Monday, November 30, 2009

How to Un-Google Yourself...

We're all paranoid in these days of digital camera phones and online social networks of somebody posting an embarrassing picture of ourselves, only to have it indexed by a search engine which will archive it and make it live forever.

Much has been written by privacy advocates on how to protect yourself from that happening. Untagging, formally requesting a photo be removed from a site, and various SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques to bury the pic in search listings. These are all recommended, and they all help, but they're not perfect solutions either.

Well, here's another. Wired has posted instructions for how to hide a photo or website from Google's search engine entirely. And it's remarkably simple. Webmasters need simply to create a simple text file, save it as "robots.txt", and add it to their web host in its top-level folder. The actual body of the text file need only include these lines:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Apparently, if this "robots.txt" file exists on the server, Google and other search engines "will be stopped cold in their tracks" and will bypass indexing the site's contents. It's a handy and extremely easy solution for people who want to host potentially embarrassing material on their website, but don't necessarily want to destroy people's lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Statistics on Porn Searches...

A few remarkable stats from Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters, a book that analyses historical patterns in search engine use.

  • The domain name has generated over $100 million in revenues over the last decade, despite having no content (only advertisement links).

  • Porn sites account for 10% of all internet activity.

  • Friday is the day each week with the most searches for porn; Sunday the least.

  • The gender gap for porn searches - 72% male, 28% female. However, when it comes to "fan fiction", meaning sites based more on the written word than video, the ratio is 65% female with the over-24 age group in the majority.

  • Midwest users are more likely to search for porn than those who live on the coasts.

  • Winter sees a rise in porn search for cold weather states.

  • Red-state users are more likely to search for wife-swapping sites, adult webcams, adult matchmaking sites, and voyeurism. Blue-state users are more likely to search directories for adult entertainers and escorts.

  • There is a negative correlation between porn sites and online social networks. In other words, as social networks have risen since 2006, there has been a decrease in searches for porn, particularly among 18-34 year-olds.

  • There is a similar negative correlation for online dating sites as well.

Just some fodder for your upcoming Thanksgiving Day Dinner.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Can Teachers Copyright Their Lesson Plans, Syllabi?

The short answer appears to be yes.

Teachers have long claimed a copyright over their works - although demonstrating that their works are a totally unique and original creation is an argument sometimes stretched to its limits. This applies to teachers claiming a copyright over their lesson plans, professors over their syllabi, as well as all of them over their lectures.

Now, as Slashdot reports, the issue is becoming more controversial.

Thousands of teachers are using websites like Teachers Pay Teachers and We Are Teachers to cash in on a commodity they used to give away, selling lesson plans online for exercises as simple as M&M sorting and as sophisticated as Shakespeare. While some of this extra money is going to buy books and classroom supplies, the new teacher-entrepreneurs are also spending it on dinners out, mortgage payments, credit card bills, vacation travel and even home renovation, raising questions over who owns material developed for public school classrooms."

This comes on the heels of another story where a professor sued one of those professional note-taking businesses near campus claiming that lecture notes are illegal since they are derivative works of the professor’s copyrighted lectures.

Meanwhile, check out this brief dialogue related to claiming copyright over course syllabi.

Everyone needs to catch their breath and take a step back and relax. Yes, it makes sense that if a teacher truly creates something that is unique and original, they should be able to claim a copyright over it. However, some of these claims go way too far. For instance, when a teacher submits their lesson plans, it is a function of their job working for a school. They are an employed laborer, and as such, their employer has certain rights as well (not to mention everyone who pays tuition, including taxpayers). Furthermore, the idea that taking lecture notes is a type of copyright infringement goes against everything we believe about education systems and the learning process. What's next, schools having to pay royalties every time they teach the ABCs in kindergarten?

All of this screams of the need for legal copyright reform in this country. But until then, it would sure be nice if teachers and professors returned to more collegial practices, sharing and helping each other in the best interests of their students.

Actually, let's remember that the overwhelming majority do.

Friday, November 06, 2009

EU Adopts the Internet Freedom Provision...

Raging around the digital copyright debate is the issue of how people who commit piracy ought to be punished. Right now, it is primarily through lawsuits brought by the copyright holders. However, the idea has been floated around to create a "three strikes and you're out" law, whose intention would be to disconnect copyright infringers from the internet altogether by creating national blacklists.

The problems with such "three strikes" laws include the difficulty in accurately determining the alleged pirate's identity as well as providing demonstrable evidence of their infringing acts. After all, if someone hacks into your computer, uses it as a proxy, or infects it with a virus or other piece of malware transforming it into part of a botnet, then, even though you didn't do anything wrong, the government could still blacklist you and you would never be allowed to have internet access again.

And if you don't even know what some of those things mean, then you might really be in trouble.

Europe is further along on this course than is the U.S. Opponents of the EU's "three strikes" law have specifically made pointed criticisms at 1) the presumption of guilt, 2) a disregard for personal privacy, and 3) the lack of judicial review or appeal.

Well, last night, a compromise seems to have been reached between the two sides. As Ars Technica reports, all parties have agreed to a new "Internet Freedom Provision" which has been signed off on by the Council of Ministers, the negotiators from the European Parliament, and the European Commission, and looks to go into effect next year.

The new Internet freedom provision still allows "graduated response" laws and even Internet disconnections, but it does set down a baseline that all countries must follow. According to the new provision, Internet sanctions may "only by imposed if they are appropriate, proportionate, and necessary within a democratic society." In addition, they can only "be taken with due respect for the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to privacy. A prior fair and impartial procedure shall be guaranteed, including the right to be heard of the person or persons concerned… The right to an effective and timely judicial review shall be guaranteed."

At first glance, this seems like a very reasonable compromise. Unfortunately, there is one giant lingering elephant in the room. As the advocacy group, La Quadrature du Net, argues, the protection granted by this provision only relates to measures taken by governments, not private parties. As a result, private ISPs can still cut people off entirely from the internet without a presumption of innocence, regard for personal privacy, or any appeals process.

Clearly, that's a problem. The Internet Freedom Provision should thus be thought of as a positive first step in formulating a compromise solution to the problems of digital copyright infringement... but a first step only.

Monday, November 02, 2009

ICANN Rules for Web Addresses in Foreign Alphabets...

On Friday, in a move designed to further internationalize the internet, ICANN announced that, beginning next year, domain names will be expanded to include languages that do not use the Latin alphabet.

In other words, right now all of the top-level internet domains - .com, .net, .edu, .info, etc. - all use the Latin letters of A - Z. As a result of this ruling, however, top-level domains will now be created in non-Latin alphabets, such as Chinese, Farsi, Hindi, Russian, and countless others, as well.

The hope is that doing so will bring "billions more people online – people who never use Roman characters in their daily lives."

It's definitely a noble goal and long-overdue. Accessibility is key for proponents of the idea that the internet can empower the underpriveleged. However, it seems a bit of a stretch for ICANN's chairman to claim that, "The coming introduction of non-Latin characters represents the biggest technical change to the Internet since it was created four decades ago".

It's a big change, and an important one at that, but the nature of the Web isn't going to be fundamentally altered by this decision. What it will do, however, is make cyberspace more accessible to billions of people around the world, and better fulfill its self-description of being a global network of networks.

So, let's applaud ICANN for doing the right thing. Hopefully next time it just won't take so long.