Wednesday, November 28, 2012

H.R. 2471 and How Federal Law Discriminates Against Netflix...

Whenever you login to Facebook, your feed is likely to have all sorts of social media advertisements from your friends - what songs they're currently listening to on Spotify, which newspaper articles they recently read in the Washington Post, which products or companies they "Like", which iPhone apps they started using, what new high scores they achieved on SongPop or other gaming sites, etc. 

One thing you won't see, however, is which Netflix movies they've rented or are instantly streaming.

Why?  There's an outdated federal law named the Video Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1988, that forbids a person's video rental history from being made public unless consent is given on a rental-by-rental basis.  So, whereas I can give Spotify permission to share my song selections on Facebook, I cannot give permission to Netflix to do the same for my video selections, even if I want to.

Where is the sense in this?  Even if you're a staunch privacy advocate and you take issue with people's media consumption being shared publicly by these services - which is a valid argument to make - you'd still be pretty hard-pressed to explain the difference between Netflix doing it is versus Spotify and others doing, what seems to be, exactly the same thing.  The law is unfairly discriminating against online video services as compared to other forms of media. 

I bring this up as a timely issue because a bill is coming up before the Senate this week (H.R. 2471) which seeks to rectify the problem and update the 1988 law so that video service providers "may obtain a consumer's informed, written consent on an ongoing basis and that consent may be obtained through the Internet".  The bill has already been passed in the House of Representatives with bipartisan support, 303-116.

The counterarguments being made against H.R. 2471 focus on protecting consumer privacy (certainly a noble cause dear to my heart), but this is a case of online privacy protection done right.  Consumers have to actively opt-in to sharing, and they can later opt-out at any time.  That's hardly invasive, and in this digital age, it's even better than the norm.

Yes, I instinctively cringe when reading that Netflix spent $200,000 lobbying for this bill last year, and I was admittedly cynical when reading the Politico op-ed piece by the company's head of global policy, Christopher Libertelli, so publicly advocating for the measure.

Nevertheless, the logic behind H.R. 2471 is there.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Pros and Cons of Email Voting in New Jersey...

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, displaced New Jersey residents were given the ability, at the last minute, to cast their vote in Tuesday's election via email or fax.

There were some very valid reasons why Governor Chris Christie decided to offer this emergency measure.  As of Saturday, 2.4 million of the state's 8.8 million residents were still without power, and by Tuesday - Election Day - over 500,000 homes and businesses still didn't have power.  When you also factor in the continuing gasoline shortage making travel extremely difficult, there was a real possibility that thousands of voters would have been disenfranchised.

However, it was inevitable that problems would arise associated with implementing this major and sudden change to the voting system only 72 hours before the election.  Election officials were inundated with a flood of application requests that filled their inboxes, making it impossible for them to process them all within the allotted time.  There was also plenty of general confusion among NJ voters, many of whom, still lacking power, became aware of this new voting measure solely through word-of-mouth, and misinformation spread about the details and the process.

And these problems only relate to the last-minute nature of the voting measure.  There are other well-established concerns with email voting relating to hacking, the lack of encryption, the difficulty in identity verification, and other cybersecurity issues.

How did NJ's email voting process actually work?  Basically, it was the exact same process that has been used for years for members of the military or other overseas citizens.  NJ residents could email to their county clerk a "mail-in ballot" application by 5pm on Election Day (Tuesday, Nov. 6th).  The county clerk then had until noon on Friday, Nov. 9th to process, hopefully, all of those applications.  Assuming the application was approved, the voter then had to email, fax or mail in a signed waiver of secrecy along with the voted ballot for receipt by the appropriate county board of elections no later than 8pm, also on Friday, Nov. 9th.  Finally, the County Board of Elections would have to verify that (a) the voter did not cast a vote in a voting machine at his or her assigned polling place and, (b) the voter did not submit any other paper ballot.


Taking a long-term view, the national debate over email or Internet voting can be summarized by exactly what happened in New Jersey last week:  striking a balance between enabling more citizens to vote vs. legitimate concerns about security and fraud.  The technology is ready, but election laws and implementation procedures surrounding them, particularly at the local level, don't seem quite ready for primetime just yet.

Ironically, it may have worked to New Jersey's advantage to announce email voting only 72 hours ahead of time.  This gave hackers and people committed to fraud very little time to figure out how to game the system.


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Final Presidential Social Media Stats...

On this presidential election day, without yet knowing the results, we thought it might be worth taking one final look at how online social media may, or may not, have affected the election outcome.

In terms of measuring people's expectations about the social media presence of presidential candidates, consider...
  • 88% of social media users are registered voters.
  • 51% of social media users used social media to learn more about the Presidential candidates for the 2012 election.
  • 6 in 10 people expect presidential candidates to have a social media presence.
  • 1 in 4 social media users with mobile phones aged 10-34 said that “it is important to receive information about candidates on their mobile phone”.
  • 38% of social media users agreed that information found on social media was as impactful in making a decision as traditional media.
How much did the candidates actually make use of online social media?  By almost all measures, Barack Obama had vastly superior numbers...

Barack ObamaMitt Romney
Facebook likes31.7 million11.9 million
Twitter followers21.8 million1.7 million
YouTube views253 million27 million

As usual, however, these stats probably say more about each candidate's base of supporters than about the candidates' use of the medium itself.

Let's see how everything unfolds tonight, and then we can postulate on the relevance, or non-relevance, of all of this.


Walking Diesel Up Staircases After the Hurricane...

Wanting to avoid becoming yet another aggregator of Hurricane Sandy photos, here's a different angle to consider in the storm's aftermath... how are all those websites and ISPs whose hardware is based on the East Coast still running?

As ReadWrite reports, the number of web outages has thus far been surprisingly small when considering the tremendous damage to infrastructure overall.  One reason for this is cloud computing - the more services that companies are delivering remotely, the lower the risk of one geographic location shutting them down.

But there's another, surprisingly non-tech, phenomenon aiding the situation as well.  Many New York City-based firms are relying on generators to power their servers and web services, and over the last week of power outages, they've come to rely on "bucket brigades" consisting of people hand-carrying canisters of gasoline up large numbers of flights of stairs in order to keep those generators running.

It may seem like a solution better suited to two centuries ago, but in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath, any workable solution seems good enough.