Blown To Bits

Archive for January, 2009

Creative Commons on

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Some time during President Obama’s speech, a copyright notice went up on the White House web site, noting that government-produced materials are not copyrighted, and any third-party content is (unless otherwise specified) for use by all under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license: “a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world.”

A new style to be sure.

Political Warfare Via Public Exposure

Monday, January 19th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

How far is it fair to go to put the spotlight on those opposing you by making public information about them readily accessible? Supporters of gay marriange in California have taken public information — the addresses of those supporters of the gay marriage ban who gave more than $100 — and put it on an easy-to-access map. You can look at the map and see who in your neighborhood gave money to help get the ban passed. Or, who in my neighborhood.

The use of the Internet for public shaming — or is it intimidation? — is not new. The Nuremberg Files was the most troubling example of the genre — listing the addresses of doctors who performed abortions, and graying out their names if they were murdered. The site also listed where their children went to school.

The gay marriage advocates haven’t gone that far, but they have gone far enough to cause some real discomfort. The New York Times reports that to fight back, an attempt will be made to change the law so that the addresses of donors of as little as $100 are no longer public information.

Who has the better of the free speech argument here — those who feel intimidated, and hence feel their speech is being chilled; or those who just want to publish on the Web in a convenient form information that has long been considered public anyway?

News-Driven Automatic Trading?

Friday, January 16th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

FT reports that new trading systems will be driven by news feeds, as well as historical data. Systems would pick out places where a company is mentioned, and predict what might happen to the stock price as a result, and use that information as the basis for buy-or-sell decisions. The hope would be to avoid some of the volatility that recent events have shown are caused by automatic trading systems (at least half of stock trades are now generated algorithmically, not by human decisions on the spot).

Unfortunately, as the article notes, events such as the precipitous drop in United Airlines stock price last fall were caused by reactions to incorrect news items. So we had better hope that the news analysis algorithms will be smarter than human judgment at figuring out which news items should be regarded as trustworthy. (Or perhaps, in the UAL case, how long after selling on the basis of a false rumor to wait before buying back in again, just before everyone else figures out the rumor was false.)

Hearing in Music Downloading Case to be Webcast

Thursday, January 15th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

In a precedent-breaking ruling, Federal Judge Nancy Gertner will allow next week’s hearing in the case of Joel Tenebaum to be webcast. You’ll be able to view it via the website of the Berkman Center. This is the case (previously blogged here) in which Harvard Professor Charles Nesson is arguing that the copyright statute is unconstitutional because it is excessively punitive, — essentially a criminal statute in the garb of civil law. The decision includes some perspectives not usually penned by federal judges:

In many ways, this case is about the so-called Internet Generation — the generation that has grown up with computer technology in general, and the Internet in particular, as commonplace. It is reportedly a generation that does not read newspapers or watch the evening news, but gets its information largely, if almost exclusively, over the Internet.

The recording industry was not amused by Nesson’s request, stating that he made it “to influence the proceedings themselves and to increase the Defendant’s and his counsel’s notoriety.” Judge Gertner takes up the RIAA’s objections:

While the Plaintiffs object to the narrowcasting of this proceeding, … their objections are curious. At previous hearings and status conferences, the Plaintiffs have represented that they initiated these lawsuits not because they believe they will identify every person illegally downloading copyrighted material.  Rather, they believe that the lawsuits will deter the Defendants and the wider public from engaging in illegal file-sharing activities.  Their strategy effectively relies on the publicity resulting from this litigation.

This case is going to be interesting to watch — the stakes are very high for the industry, and rulings like this will be scrutinized for patterns in the tea leaves.

The Battle over Child Safety on the Internet

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

The Internet Safety Technical Task Force released its important report yesterday. The bottom line is well summarized by the New York Times: “Report Finds Online Threats to Children Overblown.” Vulnerable children are vulnerable independent of technology, and technology doesn’t seem to have made matters any worse than they were before.

Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General who commissioned the report, immediately attacked it, claiming it relies on outdated research. I very much doubt it — it’s a remarkably thorough document. Mr. Blumenthal, show your evidence.

Net Neutrality Advocate to Head FCC

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Reportedly, Barak Obama’s pick to head the FCC is Julius Genachowski, a classmate at both Columbia College ¬†and Harvard Law School, and a close advisor. Genachowski was a key figure in drafting Obama’s technology policies during the campaign.

This is good news for the open-Internet movement, both because of the positions Genachowski has advocated, and because he is close enough to the president-elect to weigh in on the larger issues beyond the FCC’s specific remit, including economic growth and intellectual property issues.

Net Circumvention Tools are Selling User Data

Monday, January 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Several commercial products make it possible to avoid leaving footprints and fingerprints as you browse the Web. These products are especially valuable in China, where Internet browsing is tracked and many requests are blocked by the “great firewall of China.” FirePhoenix, for example, displays these promises on its home page:

Protect Your Online Activities

FirePhoenix (FP) is a software to protect your privacy and identity when you surf the Internet. It effectively encrypts all your Internet traffic and anonymizes your IP address. In addition, it provides you with unrestricted access to Internet when your Internet connection is filtered, monitored or blocked by your company, your institution, your ISP or your country.

In a remarkable and frightening blog post this morning, Hal Roberts reports that FirePhoenix and two other major circumvention tool companies are selling data on users’ browsing histories. As the example of the release of AOL searches (chapter 2 of Blown to Bits) showed, search histories can often identify the users — and in this case, the users are likely dissidents living under repressive regimes with a history of imprisoning dissidents. Here is the sort of offer Hal points out:

Q: I am interested in more detailed and in-depth visit data. Are they available?
A: Yes, we can generate custom reports that cover different levels of details for your purposes, based on a fee. But data that can be used to identify a specific user are considered confidential and not shared with third parties unless you pass our strict screening test. Please contact us if you have such a need.

Now there is a protocol vulnerable to mistakes in human judgment with potentially tragic consequences.

Censorship in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Monday, January 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

No, the Chronicle isn’t censoring anybody. But I have a piece about censorship in today’s issue of the Chronicle Review.

Another Silly and Sad Indian Security Idea

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Having threatened to ban Google Earth because it was allegedly used by the Mumbai terrorists to plan their attacks, India is now considering banning unsecured WiFi routers. This would be very sad — letting others use your wireless is a bit like letting them have a glass of water. Sure, you may be helping a terrorist, but it is far more likely you are just helping some innocent person. And how hard would it be for terrorists to send their messages from Internet cafes instead? Another example of too much regulation for too little good purpose.

The First-Down Line

Friday, January 9th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Ever wonder how they draw that yellow line on the field in televised football games these days, showing where the first-down marker is? This video explains it nicely. (The part about encoding the camera orientation as an audio signal is just because there is a built-in audio line from the camera to the truck where the processing happens. In other words, it’s adaptive re-use of a technology that is there for another purpose, but isn’t needed — they don’t actually collect the field audio from the cameras.)

You might think the tricky part would be getting the line to go under the players, rather than on top of them, but that’s actually a digital version of an old television technology, the same one that TV meteorologists use. The image they seem to be standing in front of isn’t really there — they are standing in front of a solid blue background. The technology puts the weather map everywhere that’s blue, so it misses the meteorologist (who never wears blue — if one had a blue scarf on, you’d see the weather map right “through” it). In the case of the football field, it’s a uniformly green color, or maybe blue — either way, not a color in the uniforms. If the field gets muddy, this may not work so well, and the yellow line may show gaps.