Wednesday, June 28, 2006

YouTube Forever!

Yet another afternoon passed by yesterday where I should have been productive, yet found myself killing endless hours playing on YouTube. For those of you "un-wired", YouTube is a huge depository of videos that any user can post, and then the world gets to watch them for free.

Bill Simmons (aka, "The Sports Guy") wrote an article recently creating his YouTube Hall of Fame for favorite videos of all time.

Go and check it out, if you haven't already. It seems apparent that with the literally millions of different video clips available on demand (and for free), it may only be a matter of time until people do most of their "TV watching" on YouTube-like Internet sites, rather than through traditional television stations.

What's the larger significance? How about a radical tranformation in how we define the media system, shifting from a few-to-many model (where a small handful of media companies acted as gatekeepers deciding what the public would be able to see) to a many-to-many model (where the public decides what the public wants to see, and when to see it).

This New Media model first emerged with the rise of blogs a few years ago, challenging traditional print media, and forcing us to rethink what it means to be a journalist. With YouTube, everyone is a potential television and movie producer. The power of decision-making over who decides what the public may consume has, again, become decentralized.

But enough seriousness. Here's the real reason I'll be watching more YouTube than traditional TV (if I don't already). I have always loved the 1986 Mets music video, so reminscient of another 80s gem, the 1985 Chicago Bears Superbowl Shuffle. I haven't seen the Mets video in years, and even emailed the Mets organization repeatedly to re-release it, but ultimately to no avail. Yesterday, I went to YouTube, did a quick search, and within seconds there it was for me to watch over and over again.

Which I did. Smiling.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Spamming Politics...

After poking around at Craigslist this morning, I seem to be observing a rapidly growing trend... political recruiting through spam.

Search for government job opportunities and what you'll find is that the overwhelming majority of results are for recruiting activists, and the subject lines look frighteningly similar to the spam emails which flood our inboxes everyday. Subject lines like "Turn Congress Blue! Work with to Elect Democrats!" and "Summer Jobs to Save Our Environment - Earn $4,000 to $6,000!", or my personal favorite "The Revolution Now Offers Paid Positions!".

Is this where the convergence of politics and the Internet has led us? How depressing.

The Internet holds such tremendous potential for reshaping democracy in positive ways, such as increasing political participation, making voting more convenient, generating new grassroots ideas, and decentralizing power away from elites, to name just a few. So why is it that spam, of all things, is starting to dominate the online political space?

This is the kind of tactic which could give all online political efforts a bad name, and maybe even lead to demands for government regulation. Stop the madness!

Monday, June 26, 2006

The DRM Dilemma...

For followers of the New Media debate, the emergence of Digital Rights Management (DRM) software has quickly come onto the national political radar.

DRM software basically encrypts music CDs and video DVDs. On one side of the debate, Hollywood and the recording industry argue that such encryption prevents piracy and protects copyright holders. On the other side, consumer advocates and technologists argue that DRM goes against technological innovation and takes away already existing consumer rights.

Read the full debate in the Wall Street Journal here.

As someone who creates software, I have to say that I have personal experience with the problems of DRM. The Digital Milennium Copyright Act makes it illegal for me to write software that will "circumvent" anti-piracy measures - and this seems perfectly legitimate on its surface. However, with the state of current Internet technologies, almost ANY Internet software I create could be used by people to circumvent those measures.

For example, let's say I want to write my own program for sharing digital home movies with my family. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, and I am certainly not violating copyright laws when home movies are what is being shared. However, according to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, any program I create even for legitimate, non-infringing purposes would still be illegal simply because someone else might get hold of the program and use it for illegal purposes.

As a result, there are a ton of programmers out there with great ideas for innovative new software products - all of which serve legitimate purposes. However, they are "chilled" from distributing it because some unscrupulous people might possibly use it for reasons other than what it's intended for, and get scared about the possibility of litigation.

DRM encryption is problematic exactly for this reason. People still cannot watch their legally purchased DVDs on Linux computers, and cannot play their legally acquired music on certain MP3 devices, because DRM encryption chills developers away from creating such products (even though there is an obvious market demand for them).

Furthermore, DRM threatens to take away the Fair Uses of copyrighted material that the law is supposed to protect. The use of copyrighted material has always been legally permissable by educational institutions, and for the purposes of political commentary and news reporting. DRM makes such Fair Use impossible.

As the Internet increasingly becomes characterized by ordinary people creating media content (think MySpace and YouTube), what is at issue is how DRM inhibits innovation, takes away existing Fair Use rights, and ultimately limits the diversity of media content in cyberspace. Certainly, this is something people should be concerned about.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

France and iTunes Revisitted...

Following up on my blog entry a short while ago titled "Viva la France!" where I praised the French government for forcing Apple to open its iTunes music format to competitors, yesterday that same French government retracted the guts of the policy.

Read the full article here.

What they're now saying is that Apple can continue using a closed standard for iTunes, as long as the music artist agrees. However, the not-so-secret secret is that Apple REQUIRES artists to go along with the closed standard if they want to be listed on iTunes at all. This effectively means that iTunes will continue its closed standard practices, making competition in the market for digital music downloads non-existent. (Read - a monopoly).

Here's my plan. My brother is in a band. I am going to post his songs on iTunes for sale to the world, but I will not agree to the closed format. Let's see if Apple says my brother is not allowed to sell his own original copyrighted work, even if he wants to.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Funny Ann Coulter Analysis...

I'm sharing this post only because it made me laugh as a huge Star Wars fan. What if Ann Coulter were writing about the politics of that galaxy far, far away...

From Jim Caple, ESPN:

"The liberals hate Darth Vader just for being a strong leader and trying to preserve traditional values in the Empire. At least in the Empire, they supported their troops, which is more than you can say about Cindy Sheehan and the blue staters. But no, these Blame The Empire First liberals would rather cheer known smuggler Han Solo (how do we know he doesn't smuggle drugs in the Millennium Falcon? Or worse, steroids? I mean, look at all the hair on Chewbacca's back) and that twisted pervert Luke who tries to kill his father and wants to sleep with his sister, and the so-called Rebel Alliance, which is nothing more than a bunch of terrorists with good PR. Their idea of a dream world is the ice planet Hoth, where there is never a threat of global warming. And why do the liberals bash the Death Star so much? At least it put people to work instead of having them stand around waiting for a welfare check. Repeat after me: Death Stars don't kill people, people kill people. Not that the residents of Alderaan were necessarily people in the sense they possessed the same DNA and precious stem cells as us. But how do we know they wouldn't have destroyed Tatooine if Darth hadn't launched his preemptive attack?"

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Does "Yearly Kos" Really Matter?

Last week, a convention of liberal bloggers named "Yearly Kos" was held in Las Vegas. In this New York Times article, the convention was described as "the mainstream debut of 'Internet-powered politics', and it made a convincing case that the Internet will quickly surpass television as the primary medium for communicating political ideas".

Certainly, the blogosphere holds tremendous potential for political influence. The question is to what degree? To what extent will blogs affect political debates, and even electoral outcomes?

This NY Times article considers how liberal blogs may affect the 2006 and 2008 elections. For starters, there were many indications at the Yearly Kos convention that efforts are being made to move the liberal blogging activists into the real-space political process - contributing campaign money, performing grassroots organizing, collecting signatures, and performing get-out-the-vote drives. The same efforts I'm sure are being made by conservatives.

These activities seem to miss the point. The power of the blogosphere is not in simply being a recruitment station for real-space activists. Its power lies in its open dialogue and diversity of ideas that bloggers toss out there. In other words, blogging's political potential lies in cyberspace, not real-space.

This is a double-edged sword for traditional political parties. Yes, the blogosphere might make mobilization of activists easier, however because of the decentralized (and anarchic) dialogue that takes place in the blogosphere, political parties will no longer have control of the message they want to put forth.

If you are the chairman of the Democratic or Republican national parties, that is a monster problem. It undermines your authority and control. However, if you believe that generating new ideas for politics and public policy is more valuable than hierarchical control, then the real promise of the blogosphere lies in its ability to foster democratic dialogue.

In a constitutional system designed to decentralize power, isn't that more in line with democracy's ultimate goal?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Making Sense out of the Net Neutrality Debate...

It's been all over the news lately, and Congress is preparing to hold a crucial vote on it. But what's the debate really about? Here's a quick primer on Net Neutrality.

Right now, the way the Internet works is that information is broken down into packets and sent over phone and cable lines (and increasingly, through the airwaves via wireless technology). As this information is sent around the Internet, no judgements are made on the content of that information. All data is viewed as equal, and therefore, no data is treated as more priveleged than any other data. This is what is meant by "net neutrality".

What is at issue: Should broadband providers be legally required to treat all content equally.

Here's the political debate. The pro-neutrality crowd argues that all information must be treated equally in order for the Internet to remain an open marketplace of ideas and innovation. They claim Net Neutrality to be "the First Amendment of the Internet". Without it, they argue, large corporations would be at such a structural advantage that entrepreneurs, small businesses, and individuals, would all be treated as second-class citizens. A non-neutral Internet would mean that telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T would create a "toll lane" on the web, charging extra money for the delivery of audio and video web content, and effectively have a "tiered Internet" where some are far more advantaged than others. They see the Internet as a "level playing-field" which rewards the best ideas rather than the most well-funded ideas and believe that net neutrality guidelines are necessary to maintain this dynamic.

Meanwhile, the anti-neutrality crowd argues that the government should avoid regulating the Internet and the telecom broadband providers. These corporations, they say, will not be blocking access to websites, they will only be making access faster or slower to websites depending on which ones would be willing to pay premium fees. Their second argument is that telecoms invest billions of dollars into laying down the nation's data infrastructure, therefore they should be able to make a return on that investment. According to net neutrality, it is not the telecoms investing in the infrastructure, but rather content providers like Google and Yahoo which reap the financial benefits, and this is inherently unfair.

So, a few of my observations...

First of all, it is fascinating to me that an issue like Net Neutrality has actually made it onto the mainstream political agenda. In a field historically dominated by technocrats, issues like this have usually flown way under the radar. What's different this time? Is some type of cultural shift taking place?

Second, it is quite disturbing that the debate has fallen under the umbrella of the traditional political game in Washington. According to preliminary data (viewable here), it seems this issue has already splintered along party lines - Democrats supporting net neutrality, Republicans opposing it. For that segment of the population who believe in the exceptionalism of cyberspace - that it is fundamentally different that real-space environments and therefore warrants a fundamentally different dialogue - this is both a disturbing and also disappointing development.

My opinion is this: I have my own personal web page, as well as a website I maintain for my students in an institution of higher education. It is currently hosted on my own server, outside from the university. Net neutrality would guarantee that my website could continue to be accessed at the same speed as any other. Without it, it would take minutes to load my website, but only seconds to load corporate commercial sites, such as Yahoo's, unless I was willing to pay a premium fee (which I probably could not afford). It seems to me that there are inherent social benefits for having an equal and neutral World Wide Web which in this case trump those of the small handful of corporate telecoms.

The true value of the Internet, in my humble opinion, lies both in the availability and diversity of its content. Net neutrality is a means for preserving both of these elements, and the loss of net neutrality would place them in great danger.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The problem with the courts ordering the wiretapping of the internet...

A divided appeals court ruled Friday that the FCC has the power to order broadband internet companies to make their networks wiretap friendly for law enforcement. In a 2-1 decision (.pdf), the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia found that cable modem providers and other companies are subject to the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, the 1997 law that requires phone companies to put law enforcement backdoors in their switching networks.

If Friday's ruling stands, universities and broadband ISPs will be on the hook for an expensive retrofitting of their networks with surveillance gear, while law enforcement agencies will enjoy much quicker and easier access to information like a user's e-mail headers and the websites they visit, or -- with a court order -- a real time feed of the target's entire internet stream.

Ok, here's the problem. Regardless of where you stand on government surveillance in the war on terror, this ruling has two major flaws. First, the jurisdictional dilemma is not addressed. The CALEA Act only applies to American-based service providers, which is inherently problematic for implenting these surveillance measures in the global internet forum. The surveillance means nothing towards finding terrorists because anyone with half a brain could simply use a service provider outside of the United States, rendering such policy largely symbolic and ineffectual.

Second, this ruling will create negative externalities in an economic sense. Requiring universities and broadband ISPs to retrofit their networks with surveillance gear is tremendously expensive and creates a huge economic burden. Conservatives should be concerned with such expansive government regulation of the private sector, and liberals ought o take issue with how ISPs with be discouraged from rolling out further services, particularly to less affluent consumers and neighborhoods who will be most affected.

Any architectural changes made to the the internet's physical infrastructure may perhaps be deemed desirable and measures can certainly be taken to move in any such direction. However, the FCC simply requiring universities and businesses to make such drastic changes at their own expense is a flawed top-down, command-and-control solution of the worst sort.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Vive la France!

The French Parliament recently passed a new (and long overdue) law that requires digital content bought at any online store to be playable on any hardware. In plain English, this means that iPods must be able to play music bought from online stores other than iTunes. The French have it right, and the U.S. would be wise to follow its lead.

Read the full story here in this great article from Wired Magazine.

Why does this matter? Think of it this way. Imagine if 60 years ago when television was first entering the mainstream, that the TV networks like NBC decided that all TV programming could only be watched on NBC-manufactured televisions. That would have killed any idea of competition - not only in the TV manufacturing market, but also in television programming. Does anyone need to be reminded of how monopolies hurt business competition, consumer interests, innovation, and capitalism in general?

Apple has been trying to create a monopoly, not only in the market for portable music players with Ipods, but also in the market for digital media sales with iTunes. I wonder how Apple would react if suddenly Microsoft decided to not allow software from other companies to be compatible on Windows computers? Oh wait...

Bottom line - Americans would be far better off if we had the choice of where to buy our music, and also what devices we wanted to listen to them on. Apple, by bundling iTunes and iPods, is severely restricting that choice.