Posted on Techdirt - 12 May 2010 @ 7:38am
Obviously the rise of digital media means information is much more quickly and easily accessible than it used to be when we all shuffled piles of paper about -- and that's a good thing -- unless you work for a paper company. Domtar Corporation is annoyed at the fact that people aren't printing as much as they used to, and company executive John Williams seems to have found himself a bogeyman to direct his troubled business model angst at: namely those messages at the bottom of e-mails urging people to think about the environment before they print. In order to counter what Williams feels is "bull," Domtar is launching an advertising campaign aimed at younger kids that tries to convince them they don't need to feel guilty about printing out that e-mail:
"The campaign will use print ads but also have a strong social media dimension -- on Facebook and YouTube -- in order to reach younger people, who tend to be printer averse, Mr. Williams said. I think it's very powerful and I think it's time and I don't apologize for the fact I think it's true and that this will resonate with young people."
Of course most people ignore those e-mail signatures (which often just exist to give a company the illusion of being "green") and print -- or don't print -- based on convenience. While the paper industry is obviously going to feel some pain from a declining newspaper industry and the rise of an ocean of portable data devices (and in turn the slow rise of that ever elusive paperless society), a clever ad campaign targeting the young and "printer reverse" isn't going to be able to change reality. What will probably wind up "resonating with young people" is the impression that Domtar and Williams are being ridiculous. Hey, maybe the problem with the fax machine industry is all just branding!
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Posted on Techdirt - 7 May 2010 @ 10:24am
Given Google's position on network neutrality, white space spectrum, competition and other topics, it's not too surprising that they've drawn the ire of the larger telecom operators like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast. All three companies have massive lobbying operations, and have been busily engaged in pressuring Uncle Sam to investigate Google on every front -- be it Google's acquisition of AdMob, or AT&T's claim that Google Voice is being used to unfairly block nuns. While companies like AT&T complain ceaselessly about how any and all government regulation is unnecessary, they're unsurprisingly trying to get more regulation applied to Google. Since at least 2007, carriers and their various policy tendrils have been trying to argue that Google should be regulated for violations of "search neutrality," though it's amusing to notice that it's now 2010, and nobody seems to know what the term even means:
"AT&T went so far as to tell the FCC that nothing it could possible do would be as worrisome as what Google was up to. "And more than any physical network provider, search engines pose concerns that the [rulemaking] identifies as a potential basis for government intervention: They 'determine the information ... that customers access online' through algorithms that highlight some information, favor certain websites, and even omit some sites altogether. As a result, they can 'deter market entry in areas that would benefit consumers and damage[e] potential entrants.' Just as search engines dominate the selection of winners and losers on the Internet, one search engine in particular -- Google's -- dominates the search engine market."
"Search neutrality" is an absurd notion, given that search algorithms by their very nature aren't neutral, and the entire purpose of search is to discriminate and point the user toward more pertinent results. Meanwhile, Google became a market leader by being good at what they do. Users have other options available if they feel that isn't the case, or if they find that Google is suddenly discriminating in terms of search results -- so Google can very quickly be punished should they begin to engage in ranking skulduggery. A company like AT&T, meanwhile, holds a physical monopoly in many markets -- leaving consumers with little to no option should AT&T choose to engage in anti-competitive behavior.
Search neutrality at its core is a term created by companies eager to bog Google down in bad regulation -- the same kind of bad regulation companies like AT&T believe Google is foisting upon them in the network neutrality debate. The difference, again, is that Google's customers can vote with their wallet, while most broadband customers have few if any alternatives (which is why we argue that tackling competition should take priority). Meanwhile, ISPs repeatedly insist that network neutrality rules aren't necessary because there's no evidence of ISP foul play -- yet here they are -- pushing for nebulous regulations without providing evidence of Google abuse (aside from a few people whining late last year that they weren't ranked high enough for their liking).
All of this simply highlights how the entire network neutrality debate has been so polluted by lobbyist, lawyer and think tank nonsense and hypocrisy (on all sides) -- that it has just completely degraded into incoherent rhetoric. Whatever you think of the need for neutrality regulation, it's important to remember the network neutrality debate truly took off in 2005, with AT&T telling Google they wanted to charge content companies already paying for bandwidth an extra toll -- just because. AT&T was loudly and clearly told by Internet users that this was idiotic idea -- though the conversation seems to have gone completely downhill from there in terms of actually making sense.
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Posted on Techdirt - 7 May 2010 @ 2:17am
We recently noted how the Library Of Congress and Twitter made a big deal of the fact that the LOC would now be archiving Twitter conversations. The idea is that researchers may find a mountain of largely-incoherent blathering about the Twilight films useful in providing context as they try to piece together events of the twenty-first century. Late last week a little more detail of the archiving process leaked out, the LOC saying that in response to privacy complaints they wouldn't store deleted tweets, and they'd also be placing all tweets under embargo for a period of six months (for whatever that's supposed to accomplish). For good measure, they're also apparently locking down the Twitter archive to "qualified researchers" and considering further restrictions:
"The library will embargo messages for six months after their original transmission. If that is not enough to put privacy issues to rest, she said, “We may have to filter certain things or wait longer to make them available.” The library plans to dole out its access to its Twitter archive only to those whom Ms. Anderson called "qualified researchers."
The historical dangers of "filtering certain things" aside, what's the point of these restrictions? The entire archive is already being indexed by Google in real time, with no delays or restrictions -- and other copies are being doled out to companies like Microsoft and Yahoo. In an age where phone companies are feeding every single byte of data in real time to the NSA with questionable oversight -- worrying too much about the storage of your clever Twitter barbs seems to be missing the forest for the trees. The Library of Congress appears to have responded to these largely-senseless privacy concerns (you are communicating using a public service) by making the government's Twitter archive more annoying to use. Though hey, if the apocalypse manages to decimate every other copy of the Twitter archive -- you can sleep well knowing that you'll still be able to dig through OchoCinco's insights at The Library Of Congress with a laminated community college ID.
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Posted on Techdirt - 6 May 2010 @ 11:57pm
In 2008 we noted how Canadian incumbent phone company Bell Canada began throttling smaller wholesale ISP traffic before delivery -- without bothering to tell anyone. In short, Bell wanted to make sure that smaller, independent ISPs that were reselling Bell's bandwidth weren't able to offer services that were superior to their own throttled and capped DSL service. Independent ISPs complained, and Canadian regulators (CRTC) largely ignored them. Now reader Slatemass writes in to direct our attention to the fact that the CRTC has also approved another Bell plan to begin charging all (wholesale and retail) customers per-byte overages up to $1.13 per gigabyte. Needless to say, operators of smaller ISPs are rather angry:
"The rates are absolutely atrocious. How the hell are we doing above one dollar for extra usage?" said Rocky Gaudrault, president of Chatham, Ont.-based Teksavvy. "It's in the thousands of multiples beyond what the costs are." Gaudrault said Bell also continues to have an advantage over smaller ISPs in that it is able to offer superior speeds. The CRTC issued an order in December 2008 that gave wholesale ISPs access to the faster networks of phone companies such as Bell and Telus, but the federal government last year ordered the regulator to reconsider the decision."
To be clear: this shouldn't be confused with pure "billing by the byte." The low cap and high overage model (which Time Warner Cable tried -- and failed -- to impose in the U.S. last year) simply jacks up prices "thousands of multiples beyond what the costs are" on top of the already high flat rate price -- ensuring that consumers wind up paying significantly more money for the same service. Bell also wants to ensure resellers can't offer a flat-rate pricing model that could better compete with their expensive capped DSL services. Of course Bell couldn't get away with this kind of obnoxious pricing were there more competition -- but just like in the States, most Canadian customers lack the option to be able to vote with their wallets.
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Posted on Techdirt - 6 May 2010 @ 1:53pm
Last week we highlighted the highly-flammable combination of users who don't read their contract fine print or know what a gigabyte is -- and carriers that seem incapable of properly alerting customers before their 3G bill requires a second mortgage. This week the Boston Globe has yet another story of this kind -- exploring how a Dover, Massachusetts man has been fighting Verizon Wireless over an $18,000 phone bill since 2006. The man (obviously annoyed about the impact this has on his credit report) missed the fact that his two-year contract with Verizon expired, and his new contract began billing him by the kilobyte. His son, who had tethered his phone to his laptop, quickly racked up thousands of dollars in overage charges after downloading 1,119,000 kilobytes. Verizon, for their part, were not particularly helpful according to state regulators:
"Kevin Brannelly, an official at the state Department of Public Utilities, tried to help the St. Germain family fight the bill because it did not seem right. "Never in my 25 years here have I seen such stubborn and senseless resistance to what is obviously a mistake," he wrote in an e-mail to St. Germain."
As with all these stories, Verizon justifies this absolutely insane markup over cost on their data service by insisting they at least made their ridiculously-constrictive pricing clear to consumers. Apparently not, given we've been watching a steady parade of these stories for years now. What has been made clear is that the cap and overage billing model isn't working for many customers. It also continues to be clear that carriers are doing a miserable job educating their users, and an even worse job implementing effective systems that alert a user before their bill goes utterly apocalyptic. While carriers often do reduce these charges after they're exposed in the press (though in this case half-off is still obnoxious) -- you have to wonder how many of these over-billing stories aren't being told.
Some carriers appear to be realizing that the millions to be made from ripping off retirees and the kilobyte confused isn't worth the endless bad press, and that helping your customers understand their bills might just help you differentiate your services. T-Mobile for instance is moving away from this cap and overage model, and last week announced they'd simply start throttling users back to slower (usually around 128 kbps) speeds should they cross their monthly cap. It seems like wireless carriers can either continue to rip people off until regulators get involved (or customers flee to more user-friendly carriers) -- or they can provide users with the tools necessary to help them adequately understand and control their monthly bill -- before it requires loan shark intervention.
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Posted on Techdirt - 6 May 2010 @ 7:32am
A law firm employed by the Pennsylvania school district caught using student laptop webcams to spy on students at home has released a 72-page report (pdf) on the incident after a 10-week investigation. Most of the report's findings aren't too surprising; it exonerates most higher-level school officials like any wealthy school district's in-house investigation should, concluding that there's no evidence indicating that anybody above the IT level "knew how TheftTrack worked or understood that it could collect large quantities of webcam photographs or screenshots." The report also confirms reports that the system took some 58,000 images -- a far cry from the 42 images the school originally claimed.
Aside from those 57,958 extra photos and screenshots, e-mails alleging that school administrators found the spy technology entertaining -- and the fact the system was only unearthed in the first place because a student's at-home behavior was spied on -- the study concludes that "we found no evidence that District personnel used TheftTrack to "spy" on students." Still, at least the report slams the school district for being "overzealous" in their use of the technology, and for having a complete disregard for student privacy:
"Although there is no forensic method to determine with certainty how often images stored on the LANrev server were viewed, we found no evidence that any District 3 personnel surreptitiously downloaded images from the LANrev server. Rather, the collection of images from laptops while they were in the possession of students resulted from the district's failure to implement policies, procedures and recordkeeping requirements, and the overzealous and questionable use of technology by IS personnel without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators."
By and large the study places the lion's share of the blame on school IT folks, most of whom were already forced to retire. It does seem rather convenient that the district was allowed to hire their own law firm to investigate (at least when lawyers weren't working with plaintiffs to allegedly help keep evidence out of the hands of federal investigators
). That's of course the first thing the lawyer for the district's former IS director Virginia DiMedio complained about
. While the IT folks certainly appear oblivious and culpable, there seems to be plenty of incompetence to go around. Hopefully higher level administrators aren't entirely immune to the ultimate fallout, given they failed to pay any attention to the fact their district was busily building a little Macbook surveillance state with little to no accountability.
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Posted on Techdirt - 5 May 2010 @ 4:21pm
ISPs over the last few years have quickly rushed to embrace DNS redirection advertising. Instead of users being directed to a traditional page not found message (or Google in some browsers) should they enter a nonexistent or mistyped URL, they're redirected to an ISP-run search portal laden with advertisements. The concept creates a revenue stream out of your clumsy typing, giving ISPs an extra few bucks per month, per user (of course on top of whatever they make supposedly not selling your clickstream data). While many users don't like the practice, most ISPs provide some kind of opt-out mechanism (though they often don't work well), and users can often choose alternative DNS servers. Slashdot directs our attention to the fact that users continue to be surprised when they find out their ISP is hijacking user location bar results:
"Today I noticed that this great feature of Firefox (combined with Google of course) has stopped working, and has instead been replaced with an add-laden (sic) search result from another website. I've confirmed that my keyword.URL setting is still pointed at Google, so this must be happening at the traffic level, I would imagine either by use of a web proxy or something to do with DNS lookup, which makes me wonder if this new 'feature' my ISP (Netvigator by PCCW in Hong Kong) has introduced is also affecting my privacy?"
Here in the States one ISP (Windstream Communications) was recently busted for taking this concept one step further, going so far as to actually hijack Firefox Google search toolbar results. Windstream quickly backed away from the practice once users started to complain, insisting it was a mistake. However, the ISP wouldn't offer technical specifics about what technology they were using that created this "bug," and employees were told not to elaborate. To be clear, in Windstream's case this went well beyond DNS redirection, worked no matter what DNS servers were being used, and involved manipulating actual traffic streams using a new flavor of deep packet inspection. Whether this new layer 7/DPI is being used for copyright enforcement, surveillance, data mining or search result hijacks isn't clear -- but whatever it's being used for, it's being implemented with absolutely no transparency to the end user.
It seems unlikely that any U.S. ISP would take things further by hijacking toolbar results, given ISPs are busily trying to argue to regulators that network neutrality rules aren't necessary. Still, as deep packet inspection technology gets more sophisticated, precisely how ISPs are meddling with your traffic is something to keep a close eye on. ISPs already have a bad habit of offering value added services that fail to provide any value to consumers, and DNS redirection ads are only the latest example. ISPs were in such a hurry to grab this additional revenue, they failed to bother to make sure opt-out mechanisms for these "services" even worked, much less consider adding any kind of enhanced DNS functionality (as seen by companies like OpenDNS) that would make these services worth something to the end user. While DPI itself isn't bad, it holds a lot of potential for abuse among ISPs eager to make an extra buck at any cost.
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Posted on Techdirt - 4 May 2010 @ 11:22am
Nastybutler77 was the first of several to direct our attention to a new Dutch study (pdf, via Ars Technica) by Professor Nico van Eijk of the University of Amsterdam. van Eijk finds, once again, that file sharers aren't just consuming copyrighted material voraciously, they're consuming all media voraciously (especially concerts, films and games). The study also concludes that there "isn't a clear relationship" between the decline in sales and file sharing, while also finding that (shockingly) fear of evolution prevented the recording industry from adequately adapting their business models to the broadband age. While the recording industry is having problems, argues van Eijk, it has less to do with file sharing, and more to do with the fact they've been "abstaining from innovation" -- as the study phrases it:
"Turnover in the recorded music industry is in decline, but only part of this decline can be attributed to file sharing. Conversely, only a small fraction of the content exchanged through file sharing networks comes at the expense of industry turnover. This renders the overall welfare effects of file sharing robustly positive."
van Eijk, who does a nice job differentiating between the recording and music industries, goes on to note that despite Sweden's reputation as a piracy hub, total revenues from recorded music, live concerts and collecting societies remained roughly static between 2000 and 2008 (something we've pointed out before
). The study also touches on how the content industry has set the price far higher on movies and video games than people say they are willing to pay (though what people say they'll pay and what they'll actually pay obviously can be quite different). While the recording industry was busily suing customers, exploring nastier DRM solutions and trying to desperately hold on to the past -- everything changed around them -- and "reinvention of the business model" is now the only way forward, concludes van Eijk:
"And so the entertainment industry will have to work actively towards innovation on all fronts. New models worth developing, for example, are those that seek to achieve commercial diversification or that match supply and end-user needs more closely. In such a context, criminalizing large parts of the population makes no sense. Enforcement should focus on large scale and/or commercial upload activities. . . Introducing new protective measures does not seem the right way to go..."
None of this will surprise Techdirt readers, given that we've made many of these points before, and study after study
indicate that file sharers are some of the content industry's biggest potential customers. So, once again, we're facing a future where entertainment companies can either embrace these users and find ways to get them cheap, simple, high-quality product -- or they can demonize them, alienate them, and fight to terminate their connections to the Internet (and by proxy any purchases they might make). Place your bets.
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Posted on Innovation - 4 May 2010 @ 4:39am
Cable and phone company lobbyists (and their army of PR, consultant and think tank friends) have long pushed the bogus concept of an "exaflood," or the idea that explosive Internet growth will result in the Internet collapsing any day now. The argument is generally used by telecom lobbyists to scare politicians and the public into supporting something (deregulation, subsidies, higher prices, fewer consumer protections) lest the Internet explode. The problem is that the argument has been debunked countless times by real network researchers like Dr. Andrew Odlyzko of MINTS -- who highlight that traffic growth is actually quite reasonable, and what growth there is can be easily dealt with by intelligent network engineers and modest network investment. If carriers aren't investing money back into the network, it has nothing to do with bandwidth bogeymen -- it's usually because they face limited competition.
The exaflood term itself was actually coined by Bret Swanson, formerly of the Discovery Institute -- the think tank hired by evangelicals to help push creationism into the classroom via "intelligent design." Under the employ of major carriers, Swanson first used the term in a 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial, and despite it being largely nonsense -- it quickly became a common phrase in modern telecom lexicon. Of course the exaflood never arrived because it doesn't actually exist, but that's not slowing Swanson down. With the FCC considering network neutrality rules, Swanson (now under his his own brand: Entropy Economics) has given the ungracefully-aging exaflood myth a botox injection, based on filings this week with the FCC (via Ars Technica):
"We are intrigued by one particular innovation just around the corner. Call it online gaming. Call it cloud streaming. We call it the "exacloud." It is cloud computing but of a scope and scale never seen before. . . This exacloud will transform video games, movies, virtual worlds, business software, and most other media. Piracy goes away. So do DVDs, game boxes, and maybe even expensive personal computers. New content and software subscription models open up. Based in the cloud instead of on your device, interactivity thrives."
This miracle, piracy-curing super computing evolution Swanson references? It's just ordinary people using clients to access servers using networks. While Swanson throws out a lot of data points in his filing, none of them dispute the reality that Internet traffic growth remains reasonable and manageable. Amusingly, he even goes so far as to use the MINTs data that debunked his original claims -- as evidence supporting his "new" argument. It appears that all he's done is rename his imaginary bandwidth apocalypse for a more modern audience -- and hoped nobody would notice. He at least could have been a little more entertaining. How about the Tubeogeddon? BitTorrentialCollapse? The Tubeacalype? Capacitastrophe? The looming colocaust? Help us out...
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Posted on Techdirt - 3 May 2010 @ 1:28pm
Companies like Verizon and Qwest recently took their cooperation with the entertainment industry to an entirely new level -- by not only forwarding DMCA warning letters to users (which has been going on for years) -- but by also now threatening broadband users with account termination (which, at least in Verizon's case, appears to be a bluff). Both companies are using the flimsy and unreliable DMCA letter process as a foundation, and layering a completely non-transparent termination process (where grandmothers wind up falsely accused) on top -- obviously a winning formula for success. So far AT&T hasn't been willing to play along with this new voluntary program, and in filings with the White House's Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, make it clear it's primarily just worried about covering its legal posterior:
"Private entities are not created or meant to conduct the law enforcement and judicial balancing act that would be required; they are not charged with sitting in judgment of facts; and they are not empowered to punish alleged criminals without a court order or other government sanction. Indeed, the liability implications of ISPs acting as a quasi-law-enforcement/judicial branch could be enormous."
It's interesting, because AT&T not only argues that ISPs shouldn't be acting as content nannies, but it also acknowledges that the entire DMCA process is built on a platform where such letters can impact non-infringing members of a household, people with "valid defenses," or people with unsecured wireless networks. At first, AT&T's argument reads much like an EFF complaint -- the company even going so far as to insist that (as we've long said) disconnection from the Internet isn't a suitable punishment for downloading that first season of the Golden Girls.
However, AT&T isn't necessarily against some kind of graduated response system -- they would just prefer it if Uncle Sam was the one screwing up. AT&T's filing argues that it doesn't want this handled by the courts, rather, it wants an expedited faux-legal system set up much like the Hadopi-run process we've critized in France, where a Judge is given all of five minutes to determine a user's guilt or innocence. Though AT&T consistently complains about government regulation (at least when applied to them), it takes things even further by arguing the government should "create and maintain a list of international websites known to host and to traffic in infringed copyrighted works."
So while Qwest and Verizon engage in non-transparent threats against their users based on flimsy evidence, AT&T wants taxpayers to fund an entirely new government organization tasked with non-transparent threats against users based on flimsy evidence. For good measure, AT&T wants a website blacklist whac-a-mole program that -- like most filtering programs -- won't accomplish a damn thing aside from pushing pirates further underground and blocking access to legitimate content. Perhaps AT&T should stick with struggling to run a wireless network?
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Posted on Techdirt - 3 May 2010 @ 6:17am
Things aren't looking too hot for the Pennsylvania school district that thought it would be a good idea to use student laptop webcams to spy on students at home. E-mails acquired by the lawyer heading up a civil suit against the administrator and the school district seem to highlight how the administrator had a wonderful time spying on students, while also indicating that tens of thousands of photos were taken (contrary to district claims that barely any photos were taken). As many of our commenters had wondered, it appears the lawyer may be trying to bolster his case by potentially bringing the administrator up on child porn charges -- assuming the photos involved nudity and were offloaded to her home PC. The administrator behind the plan denies those charges, and only just last weekend decided to stop pleading the Fifth and hand over the PC in question to a computer forensics expert hired by the district.
While the legality of spying on students with webcams remains in dispute, the potential child porn angle of the case has caught the eye of a federal grand jury and the FBI, who are investigating the district. But, in an added wrinkle, federal prosecutors are now claiming that a U.S. District Judge is hampering their investigation into the case. The Feds are complaining about a recent Judge order banning anyone from disseminating evidence involving the case to anyone not directly involved in the lawsuit. Prosecutors, of course, want to get their hands on the photographs taken by the webcams (which are now estimated to total 56,000 -- with only one made public), and are asking the Judge to modify his order (which was asked for by the plaintiffs) accordingly.
Interestingly, in an effort to try and control media coverage of the case, a group of area parents are asking the same U.S. District Judge to issue an order banning anyone involved in the case from giving interviews "near district schools or students' homes":
"...wearied by the international attention caused by the suit, a group of Lower Merion parents asked the judge Friday to ban lawyers and other parties in the case from giving interviews near district schools or students' homes. "We and many other parents of Lower Merion School District are outraged by the substantial distraction that the recent media frenzy has visited upon our district and our community," the parents wrote to U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois. "The incessant news cycles about this litigation are plainly taking their toll on the education of our children," the parents' letter said. "It has become a harmful distraction to the very persons that plaintiffs and their counsel seek to represent."
Trying to lock down media coverage and evidence doesn't appear to be helping. Meanwhile, the school district is lucky to be wealthy enough to not only give a significant chunk of their 6,000+ students Apple laptops, but also to be able to afford their legal bill -- which is estimated as having already broken the half a million dollar mark
. That's barely half of 1 percent of the current $193 million budget of the Lower Merion School District. So, the scandal has resulted not only in a lawsuit and a huge (and growing) legal bill, but also in a national firestorm. It has given several politicians a re-election platform, prompted the creation of potential new national privacy legislation, and resulted in an FBI investigation. How's that stolen laptop and surveillance project working out again?
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Posted on Techdirt - 29 April 2010 @ 2:48pm
We recently noted how Sony decided to make their Playstation 3 game console less useful by removing the ability to run alternative operating systems. Sony wanted to retain stricter control of the hardware to battle piracy, but it's something that annoyed some hobbyists -- who'd found a number of creative uses for the feature. The decision made it clear that in the broadband age, the product you thought you purchased isn't always the product you now own -- and it raised the question whether products made less useful post purchase demand a refund. One UK customer thought so, using a UK consumer protection law to force Amazon to give him a 20% rebate. At the time, we noted how a class action lawsuit seemed likely in the U.S., and right on cue -- Sony's now facing a lawsuit:
"The suit claims that the "Install Other OS" function was "extremely valuable." According to the suit, the plaintiff he has not yet installed the latest firmware update so that he can continue to use the Other OS feature. The suit also notes that PS3 owners who choose not to update their firmware cannot access the PlayStation Network, play PS3 games online, nor can they play new games or Blu-ray videos that require firmware 3.21."
So with the recent Avatar DRM flap in mind
, users not only lose useful functionality, but if they refuse to update their system with the latest firmware -- they also lose the ability to go online, or watch/play the latest Blu-Ray titles or games. In other words, if you refuse a hardware downgrade designed to battle piracy (which punishes paying customers), your PS3 console becomes progressively less useful. So what exactly is a Playstation 3 worth if it can't be used to do anything
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Posted on Techdirt - 29 April 2010 @ 11:00am
As the FCC gets closer to crafting network neutrality rules (assuming they even have the authority to do so), AT&T lobbyists have worked overtime to push the idea that creating such rules would automatically result in job losses. To help nudge this scary meme into the press, they hired their old friend Bret Swanson, formerly employed at the Discovery Institute -- a think tank that created both the "Exaflood" (debunked here countless times) and "Intelligent Design". Back in February Swanson, like most AT&T hired policy wonks, used completely bogus "science" to insist that network neutrality rules would result in 1.5 million job losses. He came to that number simply by adding up all of the people employed by companies that submitted comments to the FCC opposing network neutrality (seriously).
Now AT&T is back at work again, this time pushing the job loss claims through an AT&T-backed group called Mobile Future. Mobile Future has sponsored a new study (pdf) claiming that network neutrality laws will result in 340,000 lost jobs over the next 10 years -- and 1.5 million lost jobs across all sectors by 2020. Using the impact the 1996 Telecom Act and local loop unbundling requirements had on the broadband sector as a broad foundation, the study tries to somehow project that FCC neutrality rules would slow broadband revenues by one-sixth. But as Bob Cringley notes, linking the complicated fight over line sharing (however you felt about it) to network neutrality isn't a coherent foundation:
"...it's hard to see how government regulation was the problem when the Bells largely refused to comply with it. You'd think being forced to share aging copper lines with startups would have encouraged the Bells to invest in better, higher-speed networks, not the opposite. Extrapolating from that regulatory situation to Net neutrality is like taking laws regulating manure production by draft horses to make projections about the future of the space shuttle."
Just as with bogus piracy statistics, there's simply too many moving parts to make these kinds of projections one way or the other (and the study doesn't try too hard to support the idea that neutrality could bolster content industry employment). You'd be hard pressed to get a room full of people to agree on what network neutrality even is after years of muddled debate -- much less find a way to tie concrete job loss figures to the nebulous concept. Meanwhile, the AT&T-funded study unsurprisingly skips over the fact that companies like AT&T and Verizon are already laying off a significant number of employees as they lose landline customers (or in Verizon's case, intentionally hang up on rural markets and slow FiOS deployment).
There's also the small fact that while the FCC has issued proposals for new network neutrality rules, they haven't crafted any concrete rules yet or defined key terms -- making job loss predictions premature at best and completely absurd at worst. Even if the FCC were to craft rules defining "fair" network management practices, it seems likely that the final rules (once they run the lobbyist gauntlet) would be just as timid as the agency's national broadband plan, which avoided tackling competition or truly rattling the status quo for fear of upsetting powerful carriers. For all of the annoying and ridiculous hysteria surrounding network neutrality, the most the rules seem likely to cause is a few sleepless nights for carrier lobbyists -- who have to stay up late designing scary-looking pie charts.
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Posted on Techdirt - 29 April 2010 @ 9:59am
Apple's recent scuff up in the media over banning a Putlitzer prize-winning cartoonist from the application store only served to once again highlight Apple's inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary application store approval process. It also directed people's attention to the fact that Mark Fiore certainly wasn't the first person to have an application banned for strange things like "ridiculing public figures," which violates Apple's iPhone Developer Program License Agreement. In fact, there have been 16 applications banned for this most grievous of offenses, and as is usually the case with Apple, the company spent most of their time ignoring questions about why content continues to be inconsistently blocked.
This latest scuff up about Apple gate-keeping also gave some people a platform to once again complain that Apple shouldn't be blocking access to pornography. While Apple's PR department can't apparently answer a straight question about their app approval process, Steve Jobs did personally take time to respond to one user's e-mailed porn concerns by telling him to go buy an Android phone:
"Fiore's app will be in the store shortly. That was a mistake. However, we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy and (sic) Android phone."
Not that Google and the porn industry didn't appreciate the shout out, but porn isn't really as big of an issue as Apple's inconsistent approval process (which Jobs once again really doesn't explain). Apple already makes a very nice porn application called Safari for those interested. While Apple does ban porn, they've perhaps more annoyingly banned applications for being porn that weren't (like a swimsuit sales application). Meanwhile, even though Jobs says he has a "moral responsibility" to keep porn off the iPhone, the Parents Television Council this week proclaimed he's not doing a good enough job. The group personally, painstakingly cataloged everything they felt was filthy in the app store:
"Typical content has included items with names like
"Shawna Lee Private Dance," which shows a porn starlet with her hand down the front of her bikini bottom fondling herself; "Love Positions Free," with a drawing titled "doggystyle," showing a couple having sex; "1001 Boobs Lite;" and "Tasty Pasties 18+ Amateurs" (at one point, the 11th most popular "app" out of thousands on iTunes). All of these applications are free -- and available to children."
Of course if the Parents Television Council's findings show anything (aside from the fact the Council spent a lot of time looking at half-naked women) it highlights -- once again -- that nobody understands how Apple determines worthy content. Amusingly, the Council didn't bother to complain about the Android Marketplace, where users can freely get porn of all kinds -- not just the odd smattering of soft-core apps that passed Apple's incoherent muster. Not that trying to censor porn apps really matters, given the existence of something some people call "a browser," which provides people of all ages access to a universe of content of all kinds. Apparently, nobody can win in this strange equation, be it porn fans, porn opponents, developers, or Shawna Lee.
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Posted on Techdirt - 28 April 2010 @ 10:41pm
We just got done exploring how German privacy regulators are "horrified" about how Google is (just as many other companies have been doing for years) gathering publicly-available Wi-Fi hotspot data for GPS triangulation and localized search. Of course the data being collected can't really identify users outside of their router brand preference and use of nerd SSID humor -- but that didn't stop a flood of hysterical articles that assumed Google was using this data for some nefarious purpose. As if on cue, Germany's complaints have now drawn the attention of UK regulators -- who say they're now going to quiz Google about the practice. While Wi-Fi clearly confuses many regulators and the press (look at the usual reaction to war driving), it is important that Google is transparent about this process, but so far there's every indication they're doing a good job on that front. The company posted another blog post this week and sent this filing (pdf) to privacy regulators in multiple countries highlighting exactly what's being collected, what it's being used for, while reiterating that the data can't identify specific users and isn't being published. So the question then is: how long before U.S. and other European regulators start to freak out?
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Posted on Techdirt - 28 April 2010 @ 2:08pm
Adam Singer writes in to direct our attention to yet another silly study claiming to highlight the evils of technology and Internet addiction. According to this latest study, Researchers at the University of Maryland asked 200 students to give up all media of any kind for one full day -- and found that after 24 hours "many showed signs of withdrawal, craving and anxiety along with an inability to function well without their media and social links." Researchers say the disconnected test subjects strangely equated being without these connections to "going without friends and family" -- which of course is exactly what they were doing. However, if you look at the press release, researchers appear to base their conclusion that students were "addicted" to media by the very scientific fact that students simply said they were:
"A new study out today from the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, concludes that most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world. "I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening," said one person in the study. "I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation, for between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin."
Just taking common modern media consumption and communications tools away from users for 24 hours doesn't seem to prove much of anything -- aside from the fact that people have grown used to modern media consumption and consumption tools -- which they'd adapt to living without in time. The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize so-called Internet addiction as a disorder (despite efforts to change this to help sell more "cures"), and real addiction generally involves people with real problems who usually aren't quick to admit they even have an addiction. As we've discussed countless times -- the real problem is that we're annoyingly in love with (but not addicted to) calling everything an addiction. At least when we're not busy getting high off of everything.
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Posted on Techdirt - 27 April 2010 @ 6:17pm
German authorities launched a new fit of privacy hysteria last week after discovering that Google's Street View cars are not only taking photographs -- they're recording the publicly-available router MAC addresses and SSIDs seen as the cars travel past Wi-Fi hotspots. UK and European politicians had already been up in arms about Americans wandering the streets taking pictures of citizens and completely non-secretive government buildings, and now Germany's data protection chief is supposedly "horrified" by the discovery that Google is also collecting public wireless hotspot data. Of course a number of companies and individuals (like Skyhook Wireless and war drivers) have been doing this exact thing for years, but because it's Google -- somehow hysteria reigns.
Neither German authorities or those covering the story seem able to say how precisely an aggregate collection of public data will be used for nefarious purposes. The assumption simply is that Google has somehow figured out a way. The Register for instance informs readers that Google's "uniquely cavalier approach to privacy" and "potential ability to cross reference the information raises additional concerns." Yet the report seems unable to tell readers what those concerns are, instead just assuming that Google must be doing something mischievous, and quoting CEO Eric Schmidt as saying users "shouldn't worry about privacy unless they have something to hide." Of course what Schmidt actually said in that interview with CNBC was somewhat less sinister:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines like Google do retain the information for some time, and we are all subject to the Patriot Act, and it is possible that that information may be made available to the authorities."
Though Schmidt does veer awfully close to the surveillance state meme of "if you don't have anything to hide you've got nothing to worry about," in context he's simply saying the obvious: that if you want information kept private -- don't share it -- given public data these days is collected and by proxy easily accessible to law enforcement. With the outcries over Street View taking photographs of your front door, there's nothing being collected that users can't already see should they walk by. With Google's collection of Wi-Fi data, there's again nothing being collected that isn't publicly available. MAC addresses (and in this case we're just talking about hotspot MAC addresses) are changeable, and users can hide their SSID if they don't want the world to see it.
That said, how the aggregate data is used by such a large corporation is very important, and people should push Google to be as transparent as possible -- but there's a difference between asking reasonable questions about Google's data collection practices and just assuming the worst possible scenario. Google isn't publishing this data -- and two different blog posts explain how much data they're collecting, why it's being collected, and how it's being used largely to aid in GPS triangulation and local search. Though clearly from there they'll feed this data into the heads up displays of Google shock troops clad in black gunmetal body armor -- who can then carry out Google's master plan of taking over the planet using your Linksys details.
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Posted on Techdirt - 27 April 2010 @ 12:32am
The film studios apparently should have spent as much time making sure their DVD new release DRM actually works with popular Blu-Ray players as they did on their new 28 day new release delay scheme. Avatar, which of course Netflix and Redbox users now won't be able to rent for a month, was released on DVD last Friday. While the title's hype and box office success easily translated to disc sales records, AdamR writes in to note that some customers were rewarded for their purchase by finding out the disc wouldn't play on many Blu-Ray players. While some users are able to fix the problem if they can manage to download new firmware that plays nice with the new Avatar DRM, new firmware for players like the Samsung BD-UP5000 doesn't (and may not ever) exist. It's almost as if the studios are trying to perfect the art of annoyance when it comes to Blu-Ray -- something that has helped contribute to the platform's less-than-anticipated adoption rates. While DVDs have always been loaded with unskippable crap (that ironically pirates don't have to deal with) newer Blu-Ray DVDs seem to enjoy taking this to an entirely new level -- with even more unskippable previews, promotions and warnings downloaded to your player via broadband. Somehow the studios continue to believe that layers of seemingly-endless annoyances (DRM, delaying new releases, unskippable "features" -- none of which pirates experience) are actually going to help keep piracy at bay and physical media relevant forever.
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Posted on Techdirt - 26 April 2010 @ 5:01am
A UK ISP has teamed up with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to create a new parental control and filtering system that's based on the same classification system being used by the UK film industry. UK Wireless ISP Tibboh uses internet filter technology created by Netsweeper to classify websites under the BBFC's rating system (U, PG, 12, 15 or 18). Facebook and Twitter are given a "12" rating (only suitable for those over twelve), Blogger and Wordpress sites are given a "15" rating, while major news outlets are given a "U" certificate (suitable for everyone). The idea seems like a fusion of a bunch of ineffective and bad ideas. It's based on Internet filters that, of course, will block some useful content, but which kids will be able to bypass anyway. The filter system adds a new wrinkle by pretending it's possible to assign a valuable age restriction metric to information delivery platforms -- as if your kid couldn't possibly run into something foul via Twitter, in a blog, or in the news. The service provides the illusion of safety to people who'd rather pay twenty Pounds a month than pay attention to what their kids are doing -- or talk to them face to face about smart technology use.
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Posted on Techdirt - 23 April 2010 @ 4:33pm
We've seen no limit to stories over the years about wireless customers (including a few semi-famous ones) who wind up with fairly insane wireless broadband bills for any number of reasons. Usually the stories involve someone traveling overseas and not understanding the roaming charges and overages involved, though sometimes the users don't even need to leave port to find themselves hit with a $27,000 3G bill. The latest story of this type (via the Consumerist) involves a user getting a $7,865.84 Verizon Wireless bill after taking his Mifi portable 3G hotspot on a business trip to Tel Aviv. In this case however, the user called Verizon before the trip, studied the overage penalties, and still wound up using 350,000 kb of bandwidth before concluding it was Verizon who screwed up:
"The ugly truth is that upon investigating the issue, I found a number of things could have been done by Verizon to protect me as a consumer. They may not mention them outright, but they are there. The fact that these things were not done can only lead me to assume that Verizon would rather their consumers "understand" as little as possible about their TOS.'"
Except as a consumer, it's his responsibility to read the find print on his contract and understand the limitations and penalties of his plan. The user studied the charges, spoke with representatives -- even seemed to have at least a base understanding of what he was going to be charged per kilobyte -- and then chose to use expensive 3G data on an overseas trip anyway. Consumer responsibility and research plays a big part of the equation.
That said, we've been saying for a long time now that these bills demonstrate the fact that carriers aren't doing a particularly good job making service limits clear or educating customers. Many consumers (more than you would think) can't tell the difference between a kilobyte and a lemur, and Verizon's math skills on this front aren't always reliable to begin with. While most carriers have some kind of mechanism in place to help notify users of excessive usage, carriers haven't done a great job notifying users when their bill starts to go nuclear (like many credit card companies do when a large charge appears on your card) or making overages clear. Fortunately, carriers often agree to slash these bills -- but usually only after they receive media attention.
In the UK, where they've seen the same kind of insane 3G bills, regulators have jumped in and addressed the problem by first capping roaming charges -- but then by also requiring (as of July 1) that carriers allow users to set a monthly maximum cap that limits how much they can spend on data each month. Consumers get an automated alert as they approach 80% of that total, then their service is temporarily suspended when the user crosses the spending cap. If users don't choose a limit, a limit of $68 per month is set for them (that's only data and doesn't include voice minutes or other bill totals). Of course here in the States carriers aren't going to want to voluntarily employ tools that reduce how much money they can make off of confused users, and will fight any regulation that limits how much they can charge. So nothing changes, and story after story emerges about users whose phone bills resemble the GDP of small countries.
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