Thursday, November 29, 2007

Why the CNN-YouTube Debate Failed America (Again)...

Last night's CNN/YouTube presidential debate - this time featuring the Republican candidates - once again proved immensely disappointing. Just like in the first of these debates, rather than "democratizing the process", the question selection process was still tightly controlled by a small handful of media elites. This is an issue that's symbolic of the larger ideological debate which the Internet raises: Does information require professional gatekeepers who make decisions over content for us, or can the people make such decisions for themselves?

As written in this space months ago following the Democratic debate, "If CNN wanted to truly create a 'user-generated' debate format, two ideas immediately come to mind. First, make people's video submissions public. This will add badly needed transparency and accountability to the question selection process. Second, make the questions actually presented to the candidates be the result of which videos people voted on as the most relevant and in need of being asked. This would take the question selection process out of the hands of the media elite and into those of the American people."

As this Wired article illustrates, more direct voter-candidate interaction is not only achievable, but increasingly what the public desires. Earlier this year, The Huffington Post teamed up with Yahoo and Slate magazine to allow netizens to pick preselected questions for the candidates, which were then posed by PBS talk show host Charlie Rose. Additionally, MTV and MySpace teamed up to enable the online community to submit questions by instant messenger and to vote in real time on the candidates' performance.

The most common criticism against systems that would allow people to vote on which questions get asked of candidates is that people tend to ask "irrelevant" and often ridiculous questions. This is true, but only to a limited extent. Surely, nobody believes the presidential debate should feature questions about UFOs and flying saucers, however it seems very possible to find a middle ground. For example, as Wired suggests, CNN could "involve the community in parsing questions and then promise to use half the questions picked by the community, with the other half picked by his political team."

In the end, the goal of incorporating the public more intricately into political debates is a good one, and efforts in support of that goal ought to be supported. For the media elites to simply write-off the average citizen's concerns as "irrelevant" and "ridiculous" is tremendously arrogant.

As we're all aware, the Internet empowers individuals with direct access to tremendous amounts of information, and to suggest that an elite class of journalists ought to decide for us what's in our own best interest is a pure power grab, plain and simple. When it comes to the question selection process for the presidential debates, to insist that the public cannot be entrusted with such an important responsibility begs the question whether these media elites believe we're incapable of handling other certain responsibilities as well...

Like voting.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Verizon Wireless Opening its Network...

The New York Times is reporting that sometime next year Verizon Wireless will be opening its network to "any apps, any device". Why the sudden shift in strategy and what will it mean for the rest of us?

For starters, one need not look that hard to see the direct influence that the iPhone is having on the telecom industry. It's not the iPhone device itself which has proven to have so large an effect, but rather the exclusive deal brokered between Apple and AT&T. If customers want an iPhone, they must switch their cell phone service to AT&T.

What's increasingly fascinating is that for all of the other cell phone carriers left out in the dark as a result of this exclusive arrangement, they are not looking to emulate the same type of deals for themselves. Adopting an entirely opposite strategy, firms such as Google (looking to enter the cell phone market next year) and now Verizon Wireless are supporting a more open approach, relating to both open standards and open networks.

For consumers, the result of this movement towards openness will be a greater choice among products and services, more innovation leading to better features, and (hopefully) lower prices stemming from increased competition.

Verizon's move towards opening its network is certainly a welcome step in the right direction, and other carriers like Sprint or T-Mobile would be wise to follow suit. As for Apple and AT&T, talk about the law of unintended consequences.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cyberbullying and Vigilante Justice Online...

When Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from Missouri, committed suicide because she was being bullied relentlessly on MySpace, all signs pointed to this being yet another tragic case expressing the typical dangers of online social networks. However, the story then took an unexpected turn when it was discovered that the bullying was done by Lori Drew, who was the mother of one of Megan's classmates, and had created a fake MySpace account under the name of "Josh Evans", also purporting to be 16 years old.

Now, the police had discovered that Lori Drew was the cyberbully responsible for Meier's suicide, and the local newspaper report described the case, but did not identify Drew by name. This is nothing unusual - after all, people are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, a middle-aged mother living in Virginia, Sarah Wells, was so outraged by the story that she did some Google searching, and published Lori Drew's name on her blog. Consequently, her blog readers followed by also posting her husband's name, the family's address and phone number, a cellphone number, the name of the family's advertising company, and the names and phone numbers of clients with whom they worked.

"In retaliation, readers called Drew's advertising clients to urge them to withdraw their business from her. But it wasn't long before there were death threats, a brick through a window and calls to set the Drews' house on fire."

This is more than a simple case of cyberbullying and online vigilantism. As Kim Zetter of Wired writes, "the firestorm that followed illustrates what happens when the social imperative to punish those in a community who violate social norms plays out over the internet... But the drive for social shaming - to right a wrong and restore social balance - can run amok and create paradoxical consequences, especially on the internet where people instigate mobs in ways they wouldn't do offline."

First of all, Zetter is right to point out the paradox of online vigilantism: that shaming people publicly in order to enforce social norms actually creates an anarchic environment, making social norms less enforceable.

Second, privacy advocates ought to have a problem with the vigilantes as well. Posting someone's personal information on a public website, even when they are an alleged perpetrator of some crime, sets a horrific precedent of justifying violations of privacy if "someone deserves it". Tantamount to privacy advocates is the principle that violating someone's personal privacy in such a public manner should never be considered a weapon to coerce certain types of social behavior.

Third, let us take a moment to remember the basic problem with vigilante justice - that they often get it wrong. For example, take the case two years ago when a stock clerk had his cell phone stolen from his car. When pictures from his phone were being posted online, the clerk identified the thief and enlisted internet vigilantes to defame him with racist remarks and other smearing tactics. Only later it was discovered that the "thief" was actually a 16-year-old kid whose mother had bought the cell phone from a street vendor. The poor kid who had been harassed by the vigilantes and had his name and reputation destroyed was actually not the thief at all.

None of this is meant to defend the cyberbullying and adoption of a false identity by Lori Drew, whose actions were certainly despicable. However, the fact is that most of the people who have been publishing Drew's personal information have been doing so under a cloak of anonymity. Whether you consider these people activists or vigilantes, there should be more transparency and accountability. In other words, if these people are so convinced that they are working towards a noble purpose, then have them post their real names. Under such circumstances (which exist in real-space, as opposed to cyberspace), people are less likely to engage in such aggressive behavior if they perceive that there will be consequences for their actions.

In the end, there needs to be more civility in cyberspatial behavior, and less fury and deception. That was surely the original reason for the outrage against Lori Drew. But in their retaliatory tactics, the vigilantes have become the very thing they set out to destroy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Internet Things to be Thankful For...

Tomorrow, mothers across the nation will try, often in vain (at least in my household), to go around the dinner table and have everyone proclaim all the things they are thankful for this Thanksgiving. So what better place than in a blog to list everything we are thankful for that make our daily internet experiences that much more fulfilling...

  • Porn (if you're my brother)
  • YouTube - for allowing us to post and view all sorts of poor-quality, barely watchable videos, and then get sued for it.
  • Daily Nerfherder Emails - come on, admit it!
  • Facebook and MySpace - without them, teenagers and college kids would end up wasting endless hours each day on meaningless activities like stalking ex-boyfriends, refreshing the same 10 "pictures of me" multiple times a week, and enlisting 423 random people to be your "friends". Oh wait...
  • Wikipedia - for allowing even the dumbest idiots in society to contribute to the world's supply of "knowledge".
  • Blogs - (see Wikipedia)
  • Second Life - for demonstrating how we can be just as inept at making money online as we are offline.
  • PHProxy - for letting me offer my friends a way to IM and view porn from their jobs, while still allowing me to justify it by saying it's intended for pro-democracy activists in China.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Google's Android, and the Walled Gardens of the Mobile Web...

When Google recently announced its entry into the mobile phone market, many in the computer programming world were thrilled to hear that Google's new software platform, Android, would be based on the Linux kernel and released under an open-source license. However, skeptics who looked more closely noted that the specific license Google plans to use leaves some restrictions in place, drawing the ire of even the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee. So the question is whether this is a big hullabaloo about nothing, or a crucial intersection in the Web's development that will affect its architecture for decades to come?

Anybody with a cell phone has, at one time or another, been frustrated with its limited functionality. If I want to use my iTunes music library with my cell phone, I have to buy an iPhone and switch service to AT&T. As a computer programmer, if I have a brilliant idea for creating a cell phone application, I can't even write the code for it unless I'm either an employee or get explicit permission to do so. As this Wired article points out, "lockdowns on hardware functionality, demanded by service providers and enforced by the manufacturers, have resulted in a marketplace filled with crippled devices that are only minimally configurable or expandable". Certainly, innovation suffers and both the consumer and the mobile industry itself miss out on some serious Mobile Web opportunities.

Open-source software has always proven to be a breath of fresh air for industries stuck in a quagmire of innovation, which is why Google's announcement that its new software would be open-source was initially hailed by the computer programming world. However, the specific open-source license it will be using is the Apache variant, rather than the more open GPL which covers Linux and GNU software. This may seem like overly technical legal jargon to many, but the short summary of the distinction is that Google's decision to use the Apache license means that developers will be able to use and modify the code behind open-source software, yet they will not be required to re-release their modifications as open-source after the fact.

This raises quite the pickle. Inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has come out decidedly against "walled gardens" for the Mobile Web. "The 'walled garden' is the metaphor that describes today’s cable TV and cellular data networks, where subscribers can only use devices authorized by the carrier, and can only access content and services authorized by the carrier, the exact opposite of the World Wide Web running over the IP-based Internet".

Berners-Lee contrasts these developments in the mobile world with the success of the World Wide Web itself. "The Web is an open platform on which you build other things," he said. "That’s how you get this innovation. The Web is universal: you can run it on any hardware, on any operating system, it can be used by people of different languages".

Basically, the Internet has been such a huge success because it was based on completely open standards, and thus Berners-Lee is absolutely correct in stating that the Mobile Web should follow that model. Google's entry into the mobile market with Android is a step in the right direction (being open-source), yet its decision to adopt the Apache license leaves too many restrictions on software development still in place. While Google should be encouraged for its decision to go open-source, people should not become complacent and accept this as the future model to go by - because it is not completely in line with the Internet's true vision.

Is this all a big hullabaloo about nothing? The truth is that the overwhelming majority of people couldn't care less about distinctions between competing open-source software licenses, and as a result, this is sure to fly way under the popular radar. However, the consequences of how the Mobile Web develops will greatly affect everyone in the years to come.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why We Are All Criminals: The Case for Copyright Reform...

The stereotype the media industry perpetuates is the lone figure sitting in his dorm room downloading thousands of copyrighted songs illegally on peer-to-peer networks, driving the artists into bankruptcy. They frame the issue in these overly simplified terms - you either follow the law by purchasing content, or you commit piracy and should be fined or even jailed.

However, as this Boing Boing article highlights, according to current copyright laws, every single one of us infringes on copyrights every day, unintentionally and without even realizing it. Anytime you forward an email, share photos, or chat with friends online, you are most likely committing copyright infringement and can be sued for millions of dollars because in order to view such materials, your computer needs to make a digital copy on the hard drive before anything can be displayed. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 was supposed to address these issues, but the technology has evolved to a point where many of our daily internet activities are no longer covered.

So despite the media industry's attempts to demonize proponents of copyright reform as criminals, the fact is that there is a tremendous disparity between the law and behavioral norms. Calling for copyright reform is not the same as calling for the legalization of piracy. Far from it. The problem is that according to existing copyright law we are all pirates, and the law needs to be changed in order to retain any meaning whatsoever.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is the True "Internet Candidate" Ron Paul or Barack Obama?

When it comes to the presidential election campaigns, bloggers have been most passionate in their support of two candidates - Ron Paul (R) and Barack Obama (D). But which one can thus far claim the title for the true "internet candidate"?

Ron Paul, while still relatively unknown to the majority of American voters, has unquestionably generated the most buzz in cyberspace. His website is the most visited among the candidates, he has been in the top ten search terms on for about six months (something that even Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan have failed to accomplish), and he recently shattered the record for most campaign donations collected online in a single day.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, is more of a policy wonk when it comes to the internet. While not generating the same level of buzz as Ron Paul, and even at one point inciting his own online supporters, he has outlined a detailed proposal on "technology and innovation", including his positions on Net Neutrality, universal broadband, open government online, and much more. By and large, Obama's positions fall into near lockstep with the most cherished cyber-political ideologies.

Certainly, all of the candidates from both political parties have taken to internet campaigning, albeit with mixed results, yet these two clearly stand apart. So which is the true "internet candidate" of the presidential election?

If elected, Barack Obama would be most likely to make happy all of the netizens who care passionately about internet issues like Net Neutrality. However, the betting money is on Ron Paul going down in history as the true "internet candidate" of this election, based on his unprecedented grassroots support in cyberspace, and its stark contrast to his limited popularity in the unwired world. What Ron Paul is accomplishing in cyberspace will unquestionably be viewed as the model for online campaigning in future election cycles, just as Howard Dean's campaign in 2004, and, in that, Paul remains to be the real story.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ending the Wall St Journal Paywall...

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal announced that it was ending its policy of forcing people to pay a subscription fee in order to view its website. Instead, it is opening up its website to the public, and will make its money from advertising rather than subscription fees.

This, of course, comes on the heels of the New York Times doing the same thing, ending its paywall a few weeks ago. Media companies are finally become sold on the idea that they can actually make more money by giving their product away for free - which grows their audience and user base - and then enhance their financial bottom line by finding alternative revenue streams (like advertising).

This is a business model that is long overdue in the Digital Age, where distribution costs have been virtually eliminated. There will always be a market for people who want to buy packaged goods and professional-quality services, and making internet content freely available is not only a competitive necessity, but also a tremendous way of growing a consumer base and increasing exposure. Think of it as analogous to giving out free samples of chocolates at the mall in order to entice you to buy the packaged gift box.

Eventually, Hollywood and the music industry will come around on this idea as well, and transform their core business model from distributing goods (which is completely outdated in digital environments) into marketing the artists. Until then, they will continue losing revenue and missing out on the tremendous business opportunities that the Web has to offer.

It's definitely a positive development that the Wall Street Journal has ended its paywall and followed suit with others in the media industry. It's just a shame that it took them so long to do it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Facebook and the Coming World of App-Spam...

The social-networking website Facebook recently announced the launch of its new "social advertising" system. This rollout promises to turn you into an unwitting and uncompensated endorser of products, and to provide yet another new venue for increasing the amount of app-spam that already fills our daily cyberspatial experiences.

The plan, as summarized by Terrence Russell, has three primary components. First, businesses are now able to create Facebook profiles. This is hardly revolutionary, yet it signals the website's continuing shift away from its original vision as an exclusive social space for university students. Second, these businesses can create "viral applications" that people can use and include on their own profiles. Third, and most significantly, those companies can collect data on anyone who uses their applications and then provide it to other businesses for targeted advertising.

It's this advertising component that seems particularly troubling. If, for example, you go to Coke's Facebook page and interact with or install one of their viral applications, your actions will, of course, be publicized in your news feed (which is visible to all of your friends), but Facebook will also attach your name and image to official advertisements from the Coca-Cola Company that it sends to your friends. As Russell points out, you pretty much become "a shill" for marketing companies.

Now when a star athlete or celebrity have their image included in an advertisement, they are usually paid for their official endorsement, and certainly they must grant permission to use their image before the ad is run. So why not the rest of us?

Just because I use an application from Coca-Cola's Facebook page doesn't mean I necessarily endorse that soft drink. After all, no reasonable person would claim that because Tiger Woods ate Cheerios this morning, commercials can now be made with Tiger Woods in them endorsing the cereal. Participation does not automatically mean endorsement.

Another consequence of Facebook's social advertising scheme will be the inevitable rise of app-spam - a cyberspace where not only are you being pitched a never-ending stream of ads by hucksters of all types, but where your friends are seemingly doing the pitching.

People should speak up and let Facebook know that they are not going to be complicit. Two proposals warrant consideration: first, if someone's name and image are included in advertisements, then they should be financially compensated (perhaps on a click-thru basis similar to Google's AdSense), just as real-world endorsements legally require; and second, people should be given the choice to opt-in to social advertising, rather than being forced to opt-out.

In the meantime, however, the beat goes on...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Major League Baseball and its DRM Debacle...

This blog space, like many others, has been clamoring against the use of DRM software since its inception. Now Major League Baseball is demonstrating exactly why DRM should not be used, and why customers should never purchase anything that is DRM-encrypted.

To quickly catch you up, DRM is software that companies use to encrypt music and video files in order to reduce piracy and protect their copyrighted works. With that in mind, consider the following story:

As this Boing Boing article reports, a baseball fan named Allan Wood purchased digital downloads of baseball games over an extended period of time from the official website. To be clear, Wood did everything that media industries claim everybody should do - pay for copyrighted content and not illegally download or pirate the material. So how is Wood rewarded? Major League Baseball today decided to shut down its DRM server, which means that none of the digital files that Wood and others have purchased will ever work again.

An MLB customer service supervisor apparently made a statement that "purchases were all 'one-time sales' and thus 'there are no refunds'.

So customers who played by the rules are basically screwed. This story is quickly making the rounds in the blogosphere today and is sure to only add more fire to people's hatred of DRM and resentment towards companies that use it. This case serves as a classic demonstration of why media companies, in their desire to protect their content, are actually driving would-be paying customers away.

Is it any wonder why illegal downloading on peer-to-peer sites is still flourishing?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Google Cell Phones Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be...

Unless you're living in a bubble, the big news today is that Google is entering the cell phone market. Through its alliance with handset manufacturers, it plans on rolling out cell phones using Google software late next year, and is releasing it as open source. While the headlines are hyping this as utterly transformative, Google's entry into the cell phone market actually is nothing to get very excited about.

First of all, contrary to weeks of speculation, Google is not producing a "Gphone". Unlike Apple and its iPhone, Google is simply releasing software for other cell phone manufacturers to use - it is not manufacturing a new phone itself.

Second, Google may pose a "significant threat" to other creators of mobile operating systems, such as Microsoft, Palm, and Symbian, but from a consumer's point-of-view, who really cares? While it's great to expect some increased competition in operating systems software, we'll still have decidedly little choice in service providers - the Verizons, AT&Ts, and Sprints of the world. Google's announcement has absolutely no effect on the extremely limited competition among mobile service providers, and from a consumer's perspective, that's really where all the action is.

Third, Google-powered cell phones will still be carrier-locked. This means that, just as now, when you buy a cell phone it can only be used with one specific service provider. Buy an Iphone, you can only use it if you are an AT&T subscriber. Nothing changes with Google's announcement. If you buy a Google-powered phone, you'll be locked-in to one service provider, and won't be able to switch providers unless you buy a new phone. This "carrier-locking" is the main issue that consumer advocates have been railing against, and as the Wired Gadget Lab accurately points out, "there will be no revolution for you".

Fourth, some such as this Wired article have determined that "because Google's software will be free, it could undercut rivals who charge handset makers to install their operating systems. It also promises to make smart phones less expensive since manufacturers won't have to pay for software". Don't bet on it. Cheaper prices are always promised by opening markets, yet in many cases (such as the deregulation and "opening" of the telecommunications market in 1996) the drop in production cost never translated into a drop in prices for consumers.

Perhaps the one positive development with Google's announcement is that it is releasing its source code as open source, which means that anybody, including me, can view and edit the programming to create any applications for the device that can be imagined. However, even in this I'm skeptical that it will truly be open source, and not simply an API designed to interact with what is still a very closed and proprietary system.

The bottom line is that if you're expecting Google's entry into the cell phone market to bring about meaningful change to your experience as a cell phone subscriber, you should look elsewhere.