Monday, October 30, 2006

Blogs Clash with Military Culture...

Xeni Jardin reported on Wired.com today that the U.S. military is tightening controls on milblogs - blogs maintained by military personnel, particluarly those serving in Iraq - for security reasons, and that many bloggers are ceasing to share their frontline experiences as a result.

But what is perhaps most interesting about this story is how the crackdown "signals a growing culture clash between military traditions of censorship and the expectations of young soldiers weaned on open digital culture".

Offering email and internet services to our military was originally claimed by the Pentagon to boost morale. However, based on circumstances on the ground, particularly in places like Iraq, it seems quite understandable that the military would be looking to censor these blogs for security reasons.

This might be something of a hint of things to come, though. As the first internet generation approaches legal age in the next decade, how much dissent will they voice? As kids are raised on generating content for websites like MySpace and YouTube, what will be their reactions to such military crackdowns in the future?

It is an intriguing question. The Web 2.0 culture - an extremely decentralized system inherently resistant to control - directly confronting the military culture - completely based on the strictest control. Today's soldiers might not turn this into a larger issue, but tomorrow's are another story.
  

Friday, October 27, 2006

Internet Television Has Arrived: Venice, Penguin, and Democracy TV...

With Google paying $1.65 billion to acquire YouTube, one idea has been irrefutably validated... that the public is primed and ready for Internet video.

We are on the verge of an entirely new media era. Whereas the last century witnessed the rise of radio and then television, it also saw each medium's concentration of ownership by an elite few corporations. Some have argued that the Internet almost immediately transformed this dynamic, and examples were cited such as Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing services transforming the entire philosophical backbone of the music industry.

Proponents of the New Media have been claiming for years that the Internet would similarly transform television and the movie industry. Now, with the undeniable ascendency of YouTube as an integral component of "the media", they might have a case. The public, it seems, is poised for Internet video, and in a decentralized way in which power over content is no longer controlled by an elite few.

With that in mind, I've been playing around with different Internet television software, in the hopes of testing just how ready for primetime such services may be. Obviously, YouTube is the clear frontrunner in online video (and Yahoo, Google, and MSN all have copycats), despite its often choppy picture quality in a small window and the fact that you cannot download the videos to watch later.

However, there are quite a few new services that more closely resemble what most of us think of as "TV". The founders of Skype are preparing to launch Venice, which will offer hundreds of television programs from around the world, for free, available over the Internet, and completely supported by advertising. Meanwhile, the open source community has been racing to develop an internet television application that would not be controlled by any company, but rather its source code would be freely available to everyone. PenguinTV is their most prominent product developed to date, though its seems more suited to video podcasts than it does to a true television-like model. But the best, in my humble opinion, has to be Democracy TV. It, too, is a free and open source application, but what really sets it apart is its "Channel Guide" which lists hundreds of Internet TV channels to choose from - just like the "Program Guide" you get through your cable TV - and with a simple click you can view full-screen (and usually high-resolution picture quality) shows from all parts of cyberspace.

Exactly how internet television will further change the media landscape remains to be seen. But it should be fun to watch.
  

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Adwords and Advertising Your Identity...

Ever go to Google and enter your own name as the search term? It's amazing what comes up - about 99% of the time, you're lucky if you get linked to at all.

Here's my challenge: I want to make it so that when someone goes to Google and enters "Rob Domanski", my website will be displayed at or near the top of the results. Since I only have one website, and my name is not all that common, this shouldn't be much of a problem, right? Well then why is it nearly impossible?

The problem I'm referring to actually has a professional sounding name: "search engine optimization". In fact, an entire industry has risen over the past few years, where companies charge a fee for improving your Google rankings. How brilliant! But does anyone else see a larger problem on the cyber-horizon - that Google has more control over our internet presence, identity, and visibility than we do over ourselves?

There's something beyond frustrating with the fact that when someone Google's my name, they are sooner directed to a quote I posted on a music discussion board in 1996 than they are to my personal website, this blog, or other up-to-date and more representative internet sites, each of which receives significant web traffic. Maybe this is just a technical problem with Google's search algorithm, but it's maddening nonetheless.

So how did I finally solve the problem? Simple. This morning I sucked it up and created a Google AdWords account - basically transforming my name into a business and advertising myself. So now when someone Google's "Rob Domanski", my name and website will (hopefully and sometimes) be displayed on the results page in the form of an advertisement. At least I'll be listed, but the catch is that I have to pay each time someone clicks on my link.

Is it only a matter of time until we each are forced to incorporate ourselves into an LLC company? Why not go a little further and have an IPO to sell stock shares in your own identity?

Is this crazy to anyone else?
  

Monday, October 23, 2006

Wikipedia Defeats China...

In the ongoing censorship wars, it appears that Wikipedia has, at least for the time being, triumphed over China.

For years now, the totalitarian Chinese government has censored numerous websites, including CNN and the New York Times. Wikipedia, the encyclopedic directory where ordinary people added and edited entries, has been completely blocked as well for fears that Chinese citizens would be able to access content on, for instance, the Tiananman Square massacre of 1989.

Not anymore. China has officially unblocked Wikipedia, citing that the website proved too valuable a resource for its citizens - who were circumventing the censor controls anyway. The website's founder, Jimmy Wales, outright refused the Chinese government's direct request to censor even the Chinese language version of the site (something that Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, and Google all refused to do).

Let this be a lesson in electronic civil disobedience. Just as in real-space, it is sometimes morally justified to circumvent the laws of the State - and as we see in this case, the decentralized architecture of the internet means that the persistent practice of civil disobedience online, by ordinary people, is a tactic powerful enough to change, in tangible terms, the policies of even the most totalitarian of regimes.
  

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Latest Attempt to Criminalize Internet Gambling...

Why is the government always the last to learn the lessons of history?

Last week, Congress passed its latest law to criminalize internet gambling. This time, rather than go after American citizens engaging in their "subversive" behavior (which has thus far proved futile in cyberspace), and rather than go after the online casinos (also virtually impossible since most online casinos are located outside the U.S.), Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the true culprit of internet gambling is, obviously, the credit card companies. Specifically, the law makes it illegal for banks and credit card companies to process payments to online casinos - though not all online casinos; only those that are on a list the government will prepare.

Man, where to start?! Columnist George F. Will describes the law as "Prohibition II", and accurately predicts that this law will be as effective at stopping people from gambling online as the first Prohibition was at stopping Americans from drinking alcohol. Is there really any rational person alive who truly believes this will work?

Just who exactly stands to benefit from the law? Not the bricks-and-mortar casinos who, despite facing competition from cyberspace, have come out decidedly opposed to the law because 1) they never see a government intent on regulating their industry as a good thing, and 2) online gambling has actually proven to "wet the appetites of millions for the real casino experience".

Look closer and what we see is political posturing to social conservatives three weeks before the midterm elections. After all, does it raises anyone else's eyebrows that the law was passed 32 minutes before Congress adjourned for the year? Will suggests that the law is designed to protect the state governments' monopolies on gambling - 48 states have legalized some combination of state-run lotteries, casinos, video poker, etc. This law is simply an attempt to make sure that when people choose to gamble, they are losing their money to the State, rather than to private casinos.

The government ought to heed the lessons of history. First of all, it has proven quite futile to criminalize this type of common behavior that most Americans view as, at worst, a guilty pleasure. Second of all, even if the government is determined to eliminate internet gambling, surely going after the credit card companies isn't going to get the job done.

Here's a thought: why not make online gambling legal, and regulate it? The tax proceeds could help finance our spiraling national debt and reduce the annual budget deficit. Unlike existing state-run lotteries, online gambling wouldn't even be a regressive tax on the poorest Americans, since most online gamblers tend to be in the higher income earning tax brackets. This is not even to mention the "freedom" argument, that people should be free to spend their money how they want.

All of which might sound great to rational people. But try telling that to a government intent on pandering to social conservatives and protecting state-run monopolies.
  

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Senators Receive iPods...

The organization IPAC is giving iPods as gifts to Senatorial campaign committees as part of its "Your Senator Needs an iPod" campaign. As described in this report, "the campaign is designed to bring attention to the growing issue of information policy (patents, copyrights, and trademarks). Key members of both political parties were given iPods for campaign activities illustrating how innovative digital devices can be used along with a rich array of cultural items provided by the public domain and initiatives like Creative Commons.

"I am thrilled at the support we have received from regular Americans who are concerned with the innovation tax that Hollywood cartels have imposed on American companies and creators. We hope to open the eyes of America's leaders to the importance of having sensible information policy. When recorded music conglomerates are installing malicious spyware on our computers, Senators should understand that it's time to balance the public's rights against copyright holders," said Jake Fisher, IPac's Executive Director.

Visionary Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig recorded a special video presentation specifically for IPac's campaign. Each iPod also comes loaded with content from Creative Commons music from artists like Chuck D and The Beastie Boys, hundreds of photos from flickr.com, and classic literature such as the complete works of Shakespeare.

"Just because the music and movies included on each iPod are free to use and share does not mean that they have no value. On the contrary, the work on these iPods illustrates the richness available in our shared cultural reservoirs," said Founder and President David Alpert. "
  

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michelle Malkin Censored...

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin is up in arms because she claims that she posted a YouTube video criticizing militant Islam, and apparently, YouTube removed the video claiming it was offensive and violated its terms of use agreement.

How rampant is YouTube censorship, and who gets to decide which videos are "offensive"? Malkin references one theory that the site flags videos as "offensive" if a large enough number of users report it as such — and that Muslim groups are "gaming the system, rallying their members to flag videos that criticize aspects of Islam".

There is a big difference between strongly-held political views and unacceptably offensive content, though that distinction is often up to the eye of the beholder. YouTube would best serve the public interest by not censoring its user-generated content (and at the very least, not censor it based on its current moderation system). As blogger Riding Sun puts it, YouTube "shouldn't be in the viewpoint-regulation business. As is often said, the best response to offensive speech is more speech, not censorship."

Yes, YouTube is a private company which means that it ultimately gets to decide what to do with material on its website. But there is already a ton of content on the site which I'm sure many people would consider "offensive". They really ought to avoid the whole headache and stay out of the censorship business entirely.
  

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Kill the PERFORM Act...

An email I received from IPac:

Few power plays are as blatant and harmful as the PERFORM Act (S. 2644) from northern California's own Dianne Feinstein. Simply put, PEFORM revokes your right to tape radio shows while imposing draconian DRM on all internet radio.

The Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) explicitly allows a person to record radio programs for their own personal use. In exchange, we all pay a Hollywood Cartel tax on some blank CDs and tapes. It's a bill that has served us well for over a decade, but now with advanced satellite radio receivers that allow paying subscribers to time shift their favorite programs the Hollywood Cartels are asking for 'backsies' on the AHRA. Always eager to please her real constituents in Hollywood, Dianne Feinstein stepped up to the plate and introduced PERFORM.

But, if overturning the AHRA wasn't enough, Feinstein slipped in a provision that changes the Copyright Act to force Internet radio stations to impose the most severe and draconian DRM possible. All of the Internet radio stations that you know and love will be forced to abandon MP3 streams. Innovative companies like Pandora are already heavily burdened and taxed by the DMCA, forcing them to spends additional money to license DRM is an undue burden.

Who does Dianne Feinstein represent? Is it Northern California, the economic engine for the entire state and the nation? Or is it Southern California, the repressive monopolists that seek to limit expression and technology?

You can find out how you can stop Senator Feinstein's PERFORM Act at
http://ipaction.org/action/perform
  

Google Buys YouTube...

Yesterday, Google announced that it has purchased the video-sharing website YouTube for $1.65 billion. This can be looked at as 1) a rousing Web 2.0 success story for YouTube, a company which is still not profitable and has only 67 employees, and 2) a highly questionable investment on behalf of Google.

Clearly, Google aims to increase its standing in the emerging internet video hosting market. Google Video, a wannabe YouTube, has only 10% market share, despite its integration with the Google search engine. YouTube is the dominant New Media front runner, and despite its lack of profitability and few assets, its brand recognition alone justifies its acquisition.

But what has many observers on the edge of their seats is, as Mark Cuban has described, whether Google is opening itself up to lawsuits over copyright violations because of all of the unlicensed videos on YouTube. YouTube is already facing a tidal wave of litigation from the music and movie industries. The courts have not yet ruled whether sites like YouTube even have the right to exist in cyberspace, as they are being labelled as being little more than facilitators of piracy and copyright infringement.

The copyright issue could spell disaster for Google shareholders who will now be on the hook, in a legal sense. Not that they seem to mind too much yet. After the announcement, Google stock rose 8.5% on the day.

Wired poses the following question: Does Google have the cajones to go to bat for its new step-child and get the necessary media deals in ink? Or will Google get spanked by the MPAA, RIAA, and Google shareholders, thus bringing all of the recent momentum in the online video sharing world to a screeching halt?

Google's multi-billion dollar bankroll might be exactly what supporters of YouTube and user-generated content on the internet have been hoping for - finally having ample means to fight back against Hollywood and the music industry. However, the acquisition is still a little disheartening. Will every promising New Media and Web 2.0 startup get bought out by the giant corporate behemoths?

My only consolation is that at least YouTube was bought by Google and not by Apple :-)