1984 wasn’t cancelled, merely postponed

One of the chapters in my new book (out on Thursday next though Amazon seems to be already selling the Kindle edition) is about the potential of computing and network technology to create systems for perfect surveillance and control. I’ve argued that the threat comes from two directions: one is the Orwellian one that we all know about; the other comes from companies like Apple and Google and Facebook. In both cases the connivance — tacit or active – of democratic governments is required. This anguished piece by Thom Holwerda suggests that the penny has dropped for him.

Here we are, at the start of 2012. Obama signed the NDAA for 2012, making it possible for American citizens to be detained indefinitely without any form of trial or due process, only because they are terrorist suspects. At the same time, we have SOPA, which, if passed, would enact a system in which websites can be taken off the web, again without any form of trial or due process, while also enabling the monitoring of internet traffic. Combine this with how the authorities labelled the Occupy movements – namely, as terrorists – and you can see where this is going.

In case all this reminds you of China and similarly totalitarian regimes, you're not alone. Even the Motion Picture Association of America, the MPAA, proudly proclaims that what works for China, Syria, Iran, and others, should work for the US. China's Great Firewall and similar filtering systems are glorified as workable solutions in what is supposed to be the free world.

The crux of the matter here is that unlike the days of yore, where repressive regimes needed elaborate networks of secret police and informants to monitor communication, all they need now is control over the software and hardware we use. Our desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and all manner of devices play a role in virtually all of our communication. Think you’re in the clear when communicating face-to-face? Think again. How did you arrange the meet-up? Over the phone? The web? And what do you have in your pocket or bag, always connected to the network?

This is what [Richard] Stallman has been warning us about all these years – and most of us, including myself, never really took him seriously. However, as the world changes, the importance of the ability to check what the code in your devices is doing – by someone else in case you lack the skills – becomes increasingly apparent. If we lose the ability to check what our own computers are doing, we’re boned.

Thom also points to Cory Doctorow’s chilling talk at the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin, entitled “The coming war on general computation,” which sets things out pretty clearly.

(Transcript here for those who are too busy to watch all the way through.)

One of the most depressing things now is the discovery that Obama seems not just clueless and passive about this stuff, but that — when push comes to shove — he really sides with the forces of darkness. If SOPA ever makes it through Congress, for example, my guess is that he will sign it. After all, as Thom points out, he signed the NDAA 2012.

The madness of Digital Restrictions Management

Truly, you could not make this up. Jay Rosen is one of the smartest and wisest commentators on the media in the online world. This tweet from him just popped up in my stream. All he wants to do is to get hold of his own stuff. Just another reason to be wary of the Google Books Project. It has lots of things going for it, of course: but one big downside: it will give one company a stranglehold on access to our literary heritage.

I’m reminded of Larry Lessig’s story of arriving in his office in Stanford one morning to find the campus police already installed in it. He was told that they had disconnected his computer from the university network because it was running peer-to-peer software. “Exactly!” they chorused — and then looked bemused as he explained that the stuff he shared using the software was all stuff he’d written himself.

Patently absurd

From Slashdot.

“If you’re the giver or recipient of presents gift-wrapped by Amazon, you may want to take a gander at U.S. Patent No. 8,060,463, granted to Amazon last month for Mining of User Event Data to Identify Users with Common Interests. Among other things, Amazon explains the invention can be used to identify recipients of gifts as Christian or Jewish based on wrapping paper. From the patent: “The gift wrap used by such other users when purchasing gifts for this user, such as when the gift wrap evidences the user’s religion (in the case of Christmas or Hanukkah gift wrap, for example.)”

And then there’s this (also from Slashdot):

“You have to love a case where Warner Brothers, copyright maximalist extraordinaire, gets sued for ‘piracy,’ in this case for using a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag in a recent movie. This lawsuit has been described as ‘awkward’ for Warner; I have to agree with that characterization. Louis Vuitton’s 22-page complaint (PDF) alleges that Warner Bros. had knowledge that the bag was a knock-off, but went ahead and used it anyway. Apparently Warner Bros. takes IP rights seriously only when its own IP rights are involved.”

Groucho Marx, where are you when we need you?

GoDaddy’s U-turn on SOPA: change of tactic, not of heart?

This is really interesting.

Surprise! GoDaddy has just recanted their support of SOPA, issuing a press release and blasting out a massive mountain of tweets on the matter. This comes just hours after they were seemingly cementing their position, shrugging off the boycotts as something that had yet to cause “any impact to [their] business”.

For those who somehow missed it: after GoDaddy publicly stated their support for SOPA yesterday morning, a colossal chunk of the Internet (read: the chunk that understands how the Internet works) began to rally. There were no torches or pitchforks here; the only weapons here were wallets, all being carried off in another direction.

The mob got loud, quick: Cheezburger CEO Ben Huh publicly announced that he’d be taking his 1,000+ domains (I Can Has Cheezburger, FAIL Blog, Know Your Meme, etc.) elsewhere if GoDaddy continued to support the act. Meanwhile, thousands of Redditors pledged to transfer their domains, with December 29th set as the mass-move day.

I had decided to move the domains I control from GoDaddy as a result of its support for SOPA but had been too busy over the last few days to actually make the switch. What’s happened is an interesting example of what can happen when the Internet community expresses its collective opinion. Money talks, especially when it walks. And it’s encouraging to see how dramatic the company’s U-turn has been.

But I’m not convinced that it represents a change of heart: it smacks to me of standard-issue corporate panic. So I think I will move my domains anyway — to an outfit like Hover, which seems to be run by folks who understand why a free internet matters. After all, as the TechCrunch post put it: “you’ve got to ask yourself: do you want to continue throwing money at a company blind enough to support SOPA in the first place?”


LATER: This rather confirms my suspicions.

A close look at SOPA

Jonathan Zittrain has produced an excellent legal critique of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). His conclusion is:

Others have weighed in on why SOPA makes for poor public policy and is an ill-considered technical intervention. In this paper we’ve hewed closely to simply reviewing it as legal doctrine. On those terms, its vague language and undue granting of law-like powers to private parties without sufficient public protections make it worthy of a firm “no” vote. SOPA is both overly strong and overly broad; overly strong in the collection of remedies provided, and overly broad for the problems it is attempting to take on.

LATER: Chinese bloggers see SOPA as “the Great Firewall of America”. Who said irony was dead?

The cost of IP madness

From ArsTechnica.

Three Boston University researchers have produced a rigorous empirical estimate of the cost of patent trolling. And the number is breath-taking: patent trolls ("non-practicing entity" is the clinical term) have cost publicly traded defendants $500 billion since 1990. And the problem has become most severe in recent years. In the last four years, the costs have averaged $83 billion per year. The study says this is more than a quarter of US industrial research and development spending during those years.

Two of the study's authors, James Bessen and Mike Meurer, wrote Patent Failure, an empirical study of the patent system that has been widely read and cited since its publication in 2008.

So why did Google pay $12.5 billion for Motorola?

This morning’s Observer column.

Last month, there was much hullabaloo because Nortel, a bankrupt Canadian telecommunications manufacturer, put its hoard of 6,000 wireless patents and patent applications up for auction. The scent attracted a herd of corporate mastodons – Apple, Microsoft, RIM, EMC, Ericsson and Sony – which eventually won the auction with a $4.5bn joint bid.

This attracted much attention from the commentariat, which interpreted it as a slap in the eye for Google, perceived as a rogue participant because it had made a series of apparently fatuous bids for the patents. At one point, for example, Google bid $1,902,160,540. At another, its bid was $2,614,972,128. And when the herd’s bid reached $3bn, Google countered with $3.14159bn.

Commentators were baffled by these numbers until mathematicians came to the rescue. The bids were, in fact, celebrated constants in number theory. The first is Brun’s constant, the number towards which the sum of the reciprocals of twin primes converge. The second was the Meissel-Mertens constant (which also involves prime numbers). And the third, as every schoolboy knows, represented the first six digits of pi. At this point, the penny dropped. Perhaps the Google guys were playing silly buggers – but with a serious motive, namely to inflate the price that the herd would have to pay. And so it proved.

Then, last week, Google dropped a bombshell…

LATER: Steve Lohr has a good piece about the takeover in the NYT which starts from Nick Negroponte’s vision for the digital world as one where people will ship bits rather than atoms. Google has not real experience with retailing atoms, and its experiment with selling the Nexus One handset was a disaster — though the product itself was (and remains) nicer than most Android phones. One lesson of Android is that not having control over handset hardware can lead to disappointing (or even maddening) performance for users (as I found when trying to find an Android bar-code reader App that would work with the camera on my HTC handset). That’s the problem that Apple cracked by having tight control over both device software and hardware. So one question raised by Larry Page’s promise to “create amazing user experiences” is whether Google actually plans to replicate Apple’s seamless control with Motorola handsets? And, if so, what will other Android manufacturers make of that?

Music: better off on BitTorrent? And as for iTunes…

Fascinating TorrentFreak interview with Benn Jordan, one of the first musicians to release his stuff on BitTorrent. Excerpt:

TF: What are your thoughts on the big labels. Are they good or bad for the majority of artists?

Jordan: I have to be honest. Big labels that aren’t being innovative are little more than delusional laughing stocks at this point. Their numbers get worse and worse, and they push the artists to do dumber and dumber stunts to try and stay on top of things.

The shows and festivals they book are sponsored by 8 different alcoholic beverages and 10 different energy drinks, and they just punish their customers while validating their own demise. I’m not worried about them and neither should you. Its a dozen senior citizens trying to stop a stampede of fresh culture. Good luck boys.

TF: And what about Apple?

Jordan: Apple, love or hate their products, is fucking scary. On one hand, hats off. They’re business and marketing geniuses. On the other hand, they might single handedly be the worst thing that has happened to entertainment media in the last 3 years. The major record industry collapsing should also mean that artists are more free to do what they want.

For example, iTunes completely screwed up the track listing of my last album Arboreal. Their network is so influential that over half of the people who have bought the CD from my label now have botched track titles on their mp3 players. Apple doesn’t have ANY accessible artist support to deal with things like this.

They reject my cover art if I don’t have my name and the title in bold. If I want to sell a 30 minute long track (Louisiana Mourning, for example), they require me to split it up into a bunch of separate tracks. Their distribution system is so unorganized that artists have to pay business like Tunecore upwards of $40 per album (and annual fees) to do Apple’s job for them.

Again, its genius on the business side. But they’ve wedged themselves in so well that now, if I don’t have an album on iTunes (under their insane rules and lack of support), a large portion of my listeners simply won’t know how to put my music on their iPods/iPhones.

I know I sound preachy, but think about it, how is that any better than what existed 15 years ago? I still maintain that I’d rather have my stuff “illegally” downloaded than have to go down that path.

TF: What advise do you have for artists who consider giving away their music?

Jordan: That being a “consideration” is always funny to me. You either release it knowing it will be distributed for free or you keep it locked up on your hard drive. If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that no amount of bitching, threatening, lobbying, suing, or file protecting is going to stop information from being spread to those who want it.

Why the YouTube-Viacom ruling is good news

From The Atlantic Wire.

For three years, media and legal observers have been anticipating the outcome of Viacom's $1 billion lawsuit against Google's video site, YouTube. Viacom, which owns MTV, Paramount Pictures and programs such as South Park and The Daily Show, alleged that YouTube willingly exploited its copyrighted content. Google, on the other hand, maintained that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act relieves it from checking user-generated material before it's posted.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton ruled in favor of Google, saying that when YouTube received "specific notice that a particular item infringed a copyright, they swiftly removed it." While Viacom promises to appeal the ruling, its prospects don't look promising. Web enthusiasts and legal experts, meanwhile, are musing about what this means for the Web at large.

At the moment, these views are:

  • The judgment “reinforces the pro-sharing ethos of the Web”
  • It “ensures YouTube’s long-term survival” by easing Google’s caution about where it places ads on the service
  • It “loosens the rules on content-hosting sites”. (Er, except in Italy, perhaps)
  • It represents a major setback for media companies
  • All true. The big story is that while Viacom may be big, Google is bigger. There’s a new 800-lb gorilla on the block.