Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Regulating gold farming

I'm in Malaysia for a WIPO seminar on the software industry (note to self: in the future, stay away from water and ice). Yesterday there was an interesting session on the gaming industry in the Asian region. The representative from the Japanese software industry gave statistics on the subscription-based online gaming market. By 2006, there were 660,000 people playing subscription-based games (of which 90,000 were female). Laura Ho from the Malaysian Multimedia Development Corporation had an interesting take on virtual property. While it is clear that some games make claims over ownership of virtual goods, what happens in exchanges between two players? While the actual ownership over the intellectual property may be clearly delimitated through licences, what is the relationship between users?

This made me think about the growing economic importance of virtual economies, but also brought me back to my own experiences with gold selling. On the plane in I read an article in Edge magazine on the behind-the-scenes work of support staff at NCSoft Austin. A prominent part of the interview talked about the problem of gold farmers, and about the amount of resources that go into curbing farming. Support staff are very much aware of the activities of gold farming, so they claimed to conduct account banning, as well as being familiar with Chinese IP addresses. One of the claims is that farmers are given away by sudden large earnings, or by unusually large transactions.

Farming is clearly aganst most EULAs, but I was wondering about the extent of policing excercised. For example, I think that whatever the evils of farming, the underground economy could actually be good for a game. Farmers must be subscribers after all, and many other virtal inhabitants appreciate access to gold without countless grinding hours.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jail for priests over copyright infringement?

I was surprised to find this story on the front page of Saturday's Guardian because it shows the growing importance of copyright questions in the mainstream press. However, I was less impressed with the article's content. The headline tells us that "Polish priests threatened with jail for plagiarising sermons". Quite an impressive claim, and definitely a headline-grabbing topic. Plagiarising priests behind bars, it doesn't get any better than this, right?

Certainly, if the priests are lifting entire sermons from online sources, that is clearly copyright infringement, besides being morally dubious, and potentially a sin if one considers it as theft. However, nowhere in the text of the article there is evidence for the claim that the plagiarising clergy will be thrown into jail. Copyright infringement is mostly enforced through civil remedies, and very rarely there are criminal implications for casual copiers. So, maybe Polish copyright law is different? Polish copyright law punishes with two years of imprisonment for two years for "any person who usurps the authorship or misleads as to the authorship of all or part of the work or performance of another..." So in theory it is possible, but this does not seem like something that would be enforced.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Confessions of a gold buyer

Meet a typical level 70 human mage (name and server omitted to protect the innocent). He has reached highest level, so what is he to do next? Embark on the endless pursuit of better gear and epic mounts! But he cannot compete with those kids that spend all day in front of their computers and farm gold like it is imminently going to reach the peak of the production curve. Our mage has places to be, people to meet, conferences to attend, articles to write.

Enter the gold sellers. They spam the public channels day and night. "Welcome to Happygold.net, we sell you 1000 golds for only €25 euros". The mage knows that this is wrong. Those gold farmers are actually kids in China working in depressing conditions, nothing but a techno-sweat-shop. Gold selling inflates prices and demeans the game. It is a form of cheating, as it erases the need to grind for hours to obtain the reward. Yet, you want that fast mount so that you can fly through the skies of Outland at a decent speed. Then there is the issue of writing and talking about virtual worlds and virtual economies, yet never having conducted a real-world online monetary transaction. The mage tells himself that it is all right, it is all in the name of scholarly legal research.

He fires up his PayPal spell.

Choosing the gold seller is a tricky endeavour. He has been writing down names of in-game gold sellers (proving unfortunately that channel spam does work). He weeds out those which are too pushy or annoying. He then goes to several sites, and further filters out the ones which have not even bothered getting their sites in decent English. He then compares prices, and selects one with a 10% extra gold offer, and which also has a well-designed website and decent interface (sloppy coding is a sign of sloppy thinking). He types in his European server, his faction and his character, and selects that he wants to buy 1000 gold. PayPal comes up, requests the password, and the transaction is complete. Was that it? It was way too easy!

Ten minutes later the mage is slowly flying around Netherstorm in his non-epic mount, when he receives a private message:
"Hello, this is happygolds.net" (not the real name of course).
"Oh, hi! Err... how do I do this?"
"Come to SW"
"OMW "Being a mage has the advantage of teleportation, so our hero swiftly materialises in Stormwind, where he is invited to a group by a Level 1 player.
"Meet me at the bank" it says.
"Ok, I'm there". A generic Level 1 warrior shows up, goes into the Guild vault, clearly withdraws something, and the trade screen comes up. He transfers 1000 gold just like that, says "Cya" and disbands the group and logs out in front of your eyes.

Our mage is left experiencing a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. There's glee at the fact that he now can afford his epic mount. There's a good amount of guilt, peppered with the strange sensation that one has just participated in an illicit act, thrown in with a hint of amazement at how fast, easy and painless the whole process was. £20 GBP gone just like that, converted into a virtual currency that can be used only to spend virtual goods.

The immensity of the economic implications of the transaction finally start to dawn. No wonder Sweden is considering taxing in-game economies. The amount of money changing hands must be huge!

Now, off to get that Swift Blue Gryphon.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Harry Potter and the Maze of Fair Use

I have been following with interest the ongoing litigation between one Joanne Kathleen Rowling and Steven Vander Ark (a Rowlingian name if I ever saw one), the maker of the Harry Potter Lexicon, but until now I have been silent as the intricacies of American Fair Use are as much of a mystery to me as the arrangement of a Hippogriff's entrails. Edinburgh's most famous authoress is suing the maker of the Lexicon in a New York court alleging copyright infringement over the publication of the Lexicon in printed form. The merits of the case are discussed elsewhere more intelligently, but I have been struck by the strength of the interest by the UK mainstream media on the case. In retrospect, this should not be surprising, as the British press have been starved of access to Rowling due to her famous seclusive nature. There are articles describing her outfits, comparing her to the Queen, et cetera, ad nauseam, and all the rest. But there have been a couple of articles in the British press that caught my eye and prompted me to write a few lines on the case.

Joan Smith in The Independent writes that JK Rowling is justified in bringing up the suit because she is fighting for the rights of authors everywhere. She comments:

"... the lexicon isn't an encyclopedia in the normal sense, consisting of facts that are in the public domain, but something parasitic on years of hard work by Rowling. Her present bank balance is irrelevant to the case, except in so far as she is one of the few British authors who can afford to sue when their work is used without permission or payment; in that sense, she is defending the rights of thousands of writers, most of whom don't earn enough to live on."
Ms Smith should perhaps inform herself of the particulars of the case before writing. The Lexicon is indeed akin to a reference work, even if it is based on other people's work. Derivative reference and commentary of other work has been with us for years, and it has always been a legitimate endeavour. Heck, by Joan Smith's standards, most modern scholarship would go out of the window. I know people who have made their careers out of interpreting and re-interpreting Lacan.

Joan Smith follows with the inane and lame argument about how most writers do not earn enough to make a living, while trying to tie this fact with the internet. She says that "British writers are struggling to survive and badly hit by unauthorised use of their work on internet; at a time when half of UK households have a broadband connection, fewer than 15 per cent of authors have received any payment for online use of their work." I may be mistaken here, but where can one find this wholesale pirating of written works? I am aware that it exists, but I truly do not know of anyone who has illegally downloaded a book instead of buying it. The phenomenon described is due to the market, and the fact that the book market is geared towards few hits, and most authors do not make enough out of their work.

Smith seems to have a problem with the internet. In a line that reminds me of Andrew Keen, she says:
"What's weird about this is the way in which some readers change their attitude completely when they're confronted with the notion that writing is work and should be paid for. Bloggers are the worst offenders, hiding behind pseudonyms to complain that the law of copyright is an attack on free speech."
The chain of non sequiturs (see what I did there?) in that sentence is astounding. Somehow, being a blogger is not writing, and it is not hard work. Somehow, those bloggers do not like paying for written work (I am surprised, as my bookshelves are filled with, for lack of a better word, books). Not only do they not like paying for stuff, they are cowards hiding behind pseudonyms (*checks name on the right-hand side*). On top of all that, those dastardly free-loading cowardly internet people think it's all about free speech. Witness the dried stalks flying as Jane Smith beats that poor straw man to death.

The funny thing is that no, this case is not about free speech, it is about the American system of Fair Use. The question is simple. Is making a derivative work based on other work copyright infringement, and if so, is such use fair use? As I said, I do not know enough about this to give an educated opinion, but my guess is the fact that Rowling and Warner Brothers have admitted to using the Lexicon before will count against them. Sam Leith in the Telegraph has a very interesting take on the case, and astutely recognises that this is all about reference materials.

Personally, I just think that Rowling should be indicted for making a mess of her last book, but if we sued authors for destroying their own creations, surely George Lucas and Robert Jordan should be first in line.

Friday, April 18, 2008

New reasons to buy a Mac

The video speaks for itself. Can you spell "desperation?"

BitTorrent traffic still growing

Ars Technica has an interesting story on the continuing growth of BitTorrent traffic, yet the head of anti-piracy operations at the MPAA says that things are getting better.

The problem for those figthing BitTorrent traffic is that sites are one Google search away, regardless of which tracker site you prefer. Google "galactica torrents" and the first page is filled with tracker sites where you can download the show. This is why the current legal battle against sites such as The Pirate Bay are doomed to fail.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

British music industry says no to private copying

(via Out-Law). The Music Business Group, which brings together all of the collective music industry associations, has issued its Response to UK IPO consultation on copyright exceptions. Just when you think that the music industry cannot sink any lower, they go and surprise you with documents like these. Amongst the many things covered, the music industry seems determined not to give up the prohibition on private copying existing in the UK. For readers outside of these shores, UK copyright law does not allow for private copying, so every time I rip my CDs into my iPod I am infringing copyright. I know, it is a barbaric legal quirk, one of those outdated legislative fossils that comes to us from the time of tape recorders and 1200 b/s modems.

The UK IPO is conducting a consultation to implement the recommendations of the Gowers Review with regards to private copying, namely, that there should be a strictly limited 'private copying' exception to enable consumers to format-shift content they purchase for personal use. The MBG does not seem to like this, and their recommendation is:

"We need to redress the balance which underpins copyright - one that allows consumers to enjoy their music, drives technological innovation, yet recognises music creators’ and right holders’ place in this market. Our proposal creates an easily-implemented, flexible, futureproofed and transparent solution: an exception subject to licence."
How is this licensing scheme going to work? The MBG wants to impose a levy on manufacturers of "devices substantially used or marketed for making copies of music." I am guessing this would include CD-ROM and DVD-ROM manufacturers, as well as digital players. It is also possible that this levy will then be transferred to the consumer as increased cost, in which case we would end up paying for it.

The reasoning leading to the proposal is bizarre to say the least. The BMG recognises that a lot of the music in digital players is the result of format shifting. They cite research by Music Ally which shows that 51% of music in digital players is from owned CDs, while only 9% is purchased, which leaves 40% of unpaid music.

Music in digital players
This is one of those half-full half-empty moments. If you wanted to be positive, you would say that this is a great finding for the music industry, as it is evidence that 60% of the content of the average iPod has been paid for. However, they do not see it that way. They see that large 51%, and they want a cut, regardless of the fact that this has already been paid for. When looking at the chart above, it is clear why we need to change the law, but why do we need a levy? As things stand, the music industry has kindly stated that they will not enforce private copying. So at the moment, they have clearly specified to consumers that private copying is fine. How on Earth do they think that they can now ask for a levy? They claim:
"The Government faces a marginal trade off. Should this policy be passed, it has changed the law and, whilst this might not appear to change behaviour, it does widen the gap between value and utility yet further. Put another way, it increases the gap between a consumer’s willingness to pay for music content and hardware by making hardware relatively more valuable to the content. So, for example, if a consumer had a utility value of £100 per annum on music, of which 2/3 was taken up by the cost of an iPod and the residual on CDs and iTunes, that balance can be expected to shift towards hardware as a result of increased transferability of the content. Interventions should narrow the gap, not widen it."
This reasoning is so convoluted that I do not know where to begin. They seem to be saying that institutiong a private copying exception will further erode their rights, as it will make the digital player more valuable that the content that fills it. Consumers do what seems fair with their CDs and rip the content, but the music industry sees this as behaviour that must be changed. While a private copying exception will not change behaviour, they argue that it makes music less valuable.

I am off now to wilfully engage in copyright infringement while I still can (in other words, I'm going to listen to music on my iPod).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

SCRIPT-ed April 2008

The April 2008 issue of SCRIPT-ed is now live. This issue is filled with excellent material. There are some very relevant and timely articles on the P2P debate, and also on the German Constitutional Court decision with regards to Trojans. Another very intriguing article about trade marks and the No Logo movement. The contents are:


  • Lex Personalitatis & Technology-driven Law
    Joseph A. Cannataci, pp.1-6
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |

Reviewed Articles
  • Trade Mark Coexistence Agreements: What is all the (lack of) fuss about?
    Matthew J Elsmore, pp.7-30
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Criminal Friends of Entertainment: Analysing Results from Recent Peer-to-Peer Surveys
    Herkko Hietanen, Anniina Huttunen, Heikki Kokkinen, pp.31-49
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Entry into the Market for Online Distribution of Digital Content: Economic and Legal Ramifications
    John B. Meisel, pp.50-69
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • The Black Label: Trade Mark Dillution, Culture Jamming and the No Logo Movement
    Matthew Rimmer, pp.70-138
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Oscar Pistorius and the Future Nature of Olympic, Paralympic and Other Sports
    Gregor Wolbring, pp.139-160
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |

  • Genetic Models of Disease Resistance in Livestock: “What Does Our Conscience Want?”
    Kenneth M Boyd, pp.161-167
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
    Corporate Counsel's New Dance Partner: "Criminal Lawyers Teach the Limbo Dance"
    Maureen Duffy-Lewis and Daniel B. Garrie, pp.168-175
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • A Modest Proposal for Annotating the Dialectical State of a Dispute
    Ronald P. Loui, pp.176-197
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |

  • TILT – Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society
    Paul de Hert, pp.198-204
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |

Book Reviews
  • The Global Technology Revolution 2020: In Depth Analysis - Bio/nano/materials/information Trends, Drivers, Barriers, and Social Implications
    by Richard Silberglitt et al.
    Reviewed by Carolina Botero
    , pp.205-207
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • The Ethics and Governance of Human Genetic Databases: European Perspectives
    by Matti Hayry, Ruth Chadwick, Vilhjalmur Arnason and Gardar Arnason (eds.)
    Reviewed by Adrienne Hunt
    , pp.208-213
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War
    by Michael L. Gross
    Reviewed by Michael H. Kottow
    , pp.214-217
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • How Universities Promote Economic Growth
    by By Shahid Yusuf and Kaoru Nabeshima (eds)
    Reviewed by G Narasimha Raghavan
    , pp.218-219
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Crossing Borders: Cultural, Religious, and Political Differences concerning Stem Cell Research. A Global Approach
    by Wolfgang Bender, Christine Hauskeller, Alexandra Manzei (eds)
    Reviewed by Michael Steinmann
    , pp.220-223
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |
  • Broadcasting Pluralism and Diversity: A Comparative Study of Policy and Regulation
    by Lesley Hitchens
    Reviewed by Eliza Varney
    , pp.224-226
    | HTML | DOC | PDF |

Friday, April 11, 2008

European Parliament votes against three-strikes

(via Philippe Aigrain) There has been a bit of an overload on the three-strikes proposals these last few weeks, but I think that this is really important. The European Parliament voted last Wednesday on report A6-0063/2008 on Cultural industries in Europe. The report originally looked the the average pro-copyright industry document, although it stated that "criminalising consumers not seeking to make a profit is not the right solution to combating digital piracy."

the document's rapporteur Guy Bono has clearly been following the debate on the three-strikes proposal. Much like yours truly, he recognises that cutting-off internet service to an infringer is a disproportionate response in the digital age. He commented that:

"On this subject, I am firmly opposed to the position of some Member States, whose repressive measures are dictated by industries that have been unable to change their business model to face necessities imposed by the information society. The cut of Internet access is a disproportionate measure regarding the objectives. It is a sanction with powerful effects, which could have profound repercussions in a society where access to the Internet is an imperative right for social inclusion."
Excellent point. The parliament agreed, and adopted the inclusion of the following paragraph to the report:
"Calls on the Commission and the Member States to recognise that the Internet is a vast platform for cultural expression, access to knowledge, and democratic participation in European creativity, bringing generations together through the information society; calls on the Commission and the Member States, therefore, to avoid adopting measures conflicting with civil liberties and human rights and with the principles of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness, such as the interruption of Internet access."
I believe that this may prove to be the tipping point against the ludicrous three-strike policy. ISPs are clearly uneasy about becoming enforcers (and they should). Everyone with more than two functioning neurons has been able to recognise that the proposal is unworkable. Now the European Parliament has thrown its weight against the policy. One hopes that this may prove to be the death of this proposal.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The ISP rebellion

Much virtual ink has been spent discussing the latest attempt to shift liability for illegal file-sharing back to the intermediaries. UK ISPs are said to be in negotiation with the British Phonographic Industry in order to turn them into enforcers. ISPs are supposed to disconnect illegal file-sharers after other disciplinary action has been taken. No ISP had spoken against such action, but last week, the chief of Carphone Warehouse has come out and attacked the plans as the unworkable mess that they are. He said that "I cannot foresee any circumstances in which we would voluntarily disconnect a customer's account on the basis of a third party alleging a wrongdoing." a brave position in my opinion. I have already said that turning ISPs into an enforcer of IP rights cannot be done, and disconnecting an entire family's internet service for the sins of one member seems rather extreme. Just wait for the first news item recounting Little Ian's trouble with his homework because of the Big Bad Music Industry, and you will see just how this plan is doomed.

However, things could get messy for Carphone Warehouse. The BPI has called their response "irresponsible", and according to the Daily Telegraph, the BPI has threatened them with legal action if they do not comply. Apparently, they sent a fax which says:

"... unless we receive your agreement in writing that within 14 days Carphone Warehouse will implement procedures set out above, we reserve our right to apply to court for injunctions and other relief without further notice to protect our members' rights."
This is clearly where the music industry's strategy lies. It has been trying to get agreements of enforcement from ISPs, but the underlying threat has always been legal action. Comply or else.

I hope that the Carphone Warehouse sticks to its guns. For starters, we may get a clear ruling defining ISP liability once and for all. I would also believe that Carphone Warehouse has a good chance of winning the case, which would be more problematic for the music industry than it is for the ISPs. If they fail in this tactic, what will they try next?

Anyway, the BPI are barking up the wrong tree. New research clearly indicates that the problem of sharing music is not an online problem, it is people sharing music with their friends, just as it has always been. We haven't really moved much from the good old days of the mix tape it seems. And then we get Feargal Sharkey telling us that unless this is stopped, musicians will stop making music. Somehow, I do not think so.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Microsoft wins OOXML standard

The geeks are up in arms because Microsoft has won approval of its much maligned Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an open standard. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has finally allowed OOXML to become an international standard after its initial rejection last year, but the decision still can be appealed.

Why is this controversial, and why should we care? You may already be familiar with OOXML, if you own Office 2007 (or 2008 for Mac), then you are using it; you know, the annoying .docx file format that is not fully backward compatible. However, the format is much better than previous XML schema used in the likes of Office 2003, and despite the many problems with backward compatibility, I must admit that it does produce nice PowerPoints. One problem highlighted with the OOXML is that it is protected by various patents. While holding a patent over a standard technology is not such a problem, Microsoft's history of abusing a dominant position has made some people nervous. Under current standardisation practice, patent holders must offer their patented technology subject to standard approval on a Reasonable and Non Discriminatory basis (RAND). Arguably, Microsoft has fulfilled this requirement by issuing the
Microsoft Open Specification Promise, a unilateral promise of non-enforcement of their claims on OOXML. Nevertheless, many people have been suspicious of the promise.

The other problem with the OOXML format is that it has been pitted against the Open Document Format (ODF), the one favoured by the open source community and developed for the Open Office project. The ODF has already received ISO standard approval, which has raised questions about the need for a competing standard. There have also been serious issues about OOXML's approval procedure, with accusations of bribery and worse. The accusations have been so strident that there is talk of further action by the European Commission.

I must admit that at the moment I have not made up my mind. While I am disturbed by the many reports of browbeating and corruption, I am somehow troubled by the strident opposition from the open source community against the format. ODF has already been approved, and I believe that the battle should take place with the consumer. Open Document proponents should fight to make Open Office better, so that it will get wider adoption. In my experience there is a good window of opportunity at the moment, as Office 2007 has failed to capture the market, much like Vista has failed to dominate. Open Office and the Open Document standard then should take the fight directly to Microsoft, not at the ISO, but at the PC.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Users liable for phishing and hacking

(via Out-Law) Who should be liable if a consumer is the subject of a phishing attack? At least in the UK, the common banking practice has been to assume some or all of the losses incurred by the customer. This is about to change with the new Banking Code. The Banking Code is a financial services self-regulating document which institutes a number of best practices and rules for financial services, and it is offered by the British Bankers' Association, the British Building Societies Association, and the UK Payments Association (APACS).

One of the recommendations to consumers set out by the Banking Code is to maintain one's computer secure by using updated anti-virus software. Seems like sound advice. However, this one comes with a barb. If the consumer does not fulfil this requirement, he/she may be liable for losses arising from fraud, phishing or other online scams or attacks.

The issue stems from the follwing articles:

10.3 "If we confirm a transaction is unauthorised, we will refund any interest charged, unless you have acted fraudulently or without reasonable care. [...]
12.11 "If you act without reasonable care, and this causes losses, you may be responsible for them. (This may apply, for example, if you do not follow section 12.5 or 12.9 or you do not keep to your account’s terms and conditions.)"
What does section 12.9 looks like? It contains the following advice:
  • Keep your PC secure. Use up-to-date anti-virus and spyware software and a personal firewall.
  • Keep your passwords and PINs secret.
  • We (or the police) will never contact you to ask you for your online banking or payment card PINs, or your password information.
  • Treat e-mails you receive from senders claiming to be from your bank or building society with caution and be wary of e-mails or calls asking you for any personal security details.
  • Always access internet banking sites by typing the bank or building society’s address into your web browser. Never go to an internet banking site from a link in an e-mail and then enter personal details.
  • Follow our advice – our websites are usually a good place to get help and guidance on how to stay safe online.
  • Visit www.banksafeonline.org.uk for useful information.
I am confused about the last two. Are those recommendations or requirements? Similarly, how would a bank determine that your anti-virus was out of date? How will a financial institution determine that your PIN and password are secure? Similarly, I receive an email from my credit card provider every month with a link to their website. Does that violate the requirement for accessing the website only by typing the address into the browser?

While I agree that users should be proactive in protecting their data and avoiding scams, I am not sure that this list can be enforced. Thankfully, the Banking Code is only soft law.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Blackboard's patent on the way out

(via Ray Corrigan) I have been following the saga of U.S. Patent 6,988,138 protecting "Internet-based education support system and methods". After winning an injunction in a Texas court, Blackboard has seen 44 of its claims knocked out in a preliminary injunction by the USPTO. Ray has a comprehensive report, so I will not repeat it.

Blackboard's claim exemplifies everything that is wrong with software patents. Theirs is a patent that should not exist, and if there is any justice in the world, it will be repealed and <Hugo Weaving> cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came </Hugo Weaving>.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Think of the children

The British press is going through a feeding frenzy, as tabloids and mainstream media outlets try to outdo each other in reporting the threats posed to children online. The Daily Mail warns us that "Millions of girls using Facebook, Bebo and Myspace 'at risk' from paedophiles and bullies". Even by its low standards, this has got to be the most misleading headline in the history of Internet reporting. The Daily Express tells us that "Parents warned of website predators". A word of advice to the good folks at the Daily Express, update your stock photographs to reflect that the century has changed.

At the heart of the media feeding frenzy is a report by Ofcom (full report here, thanks DaihĂ­!) that warns parents about the potential dangers of social networking sites. What seems to be a measured study has been translated by parts of the press into yet another cluster of accusations that the Internet is filled with predators and filth.

This of course comes on the tails of the Byron Review entitled "Safer Children in a Digital World". I have finally gone through the report, and I am troubled by some of the broader claims made. While I applaud the attempt to make evidence-based policy-making decisions, I am afraid that the Byron report is long on speculation, and short on sound evidence. I was particularly struck by the Review's treatment of gaming. While it recognises that there is little evidence on the harms of violent video games, it goes on to make some tenuous links to ethnographic evidence that it may be harmful. Online gaming was cited as a particular worry, although here the evidence was even thinner.

The public perception of the internet as a bad place is one of my pet-peeves. I am amazed by how easy it is for journalists to paint the online world as a scary place full of monsters. There is a sector of the British press that relishes any chance to scare parents silly about the dangers of the virtual world, when children are still vulnerable from the usual threats. Bullying and abuse take place as they did before the internet, and the actual recorded cases of grooming do not warrant the volume of the coverage.

Should we think of the children? Of course! The Byron Review is not bad, it has some sensible ideas about online safety, privacy, and self-regulation, but responses should be proportional to the actual threat posed.

Update: Open Education has two excellent posts on the Byron Report, one on the Internet findings, the other one on the video game issues (thanks to Tom Hanson for the heads up).

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Who broke the Internet?

The Internet is broken. You may have noticed some of the signs: slow connections, sluggish downloads, constant disconnections, lost emails, tons of spam. Who broke it, and how can we fix it?

This was part of a very interesting talk by Chris Marsden at BILETA 2008, an earlier version of which can be found on SCRIPT-ed. At the heart of the topic of network neutrality lies the very real fact that there is a serious problem with current architecture. Bittorrent protocol is a wonderful way of transferring large files, but it is resource-heavy. Small number of users can hog as much as 70-80% of the network traffic at any given time.

How can this be stopped? Many ISPs have started working on traffic-shaping, throttling, and using other restrictive tools. The justification for these practices is that by throttling bittorrent protocols, it is possible to make sure that the rest of users will not see their service affected. In an unfair situation, placing caps on protocols guilty of hogging the network would be a good idea. To me the "gotcha" moment came when I saw a chart by George Ou, presented at the Network Neutrality hearings in Washington. To me, this is incontrovertible proof that Something Must Be Done:

The problem is of course that current solutions to the problem, such as rate limiting, are inherently unfair, as they castigate the legitimate and occasional bittorrent user as well as the hardcore seeder. It also can be partially circumvented through encryption, although I have heard it on good authority that encryption can be easily shaped.

Bob Briscoe, a researcher at BT, is proposing a change to the network architecture that has been in place since 1986. Current TCP/IP traffic is handled through the additive increase/multiplicative-decrease (AIMD) algorithm, which shapes current congestion through the network. Briscoe and others argue that the current algorithm is unfair as it allows a bittorrent user to open many streams for sharing the same content, while someone browsing will only use one session, which favours the bandwidth hog in detriment of the normal user. The proposed change is to allow for a weighted TCP algorithm, which will allocate similar bandwidth to users, regardless of the number of streams they have open at the same time.

I find Broscoe's proposal elegant and logical, but most importantly, I like the idea of fixing an architectural problem through architecture. Amongst all of the regulatory debates about the subject, I find that the best solution is not to legislate, but to fix the broken protocol.

Now, if I can only get my BT Vision box to work, I will be a happy man.