Thursday, September 28, 2006

New Cyber Security Czar...

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security finally appointed a new Cyber Security Czar. Gregory Garcia, formerly a vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, was named overseer of the country's cyber defense after a year-long search.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff stated that Garcia will bring "the right mix of experience in government and the private sector" and that he has the expertise "that is consistent with our risk-based approach to homeland security".

He better. As someone who has spent many months reviewing the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, post 9/11, it's clear that our national strategy for cyber defense relies tremendously on the private sector. Basically, the Bush Administration has tried to offer incentives to private companies to protect their own internet assets, yet does little directly to ensure our nation's cyber defense. Participation is entirely voluntary, and the strategy fails to address the assets of individuals (it focuses exclusively on businesses).

Perhaps this should not come as a huge surprise. As reported by Techweb, "The Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA), founded in 2004 by security firms such as Symantec, McAfee, RSA Security, Check Point, and Internet Security Systems, has been pushing for an assistant secretary, and was glad to see its labors rewarded".

It's amazing that our national cyber defense strategy post-9/11 primarily consists of responding faster to attacks after they have occurred. The analogy in real-space would be the government doing nothing directly to prevent the next terrorist attack on Manhattan other than encouraging private firms to construct sturdier office buildings, and simply giving extra money to the police and fire department to deal with its aftermath.

Obviously, this plan is quite flawed and needs drastic revision. However, in the meantime, lets hope that new Cyber Security Czar Garcia can effectively keep one foot in both the worlds of the private and public sector.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Google on Copyright...

One of the vice presidents at Google released a mission statement of sorts, clarifying Google's position on complying with copyright laws. To sum it up for those of you with a short attention span, it claims that Google's policy towards "respecting content owners and protecting their rights" is based on three principles:

  • respecting copyright laws
  • letting owners choose whether to allow Google to index their material
  • bringing benefits back to content owners by partnering with them.

The whole problem the company is trying to address is that in order to make the Google search engine work, it "indexes" billions of web pages so that people can search the internet effectively. However, in order to do so, Google basically indexes everything that's out there, and keeps a cached record of it. That's great if you're an average web surfer who wants to search the internet and see the best results returned to you, but it's not so wonderful for copyright owners who don't necessarily want their works available to everybody in cyberspace (at least not that easily).

For instance, if you go to Google and search for news in Iraq, can Google provide a direct link to, or even display, a New York Times article? Or should Google be legally required to first get permission from the New York Times before it can show its content?

At issue is what should be the legal default - whether copyright owners should have to "opt-in" and proactively give their permission for the Google's of the world to offer their content, or whether owners should simply be able to "opt-out" of Google-like sites.

Copyright issues such as these arise all the time in cyberspace - not only with basic web pages, but also with audio and video files. Google's recently released mission statement tries to clarify the company's position, but it's actually little more than a fluffy P.R.-move (aka - corporate propoganda) designed to somehow address the barrage of copyright lawsuits brought against them.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Banning Skype...

San Jose State University recently announced that it is banning all Skype use on campus - joining a list of third-world nations who do the same.

Skype is a Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) service - meaning that people can download its software for free, and then using the internet, can make telephone calls anywhere in the world. Basically, it provides people with an internet connection a viable alternative to their traditional telephone carrier, and because it uses the internet infrastructure, the physical locations of where and to whom calls are made make no difference. I can make long-distance phone calls completely for free to other Skype users, or pay a cheaper price to non-Skype users than what my telephone company charges.

So why ban such a service? Third world governments have started doing so in order to protect their government monopolies on telecommunications within their societies. Namibia, Belarus, Bangladesh, and others do not want their citizens who currently pay the government for telephone service to have an actual choice in providers, and Skype would be exactly that.

Lesson 1 in how NOT to run a third-world country: create unnecessary burdensome protectionist policies which inhibit economic growth. One of the fastest growing industries in developing nations over the past decade has been the internet and telecom sector. If you've travelled through the third world recently, it's hard not to notice the seemingly endless number of internet cafes popping up, many of which offer tourists cheap rates to call home using VoIP. So what does a country like Zimbabwe do when a new business industry emerges and proves successful? They ban it, of course!

Meanwhile, why would American universities seek to ban Skype and VoIP? The reasons aren't all that different. As Mike at Techdirt explains, "school administrators [at San Jose State] say that it's because Skype's peer-to-peer nature effectively allows others to use the on-campus network - though the same could be said of any peer-to-peer application, and hardly seems like a reasonable explanation for the outright ban. A more likely explanation probably has something to do with whatever contracts the university has with its telecom provider - who doesn't like the idea of being undercut".

Don't you love when governments, corporations, and even universities make decisions for us? Wasn't the whole idea of capitalism to have consumer choice and market competition? Because unless I'm missing something, that's exactly what Skype offers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Blogging the Military Coup in Thailand...

This week, Thailand's armed forces moved against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup to oust him from power. A message was televised Tuesday night "telling the public that the armed forces were in temporary control but power would be returned “to the people” soon. [The broadcaster] said “rampant corruption” and government meddling in independent institutions had prompted the armed forces and police to take over and set up a body to oversee political reforms. An election would follow, in which Mr Thaksin would be allowed to stand." (The Economist)

This is hardly the first military coup where a government has been overthrown, even in recent years. But what seems uniquely interesting in this case is the relative calm and subdued mood among the Thai people while these events are occurring.

While the mainstream media focuses on the political events at the elite level, the blogosphere is filled with stories by "citizen journalists" depicting a very different story on the ground. Metroblogging Bangkok has been producing daily reports on the scene, describing what people's experiences have been in what should be a crazy week in Thailand, yet the developing story seems to be a lack of a story "in the streets". Tales abound of "mellow Bangkokers" going on with their regular lives without too much complication, and the blog includes photos of the "action" in Bangkok, depicting pedestrians posing for pictures next to smiling soldiers. While this appears to be the most common analysis in the blogosphere, certainly it is not the only viewpoint available. MySpacer "Paul" describes how he and his father withdrew as much cash as they could in fear of a falling currency.

This is Exhibit A of why the blogosphere is great. Traditional media might act as gatekeepers of the news that people consume, yet blogs offer ordinary citizens the opportunity to share their experiences on the ground - often opening a window to a world very different from that which CNN is constucting.

Don't only apply that lesson to the military coup in Thailand. Some favorite blogs on different perspectives in Iraq include a soldier's daily experieces living and fighting in Iraq, as well as that of an Iraqi woman living in Baghdad.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Web 2.0 Clarifications...

If "Web 2.0" is the generic term used to describe websites that rely on social networking and content that is generated by its users, then some clarifications need to be made to the results of Michael Calore's poll for best and worst Web 2.0 sites.

First of all, when you think of Web 2.0 sites, think of MySpace or Facebook - the two most prominent social networking sites in cyberspace. Each member posts a profile, photos, blogs, audio and video clips, and just about whatever else they feel like publishing on the internet. Such sites typically have millions of contributors, are valued in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet often have only two dozen or so employees.

Some other notables include YouTube for videos, Digg for news, Wikipedia for encyclopedic entries, Flickr for photos, and for tags.

So why is it that on the people's choice list Google Spreadsheets and Google Calendar appear as favorite Web 2.0 sites? How long can the discussion of what constitutes a Web 2.0 site really go on? It's been years already, yet people still seem to miss the point and throw the Web 2.0 label onto just about any new website or technology that gets developed.

Why not consider Microsoft a Web 2.0 company since it maintains a discussion board? Or perhaps should be classified as Web 2.0 because once in a while people can have an online chat with a government official?

Give me a break. There is a big difference between Microsoft and MySpace, just as there are fundamentally different philosophies behind NBC and YouTube. The former are companies that create their products in-house and maintain authoritarian control over it, while the latter set up open forums where anybody can basically create and publish whatever they want (as long as it is not illegal), and rely on The People for content, regulation, and marketing.

And P.S. - The People usually do a better job.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Spiralfrog and SeeqPod: MoreExamples of New Music Download Business Models...

More evidence is surfacing which demonstrates that the iTunes business model - paying 99 cents per song - is hardly inevitable in the music download industry.

Spiralfrog is a new website that offers users free legal downloads from music artists. It can do this through a deal brokered last week with Universal Music Group. While iTunes charges for music, on Spiralfrog users will have to watch a short advertisement before they can download a song free. "As far as artists are concerned, it is understood they will get royalties based on how many times songs are downloaded, with the money coming from Spiralfrog's advertising revenue." (The Guardian, UK).

Meanwhile, Seeqpod is a new website still in beta which offers yet another alternative business model to that of iTunes. SeeqPod is a type of search engine that works by grabbing music from all over the Web - particularly from blogs and podcasts - and presenting them to you on one easy results page. As projected in this review, "eventually a meta search will turn up the tracks you want, wherever they live, on whomever's site. Consumers don't care who they buy them from if the interface is easy and intuitive."

The bottom line is that iTunes hegemony is not inevitable, and that alternative - indeed, better - business models may exist. Whether artists will be compensated through an advertising-based, subscription-based, or pay-per-use-based system, the artists and consumer alike will undoubtedly be better off with a diversity of services to choose from, rather than Apple's monopoly.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Digg Revolt...

For those of you unwired, is a Web 2.0 site where ordinary users get to vote on which news stories they find the most interesting, and those are the stories that make the Digg headlines.

But an interesting thing happened last week. As described in this Wired article, Digg users revolted over new controls which implemented in order to minimize spam and abuse. Apparently, the most devoted Digg users had developed a heavy influence over choosing which stories would make the main headlines - through promoting stories together and working as a bloc. In response, the company created new controls in the hopes of re-democratizing the news selection process.

So here's the central question: Which is the more democratic system - giving all users the ability to vote and contribute, though some who are more devoted and put in more time and effort will wield more influence, or ensuring that all users have a more equal influence in the selection process?

This is a question of governance that touches on far more than this narrow issue at Digg. The top Diggers are revolting over a decrease in their influence? So be it. That's hardly a negative development when viewed from a broader perspective. As any fledgling Web 2.0 contributor is aware, it is already extremely frustrating and difficult to get ranked in blog search engines and to get significant page hits, creating a serious disincentive for people to generate content and participate. Decentralizing the influence of any information elite is only going to lead to better services. The revolters ought to get off their power-hungry high high horse. Digg is doing the right thing.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th Archive...

On the five year anniversary of 9/11, I just thought that instead of commentary on politics and the internet, I'd offer up the following link: The September 11th Digital Archive.

The archive is a massive collection of people's stories and personal recollections of 9/11, and the site has some great features like an interactive service using Google Maps to trace the developments of that day. Also, the Smithsonian Institute along with the Library of Congress have plans to exhibit much of the material in the near future.

People can still contribute by sharing their stories with the 9/11 archive here.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Facebook and Privacy...

Yesterday Facebook rolled out its new redesign of its home page, adding a News Feed feature for all its users. As the site itself describes, "News Feed highlights what's happening in your social circles on Facebook. It updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you'll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again. Now, whenever you log in, you'll get the latest headlines generated by the activity of your friends and social groups".

I am continually fascinated by the extent to which people seem willing to put every aspect of their private lives in the public domain. As any regular AIM user can attest to, anonymous online stalking is already rampant - and indeed not even all that frowned upon. College kids even seem to get a bit of a kick out of having a stalker, as if it were an amusing fact of life in cyberspace.

But Facebook may have pushed the envelope just a little too far this time. After launching its News Feed feature, users immediately went up in arms and have called for a boycott of Facebook on September 12th.

Privacy, and the desire for it, may not be dead yet, after all.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Corporate Opposition to Net Neutrality...

As a shareholder in AT&T, I received an interesting letter in the mail today. It was AT&T informing its investors to oppose net neutrality, and to call our Congressional representatives urging them to support the Stevens telecom bill now before Congress.

This letter is completely ridiculous. It may just be one of the most one-sided pieces of propoganda I've read since Chairman Mao's little red book on communism. What is most disturbing is that AT&T could have actually argued the merits of its case (gasp!), but instead it chose to play off most people's ignorance on the subject of net neutrality and push for support for the Stevens bill without actually mentioning what the bill proposes to do.

Let it be known that I am personally in favor of net neutrality, yet at the same time I own stock in some of the telecoms which would profit from its elimination. In fact, there are advantages of keeping the net neutral, as well as advantages for getting rid of it. All of my dismay is aimed at AT&T and its corporate allies for deceptive business practices aimed at its own investors.