March 31, 2007

Google Getting a Bum Rap Over Hurricane Katrina Images

Greetings. I know a bum rap when I see one. People who should know better -- such as the House Committee on Science and Technology's subcommittee on investigations and oversight chairman Brad Miller, D-North Carolina -- are accusing Google of "airbrushing" history on Google Maps.

The charge? At some point in the recent past, Google apparently replaced post-Katrina satellite photo data in the New Orleans region with older pre-Katrina data that doesn't show the hurricane damage.

Google says that one of their imagery suppliers switched to older data that was higher resolution. Balancing timeliness of data with resolution is a non-trivial task for a mapping site, and in retrospect perhaps some sort of exception should have been carved out for that region when the changes went live, but hindsight is 20/20.

In any case, for supposedly intelligent people to start throwing around terms like "airbrushing" (which implies purposeful deception) and suggesting that Google is in some sort of conspiracy to hide Katrina damage, is just plain stupid and grandstanding of the worst sort. The persons making such accusations should be ashamed of themselves.


Posted by Lauren at 09:32 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 30, 2007

Commendation: ICANN Votes to Reject "Dot-Ex-Ex-Ex" Top-Level Domain

Greetings. In a 9 to 5 vote with one abstention, the ICANN Board of Directors today again rejected the "dot-ex-ex-ex" top-level domain (TLD) application. This was a complex and difficult decision for the board, and it goes without saying that the controversies regarding "adult entertainment" content on the Internet aren't going to vanish as a result of this vote.

Obviously, given my many past statements on this matter (including most recently this blog entry), I very strongly endorse ICANN's decision to reject the TLD, and I want to thank and commend all of the ICANN board members and other involved parties -- regardless of their views on this particular subject -- for their work on this issue.


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

March 29, 2007

Call for ICANN to Kill "Dot-Ex-Ex-Ex" Top-Level Domain at Tomorrow's Vote

Greetings. As is already widely known, I remain very strongly opposed to the creation of a dot-ex-ex-ex TLD (top-level domain), and would find it necessary to continue such opposition through whatever venues are available if the domain is approved at a likely ICANN vote tomorrow. I feel that dot-ex-ex-ex would create a disastrous slippery slope for censorship and free speech, despite its ostensibly "voluntary" nature. I don't think this is an area where ICANN should wish to tread even peripherally. Like many observers, I fail to see what constituency would be positively served by dot-ex-ex-ex, other than ICM -- the company that would run the TLD and profit from its use.

The relatively heavy speculative "pre-registrations" on the domain are obviously mainly driven by protective actions from existing dot-com domain holders, who cannot afford to have the dot-ex-ex-ex versions of their domain names obtained by someone else. This hardly qualifies as "support" for the dot-ex-ex-ex concept.

I hope that ICANN will choose to kill this idea once and for all. I fear that if it is approved, it will only represent the start of a long legal path as various governmental and private parties attempt to block it, and that would be an unfortunate waste of time and resources for everyone.


Blog Update (March 30, 2007): Commendation: ICANN Votes to Reject "Dot-Ex-Ex-Ex" Top-Level Domain

Posted by Lauren at 08:41 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 25, 2007

Verizon: Kill Vonage, but don't forget to bill their customers!

Greetings. There's much media speculation that Verizon's patent ruling could actually shut down Vonage. While I view that outcome as not assured by any means, there is an important aspect to this situation that is being glossed over.

Every Vonage customer is paying two entities. They pay Vonage for the Vonage phone service, and they pay an ISP for the Internet access over which Vonage runs. And of course, thanks to consolidation and the ever shrinking number of ISPs, we can assume that very large numbers of Vonage customers in Verizon territories pay Verizon every month for DSL -- over which these customers then run Vonage. Most of these Verizon customers are probably paying full rates for the underlying phone lines as well, since "naked" DSL is not common.

So when we see stuff like " ... continued erosion of the client base and customer base [of Verizon]" we should remember that in vast numbers of cases we know that Verizon has not been cut out of the equation, and is still in there up to their eyeballs, happily demanding monthly DSL payments from Vonage customers on one hand, while trying to kill Vonage on the other.

I believe that there are definite network neutrality implications to this story, even for a case ostensibly couched in terms of a patent dispute.


Posted by Lauren at 12:17 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 22, 2007

Intuit's Amazing Web Pricing Roulette

Greetings. Earlier this year, over on Dave Farber's IP list, I noted my disgust with Intuit's upgrade pricing policy and related customer service discussions -- what I called "Intuit's 'Bait & Switch'" -- which amounted to no discount at all if you only wanted the basic Quicken upgrade.

Now it's time for a much more bizarre installment -- "Intuit's Amazing Web Pricing Roulette" ... and if this ends up looking confusing, that's because it is.

At the present time, depending on exactly how you hit the Intuit Quicken Web site, you may be presented with different prices for the same product (in my test cases, Quicken Basic).

In tests so far, I've been offered three different prices:

-- $29.99 (regular retail -- typical store price and what I was originally told was the only available online price whether upgrading or not).

-- $24.89 (with free shipping -- worthless if you download the package -- this one may be difficult to find, so here's proof).

-- $19.99 (the lowest price)

Which of these prices you will see on their Web site appears to depend on a mix of factors. Whether or not you say you are upgrading does not seem to have an effect.

A key issue appears to be your cookie settings.

If your cookies are off, you are likely to see $29.99. If your cookies are on, you will most likely be offered $19.99.

In at least some cases, if you try to order at $29.99 with cookies off, you'll be told to turn cookies on, then you'll see $19.99 after you've done so. In other cases, you may find $29.99 (or $24.89) carried down all the way through the purchase process (here's an example of the high price being used).

I am seeing different results depending on the exact sequencing of pages, cookies, and Web browser in use (e.g. Firefox vs. IE).

I have not attempted to delineate all possible permutations or the underlying "rationale" for this behavior, but I would obviously urge extreme caution in dealing with this site.


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

March 14, 2007

Comments on Google's Privacy Announcement

Greetings. Google has announced significant changes to their data retention policy. Since I'm already being asked for my opinion regarding their announcement, I'm sending this out now rather selfishly to avoid having to generate a large number of individual responses (though I'll be glad to discuss this in more depth upon request).

First, the "raw" material:

Google's Press Release

Google's PDF with more details

Michael Liedtke's AP piece

The gist of the announcement is two changes: The obscuration of some IP address bits (currently it appears that this would involve the least-significant octet of IP addresses recorded in the Google user activity logs), and changes to provide for some form of cookie anonymization.

Such an IP address change would allow for identification of any one computer out of a group of 256, rather than the existing ability to identify each computer individually. The actual impact of this change from a privacy standpoint would vary greatly depending on the type of addresses (dynamic vs. static) and the total range of those IP addresses associated with any given organization. Cookie anonymization effectiveness is more difficult to analyze until more information regarding the algorithms to be used becomes available.

Both of these changes would be applied to data after an 18-24 month period -- during which time data would be retained intact -- unless future government data retention mandates require longer periods. This is in contrast to Google's policy up to this point of maintaining all log data intact on an indefinite basis.

The AP piece referenced above notes that AOL apparently already goes farther than Google plans to go in terms of IP address anonymization and some other related issues. In light of that, my many public statements over time that have been critical of Google data retention policies, and my Open Letter to Google: Concepts for a Google Privacy Initiative from last year, what is my take right now on this move by Google?

It's much simpler than you might expect. I am not particularly concerned at this point about the details of the policy. I could (and at some point no doubt will) critique the various aspects of Google's changes in detail regarding both perceived strengths and shortcomings, but not today.

For now, let's view Google's announcement with the broadest possible scope -- not so much for what it says but for what it might portend for the future. While these changes can be reasonably viewed as only a first step on the road to the kinds of data retention privacy enhancements ultimately needed, taking that first step at all is an immensely positive sea change to Google's attitude toward this data.

Time will tell if the rest of that privacy road is traversed in due course. It will be a challenging path indeed, especially in a political environment where the pressure to retain data for extremely broad retroactive investigatory purposes is growing at an alarming rate. And as we've seen in the recent revelations regarding the FBI's violations of the PATRIOT Act, the issues are all interrelated, and Google of course must obey these laws.

But those are issues for another day. For now, I'll simply thank Google for listening, and express the hope that we can move forward together into a very uncertain future, where deeds will always speak more strongly than words, and where the decisions we make now about these matters are likely to have impacts for generations to come -- as we all ideally try to live by the "Don't be Evil" creed.

It won't be easy. But we have no honorable choice but to try.


Posted by Lauren at 11:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 13, 2007

Thoughts On New $1B Viacom Suit Against Google/YouTube

Greetings. As reported by Reuters, Viacom has filed a $1B copyright infringement lawsuit against Google/YouTube.

While this may be viewed (accurately, I believe) in some circles as largely a negotiating ploy, the deeper issues go far beyond that.

My "you can't effectively censor the Internet" postulate suggests that it will always be possible to post virtually any materials, even if this requires "underground" or otherwise obscured communications channels.

However, this is not to say that serious legal and financial risks don't exist related to the YouTube and similar models.

I see two biggies:

First, the obvious one -- regardless of the ability of users to post "offending" materials in other venues, the large services that are most associated in the public mind with the availability of such items (in this case Google/YouTube) run the greatest risk. This is true both by virtue of their high profile -- they are the natural targets -- but also due to the availability of "deep pockets" for financial settlements or court-ordered payouts.

The second risk is actually even more onerous. I sense an increasing discomfort in the courts regarding the concept of retroactive rather than proactive controls over posted Internet information -- the former is the key basis of DMCA enforcement, of course. This issue doesn't apply only to entertainment-oriented materials, but also to the rising chorus of stories from people who claim (sometimes with validity) that their reputations and lives have been disrupted or damaged by posted online campaigns or false information that they are unable to control or successfully expunge. Over the years, I've head many such stories myself that were sent to me personally, but this issue is rising rapidly in the mainstream media.

The risk here is vast. Courts may choose to upend the current free speech and related DMCA and defamation models, in favor of a much more proactive approach requiring prescreening and total responsibility for all publicly-hosted materials. The impact of such moves would be impossible to overestimate, especially for the larger players in the so-called "Web 2.0" environment. As noted above, these are the very entities who are most likely to be the targets in such situations. Personally, I don't think that I'd much like the Internet that would result if these sorts of broad government-mandated crackdowns occurred. But the problems are real and do need to be addressed somehow. The laissez-faire approach is reaching a breaking point beyond which the powers-that-be are unlikely to allow it to proceed unaltered.

I believe that there are possible routes to a better situation that could avoid the "doomsday" scenarios. Some of these I've outlined in the past, others I have yet to publicly discuss, but an underlying principle is that the major players need themselves to take more responsibility for the effects of their creations beyond the technical necessities. Better them than the courts and governments, I hope you'll agree.

The humorist Tom Lehrer sang: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Werner von Braun." -- referring to the German rocket pioneer who both enabled missile attacks on London and was later the father of the U.S. space program.

If officials are able to successfully and publicly paint large Internet corporations as having that sort of attitude, the results could be devastating to the Net. The only ones who can head off this possibility are these firms themselves.


Posted by Lauren at 09:13 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 10, 2007

Newly Revealed FBI Data Abuses and the Data Retention Red Flag

Greetings. The release of a new report detailing massive FBI abuses of the PATRIOT Act (particularly in regard to National Security Letters), now confirms concerns that I and others have been long expressing about the potential abuse of retained Internet and other data, e.g.:

Sounding the Alarm on Government-Mandated Data Retention

An Open Letter to Google: Concepts for a Google Privacy Initiative

Broad abuses of retained data are now demonstrated to be real, not theoretical, as described in this Washington Post story.

We don't yet really know the full extent of these violations, but what has already been revealed is bad enough as a starting point.

I hope that these events will not only trigger considerable soul-searching by those firms who voluntarily retain user activity data, but also cause a renewed recognition of how broad mandated data retention can facilitate, and inevitably will facilitate, such abuses in the future.


Posted by Lauren at 08:37 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 07, 2007

The Fix is In: Massive Web Radio Fee Hike and the XM/Sirius Merger

Greetings. While no conspiracy beyond "business as usual" is required to explain this confluence of events, it is fascinating to note the continuing collapse of true competition in the music and radio industries (as in the Internet ISP industry).

On one hand, we have the proposed XM/Sirius merger, touted nonsensically as a boon to consumers. But -- oops! -- word is out that the FCC Chairman is concerned that Sirius' Karmazin wasn't exactly forthcoming when he suggested that consumers wouldn't face increased fees for combined services under the merger plan. Karmazin now seems to say that he was misunderstood -- of course the fees would be higher if you wanted the union of what XM and Sirius currently have available. But Karmazin -- the same guy who arranged Howard Stern's $500 million Sirius deal -- insists that with competitors like Internet radio, the merger should still go through, prior FCC rules notwithstanding.

Hmmm. But what about that Internet/Web radio competition? Word is out today that the Copyright Royalty Board is proposing massive fee increases and the end of exemptions -- a combination that will likely put all but the largest Internet radio broadcasters -- especially the ones with limited revenue, nonprofits, and the like -- out of business. So much for that flavor of competition. But the recording industry isn't concerned. As their spokesman noted, large operations like Yahoo! and Clear Channel Communications will certainly be able to pony up plenty of new moola.

Everyone else be damned, obviously.


Posted by Lauren at 12:10 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein