June 30, 2008

AT&T Warns: "Your Calls May Be Tapped!" (and a Bike Accessory)

Greetings. AT&T must be feeling pretty good right now knowing that immunity for their possibly illicit wiretapping operations is imminent -- and nobody can accuse them of not having a sense of humor about the whole thing.

In honor of their no longer being federally tariffed as in the past, AT&T is sending out to their customers the official phone company Terms of Service. I must admit that I laughed out loud when I pulled it from the envelope to reveal eighteen pages of fine print and legalistic terminology that wouldn't have been out of place in a Hollywood contract or a non-disclosure agreement at NSA.

The pages unfolded like the many credits at the end of the classic animated program Rocky and His Friends ("All on this itty-bitty card!") -- surprising the cat who happened to be standing beneath me at that moment.

Outside of the inherent humor in the length of the "agreement" itself and the concept of sending residential telephone subscribers documents detailing "Force Majeure" specifications, another hilarious gem was buried in the contractual verbiage.

AT&T points out in one section that if you don't take steps to encrypt or otherwise secure your communications on the AT&T network, your communications are subject to interception by third parties.

Alert the media! AT&T says "Your calls and data may be tapped!" Not exactly headline news, guys. We know "cover your behind" legalese when we see it.

However, the mailing of the agreement, even though only a fraction of the recipients will have the requisite legal training to understand most of it, may still serve a useful purpose for some subscribers.

In my case, I was able to use the AT&T document as a handy makeshift splatter shield while doing some work on my bike yesterday.

Who says that there's no upside to being an AT&T customer?


Posted by Lauren at 01:18 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 26, 2008

Direct From ICANN Paris Meeting: Surprise! The Money is What Matters!

Greetings. Since my posting yesterday expressing strong distaste for ICANN's plans to vastly expand the global top-level domain (gTLD) naming system, I've received some interesting analysis and reports from the current Paris ICANN meeting itself. They boil down to one inescapable and extremely unfortunate fact.

ICANN has seemingly become dangerously beholden to moneyed interests, and pretty much everyone else now gets short shrift -- to the detriment of the Internet and its users at large. I don't even really blame ICANN's people and participants for this per se -- structural problems with ICANN, some reaching back to its essentially ad hoc creation in the first place (and arguably to the death of Internet pioneer Jon Postel) have essentially guaranteed this state of affairs.

While there do appear to be attendees at the Paris meeting who are concerned broadly about DNS stability under the new ICANN plan, the vast bulk of attendees see the upcoming gTLD gold rush as yet another way to line their pockets with greenbacks and euros -- the vast majority of attendees are apparently registrars and registries (and their minions) -- they know which side their bread is buttered on.

Priorities at the meeting were reportedly set in the ICANN version of the Twilight Zone. While long-winded (and palpably boring) monologues restating existing positions on squeezing money out of new gTLDs took most of an afternoon, truly important issues like IPv6 reportedly got barely five minutes.

One correspondent expressed to me his belief that the complicated (and still incomplete in key respects) ICANN procedures would likely keep us from being flooded with millions of new gTLDs overnight -- but implied (and I agree with this part completely) that voluminous and expensive litigation by particularly aggressive and militant applicants could result in literally any outcomes, however bizarre and disruptive to the Internet and its users -- and the world at large -- those outcomes may be. I would add that this particular correspondent took a much more upbeat stance in a public posting on a major mailing list today -- leaving out most of the strong misgivings and concerns that they expressed to me in private e-mail. I don't care to speculate on the reasons for this discrepancy.

I was also blamed indirectly for the problems. Participants in Paris who bemoaned the current state of affairs regarding ICANN apparently expressed some exasperation that interested parties (such as myself) -- who are concerned about genuinely important Internet issues -- haven't actively participated in the ICANN process, attended the meetings, and otherwise tried to alter the existing ICANN trajectory into a sensible course.

Outside of the fact that many persons -- including me -- don't have the resources to fly around the world to frequently exotic ICANN meeting locales (at this stage, paying for gas just to get around L.A. is a concern), there is another key factor at work.

With truly the greatest of respect for ICANN's hard-working people, I still would suggest that many observers of ICANN feel that its structural processes are broken in ways that cannot be significantly influenced by persons with contrarian views vs. ICANN's existing modus operandi.

Many of us believe that a dramatic change in "Internet governance" is long overdue, and that this cannot be accomplished within the existing structure of ICANN, despite ICANN's best efforts. Such a belief does not engender an obvious enthusiasm for spinning wheels and fighting battles whose outcomes are usually predetermined.

However, I do have a few ideas for useful new gTLDs. How about:

dot -- oh, you get the idea.

When the most accurate way to predict the outcome of controversial Internet technical issues is to employ the maxim "Follow the Money!" -- well, to call it a sad state of affairs is a supreme understatement.


Posted by Lauren at 09:23 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 25, 2008

Priorities Amuck: ICANN Poised to Trigger Naming Quagmire

Greetings. With all of the high-priority issues we face today regarding the Internet --like assuring network neutrality, or even getting decent Internet services to the 80% of the world's population that doesn't have them now -- it's distressing to see that ICANN is poised tomorrow to potentially trigger a confusing and likely highly litigious, wasteful, and disruptive land grab in new global top-level domain names (gTLDs).

While ICANN's theoretical rationale for loosening up the domain name environment is not utterly without merit, the likely real world implications of a relative flood of new top-level domain names should be pretty obvious to even a casual observer of the Net over recent years.

Everybody and his brother will want a top-level name. ICANN will be deluged with applications. Clever crooks will find ways to game the application and auction processes in league with shady registries. Name confusion and phishing will rise to new heights. Full employment for lawyers is guaranteed, as trademark disputes -- and other legal disputes filed against ICANN's decisions regarding particular names, balloon to capture as much oxygen as possible. The dot-ex-ex-ex controversy and related censorship concerns associated with the horrible idea of a sex-centric TLD will rise yet again from the grave.

And through it all, ICANN will be spinning its wheels with a complicated and expensive process while so many more important Internet issues are rotting essentially ignored on the sidelines.

ICANN needs to get over their "domain names as issue #1" fetish once and for all. Some minor relaxation of the gTLD structure is probably warranted, but not the waste of time, money, and other resources that their current plan seems sure to trigger -- and we could definitely live without the consumer confusion and risks that will arise from this mess as well.

Enough is enough. It's time for ICANN to get its priorities straight.


Posted by Lauren at 09:49 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 19, 2008

Congress Again Preparing to Buckle on Telecom Wiretapping Immunity

Greetings. It appears that once again Congress is preparing to grant the telephone companies retroactive immunity for their illegal Bush administration wiretapping operations. Negotiators have built in a meaningless new district court aspect but in reality it's still plain old immunity.

The real issue here isn't whether the telcos were just "following orders" or not, but rather the more important point that if immunity is granted, we likely lose any significant ability to ever find out how far into the illicit wiretapping depths the administration was willing to go, since the raft of pending lawsuits would probably be dismissed.

This is unacceptable. The House "compromise" should be rejected.


Posted by Lauren at 02:12 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 16, 2008

What's Up Doc? -- Chicago Politics Meets Microsoft's OOXML

Greetings. Though we may think of corporations as being entities unto themselves -- and in a legal sense they are in many ways -- in reality even the largest are of course actually made up of people.

If you want a way to peer into the minds and sensibilities of the folks running any particular firm, observing the methodologies that they use to try advance their agendas is at least as illuminating as looking at the resulting policies and outcomes themselves.

It's been popular for years in various quarters to bash Microsoft. Some of the criticisms are well deserved, others are not. I've personally always tried to keep as objective a keel as possible on this score.

But a theme that has frequently emerged when folks are critical of MS is the concept that Microsoft is a serial bully in its business practices. Software licenses that bully. Distribution agreements that bully. OS integration architectures that bully. And so on.

The bullying question has come up again in the context of the recent attempt by Microsoft to forcibly acquire Yahoo -- a sequence that while officially ended is viewed as only being in temporary suspended animation by many observers. And while it is undoubtedly true that mistakes by Yahoo management set the stage for the takeover attempt, the attitude of MS in this instance, even while it was obvious that the attempt itself would likely drive significant Yahoo talent to seek more stable environs, seems to carry MS' business bullying signature.

But there's a current case of MS playing hardball outside normal bounds that you may never have heard about, even though it could very well affect you negatively in the wallet and in other unfortunate ways down the line. And in some respects it's even more illuminating. As usual, MS isn't the only player involved, and while the underlying issues are rather technical, many of the associated methods would seem rather familiar to any student of the old Chicago political machine.

I won't even attempt to get into the deep details here. Head over to Google, and search for:

microsoft ooxml

... then spend the next few hours enjoying the tale in all its sordid glory. I strongly recommend doing this on an empty stomach.

The micro-synopsis is that over a number of years, a crucial ISO (International Organization for Standardization) process -- that will deeply affect how documents will be edited, manipulated, processed, and published -- has essentially been hijacked by Microsoft.

Microsoft's goal has been to make their own grossly bloated (6500+ pages!) and in many ways flawed "OOXML" document format the standard for the foreseeable future, instead of the existing, much more reasonably sized, and easily extensible Open Document Format (ODF). Document formats matter. They have impacts on everything from portability, to privacy, to the costs associated with word processing software and systems.

You've gotta be careful when reading the many sources you'll find on the OOXML topic -- and keeping events in chronological order is crucial. The plotline has more twists and turns than Colossal Cave, and more ways to confuse than cheap vodka.

My favorite character in the story is the gigantic OOXML document format itself, which might be classified as a deadly weapon if printed and then dropped from a low-flying aircraft.

Unnecessarily massive and complex specs are bad enough, but when the time to review such abominations is reduced to ridiculously short periods as in this case, the circumstances border on the Twilight Zone -- or late night legislative dealings in Congress -- take your pick. Blind everyone with volume, make sure there isn't time to properly read and analyze the material, then ram it all home for approval. "Fairness? We don't need no stinkin' fairness!"

And remember, if it looks like you're going to lose a key approval vote, be sure to use whatever underhanded techniques are necessary to win. In Chicago, the traditional method of choice was to make sure that every man, woman, child, and even deceased citizens would register the "proper" vote -- ideally multiple times in each election. In Microsoft's OOXML world, the parallel approach is to arrange for emerging countries that previously had no apparent interest in the proceedings to suddenly appear, vote for the Microsoft side, then conveniently vanish back into standards obscurity -- a procedural coup that is currently the subject of official protests filed with the ISO.

At this late stage of the game, it appears difficult to derail the OOXML blunderbuss, though with such wide support for the much more sensible ODF format by institutions around the world, it's just possible that the end result may not be quite the steamroller effect in terms of OOXML uptake that Microsoft has been counting on.

But this entire affair most certainly represents a teachable moment -- something of an x-ray image of Microsoft's soul -- or rather the souls of its management, since as I noted at the outset, even Microsoft is made of people -- but then again, so was Soylent Green.

If those people wish to play fair, all the more power to them. However, if they choose to play fast, play loose, and play the bully in their dealings with the international technical community, you end up with organizations and individuals much less worthy of our respect and patronage -- both now and in any future considerations and deliberations.


Posted by Lauren at 11:44 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 10, 2008

Update on ISP Actions Regarding C-Porn and Usenet

Greetings. The related ISPs have been working to clarify aspects of the New York Times story that I discussed yesterday.

The upshot is interesting. In contrast to the implications of the Times piece, it appears that U.S. ISPs (unlike a newly penned deal in France involving French ISPs) will not for the moment be actively blocking any "class" of Web content, but rather will work to remove c-porn sites from their servers (something most people apparently assumed they'd been doing anyway ... ).

So the big to-do from the politicos about this aspect seems to best be filed under grandstanding.

But there is a very disturbing additional element to this story. Time Warner Cable says that they are cutting off subscriber access to all Usenet newsgroups (child porn was found in 88 of the vast number of total newsgroups). Sprint is cutting off 10's of 1000's of alt.* newsgroups (and what a war it was back when those were created long, long ago!) Verizon plans "broad" newsgroup cutoffs.

While Usenet newsgroups are certainly not the draw that they were many years ago, they still have an important role to play in the free exchange of legal information on the Internet today.

Using the presence of illicit materials in some portion of a content stream as an excuse to abolish or decimate the legal content is inexcusable. In fact, that sort of "guilt by association" and "we can get away with this because most people don't know about it" action is the very essence of a particularly insidious form of censorship.

Of course, the ISPs could argue that they're under no legal obligation to carry Usenet newsgroups in any form. This is true. But then, most ISPs aren't under a legal mandate to provide connectivity to any given Web sites, either.

So one might wonder, given these ISPs' eagerness to hoist much or all of the completely legal content of Usenet on the petard of fettering out c-porn, which aspects of the Internet will be next to fall into the line-of-sight of their big red cutoff switch?


Addendum: For those who may be unfamiliar with Usenet, the act of "cutting off access" in this case refers (as far as I know) to the ceasing of server services by the ISPs for providing the newsgroups in question, not to active blocking of the sort that would prevent persons from buying newsgroup access somewhere else -- at least assuming that similar outside pressures don't begin to collapse Usenet newsgroups distribution generally.

Still, as I originally noted, the ISP actions of ceasing to provide vast numbers of unrelated newsgroups because of offenses in other newsgroups qualifies, in my opinion, as an insidious form of censorship, especially in the current political climate. It's another domino falling.


[ Thanks to Declan McCullagh at News.com for digging out some details regarding the sharp ISP blades aimed at Usenet newsgroups. ]

Posted by Lauren at 04:53 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

June 09, 2008

ISPs Agree to Block Access to C-Porn Web Sites and Usenet Groups

Greetings. As this New York Times article notes in passing, and I would suggest much more forcefully, efforts by ISPs to cut off access to any particular class of content may make it more difficult for "casual" searchers to access such sites, but will likely be largely ineffective against anyone with the will to work a bit harder to find such material -- and that's not even taking into account private, encrypted distribution networks.

Of broader interest perhaps is how much time will pass before "other entities" demand that ISPs (attempt) to block access to other materials that one group or another feels subscribers should not be permitted to see or hear. How long before search engines are urged, pressured, or ordered to remove search result listings that the government or other groups deem inappropriate under the political criteria of the moment?

In practice, of course -- as I've written many times -- effective censorship of the Internet is impossible. You can make access more difficult or more of a hassle, but in the end censorship efforts -- even for seemingly laudable goals -- will drive the materials of interest ever deeper underground into forms that make them even more difficult to track. That's just the way it is, like it or not.


Blog Update (June 10, 2008): Update on ISP Actions Regarding C-Porn and Usenet

Posted by Lauren at 10:53 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein