Blown To Bits

Archive for December, 2008

A Test of Koan 6

Monday, December 22nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

“Nothing Goes Away,” we say in Blown to Bits. What about the emails of George Bush and Dick Cheney? As the Washington Post reported yesterday,

Federal law requires outgoing White House officials to provide the Archives copies of their records, a cache estimated at more than 300 million messages and 25,000 boxes of documents depicting some of the most sensitive policymaking of the past eight years.

Some of those messages were sent using accounts of the Republican National Committee, it turns out. They are subject to the law, but the RNC seems to be having trouble finding them. And the Vice-President claims that the only records he has to turn over are those related to tasks Bush specifically assigned him, not advice he offered voluntarily, for example, or messages related to legislation. That claim is going to be decided in court, but of course a lot can happen to disks and tapes while the legal issue is being hashed out.

It is awfully hard to get rid of all copies of those emails, from all back-ups. Even if they are “deleted,” a good computer forensics effort might be able to recover them in part. A classic case of the digital explosion — where we can’t live without electronic communications, and then don’t want to leave any footprints. This will be a test of both laws and wills.

The Google Anti-Net-Neutrality-Hoax Won’t Go Away

Sunday, December 21st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Last week’s Wall Street Journal Story claiming that Google was pulling a double-cross on its pro-Network-Neutrality posture has spawned a series of imitators. Today the Boston Herald voices its editorial opinion that Google has been caught in red-handed hypocrisy, and therefore the whole Net Neutrality idea ought to be abandoned. Let the unregulated free market work its wonders and all will be well.

In fact Google explained itself quite well on the morning the WSJ story appeared. Net Neutrality is the principle that the Internet should treat all packets should be treated equally, not favoring those with a particular source or destination. What Google was proposing is called edge caching, locating its servers at points in the network where they can reduce Internet traffic to deliver the same content. It’s not a new idea — lots of companies make a nice living doing it.

Here is some of the Herald’s analogizing:

The FCC should repeal its neutrality policies. The historical accident that telephone companies were organized to connect calls in the order received should not prevent high-value Internet services from being paid for and provided separately from other services. Telephone companies early on leased private lines for exclusive use of customers willing to pay extra. Telegraph companies also leased private lines and charged for telegrams on the public wires at various rates.

But telecomm law has to do with much more than that. The telcos can’t disconnect the service of all Republicans on the eve of an election in order to make it harder for them to get the vote out. And as we say in Blown to Bits, Western Union actually was subject to neutrality legislation, after it colluded with one of the “wire services” to filter the news for political purposes. Those are better analogies for what neutrality means.

In other Google news, Warner Brothers has started to pull its videos off YouTube after failing to reach agreement on contract terms. No more Madonna or Red Hot Chili Peppers on YouTube? We’ll see who gets hurt more. It sounds like a foolish move on the part of an increasingly desperate music industry, unable to staunch the bleeding of bits and of dollars.

Dutch Praise (I Think) for Blown to Bits

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

It’s a little hard to tell, since I have to rely on Google Translate to render the Dutch reviews into English. Like all mechanical translation efforts over the past fifty years, Google Translate occasionally produces comic results, but it’s generally pretty easy to understand what was intended. That Google offers this wonderful service free, as an adjunct to its advertising-enhanced search engine, is itself a marvel of the digital explosion. (Apparently the Dutch word for “members” — of some kind — is “Ledeen”!)

Review #1, as rendered from the web site into English by Google Translate:

On September 19, 2007 Tanya Rider rode in a ravine near Seattle. Eight days they hung upside down in the wreck of her car before rescue workers had the right to her mobile phone to call for information and to find her.

Hal Abelson, Ken Members and Harry Lewis begin their book “Blown to bits’ with this example to the opportunities and complexities of the digital life in general. Tanya had a mobile phone with them, making the phone company would be able to trace at the time that the device was destroyed in the crash. When Tanya’s husband Tom moved to the police to report her disappearance, but police could not trace the cell phone. Since she has the right not only because of Tanya’s privacy. Only after a week when Tom began to suspect a crime, they could and there were so Tanya, who was seriously injured, but ultimately survived.

In the era before everything was digital this dilemma would not have existed. The information from the mobile phone was simply not there, so there is no need to be invented manners. But now contain numerous computers worldwide personal data of the bank to the flickr account (that of yourself, but also that of others where you maybe in the background is a portrait of someone else, perhaps in the company of someone with whom you are not in the public want to be seen).

Abelson, members and Lewis have each more than forty years of experience in the ICT, in universities and industry. They have the whole process to see happen. In eight chapters analyze them as many phenomena, with the impact these have on the way society works.

Of course, there is the inevitable chapter on privacy, but the chapter about data which you thought he was gone, so is instructive. While it seems easy to erase information, that is not in practice. If you nude ten seconds on the Internet has been, you can be sure that there are already so many copies of it that you do not get out more. Passages in Erased Word documents remain in reality it is only invisible, as the U.S. army to his disgrace had in a research report which appeared sensitive passages removed. And formatting is not really enough to all information from a hard disk to retrieve.

A full chapter is also on Google and other information brokers. Where information used by sheer size was inscrutable, there is now little more of a hindrance. Everything can be found – or not, if you see Google in China, for example. It is not only substantive information, but also meta-information: who has consulted at any moment?

All this information is food become lawyers. Previously copied teenagers plates on straps and nobody could control. But now the way is to become illegal music to come, the record companies suddenly a detection tool. They have succeeded if the law into their hands to set up even if you’re innocent, it is better for the companies to pay as they knock on your door – what they do with enthusiasm. Information is a powerful weapon in the hands of the powerful.

The chapters can be read in any order and there is certainly necessary overlap between. The authors do not lift finger on the digital threat, but try as sober as possible the finger on the sore spots to explain rather surprised than alarmed. People are rescued by the explosion bit, and they killed it. Freedoms are won and lost. Which way the balance eventually will spread, it is not to say.

And Review #2, from ZB Digitaal:

Now it is not my habit to whether to refer to a book that I have not even voted for the half but the book paints a clear picture of such complex Internet issues that I can not wait to gain share with others, especially because the book in its entirety and can be downloaded free-even per individual chapter.

Chapters 2 and 3, I have already read: they influenced my views about online privacy and security aspects of proper documents. I like to do. Blown to Bits highlights not only the dangers of the digital era, the book teaches you a lot about the opportunities and potential. It is a book that the spirit strengthened.

No comment on a discussion in English can be found on Slashdot to find one in English. When the book is obviously also a blog.

And if you intend the book immediately to buy or borrow: watch or even that you not that other orders or applied ….

That last sentence is a warning not to buy the other book by the same name!

Support Creative Commons; Join the CC Network

Saturday, December 20th, 2008 by Hal Abelson

As the New Year approaches, and you are wrapping up 2008, please
consider making a charitable contribution in support of Creative
Commons, by donating at

I’m immensely proud to be a founder of Creative Commons.
Our planning for Creative Commons started in the summer of 2000, with
the recognition of the  dissonance between copyright law and the
hopes and reality of the  Internet age. Blown to Bits chapter 6
explores some of that dissonance.

Over the past 8 years, Creative Commons has blossomed to become a
central part of the Intenet’s open economy, with an international
network of licenses designed to facilitate sharing over the  Net, and
a large family of volunteers who promote values of open sharing in
education, science, and culture.

Just a few weeks ago, we released the Creative Commons Network, which
lets you identify yourself as a CC supporter, and also provides an
authentication mechanism (based on Open ID) designed for
interoperability with CC licenses, and a visible way to signify your
support for an Open Net.

Please join the CC Network and make donate generously.  The future of
the open Internet rests with all of us.

Just Like That, the RIAA Stops Harassing Downloaders

Friday, December 19th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (no login required) summarized by CNet¬†here, the Recording Industry Association of America plans to stop its odious practice of extorting thousands of dollars from teenagers and their parents for downloading small amounts of music. The vicious war didn’t work very well anyway, and created lots of ill will.

Under an agreement brokered by NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, enforcement for large-scale downloading will be transferred to ISPs, whom the RIAA will notify of suspected downloaders. The ISP will contact the alleged downloaders, ask them to stop, and terminate their service if they don’t.

This solution isn’t pretty either — there are downsides to having the ISPs be law enforcers — but it’s a lot better than the current “war on piracy.” As of this moment, the RIAA web site gives no indication that the war is over.

And the RIAA is going to save some money in the process.

What will now happen in the case of RIAA v. Joel Tenenbaum, in which Professor Charles Nesson is trying to have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act declared unconstitutional? Now here’s a dramatic speculation: the RIAA took a look at Nesson’s defense of his counterclaims, got scared, and dropped their lawsuits rather than running the risk of winding up with nothing at all.

Postscript. Some key sentences from the WSJ story:

… ISPs, which are increasingly cutting content deals of their own with entertainment companies, may have more incentive to work with the music labels now than in previous years.

The new approach dispenses with one of the most contentious parts of the lawsuit strategy, which involved filing lawsuits requiring ISPs to disclose the identities of file sharers. Under the new strategy, the RIAA would forward its emails to the ISPs without demanding to know the customers’ identity.

Though the industry group is reserving the right to sue people who are particularly heavy file sharers, or who ignore repeated warnings, it expects its lawsuits to decline to a trickle.

… The RIAA said it plans to continue with outstanding lawsuits.

If so, then the constitutionality question may yet be tested.

Second postscript. Two good observations from the blogosphere. First, by removing the enforcement mechanism from the judicial system and placing it in private hands (those of the ISPs), this agreement makes it possible for ISPs to set their own rules — for example, limiting bandwidth or cutting off service to parties doing lots of uploading or downloading, whether or not the activity is actually illegal. As they are cutting content deals with the music industry, this agreement actually empowers them to do something that is commercially advantageous to them.

Second, note this from the WSJ story:

Litigation, [the RIAA chairman] said, was successful in raising the public’s awareness that file-sharing is illegal, but now he wants to try a strategy he thinks could prove more successful.

But downloading isn’t any more illegal than photocopying is illegal. This is a paraphrase, and we don’t know exactly what the RIAA chairman said, but it’s an indicator of the RIAA’s success in muddying the issue that even the WSJ blandly promotes the false impression that a particular technological practice is unlawful.

Eric Holder on Privacy and Data Retention

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Over at the Tech Liberation Front, Cord Blomquist points to a speech the Attorney General nominee made in Europe almost ten years ago, while addressing the issue of child pornography:

    First, … certain data must be retained by ISPs for reasonable periods of time so that it can be accessible to law enforcement,

    Second, we must respect the right to privacy and laws protecting it and we should use proper legal process to obtain data – but we must also make sure that those laws are not so strict that effective enforcement is not possible. In some cases, changes to privacy laws may be required to recognize the new technological reality we now confront.

This is a classic can’t-have-it-both-ways dilemma. We don’t want Google and Yahoo! hanging onto our search queries forever, and we don’t want ISP’s hanging onto records of our Internet behavior, as much as all these good folks would love to use the data to extract information about our behavior that would be valuable for engineering and commercial reasons. No, we don’t want the data to be leaked, subpoenaed, or just snooped. Just get rid of it, please, once you’ve given us what we asked for.

For law enforcement, the more data is retained, the better. It may turn out that an important needle is buried in that haystack. Just think about this report on Carey Anthony, the mother of the missing Florida toddler:

Someone using the Anthonys’ home computer used Google to search for “neck breaking,” “how to make chloraform [sic]” and “household weapons.” Someone also Googled peroxide, acetone, alcohol and “lost numbers.”

Someone also used Wikipedia to search for “inhalation,” “chloroform,” “acetone,” “shovel” and “death.”

A computer forensics report from a Sheriff’s Office detective states that on March 21, someone used other Web sources like, and for the words “making weapons out of household products,” “chloroformhabit,” “how to make chloroform,” and “chloro2.”

All that seems to have been gathered from inspecting the computer itself, but the same information might have been obtained from an ISP if it had retained the information, as the British are now proposing to do.

You might think we, the consumers, would have a say in these data retention policies, but Blomquist ends with a realistic prediction: “this question won’t be settled through competition in the free market, but instead though competition between regulators.” And in a battle between privacy regulators vs. law enforcement regulators, I think we know who’s going to win.

Is Barring Trademarks from Ads a Kind of Censorship?

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The ever-provocative Chris Soghoian raises that interesting question. Here’s the background.

If you buy an Adwords ad from Google — those are the text ads that appear to the right of the organic search results on the main search page — you’re not allowed to mention any trademark you don’t control. So Coca-Cola can’t buy an ad that says “Coke is better than Pepsi.” It can’t even buy an ad that says “Coke begins with C and Pespi begins with P,” even though that is plainly true as a matter of fact, not allegation or opinion.

Now the problem is that if you’re an activist or have a political cause that involves some corporate entity, it’s hard to advertise yourself if you can’t mention your adversary. So a group favoring the return of ROTC to Harvard couldn’t buy an ad that read, “Bring ROTC back to Harvard,” since “Harvard” is a trademark of the university. In practice, Google waits for the trademark holder to complain, and then takes the ad down, no further questions asked. (Actually, all ads — Harvard would just have to send one email and all ads mentioning Harvard would be taken down.)

There is nothing unlawful about Google’s policy — in fact in the unpredictable world of trademark litigation, it may be exactly what Google’s lawyers want, so that the company stays out of the middle of disputes in which it has no real stake.

But in a world where more and more information reaches the public through Google’s window, it’s a serious question whether this policy will impoverish the public discourse. In Chris’s case, he was unable to keep up an ad stating the true fact that AT&T had contributed to a particular political candidate, because AT&T — not the candidate — complained to Google. Should we care that Chris has lost this inexpensive, effective means to get his message out? Will this contribute to the tyranny of the majority, as we call it in Chapter 4 of Blown to Bits?

More on the Creative Commons Download

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A brief postscript on the release of Blown to Bits as a download under a Creative Commons license. First, by popular demand, we’ve posted the book under the Download tab both as chapter-by-chapter PDFs and as a single 22MB PDF of the whole book. And second, we should have mentioned that this download is the third printing, which corrects a variety of small errors in the original (the first and second printings were identical). The third printing should be appearing in bookstores soon (I haven’t yet seen a bound copy myself).

McCain-Palin Campaign Blackberries

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Opinions differ about whether digital technologies transformed the Obama campaign into something inclusive and empowering that had never been seen before, or whether it was really an old-style, top-down campaign that made masterful use of the new technologies to get its message out and to coordinate the troops, while making them feel included.

Either way, no one seems to be disputing that the McCain-Palin campaign was much less clued in on how to use the technologies. And the evidence continues to accumulate after the campaign is over. The campaign auctioned its Blackberry phones without wiping the memory clean — so those who bought them bought phone numbers of donors, lobbyists, and journalists too. Apparently they were not amused when the purchaser called them up.

As we explain in Chapter 3 of Blown to Bits, it’s not hard to reset a phone by pressing a few buttons — though even following the vendor’s instructions may not really wipe the memory clean enough to keep the information out of the hands of a determined snoop.

Tubes, 100 Years ago and Today

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Today first: The New York Times has a very affirming editorial about the opportunities the Internet promises, and Obama’s opportunity to use national Internet diffusion as an economic driver for the nation.

And exactly 100 years ago today: The New York Times reported that the government, having considered the opportunities presented by the new pneumatic-tube communication technology, had decided not to “purchase, install, or operate” pneumatic tubes. Here is a scan of the original NYT story, and here is a brief summary.

Somewhere, perhaps Senator Stevens is laughing.

A tip of the hat to TheSync for pointing this out on Slashdot.