Friday, April 27, 2007

The Crisis Facing Internet Radio...

In March, the Copyright Royalty Board released the new royalty rates that internet radio stations will have to pay for the next five years. Nobody is claiming that internet broadcasters should not have to pay royalties, but rather opponents are merely calling for equal treatment on par with other broadcasters. As of now, the CRB has raised royalty rates by 150% on internet radio stations, while keeping rates steady for satellite, and continuing to charge NO royalties whatsoever to AM/FM stations.

Read this article describing in detail the crisis facing internet radio.

An example of what the new rates will mean to smaller webcasters... For SomaFM, in addition to the $2000 minimal annual fee, "royalties for 2006 will be increased retroactively from about $20,000 to about $600,000. That's more than 3 times what we made in 2006".

As a result, SomaFM and other existing small independent webcasters will be driven off the air, and future ones will be chilled from even attempting innovation. We as consumers (and music lovers) will miss out on the tremendous diversity of content that internet radio promises to deliver. The cause of this is the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) who has singled out internet radio, in contrast to satellite and AM/FM radio stations, for extinction.

So yesterday, a bipartisan bill, the Internet Radio Equality Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives which would a) ensure the royalties paid by internet broadcasters are on par with those paid by other services, like satellite radio, and b) change the rate-setting standard to one that applies to most other statutory licenses, including satellite radio, jukeboxes and sound recordings. Additionally, a coalition of net broadcasters has gotten together to form asking people to voice support.

This bill seems very fair. Again, nobody is claiming that internet broadcasters should not have to pay royalties, but rather they are merely calling for equal treatment on par with other broadcasters.

Of course, if the RIAA was as clever as your typical 8 year-old, it might see the logic in how if having FM radio stations play their music for free leads to promoting their artists, then internet radio would surely do the same. But then again, the RIAA's strategy has actually been to sue 8 year-olds for copyright infringement to the tune of thousands of dollars.

You decide what makes the most sense.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vonage, Market Competition, and the Future of VoIP...

On Tuesday, a federal appellate court issued a temporary reprieve for Vonage - allowing the VoIP company to continue signing up new customers until the courts make a final ruling on whether or nor Vonage violated patents owned by Verizon in creating its service.

Here is why you should care. As this Wired article reports, if the court rules in favor of Verizon, it will directly affect the ability of most other VoIP providers to connect their services to the public telephone network. If Vonage or Skype, or smaller outfits like SunRocket and Packet8, cannot connect to the public telephone network, it will render them largely meaningless to the mass consumer telephony market.

When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the intention was to deregulate the telecom market and thereby increase competition. While this remains narrowly defined as a patent-infringement lawsuit, the consequences are more far-reaching - if Verizon wins they would be granted a virtual monopoly over telephony service in many American markets. Consumers would, as a result, be subject to higher prices and lower quality service.

VoIP from the beginning held tremendous potential for, not only offering new and better services, but also increasing competition against the traditional telecoms. Even if the court rules that Vonage violated Verizon's patents, let's hope that the ruling is worded in such a way as to not kill the mainstream consumer viability of VoIP technology.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Who's Got My Miracle Joost Invite?

After weeks of frustration now, I'm posting this shameless plea for someone to kick me down a Joost invite, with this promise: That in exchange for your invite I promise to give 4 out of my 5 future invites to other bloggers who've been desperately in search of one.

I've written about the Joost beta release previously, and it has remained among the top ten Technorati topics for weeks. But how can a humble blogger such as myself be able to write thorough and accurate reviews without proper access to the software?

So in homage to the old-style Grateful Dead tape-trading ISO posts, kick me down one invite and I promise to pass it forward multiple times over.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Is Google Enabling Cultural Genocide?

The Cult of the Dead Cow's Oxblood Ruffin has posted an article on how Google is enabling "cultural genocide" in Tibet. He argues that Google is using its filtering algorithms, not only to censor parts of the Internet for all Chinese users, but also specifically to filter out traces of the Tibetan history and culture.

This appears to be a strategy of drawing public outrage against Google - as much against the company's censorship filters as for a call to support the plight of the Tibetan people. The scrutinizing eye might perceive that after the initial criticism directed at Google after it agreed to censor search results for Chinese users had subsided without much effect, opponents are now seeking to frame the issue in a way that will overcome public apathy. In other words, simply arguing that Google censors Internet speech hasn't seemed to work, so now opponents are pointing to, not censorship, but genocide as the issue.

How can we define corporate responsibility in this case? Ruffin is correct that Google's "when in Rome" argument is hardly a moral stance, and the company ought to do what is clearly right. However, the cultural genocide of Tibet is certainly not caused - and possibly not even exacerbated - by Google. One could even reasonably argue that Google does more to support Tibet than it does to damage its cause, as the search giant helps proliferate pro-Tibet messages throughout the rest of the world on a scale of distribution which has never before been seen.

Of course Google should follow Spike Lee's advice and do the right thing. But if Google was the biggest problem facing the Tibetan people, then they wouldn't be nearly so bad off.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Google's Purchase of DoubleClick, and Opting Out...

Last week Google purchased DoubleClick for $3.1 billion, immediately drawing the ire of privacy advocates. The deal makes Google even more powerful in the world of internet advertising (which, if you think of Google as only a search engine, understand that it actually makes all its money from ads), and DoubleClick in particular has a notorious history of tracking internet users and collecting personal data on them.

Privacy advocates (as well as Microsoft) have already raised objections to the deal. Indeed, consolidating the internet ad market ought to trigger some alarms and be thoroughly scrutinized, but at least Google does have a strong track record of protecting people's personal data, having resisted U.S. government subpoenas last year.

What else can you, the user, do to protect yourself from being tracked by DoubleClick and its advertising brethren?

Virtually all browsers and anti-spyware programs allow you to delete tracking cookies, but cookies have become an integral part of cyberspace life - namely, personalizing web pages and remembering our login info - so deleting cookies every day isn't a practical solution. But here's something pro-active: Go to the Network Advertising Initiative's website and opt-out of all the various ad networks. You'll be amazed how many of the NAI networks are already tracking your online activities.

The Google-DoubleClick deal need not make people paranoid about their privacy, but caution is never a bad idea.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Wisdom of Crowds...

In James Surowiecki's book, "The Wisdom of Crowds", the argument presented is that groups of people are more intelligent than experts. If there is enough decentralization, diversity, and independence among the group, then their "collective intelligence" will typically reach wise decisions - even if most of the people in the group are not well-informed or rational. Asking the experts is a mistake; we should stop hunting and "ask the crowd".

This seems counter-intuitive, but is it true? It's certainly an intriguing argument which fits neatly into the literature relevant to studying the blogosphere, social networking sites, search engine algorithms, and the web in general. However, what happens if we apply Surowiecki's argument to an altogether different context - American political theory?

The super-quickie review of the Constitution and Federalist Papers would suggest how the Founding Fathers sought to implement a republic, rather than a direct democracy. The reasoning was simple - "The People", likened to mobs, were a political force that society should fear. Our constitutional system of checks and balances was set up precisely for this reason - to give The People a say in government (embodied in the House of Representatives), but to have other institutions whose role would be specifically to mitigate the power of The People. Rather than forming a direct democracy, the Founders established a republic where "representatives" were the crucial element.

Back to the point. Political science students are repeatedly told of the important role of expertise in the policy process - as a justification for congressional committees, institutional bureaucrats, etc. If Surowiecki is correct in that masses of people typically make better decisions than qualified "experts", doesn't that not only greatly diminish the role of expertise, but also challenge the very principle of representative government? Of course, the logistics of direct democracy in the 1780s would have rendered any such pursuit impossible on a practical level. However, in the 21st century, two questions begged to be asked. 1) Is direct democracy now possible? 2) Is it desirable?

Surowiecki indicates that, indeed, it is desirable, as our collective intelligence would lead to better decision-making than experts or representatives. Take the "wisdom of crowds" argument out of the narrow context of the blogosphere and internet-related issues, and instead see it for what it is... a direct challenge to the Founding Fathers' principle that you cannot trust The People directly with policy.

Maybe, in that way, we'd truly be better off with taxation without representation.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Exploitation of Everyone...

Trebor Scholz has posted a fascinating article titled, "What the MySpace Generation Should Know About Working for Free". He argues that as we use Web 2.0 sites like MySpace and YouTube - creating and contributing content to user-driven websites - we are in reality being economically exploited.

Of course it's no surprise that websites are trying to make money, and their popularity often is directly related to the quality and quantity of content that its users generate. But is that exploitation?

Before your knee-jerk reactions kick-in, consider both perspectives. Hollywood and the music industry have been claiming for years that to share their creative works on the internet is immoral and the same as stealing. If you support that viewpoint, then how can you justify the creative works of millions of people being commercialized by multi-billion-dollar media conglomerates who don't share even the tiniest fraction of profits with the poeple who actually created the material? NewsCorps and YouTube rake in the billions on the digital sweat of others' backs, who go completely uncompensated.

Then again, exploitation is such a harsh term. MySpacers are, after all, receiving a much-loved service for free. Most of us are pretty well-aware that someone somewhere is making money off of our use of their site. However we're willing to consider that a reasonable trade-off so long as our personal lives are enhanced.

Scholz writes, "The scale and degree of exploitation of immaterial labor is most disturbing when looking at the highest traffic sites. The sociable web makes people easier to use and this dynamic will only be amplified". Really? This seems to be a stretch of the imagination. YouTube hardly seems to be making it easier to economically exploit people. Otherwise, they might have figured out a way to finally turn a profit.

"Where are the people who care if big profits are made of their distributed creativity?". Sure, elite commercial websites might profit on the creative works that the rest of us generate, but in return we get to be creative and distribute our works on a scale the world has never seen. Maybe it is the ultimate irony, then, that decentralizing creativity will inevitably lead to greater concentration of capital.

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Blogger Code of Conduct?

A few high-profile bloggers, including Tim O'Reilly (who coined the term Web 2.0) and Jimmy Wales (creator of Wikipedia), are proposing a blogger "code of conduct". The intent is to clean up the content of online discourse, coming on the heels of the Kathy Sierra death threats last week. Some in the blogosphere are criticizing the proposed code as a form of censorship. However, those critics are wrong, and the code of conduct would be a positive development.

Here are the details of the proposal. "Chief among the recommendations is that bloggers consider banning anonymous comments left by visitors to their pages and be able to delete threatening or libelous comments". It calls for:

several sets of guidelines for conduct and seals of approval represented by logos. For example, anonymous writing might be acceptable in one set; in another, it would be discouraged. Under a third set of guidelines, bloggers would pledge to get a second source for any gossip or breaking news they write about.

Bloggers could then pick a set of principles and post the corresponding badge on their page, to indicate to readers what kind of behavior and dialogue they will engage in and tolerate. The whole system would be voluntary, relying on the community to police itself.

This proposed code of conduct would have a net positive effect for several reasons. First, reserving the right to delete threatening or libelous comments ought to be viewed as a common-sense approach to mediation. We're not talking about constructive criticism or opposing viewpoints - we're talking about threats and libel. In the wake of the Kathy Sierra ordeal, and her subsequent consideration of never blogging again, it is evident how damaging such anonymous comments can be, both on a personal-injury level, as well as at the societal level, taking into account the chilling effects such threats have on free speech.

Second, the code of conduct is not a form of censorship because it is voluntary. Bloggers can still write about any topic they wish, and leave and allow comments as they wish. The voluntary approach to mediation is simply an attempt at blogosphere self-regulation, and it will act as a signaler in the marketplace of ideas, allowing people to better consume and participate in the blogs they prefer.

The truth is that there really is too much crap (and crappy people) out there, which ultimately diminishes the power of the blogosphere as a whole. I see no problem with voluntary efforts aimed at self-regulation - so long as they remain voluntary at not imposed from external authorities.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Why Joost is Not the Future of Television...

This week is the 80th anniversary of the first long-distance television broadcast. TV has become so entrenched in our culture that if given the choice between giving up sex or television for the rest of your life, the timeless act of procreation would lose out for a surprising number of people.

Coinciding with this historic anniversary, Joost - the internet television startup - has begun beta testing open to the public. The idea behind Joost is to watch TV through your internet connection, and it's been getting hyped for months because it struck a deal with Viacom so that users can actually watch "real" professionally produced shows like CSI and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as opposed to amateurish YouTube clips. Now, Joost is finally available, by invite only - which has to be one of the most brilliant promotional marketing strategies ever. Despite the myriad of well-publicized complaints that there's not enough content to watch yet, I find myself spending hours of otherwise productive time Googling ways to get kicked down an invite.

Is Joost the future of television? No. While it is certain to meet a burgeoning market demand for greater convergence of television and the internet, what Joost promises is, in reality, nothing new. It's basically cable TV, simply delivered through different pipes into your living room. By and large, the shows you watch are going to be the same traditional programming offered by the major networks and multi-billion dollar media conglomerates. The only thing that sets Joost apart is the manner of delivery.

What a waste. Sure, they're going to rake in serious advertising bucks, but Joost fails to take advantage of the immeasurable possibilities that the internet and computing provides. There's a reason why YouTube is so wildly popular - people are clamoring for more variety, and that manifests itself in sometimes uniquely original, sometimes wildly odd, forms of programmming. Nobody is going to get excited about the next cookie-cutter CBS sitcom - regardless of whether you watch it through cable or the internet. People are sick of TV programming that caters to the lowest common denominator.

In the past, we watched anyway because ultimately, unless we were willing to turn off the dial and (gasp) read a book, we had no choice. But choice and variety and diversity are really what the internet's all about. Joost has utterly failed to grasp that concept.

So who's got my invitation?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Power and The Meaning of the Apple-EMI Deal...

Yesterday a landmark deal was announced in which Apple has convinced one of the major record labels, EMI, to start selling its music without copy protection (aka - DRM encryption). iTunes will now sell songs from the EMI label for either 1) the same 99 cents with DRM (making it impossible to play the song on any device other than an iPod), or else 2) the slightly more expensive $1.29 price without DRM (play them anywhere) and at 256kbps (better audio quality).

The online world is completely abuzz over this story. Some are discussing how this is the last-ditch effort of the dying record industry to deal with ever-greater revenue losses, while others are focusing on how this deal signals a victory for Apple's AAC format over Microsoft's WMA format in the battle over standards. One article even goes so far as to say that Steve Jobs convincing the music industry to sell music without copy protection is a lesson in how to wield power in the digital age.

But let's analytically dissect this a bit further. What else does the Apple-EMI deal mean for the rest of us?

First of all, music will be free. Actually, this needs to be clarified. To borrow the standard line from the Open Source movement, this refers to "free" as in "free speech", not "free beer". Removing copy protection from music will allow people to buy a song on iTunes and play it on their computer, iPod, Zune, or any other MP3 player (which was impossible two days ago). Your music collection will now be interoperable, and in that sense, once you buy a song you are free to play it wherever and however you wish.

However, YOU STILL HAVE TO BUY THE SONG! Removing DRM copy protection does not change copyright law. The deal, therefore, represents little more than the music industry (finally) succumbing to the demands of their consumers, whose rights have been re-asserted.

Second, as for the techie conversation over standards-setting, EMI's choice to use the AAC format as opposed to Microsoft's WMA format may indeed prove to be an enormous gallstone for Microsoft to pass. However, this has less to do with Steve Jobs' power and a whole lot more to do with the MP3 patent lawsuit last month which raised a cloud of uncertainty over the MP3 format. Consequently, everyone involved in the music business has been seeking alternatives such as AAC, simply to avoid patent-infringing lawsuits.

Finally, what is the bigger lesson to be wrought from all of this? One could argue that this is a triumph of blogosphere hacktivists, who have been relentless in their efforts to rid the world of DRM, over the corporate multi-billion dollar record industry. Or perhaps one could argue that it is indeed a last-ditch attempt by a dying industry with an outdated business model in their desperation to try ANYTHING different. Or maybe Steve Jobs really is the Hammurabi of digital media.

It seems to me that DRM and copy protection schemes aren't going anywhere, and this debate is far from over. The classic battle lines have been drawn for Digital Age conflict - those who seek to protect content and restrict access to material through closed proprietary means versus those who seek openness, transparency, and the advancement of culture.

So let's be crystal clear. What is at issue is not simply the downloading of music. It's a fundamental debate over the definition and limits of ownership.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Moving to The Cloud...

A few years ago there was a lot of hype surrounding Microsoft's brand new .NET strategy - the central idea was that computing would move off the desktop and onto the internet. In the future, I once told my computer science students, people would no longer buy things like Microsoft Word and Excel on a CD in a box and own their software. Instead, they would simply pay a monthly fee to Microsoft and use Word and Excel via the internet.

Today, it is downright striking how fast computing is moving off of the desktop and into the Internet Cloud. Jason Tanz of Wired Magazine writes how "online video archives, encyclopedias, photo managers, calendars, accounting programs, even online word processors and spreadsheets are becoming ubiquitous".

This is the concept of software-as-service, and it's pervading everywhere. I recently acquired a new computer, and, after installing the operating system, I sat down all excited to pimp out the machine with lots of mind-blowing software. But after thirty seconds of deep thinking and reflection, it suddenly dawned on me that almost all the everyday programs people use exist in the Internet Cloud. As long as you have a web browser and internet connection, you can check email, IM friends, get your news, word process, watch videos, and listen to music. And after that, how much do 90% of people really use their computers for?

We've already reached the point in computing evolution where the very idea of buying software in a shrink-wrapped box is as outdated as MS-DOS. High school kids can't even imagine such a world, and, in some ways, maybe that's a good thing.

It is perhaps the ultimate irony, however, that Microsoft's embracing of the software-as-service mentality is indeed already weakening the (former?) monopolist's power. After all, who stands to lose more from the end of desktop computing than Redmond?