Friday, June 29, 2007

Embracing Our Digital Legacies...

We've all heard it before. After a night of partying when an embarrassing picture of you was taken, when the laughter among friends finally dies down, someone comments "Well, I guess you'll never be president!". Well, New York Times contributor Thomas Friedman seems to agree. Earlier this week he wrote a column on the impact of the internet and blogosphere on everyone's professional lives, in which he argues that because people are publishing and sharing so much content in cyberspace (photos, blogs, posts on discussion boards, etc.), the result is a "digital fingerprint" which will have significant consequences years later.

So how much of a "fingerprint" exactly are we leaving behind, and how much will it really matter? Should we be scared?

Friedman warns young people that because of internet publishing "your reputation in life is going to get set in stone so much earlier. More and more of what you say or do or write will end up as a digital fingerprint that never gets erased. Our generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job résumés, which we got to write. For this generation, much of what they say, do or write will be preserved online forever. Before employers even read their résumés, they’ll Google them…"

There's a frightening amount of truth in this statement, but what may come as a surprise is how much your digital fingerprint already affects your professional life. Potential employers are Googling you before an interview ever takes place, professional colleagues MySpace you before meetings, and professors are using Facebook to see if your excuses are legitimate. I can personally attest to this. When one student didn't hand in a research paper and afterwards gave me a sob story about a family emergency, I went on Facebook and saw his newly posted photographs from the week the research paper was due of him and his buddies in the Bahamas on a booze cruise.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't be scared and we definitely shouldn't stop interacting in cyberspace. It's quite possible to use these digital fingerprints to our advantage and see this as an opportunity. For example, just as embarrassing posts might hinder an employer from hiring you, thoughtful and intelligent posts promoting certain personal qualities could actually improve your chances of landing a job. Think of purposely creating a digital fingerprint which would act as an online resume. This is how I've always treated my maintenance of this blog and also my personal website. You won't find any naked pictures or comments by friends making reference to a crazy party in college, but, despite my occasional anti-iPod lunatic rants, I would actually hope that future professional colleagues will look me up online.

All of which demonstrates that, in the end, our digital fingerprints might be more detailed, but they're ultimately no different than any other part of the various legacies we leave behind. And as always, the only way to ensure that your past won't hinder your future is to follow this basic principle: act honorably.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cyberactivism and the Webcasters' Day of Silence...

If you're a regular listener to internet radio services like Pandora and Live365, then yesterday you were in for a shock. In protest of a Copyright Royalty Board decision which seeks to regulate internet radio stations out of existence, webcasters collectively held a "day of silence" by taking down their services and directing would-be listeners to instead. But will such a tactic work?

According to the Copyright Royalty Board decision, internet radio stations would be charged differently than terrestrial or satellite radio stations - requiring them to pay royalties for each song played, rather than the flat rate standard which still applies to the other radio forms. What this means is that internet radio stations' royalty payments would rise 300%, in addition to substantial minimum monthly payments on top of that, driving most stations out of business and significantly chilling new ones from ever coming into existence. The protesters are not calling for the end of royalties; just to be treated on equal par with terrestrial and satellite stations. Also, the protesters are trying to raise support for a new bill that has been introduced in Congress, the Internet Radio Equality Act, which would eliminate the minimum fee per channel and charge webcasters the same 7.5%-of-revenue rate enjoyed by satellite radio.

All of this has been building for weeks and written about before. So will the "day of silence" have any substantial effect?

It depends on the intended goal. Surely, the "day of silence" has garnered additional public awareness to the problem, as well as some New Media coverage, though probably in minuscule amounts by most relative measurable standards. So if the goal of the protest was to shine the spotlight on the issue, it has succeeded, albeit in a limited manner. However, if the goal was more ambitious - to unequivocally persuade members of Congress to reject the Copyright Royalty Board's decision and support the Internet Radio Equality Act - then the protest was more symbolic than effective in any practical sense.

What lessons, then, can be wrought from this case study in cyberactivism? First, online protests such as the "day of silence" and "Turn the Web Black", in which websites voluntarily shut down in order to raise attention to their cause, are inherently limited in their capacity to enable policy change. This is because most cases of cyberactivism involve small independently-run websites who are in the predicament they're in primarily because they have audiences too small to raise the ire of the mainstream mass public. Therefore, any such "shut ourselves down" type of protest will mostly just incite its own small base of users.

Second, the threat of hacktivism would scare the record labels and other targets of protest far more than that of cyberactivism. To put it another way, who do you think the record labels in this case fear more: a group of politically-minded netizens who want to raise grassroots support for a new Congressional bill (while the labels continue their multi-million dollar lobbying efforts), or the possibility that some hacker will release an open-source version of Pandora which would then proliferate around the internet and release the genie from the bottle forever?

The truth is that the webcasters' "day of silence" was meant to show people what their lives would be like without internet radio, except that this strategy completely backfired because most people's lives wouldn't be affected at all. Using cyberactivist tactics to rouse the mass public only works if the mass public will feel the effects of the protest action in a real way. The internet provides a forum for social protest in unprecedented ways, enabling all the "little guys" to affect meaningful change against powerful entrenched interests. The problem with the "day of silence" is that it fails to take advantage of the web's most striking protest principle - the primacy of technology over politics. Cyberactivism might make a terrific supplement to traditional social and political activism, but in the end, it is the hackers - pursuing legal but disruptive objectives - who hold the protest power in internet politics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Movie Studio Pays to Repost a Banned YouTube Parody...

Figure this one out. Last August, a rock band named Guyz Nite created a YouTube music video using some brief clips taken from the "Die Hard" movies. Despite the fact that the song was titled "Die Hard" and the lyrics professed a worship of the films, 20th Century Fox decided to force YouTube to remove the clip for violating copyright law. This type of thing happens all the time, but what's different in this case is that the studio executives have actually retracted their previous position and not only asked the band if they would please repost their YouTube video, but even paid them to do so.

It doesn't take a genius to get an idea of why the studio changed their minds. With another installment of the "Die Hard" movies releasing this month, the studio came to the phenomenal insight that the YouTube parody might actually help market the film. Rather than losing money due to copyright infringement, they'd make more money by allowing others to use the content in creative ways, marketing the movie through a viral strategy, to great effect, and with little cost.

Cheers to 20th Century Fox to finally coming to this insight, but jeers to them and the rest of the media industry for taking so long to do it. Thousands of similar parodies and brief clips are banned from YouTube every single day under the name of copyright infringement, despite the facts that 1) most are legally protected to remain posted under the Fair Use Doctrine, and 2) they would actually do more to help copyright owners than hurt them.

So the question is: if the Guyz Nite parody helps market the films now, did it not do so in August as well? Apparently, the industry believes copyright infringement is perfectly alright as long as it promotes the original work, and doesn't criticize it. But wasn't copyright law and the Fair Use Doctrine intended to protect our ability to do so? Does anyone else have a problem with this?

Monday, June 25, 2007

iPhones, Hollywood, and the DRM Question...

This Friday Apple will finally release the iPhone after months of endless hype and speculation. The device, which acts as a cell phone and music/video iPod, has caused ripples in at least three major industries already, despite the fact that it still hasn't even been released. But as Hollywood gears up to sell videos geared towards iPhones, the question begging to be asked is: Will Apple and Hollywood heed the lessons that the DRM disaster wreaked on the music industry, or will it repeat history by tightening controls even further?

When the iPod first came out a few years ago, Apple struck a deal with the music labels so that all songs sold over iTunes would be encrypted with special copy-protection known as Digital Rights Management (DRM) software. They figured this would make piracy much more difficult, however it also stripped away consumer rights that had been well established for years - such as making a backup copy of music you legally purchased in order to play it on different devices. The DRM strategy backfired, piracy increased, sales plummeted, and only recently Apple and EMI reversed course and announced that they would sell songs without DRM because the copy-protection was leading to the record labels selling, in effect, a poorer quality product for their customers. Contrary to the apocalyptic predictions of rampant piracy, since they decided to sell songs without copy-protection, sales have actually increased.

Which brings us back to the iPhone. As this NY Times article explains, Hollywood is hoping the iPhone's multimedia features will make it easier for people to watch their favorite television shows and movies, and even "swap videos". This seems to hold tremendous promise, both for consumers to have a fantastic product and for the motion picture and television industries to sell their wares in an entirely new mass market. Hollywood wouldn't be so stupid to blow this by repeating the same DRM mistake that the music industry made a few years ago, would it?

Apparently, indications are that they will be selling their videos for iPhones with similar copy-protection schemes, after all. The power politics surrounding the iPhone - which involve the high-technology, cellular telecommunications, and media industries - are already playing out, and a betting man might see a negotiated agreement eventually determining which technologies and products will be available to consumers. It's a shame that genuine market forces won't be the deciding factor, but rather a small oligopoly acting in collusion as an illegal trust. If left up to a true capitalist marketplace, the previous DRM experiment has already proven that consumers would absolutely prefer to legally purchase their music and movies as long as the product is not excessively limited. After all, nobody wants to buy the same song separately for each device they own.

Why the big media corporations have such a knee-jerk instinctive impulse for greater control, even when giving it up a little would raise their profits, is why they may be headed towards an inevitable downfall - and with it, bringing to resounding fruition a self-fulfilling prophecy of piracy and decline.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Will YouTube Add to the Presidential Election, or be a Vehicle for Propaganda?

A few weeks ago, CNN announced that when it televises the Democratic presidential debate next month it will use questions submitted by ordinary people on YouTube. The hope was that opening the process in such a way would increase interest in the candidates, alleviate public skepticism that these debates are too choreographed, and, by allowing them to participate and have a stake in the process, generally make people feel closer to the candidates. Democracy, we were told, would be improved.

But there seems to be a dark storm brewing on the horizon. Many of the candidates from both political parties have put out videos that run like TV commercials directly from their campaigns. Hillary Clinton famously put out, first, a YouTube clip asking supporters to submit a campaign song, and second, another clip with Bill and Hillary acting out a parody on the Sopranos final episode.

So will YouTube make democracy work better in this election? Let's start with the CNN debate. The skeptics must be quick to wonder just who exactly is selecting the questions which will ultimately be asked at the debate. According to the official website, "the CNN political team will choose the most creative and compelling videos". What does that mean?! CNN needs to be a lot more clear and transparent about the question-selection process, otherwise the debate will be considered by many as remaining artificially choreographed and filled with the pre-screening of people and substance. Democracy would not be improved, it would only have a false facade of being as such by using new technology to maintain the status quo.

As for the Clinton videos (as representative of all that the other candidates have also put out there), the initial hope that YouTube would provide a forum filled with a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, submitted by anybody, on presidential politics is quickly giving way to this notion of YouTube as a simple venue for politicians to make use of free advertising. In the coming months, are we inevitably going to be flooded with a relentless assault of official soundbites from each campaign? At least the cost of political TV ads was somewhat prohibitive and therefore limited how much propaganda could be produced. But with the internet being free, it appears that the sky's the limit.

This is not to say that YouTube cannot still be beneficial to the democratic process. Already, some enterprising individuals have created video parodies of the official clips posted by the candidates - and it is this type of criticism, along with videos that espouse the pros or cons on specific issue areas, which hold the true potential for YouTube as a democratizing force. Democracy, in the end, is better served by a diversity of messages being produced, rather than by political elites and their centralized messages simply having free reign.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Great Internet Debate: Professionals vs. Amateurs...

Andrew Keen's new book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture, has been taking a lot of flak for arguing that, among other things, the rise of Web 2.0 has given too much authority to amateur bloggers and content creators at the expense of actual professionals. This, he claims, is watering down our culture.

This is a terrific debate worthy of genuine attention. Is our culture better off with amateurs (a.k.a. normal people) over-saturating the amount of material that's out there on every subject, or would our culture be better off with mostly trained professionals adhering to established standards creating the bulk of available content?

Tony Long has commented that Keen is right about "what he calls the 'cut and paste' ethic... [which] trivializes scholarship and professional ability, implying that anybody with a little pluck and the right technology can do just as well". However, others like Lawrence Lessig have harshly criticized the book, claiming it is "shot through with sloppiness, error and ignorance".

This has the ingredients for a fantastic debate because both sides have very legitimate viewpoints. It is true that the years of training and desire to keep one's job are reasons why professionals more reliably create better and more factually accurate material - after all, there's a reason why they get paid. However, "more reliably better" is not always better, and as the brief history of the blogosphere has already demonstrated, the professional media outlets sometimes fail in meeting their own purported high standards, as proven by recent cases of sloppy and outright false news reporting (see CBS and Dan Rather). Additionally, the rise of amateurs may be partially attributed to the failure of the professional media to satisfy market demands, particularly in certain niches.

So both sides can make a great case, but perhaps what's most intriguing is not whether we're better off with amateurs or professionals leading our culture, but the simple fact that the two have already learned to co-exist... and that this detente has definitely enhanced our culture. Think about it. Most rational people know that CNN or the NY Times will produce better news coverage than some anonymous 8th grader's blog; most of us have enough common sense to recognize the difference and, in this way, the professionals still have an extremely viable role to play in our society (maybe even more so than before). Meanwhile, the simple fact that that anonymous 8th grader is able to publish his analysis of the news coverage is valuable in its own right - perhaps offering a perspective, say, on the state of the educational system, that only an insider can provide, and which previously would not have found an outlet to share.

Centuries ago, John Stuart Mill espoused his belief in "a marketplace of ideas", arguing that society is better off when everyone can express their ideas and opinions openly and that the best ones will rise to the top based, not on their author, but on their merit. This is the basis for the First Amendment and free speech in America, and is central to all post-Enlightenment political thought.

So I'm taking the middle road on this debate, which I normally hate to do, but it's an honest response. The NY Times is still what I read first in the morning to know what's going on in the world, but afterwards I typically seek analysis on those topics in the blogosphere (and also maybe for coverage of a few news stories which the traditional media did not deem worthy of reporting on, but I do). Clearly, it must be stated that it's essential not to limit this debate to coverage of the news. Keep in mind that the majority of Web 2.0 content consists of music, videos, photos, and much more. Ultimately, Keen is wrong to argue that amateurs water down our culture - only the misguided judgment of those reading and consuming the content, and bestowing upon it false authority, can do that. Both amateurs and professionals play a vital role in this cyber space, and our culture is definitively enhanced by including both of them.

Mill would be smiling with delight at the amateur-professional eclecticism of the internet of today. And rightfully so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Court Rules Email Is Protected by Fourth Amendment...

As this Boing Boing article describes, "the US 6th district court has restored the power of 4th Amendment protection to emails stored on a remote host". This is a great triumph for privacy rights, and as the inevitable appeal to a higher court proceeds, we can only hope that other courts come to similar rulings as well.

In a nutshell, for years the government has been acquiring people's emails, without a warrant, citing the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and arguing that while they cannot read people's mail or search their homes, they can read their emails if they are located on a remote server. Really, this was a ridiculous legal loophole since almost every individual who has an email account uses a remote server - such as Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, MSN, AOL, etc.

So the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a coalition of civil liberties groups filed suit arguing that users have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their stored email - and now the federal District Court has agreed. The ruling states that the SCA violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution by allowing secret, warrantless searches and seizures.

Opponents to this ruling will harp on how the Court is undercutting the War on Terror and that such tools have become necessary. However, simply requiring a warrant is not something that will greatly impede homeland security processes - with just cause, the government can still acquire whatever email records it wants. All this ruling does is put the classification of email on par with that of postal mail, and that, as the EFF puts it, "the Fourth Amendment applies online just as strongly as it does offline."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Deconstructing the Hirschhorn Op-Ed...

Making the rounds in the blogosphere is an Op-Ed piece by Joel S. Hirschhorn, in which he argues that America is a "delusional democracy" full of "revolting conditions" and that the reason why Americans don't revolt to stage a "Second American Revolution" is that we are simply too distracted.

Ah, where to begin?

If you read the piece, it seems quite obvious that this is conspiracy-theory madness run amok. Hirschhorn makes outlandish assumptions such as "Americans are aware of their oppression, but the power elites have successfully drugged them with a plethora of pleasure-producing distractions sufficient to keep them under control". Among these distractions are television and the internet. The internet, he says, "has provided a release valve for some pent up anger and frustration. But it too has mostly become another source of distraction, rather than an effective tool for rebellion".

First of all, does any rational person truly believe that the reason you and I watch television and send email is because the power elites have brainwashed us to do so in order for them to consolidate political power? It would be nice if Hirschhorn might identify which people exactly he is referring to, but in the meantime it is ridiculous to suggest that politicians created TV and the internet as a control tool over the masses. The truth is, we just like them.

Second, there is certainly much to be said on how the internet acts as a distractor from different activities we might otherwise be doing. After all, it's hard to find anyone who argues that playing on MySpace or YouTube is actually leading to greater workplace efficiency. However, that's still quite a leap for Hirchhorn to suggest that if not for distracting ourselves with the internet we'd be throwing a "Second American Revolution". How he alludes so matter-of-factly to the internet being designed as "an effective tool for rebellion" is beyond me. Anyone who has even a minuscule knowledge of internet history has enough sense to know better.

Here are some quick truths to inject into Hirschhorn's ludicrous essay. The reason why the American people aren't throwing a revolution is apathy towards politics and dissatisfaction with the political system - not because TV and the internet have distracted us. Also, the internet offers a potential new venue for political activism, and maybe even for organizing forms of rebellion, however that was certainly not why it was created, and it certainly should not be lamented if that is not how it develops in the future.

The bottom line is that Hirschhorn's op-ed piece is laughably ridiculous and should not in any way be taken seriously. This is the type of crap that gives a bad name to blogs everywhere.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Yahoo Shareholders' Dissent...

Earlier this week, Yahoo shareholders exhibited a strong dissent at the company's annual meeting. They were 1) seeking to tie executive pay to competitive performance, and 2) challenging the company's human rights policies, particularly in China. Though they were ultimately defeated, the strong minority of shareholders espousing these positions offer a glimmer of hope in Digital Age ethics.

It's one thing for human rights groups and observant bystanders to criticize a global corporation for certain policies. After all, Yahoo, Google, and other cyber-centric companies have been rightfully put under increasing public scrutiny for their efforts at helping repressive regimes in China and Iran censor internet content, restrict speech, and even help identify and track down freedom-seeking dissidents in those countries. But it's an altogether different story when the shareholders from within the company, not only criticize their own policies, but actually do something proactive against it - attempting to block the election of board members.

Google's motto of "Don't be Evil" took a hit when the search engine giant decided to comply with Chinese censorship laws in order to do business in that huge emerging market - and the public wasn't too thrilled, but viewed it as hardly surprising. In the world we live in, profit margins and the business bottom line are assumed to trump little luxuries like human rights. However, what the Yahoo shareholders have demonstrated is that maybe we're not quite as ready to sell our souls as the cynical side of our thinking often leads to us to believe. The dissent of the Yahoo shareholders is a case study in how some people still choose to do the right thing, rather than become a little richer.

Cheers to courage.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

WIPO Treaty Shifts Control From Artists to Broadcasters...

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is part of the U.N., has been considering a new treaty which would give internet broadcasters the right to claim intellectual property rights over content served through their networks. As I've written about before, the opposition to this treaty is enormous, and WIPO would do much to keep its credibility intact if it heeded the warnings of treaty opponents, rather than cave to the pressures of lobbyists.

As it currently stands, the language of the WIPO Broadcasting Treaty would grant intellectual property rights to whoever was broadcasting music or video on the internet - allowing them to decide what to do with that content, regardless of the wishes of the actual copyright owners. For example, if I write a song and decide that I want to share it for free and legally with a Creative Commons license, then Verizon or Cablevision can actually prevent me from doing so. They can even encrypt my material, add identifying tags to make collecting royalty payments and tracking easier, and even prevent me from sharing it altogether.

For anyone out there who has been defending the music industry's tactics "to protect the artists", this treaty ought to incense you. It would strip away artists' rights over their own material LEGALLY, and consequently, also destroy artists' incentives to create, making piracy over P2P networks seem like a minuscule threat in comparison.

Here is a link to a petition if you'd like to express displeasure with this new proposed WIPO treaty.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Life as a Computer Geek's Girlfriend...

The following is a post submitted by Nerfherder contributing author Marissa Fox, heretofore known as "The Nerfherder Gal".

I know there are some of you out there who can relate to having your anniversary calculated in hexadecimal, having at least two computers in your one-bedroom apartment, and having to figure out why Linux is better than Microsoft. It’s hard to slow your man down when he gets started about how evil iTunes is, and you still can’t understand where his anger towards Apple stems from. If your boyfriend has a blog, thinks "Joost" will take over the world, or believes in "open source" then you know what I’m talking about. The question is do you read his blog and "digg it" afterwards to show support? Do you believe that by clicking on the advertisements he will make enough money to possibly receive a check some day, and will hopefully spend that money on you? Do you look at his Linux machine with awe, every time he gets excited about a new feature he’s discovered? Or do we tune them out just a little bit?

Personally, my boyfriend, a.k.a The Nerfherder, can not hit a nail on the head with a hammer, doesn’t know how to paint a room, or do any other physical labor around the house. Those kind of tasks fall under my responsibilities. Though I’ve grown up around men who were considered "manly" for fixing, lifting, and building things, is my boyfriend "un-manly" because he can’t? OR is he more "manly" because he can solve the problems of tomorrow? We all know that computers are the way of the future, and he can de-bug, de-frag, and program C++ with the best of them. He may get disgruntled moving furniture, or lose his patience in the beginning stages of painting a room, but does that really matter? The question I pose to every one out there is: Are computer nerds the new high-powered, "manly" knights in shining armor of the future?

Hillary Clinton and the YouTube Election...

If you are a cable news junkie like myself you've seen an awful lot of press coverage recently on Hillary Clinton's new YouTube video where she asks supporters to create and submit ideas for her presidential campaign song. The news media seems enthralled with this idea of Hillary embracing "YouTube politics" and harnessing the power of the web for her campaign, however what she has done is actually the farthest thing from using an effective internet political strategy.

The power of social media in cyberspace lies in the diversity of content and the networking of people who share things they find interesting. This decentralization of content creation, embodied in websites like YouTube, holds the true potential of the web as a democratizing force.

Clinton's campaign team seems to have completely missed that point. Her video may be humorous and amusing, but as yet another centralized top-down stay-on-message message, ultimately it is limited as a political tool in that it's only real effect is garnering more favorable publicity in the traditional press. It fails to do much, however, to create a genuine buzz in cyberspace.

The election of 2008 is already shaping up to be a race for who can be the candidate who will use the internet most effectively for publicity, growing a grassroots political base, and fund raising. Granted, Clinton's video was successful in garnering publicity in the traditional press, and will likely also help in raising ever more coffers of campaign cash - plus, like all of the other major presidential candidates, simply experimenting to discover what will work by trial-and-error, especially early in the campaign season, is certainly worth the effort. However, when all is said and done, these campaigns will eventually discover that non-official messages (ex. - improvised, unrehearsed remarks made by candidates when they didn't think they were speaking publicly, yet caught on someone's cell phone camera - both positive and negative moments) are far more likely to capture the attention and imagination of cyberspace netizens... and therefore harness the true power of Web 2.0.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Google to Block Video Clips That Insult King of Thailand...

The following is a post written by Nerfherder contributing author Patrick Fitzpatrick.

There was a time when I really liked Google. With its clean, no-nonsense home page, its vast, instantaneous access to really just about anything, its un-Microsoft-ness, I eschewed every other search engine and made it my default home page.

Inevitably it seems, as it has grown in size, Google has itself started along the slow spiral into evil-empireness that so many heretofore edgy internet groundbreakers have gone.

In May the NY Times reported – in a small article buried in the middle of its business section – on a trend that Google has lately been pursuing as it seeks to overtake Microsoft, Yahoo et al. as the world’s internet leader. Starting with Google’s entry into China when they acquiesced to the communist regime's demands for strict limitations of what the Chinese could “google”, this May 12 article reports on Google’s continued infringement on civil rights at the behest of overzealous, anti-freedom governments.

Google is in an enviable position – this past week its stock rose 20 points and currently sits at around $500; its global reach is unparalleled in the realm of internet search. With that kind of financial and practical influence, Google – despite its commitment to its shareholders – has an obligation to stand up to these rogue governments, not kowtow. As this article explains, now that Google owns YouTube, its ability to create change in non-democratic countries is even more important. Where will they stop? How far will Google bend for the sake of the bottom line? What responsibility do corporations have as they expand into global economies? And when someone posts unflattering homemade tv clips of American presidential candidates will Google remove them also?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Why is iTunes Now Tracking Your Personal Info?

Several weeks ago, Apple caved to the pressure and struck a deal with the EMI music label to stop selling tracks with DRM software, which copy-protected files in such a way that it violated established consumer rights and disregarded the Fair Use Doctrine of copyright law. That was indeed a positive development. However, reports have now surfaced that the DRM-free songs Apple is selling on iTunes are actually storing people's names, email addresses, and other personally identifiable information.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about this development is that Apple has thus far refused to comment on what they are planning on doing with YOUR information. As this Wired article explains, Apple is "remaining mum about its reasoning" to journalists seeking an official comment.

If Apple is planning on using that data to prevent piracy, why not come out and say so? Could it be that as almost any even mildly informed iTunes user understands, it's ridiculously simple to "circumvent, strip or otherwise spoof this information"? And if that's the case, then what other motives does Apple have in this case?

Aside from the obvious privacy concerns (and they are significant), it also seems extremely misguided for anyone to believe that Apple will actually help prevent piracy by storing your personal information and leaving it unencrypted. If anything, it only raises the danger of even more frivolous lawsuits, where the RIAA sues a teenager for distributing music files tagged as belonging to him, when his iPod may have been stolen or even misappropriated for a few hours by someone else.

In truth, this is not new. iTunes and Apple have been storing your personal data for years, even with DRM. However, that still doesn't make it right. If Apple has valid justifiable reasons for using such tactics that disregard privacy issues, then they ought to at least come out and explain them. It's called being honest with your customers. What a remarkable concept!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hacking the AACS Key (again) and Keeping Eyes on the Prize...

Once again the hacktivists are on the march, posting a new AACS key on the internet which will allow people to circumvent the copy-protection on HD DVDs. This comes right on the heels of the same thing happening with the previous encryption key that Hollywood and the MPAA were using only several weeks ago. But judging by the comments and general tone with which people are posting about the issue in cyberspace, it's vital for people to keep their eyes on the prize.

Boing Boing has a fabulous article on the timeline of the AACS saga, profiling not only the details on the posting of the key itself, but also the consequent reaction of the film industry and the user revolts that followed. However, after scouring related posts in the blogosphere this morning, it seems that the general tone with which people are discussing this is a comic sarcasm. People seem amused at the creative ways in which the encryption key keeps circulating, and are lauding the hackers who keep demonstrating the futility of the film industry's tactics, which are outright mocked with both humor and anger.

For hacktivists to live up to that title, it is crucial to remember that computer hacking is only justified and noble if it is done for ethical and legitimate purposes. Posting the HD DVD encryption key on the internet for no other reason than to be subversive and joke about it is not an act of civil disobedience, but anarchy.

What needs to be repeatedly emphasized is why posting an HD DVD encryption key actually serves the public interest and the greater good. Among these reasons are to draw attention to violations of the Fair Use Doctrine and calls for copyright reform, allowing users of non-compatible computer systems (such as Linux users) to be able to exercise those same consumer rights that Windows users do, such as making backup copies of DVDs they legally purchased, and numerous other reasons as well.

What the film and music industries try to get away with truly is ridiculous (and some argue illegal) in their use of certain copy-protection schemes. However, cracking the keys and posting them on the web can either be viewed as an anarchist method of encouraging piracy and subverting the legal system, or as a noble act of electronic civil disobedience. This is a matter of framing the issue for the mainstream public, and commentators and hacktivists ought to take the issue a little more seriously, or else they risk damaging their own cause.