November 30, 2009

The Web Ad Wars Continue: Will the Real Darth Vader, Please Stand Up?

Greetings. In our previous two installments of what I had originally intended to be a one-shot blog posting (How to Sink a Major Web Site with a Single Ad, and The Hard-Core Web Ad Haters Strike Back!) we explored my annoyance with "auto-play" audio ads and the responses I received from readers who hate all Web advertising.

Subsequently my inbox has been filling with comments covering a broader range of views on this subject, and I felt it appropriate to devote one more posting to the topic right now to illuminate some of those opinions.

As noted in my original entries, there appears to be universal disgust for ads that start playing audio as soon as you navigate to a page -- especially when audio material isn't expected on those pages. This is the type of Web ad that I despise the most, though as I've said I don't use ad blockers as a matter of principle.

But lots of folks do use ad blockers, and they weren't shy about telling me why.

Most commonly cited were blocking tools that targeted flash-based ads. While some persons simply were annoyed by all of the visual activity that such ads often represent -- even if silent until un-muted -- other correspondents had more technical complaints that are especially difficult to ignore.

I received a large number of notes complaining about ad problems for users on relatively slow Internet connections, and how loading of "heavy" ads (flash, significant amounts of JavaScript or other "rich" content, etc.) dragged down to a crawl everything that these users were doing.

This brings up another pertinent point. How often have you had a Web page freeze up completely during loading, and when you looked down at the activity bar you could see that everything was hanging waiting for a third-party ad server like to connect? Slow or badly configured ad servers just rub salt into the wound for people who aren't kindly disposed toward Web ads in the first place.

Coincidentally, Google's Steve Souders commented on exactly this issue during a newly published interview -- definitely worth reading.

Some users are less interested in the content of ads per se when it comes to blocking, and are mainly blocking due to perceived privacy-related tracking concerns. There were also a number of folks who noted the increasingly seen phenomenon of pages that refuse to load if common ad blocking mechanisms are active (of course there are ways around this, in a continuing ad-related "arms race").

There were also actually a few people who professed -- apparently in light of my arguments -- to feeling a bit guilty about their broad use of ad blockers, and who pledged to at least experiment with not blocking ads on those sites that they felt were deserving of support.

But overall the sense I get from all of this is something just short of bedlam.

There is no Dark Lord pulling the strings of the situation. Given the wide spectrum of opinions pervading all aspects of Web ad controversies, it's likely to be impossible to attain any general agreement about who are really the bad guys -- or the good guys -- in the Web advertising universe. More likely it's usually going to be a complex shade of gray.

I want the largely ad-supported Web to survive. I don't want the Internet to become the 21st century equivalent of New York's old Automat -- and having to "insert coins" in profuse numbers to access conventional Web sites.

Yet a range of factors suggest that we're on the cusp of big, perhaps radical changes. The EU is embracing broad restrictions on Web site cookies that may have collateral effects way beyond the privacy issues that are purportedly its focus. Here in the U.S., Congress seems poised to possibly pass legislation that would put major new limitations on Web site tracking.

And of course we have Web users who routinely block some or all Web ads.

Imagine the ramifications (and the boost to that ads blocking arms race) if one or more major Web browsers came pre-configured to block most existing Web ads.

We end up pretty close to where we started. I am not convinced that sufficient thought and analysis have been given to either short or long-term funding models for the vast majority of Web sites if the current ad-based paradigm becomes untenable for any of a number of reasons.

If individuals (via ad blocking) and/or legislators (via laws) sufficiently "devalue" the ad-based Web model and that model cannot adapt sufficiently, then we either need to resign ourselves to a fee-based model (like Murdoch's pay-through-the-nose concept, which I don't believe is practical nor desirable), or some other funding mechanism entirely.

But if none of these alternatives turns out to be workable and acceptable, the most likely outcome is a major contraction in the number of Web sites available to the Internet-using public at large.

That, I believe, would not only be a waste, but could potentially be quite dangerous as well -- especially if key sources of Web-based information are unable to survive in the resulting funding vacuum.

We really need to be getting ahead of the game on this one, gang. Or else we risk having a large percentage of the Web -- including perhaps many of its most useful sites -- being abandoned to figuratively swing uselessly in the wind.


Posted by Lauren at 06:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 28, 2009

The Hard-Core Web Ad Haters Strike Back!

Greetings. Yesterday, when I blogged How to Sink a Major Web Site with a Single Ad -- where I expressed my disdain for Web ads that start playing audio as soon as a Web page is loaded -- I frankly expected to get a number of agreeing comments. (Examples of these offending ads are still running right now over on ABC News, on several of the top story links.)

I was not disappointed. The "auto-play audio" ads appear to be among the most universally despised of Web ad formats. Several people noted that they consider a single appearance of such an ad on a site as grounds for blacklisting the site entirely. Others mentioned how such ads cause additional difficulty in multiply-tabbed browsing environments, and how they're an utter disaster for persons using screen reading text-to-speech systems.

What I had not expected, however, were messages I received expressing violent vitriol against Web advertisements of all kinds, triggered by my comment that I am generally not a fan of ad-blocking software (e.g. Blocking Web Ads -- And Paying the Piper).

An example of the intensity of such feelings among what I might term the "hard-core Web ad haters" is this (used with permission of the sender):

"Well here you and I fundamentally disagree. I don't give a damn if the site goes broke. I go out of my way to block ads, every one I can, I pay for the Internet, my computer, and my time costs money as well. I do NOT give permission to spam me with ads, spyware or advertising in any way. Ads are a scourge of the Internet, I don't want them, not a single one. What appears on MY screen is MY decision and I will or will not give privilege to appear here."

Whew! Next time maybe he won't hold back and will tell me what he really thinks!

I received quite a pile of messages along similar lines.

Now, perhaps some of these folks -- who presumably represent a significant number of Web users overall -- are ready to sign up for Rupert Murdoch's proposed (and likely doomed) "insert coins here" pay-wall plan. They might even be willing to pay a nickel per Google search.

But the sense I get is that most of them don't want ads and they don't want to pay for Web content. I consider Web ads -- so long as they don't cross the line into obnoxiousness -- to be a fair trade for receiving Web content without content-associated charges.

I like free Web content. I like it a lot. I much prefer the mostly ad-based Web to the "pay through the nose for all content" model that originally seemed a far more likely outcome to many of us involved in the early Internet and ARPANET.

So when I see Web users loudly condemning both pay and ad-supported Web paradigms, I must admit to feeling a bit taken aback.

For after all, the Internet is not merely a philosophical concept. It's a vast mass of people, disks, fans, cables, and power, plus a wide spectrum of other assorted flotsam and jetsam of both technology and society.

Most of this instrumentality and human energy have to be payed for somehow! Vast server farms don't come cheap to build, run, or manage. Software has to be designed, written, and tested. Even human volunteers must eat!

As Web advertisers have tried ever harder to attract as many viewers as possible and the highest product sales "conversion rates" attainable, they have been gradually pushing outward the bounds of Web ad types in common use.

My gut feeling is that the reaction of Web users to this gradual escalation is not necessarily linear. That is, at some point the increasingly "in your face" (or "in your ear") ad models may reach an inflection point, where significant numbers of users will rather suddenly tend to rebel by refusing to visit sites displaying particular sorts of ads.

How any given individual will react to any specific Web ad is definitely not a trivial analysis.

"Auto-play audio" ads seem to be pretty much hated everywhere. Pre-roll ads on selected video playbacks don't bother me much if they're under around 15 seconds in length -- but longer than that and I tend to frequently click away.

I have a significantly higher tolerance for creative ads than mundane ones. Ads that relate to topics that I'm interested in will hold my attention better than most generic Web ads -- but if ads seem to know too much about me the creepiness "push-back" factor takes over. This suggests that "targeted" Web advertising is a double-edged sword that must be very carefully modulated if maximum usefulness (to sellers and potential buyers alike) is to be attained without alienating viewers and triggering privacy-related concerns.

Ultimately, the Internet is a very big tent indeed, and every Web user will have their own opinions of what is or is not an acceptable Web ad to them -- and users will make this known every day through the sites that they visit and the links that they choose to click.

But I do feel it important to keep emphasizing that the Internet is not a free lunch. One way or another, it has to be paid for -- the infrastructure, content, people -- the whole enchilada.

Forgetting or ignoring this fact is potentially to imperil those very aspects of the Internet that have become such important parts of our daily lives.


Posted by Lauren at 08:18 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 27, 2009

How to Sink a Major Web Site with a Single Ad

Greetings. As I've noted previously, I am generally not a fan of ad-blocking software. I want as much Web content as possible to be free to viewers, and widespread blocking of ads potentially risks pushing more sites to try pay-based models that will probably not be viable. The likely result of large scale ad blocking could be a lot of useful Web sites vanishing entirely.

But if Web site viewers become seriously disgusted with specific ad formats, the sites that use them may be hammering nails into their own organizations' coffins.

Web ads are a tricky business. There's a vast gulf between an unobtrusive text ad and a giant "blot out" display ad (the latter sometimes seen these days even on the home pages of some distinguished news sites -- they take over most of your screen at least briefly). Deciding what's eyeball catching without being utterly revolting is no simple task.

There's one ad format though -- which has recently begun appearing on some major media sites such as ABC News over the last few days (including right now as I type this) -- that I suspect will drive away Web users faster than a concentrated squirt of mercaptan in an enclosed area.

I'm talking about embedded "auto-play" audio ads -- an audio (or usually video with audio) advertisement that fires up loudly as soon as an associated page is loaded.

There are various ways that Web ads can be distracting, but none that I'm familiar with can equal the sheer obnoxiousness of reaching a news story page and having a commercial come blaring without warning out of your speakers, surprising everyone in the vicinity (including that cat who was sleeping soundly in your lap, and awoke abruptly with fully extended claws!)

This isn't the same situation as navigating to a page where you expect to receive an audio playback and are appropriately prepared. It's also very different from video ads that auto-play -- but with their audio silenced until the user specifically activates the audio or otherwise clicks the ad.

Playing ads with enabled audio content automatically and unexpectedly on conventional Web pages -- and in some cases this will occur repeatedly each and every time you return to those pages -- is taking ads into a zone that I believe most Web users will not tolerate for long.

I'm all in favor of creative Web ads, including ones that "push the envelope" in interesting ways.

But ads that push past creative into seriously annoying are taking major risks of disturbing and alienating viewers (and their families and pets in the vicinity) who may be very difficult to attract back in the future.

Until a Web user indicates in some clear manner that they wish to hear any audio, embedded Web advertisements, especially on non-audio/video-oriented Web pages, should always be seen and not heard. Otherwise, those ads -- and any other content of such sites -- are likely to increasingly be not heard nor seen at all.


Posted by Lauren at 06:14 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 26, 2009

A History Lesson: Microsoft Windows - "Exit, Stage Right"

Greetings. For this holiday weekend, a quick trip into the Time Tunnel (watch out for the sparks and smoke!) as we explore the ascendancy, and decline, of some key technologies. Students of technology history are quick to recognize that when viewed retrospectively, most major technologies exhibit an arc of innovation, widespread deployment, then decline and decay. The precise shape of the curve in any given case will vary, but particularly in the communications and computer fields, there are some pretty obvious patterns -- with declines sometimes hastened by poor decisions, a lack of insight -- or both.

The telegraph once reigned supreme. But when Western Union was offered the early chance to buy Bell's telephone patents for virtually a song, WU passed, considering the phone to be a faddish device without serious utility. Today Western Union's only remaining obvious existence is as a money transfer service frequently abused by Internet "419" scammers.

AT&T and its kin later suffered their own cloudy vision in not recognizing the enormous potential of the Internet until relatively late in the game -- leading directly to today's various efforts by telcos and cable companies to regain control of the Internet ecosystem through attacks on Net Neutrality principles.

Large mainframe computers saw their time in the sun, and still exist today, but by the 70s were being rapidly replaced in many applications by minicomputers of various sorts. Especially notable was the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 series, from which Ken Thompson, Dennis Richie, and the rest of the motley crew at Bell Labs Murray Hill Unit 1127 brought forth the proprietary Unix, leading ultimately to today's ubiquitous open-source Linux.

Yet DEC also suffered a lack of vision, exemplified when their founder Ken Olsen suggested in 1977 that nobody needed a computer in their home. Now DEC is but a corporate memory, twice removed.

And so we come to the arc of Microsoft, based on the rise of the personal computer and the Windows OS. This curve can be traced back to the original IBM PC in 1980, which itself had roots in the hobbyist 8080 CP/M OS world. The IBM PC spawned a vast landscape of clones, largely due to the publication (in the famous "black notebook") of the full source code for the hardware's BIOS, and lack of litigious attacks on clone-makers (in contrast to the later and ongoing behavior of Apple, one might note).

Bill Gates and Microsoft thus provided the software "stuff" that kept the PC architecture running, though not without the use of some business techniques that draw the ire of regulators and consumers alike.

Microsoft's own insight initially proved deficient in a manner similar to that of the phone companies, in their failure to recognize the importance of the Internet early on, then trying to rapidly play catch-up later, sometimes through anticompetitive actions.

Microsoft's various Windows operating systems have reigned supreme over the vast majority of PC for many years now, but that arc seems to be heading inexorably downward -- as various forces converge to relegate the very large, proprietary operating system model to the pages of technology history.

This really isn't about XP, Vista, or Windows 7 per se. I'm in the camp that never saw Vista as being so abominable as many detractors claimed, especially when pre-installed on new hardware. And Windows 7 does clean up some of Vista's rough edges (though some of those edges were pretty straightforward for knowledgeable users to smooth out even within Vista).

The really big problem is basically a matter of complexity. Windows' ubiquity has resulted in an immensely complex mass of software to support a vast range of hardware.

Since Windows is proprietary, piracy is understandably a major concern to Microsoft -- resulting in ever escalating and what many observers would characterize as increasingly intrusive and objectionable anti-piracy authentication mechanisms.

Windows security patches and other updates occur in complex environments, with complicated dependencies that may result in legitimate users being unable, for example, to install new security fixes after their repeated attempts to install other Windows update packages have failed for any of a multitude of possible reasons.

Complexity is part of modern computing, and hiding much of that complexity from most users, without unreasonably compromising the user experience itself, is both a science and an art. But complexity combined with proprietary operating systems can create a "Catch-22" situation for those users who might be able to figure out why they're having problems, but can't even begin to do so since relevant source code isn't available. What does Windows update KB04822284582 really do? Only Microsoft actually knows for sure.

Microsoft is still selling lots of Windows copies of course. And there certainly are alternatives to Windows. Apple's current OS is partly BSD-based (another open-source Unix-like OS family tree), and their tight control over hardware has reduced the complexity of their driver support issues and associated problems. Linux as an open-source, standalone OS, e.g. in modern incarnations such as Ubuntu, is both powerful and flexible, but has had difficulty penetrating the mainstream consumer desktop marketplace due in part to perceived support and applications availability issues.

All of which leads us to the current arc with the positive derivative. "Cloud computing" -- especially linked with relatively compact, typically Linux-based open-sourced operating system environments -- may hold the promise of solving many of the "complexity" problems that have both led to the bloat of Microsoft Windows and held back the mass acceptance of desktop Linux.

Amusingly, cloud computing in many ways brings us full circle back to the
Isaac Asimov "Multivac" model of computing that was de rigueur back in early Unix minicomputer days, with most processing power and storage on central facilities, accessed by users via relatively simple terminal devices. Our "terminals" today are typically far more powerful than the central computers back then, but the comparison remains valid.

Cloud computing can only be as good as the service providing the cloud, and this is an area where Google is rapidly staking out territory while the rest of the industry plays catch-up. And though Microsoft Windows seems most at risk right now, there's unlikely to be a long hiatus before similar dynamics significantly impact the Apple ecosystem as well.

Proponents of cloud computing point to resources availability, data reliability, security benefits, and a host of other positive features. Detractors express concerns about Internet connectivity, security risks, and privacy. It would be foolish in the extreme for anyone to dismiss out of hand any of these factors.

Viewed from both historical and technological standpoints, it's difficult to escape the sense that the arc of the Big, Proprietary OS is on a decided decline. And it appears that largely open source, cloud computing models are but beginning what is likely to be a rapid rise that I hope -- and believe -- will ultimately stimulate the solving of challenges that are currently associated with this computing model in some quarters.

In particular, I don't see any insoluble aspects to these issues, given the will to deal with them -- and there are some fascinating research facets involved.

Getting cloud computing right is especially important given the development and support issues associated with the alternative "PC-centric" model with its Big OS dilemmas and proprietary operational structures -- increasingly unpalatable to users of all types.

None of this is going to happen overnight. Technological change, especially in computing, is more of a process than an event. But as we review the arcs of technology reaching back a century and more, it appears that the Windows OS ecosystem -- that has played such an important role in the advance of personal computing for so many years -- should be preparing to take its final bow and then exit, stage right, with head held high.

Time, and technology, marches on.

All the best for the Thanksgiving holiday.


Posted by Lauren at 07:05 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 24, 2009

Search Integrity: Google, Bing, and the Michelle Obama Photo Flap

Greetings. Over the last week or so we've seen two seemingly independent Internet-related stories churning up both the blogosphere and mainstream media. Both relate to a topic that most Net users probably only think about occasionally, if at all -- search integrity. The first involves a reported plan for one search engine to use big money to try influence the utility of another search engine. The other involves a racist, manipulated image of the United States' First Lady.

When you use a search engine, whether Google, Bing, or any other, you typically make the implicit assumption that the displayed search results are not secretly biased in ways that would distort your search query.

Of course we all know that major search engines display ads linked to keywords, but the important point is that the user should be able to clearly tell -- through appropriate labeling -- which results are "paid" for inclusion, vs. which ones are natural or organic results (unbiased by payments made to the search engine or its affiliates).

The integrity of a search engine's ranking algorithms can be reasonably viewed as one of the "holy of holies" for firms involved in search. If users can't trust the veracity of organic search results, they can easily -- just a click away! -- switch to competing services.

A vexing aspect of search integrity relates to the handling of particularly disturbing search results that may rise to the top of rankings through the natural workings of search algorithms.

The simplest approach would simply be to remove such "offending" results, but that immediately opens the door to all manner of manipulations being demanded by outside parties, each with their own agenda. The desire to claw one's way to the top of organic search results rankings has spawned the entire Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry -- and a seemingly endless cat-and-mouse battle between search engines and particularly unscrupulous Web sites.

When a search result clearly leads to a potentially dangerous site -- such as one serving viruses or other forms of malware, tagging the site as a highly risky, or removing it from search listings entirely in some cases, is completely justifiable. And of course if valid legal process demands the removal of a listing, compliance is the only responsible course.

But what of search results that are "merely" obnoxious, disgusting, racist, or otherwise in very bad taste?

As I noted more than two years ago, Google has long had a special sponsored link that appears along with searches for the word "Jew" -- leading to an explanation of offensive search results.

The purpose is clear and appropriate -- don't tamper with the organic results themselves, but provide some context for users to better understand why those results are occurring.

Now comes a racist rendering of Michelle Obama, originally tied to a malware site, and so removed from image search results by Google, but reappearing on other sites without malware connections, and so appearing again in top image results listings on Google.

Google's response to this latter development has been to leave the image in the organic results, but to explain the situation in a manner similar to their procedure for the other offensive results described above.

I've had a number of people write to me lately asking how Google could possibly leave such a racist image of Michelle Obama in their listings. As always, I don't speak for Google, but this strikes me as not even being a particularly tough call.

To do their jobs with integrity, search engines must avoid "special casing" their ranking algorithms with exceptions designed to excise particularly sensitive or controversial topics. Once you start down the path of "micromanaging" individual results that don't represent a clear and present danger to users, you open the door to endless outside pressure to try mold search results to the particular economic, political, religious, or other values of specific individuals or groups. That would seem to me as one of the fastest ways to undermine the trust of the user community at large.

But there's more than one way for a search engine's results to be undermined. Reports -- unconfirmed at this time -- that Microsoft may effectively pay Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. to largely remove his Web sites from Google search listings, suggest a desire in some quarters for a "scorched earth" strategy in the Search Engine Wars -- using big bucks not to expand one's own search engine operations, but rather to try dilute the value of a competitor's organic search results through what effectively amounts to an attempted boycott.

My own suspicion is that such efforts -- if actually deployed -- would not only fail to achieve their apparent aims, but in fact would also likely backfire on their proponents. But the mere fact that such tactics reportedly are under consideration seems indicative of panic in some quarters, of desperate thrashing about in attempts to preserve, rather than adapt -- business models that are increasingly suffering in an Internet-age economy.

The common link in these sagas is the importance of inclusion, rather than exclusion. Whether we're talking about an offensive image in a search ranking or competition between search engines, the excluding of materials, either through internal decisions or the efforts of competitors, should usually be considered as the worst possible outcome for the users of search engines -- and of many other types of Internet services as well, for that matter.

Over the decades of the Internet's evolution it is precisely the inclusion of ever more organized information that has handed to the world's populations potential powers that would have been unimaginable half a century ago -- or perhaps even twenty years ago for that matter.

This public access to information -- mostly without explicit monetary charges other than what's paid for Internet access itself -- absolutely panics and stupefies many of the traditional power bases around the world, especially in high circles of government in some countries.

Dealing with this reality is no simple matter -- anyone who tells you differently is uninformed, confused ... or lying. No "cookie cutter" policy briefs are available to dictate how best to handle each individual class of these dilemmas, particularly in international contexts.

Against such a backdrop, it could be argued that an offensive Photoshopped image and the manipulations of a grizzled "old-media" tycoon aren't of relatively great import.

But as harbingers of the future, as warnings of tough decisions ahead and the battles to come, these are still issues certainly worthy of attention and discussion, so long as we remember that in the final analysis, a great deal more will ultimately be at stake for us all in the Internet's future.


Posted by Lauren at 10:09 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 23, 2009

Microsoft in Bed with Murdoch in Anti-Google Plan?

Greetings. The New York Times is reporting that Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch are in talks that could lead to an arrangement where Microsoft would pay Murdoch to remove News Corp. Web sites from Google indexes.

While I realize that such a plan doesn't meet the associated legal definition, somehow I can't help but think of such a scheme without echoes of the word "extortion" coming to mind.

According to this report, Microsoft and Murdoch -- The 'Two Mad "M"s' it seems -- have a vision for the Internet that is the opposite of inclusion. Do they really see financial benefits in what amounts to an "exclusion syndicate" given the realities of the Internet today? The smell of desperation in the air is nearly palpable.

I must admit that I have an old friend who keeps complaining to me that he can't find a way to completely and easily remove FOX News from his customized Google News search results. He'd probably applaud anything that might get what he calls "Faux News" completely out of Google. I always suggest to him that such an "ostrich-like" stance is not only unbecoming but unwise -- regardless of how much I personally agree with his assessment of the particular News Corp. organization's "quality" overall.

But assuming that the report is true and such discussions between Microsoft and Murdoch really are taking place, it speaks volumes of how drastically both Microsoft and Murdoch have missed the boat -- a vessel brightly painted in primary colors, of course. Sorry boys, it won't be returning to the dock.


Posted by Lauren at 10:31 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 22, 2009

Welcome to Her Majesty's Internet Police State!

Greetings. What does an Internet Police State look like in an ersatz democracy?

The UK is apparently well on its way toward providing a remarkable and depressing object lesson that could answer this very question.

Long enamored of oppressive surveillance techniques -- there's now reportedly a CCTV camera for every 14 persons or so in England -- the once Great Britain appears poised for a massive thrust into the world of Internet dictatorship (from the materials being revealed, it seems inappropriate to use weaker terminology).

Her Majesty's government seems hell bent for powers that would not only far surpass attacks on Internet freedoms in Australia, but would likely even be considered beyond the pale in China, home of the Great Firewall.

Every day we see more and more how Terry Gilliam's masterpiece 1985 film Brazil was startlingly prophetic.

The appropriate role of government should be to enhance the freedoms of Internet users -- e.g., by requiring Net Neutrality -- not turning the Internet into an instrument of surveillance, censorship, and repression.

If I may paraphrase a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they tapped the telephones, and I did not speak out--because I rarely used the telephone.

Then they demanded that we all carry hi-tech ID cards, and I did not speak out--because the cards seemed oh so very convenient.

Then they installed video surveillance CCTV cameras everywhere, and I did not speak out--because they told us that the cameras would fight crime and terrorism.

Then they took control of the Internet, and I did not speak out--because they said that entertainment industry profits and monitoring of our Internet activities were much more important than individual freedoms.

And then they came for me--and there was no way left to speak out at all.


Posted by Lauren at 10:21 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 18, 2009

Who Actually Hears Your Voicemail Messages?

Greetings. When you leave someone a voicemail message, you expect that the party you called will ultimately hear it. But have you considered that there may be other potential listeners as well?

Years ago, if you wanted to have telephone calls answered when you weren't around, you basically had a couple of options. You could pay for expensive live telephone answering services, or you could use a telephone answering machine (aka "answerphone"). In the glory days of Ma Bell several decades ago, when it was still illicit to hook up your own telephone equipment to phone lines, a typical (pretty much only!) legal approach was to rent from the phone company (at fairly outrageous prices) an answering machine like the Code-A-Phone 700 -- a heavy duty device that seemed to weigh as much as a battleship and could probably survive a direct hit by a tactical nuke.

Of course there were some folks for which the, ah, legal niceties were of less concern than the joys of experimentation. Over the years of my youth I built a whole series of answering machines -- the original ones based on my Erector Set -- that performed with various degrees of aplomb but, alas, certainly didn't meet AT&T "BSP" technical specs.

Once it became legal to hook up your own equipment, all manner of answering devices appeared based on different tape systems, and later, digital recording of highly varying audio quality.

Such consumer-oriented machines -- and live answering services as well -- still exist of course, and for simplicity and various other functionalities they can serve their purposes well.

Nowadays though, centralized voicemail has become extremely common, not only of the relatively straightforward type typically offered by cell carriers and local phone companies, but also highly sophisticated systems integrated with the Internet, such as Google Voice and YouMail.

I've chosen these two services as examples mainly because I'm fans of both -- and use both of them every day.

But with any centralized voicemail system comes a potentially thorny question -- just how private are the voicemail messages that callers leave for you?

Given that such messages are simply files spinning on servers somewhere, all of the usual data retention questions come into play. Are archived copies still stored after you "delete" voicemail from your inbox and trash folders? How accessible are your messages to third parties -- courts, lawyers, law enforcement -- with or without subpoenas?

A taped message on a local physical answering machine is pretty much totally under the user's control to save, delete, or physically destroy. Not so with centralized voicemail.

Still, most voicemail services understand the sensitivity of this voice message data, have published privacy policies that address such issues at least in general and sometimes with great specificity, and typically can be depended upon not to hand over your messages to a third party investigation or court without appropriate legal process. Certainly this includes both YouMail and Google Voice.

But a relatively new aspect of sophisticated voicemail systems, which might be called "voicemail transcription for the masses" threatens to cloud this picture a bit.

Google, for example, routinely transcribes voicemail into textual form as a basic part of the free Google Voice service. YouMail offers similar transcriptions as fee-based options.

Google's transcription system is totally automated -- untouched by human hands, so to speak. Speech to text in the telephone environment is one seriously tough task. Google Voice transcripts today are sometimes not perfect and occasionally contain some amusing transcription errors, but overall they're pretty damn good -- and given Google Voice's rapidly growing user community, they're likely to continue getting better at breakneck speed.

But what if automated transcriptions just aren't felt to be accurate enough right now for some applications? That's where a potentially problematic aspect of YouMail comes into play. As it turns out -- though this is currently not obvious from online YouMail documentation -- some YouMail voicemail messages are transcribed by human beings (as far as I know right now, by an outside company contracted to do this work by YouMail). Reportedly the lower tier of YouMail's transcription service is essentially fully automated (but I'm told that it's possible some difficult messages might potentially be kicked to live transcribers at this level). YouMail's higher priced "More Accurate" transcription tier is apparently more routinely dependent on human transcribers.

Humans in the transcription loop can't help but create a qualitatively different situation than fully automated systems.

Users need to know when humans are involved with the generation and storage of voicemail transcripts, so that those users can make informed decisions about whether or not they wish to avail themselves of those facilities -- based on their own comfort levels with third parties hearing their private voicemail messages, and the possible associated social, legal, and civil implications.

What happens when a human transcriber hears some important, private, business-related information? Can they always be depended upon to treat it as confidential and not make use of that information for their own gain? Or what if the transcriber believes -- rightly or not -- that they're overhearing something illegal? Or how about just plain "juicy" messages -- perhaps involving someone important or well known? What steps are taken to make sure that human transcribers can't make audio copies (easy to do with a cell phone recorder or a tiny digital recording device) of "interesting" voicemail messages for their own use, abuse, pleasure, distribution, sale, etc.? There's a whole spectrum of important issues when humans are in the transcription loop, that simply don't exist in fully automated transcription environments.

In response to my concerns, YouMail has agreed with me that their current documentation is deficient in this regard, and informs me that they now plan to clearly explain in their online materials the extent to which humans are involved in voicemail transcriptions, and what precautions are in place when transcriptions are processed by humans rather than by purely automated systems. I appreciate YouMail's immediate response to my concerns.

But the broader question of whether any given individual will prefer to have their private messages processed by machines, humans, or a combination of both, is a complex issue without any universal answers.

Human-machine trade-offs are often fascinating. Many years ago, customers of one major firm were bemused by overdue payment notices that used to say something like:

"This is the billing computer at [XYZ Corp]. Your account is now 30 days overdue. So far I'm the only one who knows about it. But if your payment isn't received within 10 days, I'm going to have to inform a human, and they may not be as pleasant as I am!"


Posted by Lauren at 06:48 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 16, 2009

Solving the Android "Grayed Out Application" Deadlock

Greetings. Since I'm fairly vocal in my support of -- and enthusiasm for -- Google's Android OS, I tend to have quite a few people who send me their own Android experiences, both pro and con.

While by far most of these notes are positive, there has been a recurring theme lately of reported deadlocks involving already installed applications on Android phones. Previously installed applications suddenly wouldn't run, couldn't be uninstalled, and couldn't be reinstalled. Apparently no "official" explanation or cure for this condition has been apparent.

I wasn't in a position to investigate this myself until a few days ago, when a significant number of apps on my Android 1.6 G1 phone suddenly entered this "zombie" state, triggering my looking at the situation rather intently.

The primary symptom of these unusable apps is that not only won't they run directly, but the Android "Market" mechanism refuses to either "Open" or "Uninstall" them -- those options are grayed out. But since Market believes the apps are still installed, they cannot be reinstalled either.

Even with a rooted phone, this presents a quandary -- on a non-rooted phone, even more so.

Here are the results of my investigation into this issue, and my recommended procedure for recovery from such situations without completely resetting your phone and having to manually rebuild your entire configuration from scratch.

The basic problem appears to occur when (for whatever reason) an installed app's "apk" file has vanished from /data/app (or /data/app-private). Once this occurs the market app apparently goes out of sync, and then the affected programs won't run, can't be uninstalled, and can't be reinstalled -- via market directly, anyway.

The trick out of this dilemma is to obtain the original apk files that are missing. If you already have backups of these files, you can reinstall them via the app package manager. In my case, I used the Astro file manager to select the app apk files for which I had backups -- Astro then executes the package manager.

The affected programs will appear to already be installed -- that is, the app package manager will offer an UNINSTALL choice, not an INSTALL choice. Go ahead and tap UNINSTALL. When the uninstall finishes, go back to the package (e.g. via Astro again), then back to the package manager, and this time tap the offered INSTALL. The app should reinstall and be good to go.

It may also be possible to follow a similar sequence via the Android "adb" tool externally, but I had mixed results trying this, so I recommend working on the phone itself if possible, from backups on the sd card. The adb tool is still useful in this context for file copying operations -- see below.

If you don't have backups of the necessary apk files for the desired apps, you need to get them, but as noted above, market won't let you download them since it thinks they're already installed. Here's how to get them.

First, use Nandroid to back up the current state of the phone. I can't emphasize enough the value of Nandroid -- it's extremely useful. Once you have a Nandroid backup, do a factory data reset ("wipe") and reboot. You'll need to re-authenticate the phone to Google (that is, login with your Google account). Now go to the market program and install the programs for which you were missing apk files earlier -- you should be able to download them successfully now.

Once they've downloaded and installed, the new apk files should be in /data/app (or in some cases, /data/app-private). Copy the files (e.g. "cp") from the /data/app or /data/app-private dirs to the sd card (/sdcard). You can do this via a terminal console on the phone or through the "adb shell" command.

Now reboot, then restore the Nandroid backup that you made before doing the factory reset wipe.

After you're back in the previously saved system, you can navigate (e.g., with Astro) to the new apk files that you copied to the sd card, and follow the procedure above to first "uninstall" and then "install" those programs through the app package manager.

Using these techniques, I was able to completely restore all apps on my G1 that had mysteriously found themselves in the limbo of the unusable "grayed out" state. Why the apk files vanished from /data/app in the first place, triggering this entire sequence of events, remains a mystery to me at this point.

If I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.


Posted by Lauren at 02:40 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 13, 2009

Google's SPDY Project Triggers Ghosts of Critics Past

Greetings. Yesterday Google announced their research toward increasing the speed of Web communications by essentially replacing the existing HTTP protocol -- used to pass data between servers and user Web browsers -- with a new, more optimized protocol.

While this announcement was generally well received in many quarters, some critics were quick to jump on Google's SPDY work as an effort to create a non-standard Web protocol that would unfairly benefit Google's own services and their Chrome Web browser (despite Google's making available SPDY specs and code).

I found myself flashing back to ARPANET days at UCLA, at a time when all of our remote access to the PDP-11/45 Unix minicomputer was via Bell 103-type dial-up modems -- that had a top speed of a blinding 300 bits per second! In fact, even though UCLA was served by Verizon ancestor General Telephone, our ARPANET basement machine room featured a number of bulky AT&T 103's (Western Electric) Model 113 modems (known by Ma Bell as "Data Sets") -- since GenTel's Automatic Electric manufacturing arm (unsurprisingly) didn't make their own modems. The 113's came complete with noisy mechanical ringers and dandy rotary dials. As I recall they were rather heavy as well.

By that time, I had built an IMSAI 8080 microcomputer at home -- the model later made infamous in the horrendous film WarGames, which featured an extensive LED register panel and the famous blue and red rocker switches (yes, I still have it somewhere, but I wouldn't dare fire it up with those massive old power supply capacitors likely leaking all of these years).

Since I was already using character-based display editors at home on the IMSAI, with comparatively high local speeds (up to 9600 bps!) I found the limitations of 300 bps dial-up back to the ARPANET Unix to be a serious pain. But at that time, while faster modems (the 1200 bps full-duplex Vadic) existed, they were priced way out of reach from both the standpoint of our facility and most individual users.

But I still thought that 300 bps royally sucked. So, I modified a Unix device driver to incorporate a relatively straightforward (Huffman) text compression system, and wrote 8080 asm code on my IMSAI side to decompress. The result averaged around 600 bps from Unix to me for typical data, and felt a whole lot better than 300 bps!

Most people who saw this setup in operation thought it was a pretty nifty hack, and of course I openly shared the code with everyone who wanted it. But a few folks seemed uneasy with what I was doing. They expressed the view that I shouldn't share such a non-standard communications system, that the spread of such "ah hock" concepts would somehow bring disorder, gloom, and perhaps an acceleration of universal entropy. "Wait for something standard!" they told me.

Which brings us back to Google's SPDY.

I like this project. In general, so long as the results are open sourced (and so non-proprietary), I'm definitely in favor of -- and enthusiastic about -- these sorts of research efforts.

Actual deployment of such systems brings in a number of issues, including that fear expressed by some critics involving the potential for skewing users toward browsers that support "advanced" non-HTTP transports in conjunction with particular service providers, vs. browsers without such support.

But to the extent that relevant information necessary for implementation in other browsers (and/or browser plugins) is made available in an essentially contemporaneous time frame (as Google is doing with SPDY), I do not feel that it is necessary for everyone to be "locked" into official HTTP standards all of the time. Also, choice of browsers is based on many factors other than speed (including but not limited to cookie handling controls and other privacy-related features), so these decisions are not generally tied to any single criteria.

Standardization tracks for new protocols of this kind are of course to be encouraged in due time, and any concerns that some parties may harbor regarding possible anticompetitive issues will need to be addressed appropriately, but these should not be show-stopper issues by any means.

By the way, I have long advocated the exploration of alternative mechanisms for routine Web server<->user encryption -- that would potentially carry less overhead than existing SSL/TLS mechanisms -- toward the goal of a pervasive, routine Internet encryption environment. My hope is that research into HTTP alternatives such as SPDY, in addition to its other benefits, will provide valuable insight and potentials in this important privacy and security aspect as well.


Posted by Lauren at 07:49 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 11, 2009

Goodbye Lou Dobbs -- We Won't Be Missing You!

Greetings. Early last August, in The Decline of CNN: CNN Attempts to Censor Anti-Lou Dobbs Ad, I noted my feelings about CNN "personality" Lou Dobbs and his continuing decline into a morass of seemingly racist concepts and incredibly biased nightly viewer polls. As I said then, this is particularly painful since Lou was once a reporter worthy of considerable respect, going back for decades.

I expressed the view that Lou was reflecting badly on CNN, and while I understand the ratings realities that have made Lou valuable, I felt that CNN was being seriously tarnished by Lou's behaviors.

Around an hour ago, at the start of his regular CNN program, Lou announced that he is leaving CNN [video] -- effective immediately -- through mutual agreement with CNN brass (despite his contract reportedly running through 2011).

Word has been circulating for weeks at least that Lou was looking for an exit from CNN -- but this sudden departure announced and executed on the same day is still surprising. There clearly is much more to this story than is immediately obvious, and likely we'll learn most of it soon.

In the meantime, Lou is already sounding like he wants to run for office. Another third party Ross Perot in the making? Or maybe Huey Long? If I were a betting man, I'd be looking for him to pop up on some News Corp. (or similar) network for a while perhaps, and then a lowest-common-denominator, "populist," anti-intellectual, anti-immigration run for ...

Well, that's just speculation of course.

For now anyway, goodbye Lou. I'll miss the belly laughs I've gotten from your crooked polls. And CNN -- you've at least started on the path to regaining my respect.


Posted by Lauren at 05:01 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 09, 2009

Murdoch's Folly: Block Google & Kill Fair Use -- Plus a Nasty Truth

Greetings. With all of the pain and horror in the world these days, sometimes it's tough to find something to really make you smile, to laugh, to outright guffaw.

Luckily I was treated to such an experience today while viewing a new interview with "Fair and Balanced" News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, where he blasts Google, free Web sites, amateur journalists, Google, and ... did I mention Google? Yeah.

There isn't a lot spectacularly new in this text and video interview at Sky News, since Rupert has clearly expressed his disdain for Google and its ilk in the past, but a few of his latest ramblings were of particular note.

As he has before, he's still talking of blocking his Web properties from Google Search and Google News. Of course he could do this today with robots.txt and meta tags, but it appears that he wants to wait until after he has his "subscription walls" erected (that's called "hedging your bets").

Perhaps even more interesting in the long run, Murdoch spoke of his conviction that the "Fair Use Doctrine" could be successfully eliminated through court challenges. And he spoke disdainfully of all the dinky Web sites who can't bring in any "serious money" -- you know, more than a million or two (is that in U.S. dollars, Ozzie dollars, or pounds? -- never mind). He even manages to diss the commercial news wire services.

The heady atmosphere in which Murdoch resides seems all too clear, with his focus on the class separation between us and them, rich and poor, quality and trash made all too clear. This is not a man who believes in crowdsourcing -- to him there's the exalted tier of professional movers and shakers -- and then there's all of the "little people" that he expects to pay him for the privilege of being led by the rings in their noses.

Of course, Rupert is free to run his empire however he chooses. Google has noted multiple times that they feel Google brings value to News Corp. sites, but if he wants to block Google, it's just a matter of a few lines of text.

Murdoch says that all of this free Web content shouldn't have ever been "free" in the first place. If people had been paying all along, they wouldn't be bitching about plans to force them to pay for content now, is the apparent reasoning.

Well, it's certainly true that the public Internet could have evolved originally in more of the Big Telecom model of pay-per-byte, pay-per-show, pay-pay-pay. Would the Net have blossomed as widely as it has under such a regime (the model that some big ISPs seem to be trying to move towards today)? It seems far more likely that the Net would be tightly straitjacketed today under such conditions.

Rupert is right about one thing. Once people have had something for free, getting them to start paying later is a problematic proposition at best.

But here's a nasty truth. For most casual users of the Internet, the vast bulk of content on the Internet isn't worth paying for directly in the first place. This includes both reputable, high quality news sites -- like the New York Times, and lower quality publications of the sort that Murdoch is well familiar with.

This is not to say that most Web sites are trash, aren't worth your time, or shouldn't exist at all. Rather, it simply means that while they're good enough to be worth putting up with ads -- particularly of the less intrusive sort -- they're not sufficiently worthwhile to any given individual to be worth paying directly for access.

To regress back to Econ 101, most Web sites exhibit a highly "elastic" demand characteristic. There isn't a great deal to bind any given individual to any given site, vs. the various alternatives available, or simply not engaging with such sites at all in many cases. This can even be true for very large, high quality, and widely used sites such as Google's array of services -- users can easily switch to competitors at any time, and in fact Google is making this even simpler through their user data export initiatives.

There are exceptions, naturally, when specific groups of people have specialized needs. Rupert's own Wall Street Journal is an example of how significant numbers of persons are willing to pay for content when it brings them direct and tangible benefits. Another example of where persons seem willing to pay for Web site content is porn -- but the rise of amateur/free porn sites has taken a big bite out of that industry's bottom line already. Movies and TV shows more generally are another area where selected content will be considered worth paying for by groups of individuals -- but whether that will be from the Internet generally or via ISP "walled content gardens" of their own is another story. Mobile apps, such as those on the iPhone or Android, are another interesting category.

But imagine that every time you accessed a Web page, it cost you a nickel. How would this affect your browsing habits? If you could get much the same content -- by your own definition of value -- at a site that didn't charge that nickel, which would you routinely visit? I can't count the number of times I've had people make suggestions to me along the lines of, "Hey Lauren, why don't you charge for the materials that you put out on the Net! Then you could afford to fix your clutch!" But charging for most Web content is the stuff of fantasies, not reality.

Murdoch's own fantasy is the belief that his content is so superior to all that of the "common riffraff" on the Net that his sites will generally be worth paying for. He claims he'd rather have fewer people paying more, rather than having many people paying nothing. And he suggests that the rest of the world will ultimately see the genius of his model and come rushing to emulate it.

The foundation of his reasoning is as shaky as quicksand. He fails to account for basic human nature, and for the highly fungible nature of most Web content -- that is, six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Actually, it would be most fascinating if Murdoch proceeded with his plans. Let him erect pay walls around his Web properties, ban Google and other search engines from most of his content, and let the money start rolling in from all of those subscribers that he's expecting to be lining up, wallets in hand.

Then we can return in a year or two or five and see how Rupert's philosophy played out in practice.

But if you had to place a bet on the outcome, which organization would you expect to be the stronger in the end? News Corp. a la Murdoch? Or Google?

Your mileage may vary, but for myself, I'd be betting on a bunch of brightly colored balls.


Posted by Lauren at 02:23 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 06, 2009

Use a Camcorder, Go to Jail! -- The Saga Continues

Greetings. Controversy rages on regarding the continuing (largely behind closed doors) efforts of the entertainment industry to elevate their products to the level of "Masters of the Internet" globally, complete with Internet cut off mandates and criminal provisions for activities such as holding up your Flip or cell phone in a movie theater.

As I've said many times, I'm basically sympathetic to the plight of the recording and film industries. I've spent my whole life here in L.A. in the geographic heart of both sectors, have had many friends working in both, and have enjoyed numerous direct contacts of my own over the years with recording labels and film studios.

However, what's going on with the current facet of negotiations involving the ACTA -- the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement -- is the classical closing of the barn door after the horse has left the planet. The rise of digital recording and communications technologies has eviscerated the concept of "copyright control through scarcity" -- and you don't have to like this state of affairs to admit that it's true.

The extents to which the entertainment industry has seemed willing to go in efforts to "undo" history -- not just via the ACTA but in the past via proposals such as A/D converter restrictions, and currently with calls to allow shutting off video outputs on set top boxes, frankly are indicators of desperation and an unwillingness to accept technical realities.

In fact, the industry has reacted in much the same way with every technological change -- starting back with sheet music, the gramophone, VCRs, and so on. The march of technological progress is inevitable, short of global thermonuclear war or similar catastrophes.

The old business models in the music and film industries cannot survive forever (though the latter still seems able to pay the big bucks to stars for "yet another remake" on an ongoing basis). I won't even touch the question of quality in new music releases.

One other point for now. Draconian criminal "camcorder in theater" provisions suggest to the public that pirating of films is based on some guy with a camcorder leaning on his leg who then rushes off to monetize the result.

In fact -- and this should be obvious since most commercially pirated films these days are of relatively high copy quality and often hit the Internet before the films' release -- most commercial film piracy is based on copies that are purloined from within the film production ecosystem, not from copies made after release by camcorders in theaters.

And of course, all it takes is a single high quality copy of a song or film that "escapes" for it to be rapidly available illicitly around the world. Such escapes are simply inevitable.

That's just the reality. Attempting to remake the Internet and associated laws in a desperate struggle to hold back the clock is about as likely to succeed as holding a bunch of sand in your clenched fist for very long.

You end up with a pile of sand on your feet. Or figuratively speaking, with mud on your face.


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

November 05, 2009

Google Slammed With Silly Sesame Street Subterfuge Swipe

Greetings. For generations, children have grown up with Sesame Street. It's more than a TV program, it's an institution, an American export that reaches youngsters in over 120 countries.

The Sesame Street characters are among the most familiar "personas" on the planet. One of the most famous of the Sesame Street gang is of course Big Bird, performed for the show's entire history by Caroll Spinney -- that's from 1969 to today. (He's similarly been the alter ego of Oscar the Grouch for the show's entire run.)

It's difficult to imagine circumstances where anyone could reasonably associate "evil" intents with an appearance of Big Bird.

But when it comes to Google, there are folks looking for any excuse for an attack, and even Big Bird isn't immune.

Case in point, Wednesday's Christian Science Monitor that included an article exploring whether the appearance of Big Bird's legs as part of the day's Google (logo) Doodle -- celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street -- was somehow a sinister slice of subterfuge, a "charm campaign" to lure unsuspecting Web users into Google's grasp.

Notable in the piece was Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court's assertion that the playful Doodle was actually "The Trojan Muppet" -- one can almost hear the rustling of spears and armor from underneath those yellow feathers.

This would almost be funny, if it weren't symptomatic of a larger problem. I alluded to much the same issue a couple of years ago in Google Gives Millions -- and Gets Bad Press!

Essentially, there are some persons who view everything that Google does through the prism of conspiracy theories and presumed ulterior motives -- vision through a glass darkly, as it were.

For such individuals, no amount of good deeds is sufficient, no explanations are acceptable, and no matter how many times it's denied that there's a secret alien autopsy room hidden deep within the Googleplex, the "true believers" will hold fast to their inherent faith in presumed secret agendas and conjectured search engine sophistries.

This isn't to say that one should remain silent when there's a legitimate gripe related to the way any large, powerful corporation behaves. But it's one thing to express meaningful concerns about specific issues, and quite another to see daemons under every disk drive.

Google's Doodles have a long history of saluting all manner of personalities and events of note. To impute anything other than innocent, fun intent in the appearance of Big Bird (or for today, The Cookie Monster!) in a Google Doodle pushes the ol' paranoia meter needle significantly toward the red zone.

This blog posting has been brought to you by the letters "G" and "R" -- as in let's all at least try to:

Get Real!


Posted by Lauren at 12:25 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein