December 31, 2011

2012 Challenges: Problems, Solutions, Data, and Wisdom

As 2011 closes out, and 2012 enters the spotlight for its ephemeral closeup, we can all probably agree that an enormous number of pressing issues continue to await reasonable resolution, and in many cases even rational consideration.

One explanation for this sorry state of affairs (though not the only one, to be sure) is the continuing rush, particularly in the political realm, to impose simplistic, often ineffective, and frequently counterproductive "knee-jerk solutions" onto complex problems.

We have understandable angst about security at airports. But rather than use available information in a responsible and logical manner, authorities resort to needlessly irradiating millions of travelers, create the spectacle of young children being manhandled by poorly trained personnel, and permit elderly passengers in wheelchairs to be humiliated by what amount to strip-searches.

Concerns about Internet "piracy" of copyrighted intellectual materials are sometimes valid, but the false promises of the horrendous SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) legislation would broadly put free speech at risk globally, and seriously damage fundamental Internet security and reliability -- while not actually solving piracy problems.

Meanwhile, alternative approaches that could target truly criminal piracy in particular, such as carefully implemented payment processing controls, are de-emphasized in favor of much more heavy-handed and ultimately fruitless enforcement regimes favored by traditional entertainment industry conglomerates, despite the massive collateral damage to innocent parties that these latter methods would trigger.

In an even broader context, we’re now entering an era where truly remarkable new analytical and visualization technologies offer the promise of helping solve some of the world’s most critical problems in health, resources, and many other areas -- via the conversion of data to knowledge, and of knowledge to wisdom.

Yet all too often, legitimate concerns about privacy and personal choice are being leveraged by some in the political and commercial realms in manners often grossly simplistic, and sometimes wholly disingenuous, that could easily undermine society’s ultimate well-being by unnecessarily decimating the availability and utility of these potentially invaluable techniques.

The problems we face, as individuals, communities, nations, and as an ultimately resources-limited global ecosystem, are far too important for us to squander opportunities to employ every possible useful tool in rational and responsible ways toward finding the best answers for moving forward.

Political posturing and "business as usual" gamesmanship are especially unacceptable in this realm of critical issues. We need to be working toward policies based on facts, not mainly upon politically biased opportunism.

Very shortly, within the first weeks of the coming year, I’ll be announcing a new project aimed at usefully contributing toward this goal, and I hope that you’ll join in the associated discussions, education outreach, and related efforts, as we work together for a better future.

Thank you, and all the best to you and yours for 2012!


Posted by Lauren at 11:03 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 25, 2011

"SOPA Lad" (The SOPA Song) - With Apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan

Happy Holidays, all! This is especially the time of year when we should take stock of what we have to be thankful for.

And perhaps it's also a time to consider how much worse things could be if we don't take appropriate actions. And when thinking about terrible outcomes, the horrendous and dangerous SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act - H.R. 3261) legislation comes immediately to mind.

You already know why this legislation has the potential to destroy the Internet as we know it. But something has been missing from these explanations.

Ah yes! Of course. A song!

So once more throwing my dignity to the winds, I again apologize to Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, as I offer:

SOPA Lad (The SOPA Song) - to the tune of When I Was a Lad from H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).

The song lyrics are below and on the Closed Captions (CC) track of the YouTube video version (you may want to adjust the CC Settings for optimum display).

Again, all my best to you and yours. Please take care, everyone.

SOPA Lad (The SOPA Song): MP3 Audio (2:44 minutes / ~4.8 MB)

SOPA Lad (The SOPA Song): YouTube version (audio only)


SOPA Lad (The SOPA Song)

Lyrics Copyright © 2011 Lauren Weinstein. All rights reserved.

When I was a lad I'd get such a thrill,
Out of crushing bugs and making people ill.
I snitched and I tattled and I spied like sin,
And I really loved to turn the other kids right in.

(He really loved to turn all of the kids right in.)

I turned in all the kids with such a gruesome sway,
That now I am in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(He turned in everyone in such a gruesome way,
That now he is charge of the S-O-P-A.)

As a lawyer new I was put right in charge,
Of the trolling of patents that were small and large.
I'd send out all the letters, that were threats quite smart,
And I never worried at all about prior art.

(He never had to worry about prior art.)

I was oh so efficient getting snooks to pay,
That now I am in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(He was oh so adept at getting snooks to pay,
That now he is in charge of the S-O-P-A.)

My skills at extortion had become so very grand,
That I turned all my attention to In-ter-net land.
If I could censor the whole Net successfully,
All the money would come rolling right in straight to me.

(And the money would all roll in direct straight to he.)

I planned my whole attack so that without delay,
I'd be sure to be in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(He planned his full attack and yes with no delay,
He was sure he'd be in charge of the S-O-P-A.)

Word got out everywhere through all of Washington,
That I was the right guy to get their evil done.
All the politicians felt Net speech was way too free,
So for quick solutions they were calling me.

(And in search of quick solutions they were calling he.)

I filed content takedowns every old which way,
So that now I am in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(He filed so many takedowns on most every day,
That now he is in charge of the S-O-P-A.)

I knew that if free speech were just called piracy,
We could lock up all complainers, throw away the key
Google search results I could all then control,
And bury awkward info in a deep, dark, hole.

(He could bury all the info in a deep, dark hole.)

I would bury all the info so far from the fray,
That I knew I'd be in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(He would bury all the info so far and away,
That he'd happily be in charge of S-O-P-A.)

So all of you future rich powers that would be,
If you want to kill Net content that is out there free.
Buy some politicians, tell your lies with lots of glee,
And never worry about acting ethically.

(And never worry about acting ethically.)

Screw the whole DNS ... throw security away,
And you all may be in charge of the S-O-P-A.

(Damn the DNS, toss security away,
And you may get even richer from S-O-P-A!)

- - -


Posted by Lauren at 01:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 23, 2011

"Go Daddy" Publicly Reverses on SOPA: But They're Still Slime

Update: Not supporting SOPA is very different than opposing SOPA!

Don't be fooled by Go Daddy's public reversal on SOPA!

As the old TV character Gomer Pyle used to say, "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

Faced with an Internet revolt and boycott over their strong support of SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act - H.R. 3261), the sleazeballs at registrar Go Daddy have announced that they are no longer supporting the measure -- and have apparently pulled down their blog postings that had so enthusiastically promoted the terrible pro-censorship legislation.

Do not be fooled. Make no mistake about their motives. They're not suddenly against the censorship principles of SOPA: "Go Daddy will support it when and if the Internet community supports it." There is no indication whatsoever that they have had a fundamental change of heart.

In other words, this is a reversal of convenience for their bottom line, showing all the backbone of a bevy of jellyfish.

As I noted yesterday in A Guide to Slamming SOPA Supporters - Starting With "Go Daddy" Slime, there are many reasons other than their support of SOPA to abandon and ostracize Go Daddy.

Some folks whom I greatly respect are publicly thanking Go Daddy for their ostensible reversal on SOPA.

If I felt that Go Daddy had genuinely changed their attitude, I would thank them as well.

But reading their statement, and considering their strong pro-SOPA testimony to Congress, as far as I'm concerned they're the same ethically vacuous firm as always, with their public facade changing like a chameleon, blowing in the wind of Internet public opinion. I can only imagine what they're saying to the pro-SOPA community behind the scenes. I don't believe that they've fundamentally changed their opinions on this by one iota.

With all of this in mind, I continue to urge that you find alternatives to the use of Go Daddy services.

Have a Merry Christmas weekend!


Update: Not supporting SOPA is very different than opposing SOPA!

Posted by Lauren at 11:22 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 22, 2011

A Guide to Slamming SOPA Supporters - Starting With "Go Daddy" Slime

Blog Update (December 23, 2011): Don't be fooled by Go Daddy's public reversal on SOPA!

Please Take the No-Go Daddy Pledge!

Unless you've been living under a massive pile of ancient floppy disks, by now you're pretty well cognizant of the immense dangers in the proposed U.S. House of Representatives SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act - H.R. 3261) and its similarly evil twin --- PIPA -- over on the Senate side of Congress (Protect IP Act - S. 968).

You're also probably at least in general terms familiar with the battle lines in this war for Internet freedom -- with the massive entertainment conglomerates leading the charge for passage, and essentially the entire free speech and Internet engineering/operations community opposed.

But you may not have seen the detailed, official list of SOPA supporters -- and it makes for very interesting and highly recommended reading.

Whenever a list like this appears, it's very tempting to rush into plans for attacks
on the various proponents, hoping to change their minds about their support of
such legislation.

Such attacks can take various forms.

Never to be countenanced are illicit maneuvers -- email floods, denial of service attacks, personal information disclosures, and the like. Not only are these usually illegal and unethical, but in the long run, serve mainly to create sympathy for the targeted organizations, and ultimately play into their dirty hands.

The existence of a SOPA supporters list also immediately suggests the use of legal boycott techniques against the listed parties, and in this respect the calculus is considerably more subtle and complex.

Generally speaking, boycotts have not proven to be a particularly effective mechanism for affecting pending legislation, and many targeted firms -- with an eye toward the perceived financial benefits of such legislation to their bottom lines -- can easily let boycotts roll off their backs. All too often these boycotts make the participants feel like they're accomplishing something useful, but the real world positive effects are minimal or nil.

The situations where consumer boycotts hold the kind of leverage necessary to really affect these firms and other organizations in an effective manner are relatively rare.

And it's also the case that there are usually more powerful ways to impact the politicians who support legislation like SOPA.

Obviously most of us cannot match the big bucks donations that drive the corruption of many politicos in these regards, but they're still always concerned about the next election.

While this may seem surprising in the Internet age, two of the most effective ways to affect lawmakers are through personal, physical letters -- and direct phone calls to their main offices. These sorts of communications, especially coming from their own constituents, are almost inevitably tabulated and closely studied, as politicians keep their fingers to the wind in hopes of predicting any coming electoral storms.

Mass petitions and form letters (whether physical or online) have much less impact, as do email communications in general. Politicians have learned how easily all of these can be faked and gamed, and generally discount or ignore them.

But personal, physical communications and phone calls still matter a great deal to Congress -- and those are areas where I feel a great deal of energy could be most usefully deployed against SOPA and PIPA.

Having said that, I still would not assert that boycotts -- in this case of SOPA supporters -- are necessarily always useless, at least when targeted at firms who might actually feel the impact in a negative way affecting their bottom lines significantly.

And in this context, it's hard to think of a more "deserving" candidate for a SOPA supporter "action" than the sleazeballs at the Go Daddy domain registry.

Go Daddy is the poster child for much that is wrong with the domain-industrial complex.

They've been in the forefront of pushing the .xxx TLD, which exists primarily to capture expensive defensive domain registrations from entities who have nothing to do with the adult entertainment industry, since by and large that industry, along with free speech advocates and anti-pornography campaigners -- all sides of the spectrum -- have condemned the .xxx concept.

Go Daddy actively supports the "gold rush" mentality of the "domainers" pushing the extortionist generic Top Level Domains (gTLD) expansion nightmare, and is explicitly trying to profit through this nightmarish protection racket -- which will only serve to suck billions of dollars out of the weak world economy, to the enrichment of a relative few who have turned the Domain Name System (DNS) into their personal piggy bank.

There are other reasons to abhor Go Daddy. Their array of seamy practices form -- to borrow from Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol -- "a ponderous chain." Go Daddy's commercials have always been disgraceful, but that's perhaps the least of concerns given that they're not alone in that dimension.

On the other hand, it's easy to despise Go Daddy's CEO, whose idea of fun is going to Africa, shooting an elephant in cold blood, then posting a bizarre and disgusting video of the results (and issuing takedown notices for any related copies that critics attempted to post).

But if all of this wasn't enough to make anyone with their domains associated with Go Daddy rethink their decision, Go Daddy's strong and enthusiastic support of SOPA should really be the last straw.

There do exist domain registrars who are ethical, oppose SOPA, and don't kill animals for fun. I won't make specific recommendations since I don't want to show favoritism toward one or another -- and I appreciate that moving domains can sometimes be a hassle.

But if you have domains with Go Daddy -- one or a thousand of them -- I strongly urge you to transfer them to a more ethical, anti-SOPA home.

If observers want to call that a boycott, so be it.

The future of SOPA and PIPA are impossible to clearly predict. There are some signs that the wise protestations of the Internet engineering community in particular have finally started to make some inroads with SOPA-supporting politicians, who largely seem not to know the difference between free speech and waterboarding, much less the technical realities of keeping the wonders of the global Internet from being diverted into a technological and political hell.

The current round of SOPA hearings in the House Judiciary Committee have now been delayed. However, the odds -- right now -- are that some sort of SOPA/PIPA legislation is still likely to be passed in both chambers of Congress, and even if somewhat watered down will still represent the censorship camel's nose under the Internet tent -- and in short order you can be sure that the entire camel will be trampling speech with abandon.

Forces allied in favor of SOPA -- as illustrated by that list of infamy -- are formidable indeed.

So those of use who wish to prevent the Internet from becoming a censorship machine rather than a beacon of free speech, must be prepared to deploy all legal means to battle SOPA. These especially include those direct communications with lawmakers as I noted above, but also can encompass carefully focused "mass consumer actions" as well, including (but not necessarily limited to) the Go Daddy case.

Most of all, we do not have the luxury of wasted efforts and squandered time.

If we blow this now, if we fail to stem the tide of what is essentially an attempt to undermine the basic principles that make the Internet great, it will likely be a long time -- if ever -- before an opportunity to undo the escalating damage will emerge.

Choose your battles carefully. Choose your battles well. But choose. And take action.



Blog Update (December 23, 2011): Don't be fooled by Go Daddy's public reversal on SOPA!

Posted by Lauren at 12:41 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 11, 2011

Fighting the Family Friendly Fiends of Internet Hate

It's not exactly headline news that there's a lot of hate on the Internet. But have you ever stopped to consider the different kinds -- the different types -- of hateful sites, and the vastly different sorts of impacts that they have on our lives?

Ironically, the types of sites that politicians love to rail against and demand be somehow censored (technical realities be damned!) probably have among the least real-world negative impacts.

Whether they promote international terrorism or white supremacy, war against Iran, war against Israel, or war against the poor, these misguided lovers of hate appeal mainly to persons already predisposed to such foolhardy ventures, who would find their hate fix in other ways even if those sites did not exist. And as we've seen in the case of many would-be terrorists -- these sites tend to attract incompetent amateurs who would usually never even get past the daydreaming stage without elaborate law enforcement entrapment assistance.

But there are other forms of Internet hate that are less obvious, but often far more effective at enacting their agendas.

Foreign governments demand that Google remove search results and YouTube videos that those countries find offensive. The U.S. attempts to impose its view of economic priorities on the entire globe via SOPA/PIPA-based censorship of search and the outrageously U.S.-leveraged Domain Name System (DNS). These sorts of attacks tend to impact the availability of information, knowledge, and speech around the world, affecting billions of people.

And there's yet another kind of Internet hate -- perhaps more insidious than all the others I've mentioned up to now. These are the province of bigoted, racist, hate-engorged monsters parading under banners of religious purity, and using tactics of economic and propagandistic blackmail in systematic attempts to destroy the lives of innocent parties.

An example of these kinds of horrific parasites is the FFA - the Florida Family Association (I refuse to provide them with "search juice" -- so I'm not providing a direct link).

A visit to this group's website quickly reveals their agenda -- a vast program of blackmailing enormous numbers of companies and advertisers -- via threats of economic boycotts -- into pulling support from any programs or events that FFA doesn't approve.

The most recent example of their success in this approach (loudly trumpeted on their site) is the announcement by the Lowe's chain that they were pulling their ads from the Discovery Channel/TLC's All-American Muslim series.

All-American Muslim features programs following the lives of ordinary people in Dearborn, Michigan, and showing that they're just ordinary folks living ordinary lives, not the caricatures that FFA and other anti-Muslim fetishists divisively want us to falsely believe.

This comes as no surprise to me. My corner of suburban L.A. is deeply multicultural, and includes a large mosque and Muslim community, among virtually every other ethnic group and nationality on the planet, from Iranian to Australian to Nigerian. To actually know people as individuals is to realize that our similarities vastly outweigh our relatively trivial differences.

But it's in the interests of groups like FFA to keep such knowledge suppressed, and to encourage the promulgation of lying stereotypes that undermine individuals actually meeting and understanding each other. We can also stipulate here that there are many governments that are similarly engaged in trying to make sure that their populations are constrained in the interests of promoting hate.

It would be a terrible mistake to assume that organizations like FFA are not extremely Internet savvy. A look at their domain information reveals that they originally registered back in 1997 -- quite long ago in Internet time.

Of course it always takes two to tango. FFA and its ilk spew hate and threats, but their partners in these abominations are the firms -- like Lowe's and many others -- who humiliate themselves (and anger the vast majority of their customers) by slavishly kowtowing to the demands of these disgusting hatemongers, who represent only a small and putrid percentage of the population.

Since I oppose censorship, I would never call for such repulsive and repugnant hate sites to be shuttered, even if it were technically possible.

But I can call for such sites and the groups behind them to be scorned and shunned, to be ignored by the Internet community and the commercial targets of these groups' economic threats alike.

We cannot -- indeed should not -- have the ability to control speech by banning sites from the Net.

Yet we do have the ability, both individually and collectively, to control how we react to sites and the messages that they broadcast for good or ill.

Therein resides our power, our prerogative, our right to loudly and firmly say NO to the purveyors of hate who would malevolently cleave the world asunder.

If we choose not to wield this power appropriately against hate, both on and off the Internet, we'll indeed have nobody to blame but ourselves.


Posted by Lauren at 10:51 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 10, 2011

When Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" Fake Journalism Backfires

I am not a fan of game applications aimed at children that include in-app "game enhancement" purchasing features. Even with password protections and controls, trying to entice kids into spending their parents' money on silly digital animals or other similar doodads strikes me as fundamentally exploitative and unethical.

On the other hand, I am a fan of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show on Comedy Central. It frequently makes important points in humorous ways, and I probably laugh out loud at segments from that show more than pretty much anything else I see online.

What's the connection between these two seemingly separate topics?

A couple of days ago, The Daily Show ran an interview segment featuring Gameview Studios co-founder Rizwan Virk, regarding their "Tap Fish" game and its in-app purchasing features that indeed are aimed at children. It was a hilarious and devastating interview, accusing Gameview of behaving like a drug dealer, among other disreputable attributes.

Yesterday Virk responded on his own blog, accusing The Daily Show of an "ambush interview" that was orchestrated and edited to misrepresent the facts of the situation.

Much as I dislike Gameview's business model when it comes to children, I have to admit that I do have some sympathy for Virk, because back in 2004, Comedy Central tried to screw me with a somewhat similar ambush.

In my case, I got a call from a producer who identified themselves as being with MTV Networks. I was invited to discuss problems associated with Internet spam, on a program she called "The Debate Show."

This turned out to be a fraudulent description. The show was actually a Comedy Central production called Crossballs, and the details of the seamy way the show operated, and how I barely avoided the trap by hours, are in this contemporaneous write-up that I posted at the time. USA Today also discussed my story in an article about ambush TV.

While the situations are not exactly parallel -- I was told I'd be appearing on a serious program on MTV, while it is widely known that The Daily Show is a humorous show on Comedy Central, interviews that have been unfairly manipulated in shooting or editing are still unjustifiable, particularly when guests agree to appear in good faith.

This all again spotlights the complex pitfalls that can occur when entertainment and serious news subjects are intermingled. There were plenty of ways to dig at the Tap Fish story without the kind of interview misrepresentation that appears to have taken place in this instance.

Comedy Central has some great programs, definitely including The Daily Show. But I would argue that these programs can be successfully and entertainingly produced without abusing interview guests -- even ones who may in some respects definitely deserve degrees of disdain.


Posted by Lauren at 02:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 08, 2011

T-Mobile Goes Berserk - Kicks Competing Voicemail Off Android Market

Update (December 10, 2011): YouMail Returns to the Android Market

When Google's first Android phone -- the G1 -- was introduced several years ago, I jumped over to T-Mobile to gain access to the device. I had twice before been "sucked back" to AT&T as a result of wireless mergers, and leaving them again was a no-brainer.

Since then, I've been generally satisfied with T-Mobile USA. Their coverage is generally OK at least where I need it, their HSPA+ data network is good, and their support for Wi-Fi Calling (UMA) is excellent -- even completely free in many cases.

Where T-Mobile has really sucked was in the voicemail department. You may recall my posting from three years ago, Official T-Mobile Policy: Tough Luck If You Lose Messages and the explanatory materials linked from that posting.

So early on, I was looking for voicemail alternatives, and settled on the excellent free YouMail service, not only for its basic call handling functionality, but also for its Web and really superb Android visual voicemail app.

While I now also make extensive use of Google Voice's great services, for various situations I've preferred YouMail, and it still is at the core of my telecom setup.

So I was stunned today to hear that T-Mobile had apparently "arranged" for YouMail's Android app to be dropped from the Google Android Market, claiming some sort of network disruption by YouMail's over two million users.

Yet according to YouMail's detailed blog posting (which I urge you to read in its entirety), T-Mobile never even bothered to contact YouMail about any supposed issues.

I have to agree with YouMail: "This is crazy."

Millions of people depend on YouMail every day. Their Android app (I've also run many of their betas) has been uniformly excellent. For T-Mobile to pull a stunt like this, reportedly without even discussing the matter with YouMail first, stinks all the way to Alpha Centauri.

T-Mobile needs to explain -- right now, publicly, no excuses -- what the hell they're doing in this regard. Otherwise, my patience with watching them still dirty dancing with AT&T (whose wireless embrace I will not willingly suffer again) shall come to an abrupt end, contract or no contract. Maybe T-Mobile is just trying to drive away their remaining USA customers at that! If so, they've picked a dandy technique.

And while we're at it, I'd like to better understand how T-Mobile was able to get Google to pull the YouMail app without having even demonstrated that they had tried to reach out to YouMail in the first place. This app isn't a game used by a few people, but a crucial communications tool employed by millions.

In the meantime, the app is still available from the Amazon Android store (which I consider inferior to the Google Android Market for various reasons, including Amazon's insistence that you unnecessarily provide them with credit card data), and the app can also be downloaded as a direct APK from YouMail.

More info as it becomes available.


Update (December 10, 2011): YouMail Returns to the Android Market

Posted by Lauren at 03:21 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 07, 2011

The MythBusters Near Disastrous Misfired Cannonball Cover-Up

There was a time when I was a semi-regular viewer of MythBusters. Especially early on, it had some fine segments. But as the series progressed, many of their experiments became more self-referential and often silly, and the team (increasingly "full of themselves" -- one might observe) seemed to be playing fast and loose with the relevant science in many cases. Most of all, the shows seemed to more often than not to have become basically an excuse for blowing things up -- which has a certain appeal in some circumstances, but carries significant risks if anyone messes up. A friend of mine who worked years ago on major demolition projects once noted to me regarding MythBusters, "It's only a matter of time before somebody is likely to get really seriously hurt or killed during the taping of that show."

That day very nearly came yesterday, when a MythBusters cannon misfire sent a cannonball careening into a Dublin, California residential neighborhood, where the projectile plowed through one occupied house, damaged others, and ended up smashing into a parked car that had been occupied only minutes before. (Video)

MythBusters is extremely fortunate that nobody was injured or killed, and that insurance payouts and Discovery Channel moola should be able to render repairs and compensation -- this time.

And one suspects that the authorities who have (up to now) permitted MythBusters to use various facilities for such experiments may be rethinking those decisions.

But what's of particular interest from the Internet standpoint is MythBusters' reaction to the accident. A relevant Tweet from team member Grant Imahara about "working with heavy artillery today" (which was retweeted on the main MythBusters Twitter account) was reportedly quickly deleted from both Twitter timelines.

Of course, the Tweet itself was still preserved by various systems and users, along with referenced "hanging around the cannons" photos that were still available with a bit of digging.

For the supposedly Web-savvy MythBusters to forget one of the basic technology truths of the 21st century -- "The Internet Doesn't Forget!" -- is puzzling indeed.

If the Tweet and photos had been left in full view, they would have been noted to be sure, but there would have been no implication of someone trying to cover-up those postings after the fact by "disappearing" them.

Panic? "CYA"? Something else?

We don't know at this point. But by their actions in this regard, MythBusters has elevated the attempted removal of publicly posted information, into a significant part of the story.

MythBusters lucked out yesterday when their errant experiment -- by sheer chance -- barely missed causing a disaster that money couldn't fix.

Perhaps in a future episode they might wish to consider busting the myth that it's possible to effectively delete widely viewed public Internet postings after a royal screw-up. But we already know what the finale of that experiment would reveal.


Posted by Lauren at 11:04 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 06, 2011

IMDb and Amazon vs. the "Ageless Actress"

The story of a lawsuit relating to IMDb (part of "outing" the age of an actress (the plaintiff in this case, who wanted to keep that information private) has been bouncing around for a bit now, but recent developments are starting to suggest that Amazon has now "jumped the shark" toward the dark side of this controversy.

While many observers have made light of this (so far anonymous) actress' concerns (after all, your age isn't "protected" data in most circumstances, and it's normally impossible to "unring" a bell in data disclosure situations), the details of this case are actually quite intriguing.

A core issue -- and what should be a point of primary focus -- is how IMDb obtained the actress' age data before publishing it publicly. The actress asserts (and Amazon appears to confirm) that this data was obtained from the sign-up form the actress used to gain access to (fee-based) IMDbPro services.

She claims that her age was requested as part of the routine sign-up sequence along with credit card, address, and other related data, and that it was not made clear that IMDb claimed the right to then use this information in their public database. When she asked them to remove this data from public view, IMDb reportedly declined.

Digging through the rather voluminous IMDb user agreements and privacy policy documents as they exist today at least, it's difficult for me to determine whether IMDb's data usage policy in this respect was definitively spelled out or not.

My own view is that there should always be an extremely clear demarcation between personal information used to sign up for a service, vs. the information that will be used by the service beyond the purposes of signing up (e.g., posting in their publicly accessible database). Such a notice should not just be buried in policies on other pages either -- it should be right up front on the sign-up page, as in "Please note that your age information as entered on this form will become part of your publicly viewable profile on IMDb."

The plaintiff in the case under discussion asserts that no such notice was clearly provided. Obviously this will be an issue for the court to determine, both in terms of the type of notice (if any) provided, and whether Amazon's use of the provided data was in keeping with their legal obligations under their Terms of Service and in all other relevant aspects.

But now this case has taken a rather creepy turn, with Amazon loudly proclaiming to the court that not only should the actress not be concerned about her age being revealed, but that she shouldn't be able to remain anonymous during the case.

For me at least, these assertions leave a bad taste, indeed.

Reasonable persons can argue about whether an actor, actress, or anyone else should be concerned about their age being publicly known (age discrimination is a fact of life both inside and outside of Hollywood). But for Amazon to take the "it's not a big deal" stance when they specifically are accused of being the entity that publicly published data that had previously apparently been carefully kept private, seems highly disingenuous at best.

Where Amazon really joins with Vader and company is their push to have the actress' name (which they obviously already know) be publicly revealed. Their motive seems clear -- essentially, revenge. If her identity is exposed now, Amazon would have created a fait accompli that would serve no purpose other than to create further distress on the part of the plaintiff.

Since public linkage of identity and age are at the center of this case, there is no convincing reason I can see why this actress' identity should be revealed at this stage. We constantly condemn firms that inappropriately attempt to unmask whistleblowers in court. As far as I'm concerned, the plaintiff in this case falls into the same "protected identity" status as those whistleblowers, at this time.

Ultimately, the case should revolve around a single set of issues -- did Amazon/IMDb inappropriately use personal information for their public database? Were their Terms of Service clear regarding their use of IMDbPro signup data? Did the signup forms appropriately and clearly warn potential subscribers how that signup data would be used by Amazon?

If IMDb was honest and clear on these points, with obvious notices on the forms to warn users how submitted data could become public, then Amazon should win this case. If IMDb misused the signup data, or did not in a clear and direct way warn users how signup information could go public, then Amazon should lose.

The rest of Amazon's arguments regarding the case at this point appear to be largely irrelevant and diversionary, and I hope that the court seems through them, and concentrates on the question of Amazon's handling of personal information and related notification disclosures.

So far, Amazon seems to be largely "blowing off" concerns about their behavior in this matter, and worse, is attempting to preemptively shift blame to the plaintiff.

Amazon's stance on this -- regardless of the underlying facts regarding their notifications and Terms of Service -- seems arrogant at best. This isn't the first time we've seen this from Amazon. It is not becoming to them, and it is certainly not in the best interests of the Internet community at large.


Posted by Lauren at 12:11 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

December 02, 2011

An Excellent YouTube Redesign - With a Painful Flaw for Older Eyes

With considerable justified fanfare, Google has launched a major redesign of YouTube, that emphasizes user "channels" and social features, positioning the service to be an ever more formidable (and as far as I'm concerned, very welcome) competitor to traditional television. Much has been written elsewhere about these definitely positive changes.

But there is one aspect of the redesign that caught my eye -- literally -- and had me initially scrambling to determine if I was suddenly having browser configuration problems or other browser-based issues.

While it's common to think of YouTube mainly in terms of the videos themselves, there's a lot of text on YouTube as well. This includes various descriptive materials, comments, user video dashboard controls, and so on.

For example, user comments on videos are an important social feature of YouTube. I read and moderate large numbers of them submitted every day on my own YouTube video uploads.

So I was startled to see that the YouTube redesign has currently switched from a crisp, black on white design for most detailed texts, to an extremely low contrast black on gray (and for some pages gray on gray!) that frankly are a bona fide pain in the eyeballs for anyone with less than perfect vision, and that category includes vast numbers of us with naturally "aging" eyes that are an inescapable fact of life.

Here is how the text now appears for a chunk of comments on my Deleting Your Facebook Account video.

You can zoom up the text in standard browsers of course, and that helps a bit, but the lack of contrast is still a big problem, and much zooming tends to degrade from the overall page view experience on many Web pages in general. (As an aside, tiny fonts in smartphone apps that can't be easily enlarged are another constant struggle for many of us in these same cohorts!)

To be sure, black on gray text in particular isn't always a problem, and it can be argued that backgrounds a bit darker than bright white may result in less eyestrain overall in various situations. I've used black on gray myself, but with relatively thick-stroke fonts. However, when the chosen fonts have relatively thin strokes as in the new YouTube case, the contrast goes south fast, and the result is something of a gift to opticians.

User interface design is at least as much an art as a science, and Google doesn't make capricious changes. So I'm puzzled as to how this particular text display aspect was vetted, which seems to clearly (no pun intended) degrade from a primary functionality, at least for a significant percentage of users.

I'm all for artistic embellishments in user interfaces -- when they don't interfere with the actual use of those interfaces themselves.

As it stands, an overall wonderful new YouTube redesign has been made less comfortably accessible to many users, and that can't help but discourage its use.

And that "looks" like an outcome that would be a real shame.


Update (December 3, 2011): : In reaction to the posting above, a bunch of people have pointed me at the Contrast Rebellion site, which is definitely worth a look. And just to (hopefully!) demonstrate that I'm not being dogmatic about this, I'll note that my standard, everyday terminal window is actually a black on gray configuration, but crucially, with a carefully chosen thick-stroked font that works well this way.

Posted by Lauren at 11:55 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein