Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Religious Origins of Halloween...

To trick or treat, or not to trick or treat, that is the question. Today is the perfect time to reflect on the religious reasons why we're about to dress up like animals, celebrities, and assorted inanimate objects.

From a synagogue newsletter (don't you love the irony)...

The word itself, "Halloween," comes from a corruption of All Hallows Eve. November 1, "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. Candles for those who have passed away are lit in Catholic churches on the evening of October 31. It was also believed the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. Naturally, those still living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily parade around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
  

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Would You Support an Email Tax?

I have an uncle who swears that he'd be willing to pay a couple of pennies every time he sends an email. His thinking is that if it actually costs money to send email messages, then most spammers would go out of business. While my uncle believes that such an "email tax" would be preferable to all of the spam we currently receive, is it a practical idea that policymakers should actually consider?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, "of course not". Why would anybody actually prefer to pay for email when it has been free since its inception? Here's why. For those of us who not only have our inboxes clogged with spam everyday, but who've also even switched email accounts and/or providers because the problem got so out of control, an email tax might be an enticing solution. Certainly, the economic disincentive to spammers would greatly reduce the amount of spam on the internet, therefore some people may liken an email tax to paying a premium fee for better service.

From a policymaking perspective, legislators have already staked out their position on whether or not to intervene. The U.S. Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, rendering the sending of spam as an illegal activity if it was unsolicited, didn't have a clear mechanism for identifying the sender, and failed to provide an option for the user to opt-out of future mailings. Congress' justification for getting involved... the billions of dollars each year that spam costs our economy in terms of inefficiencies in time and resources.

But here's the rub. I still argue that my uncle is crazy, and here's why. First of all, when I mention that spam is already illegal, he retorts that that doesn't matter because the policy cannot be enforced. No kidding. But if that's the case, how would enforcing a tax on the number of emails sent be more easily accomplished? Most experts agree that such a task would be impossible on a practical level - harmonizing disparate tax laws from around the country and the world.

Second, keeping track of how many emails are being sent by each person raises a host of new problems. For instance, who's going to do the monitoring? The government? The internet service provider? The email hosting company? Maybe a new IRS-style auditting agency? I'm sure everyone would love that.

Or put it another way, who would you trust to monitor your email activity?

Third, the secondary effects of such a policy would be drastic. The way the Internet is designed, any data being sent over the infrastructure is read the same as any other data. In other words, a router doesn't distinguish whether something is an email message, a request to view a website, or music being traded. It's all ones and zeros. So in order to be able to distinguish whether something is an email message (and furthermore, whether it is spam), a fundamental change would have to occur in how the Internet itself is designed at the code layer. And if it were possible to ascertain what type of data was being sent, then you'd be looking at a very different Internet than what currently exists. Is such a revolution desirable simply to reduce a few junk emails?

Fourth, the public outrage would be so tremendous if an email tax was passed that it makes the notion politically impossible. People are used to emailing for free, and to suddenly make us pay for every single message sent would lead to armageddon.

This is all nevermind the moral dilemmas involved with passing an email tax - such as making it a tool for the rich, and exacerbating divides in existing social inequalities.

I could go on, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm already preaching to the choir. Perhaps the most striking thing about this "debate" is even that there is one. Let's toss this one up to crazy uncles :-)
  

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Perversion of Programming Language...

Connoisseurs of the English language are often aghast at its common misuse. They decry ebonics, slang, and casual mistakes such as the incorrect placement of apostrophes and capital letters. Now in a most unexpected twist, it appears that computer programming languages may soon face the same type of perversions.

As this Boing Boing article explains, a posting was listed on Craigslist for a job as a "LOLCode Developer". Craigslist has since flagged the listing for removal (they assume it is a joke), yet a movement may indeed be underway to create a LOLCode programming language. They've even already developed a compiler.

We've all seen that TV commercial where a mother and daughter have a conversation using text/IM-messaging dialect - "LOL, OMG it's my BFF Jill" (or something like that). But a programming language based on similar esoteric language?

The C++ gods must be rolling in their graves, and like those horrified connoisseurs of English, computer scientist professors are surely rolling their eyes at the prospect of soon viewing source code like this...

while(BFF<10)
{
if(state="LOL" && reaction="OMG")
cout << ":-)";
BFF++;
}
  

Friday, October 26, 2007

Interpreting the Microsoft-Facebook Deal...

Yesterday Microsoft announced that it was paying $240 million for a 1.6% stake in the social networking site Facebook. That's right, only 1.6% of the company, which for all you math majors out there amounts to a $15 billion dollar value. Meanwhile, Facebook doesn't even bring in $200 million in revenue, let alone that too-often disregarded thing called profit.

What can we make of this development? First of all, Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. The 23-year-old who created Facebook out of his dorm room only 3 years ago was offered to be bought out by Yahoo last year for $1 billion dollars - and he rejected it. Seriously, what 23-year-old kid has the chutzpah to turn down a billion dollars?! But now that Microsoft has essentially appraised the firm as worth $15 billion and considers it to have a substantially positive outlook for future growth, Zuckerberg's decision has been completely validated. He's a genius, not for his technical skills (heck, even I could develop the software behind Facebook), but for his business acumen, and this is what ultimately sets him apart from other Internet dormroom superheroes (see Shawn Fanning of Napster).

Second, the next Internet bubble is officially upon us. The first dot-com bubble, you might remember, was defined by investors paying ridiculous sums of money to websites that didn't even turn a profit. Where have you gone Pets.com, Webvan, and Etoys? Now that MySpace has been purchased by Rupert Murdoch and Microsoft invested so heavily into Facebook, these social-networking websites are the new speculative gold rush. This Web 2.0 bubble is sure to only be in its early stages, and Del.icio.us, Digg.com, and Reddit can expect to be next.

Third, Microsoft is getting desperate. As this Wired article describes, almost more surprising than the amount of the Facebook deal is the way in which Microsoft "double-downed" by going for broke in order to outbid Google. Sure, Microsoft has plans for using Facebook to enhance its online advertising business and a few other things, but this approach illustrates how the software giant sees itself as both vulnerable and as lagging behind the rest of the industry, and it wreaks of desperation.

On the other side of the coin, however, one blog has gone against the grain and suggested several reasons why Microsoft actually paid so little for its 1.6% stake in Facebook.

Financial speculative concerns aside, what tends to get obscured are the facts. Facebook is wildly popular and growing quickly, but its underlying programming is nothing exceptional and can be easily emulated, and it has yet to turn a profit in proportion to its current market value. Sometimes its important to re-examine the trees after looking at the forest for so long.
  

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

An Open Approach to Digitizing Libraries...

Several years ago Google made headlines for its plan to digitally scan millions of books from the nation's libraries, and then make those books searchable to the public. This blog has supported Google's efforts, but a new development is making The Nerfherder re-consider.

As this New York Times article explains, libraries are increasingly shunning Google because of their dissatisfaction with the restraints that Google subsequently puts on them. For example, "libraries that agree to work with Google must agree to a set of terms, which include making the material unavailable to other commercial search services."

In contrast, the Open Content Alliance, which many libraries are now favoring, makes the material available to any search service. Rather than granting Google exclusive search rights, the books remain publicly accessible by all-comers.

The Times is correct in asserting that this "resistance from some libraries, like the Boston Public Library and the Smithsonian Institution, suggests that many in the academic and nonprofit world are intent on pursuing a vision of the Web as a global repository of knowledge that is free of business interests or restrictions."

Make no mistake, public libraries are exactly that... public. The original reason for supporting the efforts of Google, Microsoft, and others to digitize library collections was to make that material even more accessible to the public. However, if the agreements that libraries must make with these private commercial firms leads to that material being less publicly accessible, then it has unquestionably become counter-productive.

An open approach remains the most desirable one, and the Open Content Initiative is working in the right direction. The public's access to public material should not be impeded, and the interests of commercial firms can still be served because their rights to innovate commercial applications based on that material remain intact. The playing field will simply be more level.
  

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Copyright Overreach and the Viewing of HTML Source Code...

As this Boing Boing article and the Consumer Law & Policy Blog report, a law firm is claiming in its "User Agreement" that people will be copyright infringing if they view the source code of their website. Not only does this go against the most fundamental principles that have made the Web what it is today, but it also creates a false sense of legal legitimacy where there is none.

For any of you non-techies out there, right now go to the top menu of your Internet Explorer browser window, click on "View" and then "Source" (or in Firefox, click on "View" and "Page Source"). What you see is the HTML source code behind the web page. This may look like a foreign language to you, but this HTML code is available for viewing on every single page that exists on the World Wide Web - and it has been since Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web in the early 1990s. This "sharing" of the source code has been instrumental in developing the Internet into an open and free virtual space (free as in free speech, not free beer). In fact, it's important to remember that the Web is actually little more than billions of "shared" files located on servers throughout the world.

Inventor-Link's User Agreement states: "We also own all of the code, including the HTML code, and all content. As you may know, you can view the HTML code with a standard browser. We do not permit you to view such code since we consider it to be our intellectual property protected by the copyright laws. You are therefore not authorized to do so."

As Greg from Boing Boing accurately points out, "That's kind of like a puppet show invoking copyright to prohibit the audience from looking at the strings."

Legally, this firm is intentionally creating a false sense of legitimacy for these actions. Not only have U.S. courts overwhelmingly rejected such overreaching attempts to extend copyright protection to the public domain, but the law firm is also outright violating the Fair Use Doctrine - which legally allows the use of copyrighted material, without the owner's permission, for educational use, research, journalistic reporting, parody, etc.

Really, companies who are so paranoid about protecting their intellectual property ought to stop making outrageously ridiculous legal claims and instead, if it really matters so much to them, just decide not to voluntarily post their material on the Web in the first place.
  

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Myth of Internet Decentralization...

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the Internet is far from the decentralized network for which it is often characterized. Despite its users being scattered around the globe, a small handful of telecommunications firms own the infrastructure, and a relatively small number of ISPs control people's access to it. As a result, power has failed to be redistributed from an elite class to the masses in cyberspace.

The rosy ideal of true believers looks something like the following: Throughout human history, political power has been consolidated in the hands of an elite few. The Internet, because it is a decentralized network with no one in a privileged position of authority, challenges such notions of centralized power. With everybody on the network considered on equal ground for participation, it is a democratizing force that redistributes power from the elites to the masses, which will inevitably lead to all the children of the world holding hands together to sing a song of peace in universal harmony.

But here are the facts. A few giant telecom corporations (whose number can be counted using your fingers) own the wires and cables that allow the Internet to physically exist. They set the prices for its use, maintain its operation, and make decisions that affect what material can and cannot be sent over its pipes. Likewise, virtually all Internet users in the United States connect to the Web by having to subscribe to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like AOL, Verizon, or Cablevision, who may take down website material or cut off users' Internet access at will for violating their terms of service. In many cases, the infrastructure owners are even one and the same as the service providers.

What this means is that decision-making power on Internet issues still primarily resides in the hands of an elite class - namely, the telecoms and ISPs. This is not to sound like some paranoid conspiracy theory bashing capitalism, nor is it to intended to pass judgment on whether this is a positive or negative development, only to observe that it is, in fact, the current state of being.

Yet it hardly has to remain that way. True believers need not wallow in depression. The redistribution of social power that they seek may still be attainable by focusing on the original goal of decentralization. People can run their websites on open source Apache servers from their home PCs, form co-ops to negotiate Internet service agreements (essentially becoming their own ISPs), and develop free WiFi hotspots rather than use the cable and DSL networks, because, after all, the public owns the airwaves.

Ultimately, the Internet does indeed still hold tremendous potential for shifting power from an elite class to the masses. But as democratic theory suggests, it's not enough to create an equal level playing field on paper, or in this case, in the network. People still have to be actively engaged and educated - or, in other words, willing to take action - to prevent consolidations of decision-making authority by others.

Imagine.
  

Monday, October 15, 2007

Preventing an Internet Jihad...

In the war on terror, winning hearts and minds is achievable through a variety of means, and how events are being depicted to the public is critical among them. For the United States to fight terrorism, it has a definite interest in stopping the spreading of jihadist propaganda, and this has become a growing problem on the Internet.

The front page of the New York Times' website is featuring an article on Samir Khan, a 21-year-old American living in North Carolina who produces a blog that "serves as a kind of Western relay station for the multimedia productions of violent Islamic groups". Basically, when supporters of Osama bin Laden post propagandist videos on the Internet, Mr. Khan's blog helps translate them into English and organizes links to all the different material that's out there in cyberspace, specifically targeting a Western audience.

What can be done to prevent this type of Internet Jihad? Of course, here in the United States we have free speech, however it applies mostly to governmental regulation (the private sector can still curtail it to certain extents), and there are also legal exceptions to free speech (such as defamation and hate speech). Several steps can be taken to mitigate the effects of an Internet Jihad.

The article mentions that Mr. Khan's father has repeatedly cut off his son's Internet access and that Mr. Khan "recently added a disclaimer to his blog disavowing responsibility for the views expressed on the site". How exactly someone can disavow responsibility for something they are themselves promoting publicly is beyond me. But that aside, parents have obvious powers that they can exercise if their kids use the Internet to promote jihadist messages (or any other material furthering messages of hatred and violence).

Mr. Khan has also apparently been "fending off citizen watchdogs who are working to knock sites likes his off the Internet. Twice in September his blog went dark when his service provider shut him down, citing complaints about the nature of his postings".

First of all, who are these citizen watchdogs? Are they individuals or organizations? But more to the point, private commercial firms certainly hold great power in stopping Internet Jihad through their control of how most of us connect to the Web. For example, Verizon can leverage their ownership of the telecommunications infrastructure - the wires and cables underground - that physically connects networks and machines to each other. Meanwhile, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AOL can cut off Internet service to their customers who fail to abide by their terms of service, and companies that host people's websites and blogs can likewise take down whichever sites use their services to jihadist ends. At the individual level, people can choose to boycott, not only the jihadist websites themselves, but also any advertisers who help fund them.

But here's where the problem gets tricky. In response to some of these measures, Mr. Khan recently moved his blog to a website called Muslimpad, whose American operators have moved from Texas to Amman, Jordan - seemingly out of reach of U.S. jurisdiction. However, while this geographic shift complicates things, Mr. Khan himself still resides within U.S. borders and therefore must be held accountable for his actions to the utmost extent, under U.S. law, by both the government and private commercial firms, without which he could not connect to his blog and continue spreading jihadist propaganda.

The bottom line is that we can preserve free speech while still going after producers of jihadist materials with these other legal tools at our disposal. There needs to be more coordination between the public sector, private commercial firms, and individuals netizens so that more pro-active (yet legal) actions are taken against America's enemies.
  

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Carbon Neutral Websites...

The following post is part of Blog Action Day - a day for bloggers to collectively support environmental causes.

Yesterday, while searching for, of all things, instructions for how to grow ginger root, I noticed that at the bottom of the page was an icon that was labeled, "Carbon Neutral Website".

A minimal amount of research on WikiHow uncovered that it's possible to obtain a carbon offset to balance out any greenhouse gas emissions that we create, either by running our websites, or for everyone else, simply by leaving our home PCs powered on for long stretches of time.

Using the Terrapass website, you can purchase your carbon offset for only a couple of dollars a year. It will estimate how many pounds of emissions you're responsible for annually, and then you can contribute some money which Terrapass will invest into programs that reduce carbon emissions, helping to offset your "carbon footprint" either partially or completely. Just to give you an idea, my entire carbon footprint for the year was offset by only about $30.

Even if you're skeptical about giving money to such offset programs, you can still show some support - just regularly visit and spread the word to promote websites that display the following logo:

  

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Cyber-philanthropy and the DonorsChoose Program...

Sticking with yesterday's theme, not only have we entered an age of cyberactivism, but cyber-philanthropy as well. With all Internet users having the power to create content with a global reach, it's terrific to finally see some doing so for noble purposes.

From Google: Got a Blog? Help a Student...

When it comes to philanthropy, everyone’s got something different to give – some people have money, others have time, and bloggers have devoted readers. The creative folks at DonorsChoose have a few ideas about how bloggers can help students and teachers.

In case you’re not familiar with DonorsChoose, it’s a site where teachers post needs they have for their classrooms, and donors fund those projects directly. If you’ve got a blog, a website, or even an email account, you can help by creating what’s called a challenge. Just pick some of your favorite projects and challenge your family, friends, and readers to fund them. If you’ve got a Blogger account, it’s easy to add your challenge to your blog in just a few clicks.


Most bloggers and other website content creators (yes, that means all of you MySpace and Facebook users) are able to promote causes and encourage cyber-philanthropy without any cost to themselves besides spending a few minutes posting something to their site. For this DonorsChoice program specfically, Google is offering links and a $500 award for whichever blogs raise the most money for each of the DonorsChoice categories. But really, this cause is a good one and should be supported on its own merits.
  

Mobilizing Cyberactivism with Blog Action Day...

The Internet is filled with tons of junk, and our experiences in cyberspace range from the highly interactive to the extreme solitary. With that in mind, social scientists reach for any examples of collective action in online behavior, and political scientists are equally anxious to find examples of collective action seeking to accomplish political goals.

Next week will offer a glimpse into the potential world of cyberactivism. From Blogger.com:

October 15, a week from today, is Blog Action Day, and the theme this year is the environment. If you have a blog and want to join in, all you have to do is use that day to post something related to the environment, in whatever way, shape, or form you prefer. You can pick an environmental issue that has meaning for you and let us know why it's important. Organize a beach or neighborhood cleanup and tell us about it. If you're into fiction writing, give us a story with an environmental theme. Have a podcast, videoblog, or photoblog? Join the fun! The idea here is to have a mass effect on public awareness by sharing as many ideas in as many ways as possible.

If you're game for participating, go register your blog with the 7,000+ other blogs (with 5 million readers!) that are already signed up. Also, see the Blog Action Day blog for more on how bloggers can change the world.
  

Monday, October 08, 2007

Should the FCC Regulate Email Portability...

A few years ago the U.S. Congress passed a law that requires cell phone service providers to allow people to take their phone numbers with them when they switch companies. The reasoning was that phone numbers are essential identifiers in contemporary society, and therefore it is unreasonable, not to mention economically inefficient, for people to have to switch phone numbers every time they switched providers. If we can't bring our phone numbers with us, it was argued, we'll have a strong disincentive to switch service providers, despite other favorable market conditions. Of course, this is exactly what the cell phone companies want, but Congress and the FCC decided that this worked against the free market and was ultimately harming the interests of consumers and the economy.

Now the FCC is being petitioned to do the same thing but with email addresses. On the surface it seems logical. Certainly, email addresses are as vital to our digital lives as cell phone numbers, right? And we've all experienced the fear of switching our primary email addresses, usually just creating more of them rather than replacing our old ones - heck, I must have 6 or 7 different active accounts, and that's just a guestimate. And somehow, inexplicably, my uncle is still using a COMPUSERVE email account for his small business (even though the company was bought by AOL years ago).

However, in this article by Declan McCullagh, he lists seven reasons why it's a silly idea. He claims that "If you're running any kind of business... it's naive to use an AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo e-mail address". Really? I bet those companies beg to differ. Most techies recognize that these firms are actually better at filtering spam and other services because of all the resources at their disposal. In fact, the only reason not to use these services for a small business is the cost involved if you ever want to switch email accounts.

McCullagh also argues that services would set up email forwarding or "Internetwide standards" if there was sufficient customer demand. But does anybody doubt that there's enough customer demand? He seems oblivious to the reality that this is a market failure. While it's true that buying your own domain name may help mitigate the effects of this market failure, it is hardly a "counterpoint" which demonstrates that no market failure exists. The fact is that everybody wants this, yet nearly none of the big firms are willing to offer it, just like had been the case with cell phone numbers.

This is a classic policy question that gets to the appropriate role of government. It seems clear that email portability is a service everyone wants, but the market has failed to provide it, and this hurts both consumer interests and the overall economy. What McCullagh's argument represents is that it is not the proper role of the government to intervene in such matters. An overly interventionist government is just as likely (if not more likely) to screw things up by regulating the private sector - and besides, shouldn't the government focus on more urgent matters like national security?

Ultimately, forwarding emails takes the service providers only a couple of seconds and a handful of lines of code to implement. As much as everybody would LOVE to have this feature, it's unclear exactly why the FCC and the federal government really need to intervene. Some of McCullagh's points are not well constructed, but his larger point - that this should not be the role of the government - remains intact because cyberspace, for all its faults, has historically thrived when government interference was at a minimum. Unfortunately, we just need to deal with the status quo and wait for some private company to finally understand that loosening their grip of control and not locking-in their customers might actually make good business sense because it will attract more customers.
  

Friday, October 05, 2007

Facebook and the Fallacy of Open-Source Politics...

Wired has an article today on how millions of Facebook users have used the social-networking website to organize political protests against Myanmar's recent crackdown on monks' pro-democracy demonstrations. Marches and demonstrations are planned to take place around the world on Saturday, and they were organized at "a lightning pace" by volunteers primarily using Facebook. Wired claims this to be "open-source politics", however this is a complete misuse of the term and does more to confuse observers of political technology than it does to explain what is actually going on.

Only about two weeks ago, a 19-year-old college student from Toronto, Alex Bookbinder, created a Facebook group named "Support the Monks' Protest". Since then, over 300,000 users have joined the group, and it's now working directly with established advocacy organizations like Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK to organize real-world political activities.

This case certainly is an example of how social-networking websites can quickly spread viral messages. And in that capacity, the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world are potentially tremendous political tools.

But is this a case of open-source politics? Absolutely not.

First of all, there is nothing open-source about Facebook. The term refers to making the source code that underlies the programming application available for anyone to see, and usually also to edit. Other than a few APIs, Facebook still does not make their source code available - they keep it private and consider it their proprietary intellectual property. Which is perfectly fine, it's just grossly incorrect to label it open-source.

Second, true "open-source politics" refers to how the open-source movement of making source code publicly available has influenced institutional decision-making. For example, the very fact that the operating system Linux is open-source has had great effects on commercial institutions such as Microsoft and IBM, as well as on public governmental institutions who create policies which either favor private commercial firms or else help encourage the development of further open-source projects and nurture its ideology (this can be done through research grants, the implementation of open-source software for their own internal use, etc.).

In other words, "open-source politics" refers to the political effects that have resulted from the existence of open-source software. As Lawrence Lessig has argued, code can be written to embody certain political values, and therefore the characteristics of a particular type of software can - and, in the case of open-source, does - have significant political meaning.

Facebook fails to meet this criteria. While it's a fantastic cause these Facebook users are supporting, and while it's terrific that social-networking websites can help foster this type of political activism, it is simply wrong to mislabel what is going on. Open-source politics cannot exist if the software itself is not open-source.

Maybe "Web 2.0 politics" is a better fit?