certain technical advantages that cable has over satellite television -- true video on demand and the ability to provide Internet and phone services, for example.

But like the old adage that "everyone hates the phone company" -- cable companies seem to find new ways to shoot themselves in the feet at every turn.

Time Warner Cable (TWC) subscribers paying for the TWC "HD Tier" ($5 to $8.95/mo, depending on location), are in the process of being burned at this very moment, and most of them probably don't even realize it yet.

The HD Tier was never a great value, usually containing only around four channels, compared to the large number of channels in most other tiers. But the presence of the HDNet Movies channel made the tier worthwhile for many subscribers. HDNet Movies is essentially the only "non-premium" movie channel that runs a great mix of high-quality HD movies (in their proper aspect ratios!), without in-movie commercials or distracting full-time ID bugs and banners.

TWC is in the process of pulling HDNet Movies (and its companion channel in the tier, HDNET -- which has quite a fan following of its own) from all TWC systems. They've been doing this without any warning or announcement to subscribers, they're lying about the reason why, and if you're unhappy about the situation, they want you to pay.

I hadn't heard about this fiasco -- not a peep from TWC -- until TiVo flashed a channel lineup change notice this morning. When I called in to find out what was going on, the TWC reps insisted that HDNET had demanded that their channels be removed from all Time Warner systems. Huh, that sounds pretty strange. "Not a contract dispute?" I asked. "Definitely not!" I was told repeatedly.

Lies and double-talk. It's all about contracts and tier placement. What's more, TWC attempting to portray the unannounced removal of HDNET channels (and their replacement with boringly generic HD commercial channels that are utterly inappropriate to an extra cost tier -- Smithsonian and MavTV) as giving subscribers "more choice" is utter hogwash.

So, overnight TWC changed 50% of the channels on the HD Tier. Surprise! It's like subscribing to the L.A. Times and suddenly getting "Football Daily" delivered instead (which, given the state of the newspaper industry, may not be such a far-fetched nightmare scenario).

Anyway, here comes the adding insult to injury part. If you complain about the situation, TWC will happily drop the tier from your package -- if you pay them $3! Hey, as long as we have the wound open, let's pour in some salt and give it a good rub!

Now, if you raise a big enough stink and bump up to a supervisor you can probably get that fee waived. But that's not the point -- you shouldn't have to jump through hoops.

TWC knew that this change was coming. They could have warned subscribers rather than trying to slip in quietly like a burglar in the dead of night. It's not really a matter of the particular channels, the cost of the tier, or the $3 drop fee -- it's the entire awful attitude of these companies in general that drive their subscribers to distraction -- and to the poor house. (Sidebar: TWC now admits that the TiVo tuning adapters required to deal with switched digital video may not be free after the first year, in direct conflict with earlier statements -- but I digress ...)

Bottom line on this one, if you're paying for the HD Tier from TWC, you should probably consider dropping it like a hot potato, and refuse to pay any change fees. And watch your wallets, gang.

By ... the ... way. There's a great series of DirecTV commercials portraying meetings at a generic cable company, where employees plan how best to screw their subscribers. In light of Time Warner Cable's behavior, I'm beginning to wonder if those spots were actually clandestinely filmed at TWC corporate headquarters ...


Posted by Lauren at 10:31 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 25, 2009

Apple Reverses Prudish Decision and Allows Rejected iPhone Ebook App

Greetings. A few days ago, in Apple's iPhone Channels the Prudes -- "Pick a Little, Talk a Little!" I discussed the inanity of Apple's iPhone "censorship team" rejecting an ebook application that accessed classic works of literature, due to the presence of sexually-related content in some of those volumes ("Chaucer ... Rabelais ... Baaaalzac!")

Apparently the burst of bad publicity got through to the gang at 1 Infinite Loop. The author of Eucalyptus -- the program in question -- reports receiving a phone call on Sunday (!) from Apple reversing the rejection and accepting the app.

As I noted previously, Google avoided this entire spectrum of problems with their Android OS (for the G1 phone, etc.) by not having an application approval process at all.

Anyway, all's well that ends well this time -- but it's still a sad commentary on the iPhone application approval process that Apple has to be subjected to global public ridicule before a sensible decision is reached in such situations.

When it comes to anything even mildly controversial, don't be so sure that there's an iPhone "app for that!"


Posted by Lauren at 09:27 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 23, 2009

Call for Videos! "The Internet Issues That Matter to Me!"

Greetings. As you're no doubt aware, the Internet is awash in commentary from pundits, experts, and other assorted riffraff (you can sort me into whichever of these categories that you wish), telling you why the Internet matters, what's great about the Net, what's wrong with it, how to fix it, how to control it, and in general creating a rather loud but almost entirely one-way conversation.

In the best traditions of "Web 2.0" (whatever that really means), I'd like to announce an experiment in two-way communications related to these topics. I'd like you to tell me what really matters to you about the Internet, and I want to help spread the word about the issues that you care about. But none of this can happen without your participation!

I call this effort "The Internet Issues That Matter to Me!" -- and that "me" is you.

Here's the plan. If there's anything about the Internet that you feel strongly about -- good or bad, please explain it to me in a simple, "webcam" video of no more than one minute in length, which you can create using this drop-dead simple video recording and submission page.

Wherever you are, please tell me what inspires you about the Web and the Net, or what drives you crazy about them. What are your hopes for the Internet's future? Who's doing a good job providing Internet services or capabilities, and who is screwing up big time? What, if anything, bugs or scares you about where we seem to be heading? What are your suggestions for helping to make sure that the Internet truly is for everyone, all over the planet (and someday, beyond)?

All relevant topics are open. Web services, ISPs, privacy, DMCA, content controls, network neutrality, censorship, responsibility, abuses, sites you love, sites you hate, sites and services that you wish existed.

Don't worry about making your video fancy. Just ponder what matters to you about the Internet, look your webcam straight in the lens, and go for it. Stay anonymous if you wish. How hard can 60 seconds be, right?

My intention is take these video submissions and use them to illustrate a representative sampling of Internet issues -- edited into a hopefully logical and useful presentation -- that will then be disseminated not just to the public at large, but to legislators, decision-makers, and everyone else who cares about what the Internet is and where it's heading.

Exactly how this will turn out is unknown. It is an Experiment with a capital "E" to be sure. But I hope that you'll consider donating a few minutes of your time toward submitting a quick vid explaining how you really feel about the Internet and what it means for us all.

It's up to you.

For more details or to create and submit a video, please visit the Vortex Video Form submission page.

Thanks in advance for your participation.

Be seeing you (and this time, I really mean seeing you!)


Posted by Lauren at 03:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 22, 2009

Apple's iPhone Channels the Prudes -- "Pick a Little, Talk a Little!"

Greetings. Ya' know the musical The Music Man -- and the busybody ladies group all flustered about the "dirty books" in the River City library of the early 20th century? "Chaucer ... Rabelais ... Baaaalzac!"

Well, Apple's continuing game of iPhone censorship is still in high gear -- with hilariously inane results.

It appears that Apple has rejected the Eucalyptus ebook reader iPhone app, apparently because it would simplify -- via Project Gutenberg -- iPhone users' access to Victorian-era books of the sort that so upset the River City ladies!

The contrasts are really quite stark. Google's Book Search and Android phone projects are facilitating open access potentially to the sum total of published human knowledge, without playing content nanny. Meanwhile, Apple is not only clinging to laughable 19th century concepts of "filth" in classic literature, but imposing their nonsensical censorship gobbledygook on their entire iPhone customer base.

The bozos have taken over the iPhone bus.

Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep,
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep,
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep,
Pick a little, talk a little, Cheep!


Blog Update (May 25, 2009): Apple Reverses Prudish Decision and Allows Rejected iPhone Ebook App

Posted by Lauren at 11:41 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 21, 2009

Untangling Orphaned Works in the Proposed Google Book Search Settlement

Greetings. In coming months a number of important court decisions will be made regarding the controversial proposed Google Book Search settlement [1][2].

Related concerns expressed by various parties include privacy issues, competition effects, authors' rights, and other related topics.

The proposed settlement is rather complex, and I won't attempt to dig too far into the details here.

But on the whole, I am in favor of the proposed settlement. A key aspect of this whole controversy is to find some reasonable mechanism to get orphaned works into "circulation" again -- that is, broadly accessible. Orphaned works that are effectively unavailable cease to exist in a practical sense, and the work of their authors is lost.

I recently used Google Book Search to explore whether waterboarding was traditionally considered to be torture (answer: yes) -- and I found a great reference in an 1895 (copyright expired) book via Book Search. Without Google Book Search, that volume would have likely sat unseen on a forgotten shelf for -- well, maybe forever.

The main dispute relating to Book Search in respect to orphaned works appears to be the effective exclusivity that the settlement appears to grant Google in this regard, as the entity doing the scanning and the maintaining of the related database services (both decidedly nontrivial tasks).

While in theory other organizations would appear free to make their own arrangements and do their own scanning, the latter in particular makes little sense to me -- why even consider scanning books over and over again, with associated handling, wear and tear?

Keeping in mind that I am a proponent of the Google Book Search settlement, one possibility that I think might be worthy of some consideration would be to allow for various non-Google entities to have some form of direct access to the Google Book Search orphaned works scanned images on a reasonable basis, so that competing indexing and access systems could be more easily established without subjecting books to re-scanning.

I am not suggesting that this access should be without associated compensation to Google. But if the proposed settlement becomes jeopardized due to this particular set of concerns, a means to help establish a more competitive environment relating to orphaned works does seem both possible and practical.

Perhaps such steps simply won't be deemed necessary by the courts. But if this is the sort of price that must be paid in order to get a settlement approved and these books online, it's something that we may need to be thinking about.


Posted by Lauren at 04:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 20, 2009

Eric Schmidt on Google Culture (Video)

Greetings. The Washington Post "On Leadership" series has posted a 7.5 minute video interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Well worth watching.


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

May 18, 2009

Handcuffs and Blackmail: Craigslist and the Future of the Internet

Greetings. In Crucifying Craigslist, I expressed my concerns over government authorities attempting to dictate the content of Internet sites, in particular that of Craigslist.

Due to such pressures -- especially including threats from the South Carolina attorney general Henry McMaster, Craigslist moved to replace their "erotic services" category with a monitored "adult services" category.

My fear, which now appears to have been proven justified, is that by caving in to demands that appear to be clearly not justifiable under federal law, Craigslist was doing the functional equivalent of paying off a blackmailer. As is quite well known, if you pay a blackmailer once, the odds are that you will be rewarded with an accelerating stream of ever more outrageous demands and threats.

This is the pattern we're now seeing in the Craigslist case.

Craigslist agreed to remove its un-prescreened erotic services category, even though their only legal requirement was to remove already posted materials upon notification of a clear violation of law.

But this naturally didn't satisfy the SC AG, who is piling on more demands, threatening lawsuits and criminal investigations against Craigslist personnel, and in general grandstanding against "the damned Internet" with the maximum possible bluster.

Now comes word that Craigslist's CEO has himself demanded an apology from McMaster (probability of receiving that apology is 0%, of course). It appears that the situation is rapidly spinning out of control in a very bad way.

While I personally wouldn't have handled all this in exactly the manner that Craigslist has chosen, I have the benefit of not being the one threatened with shackled perp walks, either (well, at least so far).

But ultimately, what we're seeing in this case is a microcosm of enormous battles to come over control over Internet content, search engines, and virtually every aspect of the enormous communications capabilities that the Internet has conferred on ordinary people way beyond historical bounds.

This capability can certainly be abused, and to be sure some governments and government officials are in an ever more desperate tizzy looking for ways to clamp down on free speech by attacking the messengers -- the Internet services themselves -- as a shortcut to their real goal, controlling the speech of individuals.

That's not to say that illegal acts should not be properly prosecuted. But in the Internet age, personal responsibility has been thrust squarely onto the center stage. Governmental attacks on Internet services as the proxied surrogates of individual players -- for example, the persons who choose to place ads on Craigslist -- are not only inappropriate, but must be fought back with more than simple due diligence.

The current Craigslist battle is but a harbinger of the titanic struggles to come over who controls the Internet and its content. Even if you couldn't care less about erotic ads and have never used Craigslist, this is still a war of importance to you -- and to your children who will ultimately inherent the Internet and its controversies.

It is imperative that we take the strongest possible stand -- right now -- against inappropriate governmental meddling and threats relating to Internet content. There are forces in play whose ultimate goal is to twist the Internet into a prescreened, lowest-common-denominator, governmentally-straitjacketed and impotent shadow of its current self, and in the process eliminate untold numbers of important future applications before they can ever be born.

Controlling communications means controlling the future. We should not and must not allow political grandstanding and associated threats to undermine what we have built or snuff out the wonders still to come.

As Lily Tomlin used to say, "And that's the truth."


Posted by Lauren at 10:39 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 17, 2009

Professor Neon Returns to Tantalize with Twittered Video Tips

Greetings. The space-time continuum quivers and the cosmos flickers with the news ...

From the dark, dank depths of an unmentionable locale, my old nemesis Professor Neon has uneasily awoken from a slumber of many years, which began well before YouTube was even a glimmer in the eyes of founders Chad and Steve.

Yes, he whose Web site has become a time capsule thanks to a lack of updates, was jarred back to consciousness by the ethereal cloud of Twitter-mania, and he now plans (so he claims) to offer a continuing stream of tempting Internet videos and other viewing tips, via:


But I warn you, his taste in videos was somewhat, uh "odd" before his hiatus, and I have no reason to suspect that he's mellowed during his absence -- quite the opposite, in fact.

While I promised to mention his "triumphant" return here in my blog, I take no responsibility for any personal brain damage that may occur from actually viewing the videos that he suggests.

Good luck, Mr. Phelps.


Posted by Lauren at 01:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 13, 2009

Must See: Jesse Ventura on Cheney, Torture, and More

Greetings. I never was a particularly big fan of Jesse Ventura, but he sure earns a bunch of points from me for this brief, new, excerpted discussion from CNN's Larry King Live.

In fewer words than one would think possible, Jesse cuts to the heart (so to speak) of issues surrounding the Bush presidency, Dick Cheney, torture (including waterboarding, which Jesse experienced in training) and more.



Posted by Lauren at 11:33 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Obama Now Trying to Block Release of Prisoner Abuse Photos

Greetings. In an extremely disappointing and I would assert hypocritical move, President Obama is now reversing course and is attempting to block the already scheduled release of prisoner abuse photos, citing new "national security" concerns not previously claimed.

I will make a prediction:

Sooner or later, those photos will find their way to the Internet and will be widely disseminated, as they should be.

Not only are the sudden new "national security" arguments being made by the administration entirely unconvincing -- especially in light of ongoing torture investigations and the lack of high level accountability for already exposed abuses -- but given that this attempt at censorship will ultimately fail, the exercise only serves to put the administration "in bed" with the perceived sensibilities of its predecessor.

For such an enlightened leader, this is a significant misstep and miscalculation that will not serve a positive purpose. Ultimately -- by triggering the inevitable suggestions of cover-up from those who would seek to undermine this administration -- Obama's efforts to block the photos may do far more damage than the straightforward release of the photos could ever do.


Posted by Lauren at 11:47 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 12, 2009

Facebook Falls Into Censorship Trap Over Holocaust Deniers

Greetings. Well, if this commentary doesn't net me a new personal record in received hate mail I'll probably be a wee bit disappointed, but like I always say, I call 'em as I see 'em, and while sometimes what I see isn't pretty, beauty isn't everything.

Deep breath. OK, here we go ...

As you probably know, Facebook has been embroiled in controversy over the presence of "Holocaust Denial" groups on the site. Facebook just banned two of these groups that Facebook says degenerated into hate speech (specifically banned by the Facebook Terms of Service) and let others stay active.

Pressure on Facebook to shut down all of these groups has been heavy, especially from Brian Cuban, a Texas attorney and the brother of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Brian Cuban -- who news stories are noting is of Russian-Jewish descent -- seems to be in an apoplectic rage in his demands that Facebook engage in broad censorship of concepts that he finds disgusting.

Well I have a news flash for Mr. Cuban, in three parts:

(1) He's not the only person with a family tree of that sort.

(2) He's not the only one who finds Holocaust denial to be repugnant.

(3) He's completely wrong in his demands to Facebook.

All of the screaming, yelling, and associated emotionalism is pointless. To use football terminology, they do nothing to advance the ball.

What such actions often do accomplish is to make the parties involved look like stubborn ideologues without any concept of common sense.

This behavior isn't restricted to Internet controversies. Some years ago, we saw the inanity of complaints about U.S. government buildings that happened to have a swastika shape when viewed from the air, and the government caving in via plans to spend significant sums to camouflage the shapes. Utter nonsense.

Just yesterday, I watched an ambulance (shadowed by news helicopters) transporting an ill almost 90-year-old man -- not Joseph Goebbels or Josef Mengele, but an accused Nazi prison camp guard -- for deportation back to Germany, after decades of court battles and the dismissal of his case in Israel years ago. A total waste of time and resources.

And now we have people clamoring for Facebook to shut down this or that form of objectionable speech, with censorship proponents pointing to countries with oppressive censorship laws as preferred models for the entire Internet.

Facebook of course is free to set their own usage policies, and they've been involved in a number of other content-related controversies. But let's face it, the Holocaust denial case makes Facebook's "images of lactating females" problems pale by comparison.

OK, now here's my "demand" for those parties trying to tell Facebook, and other services around the Web, how they should control content: Stop trying to be the damned nannies for the Internet!

All through human history, governments, religions, and all other manner of groups have attempted to control information toward the ends that they felt were just and good. Inevitably, such censorship attempts have ultimately failed, and often made a bad situation worse from the standpoint of the would-be censors, by driving the discussions in question underground, where they of course continued.

It doesn't matter how angelic or demonic the topic, whether we're talking about the peaks of virtuous truths or the epitome of evil lies, trying to control information by censorship is like holding sand in your clenched fist.

The only practical answer to bad and hateful speech isn't attempts at censorship.

The solution is more speech, not less. The answer is to allow sunlight to push away the darkness, not trying to bottle up the darkness out of view where it will continue to grow and fester in ways even more difficult to easily monitor.

We talk about the 21st century "information society" and the vast benefits that it could bring to mankind. But these benefits will not accrue unless we start allowing people to make their own decisions about information, and stop treating them as imbeciles incapable of discerning reality.

The key to accomplishing this is the setting forth of a cornucopia of accurate information, not attempts to suppress that which is false, or indeed, even hateful.

Until we make this transition in our handling of information, we will be seen by those who wish to exploit us as incompetent boobs, fit only to be treated as such.

There is much of the 20th century that we must not ever forget. But there are also aspects that are failed artifacts, best relegated to the past -- censorship is certainly one of these.

It's time to grow up.


Posted by Lauren at 12:24 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 11, 2009

Web Cookies: Yummy, Opaque, Ironic, or Bizarre?

Greetings. Pretty much since the earliest days of the Web, and the initial use of browser "cookies" for session state control and other purposes, cookies themselves have been controversial.

Cookies (the term in a compsci context goes back to the days of character attributes in serial CRT computer displays, and before that -- yes -- to Cookie Monster on Sesame Street), are simply tokens that contain arbitrary data and are planted and/or retrieved from users' computers by Web sites.

There is a great deal of unjustified paranoia surrounding the use of cookies, but legitimate concerns as well -- the latter mostly related to the ability of cookies to track users without their knowledge across multiple sites.

As Web browser technology has advanced, providing users with greater controls over how cookies are handled has been a significant aspect of Web evolution. Firefox has extensive per-site controls for this purpose. On the other hand, a gripe I have with Google's otherwise excellent Chrome browser is (the last time I checked) the lack of per-site cookie controls.

There are some situations where cookies are invaluable -- especially when dealing with complex sessions that pass through various operational states, sessions that require login or various other forms of authentication, and so on. I use cookies myself for such applications, though I restrict usage to so-called "first-party" cookies -- cookies that all are presented or retrieved to/from the same site with which the user is currently interacting.

Occasionally you run into situations where cookies are arguably being used inappropriately, but without any intended nefarious purposes.

Yesterday I noted a particularly ironic case -- the site TransparentDemocracy, which is focused on ballot and election transparency -- a laudable effort.

The irony is that currently it's impossible to access the site in any manner if you don't accept their cookies. I mean totally impossible. You can't reach the home page. You can't access contact info. You can't read their privacy policy (about cookies or anything else). All you get is a notice that cookies are required, and then the door slams shut.

I usually consider the fairly rare situation of sites that completely block access when cookies aren't accepted as being in the "red zone" of cookie misbehavior, and my concerns about this were forwarded to the site's administrators.

A response was immediately forthcoming, informing me that, indeed, the cookie
situation was the result of an attempt to expeditiously launch the site, and that they would now move to change their implementation in a manner that would likely address my concerns.

There's no denying that I was somewhat amused to see a site with the world
"transparency" in its name blocking access in that manner! Their quick response to the issue is to be congratulated.

My view is that simple viewing of sites and basic, non-logged in interactions should not usually require that cookies be accepted -- whenever possible.

Google is a good example of how to handle such a dynamic gracefully. Google does use a lot of cookies for various of their services. But you can still use Google Search, view YouTube videos, and use various other Google services even if you reject all associated cookies. True, you can't use services that require login, nor can you access most personalized services if you won't accept the cookies.

But the point is that if Google chose, they could require the acceptance of cookies to access any of their services in any manner, and they have wisely chosen not to do so.

Browser cookies are like seasoning in foods. Sometimes they are absolutely essential to an edible meal, but they can also be used gratuitously, overbearingly, and even antagonistically.

Like with so much else in life, the keys with browser cookies are appropriate choices and moderation.

And -- by the way -- the secret with Oreo cookies, even after all these years, is still to twist them apart and scrape the creme filling off with your teeth -- again with moderation, of course.

Cookie Monster knew what he was talking about.


Addendum (May 12, 2009): Several readers have taken issue with my statement regarding the "secret" to eating Oreo cookies. They've suggested that dunking the cookies in milk is clearly the best technique. I had originally considered mentioning this alternative procedure, but decided at the time that I didn't want to, uh, "dilute" my argument that way.

Posted by Lauren at 05:28 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Breathtaking: In France, Oppose Internet Three Strikes -- and You're Sacked!

Greetings. In what can only be described as a breathtaking abuse of power, and a clear illustration of the lengths to which supporters of the proposed French "Three Strikes and You're Thrown Off the Internet" law will go, a Web designer who privately e-mailed his MP in opposition to the legislation had word of this stance passed all the way back to his employer (French broadcaster TF1), who immediately fired him for "divergence forte avec la stratégie" (that is, "strong disagreement with the strategy).

Outside of the obvious violations of privacy and common decency on the part of French government officials who were involved in this fiasco, the reaction on the part of TF1 suggests the level of omnipotence apparently felt by organizations affiliated with the French ISP industry.

While the abominable legislation in question appears likely to pass this time around, after a surprise failure on the first try, it also seems likely to run smack-dab into new EU rules that are viewing Internet access as a right that should not be revocable in the absence of appropriate and specific court actions.

Luckily for Jérôme Bourreau-Guggenheim, the fired TF1 employee, France indeed did close down the prison at French Guiana -- aka Devil's Island -- some time ago. Phew!


Posted by Lauren at 02:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 09, 2009

Proposed New Federal Law Says: "Upset Me - Go to Prison!"

Greetings. I sometimes speak and write about contentious and controversial topics. I like to think that most of the time I have the angels on my side, but certainly there are some people who disagree with me on certain issues, and who don't hesitate about telling me so -- sometimes loudly, repeatedly, and even impolitely.

I have a pretty thick skin, but golly, [sniff], I do have feelings. Some of those messages can be pretty, well, distressing emotionally, ya' know?

But if a new proposal in Congress becomes law, I might be able to send those disagreeing folks to federal prison! Now that's entertainment!

This new power to incarcerate would come courtesy of H.R. 1966, proposed by California Democrat Linda Sanchez and around a dozen co-sponsors, who obviously feel that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution has the elastic properties of Silly Putty.

The bill -- now in the House Judiciary Committee -- says, "Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

What's going on of course is that this legislation is being framed as an attack on "cyberbullying" -- the actual bill is called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for the 13-year-old who tragically committed suicide last year after receiving upsetting MySpace messages.

The legislation, by the way, doesn't limit its coverage to Internet messages -- it would also apparently sweep in text messages, phone calls, Web sites, radio and television programs and commentaries ... and so on.

This is yet another example of seemingly well-intentioned legislation that would create a firestorm of presumably unintentional collateral damage to constitutionally protected free speech.

You can make your own list of problematic aspects, but here's a few to get started. Determining "intent" as specified by the legislation is a can of worms in and of itself. When a collection agency repeatedly calls a debtor and harasses them about payments, is their intent to cause them severe emotional distress to get them to pay up?

When someone sets up a Web site critical of a company's officers, what is the intent? Is the intent to get better service, cause severe emotional distress, or both? Would every hit on that Web site count as "repeated" behavior?

Clearly such a law would be a cash cow for psychologists. As expert witnesses on both sides at the associated trials, they'd be needed to argue about the true "intent" of defendants.

Well, you get the idea. Due to its very broad scope and impact on what we normally consider to be free speech, this legislation, if approved by Congress, faces a litigation path longer than the route from Munchkinland to the Wizard of Oz, and with a seemingly rather low probability of successfully reaching the Emerald City.

Presumably the sponsors of this legislation are fully aware of this, and naturally I wouldn't want to suggest that perhaps what's really going on with this proposal is political grandstanding.

But if the legislation ever does become law and passes judicial muster, my critics had better watch their steps. You wouldn't want to hurt my feelings and end up in the slammer, would you?


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

May 08, 2009

California Community College Threatens Massive Legal Actions Over Private Domains and E-Mail Addresses

Greetings. It's fascinating how when it comes to the Internet, some bureaucrats develop delusions of grandeur.

Officials associated with Santa Rosa Junior College, located a bit to the north of San Francisco, have unleashed a barrage of legal threats against their students and faculty, demanding the relinquishment of all domain names and e-mail addresses containing the school's "SRJC" initials.

This nonsense came to my attention today courtesy of Sean Kirkpatrick, an adjunct faculty member in Computer Studies at SRJC for around 15 years. Early this week, Sean and apparently hundreds of other SRJC "family" members received a threatening e-mail from the Director of Computing Services for the Sonoma County Junior College District, demanding that all references that could be construed as referring to Santa Rosa Junior College in private domain and e-mail addresses immediately cease. In subsequent statements, school officials have even threatened to try order the releasing of identity information from e-mail service providers such as Google and Yahoo, to uncover the users of "offending" addresses.

The justification cited for these demands was California Education Code section 72000(b)(4), regarding use of schools' names or abbreviations of their names.

A couple of problems immediately spring into view. First, it isn't at all clear that this statute supersedes the rights of individuals to create private e-mail addresses and domain names, the latter in particular generally controlled by ICANN rules and regulations.

Even worse, it is not obvious how the statute in question would even apply to individuals in any case, since it appears to be directed mainly at organizations that might act in ways as to confuse themselves with the schools in question.

Sean tells me that he had the domain SRJC.US for around five years, and in a knee-jerk reaction closed it when he received the SRJC threats (he's now reconsidered, and is taking steps to retain the domain). Sean has been using SRJC.US simply as the focal point for teaching his classes -- spending his own money to set this up due to continuing dissatisfaction with the quality of academic support provided by SRJC's own computing services.

While there are no doubt a range of different scenarios relating to various faculty members and students, it appears obvious that SRJC and associated officials are Overreaching with a Capital "O" -- and need to sit quietly, gulp down a few stress pills, and then spend more time thinking about what they legally can actually do, what they should actually be doing, and what it means to be good citizens of the Internet community, rather than boarish bullies.

In the meantime, I invite other members of the educational ecosystems to contact me with any similar stories.

Feel free to write me at my usual address of:

But for info regarding this particular case, you can alternatively use my brand new Special Resources for Journalistic Computing addresses:


Be seeing you!


Posted by Lauren at 02:53 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 07, 2009

Wolfram|Alpha, Google, and the Castle Anthrax

Greetings. By now, you may (or may not) have heard the buzz surrounding a new "computational knowledge engine" called Wolfram|Alpha (henceforth, "WA") that is about to launch.

There's been a lot of discussion about this project, including this interesting analysis of its capabilities, privacy concerns, and other related discussion by Andy Oram.

The big question floating around seems to be, is WA a "Google Killer"?

Load scaling issues aside for the moment, the answer for now at least would appear to be no -- the primary purposes of WA and Google seem to be very different.

WA is oriented toward trying to provide the answer (with sources noted) to direct questions like "What is the population density of Paris, France?" -- with the additional capability of "comparing and contrasting" various data in flexible ways.

In essence, if you asked Google how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, Google would return an array of references discussing this critical issue.

WA, on the other hand, if asked the same question, would presumably try to tell you exactly how many angels could be stuffed onto that small surface area.

That's a facetious example of course -- while Google could indeed handle that question, it's not the sort of query you'd reasonably make of WA.

But this does bring up a key issue -- what are the relative benefits of being shown a range of query results relating to a question, vs. a single answer presented as authoritative?

By and large, Google and Wolfram|Alpha are operating with very different information space points of view.

I'd be remiss if didn't note some concerns about Wolfram|Alpha's name. Branding these days is very important, and Wolfram|Alpha sounds more like a fictional planet from the Aliens movie franchise than an Internet service. Worse still, there's even confusion about that "|" in the name. Officially it apparently is supposed to be in there, but many articles are leaving it out -- in fact it's left out in key places on their own site as well!

Let's face it, Wolfram|Alpha just doesn't roll off the tongue in a Googley way, and as we know from the Castle Anthrax in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, names do matter!

It will be interesting to see how Wolfram|Alpha develops, along with similar technologies that we can expect to see deployed elsewhere.

But it appears that the secret demographics of pinhead-dwelling angels remain secure for the time being.


Posted by Lauren at 09:39 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Ubuntu and X11 Meet the Google Android G1

Greetings. For someone like me who started working with Unix in the ancient days of Version 6 (egads, no stdio library yet!) -- it strikes me as just short of magical to now have fully functional, up to date Linux systems able to hang in a little box on my belt.

Back in November, I reported on the ability to install Debian Linux on the G1 (though the procedure was rather complex).

Now comes word that a G1 version of Ubuntu Linux has arrived, complete with an X11 desktop environment. While I haven't tested it yet, the installation appears to be significantly simpler than was the case for Debian.

As you'd probably expect, doing this install requires a "rooted" G1 (or dev model ADP1) -- but after all, that's what rooting is for.

There is a sense of refreshing continuity in knowing that accidentally typing:

rm * .tmp

instead of:

rm *.tmp

can do just as much damage on my phone as it could on a big old PDP 11/45 minicomputer several decades ago ...

Seriously, Ubuntu on the G1 looks like a great hack, in the most positive sense of the word.


Posted by Lauren at 07:32 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 06, 2009

Don't Legalize Internet Gambling

Greetings. Regular readers know that I proudly support civil liberties, freedom of speech, and the broadest possible open use of the Internet.

On the other hand, I am not a supporter of rape, particularly the rape of the most vulnerable members of society.

So I hope it doesn't come as too much of a surprise that I'm very strongly opposed to Congressman Barney Frank's new legislation to broadly legalize Internet-based gambling.

I approach this issue from multiple angles -- but they all end up at the same dark, dank, bottomless pit.

We can start with a basic premise provable by most any student who has passed a first year statistics course -- gambling is for suckers. Gambling preys on false premises, ignorance of what odds really mean, and tends to disproportionately attract desperate persons who least can afford to throw their money down such rat holes.

Many years ago I voted for the establishment of the state lottery here in California. It's popular among some folks who never gamble to call the lottery a "stupidity tax" -- or to draw even more derogatory comparisons with gamblers.

But I've come to very much regret that vote of mine, watching the inane hype of the California Lottery ads over the years, plus the individuals and families sucked down into destitution while buying endless rolls of lottery cards instead of basic necessities.

On the ballot here in California in a couple of weeks is a proposal to effectively expand the lottery -- I intend to vote against it (and against most other proposals on the upcoming ballot, by the way. Fed up? Yep!)

But even beyond the essential stupidity of gambling in general, Internet gambling makes it all so very much worse.

Unless you're dealing with bets that have verifiable outcomes (like sports betting), the opportunities for gambling service fraud in Internet gambling are immense. Simulated decks of cards, simulated slot machines, and all the other server-based gambling models are essentially only a few lines of code away from ripping off gamblers without leaving a clue.

Unlike physical gambling machines where firmware can be audited and inspected to some degree of certainty (though frauds have occurred with them as well), Internet server-based gambling applications are by definition impossible to truly authenticate for honest operations, despite the claims of their supporters. It's hard enough to write a really honest random number generator. In an environment of instant server updates the opportunities for crooked behavior are vast.

But perhaps even worse, the ubiquitous availability of legal Internet gambling, potentially available to every home and office with Internet access, would create a horrible trap.

Just as some persons have found themselves drawn to the evils of child porn through the seeming isolation of a innocent-looking computer in the corner of the bedroom, the disease of gambling addiction will similarly be in wait on the nearby screen to suck finances dry. Studies have already shown that Internet gambling is most dangerous to those who can least afford to indulge -- desperate families, the lonely elderly, and so on.

Proponents of legalized Internet gambling make a number of arguments.

First, they claim that they'll be sure that there are protections in their legislation to guard against fraud, compulsive gambling, and so on. Laudable sentiments, but excuse me if I suggest that such "protections" will amount to a hill of beans in the real world of the gambling-industrial complex.

Proponents also note that even without a formal structure for broad legal Internet gambling in the U.S., large numbers of U.S. residents still gamble over the Internet via various offshore venues. They argue that if it's going to happen anyway, why shouldn't U.S.-based government agencies get their pieces of the pie? Internet gambling fans also point to an EU investigation of whether or not the current U.S. stance discriminates against European gambling entities.

I am unconvinced. As far as I'm concerned, the most polite term to describe the gambling industry, particularly those offshore operations that sucker in U.S. gamblers now, is scum.

Gambling firms (and government lottery entities as well) enrich themselves largely on the backs of people who can't rightly afford to burn money by gambling -- and anyone who thinks that we don't all end up paying for the results one way or another, is kidding themselves.

Free speech. Civil liberties. An open Internet. All important issues -- all worth fighting for. But that doesn't mean that we should willingly pour the most vulnerable of our fellow travelers into what would inevitably be a meat grinder of legalized Internet gambling.

This should not be an issue of Democrats vs. the GOP. It's a fundamental ethical issue that should transcend political parties, and strikes to the heart of what it means to care about our fellow men and women.

Please don't legalize Internet gambling.


Posted by Lauren at 10:54 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 05, 2009

Google in the Middle as Japan and Prejudice Collide

Greetings. I continue to get queries about what I can only categorize as a somewhat bizarre story, pitting the modern remnants of ancient Japanese prejudices against the modern technology of Google Earth. Google's got to feel that they can't win for trying on this one.

The backstory, in an AP item that seems to take a noticeable, somewhat anti-Google stance overall, makes for interesting reading.

Essentially, the controversy revolves around the adding of ancient Japanese maps as a new optional overlay layer on Google Earth's data for Japan. These maps, as it turns out, are sourced from and controlled via UC Berkeley, which has had them available on their own Web site without generating complaints.

The maps in question detail the areas of Japan in feudal times where the low caste populations resided. Ancient history, right? So what? The problem, as it turns out, is in the psychology and sociology of some Japanese, not a fault at Google.

Remarkably, the descendants of the ancient, lowest class "burakumin" caste, who were despised solely for their occupations -- basically of the sort now celebrated by Mike Rowe on Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs series -- are still subject to prejudices in modern Japan.

While the maps were already available on the Web, their appearance on Google Earth have triggered significant protests in Japan. When the Berkeley curator of the maps decided to remove the "offensive" aspects, more protests appeared, this time accusing Google of a "cover-up" when the associated data was removed.

This is the textbook definition of damned if you do and damned if you don't, especially when you're fundamentally the communicator of data, not the entity who actually controls which data will be included in particular mapping data sets obtained from external sources.

My view in these sorts of situations is consistent, I hope. Trying to prevent access to mapping data such as that in this case is hopeless in the long run, particularly at this stage of the game -- but that decision is apparently up to Berkeley and the maps' curator as far as the "burakumin" case is concerned.

Still, there are proactive steps that Google could take, as the facilitator that so many people use to access these mapping products, to at least help avoid similar problems.

One issue (noted in the AP story) is lack of explicit context. Particularly when dealing with data (whether external or not) that carries a major risk of triggering highly emotional concerns such as prejudices, some sort of fact-based explanatory link, pop-up, roll-over, or whatever, could be displayed to help provide a basic contextual underpinning to what viewers of that data will be seeing. As I've noted in the past, Google already associates such an explanation with the search term "jew" above Google's displayed natural search results for that word.

Logically, a similar approach could have (and perhaps still could) prove beneficial in the case of the Japanese maps controversy and in other similar cases that might arise in the future.

Where does this leave us? First, I'd hope that those persons in Japan who are maintaining "burakumin" prejudices will reevaluate their positions -- since that's really at the heart of this entire problem.

And I don't believe it is reasonable to fault Google for their handling of this situation, especially since the mapping data in question is externally controlled by third parties.

What of Google's role? Google's corporate mission is admirably stated as an endeavor to " ... organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

It's certainly not for me to redefine Google's efforts in any way. But perhaps the addition of the word "understandable" to that mission statement would be beneficial, in the sense of helping people understand what the meaning of displayed data means in context -- at least in highly controversial situations such as those under discussion above.

This wouldn't be easy, especially since in many cases providing such context could be challenging on a purely algorithmic basis, without some degree of human intervention in the process -- as was no doubt involved in the "jew" search terms case.

But Google's brain trust is vast and Google's potential nearly unlimited. Perhaps more importantly, I believe that Google's people really want to do the right things in these situations -- however difficult (but often fascinating) such efforts may be.


Posted by Lauren at 06:07 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

May 04, 2009

Network Neutrality Twitter Channel Launched

Greetings. By popular demand, I've now established an open Twitter channel for discussions related broadly to Network Neutrality issues, including a wide range of ISP-related topics, such as performance, terms of service restrictions, content controls, filtering, censorship, privacy, bandwidth caps, competition, and other associated topics.

This will hopefully be a venue (associated with the NNSquad - Network Neutrality Squad project) suitable for everyone interested in these issues to keep each other up to date, compare notes regarding their own ISPs, and in general stay on top of these important and rapidly changing matters moving forward.

Interested Twitter users can follow this new @nnsquad Twitter channel via:

Hope to see you there!

My own primary Twitter stream continues to be @laurenweinstein:

This covers a range of hopefully useful and interesting topics, but doesn't discuss what I had for lunch, and avoids being a blow by blow discussion of my personal life (which -- trust me -- is anything but interesting).


Posted by Lauren at 05:39 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein