April 26, 2015

While the World Burns, the Washington and Media Elite Party Through the Night

In Nepal, thousands lay dead and dying in a horrendous earthquake and its aftermath. In Baltimore, righteous anger over the crushed spine and death of a young black man in police custody was triggering violence and arrests.

And last night while those events raged, the Washington political and media elite were hypocritically and drunkenly joking and partying in their formal finery, a mere 40 miles from Baltimore itself, at the White House Correspondents' dinner.

For CNN and its fearless leader Jeff Zucker, it wasn't even a close call as to how best to handle this confluence of simultaneous events.

They simply provided hours of wall-to-wall coverage of the partying elite, while reassuring everyone that they'd catch up with the deaths and arrests later, after their crucial coverage of boozing and backslapping at the big party was over and done.

Oh yes, and they suggested that if for some perverse reason you cared less about the 1% yukking it up than mass deaths and protest arrests, you could just go searching around online and maybe you could dig up something -- assuming you had a decent Internet connection and a means to access it, of course.

Well, to paraphrase "Major Kong" from "Dr. Strangelove" -- I've been to one world's fair, a picnic, and a rodeo -- and this is one of the most egregious examples of the "Nero fiddling while Rome burned" syndrome I can recall in my entire lifetime to date.

"Obscene" and "perverse" are the only "polite" terms I can think of to describe this situation. The invectives that more properly illustrate the depths of this depravity and what they tell us about income and social disparity here in the USA, are unfortunately not words suitable for family audiences.

The big party could have been turned into a big opportunity, of course. The "good old boys" jokes could have been set aside and the focus turned to earthquake relief and even (horrors!) serious discussion by the powerful individuals present. It appears that the number of persons killed in the Nepal quake is similar to the numbers killed in the 9/11 attacks. But apparently when victims are overwhelmingly not Americans, it just doesn't count.

We all deserve one hell of a big apology from the political and media snobs who are responsible for this sickening display of hypocrisy and elitism run wild.

But don't hold your breath for that apology. 'Cause they got the big bucks and the big power -- and we don't.

We ordinary people one and all must say polite goodnights to our masters, for when you're hot you're hot. And when you're not -- you're not.

And we're most definitely not.


Posted by Lauren at 11:06 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 22, 2015

When Google Leaves Users Behind

I was just now reading over the publicity materials related to Google's newly announced (but long rumored) "Project Fi" wireless plan/experiment today, and found myself pondering a question. To wit: If I had the currently required Nexus 6 smartphone, would I be applying to be included in this new mobile offering?

And I realized the answer was no. Not so much because my current phone and plan are completely adequate to my needs, but rather for a couple of more depressing reasons.

One of these is the painful realization that I wouldn't necessarily have confidence that Google won't be abandoning this effort in relatively short order, triggering possible hassles at the egress end of the offer. Perhaps Project Fi signals the birth of a wonderful, consumer friendly, disruptive change to mobile that is long overdue. Or, Google might decide in a year or two just to pull the plug on it with short notice -- there are certainly well remembered precedents for the latter outcome from Google.

Another reason for my own current lack of enthusiasm for Project Fi is my personal embarrassment (I've consulted to Google) at the shabby way Google has treated -- and continues to treat -- many of their existing Android users.

I'm an enormous fan of Android, and totally committed to the Android ecosystem. But for the life of me I can't find valid justifications for Google's abandonment of literally vast numbers of Android users currently using older devices. Not everyone can afford to treat smartphones and tablets as easily disposable, especially when they seem to functioning perfectly well from the users' perspective.

Yet so many of these users are actually vulnerable to serious security flaws because Google refuses to patch the versions of Android still being run by large numbers of persons.

Google has a range of explanations/excuses for this. Technical difficulty with backports. Uncooperative carriers. Concentrating efforts on the latest and greatest (more on that in a moment).

It's notable how quickly Google abandoned users even of their own flagship phones like the Galaxy Nexus when purchased directly from Google, where carrier cooperation wasn't even an issue (Google's excuse in this case was lack of driver support from a chip vendor, but somehow third-party hackers found a way around that problem.)

Given, no phone or other device lasts forever. Yet Google has (to my knowledge) not even directly, proactively informed users of these older devices about the security issues associated with these units, nor informed them regarding the useful workarounds that actually do exist in many of these cases. Is it better for users to proceed using their devices in blitheful ignorance of these issues? I don't think so, anyway.

Again, I'm not suggesting that Google be required to update these older units forever. But why isn't there at least an official, well known Google page that directly and specifically explains the security status of these devices and the aforementioned workaround procedures? Why must users depend on (not always trustworthy) outside articles (or blogs!) to learn about these matters? Google should take ownership of these important issues, rather than depending on others to dribble out such crucial information.

Google's seemingly endless juggernaut of great products belies problems that are not by any means unique to Google, but can ensnare large firms of any stripe, especially if they're engineering oriented.

It's all too easy to focus on the latest and greatest, while too quickly de-emphasizing serious consideration and maintenance of older products used by fewer users. Yet at the scale of many such firms, even relatively small percentages of users can represent very large numbers of actual human beings, many of whom are particularly in need of continuing attention, by virtue of their inability to buy into those wondrous new devices at the rate common for the early adopters.

And let's face it, engineering-oriented firms are often structured in a manner where career advancement is largely predicated on working in the bleeding edge of development -- there's little incentive for employees to seek roles maintaining older systems, backporting security patches, or refactoring code.

But these are all crucial roles, for the ways in which a firm supports all users, including those not in the new products adoption forefront, directly impacts public perception of how a firm's newer offerings will be perceived, and how that firm's treatment of users overall will be judged.

Something to think about perhaps, the next time you hear of a possibly great new product being announced. For one of the ways through which we can most clearly anticipate the future -- even our technological futures -- is to understand how we've been treated in the past.

Be seeing you -- in the future.


Posted by Lauren at 02:19 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

April 10, 2015

Why YouTube Issues Are So Very Important

I view YouTube issues as a kind of proxy for the kinds of issues the broader Net increasingly faces in the technical, policy, and political arenas. Full disclosure: YouTube is certainly one of my top favorite sites on the Net. So I have a vested interest in trying to help it stay healthy and prosperous.

Given that YT is currently ranked the second most popular site on the Web (after Google itself -- so Google effectively holds both the #1 and #2 slots) its particular mix of services presents some fascinating challenges.

Many of these are obvious at least in their outlines. Massive amounts of storage space for all that video. Tremendous amounts of bandwidth necessary to distribute the video. The complicated nature of YouTube's interactions with ISPs, the intricacies of content delivery networks, and so on. And it's impossible to consider peering disputes, ISP bandwidth caps, and an array of other fundamental Internet concerns without considering their interplay with and implications for YouTube.

To be sure, many of these matters also apply to any other large-scale video oriented Net services, such as Netflix.

But where YouTube in particular diverges from Netflix is in YT's deep commitment to user uploaded videos, and it's that aspect that brings into play perhaps the most complex, and certainly the most controversial issues.

Virtually every day, my inbox receives queries related to YouTube. The lion's share of these are from persons who feel that YT has wronged them in some way. Perhaps they're concerned about a video of them that someone else posted. Or a video they posted that was tagged, demonetized, and/or removed via a Content ID hit or copyright strike -- or that their account was forcibly closed entirely.

Sometimes their concerns are valid, more often they're not. I know one classical music pianist who has been through the YT wringer with many repeated false positive YT problems related to his self-played works (classical music, and public domain materials in general, present rather fascinating technical challenges to abuse detection, especially at Google/YT scale).

But while it's easy to throw around the hyperbole about the DMCA's "guilty until proven innocent" model (which, obviously, Google/YT must abide by -- keeping in mind that the DMCA in key respects has made YT possible at all), and the definitely improving but still somewhat opaque nature of the YT appeals process, the reality is that systematic, intentional abuse of YT by bad players is very real.

How bad is it? Just for jollies, toss this URL into your browser when you have a few minutes to spare.

This will display the uploads with full movie in their title over the last hour. Skip the ads at the top and explore the organic listings. I'll bet you find that every single one is a "come on" spam -- the movie isn't actually there at all, they're rather trying to get you to click through to another site (the specific ways they do this will vary -- don't even get me started about the obnoxious and notorious girl in red).

Most of these spam videos seem to be from a relatively small set of uploaders, despite the vast number of throwaway accounts they're creating. Interestingly, they appear to target not only current release films, but often old classics as well.

An hour doesn't seem like too long for these to be around, but many persist for weeks and much longer -- and many of those add insult to injury by monetizing the spam video with ads! That's right, the spam uploader crooks are attempting to steal money with content to which they have no rights at all.

This also applies to the content uploaders who aren't spamming, but "merely" monetizing other parties' content, like many years' worth of classic television programs. Keep in mind that these aren't people making available long lost programs based on some radical all information should be free! philosophy. Since they're monetizing these uploads they're just simple crooks, trying to make money off someone else's work. This really disturbs me. It's the kind of abuse that is damaging to the broader YouTube and Internet video ecosystem in very significant ways, and provides ammunition to forces who push for draconian legislation that would make the DMCA look like a walk in the park by comparison.

Google works diligently to kill this crud, but at scale -- especially considering the desire to minimize false positives as much as possible -- it's a real game of Whac-A-Mole. The evasion techniques in use are certainly imaginative: Static inset box videos, moving inset boxes, mirror images, translucent backgrounds, and much more. Not only are these crooks stealing content, they're presenting it in horrendously substandard ways as well.

I think it's important that YT users at large understand that this sort of monetized abuse is not at all benign, and makes everything harder for Google/YT and honest users of the ecosystem. I always urge users to report these spams and monetized ripoffs when they find them. (Sidenote: Many users don't realize they can report them. The reporting link is currently hidden under the YT player UI More link. While one doesn't want to encourage frivolous reporting, having the reporting/flagging function being more visible in the interface strikes me as a proposition worth considering).

And perhaps most importantly of all, we have the entire array of free speech, government censorship, and related issues that focus on the ability of ordinary users to upload materials that might reveal horrific police abuse -- or attempt to ruin an innocent person's reputation. And everything in-between. We have governments attempting to takedown (or block) videos that they consider sacrilegious or simply politically inconvenient. The complex dilemmas related to Terms of Service and appropriate content rules -- issues of adult materials, horrific materials, hate speech, viewers who are children, religious intolerance, racism, on and on. How to set these standards, how to evaluate them, the gray areas, evaluations, and the emotional realities and emotional costs of balancing such complicated concerns and interests -- I won't even try to scratch the surface of those issues right now.

So again and again, we see that YouTube issues are a representation of the broader issues facing not only the Internet, but the entire global community as well.

That makes them important. Seriously important.


Posted by Lauren at 10:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein