Blown To Bits

Archive for December, 2008

Smoking Text Messages

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A local high school football coach seems to have gotten more than a bit carried away with his relationship to a fifteen-year-old student at the school. He is now up on statutory rape charges, his wife is divorcing him, etc.

The “bits” angle here is that he sent the girl more than 500 text messages in a single month. Now that’s less than 20 per day, which between 15-year-olds wouldn’t necessarily be a huge number. But from a 44 year old man who must have known at some level that what he was doing was inappropriate, it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t realize that he was leaving tracks every time.

I suppose that once he got started, he may have figured that a few more messages wouldn’t make matters any worse.

Apparently her father just picked up her cell phone and saw the messages.

Oregon Contemplates a Mileage Tax (GPS-enabled)

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The Governor of Oregon says his state needs to wake up to the downside of high-efficiency automobile engines. With cars getting more MPG, they won’t use as much gas. You thought that was a good thing? Not if you rely on gas taxes to pay the bills.

So instead the idea is to go to a mileage tax. As explained in a Corvallis newspaper, the system would work like this. Cars would have global positioning systems, which would be used not to track their locations but to log their mileage. At the gas station, the mileage would get uploaded and (during the transition period) you’d get a rebate on the gas tax.¬†Eventually the system would become universal, and automakers would build the GPS into the car.

Supposedly this kludge protects privacy, but of course it doesn’t — the state would know the exact dates, times, and locations of every fill-up. And how long do you think it would take before law enforcement, the insurance industry, or Homeland Security would find it “essential” to collect and upload just a bit more information about vehicular movements?

In any case, why not just have motor vehicle inspection stations report the odometer reading when cars are inspected? In Massachusetts that happens annually, and the odometer reading is one of the data that is taken down. This plan sounds very fishy to me.

Electronic Gossip

Monday, December 29th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Bella English has a good piece in the Globe today about JuicyCampus, the gossip site for all manner of cruel and mean-spirited postings about college students. She’s got the story pretty much right — what JuicyCampus is doing is appalling and, under CDA section 230, legal. An interesting detail she notes is that two states’ Attorneys General are investigating JuicyCampus for not enforcing its own rules against fraud. In the aftermath of the Lori Drew conviction, such charges may not be over-reaching.

As the article notes, there are mechanisms for at least trying to identify who posts a message if it’s truly defamatory (which requires showing actual damage, not mere cruelty). It’s onerous to bring a libel charge (thanks to the First Amendment), but I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been attempted — the article, at least, mentions the possibility but not any actual cases where it’s been done. (Though JuicyCampus has turned over IP addresses in other cases where violent crimes seemed to be in the offing.)

The Book Business

Sunday, December 28th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The book business has been affected by the digital explosion almost as much as the news business, but in a different way. People buy new books over the Internet, since the prices are low and the selection is large. So local bookstores are closing, and even major chains are threatened. And the aftermarket has gotten incredibly efficient — it is so easy and cheap to buy used copies that no one is buying new copies of the classics.

David Streitfeld takes us through the economics and ethics of all this in the New York Times today. He quotes the editor of a literary review thus: “With the Internet, nothing is ever lost. That’s the good news, and that’s the bad news.” So true. I buy more used books now — if I don’t need something right away, I’ll sometimes buy some 50 or 75 year old book rather than retrieving it from the Harvard depository.

Blown to Bits is part of the new book economy. We’ve posted the whole book for download for noncommercial purposes, and our publisher has priced it so low that (we hope) people will buy it anyway rather than print it or try to read hundreds of pages off the screen. We shall see. And it will also be interesting to see what it’s like to negotiate a book contract in the new economy. Even though we signed Blown to Bits less than two years ago, I have a feeling the experience is going to be different next time.

Movie-style ratings for British Web sites?

Saturday, December 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The UK “Culture Secretary” is planning a “crackdown on offensive and harmful online activity,” according to the Telegraph. This would include a rating system like that now in place for movies. The Secretary, Andy Burnham, says,

There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.

As examples of successful rating systems he cites the systems for broadcast television (limiting what can be shown before 9pm) and video games.

I’ve already gone on a bit about Australian Internet censorship plans, and their failings. Such ideas are plainly catching on as legitimate.

But the particular way this is put shows that it emerges out of a metaphor failure. The Internet is no more like a movie theater than it is like a library. No more like a video game than it is like an encyclopedia. No more like a TV screen than it is like the postal service. Try to control one aspect of the Internet and you’ll fail. Try to control the core of the Internet and you’ll break it.

And here is a chilling passage in the Telegraph story:

Mr Burnham admits that his plans may be interpreted by some as “heavy-handed” but says the new standards drive is “utterly crucial”. Mr Burnham also believes that the inauguration of Barack Obama, the President-Elect, presents an opportunity to implement the major changes necessary for the web.

“The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause,” he says. “The more we seek international solutions to this stuff – the UK and the US working together – the more that an international norm will set an industry norm.”

Aux armes, cityoens! Stop these assaults. Mr. Obama, tell our British friends to leave the U.S. out of their plans.

50 Terabytes of Bush Records

Saturday, December 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The New York Times reports that the National Archives is preparing to take ownership of 50 terabytes of Bush data — 50 times as much data as Clinton left behind. And yet important stuff may be missing, because of Vice President ¬†Cheney’s claims that only he can be the arbiter of what records are personal and what are national property. And then there is this comment from the Vice President:

“I’m told researchers like to come and dig through my files, to see if anything interesting turns up,” Mr. Cheney said. “I want to wish them luck, but the files are pretty thin. I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble some day, just don’t write any.”

And don’t turn over the ones you did write, I guess.

The Archives may be overwhelmed; it seems seriously possible that it will be next to impossible actually to find anything. The digital explosion indeed.

A Political Revolution, or Modern Tools for Old Politics?

Friday, December 26th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Since Obama’s victory, an interesting debate has been going on about whether he really tapped the collective energies of Internet users in a collaborative way, or whether the Internet that was just a tool he used to conduct a very effective but fundamentally top-down campaign. There was a conference at the Berkman Center to discuss this and related questions; Yochai Benkler is eloquent in this video taking exception to the way Marshall Ganz had described Obama’s use of the Internet as an organizing tool. Some succinct essays surrounding these issues appear on the Berkman Center site here.

There’s an interesting short article in the Takoma (WA) News Tribune today entitled “Is Obama’s Web-based political revolution real or an illusion?” (It came to my attention because my wife, Marlyn McGrath, was quoted on the subject of how long it takes to read a college application — a number the reporter thought relevant since Obama has received 300,000 online applications for jobs in his administration. Also quoted is Professor Lillian Lee of Cornell, a Harvard PhD who used to be a teaching assistant for me — Lillian notes that the popularity metric used by the site for allowing certain posts to move up in the list is actually not awfully democratic in practice.)

Obama is trying lots of things, and that’s great. He probably could have been elected without the Internet, though it surely did him no harm to have collected millions of cell phone numbers on the promise that you’d be texted in the middle of the night about his VP pick, and a free “Go! Go! Go! Obama!” ring tone. Figuring out what actually works will take longer.

Two Newspaper Items of Note

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

First, the Chinese Internet censors are back to work following a bit of a break to buff the country’s image during the Olympic games. As of a few days ago, the New York Times web site became inaccessible from inside China. The press couldn’t get a comment from the government, but in the past, it has said that other countries regulate the Internet too. (Thus equating child pornography with the New York Times. Oh well, that’s what totalitarianism is about.)

And second, Gatehouse media, which publishes some suburban newspapers, has sued the New York Times because (the site of the Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times) was linking to some local stories in the Gatehouse publications. Just listing the headlines, with live link to the Gatehouse publications’ original stories. The legal issues are several — see this good analysis from the Citizen Media Law Project. It’s hard to think that what the Globe is doing is not well within “fair use” from a copyright standpoint. But either way, strategically it’s a head-scratcher. The Globe is steering traffic to the sites of obscure suburban newspapers almost no one reads. As the eloquent David Weinberger asks, why would those papers want that stopped?

Australian Internet Filtering: A Taste of Things to Come?

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Australian authorities are gearing up to test their plans to filter all Internet communications for illegal materials — child pornography in particular, but perhaps other materials as well. The test is focused on blocking access to web sites, and there have been several good articles on, a site specifically devoted to opposing the Australian plans. It’s a good object lesson in how hard it is to censor a distributed system and still have it work. Every now and then some member of Congress gives an if-we-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon-we-can-make-the-Internet-safe speech, and the Australian experience is a good object lesson in the special problems the Internet presents.

A good interview with a computer security expert appeared recenctly (thanks, SlashDot). It’s got a heavy dose of tech-speak, but it will be mostly comprehensible to a general reader. Here are a few of the main points.

  1. Man-in-the-middle attacks are a big worry. That is, if all Internet traffic is routed through one machine, or a small number of machines, which check for bad stuff, then getting control of one of those machines becomes a big prize. Control it and you can read all the mail going back and forth between Gmail and anyone in Australia, for example. What you do with it is your choice — you can just shut it down if you want to be nasty, or read it and not tell anyone if you want to do creepier things.
  2. Denial-of-Service attacks are another. You can make your filtering machines more secure by having fewer of them — but then it makes it easier for someone to try to choke them with thousands of requests every second. The way to beat a DOS attack is to re-architect the system, distributing its workload over thousands of machines — but then you have to worry about security at thousands of sites, bribes being offered to thousands of machine operators, etc.
  3. Exploiting software vulnerabilities. If the government buys machines and software from the lowest bidder, and doesn’t install patches with daily devotion, the machine is sure to be compromised by some Bulgarian teenager who is up to date on the latest and greatest attacks and has too much time on his hands.
  4. The filters probably won’t work. There are two basic approaches, each with its share of problems.
    1. A blacklist is just a list of URLs of web pages known to have bad content on them. The simplest approach to filtering is just to assemble a blacklist and check to see if the requested page is on the list, and to send back a “page not available” message if it is; otherwise pass the request along. But that would only begin a cat-and-mouse game. As soon as the owner of the restricted page realizes it’s on the government blacklist, he’ll move it to a different URL. Or some enterprising soul will set up a proxy server in another country — so you’ll send the URL of the page you really want to get to the proxy server (encrypted, so the government authorities can’t see what you’re asking for), the server in the other country will get the page and send it back to you (probably encrypted also). The government may blacklist the proxy server, which then moves its URL, and so on ad infinitum, or at least until one side gets tired.
    2. A content filter analyzes what’s actually being transmitted, photos or videos typically, and doesn’t let it through if it’s bad stuff. Now that requires the computer to recognize obscenity, which is a task most courts have a lot of trouble with. You can have a catalog of known bad photos (or their easily extracted hashes, but that’s a detail), but you’d have to keep that catalog up to date — at all the locations where it’s stored. You can flag photos for human screening by the percentage of the screen that is taken up with flesh tones, but that would begin another sort of cat and mouse game. Content filters don’t work very well, and to effectively screen out bad stuff, they have to err on the side of over-inclusiveness and eliminate lots of legal images too (Michaelangelo’s David, perhaps, or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus; not to mention medical illustrations and anatomy diagrams).
  5. Whatever kind of analysis is done, has to be done very quickly. Particularly when delivering video content, there just isn’t a lot of time to do the processing to figure out what you’re delivering. The genius of the Internet, as we explain in the Appendix to Blown to Bits, is that in the core, it’s really, really stupid. It just passes bit packets along. Ask it to do more and it will break.
  6. And of course everything you are doing has to be kept secret to foil your adversaries. Blacklists themselves become hot property — the blacklist used in Thailand became public a few days ago. It’s interesting to leaf through it — lots of garden-variety political cartoons with no sexual imagery at all.

Meanwhile, the Systems Administrators Guild of Australia has written a letter to the government stating, in essence, that it won’t work and they can’t make it work.

Google Opens a Door to Competition

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Google, whose mission is to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible, has decided not to organize and make accessible the world’s scientific data. In the interests of economizing, it is canceling its scientific data service, which promised to store massive quantities of scientific date, from the Hubble telescope for example, for shared use.

Google offers lots of wonderful stuff “for free,” and it’s not surprising that in a recession the company is picking its shots. But as Wired reports, Amazon, which also offers cloud data services, is waiting in the wings and may rush in to fill the void.