Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Disputing The Need For A Copyright Czar...

The Bush Administration can be rightfully criticized for a lot of things, but they've just gotten something right.

Earlier this week, Congress passed a new bill called the "Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act". The measure essentially asks the Justice Department to bring lawsuits against copyright infringers and downloading pirates so that the music and movie industries wouldn't have to do it themselves anymore. Basically, the legislation would be a gift to those industries, shifting the financial burden onto taxpayers to protect Hollywood's and the RIAA's outdated business models.

The bill also calls for the creation of a "copyright czar" - a Cabinet-level position "charged with implementing a nationwide plan to combat piracy and report directly to the president and Congress regarding domestic international intellectual property enforcement programs."

But give credit where credit is due. The Bush Administration has pushed back against both of these efforts. First, it negotiated with the Senate to remove any language that dumps the enforcement burden on the Justice Department. And now, even with the bill's passage in Congress, the White House is threatening to veto the "copyright czar" provisions.

Due to online file sharing, copyright law certainly needs to be reformed, but it ought to be done in an honest intellectual manner that maintains the goal of protecting artists and content creators while still not stripping consumers of established rights they have had for decades. The bill that Congress has brought to the President's desk hardly meets that criteria. It is hard to justify calling it anything other than a multibillion-dollar gift to the recording industries that is a direct result of ambitious corporate lobbying, and comes at the taxpayer expense.

With the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the Financial Bailout, etc., do we really need the government to engage in an all-out War on Piracy? Aren't there more important things for Congress to be focusing on this week?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Seeking Guest Bloggers...

The Nerfherder desperately needs your help! I'm looking for a few authors to contribute a blog post while I'm on my honeymoon for two weeks in mid-October.

This is a fantastic opportunity for those of you dying to immortalize yourself by showing the world your best editorialist impression, and can also really help some of you publicize your own blog and reach a wider audience (the majority of Nerfherder subscribers are educated twenty-somethings with an interest in technology and politics, many of whom are even former students of The Nerfherder himself). Plus, it can be a lot of fun to go on semi-maniacal rants.

The topics are completely your call. All I ask is that you don't turn this space into one that needs an NC-17 rating. At this point, I don't even need your actual submission; just drop me a comment or an email to let me know that you're interested.

Thanks, and please don't be shy. Remember that not only will you be getting some free publicity out of this, but you'll also be boosting your internet karma and street cred; plus, don't forget you'll also really be helping me out at a time when it's really needed :-)

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Debate Over "Deletionism" at Wikipedia...

Wikipedia may be the world's largest reference source based on user submissions, but what rarely gets talked about is how many entries get deleted from the site. Editors often delete entries for a host of reasons - including copyright violations, pages with serious libel problems, and pages which set out to offend others. This may not be a surprise, except that they also delete entries for "being uninteresting" or if they're deemed "the result of manipulation by political and business interests".

These are obviously criteria that are severely open to interpretation, so as a result, a new website called Deletionpedia was created to host all of the deleted Wikipedia articles. That way we don't miss out on gems like "List of Films with Monkeys in Them".

But on a serious note, what's become a real point of contention is the actual Wikipedia article describing Deletionpedia. Some editors are trying to remove it, sparking a raging discussion on whether that's a wise move. As Cyndy Aleo-Carreira observes, "it appears that the impetus for removal isn't so much due to insignificance... as it is due to perceived criticism of Wikipedia itself."

This opens a pandora's box of questions. Have the editors at Wikipedia taken on a censorship role? If so, how does that conflict with the website's characterization of being user-driven? To what extent does this case illustrate the ongoing inclusion vs. exclusion debate in cyberspace?

Most people are completely unaware that Wikipedia even deletes entries at all, let alone that it's now deleting entries on deleting entries. What we really ought to be asking is who exactly are these censoring editors and how did they obtain their positions of power over the rest of us?

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Ethics of Linking to the Sarah Palin Email Hack...

Computer hackers have broken into Sarah Palin's Yahoo email account and have posted its content online. This was Palin's personal email account which she primarily used for friends and family and was not work-related (though some bloggers have attacked her for using it for official business, which has legal implications).

Predictably, the McCain camp has strongly criticized whichever hackers are responsible, citing it as a gross violation of privacy. Meanwhile, Yahoo has temporarily shut down Palin's email account, as requested.

But here's where things get interesting. The content of her email account was posted on Wikileaks - a website designed for whistle-blowers. Specifically, it includes her address book (with only 18 contacts), 5 screenshots (including only 2 of actual email messages, neither of which is very revealing), and 2 family photos emailed as JPEGs.

This hardly seems to be a case of whistle-blowing. The purpose of Wikileaks is to reveal information "of political, diplomatic, ethical or historical significance," but this does no such thing. It is, in fact, a clearly malicious attack that serves no public interest.

A full investigation is underway by the FBI, and it is being followed closely online by blogs such as this one which suggests that the hacker in question may actually be the son of Congressman Mike Kernell (D-TN).

But my question is this: As this story has proliferated in cyberspace, do bloggers have more of an ethical responsibility to either 1) link to the Wikileaks site in the name of good journalism and letting people decide for themselves, or to 2) report on the story without linking to Wikileaks for the sake of not lending credence to a malicious personal attack?

I thought long and hard about this before ultimately deciding to include the link above. In my opinion, people ought to be able to make such a decision for themselves, and not have a gatekeeping editor make it for them. And besides, when someone like me sees the email content for what it is - totally benign - then it compels sympathy for Palin and grossly backfires on the perpetrator's objectives.

But I'm very curious to know other people's thoughts on this...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MySpace and Facebook Are Killing Porn...

Here is one of the more interesting nuggets I came across in the wee hours this morning. According to a new book titled, Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters by Bill Tancer, as the use of social-networking sites has increased the past few years, there has been a corresponding decrease in the number of searches for pornography.

Are MySpace and Facebook really killing porn?

Stan Schroeder of Mashable raises another interesting question: Is the reason for porn's decline simply 1) "that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don’t have time to look at adult sites", or 2) "that the interest for porn hasn’t declined, but the lack of time simply has made everyone more efficient at finding it - and perhaps less picky"?

This is a somewhat academic inquiry because common sense suggests that online porn isn't going away anytime soon. For litmus-test-style proof, just ask any 13-year-old boy if he'd rather play on Facebook or look at nudie pictures. It's a no-brainer. But if the data cited is accurate, it's a pretty fascinating development nevertheless.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Another Futile Facebook Revolt...

In the grandest of ironic democratic traditions, Facebook users have a history of protesting against the website's own policies on - where else? - Facebook itself. Well, it's happening again. Will the results be any different this time?

The latest row centers on Facebook's new re-design of its profile pages. Not everyone was thrilled with the new look-and-feel of their profile page, and because the change is mandatory, hundreds of users mobilized as part of a group called "1,000,000 to Vote Against the New Facebook" in protest against the mandatory changes.

There have been additional protest efforts undertaken as well. An online petition has been going around, and, on the hacktivism front, some developers have exploited a "backdoor" and created a software application to allow users to circumvent the new design and maintain the old one on their own profile page.

Facebook has a history of its users revolting in these types of ways against it. Users have previously revolted against Facebook's Beacon advertising system, as well as against the original inclusion of the News Feed on people's profile pages.

In both of those cases, despite the protests, Facebook did ultimately implement the changes they wanted, and users, in time, either just learned to live with them, or else, as is the case with the News Feed, even learned to love them.

Will that be the case again? My money's on yes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Internet Inhibits Cultural Awareness? I Don't Think So...

Don Campbell writes in a column in the USA Today that "digital culture has changed the way kids learn, but at the expense of literacy and cultural awareness".

This statement deserves to be refuted in the strongest possible terms.

Campbell is a Journalism professor at Emory University, and such a quote makes him seem like a curmudgedy, bitter old man. He apparently believes that digital culture is somehow interefering with "real" culture, when, in fact, they can't be disassociated from each other; they are one and the same. For example, if you met a college student who never heard of YouTube or instant messaging, would you consider them "culturally aware"? No chance. The truth is that digital culture is completely intertwined with our larger culture, just as television and radio are also integral components of it.

Here's another gem that Campbell throws out there:

The alarm bell sounds, however, when you read what some students had to say about how social networking has become such an important part of their lives, devouring hours each day in a way that is much more pervasive than even television.

Call me crazy, but wasn't watching too much television exactly what our parents told us NOT to do? How is interacting and socializing (albeit, in its modern incarnation) with other human beings a WORSE thing than spending hours in front of the television each night?

Furthermore, he quotes another Emory professor, saying that the "screentime" teenagers spend on the internet "is depriving them of the cultural experiences and learning traditionally associated with liberal arts and civic awareness."

But again, that "screentime" is part of the modern cultural experience, not a detractor from it. He also makes a false claim in suggesting that cyberspace inhibits civic awareness. Research has demonstrated time and again how this internet generation is the most educated and worldly of any in history. And the time one spends online versus the time they spend engaged in civic life is not a zero-sum game. A rise in one often coincides with a rise in the other. Heck, scholars like Robert Putnam have published books on the decline of civic engagement that pre-dates the internet.

Campbell believes that the internet is eroding our culture, when, in fact, it is greatly enhancing it. He is flat-out wrong to use a definition that completely disassociates what we do online from the cultural conversation.

This is the world we live in, and denial is the real test of who is truly "culturally unaware".

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Anarchist Cookbook 2.0...

Back when I was a kid, every boy in school wanted to get a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook - an outdated manuscript from the early 1970s that provided instructions on blowing things up, using weapons, scamming free calls from pay phones, and basically every other thing that a teenage boy is interested in. We always wondered how such a book could be sold legally. The answer was that it was protected under free speech.

The reason for this trip down memory lane is that today Wired posted detailed instructions for how to copy DVDs. This is an irresistible analogy. We all know that piracy is illegal, yet Wired (and a million other websites) are free to tell the world exactly how to do it.

The never-spoken secret that every website author understands is that whenever you talk about piracy, make sure to say that your instructions are only for making backups of things you already bought. That covers your rear-end in case of any lawsuit. But it's a total joke. Call it what it is: instructions for how to commit piracy and make copies of a CD or DVD for free.

The same holds true for downloading music and movies. Millions of websites provide instructions on how to download songs from peer-to-peer networks, and they cover themselves by arguing that such networks aren't only used for piracy; there are also many legal, non-copyrighted works out there that justify all of the published "How-to" tutorials. They try to frame the issue not in terms of "piracy", but in terms of "file sharing". But anyone who's been on the internet for more than five minutes knows that this is a total joke as well.

But so what? If we took a reality check and created policies that actually conformed to people's existing behaviors, we'd let authors come right out and openly admit that their instructions are meant to help people copy DVDs that they rent from Blockbuster and to download a bunch of Beatles albums without paying for them. The perpetual 13-year-old inside of me is forced to wonder how it's OK for a book to be published that tells you how to make Molotov Cocktails to blow up buildings, but how it's not OK to make a free copy of "The Lion King" for my niece.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How to Do Graduate-Level Research on the Internet...

The start of a new semester always means renewed hope for students and more oncoming dismay for professors who have to read poorly researched research papers. Google has become so prolific for students that is can basically be credited as the only source in many bibliographies. For the record, that's not a good thing!

So in an attempt at being constructive, here are a few ideas for performing respectable academic research on the internet...

  1. JStor - Hands down, the number one place to begin your research online. Its a collection of millions of scholarly articles published in academic journals, and is ideal for graduate students, in particular. The only downside, IMHO, is that you have to be affiliated with an educational institution or else you'll have to pay for access. Here's to hoping they'll change that policy one day and open up the vaults to everyone.

  2. LexisNexis - After you've run through academic journal articles in JStor, take a look at LexisNexis, which is a gigantic database of newspapers, and magazines, and is most heavily used by undergraduates. Here, too, you need to be affiliated with an institution that pays a subscription fee.

  3. Format for Citing Online Sources - Anyone who did the majority of their schooling before Y2K probably never had to pay much attention to the correct way of citing various websites and other forms of electronic communication. But these days it's a must. This link provides examples for how to cite everything from basic websites to discussion board posts to blog comments to email interviews.

That should offer you at least a starting point for how to do academic research on the internet. Trust me, there is no bigger pet peeve for professors than students who simply Google to find all of their sources, inevitably leading to some quote of an 8th-grader's blog on political elections.