February 29, 2008

Diebold Prematurely Releases Results of 2008 Presidential Election

Greetings. The Onion's series of faux news reports are usually disturbingly good, but this one shows even less mercy than usual.

Naturally, in what you are about to see, any similarity with the truth or with real life will be purely coincidental. Do bear that in mind! -- "Fahrenheit 451"

Diebold Prematurely Releases Results of 2008 Presidential Election


Posted by Lauren at 05:05 PM | Permalink
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February 27, 2008

YouTube and Global Censorship: A Proposal

Greetings. The recent incident of Pakistan's blocking of YouTube over a video that Pakistan considered to be "blasphemous" once again brings into focus some key Internet issues. In this case, apparently due to routing miscalculations and error, Pakistan's attempts to block YouTube from their own population disrupted YouTube access around the world. This problem was gradually repaired (though still points to serious infrastructural issues). But Pakistan still succeeded in killing that video on YouTube globally, reportedly by demanding that Google pull it down under the vague terms of YouTube's usage guidelines.

It's time to loudly question the appropriateness of letting any group succeed in censoring material globally on a site like YouTube, simply because, essentially, that group just doesn't like the material involved.

Obviously if we're going to operate on the basis that everything that offends groups in any part of the world will be deleted globally from YouTube (or wherever), we could end up with a lowest common denominator of content where an old episode of Leave It to Beaver would be banned. As various groups see such successful take-downs, they will only become emboldened to make more demands.

The primary issue for Google and other players in this space isn't international legal action, but international business and access. This is both understandable and explicit -- Google has been very clear that access considerations have driven its participation in the Chinese censorship system, apparently (judging from public statements) against their founder's own best instincts.

I don't necessarily condemn such actions out of hand. There is a valid argument to be made that having access -- even censored access -- brings significant longer-term benefits to these populations. But let's at least be direct about what's going on and what trade-offs are involved.

The Chinese case is very different from what we're talking about in terms of the Pakistan video take-down. The censored version of Google offered to the Chinese is not also forced upon the rest of the world as the only Google choice. The removal of a video from YouTube globally does force that choice on everyone, everywhere. That other copies are of course available from other sites isn't the matter of concern here, the question is the appropriateness of the action in the first place.

In Search Engine Dispute Notifications: Request For Comments I proposed a framework for the carefully controlled and managed insertions of "dispute notifications" on search results to help deal with such controversies on Google's main search engine.

I now propose that a similar concept could be applied to services such as YouTube, as a preferred alternative to global video take-downs. That is, instead of being able to easily demand that a video be expunged from YouTube (for other than DMCA-related reasons), a procedure would be in place to tag the associated video in a manner that would display the noted objections to that material, and could even be used by national authorities to impose regional or local blocking (distasteful as this is) without affecting the rest of the planet's rights to view the video in question if they wish.

Actual global take-downs would be much more limited, e.g. to clear-cut DMCA and universally egregious materials such as child abuse-related videos and the like, which are far less likely to create value judgment dilemmas for the services involved.

I am increasingly convinced that the careful and controlled tagging of videos, search results, etc. in such manners could be a useful compromise between "no action" and "global censorship" -- and while I understand that such tagging systems would be non-trivial to implement and manage, they seem on their face to be far more desirable and fair than any obvious alternatives.


Posted by Lauren at 09:13 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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February 25, 2008

Obnoxious Air Force Ad Blacks Out "Washington Post" Home Page

Update (9:32 PM PST): It appears that the full page "blackout" effect described below does not necessarily appear on every display of the page in question or at all times of day. It is unclear at this point which variables are in control. Any info discerned regarding this would be appreciated! Also, while the blackout effect has been seen under Firefox and IE, it appears that Safari may be immune.

Greetings. I'm a great admirer of The Washington Post, but an advertisement that they're running on their home page right now from the U.S. Air Force may win my award for the most obnoxious "legitimate" ad I've ever seen on a major Web site.

The actual ad is a smallish Flash box toward the right of the page. As you may have heard, the Air Force has started a new public relations campaign, promoting their prowess at cybersecurity.

The ad itself shows a blackout in progress: "Sometimes a blackout is a blackout."

The obnoxious part comes when, a few seconds into the ad's independent running (clicking or rolling over the ad is not necessary as a trigger), the ad covers the entire page with black -- completely obscuring the whole visible area of the displayed page to emphasize its punchline: "In the future, it could be a cyberattack."

Implied hook: Join the Air Force and save the power grid -- or else this is what your Web browsing might look like.

I can just see some PR agency honchos sitting around a conference table playing with this one. "What a concept! We'll black out their entire page! They'll love it!"

Maybe it's just me, but I didn't love it. I don't run Firefox's pop-up blocker for my health, and the increasing intrusiveness of flash-based advertising seems to have hit a new low in this case, at least for a mainstream site.

What's worse, at least in Firefox, if you scrolled down the page or backed into the Post's home page from a later site, you sometimes ended up with a long, totally white page and a frozen scroll bar (though it was possible to back out farther past this). And in some cases, the page text that's flowed below the ad never displayed properly after the blackout effect eventually vanished.

I'll be blunt. If it wasn't The Washington Post, I'd probably be adding the site to my "never again" blacklist.

Seriously uncool, guys. I expected -- and expect -- better from you.


Posted by Lauren at 08:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

February 24, 2008

Oscars but No Bugs!

Greetings. Regular readers may know that I've been irritated for years by the ever more intrusive bugs (IDs) and promos being injected onto the content of broadcast television and non-premium satellite/cable TV programming. Bugs in particular are usually now present continuously on such channels, except during commercials.

CNN started it all years ago, and since then we've been "treated" to ever larger and more distracting static and animated graphics and video inserts, not just in the lower-right corner where they began, but these days sometimes covering so much of the screen real estate that there doesn't seem to be any room left for the actual program images.

History Channel, for example, just introduced a new bug with a bigger, brighter, and even more opaque capital "H" than before, which looks like it could burn-in on a plasma display in less time than it takes to write about it.

With this clear trend toward Bigger and Badder Bugs, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that ABC (and their L.A. O&O KABC-TV) ran tonight's Academy Awards with only an occasional very brief flash of their ABC HD bug. The rest of the time the screen was mercifully beautiful and pristine. I'd have assumed that the bug generator had crashed if it hadn't been for those short and utterly acceptable bug appearances.

Certainly this isn't an earth-shaking event, but I'd like to know the story behind this decision. An enhanced showcase for HD? Perhaps, though the full time bug was also missing from the SD feed. Arm twisting by AMPAS? To what end?

I'll admit it, I'm mystified by this one, but whatever the reason, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank ABC and the members of the Academy.


Posted by Lauren at 08:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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February 13, 2008

How to Buy the Senate Surveillance Votes

Greetings. One can differ about whether or not the sort of surveillance authorization that the Bush administration is demanding is necessary and reasonable or not. It's even possible to argue politely about the administration's implicit assertion that the intelligence community will suddenly be rendered utterly impotent if they don't get everything they want, right now, no delays.

However, ongoing intelligence operations are an issue utterly separate from retroactive telecom immunity. No matter how you feel about the substance of such immunity (and I personally think it's criminal), nobody in their right mind can honestly argue that it must be granted now, as an integral part of intelligence authorizations going forward.

The linkage of these two independent issues essentially approaches blackmail -- "Give the telecoms immunity for past deeds or we won't spy and we'll blame you when something bad happens!"

This all demonstrates that despite the gradual lobbying learning curve of younger firms trying to avoid drowning among the fortresses of K Street, the venerable old phone companies are still the uncontested masters at making sure that "money talks and you know what walks."


Posted by Lauren at 01:48 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

February 11, 2008

Video, File Sharing, Privacy, ISPs, ... and Harleys

Greetings. Associated Press has an excellent overview piece out today regarding video, file sharing, and other high traffic Internet applications. The article helps to illustrate how battle lines may be forming between users and ISPs relating to these issues and also privacy concerns.

I don't know about that guy on the bike though ...


Posted by Lauren at 01:10 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

February 08, 2008

Bizarre New Scientology Video Surfaces -- See It Now!

Greetings. A fascinating, bizarre, and presumably not previously publicly viewed Scientology video has surfaced, apparently from a very large LRH New Year's Eve 2007 celebration.

During more than eight minutes of presentation, we're treated to Scientology's plans for the "global obliteration of psychiatry." This baby is a must see, and makes the recent and infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video look like a cream puff by comparison.

Several copies of the new video are currently online at YouTube, but will no doubt be subject to take-down orders almost immediately -- so act accordingly.

Here's one currently live link to the new video.



Posted by Lauren at 11:51 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

February 03, 2008

Microsoft's Secret Weapon Against Google

Greetings. A couple of days ago in Microsoft, Yahoo, and The Three Stooges, I suggested that the proposed Microsoft/Yahoo merger might not create the anti-Google juggernaut that some observers have suggested would be the case -- though a range of complex and potentially troubling issues would certainly crystallize.

But there's certainly more to this story, as evidenced by Google's criticism of the merger proposal.

A natural reaction by many to Google's take on this situation might be to chuckle and mumble something about the pot calling the kettle black. But that wouldn't really be fair, since in reality Google brings up a crucial point.

For Microsoft still can use a powerful weapon which if unleashed remains potentially capable not only of seriously damaging Google but decimating many other firms as well.

That "secret" Microsoft weapon is our own complacency.

While Microsoft's business missteps in the Web world have led many to retarget their "big firms are bad firms" arguments from Microsoft to the services powerhouse that is Google, the undeniable fact remains that Microsoft has an immensely important structural advantage -- with vast anticompetitive potential -- that is without compare.

Despite some inroads by other operating systems, Microsoft's Windows incarnations, and their Internet Explorer browser, still control the overwhelmingly vast majority of desktop systems, as much as hardcore Linux and Firefox aficionados (and that includes me) might prefer to forget this fact.

And like the telephone and cable companies that control physical access to the Internet for most users -- wherein many network neutrality controversies reside -- Windows (and Microsoft) are usually in command of the fundamental software environment.

Most users of Google are on Microsoft systems, using Microsoft TCP/IP stacks, and accessing Google applications via Microsoft's IE browser.

It's hard to imagine a Microsoft/Yahoo merger scenario where Microsoft wouldn't in some manner wish to leverage this structural advantage to favor its own properties, absent relevant and effective judicial rulings or legislative actions to the contrary.

And this brings up another crucial and often overlooked difference between Microsoft and Google. By and large, for Google users to switch to another service provider for most applications is basically as simple as changing a URL, as quick as altering a browser bookmark. Leaving Google by voting with their feet (or rather their fingers) is usually an easy option. The only real hold that Google has on users is the high quality of its applications and services.

Microsoft is a different story when it comes to the Windows OS. Despite lots of talk, lawyers' fees, and complicated agreements, Microsoft's hold on the computing desktop is still overwhelming, and practical OS alternatives for most non-techies (especially that they can run on their existing hardware) are still lacking in many respects for this class of users, despite the continuing evolution of the Linux desktop environment.

These users remain firmly chained to Microsoft as the software gateway to all aspects of the Internet, and typically for them any major changes to this situation would be either uneconomical, impractical, or both.

This might be "merely" problematic if Microsoft had a history of what could be called "software neutrality" -- but unfortunately that's not the case.

Microsoft has a long rap sheet of predatory software practices, with their handling of Internet Explorer and their Media Player but two examples. Microsoft at various points -- prior to significant pushback -- has also appeared ready to leverage Internet Explorer's search access to favor their own search services as well.

Google and Microsoft are both large, powerful, highly competitive, and financially well-endowed firms. It's perhaps tempting to view them as two peas in a pod, but actually each has a structure and modus operandi that are very different indeed.

In any dispassionate comparison, it seems clear that Microsoft's potential for broad anticompetitive behavior -- that could have very widespread negative impacts -- remains vastly greater and more significant than Google's.

While evaluating the anticompetitive risks of the proposed Microsoft/Yahoo merger, we'd be wise to keep the fundamental differences between Google and Microsoft firmly in mind.


Posted by Lauren at 05:47 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

February 01, 2008

Microsoft, Yahoo, and The Three Stooges

Greetings. Despite all of the deep analysis bandied about today regarding Microsoft's proposed buyout of Yahoo -- most of it framed in terms of somehow creating a "Google Killer" combination -- I still kept finding myself thinking about ... The Three Stooges!

In particular, the situation reminded me of a scene from the Stooges' Rumpus in the Harem (yep, you can see it here, at about 05:45 in from the clip start).

The sequence features the Stooges standing on top of each other mostly hidden under a tapestry. They attempt to intimidate their way into possession of a valuable gem, by claiming to be a powerful, evil spirit. Of course, their "tower of power" -- after putting on a pretty good show briefly -- ends up collapsing into a pile on bodies on the floor.

You know where I'm going with this. And while I'm not directly equating Moe or Shemp with MS or Yahoo, it's still a truism that some attempts at combining forces result in a creation that is actually less effective than the seeming sum of its parts.

We've seen this sort of disappointing (for stockholders, anyway) outcome happen often enough -- the initially much ballyhooed AOL - Time Warner merger is an obvious recent example.

Sometimes the operational fundamentals of combined firms just don't create the promised synergies. Or even worse, like two similar poles of magnets brought together, a damaging repulsive force is the actual result. This is especially likely when significantly different management styles are firmly rooted within the associated enterprises.

The financials of the proposed merger are way outside of my world, and whether Yahoo will accept the offer, or Microsoft engage in a hostile takeover attempt (Microsoft hostile?), I can't predict. Nor will I consider here the regulatory, privacy, or myriad other aspects of such a combined entity -- it's all a bit too speculative for now.

But my gut feeling is that while Google of course always needs to watch its back -- that's the price of being on top -- they may actually have far less to really worry about from any MS-Yahoo coupling than some of the more breathless commentaries I've seen today have been suggesting.

A lot can go wrong when you attempt to merge disparate sorts of personalities -- whether you're talking about individuals or corporations.

This remains true whether you're in a boardroom gunning for Google, or just trying to wrangle yourself the Rootin Tootin Diamond.


Posted by Lauren at 09:21 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein