Thursday, March 31, 2011

How to Get Around the NYTimes Paywall...

Earlier this week, the New York Times launched a new paywall to try and raise some additional revenue. The basics of the plan are as follows... if you subscribe to any home delivery package of the printed newspaper then the digital subscription is free. Otherwise, each person can only view 20 articles per month unless they pony up between $15 to $35 per month, depending on how many different digital devices they own.

How The Times believes that this will increase revenue is beyond me. Paywalls at other newspaper and magazine websites have demonstrated, time and time again, that any additional revenue gains are completely offset by the reduction in people actually visiting the website and reading articles.

After all, why would somebody pay $35/month when they can read rival newspapers online for free? I know it's the New York Times - the journalistic gold standard - but are YOU willing to shell out that kind of money for access considering how many free alternatives are available on the Web? For most of you, probably not. And a smaller readership translates into less advertising revenue, which happens to be the bulk of their online income stream.

Not to fret. Gizmodo just updated a fantastic list of loopholes and ways to get around the paywall so that you can read infinite NYTimes articles to your heart's content.
  1. Google - If there's ever an NYT article you're blocked from, you can just copy and paste the headline into Google for free and easy access. Even if you hit your unspecified daily limit on Google, you can then head on over to Bing or Yahoo.

  2. Twitter - There are already hundreds of Twitter accounts providing direct links to NYT content. Pick and choose your favorites, or for the full firehose of every single NYT article just follow @freeUnnamedNews.

  3. Chrome extension - If you use Chrome as your web browser, download the "New York Times Paywall Smasher" to automate the process.

  4. Greasemonkey for Firefox - Install this userscript to automate the process if you use the Firefox web browser.

  5. "NYTClean" bookmarklet - Just drag it to your bookmarklet bar, and click it every time asks you to become a subscriber. You'll be redirected to a free version of the page with no fuss.

Paywalls remain one of the dumbest business strategies for media companies to pursue. It has never worked successfully thus far, and there's no reason to think it will this time around either. If there's any newspaper worth paying to read it's the New York Times, yet one nevertheless has to remain skeptical until proven otherwise. More than anything, the paywall comes across like an act of corporate desperation.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Facebook Removes Page Promoting "Third Palestinian Intifada"...

Every few months Facebook draws scrutiny again for controversial content posted by its users. This time, a Facebook group was formed called the "Third Palestinian Intifada". The page, which had attracted more than 340,000 fans, called for Palestinians to take to the streets after Friday prayers on May 15th against Israel's Jewish population. The page explicitly said, "Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews".

Regardless of your politics, such statements clearly violate Facebook's Terms of Service agreement, which expressly forbids any direct calls to violence.

And yet, despite complaints by users and opposing Facebook groups being formed, which undeniably must have brought ample awareness of the issue to the company's employees, the page lingered on and was able to gather more fans.

It wasn't until formal institutional groups like the Anti-Defamation League got involved, and Israeli Minister Yuli Edelstein wrote a direct letter to Mark Zuckerberg, that Facebook finally decided to remove the Third Intifada page.

As a spokesman finally explained...

We continue to believe that people on Facebook should be able to express their opinions, and we don’t typically take down content that speaks out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas... [however] the social network would continue to take down pages that issue "direct calls for violence or expressions of hate."

It's not really surprising anymore to see this type of material posted on social networking sites. Most people just accept it as an inevitable consequence of the digital world we live in. But what is still discouraging is how Facebook always seems to drag its feet when it comes to removing such content.

Why should it take large institutions getting involved to generate any action?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rejecting Google Books...

It's been the central issue since the World Wide Web's inception, and it's at the forefront again... how to strike the right balance between ownership and access.

On Tuesday, a federal judge rejected the settlement between Google and a group of authors and publishers regarding "Google Books". In 2005, Google launched the project in order to scan and digitize the world's libraries and make the content searchable, only to have the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sue them for copyright infringement. Ultimately, they came to an agreement whereby Google would sell access to its database and take 37% of the profits, while the authors and publishers would receive the remaining 63%.

This sounded great in theory, however Judge Denny Chin rejected the agreement for good reasons. First, as this New York Times editorial argues, one company should not have monopoly access to our "common cultural heritage". Basically, because the agreement only sets the terms for Google, and not rivals like Amazon or Microsoft, it would grant Google de facto exclusive rights and legal protections that would be denied to its competitors. Second, the Authors Guild, which has about 8,000 members, does not represent many writers. If any decided they wanted to make their works available under different conditions, or even make their works available free of charge, unfortunately this agreement would have set the terms for them as well. Third, "orphan books" - meaning copyrighted books whose rightsholders cannot be found or identified (yes, this happens frequently) - would automatically fall under Google's sole domain, granting the company, again, the exclusive right to digitize and sell access to those books without being subject to copyright infringement lawsuits. Judge Chin made a specific point to highlight the serious anti-trust concerns this would raise.

There are two competing values in play here. On the one hand, universal access to knowledge is a social good - it empowers individuals and helps level the proverbial playing field. On the other hand, authors and copyright owners ought to be able to make decisions (within reasonable limits) regarding the fate of their works. Most people would agree on both of these core values of free societies. The problem is that, in this case, these values are in conflict with one another.

It's ironic. Here is Google, leading the way in terms of providing society with greater access to literary knowledge, yet, by doing so, they are simultaneously becoming the greatest perceived threat to that same access.

For what it's worth, I agree completely with the Times editorial. Google's dream of making all the books in the world available to everyone should absolutely be pursued... just not by Google. Rather, instead of our common cultural heritage being controlled exclusively by one corporation, we should build a digital public library.

Call this the "non-commercial option". A national digital public library could be funded through a coalition of foundations and by voluntary donations. The library would respect copyright, of course, and only include those works which are in the public domain and those whose authors grant permission to make them available. Indeed, most other countries in the industrialized world are already doing this.

It is possible to strike the right balance between ownership and access. If successful, we all benefit.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Why Technical Standards are at the Heart of the AT&T/ T-Mobile Merger (and why you should care)...

Yesterday the stock market was given a boost on the news that AT&T will buy T-Mobile for $39 billion. Immediately, anti-trust concerns were raised regarding what would become the nation's largest wireless carrier, and it's still hard to gauge whether or not the Justice Department will challenge the merger. Additionally, many critics are arguing the ways in which the deal would negatively affect consumers.

However, what no one seems to be writing about is why the deal was pursued in the first place. Of course, AT&T expects some economic benefits, but the reason why it makes that expectation is a harmonization of technical standards.

Without delving too far into geekspeak, let me explain it this way... AT&T was only willing to seriously consider this deal because both it and T-Mobile already use the same technologies: GSM, HSPA+ and LTE. Because both companies use those same technologies, or technical standards, it will be a far easier process to merge both of their existing wireless infrastructures.

As a point of contrast, T-Mobile was considering a similar deal with Sprint, but that deal made far less sense. Because T-Mobile and Sprint use different technical standards, the cost involved in such a merger would have been exponentially more expensive.

As Sascha Segan writes in PCMag...

AT&T is ahead of T-Mobile on building LTE. T-Mobile is far ahead of AT&T on building HSPA+, a intermediate 4G technology that fits right between the carriers' existing 3G networks and LTE. Together, they could have a smooth and powerful nationwide network. AT&T's press release for the merger backs this up. The combined carrier will be able to build out much more LTE than AT&T could alone, by combining AT&T's 700 Mhz spectrum with T-Mobile's AWS spectrum.

I realize that most people's eyes start to gloss over when reading about technical standards. But at least be aware that they are arguably just as important as explicit public policies when it comes to regulating telecommunications. You see, each technical standard has its own set of rules for determining what can and cannot happen over its networks. As scholars like Lawrence Lessig have argued, in its ability to set those rules of behavior, code is a powerful (and perhaps the most powerful) regulator for what occurs over digital networks.

So as the national media and blogosphere pundits write incessantly about the anti-trust issues and the economic consequences of this merger, keep in mind that yesterday's announcement wasn't the beginning of the timeline at all. The ball actually got rolling years ago when each of those companies chose which technical standards they would use, and yesterday's announcement was simply consequence of those decisions.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Resources Matter: Interest Group Activism on the Web...

For over a decade, prognosticators have argued that the Internet will create a more level playing field in politics. The thinking goes that large, well-established interest groups will see their power reduced as issue movements become democratized on the Web. The need for large formal institutions will whither away as online advocacy campaigns, with minimal barriers to entry, supplant many of the traditional organizing roles of entrenched actors.

But is this truly the case? Has the Internet allowed small or poorly funded groups to compete equally with well-resourced organizations?

This is the primary question raised by Melissa K. Merry in a recent JITP article titled, "Interest Group Activism on the Web: The Case of Environmental Organizations".

And, apparently, the answer is no.

Merry's data illustrates that well-established and well-resourced interest group institutions, like the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund, have wider reach and, ostensibly, a greater impact than smaller organizations. They have more comprehensive websites that make use of a greater number of Web technologies, and they take better advantage of the cost efficiencies made possible by the Internet. Furthermore, they receive far greater amounts of Web traffic as well as inbound links. Finally, membership organizations are more likely than non-membership organizations to successfully fundraise and issue action alerts.

These are significant findings, to be sure. However, I feel obligated to raise the usual constructive criticisms, namely, that the data presented only examines large- versus small-sized organizations, and doesn't shed much light onto what some see as the greater phenomenon when it comes to online political mobilization... the use of social networks in creating ad-hoc, on-the-fly campaigns that coalesce around single issues for very brief periods of time.

Still, Merry's research is immensely valuable in the extent to which it debunks some of the conventional wisdom regarding interest group politics in the Digital Age. Indeed, hers is a point that continues to resonate time and again across the political spectrum... simply having a website isn't enough.

Resources still matter.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Is Groupon Really Being Mentioned Alongside Google and Facebook?

There have been a host of articles recently feeding into the hype-machine behind Groupon. Analysts on CNBC have mentioned the site in the same breath as Google and Facebook when discussing "the giants of the internet sector". The question... is this warranted?

It actually might be, depending on how you frame the question.

Groupon isn't generating anywhere near the revenue amount of, say, Google. So in that sense, today, Groupon doesn't belong in the conversation. However, Groupon is indeed mirroring the growth of companies like Google, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay in their first two years of existence. So in the context of early growth, Groupon actually might belong.

Consider some comparative data on revenues and valuations...

  • Facebook - Recently valued at $50 billion. Revenue rocketed to as high as $2 billion in 2010, its sixth full year.

  • Twitter - Recently valued at $3.7 billion, and just closed a $200 million round of financing.

  • Groupon - Revenue in 2010 rose more than 22 times to $760 million in its second full year since its daily deals site launched, up from $33 million in 2009. Also, just raised an additional $950 million in financing after rejecting a $6 billion buyout offer from Google.

  • Zynga - The maker of online social games like FarmVille scored revenue of $850 million in its third full year in 2010, more than triple the year before.

As the Wall Street Journal highlighted, if we compare all of this with the software industry, less than one-third of the nation’s top software companies reached $50 million in annual sales in six years or less – and the fastest to $50 million, Novell, took three years. Microsoft crossed the $50 million barrier in eight years; Oracle, 10 years.

Groupon is indeed a trendy pick at the moment based on those early growth figures, and only time will tell whether or not it has real staying power. To my eyes, it's surely not yet deserving of Google or Facebook comparisons, and ought to be more reasonably compared to other speculative trendy internet picks like FourSquare.

What do you think? Are these valuations justified or has another internet bubble emerged?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Domain Names as Expressions of Nationalism...

Not many outside of the tech community give much thought to domain name administration, but those inside of it realize that domain names are the only scarce commodity on the entire Internet. That's why they're not only valuable, but tremendously important.

To catch everyone up to speed, ICANN is the non-profit institution which controls the entire domain name system. National governments have become increasingly angered over how little authority they have in ICANN's decision-making processes, leading to something of an international revolt and calls to vest authority with the U.N. instead. It's power politics at the highest levels.

Whoever would have thought that such a fuss would be made over the fate of top-level domain suffixes like .xxx, .gay, .health, .movie, .web, or dozens of others?

A recent CNET article headline read, "U.S. Seeks Veto Powers over New Domain Names", and my knee-jerk reaction was to fear the overreaching controls of Big Government. However, when actually reading the article, I became convinced of the Commerce Department's reasoning... If more authoritarian and less liberal governments adopt technical measures to prevent their citizens from connecting to .gay and .xxx websites, and dozens of nations surely will, that will lead to a more fragmented Internet, undermining the goal of universal resolvability (i.e., a single global Internet that facilitates the free flow of goods and services and freedom of expression).

In other words, granting governments more power might actually lead to more freedom of expression, not less. Talk about counter-intuitive.

And to anyone who wonders why this matters, consider a recent Policy & Internet journal article by Irina Shklovski and David M. Struthers titled, "Of States and Borders on the Internet: The Role of Domain Name Extensions in Expressions of Nationalism Online in Kazakhstan". The authors argue that, because of country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs), people are aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the Internet, and their surfing behaviors are influenced as a result.

To put it plainly, there is a difference between a .il (Israel) versus .ir (Iran) website in the perception of readers.

The space of the Internet is often described as easy to traverse with no regard for national borders. Yet few have considered what such easy border crossings on the Internet might mean to the ordinary people actually doing the traversing. Our qualitative study of regular Internet users in Kazakhstan shows that the naming of a state-controlled space on the Internet, through the use of country code top-level domain names (ccTLDs), does in fact matter to the average user. People are aware of national boundary traversals as they navigate the Internet. Respondents in our study identified their activity on the Internet as happening within or outside the space of the state to which they felt allegiance and belonging. National borders are demarcated on the Internet through naming via ccTLDs and can result in individual expressions of various types of nationalism online. We find that ccTLDs are not just symbolic markers but have real meaning and their importance increases in locations where notions of statehood are in flux.

The idea that domain names can inspire a sense of nationalism in the average Web surfer is truly significant. In a cyber space where online identity formation seems to never quite fit traditional molds, national identity and national pride being a real factor should open the eyes of some sociologists.

It makes sense, yet it's still surprising.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Best Online Financial Tools, 2011...

It's tax season and everyone seems to be reformulating their personal finance strategies this time of year. Because I get asked incessantly for some link recommendations on this subject, here are a few quick favorite online resources to help with managing your personal finances (and, no, sadly, I do not get a commission)...

  • - The most popular site by far, it's a one-stop shop for tracking your spending, budget, and assets. It can also send you alerts about overdue bills and help you set financial goals.

  • BillShrink - Suggests money-saving alternatives to your current providers (think cell phone, credit cards, etc.).

  • SmartyPig - This site is designed to help you meet savings goals. Specify what you're saving for and get above-average interest rates; then cash-out at any time without a penalty.

  • Ebates - If you shop at any of the "Ebates shopping partners" then you can get between 1 to 35 percent cash back on your purchases.