Blown To Bits

Archive for October, 2008

Wikipedia and Truth

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Wikipedia articles now turn up at the top of many Internet searches. They have assumed an astonishing degree of authority in only a few years. And deservedly: They are, in general, remarkably accurate. In an article appearing in Technology Review, Simson Garfinkel argues that the standards and protocols Wikipedia uses are redefining the very notion of truth. As Garfinkel explains,

On Wikipedia, objective truth isn’t all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication–ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth,” states Wikipedia’s official policy on the subject.

“Verifiability” means that the information appeared in some other publication. Other principles are “Neutral Point of View” — editing an entry about yourself is a no-no, for example — and “no original research.”

These principles work beautifully given the fact that anyone can edit entries. Vandalism and errors generally get corrected extremely quickly.

But the three principles don’t work perfectly, and Garfinkel gives a couple of thought-provoking examples where they fail dramatically, because information has gained currency through repetition and only the principals are in a position to explain why it is false.

A fascinating piece, and, like everything Garfinkel writes, very well-argued.

Genome Privacy

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The New York Times reported yesterday on the Personal Genome Project, which is encouraging volunteers to put their genetic data online. As the story explains,

The goal of the project, which hopes to expand to 100,000 participants, is to speed medical research by dispensing with the elaborate precautions traditionally taken to protect the privacy of human subjects. The more genetic information can be made open and publicly available, nearly everyone agrees, the faster research will progress.

Early volunteers include my colleague Steven Pinker, the noted psychologist and my colleague on the Harvard faculty, and entrepreneur Esther Dyson. It’s wise that the first people in are well-educated, and fully able to assess the privacy risks. Still, the project raises some worrisome questions.

One of the more interesting paragraphs in the story is this:

“A potential boyfriend could look at my genome and say, ‘I don’t know if this relationship is meant to be,’ ” said John Halamka, a participant and the chief information officer of Harvard Medical School, who has a 15-year-old daughter. (His daughter, he said, told him that if a suitor did that, “I wouldn’t want them as a boyfriend anyway.”)

This seems to reflect a naive, open-book-or-shut model of human identity. We are who we are, and we can either manage our identity the old fashioned way, letting other people see a page or two at a time as we decide, or get it all out there at once ahead of time so no one is proceeding with imperfect information as the relationship develops. Of course we all have problems that are not genetic in origin, and moreover, we ourselves tend to change as we interact with others.

But the more troubling question is whether Dyson and Pinker and the other early adopters should make privacy decisions not only for themselves but for their grandchildren yet unborn. Who knows how, in 50 years, society will react to the knowledge that an individual has an above-average risk of carrying some genetic condition? These successful people are unlikely to be injured much by their disclosures, but they are leaking information about other people, who have no say in the matter. Is the immediate benefit to scientific research worth the risk?

Australian Internet Filtering

Friday, October 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Hard on the heels of yesterday’s story about logging all phone calls made, emails sent, and web sites visited in the UK, comes a story about a plan to filter all Internet content in Australia. Users would be able to opt out of the child-friendly level of filtering, but that would only drop you to a level where all illegal content would be filtered.

Problem is, of course, that what’s illegal can’t be determined automatically. Even filters against illegal pornography will inevitably filter much lawful content as well.

And then there is the small problem of encryption. When you make an online purchase using a credit card, no one on the path between your computer and the store’s computer can tell that the data packet being transmitted contains an encrypted credit card number. How could any government filter know that a packet contains illegal pornography (or, in the case of the child-friendly filter, material unsuitable for children)?

What about dirty jokes in obscure foreign languages? What about email discussing illegal acts — does that also qualify as illegal?

Such schemes are absurd, but that does not make them any less scary. There are many more surveillance camera enclosures sold than surveillance cameras. You only have to have people believe they are being watched to change their behavior.

Meanwhile, on the Big Brother Front

Thursday, October 16th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The British government is proposing to log every telephone call, the address of every email, and every web site visited by everyone in the UK. To fight terrorism, of course.

Bits like these should be regarded as toxins. In theory they can be confined, but the public should be alarmed that so many are being kept, and so little reassurance can be provided about how they are to be contained. As a nice example to ponder, the Washington Post reported yesterday that the Maryland State Police had classified 53 nonviolent protesters as terrorists and entered their identifying information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects. What one police official called “fringe people” who needed to be tracked were activists against the death penalty, with no history of violence.

But here’s the best part. Police stated that “the activists’ names were entered into the state police database as terrorists partly because the software offered limited options for classifying entries.”

We’ve all experienced that. Press 1 for this, 2 for that, 3 for a third thing, and what you actually want is none of the above, so you are forced to pick one of the other options. Sometimes this is just bad user interface design; sometimes it is a way of encouraging people to select an option for which you are trying to drive traffic, for commercial reasons, for example. Intentionally or not, this interface bloated the national count of terrorism suspects, at the cost of the personal liberty of innocent people, who are now likely to get shaken down at airports.

And no one can say how many other databases may have been infected with this bogus information.

British civil liberties groups are protesting the data-logging plans, and the government is trying to reassure folks by saying that it’s “only” the addresses and phone numbers that will be recorded, not the contents.

1984 is here to be sure.

YouTube Responds to McCain

Thursday, October 16th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Yesterday we blogged about the request by the McCain-Palin campaign that YouTube respond to takedown notices less automatically. YouTube has responded in the negative, stating (as I did) that the problem is the law, not YouTube’s manner of dealing with the opposing parties. Here is YouTube’s response; I find it pretty reasonable. The Electronic Frontier Foundation wishes YouTube would show a bit more willingness to ignore obviously spurious takedown notices, e.g. ones where the contested material is a few seconds of a news show.

An interesting question is whether political campaign ads should get some special treatment. McCain’s campaign argues that because of the time sensitivity of campaigns and the importance of the free flow of information to the electorate, there should be a higher standard for taking down a campaign ad. YouTube doesn’t agree. Neither does Chris Soghoian in a well-argued, passionate post: Stand in line, he tells McCain, along with all the other people who are being abused by inappropriate DMCA takedowns.

Strange Bedfellows Department

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

John McCain yesterday joined Larry Lessig and other critics of strong copyright protections — if not on the general principles, at least on the way they apply to his campaign.

McCain’s campaign sent a letter (PDF here) to YouTube, making the following complaint:

Numerous times during the course of the campaign, our advertisements or web videos have been the subject of DMCA takedown notices regarding uses that are clearly privileged under the fair use doctrine.

Apparently YouTube has received complaints from the TV networks about use within McCain’s political ads of clips of a few seconds from news shows. The letter goes on to propose that YouTube use a different protocol before responding to these takedown notices.

The problem is that, much as we all might prefer YouTube to resist poorly founded copyright infringement claims, they would be crazy to do so. The reason is that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act gives them a “safe harbor” from prosecution if they take the offending clip down immediately, and let the party who put it up file a counterclaim. Why would the YouTube folks risk prosecution, when they can let CBS and the McCain campaign fight it out at no risk to themselves?

Well, perhaps because YouTube is owned by Google, whose mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But that is probably too much to hope for, when the real problem here is not YouTube’s behavior, but the way the law is written. The DMCA invites this kind of censorship, and in a political campaign, where days count, the time required for the claim-counterclaim protocol renders the arguing pointless.

So perhaps, instead of writing to YouTube, Senator McCain might update his Technology policy page, which now states:

While the Internet has provided tremendous opportunity for the creators of copyrighted works, including music and movies, to distribute their works around the world at low cost, it has also given rise to a global epidemic of piracy. John McCain supports efforts to crack down on piracy, both on the Internet and off.

Perhaps instead of pledging to strengthen the hands of the copyright holders, he might instead acknowledge that tools for cracking down have already gone too far.

A Cabinet-Level Intellectual Property Protection Czar

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

President Bush has signed a law creating a high-level position to centralize intellectual property protection efforts. As we explain in Chapters 6 and 8 of Blown to Bits, the entertainment industries have enormous influence in Washington, far greater than the forces of information freedom. This is truly over the top — it is a position to do what the attacks on innocent teenagers has failed to do. Story here (with a good cartoon) and here (with clearer reporting).

A dark day for those of us who were hoping for a more enlightened view of the balance between society’s interest in information liberty and creators’ interest in making a profit. Still, a lot depends on who appoints the new czar, and apparently it won’t be Bush.

The Internet, the Web, and the Mobile Phone

Monday, October 13th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

November will mark 20 years since the word “Internet” broke into public discourse, with the release by Robert Tappan Morris of a “worm” that brought down many computers. Ten years later, the Web was in a state of exponential growth, and was already being exploited heavily for commercial and educational uses. At Harvard, by 1998 we had finished bringing high-speed connections to all our buildings.

This story about Abilene Christian University in Texas is a sign of things to come. Having discovered that the vast majority of students were bringing laptops to campus with them, they decided to equip every student with an iPhone or an iPod Touch. (Both have WiFi, and so can be used as Web browsers, email platforms, etc. Most students are picking the iPhone.) The university has passed on the Apple applications software and developed its own, presumably so it can switch to the Google phone or other open devices in the future.

In Defense of Piracy

Sunday, October 12th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

That’s the provocative title of a good¬†column by Larry Lessig in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that American copyright law is unreasonably stifling creativity. That Lessig would think that is not news, but the article has some new examples of abusive practices, and makes the argument effectively. This argument is compressed from a new Lessig book called Remix, due to be published this week.

Walmart reconsiders

Friday, October 10th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

“Based on feedback from our customers,”¬† Walmart announced today that it’s put on ice the plan to shut down its DRM music server, a move that would have stranded its customers, as I reported here two weeks ago.¬†¬† This new announcement from the Walmart says that they have decided to maintain the servers “for the present time,” but adds, “we continue to recommend that you back up your songs by burning them to a recordable audio CD.”¬† It looks like Digital Rights Management is turning out to be a tarpit for companies as well as for consumers.