March 30, 2013

The Washington Post's "What if Google Were Evil" Idiocy

To watch the accelerating fall from grace of the once venerable Washington Post is perhaps to view traditional journalism's quandary in a nutshell.

First, their ombudsman suggested it was unlikely that the Post would implement a paywall, for a variety of sound reasons.

Then the Post fired their ombudsman. Then they announced the availability of notorious "sponsored posts" throughout their pages.

And it's been ever more rapidly downhill for the Post from there, with their now giving credence to serial Google hater Robert Epstein's ramblings.

Epstein -- a psychologist by trade -- is an interesting character. He's a big promoter of the concept that what we all really need is governments regulating search engines and search results. You know, the same governments that are cracking down on free speech around the world and extending surveillance into every aspect of our lives -- including right here in the USA. Governments in some cases that demand search results censorship when those results aren't favorable to their rulers. Governments promoting Stalinist and Orwellian "let's blot out history!" concepts like the hideous "right to be forgotten."

Those governments. Take a look, they're all around us, pretty much getting worse every day. Epstein wants them in control of our information as well.

Robert Epstein's hatred of Google appears to date back to when he became upset that Google search results were tagging his website as possibly being contaminated with malware -- because, well, ya' know, uh, they indeed were so contaminated.

Epstein apparently became concerned that Google was able to warn people away from sites that might ruin computers, seemingly based on his bizarre reasoning that helping to protect people's systems was just too much power.

Now the Post is providing real estate to Epstein's latest tirades, his theory that if Google suddenly turned evil, they might be able to theoretically alter the outcomes of close elections.

Ah, the magic "if." We're in big trouble "if" President Obama goes mad and launches a nuclear strike. We're up the creek if our brakes fail on the freeway at 70 miles per hour, or if our dogs suddenly turn on us and rip out our throats.

I'm reminded of a wonderful old episode of the original 1964 series The Outer Limits, about a humanoid robot falsely accused of murdering his creator.

The robot -- Adam -- is intelligent, knowledgeable, gentle, and with good will toward all. But in an attempt to prove he's a killer -- to try demonstrate an "if" and that it's theoretically possible for the robot to be dangerous -- the government modifies his circuitry to purposely trigger a violent outburst.

In the end, as he's being escorted away calmly to be dismantled, he sees a little girl about to be hit by a truck, and cheats the executioner by allowing himself to be crushed in the process of saving the child.

Web firms like Google and most others, who exist by virtue of providing services that users value in an environment where competition is usually just a click away, have every reason to want search results and other information to be as useful and honest as possible.

For anyone to postulate such firms secretly morphing into the functional equivalent of James Bond super villains is nonsensical, and to argue that government regulation of search results and information availability would be anything other than a disaster is at the very least ignorant, and perhaps purposely deceptive.

On the other hand, we already know that governments around the world seem hell-bent on devaluing and even crushing civil liberties, while increasingly tightly controlling information for their own benefits. The last thing we need is government controls over the firms that have become our gateways to the very knowledge helping to empower us to make our own decisions about our lives and our world.

All the wacky "ifs" that anyone can imagine aren't going to convince us otherwise.

"If" you get my drift.


Posted by Lauren at 12:53 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 28, 2013

Tax Love, Not Email!

When the caller ID on my private line lit with a ridiculously long row of sixes, I knew what was up. It had to be Ziggy Morbius calling -- one of the creepier people to cross my path over the years. Thankfully, I've never actually met him, but conversations with him are something between amusing and terrifying, so I'd always taken his calls.

I took another sip of Diet Coke, and went off-hook.

"Ziggy. I know your number. Well, I haven't heard from you in ages," I said.

"Sorry about that, Lauren. Just got of the slammer. You don't want to know the details," said Ziggy.

"You're right about that. So Zig, what's on your mind?"

"Have you heard about that weird Wozniak guy?" asked Ziggy.

"You mean Steve? Apple co-founder Wozniak?"

"No, no, not that weird Wozniak. The email tax Wozniak!"

"Oh. Yeah, I think I have. Berkeley City Council or something, right? Retired nuke scientist or some such?" I asked.

"That's the one! He wants to tax email. Then the money could be used to prop up the USPS or pay for guns and napalm and bombs and such, or whatever."

"It's not going to happen Zig," I said. "Remember the old email tax rumors floating around the net for years? The idea was insane then and it's insane now. Completely impractical. Idiotic. Dumb. You get the concept."

"I sorta liked it," said Ziggy. "After that Berkeley guy brought it up, I saw them on FOX News talking about how great it would be as a way to stop spam, and then I saw a whole bunch of those pundit types on CNN saying it was wonderful, too. And some guy from the L.A. Times supported it, and ..."

"Zig. Get a hold of yourself. First, you shouldn't watch FOX News. It will rot your, uh, mind. As for the email tax ... It's not going to happen. There's no practical way to implement it, or enforce it. Email is really just files being moved from site to site. There are a virtually endless number of ways to transfer files. Oh sure, you could force ISPs to charge customers for accepting some email, just like you could tax people for every byte they use on the Net. If you want to destroy the goose that laid the golden egg, there's a plan for you. I don't want to get technical about this now, but you won't stop people from finding other ways to send email, spammers will find ways to evade any systems you do set up, and honest folks with large information mailing lists that don't make any money would be crushed."

"OK OK, I get it. I get it. So here's my alternative plan. How about if the government taxes love? You know, sex?" asked Ziggy.


"I mean it Lauren. What if they could collect something for every time people, you know, do it?"

"Uh. Well, Zig ... it seems to me that this is basically the same problem as taxing email. I mean, there are lots of ways to, uh, do it. Lots of places where it can be done. I just don't see it, Ziggy," I said.

"So what are you saying, Lauren? Taxing activities that are extremely fungible like email and sex just isn't practical?"

"Where'd you learn the word 'fungible' Ziggy? That's not quite the term I'd use for this, but yeah, you're on the beam."

"Well, I was just trying to be helpful," said Ziggy."

"Hey Zig, if I had to choose between an email tax and a sex tax, I'd go for the sex tax before you could finish asking the question. An email tax would cost me a fortune. At a penny an outgoing message, I figure it could easily be a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. No way I could afford that! A sex tax ... well, these days, one hell of a lot less. But neither is desirable, reasonable, nor practical. Period. Full stop. That's just the way it is," I said. "But I always appreciate your, uh, novel viewpoints on important issues."

"OK kid. I'll keep thinking about this stuff. And Lauren, you should try get out more, I mean, since there's no sex tax yet."

"As always Zig, you're a veritable wellspring of wisdom. Try to stay out of trouble," I said.

"You too," said Ziggy.

Ziggy hung up. I hung up. I returned to my Diet Coke.

Just another day with the Net.


Posted by Lauren at 01:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 23, 2013

Why Cancelling Google Reader - Like Cancelling "Star Trek" - Is Entirely Logical

Recently, in The End of Google Reader Is Not the End of the World, I noted that while I would miss Google Reader when it sunsets come July, this is not a cosmic cataclysm by any means, and that many good alternatives in support of RSS feeds exist and are in active development.

But man, judging from some of the reactions around the Web and in mainstream media from Google's announcement, you'd think Google had just triggered the planetary self-destruct mechanism of Altair IV from Forbidden Planet.

Not only are articles bemoaning the coming shutdown of a service that relatively few people really even knew about -- and far fewer regularly used -- commentators are attempting to use the retirement of Reader after nearly eight years (an eon in Internet time) as a signal that Google has lost its way, or can't be trusted, or perhaps kills kittens.

I remember a similar reaction when NBC cancelled the original Star Trek (ST:TOS - "Star Trek: The Original Series" in geek-speak) in 1969 after three seasons (it almost was cancelled at the end of the second season).

You would have thought the world was indeed coming to an end. And just as I'm a heavy user of Google Reader today, I was a big fan of Trek back then. My junior high school (like a middle school today) even had a Star Trek club of which I was a member. Can you guess which character was my special province of expertise? You're probably right.

We were certainly disappointed when the cancellation of Trek was announced. But, truth be told, none of us were very surprised. While it's a fact that NBC wasn't offering the series much love, and its scheduling (remember, no home videotape or DVRs back then) was increasingly problematic, the script quality overall had fallen off drastically as well. The final aired episode -- Turnabout Intruder -- had William Shatner trying to convince us that he had the mind and soul of a female scientist who had stolen his body. That segment was so awful that I almost did a turnabout of my lunch when I originally saw it.

Anyway, the other big problem for the series was that its rating numbers were relatively terrible. It had a highly dedicated audience of what we might call "power viewers" -- but they did not represent a large audience in network television terms of the day.

Put all this together, and it was entirely logical -- as you-know-who would say -- for NBC to end the series.

And in the fullness of time, when conditions were right, Trek was resurrected in various ways. I worked in Hollywood on the first Trek film (ST:TMP - "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"), and while it was no great shakes, it launched a continuing successful franchise that is still expanding today.

Given the current state of RSS, and Reader's low user numbers, Google's upcoming cancellation of Reader is similarly logical.

Any Internet firm that wants to be successful and stay that way in a rapidly changing environment needs to be constantly exploring new areas and moving away from services that are no longer a good fit -- especially when user data can be easily exported and other firms have services ready to fill similar roles -- as is the case with RSS and Reader.

And when you come right down to it, how long is any firm "required" to keep any service going -- especially but not limited to free services, beyond the letter of their Terms of Service? A year? Five? Ten? Fifty? Who's to decide?

Coming from the standpoint of someone who never dreamed decades ago that we'd have such powerful information resources at our fingertips without constantly opening our wallets and paying through the nose to each individual service provider, a part of me is still amazed at how the Internet ecosystem has developed.

That's also why I view with considerable concern the attitudes of those persons who not only complain about Web ads and anonymous personalization systems that help to pay the bills that make this all possible, but who also seem to feel entitled to demand that all of this stay free, essentially forever, in exactly the form they desire. There's a "cut off your nose to spite your face" sensibility in many of their complaints, as if they'd like to see the entire Internet ecosystem crash and burn to make a point. I find that ... disturbing.

In any case, the world survived the cancellation of Trek, and we'll survive the retirement of Reader as well. And just as Trek eventually was renewed and became stronger, there are reasons to believe that RSS -- if it continues to serve a useful purpose -- will also do the same.

This is in fact the sort of evolution that is fundamental for helping ensure the Internet's ability to -- sorry, I can't resist -- live long and prosper.


Posted by Lauren at 04:16 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 13, 2013

The End of Google Reader Is Not the End of the World

Google announced today that their Google Reader RSS system will be discontinued on the first of July, with capabilities provided immediately for exporting all relevant subscription and related data.

Google's statement triggered an outpouring of wailing on the Net that literally (at least according to various social trending indicators) surpassed likely much more important news suggestive perhaps of future integration of Google's Chrome and Android operating systems, and even another matter of interest to some number of billions of Catholics on this planet. Even Hitler "weighed in" with an expletive-laden rampaging subtitle rant against Google's move, courtesy of the now seriously worn out "Downfall" movie meme. Petitions (yes, even one of the goofy White House petitions) immediately popped up demanding that Reader be retained.

The detailed reasons behind the announcement haven't been officially discussed, but the handwriting has been on the wall for quite some time, as the Reader user base was clearly in decline and Reader improvements pretty much ground to a halt.

In some quarters today, the old "RSS is dying anyway" platitude could be heard, but while there's some truth in that, RSS is far from dead.

To be sure, my initial response when reading of Reader's demise this morning was a rather loud "Ouch!"

I'm a very heavy Reader user. I almost always have a Reader tab open, and I use various apps on my Android devices to keep Reader in sync as I quickly scan for potentially interesting news items through the day.

So yes, I am going to miss Google Reader.

On the other hand, it's not as if Reader is the only game in town for dealing with RSS, even when you're working with multiple devices as do I (and presumably, as do most of you).

For example, offers a free slate of reader apps for desktop browsers, Android, iOS, and more, and they're promising to provide their own backend to seamlessly replace Reader's feed functions. In my early testing linking Feedly to the existing Reader infrastructure, the results have been very good both on the Chrome browser and Android. Right now Feedly is somewhat overloaded -- not at all surprising under the circumstances today -- but if their service pans out as promised I don't think I'll have any problem at all living with their apps (which, by the way, can be configured to very closely approximate the Reader look and feel).

There are a wide variety of other RSS readers of course, and I've heard rumors today of new "Google Reader clones" being planned as well.

The upshot of all this, especially in light of the provided ability to export existing Reader data for input into other systems, is that while there's likely to be a bit of hassle involved in the short term, the end of Reader will not signal the end of RSS. In fact, RSS may actually become healthier with so much new energy being injected into other reader applications and associated systems.

I'm as lazy as anyone else when it comes to getting comfortable and complacent with familiar apps. All else being equal, I'd have preferred that Reader continued, even though, truth be told, Reader has definitely gotten rather long in the tooth.

So yeah, the end of Reader is something of a bummer. But realistically, in context, it doesn't push very far into the bummer scale. Reader users are encouraged (to paraphrase an old song) to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try some new RSS apps.

Now, what else happened in the news today, again?


Posted by Lauren at 11:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 12, 2013

Why Today's "Cannibal Cop" Conviction Should Terrify You

Most onlookers in a New York courtroom were apparently stunned today when the so-called "cannibal cop" -- Gilberto Valle -- was convicted in 16 hours of jury deliberation, and now faces potentially life in prison, for what amounts to an Internet fantasy.

He's been held in solitary confinement since his wife used spyware to track his online activities and uncovered his grotesque but inconsistent and fantastical ramblings about kidnapping and eating women. The actual charge was kidnapping conspiracy, even though it was never demonstrated that anybody he talked to on fetish sites ever took him seriously, and in fact his own statements on those sites explicitly noted he was fantasizing.

The prosecution case basically boiled down their belief that being focused on porn relating to eating people was "not normal."

Granted. But neither should be prosecuting someone for conspiracy (all they could go after, since -- keep in mind -- nobody was ever kidnapped, killed, or eaten) when no actual conspiracy even existed or could be actually demonstrated.

Legal experts had generally predicted this outcome, knowing how easily prosecutors could sway juries with nasty photos and tales of dark Internet fantasies. Juries eat up this stuff (no pun intended) -- what the law actually says is of much less concern to them. Most experts, by the way, have also predicted that the odds of a successful appeal in this case are quite high.

I am tempted here to speak at length of my deep distrust and dislike of the
U.S. prosecutorial system (which allows prosecutors enormous selective latitude for abuse) and the utterly dysfunctional, manipulated, and just downright horrendous nature of our jury system as it exists today. In terms of fundamental prosecutorial abuse at least, there are even parallels between this case and the Aaron Swartz disaster.

But perhaps you already know all this.

Of more immediate concern should be the realization that government surveillance and mischaracterizations of Internet behavior could potential drag anyone's Net communications -- however fantastical and unrealistic -- into a world of pain (and shackles and cells), if you're unfortunate enough to have the spotlight aimed in your direction by prosecutors eager to make a name for themselves with a high profile case.

Gilberto Valle had some definitely perverse and ugly fantasies, but as we all know (or should know) his fantasies (and the websites he frequented) don't even qualify as among the most eyebrow-raising on the Web -- not by a long shot.

Hopefully, appellate courts will properly reverse this particular case going forward.

But in the meantime -- and in times beyond -- be careful what you think. Be careful what you say. Be careful what you type. Be careful what you fantasize.

Or risk suffering the penalties for thought crime -- today, tomorrow, and forever.


Posted by Lauren at 04:40 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 01, 2013

Announcing "USA Six Strikes ISP Watch"

United States ISPs have now apparently launched their much ballyhooed "Six Strikes" copyright "education/punishment" program.

This is a singular event in the history of the Internet. I know not of any close parallels to this situation in contemporary history, where primary communications carriers will be acting in an extrajudicial (that is, without court actions) context to divert, throttle, block, or otherwise tamper with personal communication channels, at the bequest of private third parties.

Because these actions are taking place outside the specific realm of any existing regulatory regime, it is important to understand exactly how ISPs deploy, manage, and presumably escalate this program over time.

So today I'm announcing the "USA Six Strikes ISP Watch" to gather information about "six strikes" activities here in the United States.

If you receive such a "six strikes" notification while online or in any other manner, I would appreciate your forwarding to as much of the following information as you feel comfortable providing (this data will only be used for aggregate analysis/reporting):

- A screenshot of any Web-based strike notice and/or a copy of any associated email (the latter with full headers if possible)

- If it's not obvious from the screenshot or email, what strike number is this for you?

- A statement as to whether or not you feel that the strike (or any previous strikes) is/are in error

- What do you plan to do about the strike? (Nothing? Appeal? Something else?)

- What impact, if any, has the strike had on your Internet connectivity? (Browser diversions? Rate throttling? Connectivity blocks to some or all sites? Impacts on non-Web traffic such as VoIP services or anything else?)

- Any other thoughts or comments that you'd like to add

Again, I will only use or report this data in the aggregate. Any examples published will be redacted and anonymized.

Thank you very much!


Posted by Lauren at 10:23 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein