March 31, 2009

Judge May Unmask Topix Anonymity -- Plus, the Search Engine Connection

Greetings. A Santa Clara County judge has moved a step closer to forcing Topix to release identifying information -- presumably mainly IP addresses -- of anonymous posters in a long-running defamation case. The implications are both complex and important.

The core of the case seems relatively straightforward. A couple was accused, indicted, tried, and acquitted of serious sexual assault charges. Along the way, even before indictments, large numbers of viciously attacking anonymous comments appeared on Topix associated with the case -- more than 25K comments in all.

The vindicated couple wants to find out who -- they apparently assume it's actually a relatively small number of individuals -- has been posting those comments, so that they can be pursued for defamation.

That's where this all morphs from straightforward to messy and complex, and quickly falls into one of those "just because you don't like it doesn't mean it isn't true" situations that I bring up so often.

Vicious defamation is presumably not a concept that most people would support. But the ability to anonymously comment is important as well -- and U.S. courts have not been terribly consistent on their rulings regarding the appropriate balance between the two.

And as other seekers of presumed online miscreants have learned, an IP address alone doesn't necessarily point you at the right person -- not given public terminals and unsecured Wi-Fi access points.

Yet as several stories on this case pointed out today, large numbers of highly offensive, factually incorrect attacking comments tend to rise to the beginning of search engine query results, in some cases swamping out any retorts or factual pages and comments -- a situation that could theoretically persist indefinitely.

Some Google critics in particular have called for the censorship of search results in situations like this.

I view such suggestions as both impractical and unwise. My basic philosophy is that in most cases the cure for "bad" information isn't censorship, but rather bringing good information to prominence.

However, the manual manipulation of natural search results ordering is not something to be done lightly, and I would argue would be best avoided.

There are possible alternatives -- albeit not trivial and noncontroversial ones.

I have in the past proposed consideration of a limited and controlled "dispute links" mechanism that would provide a means of informing searchers that top search results contain disputed information. To avoid abuse, such a capability might perhaps only be invoked under court order -- for example, to note that the couple being discussed were already found innocent of all charges.

This mechanism would definitely not be simple and a myriad number of complicated issues would come into play. Whether or not in the final analysis it would even be a practical solution is not a foregone conclusion.

But consider the parties in play in the Topix case. On one hand we have the couple declared innocent by a court. For them to be forever saddled with these sorts of attacking -- and now demonstrably false -- comments in top search results without any annotations regarding the court case's outcome seems fundamentally unfair.

On the other hand, anonymous speech needs a high (though few would argue absolute) bar of protection to avoid all manner of anti-anonymity "scavenger hunts" run amok.

So my question becomes, where could "more information" be appropriately and non-disruptively injected into the system to provide the maximal fairness for the aggrieved parties, yet also allow for the appropriate protection of anonymity?

Given that search engines are the means by which most people will find their way into such discussions, it seems at the very least prudent to explore whether there are methodologies that search engines could deploy -- whether my "dispute links" concept or something else entirely -- that could help to defuse these dilemmas without tampering with natural search results determinations nor their associated orderings.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.


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

March 29, 2009

The "Google Checkout" Dilemma: When Google Says NO!

Greetings. There are few things in life more frustrating than being punished without explanation, appeal, or recourse. This holds true in life-threatening locales like Gitmo under the previous administration, and in more prosaic situations such as Internet commerce.

Sometimes these situations could be avoided or cured with just a bit more communications -- but absent that, even relatively simple matters can easily fester into much bigger problems.

I was reminded of this when a major Net personage forwarded me a link to this new write-up on Google Checkout merchant controversies and related accusations against Google.

In a nutshell ... Google Checkout provides a merchant account system for Internet purchases as an alternative to eBay's vastly dominant PayPal.

Google Checkout (henceforth referred to as "GC") seems to be a well thought out, generally well-implemented system. Many small and large merchants, fed up with PayPal for one of many reasons, have migrated to GC successfully.

However, when something "goes wrong" relating to GC, some merchants apparently find themselves suddenly cut off from their accounts without ready explanation, recourse, appeal, or in some cases refunds, as in the link referred to above (a woman apparently selling a programming techniques e-book). Unfortunately this appears to be far from an isolated case.

A common thread I've detected in these various cases is an apparent dispute regarding the nature of the merchandise or service being provided by the merchant. Obvious cases of fraud are one thing, but some of the examples I've now found seem much more complex -- for example, involving collections for nonprofit organizations, sales of particular non-tangible goods or services, and so on (Google provides an extensive list of forbidden product categories). But sometimes there is no obvious relationship between the product being sold and any of the verboten items -- and without a clear explanation of why an account was terminated, merchants are left totally in the dark.

Google -- to its credit -- wants to keep GC as "clean" a service as possible, and accomplishing this in today's Internet world is inevitably going to mean closing down offending accounts. But what's particularly perplexing regarding GC is the form letter shutdown notices that some merchants receive, that explicitly refuse to explain why they were terminated (citing unnamed "security reasons"). Nor do routine mechanisms appear to exist to offer Google exculpatory information, or for explaining misunderstandings or possible errors in Google's analysis of the situations.

In essence, the GC shutdown notices act as prosecutor, judge, and executioner, all in one fell swoop, seemingly explicitly without appeal.

That Google has the legal right to choose with whom it does merchant business seems a reasonable enough premise. But it's hard to visualize other aspects of our lives -- particularly when real money is involved -- where we'd be willing to accept such a one-sided pronouncement.

Google presumably feels (and I'm attempting to get some official statements on this matter) that they are merely protecting their GC service from scofflaws and lowlifes who might wish to rip off customers, and to avoid dealing with certain highly controversial categories of merchandise and services. A useful goal set, but what happens when innocents are falsely accused, again without explanation or obvious recourse?

Is Google so confident in their processes that they view errors as impossible? Or are a certain number of errors viewed as the cost of doing business, on the assumption that few upset parties would bother to pursue the matter (e.g. in small claims court, etc.)? Is the attitude that given the large number of GC merchant accounts there just isn't the time or resources to give every accused merchant a full hearing?

I do support Google's rigorously enforcing rules to protect Google Checkout. However, without clear explanations for account shutdown, formal procedures for obtaining additional information and for appeals, and in general without a basic sense of fairness in such situations, innocent parties can all too easily be mischaracterized as violators.

Even if 100% of the merchants in these cases deserved to be kicked off of GC, the current form letter shutdown procedure seems fundamentally unconscionable. If nothing else it could be interpreted as arrogant, and might even invite regulatory or legislative interventions.

I do not assert that Google should change their rules about who should be allowed to use Google Checkout, or regarding what should or should not be sold through the system.

However, I do feel that a significant change in the manner of communications associated with such Google Checkout matters would be in both Google's and the Internet communities' short and long-term interests. I would also suggest that my prior proposals regarding a Google Ombudsman concept might be relevant.

Google is a great company with -- I truly believe -- an admirable corporate ethic, but effective public communications continues to be a sometimes notably weak spot in the Google milieu. I am confident though that Google has the ability to improve this aspect of their corporate culture by applying the same effort to this area as they have so successfully to the many other aspects of their brand and services.


Posted by Lauren at 04:26 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 28, 2009

The Betamax Lesson: For YouTube and Others, Does Video Quality Matter?

Greetings. An old friend of mine -- a veteran in the L.A. broadcasting brotherhood -- recently made some disparaging comments about the quality of Internet video during a chat we were having about YouTube.

"I can't stand watching that stuff," he complained. "The quality is so low it's like looking through a spaghetti strainer."

I pointed out that the quality of YouTube videos was almost totally dependent on the skill and resources of the party doing the encoding, and that the various HQ and HD YouTube encodings could look very good, even when viewed as I often do on a conventional 16:9 TV. Are they "broadcast quality" by industry standards -- no. But all things considered, often quite nice indeed, and getting even better.

For that matter, even most of the non-HQ, non-HD encodings on YouTube are not necessarily painful to watch -- not great, but they can be just fine (I'm speaking of video encoding quality, not necessarily content quality -- the latter is a whole 'nuther ball of wax, but to each their own).

This got me thinking. Leaving aside my friend with the "golden eyes" -- how much do most people really care about video quality? This is not just an academic question -- vast sums of money and other resources are in play expanding video on the Internet, and the tolerance of viewers to differing quality levels is a significant issue.

Which brings us to the Betamax -- Sony's first consumer videocassette format, essentially a scaled down version of their U-Matic 3/4" format. (U-Matic still survives by the way -- Sony sells associated gear. In fact there's a quite heavy U-Matic player just a few yards from where I'm sitting that I use when digitizing old tapes.)

U-Matic quality is really quite good by 1970s standards -- Beta (especially Beta Hi-Fi) as well. But Beta was wiped out in the consumer market by VHS, which -- it is generally agreed -- had significantly lower video and audio quality, but did possess the characteristic of longer record and play times per cassette.

But most people never cared much about VHS' video quality. They wanted to watch movies, record TV shows, and in general use their videocassette units as "memory machines" of one sort or another.

And therein is the key to the video quality conundrum. For we don't actually see videos with our eyes alone, we see them with our brains. And our brains can be very forgiving of imagery that is less than "perfect" -- especially if that imagery is triggering old memories.

In my very young youth, in the days before consumer videotape, I used to record the audio tracks of movies I liked when they aired on TV. I could play back those tapes and "watch" well-loved movies in my head almost as if I was really viewing them.

When U-Matic videotape units started to circulate, casual, non-commercial video "piracy" became practical. Often someone working in a tape transfer house would make an original copy, then people would copy that copy on and on, generation after generation, to hand out to their friends, who would continue the process.

Watching a videotaped copy of Star Wars about ten generations down is quite an experience. Drifting sync causes the image to bobble around like a ship pitching on stormy seas. Audio buzz and background noise "breathing" could be awesome to behold. But everyone still got a kick out of watching such things, quality be damned.

What does this all suggest? Well, for one thing, that perhaps people are generally more tolerant of less than stellar video (and audio) quality when they're getting it for free. Another possibility -- if you're viewing or listening to material that you already know well, the quality is less important since it's mainly acting as a guide track to the virtual copy of that performance that's playing out simultaneously from your own brain's memory.

Does this mean that a service streaming old episodes of Batman (shades of the only real Catwoman -- and quite a lady -- Julie Newmar), can get away with visually much lower quality and lower bandwidth streams than a first-run movie service?

The answer to this would seem to be an obvious yes as far as most viewers are concerned, yet there's surprisingly little discussion in Internet infrastructure circles about viewers' attitudes toward different video quality levels vis-a-vis such content-specific factors. In an age of looming -- in some cases perhaps draconian -- bandwidth caps, these issues may be taking on new importance.

Which brings us back to my friend with the spaghetti strainer. Even he would probably admit that his views are not characteristic of most Internet users. But if nothing else, he does help to demonstrate that video quality is in the eye -- and the brain -- of the beholder, even on the Internet ... perhaps especially on the Internet.

Catwoman: I could give you more happiness than anyone in the world.
Batman: How?
Catwoman: By being your partner in life, it's me and you against the world.
Batman: What about Robin?
Catwoman: Robin ... Oh I've got it. We'll kill him!

Posted by Lauren at 08:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 26, 2009

Twitter This -- Or Not

Greetings. I'm not one to jump quickly into the latest Internet fad, but some time ago, I created several Twitter accounts for experimentation. I have no interest in following what other people do minute by minute in their personal lives, and I feel confident that as far as my personal activities are concerned the feeling is mutual among the readership.

But while I've continued to give Facebook and MySpace a wide berth -- they're just not my style -- Twitter seems to be developing into a medium with potential value in the Internet ecosystem poised somewhere between e-mail messages and blog entries, especially since the very short nature of individual Twitter notes (much like cell phone SMS text messages) encourages brevity.

I had been musing to myself that Twitter could be useful to broadcast quickie thoughts of possible use on topics of the day, pointers to especially interesting and/or amusing Web resources, and similar items -- with the specific exclusion of routine aspects of my corporeal existence.

Still, I haven't had Twitter on my hot "to do" list, and I didn't mention my creation of Twitter accounts to anyone.

So I was a bit surprised recently to see some Twitter "followers" popping up on one of the accounts, and in particular associated with an account that does not (for whatever reason) seem to be listed when someone does a Twitter search on my name. At least some of the followers that appeared are people I know, or know of, that look entirely legit. Others I'm not so sure about.

Since I had not yet added any identifying information to the accounts, and given that my name is certainly not unique, it appears that these folks linked in through a process of exclusion, assuming that they'd quickly figure out if it was "really me" if I ever started using the account.

Given their efforts, and my obtaining a few days ago of an efficient little Twitter client for the G1 phone, I've decided to throw caution to the winds (a true risk taker, no?) and start officially displaying my Twitter address. And here it is in all of its creative glory:


Ta dah. [Insert crickets chirping sounds here ... ]

Seriously, free free to latch onto ("follow") @laurenweinstein via Twitter if you wish, though I can't make any promises at this point as to exactly how I'll use it, how often I'll use it, or if the texts I send via Twitter will be worth the energy dissipated in the transmission process. It will be an experiment and learning process for me, and likely to take some time (as was the case with my blog) to home in on the most useful modus operandi.

One promise I will make though is that you will not be faced with reading the everyday minutiae of my life. I may note articles, interviews, blog entries, or other similar items of possible interest (including ones in which I'm involved), and noteworthy events or hopefully non-mundane insights might make the grade. If there are enough "followers" (somehow I find that term rather creepy) I may pose questions to the throng from time to time.

I'll just play it by ear -- we only really need to be close enough for jazz in this case anyway.

We shall see.


Posted by Lauren at 09:29 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 25, 2009

China Shoots Self in Foot With Apparent YouTube Censorship Attempt

Greetings. As you've probably heard by now, YouTube -- the entire site -- has apparently been blocked in China by the nation's massive content control regime. At last report, YouTube remains blocked.

While there isn't official confirmation (even of the block itself) from Chinese officials, there is widespread speculation that the shutdown was triggered by Chinese government displeasure with a particular YouTube video, purporting to show Chinese soldiers beating Tibetan monks. The authenticity of that video has been disputed by China.

In practice, whether or not the entire video is genuine or not is essentially irrelevant to the broader issues of Internet content and censorship attempts.

Rather than blocking entire sites, China of late has been trending toward more selective blocking of specific Web pages or other specific Internet items, so the blocking of the entire YouTube site would appear on its face to be a major escalation, which frankly flies in the face of logic.

Actually, there's all manner of illogical aspects to such situations. Google has in the past removed specific "offending" videos from YouTube upon complaints by specific foreign government officials -- theoretically blocking those videos' access to the entire world (though in practice alternate copies are always available scattered around the Net and usually trivial to find). In some cases (like the ongoing mass blocking of YouTube music videos from the UK due to an ongoing rights dispute), Google deploys regional blocking.

But again, in all of these cases, every single one of these videos can be obtained online by anyone from other Internet sources.

While I understand why Google must respond to rights-based take down requests, the bottom line is that such efforts aren't only ineffectual, they also draw new attention to the videos in question.

This is the case with the current Chinese YouTube blockage as well. I've gotten notes from people who hadn't even heard about the Tibetan video before word of the Chinese YouTube block started circulating widely in the press yesterday. Once folks knew about it, copies (sometimes encrypted) started flying around the Net at lightning speed -- through torrents, FTP, e-mail attachments -- you name it.

The end result is that far more people are now paying attention to a video that China presumably wanted to suppress and minimalize.

China is certainly not alone in failing so far to learn a key lesson -- that effective Internet censorship is impossible -- no matter how beneficial to society their leaders (and leaders in other countries) may feel such content censorship efforts to be.

In the final analysis, the appropriate and effective response to disputed information in the Internet age is more information, not less. If a video is faked, then explain why, lay out your case -- treat your population like thinking adults. Trying to block videos or other Internet information just doesn't work.

Governments (all through human history) have had a natural affinity for censorship, but Internet technology has rendered impotent that tool in a manner that even the invention of the printing press was unable to accomplish.

The sooner that the governments of the world recognize and accept this reality, and adjust their policies accordingly, the better off both they and their citizens will be. Any other course will not only fail, but will engender ever increasing damage to their own interests in the process.

A lose-lose proposition, to be sure.


Posted by Lauren at 09:56 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 22, 2009

The Record Industry's Suicide by YouTube

Greetings. If you've browsed around YouTube videos lately via any of the available platforms (an easily acquired habit that sometimes requires intervention to reduce) you may have noticed an increasing number of oddly silent videos. These are almost universally amateur shorts of one kind or another. Here's an example -- posted on YouTube almost three years ago -- found with a "devo are we not men" YouTube search query.

When viewed on the main YouTube site, the reason for the audio's absence is explained by an ominous warning:

This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by WMG. The audio has been disabled.

WMG. Weapons of Mass Greed? No, but as Bullwinkle the Moose might say, you're getting close -- Warner Music Group. The masses of homemade videos with missing soundtracks are the result of an ongoing dispute -- well explained in this current New York Times article -- between WMG and Google.

I won't attempt to delve here into the complexities of copyright law and fair use, but I will make a simple observation. The ability of record labels (and by extension the motion picture industry) to prevent what they consider to be the unauthorized use of their works is rapidly being destroyed by technological change. I discussed the issue earlier this month in Copyright: Dead Man Walking.

To the extent that these media firms will have any significant economic future, it is likely to largely depend on the good will of music and movie lovers to pay for what they could otherwise easily obtain for free through various mechanisms.

If such media giants are seen by consumers as being greedy by targeting amateur video producers for enforcement actions, the likely result will be a backlash of bad will -- driving people farther toward the free distribution channels. This could well be suicidal for these firms in the long run.

In a battle between Google and the record labels, the latter have a lot more to lose at this point, for they risk significantly escalating the existing animosities that many potential customers (for justified reasons or not) feel toward the labels and their typically conglomerate parent companies today.

The record labels may feel that they're between a rock and a hard place. They realize that Google and YouTube are important -- perhaps critical -- to their futures, but after so many years of being in the driver's seat when it comes to financial negotiations, they find the thought of being in a less overwhelmingly dominant role quite galling to say the least.

We can all understand this. But that understanding doesn't change the essential facts. The clock is running out rapidly on the traditional technological duplication controls that have protected the audio and video media financial ecosystems since their inceptions.

An entirely new gestalt for dealing with such media in the digital age is necessary, and even the outlines of what this might be are decidedly fuzzy. But the very last thing that anyone in the record biz should want to do right now is to alienate ordinary folks who want to throw a soundtrack on their homemade YouTube videos. Otherwise, it may ultimately be those labels themselves that end up being silenced as a result.


Posted by Lauren at 10:59 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 21, 2009

Pitchforks or Pointed Ears -- vs. AIG

Greetings. A mob mentality seems to be taking hold regarding the financial crisis, and unless we all stop behaving like opportunistic children, we could find ourselves in a very bad place indeed, that might make today's situation look like a cakewalk by comparison.

Mobs are virtually always wrong, and typically end up doing far more damage than the targets of their wrath could ever do.

Politicians, news commentators, and others are now consciously using the AIG bonus situation to stir up populist, mob-type actions, apparently in the furtherance of their own future goals and positions.

The most likely outcome of these activities, like all demonization efforts (the manipulation of public opinion following the U.S. invasion of Iraq comes immediately to mind as another example), is typically the loss of much blood, much treasure, or both. In fact, the same style of rhetoric is being used on some cable news channels about AIG as was heard against Saddam Hussein.

Fomented emotionalism solves nothing, and only raises the probability that we make bad decisions and go down paths that may sometimes appear to have short term benefits, but bring with them immense long term costs.

People who know me well have sometimes accused me of being "coldly logical" in a crisis. I'll plead guilty to that, even at the risk of channeling Mr. Spock from time to time.

I get angry and upset like everyone else about our financial disaster, but there's a time and place for emotional outbursts later, after we're on a logical and clear path to real solutions.

Everyone needs to take a step back, take a deep breath, and think about what we actually need to do to save the global financial system from total cataclysm.

Emotional grandstanding and pitchfork wielding mobs will only help to assure that we all -- to use the vernacular -- end up well and truly screwed.


Posted by Lauren at 02:55 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 19, 2009

Chilling Chaos in Congress Over AIG Bonuses

Greetings. I can't be the only person feeling increasingly disturbed by Congress' reaction to the obnoxious AIG bonuses controversy.

I believe we all pretty much agree that the bonuses were utterly inappropriate to be contracted when they were ... but the fact is that they were contracted, and work was done on the basis of those contracts (much of which is now completed, and the relevant persons departed as planned). We now know it was the Obama Treasury Department that requested the language honoring those bonuses (despite righteous indignation we're hearing now from the administration about the bonuses -- after the story blew up).

It's particularly chilling to hear Congress talking about special targeted 90% or 95% taxes to try suck back the bonuses from individuals at this stage of the game (the House is about to pass something along these lines as I type this). Certainly it is completely appropriate to recover the funds from AIG, but retroactively going after the individuals who worked under legal contract terms -- in expectation of being paid under those terms -- seems to me to set a terrible precedent.

UPDATE: A reader reminded me that if Congress is looking for a role model for this sort of retroactive contract annulment, it need look no farther than Darth Vader's opinion regarding deals.

Also very disturbing -- some Congressmen have called for publication of AIG employees' personal information, even in the face of death threats against those employees and their families. Emotions are running wild over logic.

I'm a big supporter of Obama, but the AIG situation seems to me to have become overly personalized, and now members of Congress are trying to out posture each other with "get tough" reactions, some of which seem to be very poorly thought out (surprise! surprise!) and could do even more damage.

Am I alone in thinking that the situation is becoming chaotic, with many of the negative ramifications associated with such chaos?


Posted by Lauren at 11:27 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 18, 2009

ICANN Asked to Remake the Internet in Joseph Smith's Image?

Greetings. If there's one thing that scares the bejabbers out of me, it's when organized religion -- either directly or via proxies -- attempts to nose its way into technology policy issues.

It appears that such a scenario is unfolding currently, with a concerted new effort to fundamentally remake the Internet in a manner befitting the sensibilities of top-down religious hierarchies. An Internet Pope? The Spanish Inquisition? Not exactly -- that's the incorrect religion for this particular case.

The Register connects the dots of a rather sordid sequence of events in an article posted today.

Executive summary: It appears that mainly Utah-based Mormon anti-porn crusaders, in league with Ralph J. Yarro III (SCO Group chairman) have combined forces to petition ICANN toward the creation of a new "Cybersafety Constituency" -- and are now reportedly using form letters to dominate the brief period of time available for comments.

To better understand how this all comes together and what such a Cybersafety Constituency might be after, one must be aware that Cheryl Preston, a key player for CP80 (headed by Yarro) is spearheading this effort.

CP80, which has been around for a number of years, has been pushing a radical and impractical (decorum prevents me from saying "loony" at this juncture) plan for fundamental restructuring of Internet architecture, along with associated new laws, to "channelize" the Internet into the censorship advocates' dream machine. These are hard-core Internet content control zealots we're talking about, at least judging from their own materials.

CP80 says that a whole slew of big name corporations, including Apple, Toshiba, Wal-Mart, Sony, PetSmart, Office Depot, and on and on, are "contribution partners" to their effort -- seeming to imply support for the CP80 agenda. In reality, it appears likely to me that these are merely purchase affiliation links, and I wonder how many of these firms are aware of the manner in which CP80 is using their names and logos.

While it's difficult to visualize CP80's radical agenda gaining much traction in the short term, their entanglement with the new ICANN petition and what appears to be a well orchestrated Mormon pressure campaign certainly rate a "yellow shading toward orange" alert.

To be exceptionally clear about this, the key issue here isn't the particular religion involved. I'd say exactly the same thing about any other organized religion that appeared to be involving itself -- in my view -- inappropriately in technology policy matters.

Unfortunately, history teaches us that organized religion (a concept that I've always considered to be utterly orthogonal to truly meaningful questions of God, gods, and spirituality in general) is all too often an instrument for societal control rather than enlightenment.

I consider it crucial that the Internet not be sucked into this particular maelstrom.


Posted by Lauren at 02:52 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 17, 2009

Is Google "Destroying" the Jury System?

Greetings. A fascinating story in the current New York Times -- Mistrial by iPhone -- explores how easy access to Google and other Internet-related technologies are throwing judges into a tizzy all through the U.S. court system.

One of the perceived problems is that jurors are blogging, twittering, and otherwise communicating about current cases in proscribed manners.

But a much more serious issue -- from the standpoint of those observers who are so upset about it -- is jurors using Google and other reference facilities to do their own research on cases, despite judges' admonitions not to engage in such behaviors -- with easy access to the Net from cell phones and other portable devices rapidly accelerating this trend.

While I understand the concerns, I would be less than totally honest if I didn't state plainly that I have very little sympathy for the "Google and friends will destroy the jury system" argument.

Unless there are plans to sequester all juries from start to finish of trials in Faraday cages, the jury system will just have to adjust to the fact that jurors can no longer be relied upon to act as "empty vessels" into which carefully controlled facts can be poured, isolated from all outside inputs. To expect jurors to comply with "no research" orders with such vast information resources literally at their fingertips is unrealistic in the extreme.

It seems certain that the changes in the jury system that will be wrought by these technologies will be significant, quite possibly game changing in many ways.

But there are many persons, including myself, who have long felt that the current U.S. jury system is severely dysfunctional and long overdue for major and fundamental alterations.

Too often the surest way to get tossed from a jury pool is -- egads! -- to actually know anything about the topic at hand. Cases are legion of jurors expressing horror after verdicts regarding miscarriages of justice, caused by the withholding of basic information from juries during the trials themselves. Evidence manipulation -- and jury manipulation by lawyers -- have become both sciences and art forms.

A current example of unconscionable fact suppression is the conviction under federal statutes of a legally-licensed (here in California, under state law) seller of medical marijuana. He's about to be sentenced, with a theoretical exposure to decades in federal prison. Yet during the trial his lawyers were forbidden by the court from even mentioning the key fact that he was selling medical marijuana in accordance with California law, while prosecutors were free to describe the defendant as if he were a run-of-the-mill drug dealer. "Disgraceful" doesn't begin to describe the obscenity of the process in this case.

So it should be no surprise that many persons reading about technology's impact on jury trials may react with something akin to "Good -- It's about time that our legal system advanced beyond 19th century information control concepts."

I realize that some readers may strongly disagree with me about this topic, and I welcome your thoughts. But I always call issues as I see them, and when it comes to technology vs. the current jury system, I hope (and expect) that technology will win -- because ultimately, in my opinion, that will be best for us all.


Posted by Lauren at 05:59 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Jim Cramer Stock Manipulation Video Pulled from YouTube, But ...

Greetings. The now notorious Jim Cramer Stock Manipulation video that I recently noted (apparently taped in late 2006, and on YouTube since last year) has suddenly been pulled from YouTube due to copyright claims by Fascinating that this occurred only after it received so much negative attention on everything from my blog, to CNN, to Jon Stewart, ... to just about everywhere else.

This isn't to say that shouldn't be able to assert a copyright claim if they so choose -- even if doing so will likely bring about exactly the reverse of what they presumably intend. It's a hopeless attempt at damage control. Does anybody really believe that removing the video from YouTube at this point will do anything but extend the controversy, or that interested parties don't routinely archive videos that have a high probability of being suddenly blocked on YouTube? Trying to wall people off from that video now only makes it that much more of a "must see" attraction!

Remembering my maxim that, "It's impossible to successfully censor the Internet by trying to remove materials that have attracted attention after being posted publicly" -- it's certain that plenty of copies are around for diligent searchers to locate with comparative ease.

And even if the Lords of Censorship begin attempting legal actions to try censor search engines themselves on a large scale (a not necessarily unlikely scenario given some popular sensibilities), Jim Cramer's "how to" video on stock manipulation will still likely take its place in the pantheon of Internet video wonders that will never die.


Posted by Lauren at 12:18 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 16, 2009

"Sci-Fi" Channel to Become the Syfy "Syphilis" Channel

Greetings. For a number of its early years, I was in fairly close contact with staffers at "Sci-Fi Channel" (SFC). The online "Twilight Zone Episode Guide" that I co-authored decades ago was their official Web site guide to the show for ages, and they'd refer TZ-related queries to me (yet another of my gratis services ...) I have a pretty good collection of SFC publicity paraphernalia from those days.

But over the years SFC has become much less of a science-fiction (or even horror) channel, and increasingly a "whatever we can air that our target demographic will watch channel." Once they started running the inane professional wrestling shows, I knew they were Sci-Fi in name only.

What's more, their massive cutting of shows (like classic TZs!) to stuff in more commercials, and their very high commercial load in general, has made the channel pretty much unwatchable (for me, anyway) over the last few years (that's not to say that their programming mix hasn't been profitable for them, however).

Now comes word that Sci-Fi Channel (more recently known just as "Sci-Fi") is changing their name to -- uh -- "Syfy" this July. That's S-Y-F-Y. Get it?

My first thought on seeing this new name out of context -- "Huh? Is there really a market for an entire channel devoted to venereal diseases? The Syphilis Channel?

Oh, I see, they're trying to be hip -- cool -- diversified!

In other words, Just Another Channel.

Some sci-fi fans seem to be all worked up about this change. I say, just forget about it. SFC lost its way long ago in all respects other than as an NBC Universal profit center, and in the YouTube age is better remembered for what it was than for what it is -- or for what it's about to become.

And about the silliness of the new name -- Syfy -- what the hell. The name, like the channel itself, will be nothing that a stiff drink and a penicillin chaser won't erase from our minds with comparative ease. Alternatively, use a condom or other appropriate protection while viewing.

Your choice.


Posted by Lauren at 11:54 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 12, 2009

Jim Cramer Explains How to Manipulate the Stock Market

Greetings. OK gang. First, take your blood pressure medication. Done? Good. Now you can risk watching a short video of financial "guru" Jim Cramer explaining How to Manipulate the Stock Market. Reportedly taped in 2006, it's only being widely seen now and has suddenly gone viral.

Since I'm opposed to torture, I'm at something of a loss as to an appropriate punishment in a real world or even karmic sense for behavior such as Jim outlines -- even if his actions were and/or are legal.


Blog Update (March 17, 2009): Jim Cramer Stock Manipulation Video Pulled from YouTube, But ...

Posted by Lauren at 01:33 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 11, 2009

New Attacks on Google in the "Photo Wars"

Greetings. The latest salvo in the "cameras cause terrorism" battles has been fired by a State Assemblyman here in California, who has introduced legislation -- AB-255 -- to require Google Earth (and similar services) to blur a range of California locations -- as presumed protection against terrorist attacks. The fine for violations would be up to a cool $250K/day. The bill's proponent feels sure that other states and the federal government will want to get in on the mapping censorship bandwagon in a big way.

Assemblyman Joel Anderson (a San Diego Republican) lists initial sites to be "protected" under his legislation as schools, places of worship, government buildings, and medical facilities.

But why stop there, Mr. Anderson? If you're so sure that blurring public access aerial imagery is so important to stopping terrorism, why not go for broke? Don't people in shopping centers deserve the same protection? On the freeways? At your house? My house? Animal shelters? Movie theater multiplexes? My local motorcycle parts dealer?

This is all utter nonsense, of course. Highly questionable claims about the recent Mumbai attacks notwithstanding, I've yet to see any confirmed evidence of Google Earth or its kin being used in any significant way for terrorism planning beyond what could easily be done with more conventional maps or in-person observations.

Google has already bent over backwards to fulfill government requests for blurring of supposedly highly sensitive locations in aerial photos, and blurs faces and license plates in Street View.

The risk was always present that starting down the mapping "self-censorship" road could start an avalanche of demands from entities who just can't stand the notion of the public having access to good quality photographic imagery. After all, who knows what safety violations or other skulduggery observant members of the masses might find?

But of course, detailed mapping imagery and live closed circuit (CCTV) camera networks in the hands of law enforcement are viewed as wholly different matters by most of these same folks. Just look at the UK where there now seem to be enough CCTV cameras to cover the bodily orifices of the entire population on nearly a 24/7 basis.

Real-time government CCTV video surveillance networks can be genuinely privacy invasive and subject to all manner of serious abuses. But the types of details provided by publicly available photographic mapping services like Google Earth (and Street View for that matter) are extremely important as tools that enhance the public's right to know. And these mapping services are of extremely marginal value to terrorists or other evil doers in the real world, relative to other easily available and far less hi-tech information sources.

Knee jerk attacks on Google Earth and similar Internet-based mapping services -- seemingly inevitably made without hard evidence to back them up -- need to cease. I hope that Google, Microsoft, and others who provide these services don't give in easily and unnecessarily to unreasonable demands. This slippery slope of censorship puts into sharp focus how easily the entire planet could become one big blur.


Posted by Lauren at 06:40 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 10, 2009

What Would Allan Sherman Sing About the Internet and Network Neutrality?

Greetings. Something on the lighter side -- I think we all need it these days.

You're probably familiar with Allan Sherman's Grammy winning novelty song Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp) -- to the tune of Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. Sherman was actually an exec for game show production team Goodson and Todman. Sherman co-created I've Got a Secret and became its producer. His singing career took off as an accidental "cocktail party" sideline.

He peaked in the early-60s, but the Kennedy assassination put a damper on novelty humor, and Sherman was found, alone in an apartment here in L.A. at age 48, dead from obesity and emphysema, only a decade after "Hello Muddah's" fame.

OK, the backstory isn't funny. But this next part is ...

Sherman's songs covered a much broader range than most contemporary observers might realize, including some "technical" topics of the day.

One of his songs that seems particularly appropriate now came during the transition from old-style prefix dialing (Murray Hill 5-9975) to all digit dialing as we know it today. This was considered to be quite controversial at the time, much like the arguments about overlay area codes vs. area code splits currently (I'm a big fan of overlays. Splits usually suck -- to use a technical term.)

But I digress. Sherman expressed his dissatisfaction with the monopoly status of AT&T and the forced move to "digit dialing" with one of his perhaps least known songs.

If he were alive today, his take on the current state of the Internet and Network Neutrality might be amusing indeed.

For now, it's time to sing:

"The Let's All Call Up AT&T and Protest to the President March"


Posted by Lauren at 01:54 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 09, 2009

Copyright: Dead Man Walking

Greetings. As I type this text, I'm listening to old tunes on imeem in the background. In case you haven't being paying attention recently to the Media Piracy Wars, imeem is perhaps the best demonstration to date that the RIAA and record labels have already capitulated -- a fate likely to follow in relatively short order for all other media that can be easily digitized. Right now I'm playing a stream of Animals classics -- with "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" spinning at the moment (as it happens, long my theme song).

The imeem site, among various other fascinating features, legally allows you to play -- in their entirety -- pretty much any single or album track you're likely to care about. Rock, classical, pop, novelty, soundtrack -- whatever, it's a seemingly bottomless box. OK, there are some exceptions, but I have to try pretty hard to find selections that aren't available.

While in theory you can only play (not download) the tracks for free, there are of course a variety of ways to capture such audio content, in either analog or digital domains. Even postulating the unlikely government mandating of draconian content control mechanisms (like crippled A/D converters, analog tagging blocks, and other similar creepy crawlies) trying to prevent the essentially unlimited transfer of digitized media materials between private parties is already a lost cause.

And while most of the arguing to date has been over illicit media exchanges (e.g., via P2P networks) -- it seems inevitable that ultimately motion pictures will follow a similar path to that of music when it comes to pretty much universal legal free online access in some form -- after all, from a digital standpoint, the only real difference is the much larger number of bytes, and that's decreasingly a practical problem. Books and other written materials may likely follow the same course in due time. Software packages have achieved some protection when tightly tied to individual computers through online registration systems, but pushback from users, non-copy-protected applications, and open source packages are increasingly impacting this arena as well.

Back in YouTube and Google Book Search: Pain, Delight, and Copyright, I suggested that technological change was "diluting" the concept of copyright.

I'll now go one step farther. Copyright -- for most practical purposes -- is effectively dead. Now, that doesn't mean that the slowly moldering corpse of copyright won't be with us for quite some time in various forms. Copyright concepts will maintain their value longest as mechanisms to prosecute illicit commercial exploitation of associated media, but as a tool to prevent or control mass distribution, the coffin nails are being hammered in more deeply with every passing day.

This situation shouldn't automatically trigger fear -- or joy for that matter. We don't have to like or hate the concept of copyright -- which has certainly provided major useful benefits to both individuals and society for many years. But we must accept the fact that technological changes have fundamentally undermined key elements that made copyright practical -- namely the difficulty and expense of duplication and transport. Ubiquitous, inexpensive digitization tools, plus the spread of broadband Internet services, have swept those limitations out the window for most media.

The important question isn't how to save copyright -- because that's already effectively a lost cause in most respects. What we should be doing right now is working together to try find the best models for the future that will reward creativity in ways that foster its flowering (and allow people to make a living!) while still acknowledging that the game has fundamentally changed. The old rules we played in these regards are increasingly marginalized historical curiosities.

Finding the new paths won't be easy. There likely won't be any obvious yellow brick roads in evidence. But this is a task that we must embark upon collectively and immediately -- as individuals, nations, and as an ever more interconnected global community. Isolated or proprietary commercial "solutions" will not win the day.

Once we have worked our way past the "dead man walking" of copyright, we can far more effectively move forward with new creation and distribution models for vibrant music, movies, books, and all of the other media forms -- past, present, and future.

The time to start this journey in earnest is now.


Posted by Lauren at 12:20 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 04, 2009

Amusing - Interesting - Weird - Wacky

Greetings. On the theory that non sequiturs can be fun -- or at least help to banish the boredom, I've added a rather silly feature to GCTIP Forums, the new Amusing - Interesting - Weird - Wacky category.

It seemed only appropriate that since GCTIP is primarily concerned with network measurement, bandwidth, transparency, and related Internet topics, I should also provide suggestions on places around the Net that you can visit to burn up your precious bandwidth allocations. My ulterior motive (it's hard to find a free lunch, except at "Charlie's Place") is to encourage visitors who might come around for the fun stuff to also hopefully take some time to join the serious technical and policy discussions present -- that are the real reason for the site's existence.

Seriously (?), I've been meaning for ages to set up a place to quickly note various of my serendipitous and other "finds" around the Net (at least the ones suitable for public note in polite company). I've started off the category with a Videos and Other Moving Images section, but I'll add others as they strike my fancy.

Featured to begin our journey: Clyde Crashcup Invents the Bathtub!

Yeah, I'm rather easily amused sometimes.


Posted by Lauren at 06:34 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 02, 2009

Beware Housing Rental Advance-Fee "Scrape" Scams

Greetings. With the housing market in meltdown, there are vast numbers of persons currently in motion from one residence to another, sometimes in desperate situations. This has opened the door for all sorts of scams, including an Internet-enabled version of the classic 419 "advance-fee" fraud, now directed at local rental real estate instead of promising multi-million dollar payoffs.

I ran into this myself over the weekend. I was helping a friend try to find a house to lease here in L.A. on a very restricted budget. One particular newly posted Craigslist ad that met my search parameters got my attention immediately.

The initial problem was that it appeared to be too good. The lease price seemed way out of line -- far too low -- for the property and location (even taking into account its location very close to a freeway). Still, you never know.

My friend contacted the party listing the ad via e-mail (Note 1: No phone number provided -- though that's not so unusual with Craigslist ads).

Replies came back promptly from a party claiming they had to move suddenly to Kentucky, confirming the low price, and sounding all gung-ho to rent.

Note 2: E-mail correspondent was using a Yahoo mail address

Note 3: E-mail correspondents' e-mail address name and "real name" displayed were not quite the same.

Note 4: E-mail correspondents' language and phrasing "I had to move quickly here with my only daughter" -- etc. -- were highly reminiscent of 419 scam wordings in tone and feel, just in a new context.

Note 5: A real deal like that would have been snapped up in five minutes. But the
correspondent acted as if they had no other inquiries.

My friend was immediately provided with the street address of the property (a bit surprising). Searching on that address found other listings for the property, but
with major variations in statistics like house size, and at almost three times the asking price for the lease that was quoted in the original Craigslist ad.

It seems clear what's going on. Someone, probably offshore, has "scraped" real online ads for that house, created their own fake listings, and is trying to get people, probably multiple victims, to wire them "deposits" and personal information to supposedly lease the house -- a house with which they have no legal connection.

I have a title search in progress. If nothing else I'd like to notify the true owner of this property about what's going on. But I naturally have now recommended to my friend -- who was already suspicious -- that they forget about any further contacts regarding this particular house (any leads from the readership regarding affordable rental housing here in L.A. will be gratefully accepted).

The moral of this story is as old as human history. If a deal looks too good to be true, it almost certainly isn't legitimate. Human nature always pushes us to hope that we've found an exception to that rule -- but that's a rare circumstance indeed.

Buyer -- and renter -- beware!


Posted by Lauren at 09:18 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 01, 2009

Authors Guild Goes Goofy Over Kindle Audio

Greetings. The Authors Guild, in one of the most downright, patently silly moves I've seen in the intellectual property arena in quite some time, has forced Amazon to modify the synthesized text-to-speech feature of their Kindle portable e-book unit, so that publishers/authors can control whether or not you will be permitted to have a book read to you by a barely tolerable synthetic voice. The Guild's theory is that since Amazon isn't paying for audio rights (of the sort associated with commercial audio books), synthesized voices should also be under the Guild's control.

This is pure goofiness with a capital G. Synthesized speech has indeed gotten better over the years, but in many respects is still quite reminiscent of what I was dealing with hacking the "Federal Screw Works" (that's the name, gang!) Votrax VS6 phonetic synthesizer at UCLA for my "Touch Tone Unix" project several decades ago. That is, there's no way that you'd confuse their emotionless vocalizations with real human speech the vast majority of the time, and their overall sound quality and intelligibility remain inferior in major ways.

Would most people who buy audio books happily suffer a move by publishers to switch from professional narrations to synthesized speech? Of course not. There's absolutely no comparison. And PC-based text readers have been around for many years without attracting the Guild's wrath.

Attempts to block the use of synthesized text readers by devices like the Kindle fly in the face of fair use, and would appear to be ripe for legislative and/or judicial remedies.

"Awt leeest dats mie ohpinieon."


Posted by Lauren at 04:34 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

T-Mobile Pricing Disparities Raising Eyebrows

Greetings. T-Mobile has been aggressively courting new customers to switch from other carriers in the U.S. -- for example through their exclusive carriage of the excellent Google Android G1 cell phone. But newer T-Mobile subscribers may be starting to feel a bit left out in the cold.

T-Mobile prides itself on its customer service -- though my own experiences as a relatively new subscriber of theirs have not been particularly stellar. 3G coverage even in supposedly supported areas tends to be spotty (lots of bobbling in and out of 3G, even just standing in one place -- sometimes with even the 2G signal dropping out entirely). And since their moderately priced plans with a decent number of minutes don't include nights/weekends, and T-Mobile doesn't provide rollover at all, the comparison with AT&T wireless plans can be disappointing in some respects.

That's not to say that there aren't positive aspects to T-Mobile, and in general the service and value provided are more or less adequate for most of my purposes. Indeed, there are certainly various problems with AT&T's wireless offerings and services as well.

But as of late, T-Mobile's promotional policies in particular have been triggering controversies around the Net.

T-Mobile tends to announce limited-time windows to sign up for various promotions, which they generate at irregular intervals. Some of these promotions look quite enticing on their face, but if you haven't been long with T-Mobile, you can be in for a surprise.

In particular, T-Mobile appears to be reserving most promotions as subscriber retention tools, and only making them available to subs of long standing. A recent "MyFavs" promotion fell into this category -- if you hadn't been a T-Mobile customer for long enough, you were out of luck.

Now comes a promotion sure to be even more controversial. T-Mobile is rolling out nationally -- over the next few days -- a promotion for an unlimited minutes voice plan for about $50/month (plus taxes, etc., of course). Considering that their existing unlimited voice plan costs nearly twice as much, this is a significant differential! Note that T-Mobile's standard 1000 minute plan (with NO night or weekend minutes) costs about $40/month. The new unlimited plan appears to be quite a deal.

The catch? Don't bother to apply unless you've been a T-Mobile sub for at least 22 months (notice how this is just under the typical 24 month contract period).

In general, I don't see anything inherently wrong with retention promotions and benefits for loyal customers. But in this case the pricing disparity seems so extreme that it essentially creates a "caste" system of T-Mobile subs, with newer subs paying much more than longer-term subscribers for the same services.

This strikes me as pushing the envelope a bit too far in terms of promotions. A relatively few months worth of that pricing differential would cover the cost of the contract early termination fee for newer T-Mobile customers.

If T-Mobile wants to maintain their image as the customer service leader in the U.S. cell phone industry, they might wish to consider opening up these promotions to all T-Mobile subscribers, not just the legacy population. Pricing disparities, taken too far, can quickly mutate from excitement to disapointment ... to resentment.


Posted by Lauren at 12:22 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein