Monday, March 31, 2008

How to Cultivate Your Cyber-Identity...

In the Internet Age, how we are portrayed online can have enormous consequences. The aggregate amount of material about us shapes our cyber-identity, and, just as in real-space, perceptions matter.

Most articles written by the mainstream media have focused on the problems associated with cyber-identities. For example, numerous accounts have been chronicled about how an employer, impressed by a resume or interview, nevertheless failed to hire someone because drunken embarrassing photos of that person were found online. As a result, most articles on the topic have stressed keeping all of one's publicly identifiable information strictly private.

But your cyber-identity doesn't necessarily have to be thought of as a problem, and, in fact, if this is the only way you perceive it, then you may be completely avowing yourself of tremendous opportunities.

As much as your cyber-identity can damage your real-space reputation, it can also equally enhance it. The internet offers people the chance to re-invent themselves and rise above the ways identity has traditionally been defined. For instance, one's looks (and the often consequent feelings of insecurity) can be more easily overcome online. Additionally, by focusing on one's more positive characteristics, habitual couch potatoes can emphasize their global travels, an unmotivated flounderer can highlight their work ethic and achievements, and the unemployed can frame themselves simply as being freelancers instead. This isn't a form of trickery and you shouldn't resort to lying; it's just a matter of choosing how you want to project yourself to the world.

So what steps can you pro-actively take to enhance your cyber-identity?

First, stop posting drunken embarrassing pictures of yourself to the public. It sounds like common sense, but it's also the first, and sometimes toughest, step towards recovery.

Second, online social networks matter. Facebook and MySpace provide a growing number of privacy options for selecting which of your "friends" can see what about you. USE THEM! It's common knowledge that the majority of people's "friends" on these sites are not really their friends at all - mostly just acquaintances. That means that your identity to these people is largely shaped by what they see on your profile. Again, use that to your advantage. Highlight the positive, forbid access to the negative. Or better yet, don't post the negative at all.

Third, make sure that when someone Googles your name, the first few search results are links to material that you deem acceptable for anyone to see. That includes grandparents, friends, co-workers, the new girl you're dating... anyone. Check out this tutorial for how to manipulate Google's search algorithm to achieve your desired effects.

Of course, it's a lot trickier when someone else has posted material about you to the internet. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of recourse unless the material is so bad or defamatory that it warrants a lawsuit. However, for the more mild variety of negative publicity, there are still a few measures you can take. On the social networking websites, be sure to remove tags of you on any photos other people have posted. The picture will still remain up, but at least hardly anyone will be aware that it's you.

The best advice for combating material that others post about you is to use the tactics already described above, particularly the strategy of manipulating Google results to your advantage. Think of it as a cyber arms race. If a frienemy wrote a disparaging story about you online, you might not be able to shut the website down, but you can at least make sure that when someone Google-searches your name, that disparaging story is the 50th item listed in the search results, as opposed to number 2. The greater both the quantity and quality of positive material about you that exists online, the greater is the chance that the positive links overwhelm the embarrassing and negative ones.

Ultimately, by maintaining a strong web presence on a variety of social networks and other websites, it is possible to cultivate a very positive cyber-identity which you can undoubtedly work to your advantage in both real-space and cyberspace environments.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Are Blogs Over- or Under-Valued?

An article by 24/7 Wall St is making the rounds through cyber circles today in which it uses several metrics to try and estimate the value of the most popular blogs in existence. Topping the list are Gawker Properties at $150 million, MacRumors at $85 million, and the Huffington Post at $70 million, with almost two dozen others topping at least $1 million. Many of these blogs get web traffic galore, but, like the Huffington Post, have yet to turn a profit. Do these valuations mean that blogs are over-valued, or under-valued?

This issue is soon to become more prominent in the mainstream public's consciousness as blogs have lately begun luring investors and raising serious amounts of money. Michael Arrington, creator of (estimated on the list to be worth several million dollars itself) has actually called for independent bloggers to band together for commercial purposes.

"If they pool their resources into a single company, they can roll up all of their blogs 'into a big fat CNET crushing $200 million/year in revenue business'."

Are blogs the next internet gold rush? Probably not. Take a close look at the 24/7 list and it's pretty clear that only the absolute most astronomically popular blogs even hit a million-dollar valuation, relegating the small-to-mid-sized bloggers to the land of "just-praying-to-get-enough-money-to-buy-my-girlfriend-a-nice-dinner". So starting a blog, even of high quality, is still not close to being a realistic money-making opportunity.

That said, are some of these top blogs on the list good investment opportunities? Perhaps. Using a traditional advertising-based business model, the cream-of-the-crop have already built strong revenue bases which are only likely to grow as their brands become more established and their web traffic continues to rise. If the Huffington Post, for example, were to offer a modest IPO tomorrow, it'd probably be wise to buy a few shares.

Despite the Probloggers and CopyBloggers of the cyberworld which offer advice on how to better commercialize your blog, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of bloggers are fiercely independent and consider the activity a labor of love, rather than a business opportunity. Don't get me wrong, everyone would be thrilled to cash a sizable check for their efforts. It just doesn't typically happen. Small bloggers' best bets are to focus on interesting topics and on writing well, and maybe they can hope to earn a few extra dollars through Google AdSense, or ideally, actual paid sponsors.

As for the top blogs, to determine if they're over- or under-valued, just ask yourself this question: Do you believe their web traffic will go up or down in the next few years? If you think they'll go up, recognize that advertising revenues will be sure to follow. Would you invest a few dollars into them yourself?

For that matter, do you think The Nerfherder's readership is more likely to increase or decrease over time?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Concluding the XM-Sirius Merger Debate...

Yesterday, the Justice Department approved a merger between the only two satellite radio companies - XM Radio and Sirius Radio. The merger won't be complete until the FCC approves it as well, but this nevertheless signals a fundamental shift from previous policy, and should be applauded, but with caution.

The two companies have been pushing for this merger almost since they were created. Such a marriage between the only two companies offering satellite radio services would create a de facto monopoly affecting more than 17 million subscribers and worth nearly 5 billion dollars. The government, consumer groups, and broadcasters have opposed it in the past because they believed the would-be monopolist "will force up prices and reduce the programming now available from the two competing systems". The reasoning is quite clear: having two companies in competition with each other helps keep prices down and the amount and quality of services up; while eliminating that competition by granting a monopoly would raise prices and diminish the level of service.

On the other hand, XM and Sirius argue that the "monopoly" that would be created by a merger is essentially meaningless. Their logic is quite clear as well: satellite radio programming competes directly with traditional radio and television broadcasters, internet programming, and various other forms of media, therefore a merger would only enhance their ability to compete with more established actors. Prices would be held in check because otherwise consumers would simply drop the service and flock to terrestrial radio, TV, or the internet.

What's really at issue is how to define market competition in the Digital Age. Is satellite radio a distinctive market, or is it merely one part of a larger New Media market? How this is framed is crucial because that will ultimately determine the scope of governmental regulation.

The Justice Department has, at least for now, fallen on the side of the latter, asserting that the merger should be allowed to proceed because satellite radio is only one part of a larger New Media market. Consumer reactions initially seem very positive, as judged by the comments left on Digg. At least in the short term, many perceive the merger as providing them the ability to purchase more programming options, so that, for example, they no longer have to choose between Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, Major League Baseball, and the N.F.L. There are, however, intelligent calls for, among other things, not requiring existing customers to buy new equipment and to offer a la carte programming, meaning that people should be able to choose and pay only for the stations they actually want, and not be forced into buying bundled packages (as is the case with cable TV).

Fallout from the Justice Department's decision will also be felt in cyberspace. As the YouTubes, podcasts, and assorted other webcasters of the world gain in prominence and make better use of faster bandwidth connections, a ruling that asserts the primacy of a single large New Media market, defining market competition in broad terms, should produce unintended consequences for decades to come. Make no mistake about it, the very development of the internet itself is at stake by such regulatory decisions.

In the end, assuming the F.C.C. also approves the merger, consumers of satellite radio will be better off. But in order to ensure that market competition flourishes in New Media, the government must tread carefully and make sure not to regulate webcasters out existence, as it has occasionally attempted to do in the past.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ebook Licenses and the Assault on Private Ownership...

Boing Boing has an article today titled, "In the Age of EBooks, You Don't Own Your Library". Its point is that many hardware ebook readers like Kindle and Sony Reader run on stores that only license - instead of selling - books to you. In other words, when you "buy" books from Amazon or Sony, you're actually not paying to own them, but to rent them. The ebook manufacturers, at the behest of the publishing industry, are doing this in the name of "protecting the authors". Doesn't this sound awfully familiar?

It's impossible not to draw an analogy to what's been happening the past few years with music, movies, and virtually every other type of media. These days, when you "buy" a song online, the same type of rental agreement is enforced. Unfortunately, the very concept of private ownership is under assault, and the threat is coming under the guise of "copyright protection".

"It's funny that in the name of protecting 'intellectual property,' big media companies are willing to do such violence to the idea of real property - arguing that since everything we own, from our t-shirts to our cars to our ebooks, embody someone's copyright, patent and trademark, that we're basically just tenant farmers, living on the land of our gracious masters who've seen fit to give us a lease on our homes."

What information protectionists need to understand is that it's in their own best interests to put their product out there in the most accessible way possible. Make a product, sell the product; but don't then try to restrict people's behavior who actually purchased the product legally because that only provides a strong disincentive for them to do so again the next time. After all, "books that you own can be loaned, re-sold and given away, and the ongoing health of the book trade and reading itself relies on this - how many of your favorite writers did you discover at a used bookstore, or when a friend passed you a copy of a book?".

It's interesting that people's instinctive attitudes in perceiving the copyright issue often seem different for books versus music and video. Perhaps it's because books imply knowledge, and few people think that general knowledge should be proprietary, therefore they cringe at the thought of restrictive leasing agreements as it applies to them. Or perhaps its the result of the record and motion picture industries' intense propaganda campaign of fear and intimidation over the past few years. Or perhaps it's simply that most people haven't yet downloaded ebooks off the internet, so they don't yet see it as a threat. But, whatever the case may be, the true issue that copyright law is intended to address is culture, and that being the case, there's really no difference between books and CDs, nor between authors and musicians. Copyright's very purpose is to protect our shared common culture as well as the interests of the artists who contribute to that shared culture - and the industries' assault on the idea of private ownership only does irreparable damage to both.

In the end, this case may only serve to highlight to the mainstream public just how ridiculous the claims asserted by the music and movie industries have been in recent years. There is a desperate need for reforming copyright law in the United States and, as stories like this continue to develop, it is only getting more pronounced.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Deterring Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism...

Two security-related news articles were prominently published this week - one by the New York Times, the other by the Wall Street Journal - which, when taken together, reveal a lot about America's overall approach to dealing with national security issues in cyberspace.

The Times article describes how the Cold War strategy of deterrence is re-emerging in the fight against terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. "To counter efforts by terrorists to plot attacks, raise money and recruit new members on the Internet, the government has mounted a secret campaign to plant bogus e-mail messages and Web site postings, with the intent to sow confusion, dissent and distrust among militant organizations, officials confirm."

On a different note, the Wall Street Journal article (only available for a fee, but covered by DailyTech and Fox News as well) reports on the cyberwarfare that China has initiated against the United States. The Defense Department cites numerous successful attacks in the last year originating in China, including shutting down Homeland Security networks and hacking into the Pentagon email system used by the offices of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

To be sure, these stories deal with two separate issues - deterrence against cyberterrorists on the one hand versus cyberwarfare against a nation-state on the other. However, taken together, what do they reveal about America's overall approach to dealing with national security issues in cyberspace?

For starters, there is an implicit recognition that we need to defend against both targeted attacks against specific installations as well as larger network-wide threats in distributed environments. Cyberwars are not unprecedented. Last year, for example, Russia was accused of launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against Estonian targets. But Fox News is correct in its assessment that "that attack was against the civilian Internet infrastructure: the ISPs and banks, for example, not the Estonian military or government. Such attacks... are fundamentally different from targeted hacks against specific installations. It's the difference between war and espionage." American policy needs to protect its cyber assets from both.

Additionally, a crucial distinction must be made between cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare. This is directly related to the previous point. Cyberterrorism involves outright destruction of narrowly defined targets, while cyberwarfare takes on a more espionage-like tilt, seeking to disrupt, rather than destroy, cyberspatial targets, often with the sole aim of obtaining information. Neither is necessarily more damaging from a security standpoint than than the other, however, in any given case, America's defensive tactics must be narrowly tailored to suit whichever of these types of threats it is addressing.

While most of these issues are still in their embryonic stages of development, it is nevertheless quite clear that a cyber arms race, complete with a spiraling escalation of sophisticated tools and strategies, is already underway. As cyberwars and cyberterrorism proliferate, and as governments and other institutions try to deal with them, it will only be a short matter of time before we reminisce with nostalgia back to the simple times when the only thing network administrators and IT managers had to worry about was a few rogue computer hackers.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Fight Between ISPs Partitions the Internet...

Ryan Singel of Wired writes today that a fight between ISPs has stopped internet traffic across parts of the Atlantic. Amazingly, this act of cutting millions of people off from reaching U.S. websites has been described as "for the good of the internet".

"U.S.-based Cogent Communications shut down their links to the Swedish-based ISP Telia last Thursday in what Cogent describes as a contract dispute about the size and locations of the pipes connecting the two ISPs. Like many large ISPs, Cogent and Telia interconnect their networks at multiple points and trade roughly equivalent amounts of traffic, an arrangement called peering. The feud [over providing fat enough pipes at some peering locations] has continued through Tuesday, keeping it impossible for Swedes, along with other Nordic and Baltic residents, to reach sites hosted on Cogent's network and vice versa."

Basically, this story highlights once again the fact that cyberspatial activities are still entirely dependent on real-world infrastructure. The internet exists because of connections primarily between physical wires and cables, and several chokepoints or bottlenecks of cables, particularly across oceans, make people's access to other parts of the world vulnerable to those who control them. Thus, a tiff between an American and European ISP can result in millions of people losing access to large chunks of the Web.

This comes on the heels of last month's internet collapse, when four undersea cables were cut, severing internet access to most of the Middle East.

In a shocking statement, Cogent spokesman Jeff Henrikson explained that Cogent terminated their contract with Telia and essentially cut millions of people off from reaching U.S. websites "for the good of the internet". Which, of course, is nonsense. Partitioning the Web into several large networks, rather than one giant interconnected one, goes against the recognized internet ethos that has existed since its inception. Underneath the subterfuge, all this case represents is a business quarrel resulting from one company feeling cheated by what they perceive as an unequal trade of services.

It's scary that the internet's very functionality is so vulnerable and dependent on these types of narrow interests.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Blogging the Tibetan Protests (and Doing Something About Them)...

Last weekend, protests in Tibet against the Chinese authorities erupted into violence, and scores of demonstrators were killed, although the exact numbers have been difficult to determine. What is certain is that websites like YouTube and Boing Boing, and news channels like CNN and the BBC, have all been blacked out. So while no one really knows what exactly is going on in complete detail, numerous websites nevertheless have been posting first-hand accounts of the events transpiring. For the sake of using the internet to subvert the censorship of a totalitarian regime, here is a quick roundup.

Boing Boing has process-traced the Chinese government's censorship. Since they have been denying it, its a useful analysis that scientifically determines that censorship is, in fact, taking place, and uncovers what and how exactly it is occurring.

YouTube has over 200 videos posted by users chronicling both what's been reported in the traditional media as well as amateur user-generated videos by eye-witnesses.

Twitter has provided real-time reporting often in conversational form, as people have been texting Twitter updates from their cell phones which are immediately posted to the Web. The Tenement Palm blog has been translating some of these into English.

Another terrific collection of translated Tibetan blog posts can be found at Global Voices. And, of course, plenty of commentary is available by Westerners following the situation from afar as well.

However, demonstrating that the blogosphere espouses all points of view, many posts can also be found in Chinese blogs and chatrooms "that generally runs along the lines of: those ungrateful minorities, we give them modern conveniences and look how they thank us... where have we heard this before? [Meanwhile,] Reuters has a roundup on the Washington Post that begins: 'a look at Chinese blogs reveals a vitriolic outpouring of anger and nationalism directed against Tibetans and the West'."

All of which demonstrates the potential power of the internet, not so much as a democratizing force in its own right, but rather as a media mechanism for exposing events and bringing awareness to what's actually happening in the world. Even with a censoring government, plenty of venues still exist for Tibetan protesters to both access and publish information.

For those of you wondering how you can actually help in a pro-active way, consider setting up your home PC as a proxy server. It's relatively simple and easy to set up, and it will provide individuals within China the ability to reach censored websites like YouTube. You can try out and actually use my proxy server here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Craigslist Wins Discrimination Suit: Why the Court Got it Right...

We've heard the ancient adage since childhood: Don't kill the messenger. Increasingly, the courts are upholding that principle in cyberspace as well.

Here's the story. Two years ago, some people posted real estate ads on Craiglist that were discriminatory - listing apartments for rent "seeking white tenants only". In meatspace, this type of requirement is illegal under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which deems it illegal "to publish ads excluding tenants because of race, gender, marital status, national origin and religion". But the question before the courts was whether Craiglist should be held liable for providing the forum where discriminatory postings could be published.

The answer is a resounding "No". According to David Kravets, a federal appeals court dismissed the lawsuit against Craigslist on Friday.

A few observations about the ruling:

1) The court ruled that "Craigslist should be treated like an internet service provider and hence is not liable for the postings of third parties". Think about that for a second. This signals a fundamental shift in cultural expectations, as websites are now legally recognized as places where people connect, rather than as actual publishers of information themselves. This ruling is therefore extremely significant as a precedent dealing with all Web 2.0 sites that are based on user-generated content. YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, and the rest of them ought to be throwing a party.

2) As posted in a comment by a user named Moguta, "Craigslist's housing section has pretty prominent notices that discriminating is illegal, and allows people to flag posts that violate the Fair Housing Act. So Craigslist certainly did its part to help assure its ads are compliant". Sure makes sense to me.

3) The ruling concludes that avenues still exist for legal recourse in such discrimination practices online. Lawyers "can identify many targets to investigate. It can dispatch testers and collect damages from any landlord or owner who engages in discrimination... It can assemble a list of names to send to the Attorney General for prosecution. But... it cannot sue the messenger just because the message reveals a third party’s plan to engage in unlawful discrimination."

So the court is making it clear that discriminatory postings online are certainly still to be considered illegal; it's just that the target of the suit should not be the provider of the forum.

Ultimately, the appellate court got it right. If we are to have an interactive Web, then those who provide our forums cannot be held liable for every piece of content posted by its users. Without question, they still have some responsibilities, such as legal disclosures and mechanisms for protecting the safety of individuals and children, but at its core, the issue is still one of people and individuals who ought to be held accountable for their own actions. Don't kill the messenger, indeed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Wedding to Test the 'Wisdom of the Crowds' Theory...

One of the most prevalent theories directing the stream of internet development is "The Wisdom of the Crowds". James Surowiecki published an accessible, if not completely academic, book a few years ago where he argued that "the aggregation of information in groups" results in decisions "that are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group". In other words, he claims that collective, disorganized group decisions lead to better results than decisions made by one or two people who are actually in positions of authority.

While the notion of "crowds" being smarter than "experts" might seem a bit counter-intuitive, the fact is that Surowiecki's argument has unquestionably influenced the development of the Web over the past few years. Think Wikipedia, Digg, Reddit, and other sites classified under the moniker of "Web 2.0".

So how can we test this theory in action? As any good academic and blogger would doubtless do if presented the opportunity... by planning a wedding.

As my own wedding plans are in their embryonic stages, I'm offering myself to the world as a guinea pig. Here are the rules. Shortly, a website will be created in which questions will be posed to the internet public at-large. These questions will be those that any wedding planner must address - What should be the wedding colors? The types of flowers? The music playlist? The honeymoon destination? The menu options? Etc.

The bottom line is that we will stick by the "decisions" that the "crowd" suggests. If Surowiecki's theory holds true, then the result will be a wedding that is far superior than one in which we would have made all of those decisions ourselves.

Naturally, the Nerfherder Gal was a bit resistant to this idea at first. In fact, when I first broached the subject, she gave what I believe is referred to in scientific circles as "the look of death". However, she has acquiesced with the caveat that she can veto "completely ridiculous" group decisions such as a Star Wars wedding complete with Stormtrooper attire, or a wedding location on one of the moon's craters. Naturally, I will remain vigilant in not letting her take an overly interpretive and ever-expanding definition of what meets the "completely ridiculous" criteria. But we are taking this project seriously, and the more input we get, the better.

So... would anyone care to submit a few initial wedding ideas?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Outrage Over

The creation of a new website,, has outraged police departments across the country. The site allows people to rate their local individual officers, and the police believe that personally identifying them in this way - and not giving them any recourse for defending themselves - may place the officers in danger. Is that outrage unfounded, and is there anything that can, or should be, done about the website?

According to CBS, "creators of the site say no personal information will be on the site. They gathered officers' names, which are public information, from more than 450 police agencies nationwide. Some listings also have badge numbers along with the officer's names."

Take a look at for yourself, and you be the judge. It certainly appears that only the names of policemen are listed, along with what state and department they are affiliated with. Additionally, most of the ratings people have posted on the site, which are intended to be based on levels of "authority, fairness and satisfaction", seem to be quite positive - highlighting how "awesome" a particular officer had acted.

Because this information is already a matter of public record, there is probably not much that can be done about the website. In cyberspace, available information almost never becomes suddenly unavailable, and its culture of participation encourages this type of behavior. In fact, similar websites have existed for years. I, myself, have had to deal with, where often-disgruntled students have either praised and belittled my teaching skills (viewable here and here).

Of course, the safety of the police officers trumps other issues in this matter. However, so long as only their names are being posted, which are already a matter of public record, then the website is not placing them in any greater danger. In the Internet Age, police departments and other institutions inevitably just have to learn to live with websites like this, as many of the rest of us already have, and try to stay focused on the positive: RateMyCop, by promoting transparency, may actually enhance the public trust in our law enforcement agencies and appeal to people's sense of civic engagement.

Many comments posted on the site, in fact, already bear that out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Anonymous Comments to be Made Illegal?

A local ABC television news affiliate is reporting that Kentucky lawmaker Tim Couch has introduced legislation that would make anonymous posting online illegal. Couch has stated that his intention is to help cut down on cyberbullying, and the bill calls for several measures...

"The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site.

Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted.

If the bill becomes law, the website operator would have to pay if someone was allowed to post anonymously on their site. The fine would be five-hundred dollars for a first offense and one-thousand dollars for each offense after that."

There are a few major pitfalls with this proposal. First of all, enforcement will be nearly impossible due to jurisdictional issues. Second, anonymous commentary is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Third, it would place an undue burden on website operators and hosting companies, making them legally liable for all content posted by anyone visiting their sites. Fourth, that liability would greatly hinder technological innovation and virtually destroy the emerging Web 2.0 business model.

I could keep going, but what would be the point. This is such a poorly devised piece of legislation that it has been derided publicly in media outlets ever since its inception. As a practical matter, cyberbullying doesn't stand to be affected at all by Couch's bill, and the connection between it and anonymous commentary is indirect at best, if not absent altogether.

To take away the right of anonymous commentary in cyberspace would not only violate the spirit of the First Amendment, it would also fundamentally alter the interactive nature of the internet itself. That is something the Kentucky lawmaker would be wise to consider more seriously.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Wireless Movement Toward Cloud Computing...

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report yesterday that provides statistical evidence of the rapidly increasing use of cell phones for non-voice data applications. In plain English, this means that a greater percentage of Americans are using their cell phones for accessing the internet, sharing pictures and videos, checking email, and many other things besides actually talking to another human being. Perhaps this doesn't come as a huge surprise to many of you, but something else in the study might - the fact that, in certain demographic groups, the people who are primarily using cell phones for non-voice data applications are the same ones who lag in home internet adoption.

Put another way, cell phones and other mobile devices are now being used as the PRIMARY way of connecting to the internet for more and more people.

This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it signals a coming shift in technological development for web applications. The Pew Study is correct in its assessment that, "with the Federal Communications Commission auctioning spectrum well-suited for high-speed wireless applications, and with some companies beginning to open up handheld devices to application developers, more innovations in wireless access are on the horizon". These innovations ought to grow the market and expand the diversity of products and services available to consumers. And that's a good thing.

Second, it accelerates the rate at which we can expect cloud computing to overtake the traditional desktop model. Cloud computing refers to the idea of software applications and data storage occurring on remote web-accessible servers managed by high-speed networks. For years, prognosticators have touted it as someday replacing the currently predominant method of installing software and saving files on a machine's hard drive. But in the cloud, "computing applications and users' data archives will increasingly be accessible by different devices anytime, anywhere over fast and widely available wireless and wired networks."

This might seem a bit "pie-in-the-sky", but as I've written before, it's actually already more pervasive than most of us incline to believe.

Finally, the move to cloud computing may also support the open Web 2.0 model of shared user-generated content. As Google's Eric Schmidt has written, it "not only puts pressure on companies to develop open standards for wireless devices, it also shifts power to users as they create and share digital content".

So to sum up, the logic is that the adoption of mobile devices as people's primary way of connecting to the internet naturally moves the software and data storage industries in the direction of cloud computing, and, since open standards for wireless devices are necessary for the cloud computing movement to continue its ascent, the market will push for them, ultimately giving people more power over what internet content is available to them.

Almost sounds too easy.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A Spammer Is Convicted in Court (and Why That May Not Be Good)...

In the United States, it's illegal to send spam emails. I can't believe I'm about to say this, but as it turns out, that might actually be a bad idea.

David Chartier at the Ars Technica Newsdesk reports that Virginia's Supreme Court has upheld the first U.S. felony conviction for sending spam emails. The spammer, Jeremy Jaynes, was convicted nearly three years ago for sending about 10 million spam emails per day between July and August 2003. His lawyers appealed, but the court upheld the conviction this past Friday by a narrow vote of 4-3.

Here's what's at issue. The federal law that makes his prosecution possible is the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. It states that unsolicited, bulk email messages can only be sent if they 1) include an option to unsubscribe, 2) have relevant, non-deceptive subject headers, and 3) provide the physical address of the sender, among other things.

It all sounds like it makes sense and is reasonable. In fact, despite some of the policy's flaws, I've been a supporter of CAN-SPAM in the past. The fact that since the law was passed in 2003 there have been absolutely ZERO convictions that have been adjudicated to completion, I always chalked up to poor enforcement provisions. But the criteria for what constituted spam appeared just and accurate.

However, Jaynes' lawyers put forth a terrific argument that "anonymous speech" has always been vital to a healthy democracy and thus is Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. In the 4-3 verdict, Justice Elizabeth Lacy dissented that the anti-spam provision requiring identification of the publisher is "unconstitutionally overbroad on its face because it prohibits the anonymous transmission of all unsolicited bulk e-mail including those containing political, religious or other [protected] speech".

Although Jaynes was rightfully found guilty because of other illicit activities like peddling scam products and services, his lawyers make a good point. To legally require the identification and physical address of a sender, or publisher, would unquestionably produce a chilling effect on free speech, and completely goes against over 200 years of Constitutional law. The law could be more narrowly tailored to exclude political and religious speech, but as it currently stands, it is indeed overbroad, and ought to be changed.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Scrabulous and the Piracy Disconnect...

Here is yet another demonstration of the immense disconnect that exists between cultural norms and outdated business models.

The New York Times ran an article on its front page yesterday describing the latest web phenomenon - an online version of the game "Scrabble". A pair of brothers from India re-created the classic board game so that it could be played on Facebook, and called their version, "Scrabulous".

That's really as complicated as this story ought to be. The official makers of the board game, Hasbro and Mattel, never thought to make such a game, so two avid fans essentially made one for them. It has since signed up millions of users and has opened up an entirely new potential market - online social-network-based gaming. Oh, and by the way, since Scrabulous has taken off, sales of the actual board game are believed to have skyrocketed as well.

So how are the Agarwalla brothers rewarded? By lawsuits.

Hasbro and Mattel are suing them for copyright infringement and enabling mass piracy. They are trying to frame the issue in the same terms that the record industry has attempted (without success) to portray most people under the age of 60 as "pirates" and "criminals". Hasbro and Mattel have even threatened lawsuits against individual users (otherwise known as their own customers) simply for playing the game.

Most Facebook users find the idea of Scrabulous being copyright infringement as laughable, and here is where the great divide between outdated business models and cultural norms is most evident.

In legal circles, the "public domain" refers to things or ideas which are so much a part of our common culture that no one can reasonably claim ownership over them. For example, the Bible, Beethoven's symphonies, and a deck of playing cards (for poker, blackjack, etc.) are all part of what Lawrence Lessig and others refer to as "the commons". No one can claim ownership or collect royalties, and you don't need to ask anybody's permission to reproduce them.

The problem that this case is emblematic of is this: How do we define what is part of our shared culture, and deserving of being in the public domain, in a world where digital reproduction and distribution occurs billions of times every day, by billions of people?

Scrabble has been around for generations, and it sure seems to be as much a part of our common culture as poker, blackjack, or chess. Plus, the Agarwalla brothers were meeting an obvious market demand with Scrabulous that was not otherwise being met. Therefore, a reform of copyright law is badly needed to expand the definition of public domain works to include things exactly like Scrabulous.

In a less dysfunctional system, technological and business innovation would not be stifled so severely by obtuse power elites. It would be rewarded.