Thursday, February 28, 2008

4-minute medley on the music wars

This is an instant classic.

"You've just been sued by the R I A A..."

YouTube v Pakistan: a test on resilience

Technology news sites have been reporting this story, but I think that its importance has been downplayed. Last Friday, Pakistan Telecom blocked access to YouTube inside the country as a measure to censor the site because it contained criticism to the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH). However, this blocking exercise went slightly awry, as the blockade resulted in a two-hour global outage of YouTube.

In order to understand what happened, one has to understand how things get to us online. Sites are nothing but documents hosted in machines around the world. Those servers have IP addresses, which are also connected to the domain name. Browsers find out how to connect to those servers via a Domain Name Server, which gets to resolve addresses into domain names by updating them through the root nameserver system. There are thirteen such root servers, which know that is hosted in servers with a certain IP address. What Pakistan Telecom did on Friday was to locally hijack that domain name, and told its local DNS servers that YouTube was hosted at a machine that was not the one where the content is normally hosted. This was a server in Pakistan setup to handle the requests to YouTube. The problem occured when the fake information was mistakenly communicated to one of the root nameservers hosted in Hong-Kong, and once there it was replicated to all of the other nameservers.

Depending on how often your ISP updates its tables, you would not have had access to YouTube for a period of time on Friday. YouTube and Google technicians found the source of the problem, and corrected it.

This case has several interesting IT Law implications. Firstly, there is the question of regulation through choke-points, the firewall system. This has proved to be rather more efficient than it was previously believed, but it is still easily bypassed if you know what you're doing. Pakistan operates inside a firewall, as I experienced when I visited the country in 2006, but because of VPN access, I was able to easily circumvent the ban.

The other issue is that this incident has unearthed a glaring vulnerability to the global domain name system. If you want to bring down a site, all you need to do is to trick one of the root nameservers into passing incorrect information to the others in the network. This in my opinion has tremendous governance implications.

Another question, could YouTube sue Pakistan Telecom?

Update: Seems like the guilty party was not the root nameservers, but routing tables.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The bots are at the gates

(via Slashdot) We would like to think that the internet is for humans. Nothing could be further from the truth, the internet is inhabited by millions of little robots which fetch feeds, index the web, trawl through content looking for patterns, browse blogs, search e-commerce sites and compare prices. While most bots are benign in nature (e.g. Googlebot), there are malicious artificial entities pouncing on your protections, or trying to log into blogs and leave spam, or attempt to setup email accounts in order to send spam to the unsuspecting masses. There is only one thing standing between this army of bots and their human overlords from you and me, the mighty CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart).

CAPTCHAs are designed to test that the person filling the web form is indeed a member of the human species. This is done by displaying twisted and/or hard to read text as a picture, under the assumption that only a real human can make out the real letters behind the gibberish. The problem has been that there is an arms race between bot handlers and CAPTCHA designers.

The latest victim of CAPTCHA vulnerability is Gmail. According to Websense, a new spambot has been able to succesfully create a Gmail account 1 out of 5 times, which is pretty impressive.

It is time we gave robots some form of personality right, and also we should make them accountable. I don't know, bring back gladiatorial combat for bots?

Monday, February 25, 2008

New media: old wine in new bottles?

I fear to utter the word "paradigm shift" because it is overused (and often misunderstood). However, 2008 is promising to be a year of true changes in the media environment. If the markets shift, will we get the regulation of the new market right?

Why do I say that the media environment is changing? Change has been in the making for a while, all of the techno-shamans feel it in the air, casting their digital bones to try to see in which direction it will go. The download generation is coming of age (next year will be a decade after Napster, a decade!) This means that there is an entire market of people who have never and will never own a CD. This generation watches YouTube more often than they watch TV, and are more likely to have the attention span of a guppy, and therefore are notably promiscuous with their tastes. Witness the dawn of the Long Tail generation.

This was evident in the very good article in The Guardian about the stars of video bloogging. When thousands of UK teenagers show up for the recording of DiggNation, you know that there is something big going on. The new media environment is a nebulous, niche market place, where no two people have the same likes, and talking to someone from outside your area of interest is akin to talking to someone from Mars (if there were such thing as people from Mars, but I digress...)

So, the new economy is driven by IP protection, right? After all, the creative industries are all about intellectual property maximalism and its twin objectives: protection, regulation, and control (fine, not twins, more like triplets, but I digress again...) The problem for IP maximalists is that the last decade has seen the rise of the free society, or as Chris Anderson calls it, freenomics. The creative industries have to compete against free competitors, as the cost of copying digital works approaches zero. Think of the problem using the old goods vs services dichotomy. We have different systems of law to govern provision of goods or services, because they are very different in nature. Intellectual property sat uneasily between both worlds. While copyright works were sold as goods, they displayed a lot of the features of services. We even had case law which dealt precisely with the question of whether software was a good or a service.

However, digital technology has shifted that duality towards services. As we see more and more methods of providing creative works online at negligible cost, these works become services. Amazon still sells goods, but it is also providing an aggregated service through which I can download books and music (or I could, if I lived in the U.S., grumble, grumble...) When the copyright industry finally realises that we have shifted almost fully into the services economy, then we might see some real change. In the meantime, we are stuck with laughable attempts at controlling old media through outdated regulation methods, such as copyright term extension for performances, or the much-maligned ISP liability reform.

I'll now be off to punish myself because I used the phrases "paradigm shift" and "long tail" in the same post (at least I withstood the temptation of using the word "zeitgeist"). Forgive me reader, for I have sinned.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Of blogs and llamas

Laurence Eastham, editor of Computers & Law, has written a UK blawg review, and has kindly included yours truly in an article that mentions most of my favourite blogs, including Lex Ferenda, panGloss, IMPACT, IPKat, and Naked Law. I had not read Digial Media Law, but I will definitely give it a try. I'm terribly honoured at being included in such a group. However, I am a bit surprised that this blog has matured. Rest assured that this is not intentional, as it was always my intention to be light-hearted, and never wanted to be taken seriously. I thought the llama, that noble beast portrayed in Monty Python opening credits, was a good indication that this is not a particularly serious endeavour. I try to apply seriousness, depth, and analysis elsewhere. Nonetheless, Laurence Eastham may be onto something, as readership figures continue to go up. Have I finally sold out to the tyranny of Technorati? But I digress...

This has got me thinking about blogging in general. I spend a good time of my mornings reading blogs, and engaged in what one could describe as a Web 2.0 blitz. The blogosphere is a frightening place, and I share Laurence's moans about some of the most annoying practices. I find a lot of information, and I like the fact that one can spend hours jumping from one place to the other, going deeper and deeper into stories. The blogger netiquette of providing links to the source of the information is a very helpful research tool. I think that it is important that the UK blawg community continues to grow. Nick Holmes at Binary Law has a very interesting post about Law Prof blawgs, and their readership figures are in a realm that not even IPKat can touch.

This is going to sound like a self-indulgent moan, but blogging is hard work. I had to write for more than a year until I could finally see that readership consisted of more than the occasional bored student and the inevitable bot. In fact, for a while I thought of giving up, as I just could not see the point of spending so much effort in something that did not rise above the bot margin of error. But I continued because it is often rewarding, and there is a gratifying sense of joy that I get an email from someone telling me that they read the blog. It also forces me to stay updated.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Computer users and Asperger's syndrome

I have been following with interest the murder trial of Linux programmer Hans Reiser, not because it has particular IT Law implications, but because it involves a prominent open source community member. Mr Reiser married his late wife, Nina, in 1999. They had some marital problems leading up to 2006, and were involved in a messy divorce and custody battle. She was last seen in September 2006, and is presumed dead. As a result of their personal circumstances, Hans Reiser is accused of murdering her.

An interesting part of the trial has been Reiser's actions. He is said to lack social skills, which explains some of the reportedly strange behaviour after his Russian wife went missing. For that effect, the defense called a psychiatrist, who commented that computer users may suffer from Asperger's syndrome. Wired reports:

"Defense witness and psychiatrist Beverly Parr, on the stand for the second day, testified that those who use a computer regularly "possibly" might have Asperger's syndrome. Those diagnosed with this disorder have impaired social skills."
As an avid computer user, I must assure my readers that it is not my intention to kill anyone any time soon (unless they are coming at me inside World of Warcraft wielding an axe).

I cannot comment on the social skill aspect though... wait a second... that actually explains so much!

Talking about gold farming...

... I found this.

Associate Professor Evil Kills All Gold Farmers

I loved the line:

"I'm sick of gold farmers infesting our servers and inflating our prices. You get in the way of our ability to complete quests by killing NPCs and camping spawns! You make it harder to farm OUR own gold, so that we're forced to buy it in your filthy websites! But worst of all, you take the fantasy out of a Fantasy game by turning it into a bloiting sweatshop!"

Yeah Associate Professor, say it like it is!

If you liked that, there's
Associate Professor Evil Kills All Beggars. "I hate all of those beggars infesting our cities, too lazy to do their own work, mumble, grumble."

As they say, ROFLMAO!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The internet is for suicide

The British technophobe media are having a field day. As a result of the tragic series of suicides in the Welsh town of Bridgend (17 since last year), some sectors of the mainstream media have been quick to allocate the blame on the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular. The Daily Express has been particularly keen on finding an online link to the suicide cluster, quoting psychotherapist and media expert Lucy Beresford as saying: "What could be going on is that adolescents are sharing and describing experiences on the internet." Notice how the modal auxiliary verb is turned into an assertion by the press. The Daily Mail had already made the connection before the latest death (yes, the same Daily Mail that is now reporting on yet another Maddie sighting in the company of yet another swarthy-looking man). Even newspapers that should know better have joined the fray. The Times made a point of commenting on the fact that a few of the suicide victims had left wishes in the Bebo pages of some of the other victims. Then it has links to a video called "Is an e-suicide cult sweeping the UK?" Loaded question much? Then there is a discussion in their blog section, where people are asked "Does the internet cause copycat suicides?" Although the discussion in that comment section is balanced, you do find the odd gem, such as the statement: "The Internet does not cause suicides, but it does facilitate it."

However tragic this event is, those same newspapers are not keen to report that overall, suicide is at a 30-year low, or that there seems to be very little connection to the internet other than the fact that the Bebo sites of some of the victims have been used as memorials. Journalists should have the phrase "correlation does not mean causation" stuck on a yellow post-it note in front of their monitors. A large number of teenagers in the UK are using Bebo, and a large number of them listen to music. Hey, iTunes kills! Shut it down!

Seriously though, I often wonder if the journalists writing these reports have actually used the technology. If they had, they would realise that most Bebo profiles are not accessible to people outside the community, and even then, only people in the same school can have access to them. However, I am heartened by the fact that some reports have indeed pointed out that copycat suicide is not a new phenomenon (the well-known Wherther Effect). It is also encouraging to see other reasoned opinions.

However, I am waiting for the first politician to call for regulation of social networking sites.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Biggest eBay sale in history?

The world's biggest music collection has gone on sale for a starting price of $3 million USD, not on Sotheby's, but on eBay. The collection is made up of 3 Million Records, 300,000 CDs, 6 million+ Song Titles, and it is stored in a 16,000 square feet warehouse. I may be wrong here, but I believe this to be the largest auction on eBay's history (I would like to find out if there has been a bigger one).

There are some very interesting IT law questions here. When will the contract be formed? The sale is being offered to N. and S. America, Europe, Asia, Australia (not to Africa or the Middle East). Is this for practical reasons or because of liability concerns? If someone buys it in Europe, could they claim the 7 day return policy in accordance to the Distance Selling Directive?

Further that, I notice that the recommended payment method is PayPal, and that the transaction is covered by their $200 buyer protection policy... there's a bit of a mismatch :)

We don't give the online auction market enough credit for bringing e-commerce to the masses, but I think that it is a credit to their business method that we now take them for granted.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Why has not Linux taken over OS market?

Slashdot has posted a link to this blog post discussing why Linux has not taken over the operating system environment. It is free after all, so why aren't there more people using it? The blogger poses the fact that people do not like things that are free, and that is the reason why Linux is a distant third in the OS marketplace.

I have to disagree strongly to that hypothesis. People love free things. While most people still use Internet Explorer to browse the web, Firefox now commands a whooping 37.2% of the total market (and 46.75% of TechnoLlama readers), and it is more popular than either IE 6 or 7 taken individually. Why is that? Because it is a superior product, it has a large range of plug-ins and extensions, and it is in average more secure than IE. For those who think that IE is also free, remember that it is the pre-installed browser in Windows.

There is one important reason why Linux has not taken over the OS market: it is not easy to use (no, not even Ubuntu). Your average Linux distribution requires a lot of hard work in order to get it working properly. In my personal experience, Open SuSE 10.1 was the first distro where all of my hardware worked after the first installation (yes, including wifi). However, SuSE 10.2 had several problems, including the very inconvenient fact that either wifi or power saving features worked at the same time, leaving me with the dilemma of running out of power quickly if I wanted to connect to the Internet.

Until these problems are solved, people will continue using Windows, or migrating to OS X. Most of us know that Vista is a piece of DRM-laden junk, but even that is preferable in the minds of many consumers to having to give up an entire weekend browsing forums in order to get their laptop to work with Linux. This is why I gave up and bought a Mac. I'm sure I'm not alone in that respect.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Music industry debate in London

(via Lilian Edwards)

Musicians, fans and online copyright
2pm, 19 March, Old Theatre, London School of Economics

Is home downloading killing music? Should Internet Service Providers monitor customers to try and spot copyright infringement, and disconnect downloaders? Do musicians need new laws to benefit from the opportunities of the Internet?

Join us at this FREE event to debate these questions and more with leading copyright thinkers from the music world, government, consumer groups and universities. Confirmed speakers include John Kennedy (CEO of IFPI), Paul Sanders (CEO of PlayLouder), Becky Hogge (Open Rights Group), Lilian Edwards (Southampton University), Rufus Pollock (Cambridge University) and Michelle Childs (Knowledge Ecology International).

Registration here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ISPs set to enforce illegal downloads in the UK

The latest instalment of a concerted campaign by the IFPI in trying to curb online infringement of their music has arrived (they are trying to attack ISPs). This has been building up in the last few months, as I believe that the bright sparks at the RIAA and the IFPI may have finally realised that suing their own customers has not turned the tide of illegal file-sharing. First, France has announced that it will require ISPs to monitor and police copyright infringement. Then Paul MacGuinness, the manager of U2, made a public attack against ISPs, blaming them for the rise of file-sharing. Now, the UK will unveil a Green Paper where legislation is outlined which will bring the idea of "three strikes you're out" regime, where illegal sharers will be given a warning, then they will get a temporary disconnection, and then they will lose their service.

I know that I will hardly shock readers by stating that I think this is a bad idea. ISPs have been in private conversations with the music industry for the last year in order to agree on an industry code of conduct, or a set of regulations, but these have not been fruitful. I am guessing that the music industry threatened to lobby for regulation if no agreement was reached, and this seems to be precisely what is happening. I do not expect ISPs to take it sitting down, and I am expecting to see some serious lobbying coming from the likes of Virgin and BT. I am also concerned about the enforcement of such a measure. How exactly are they planning to police traffic? Will they act only on confirmed cases of infringement, or will they act only on the suspicion of infringement? What about legitimate traffic that uses bittorrent protocols? Will users be given a form of appeal procedure?

But the biggest problem that I have with this proposal is that it shifts the burden of justice to private entities. Similarly, I do not think for a minute that it will stop infringement, it will simply continue to balkanise P2P and make sure that users exchange music in increasingly more ingenious ways. The days of the P2P client are over, nowadays people share files using all sorts of applications and protocols. How will they stop that?

Music has gone digital. Consumers have gone digital. The industry should work around that fact and change their business model. More of the same failed enforcement mechanisms will not solve anything.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

UK IP Office issues statement on software patents

(via Arne Kolb) After the landmark ruling in Astron Clinica Ltd & Other, the UK IP Office has issued an amended notice with regards to patentable subject matter. The practice after Aerotel/Macrossan at the UKIPO was that "claims to computer programs or to programs on a carrier were not allowable." In other words, if you created some code and this was considered an invention, then you could not claim patent protection if the invention was implemented in software. You could claim protection for an invention, but not for the software as such. But now after the ruling, the practice has changed. The UKIPO says:

"In his judgment in Astron Clinica [...], Kitchin J has now clarified the law in this area. He has decided that where, as a result of applying the test formulated in Aerotel/Macrossan, claims to a method performed by running a suitably programmed computer or to a computer programmed to carry out the method are allowable then, in principle, a claim to the program itself should also be allowable. However, Kitchin J made it clear that the claim to the computer program must be drawn to reflect the features of the invention which would ensure the patentability of the method which the program is intended to carry out when it is run. Where, but only where, these conditions are met, examiners will no longer object to claims to a computer program or a program on a carrier."
This seems to me to be a grudging acceptance of the ruling. If the invention is implemented via software, then it can be subject to patent protection, but only if it meets with the requirements set out in Aerotel. These requirement is that weird concept of "technical contribution", which is generally considered to say that the software should make a considerable advance in the state of the art.

I have never had a problem with such an interpretation. If something is novel and inventive, then the medium of delivery is irrelevant to the patentability of said device. However, I still have a problem with the law. Apologies for repeating this rant again, but why not change the European Patent Convention and get this silliness over and done with?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Inflation in virtual economies?

I've read a surprisingly well-informed article in the BBC Technology News website about gold farming in virtual worlds. I should not sound surprised, but it is my experience that mainstream media coverage of virtual economies tends to be tainted by sensationalism and/or misunderstanding of the new environments.

Whichever way you look at them, virtual economies are increasingly having relevance in real life. First you have a large gaming industry from China which spends hours and hours farming gold in order to resell it in exchange for real money. This farming has an economic effect in the real world. Figures are sketchy, but the excellent Virtual Research Network calculates that the value of real-money trade of virtual items (RMT) is over $2 billion USD, with a calculated GDP of $28.215 billion USD (roughly the same as Lithuania's GDP) . In this competitive environment the margins are tight. Each farmer is paid ¥10 yuan for every 100 gold coins gathered (roughly €.95 EUR). The farmer's boss sells that to a reseller for €2.00 EUR, who then sells it in the market for an average 3€ EUR (and can be as low as £12 GBP for 500 gold).

However, all of this farmed gold must have an inflationary effect in-game. There are games designed to be expensive. My experience in City of Heroes is that it is difficult and time-consuming to be an efficient influence farmer until you have managed certain crafting achievements, after which it becomes much easier. This encourages lower levels to earn the virtual cash. The fact that City of Heroes is not that popular means that there is no currency farming to a great extent, which drives prices down. Contrast that to World of Warcraft. I have started an account to see what it looks like, and I have been amazed at the amount of economic activity in-world. There are constant advertisements about gold. The current currency exchange rate seems to be roughly 500 gold per €20 EUR. What's more, I have noticed that prices are comparatively inflated to what I have seen in City of Heroes, which leads me to conclude in an altogether unscientific and anecdotal manner that gold farming does indeed drive prices up. If everyone can cough up €20 EUR in order to get good gear, then prices for other items must go up.

By the way, is it just me, or has the media hype of Second Life finally died out? The interface has become unusable, and I just don't have the patience to wait for everything to render and load. The technology is simply too clunky. I notice as well that Second Life have removed population statistics from their front page. I am guessing that usage is down. On the meantime, World of Warcraft hits 10 million subscribers.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Microsoft Case event in Edinburgh

This seems like a good time for reflection on the Microsoft case. Colleague and fellow blogger Abbe Brown has sent us this event:

28 February 2008

Joint event by the Europa Institute and the AHRC Research Centre in Intellectual Property & Technology Law. A lecture by Ian Forrester QC, White & Case LLP, Brussels.

"Lessons of the Microsoft Case"

6pm Playfair Library, Old College, South Bridge.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Church of Scientology v The Internet. Again.

Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology are at war with the Internet in a case that proves the uneasy relationship between the believers of Xenu and cyberspace, an ongoing battle that has been waged for over a decade (see this, this and this). Those familiar with digital copyright may recall that the Church of Scientology has used copyright law before in order to remove websites which prove just how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Now Scientologists have allegedly tried to pull the infamous Tom Cruise video from YouTube, and as it is only natural, the Internet has collectively responded by making the video one of the most viral videos in the short history of Web 2.0. Imagine tens of thousands of geeks shouting "Help! I'm being repressed!" at the same time, and you get the idea. The video has been shown on the BBC and linked to from The Times Online, and it can still be found on YouTube in various guises. The word "backfire" does come to mind.

What the Church of Scientology was not counting on is that the environment has clearly changed from the early 90s, where content was offered on one or two sites, making it an easy target for litigation. In the era of the citizen-publisher, that is no longer possible, as users will replicate the infringing material, and any attempts to stop it will be met with opposition. Hackers have been attacking Scientology websites with DDoS attacks, and a day of protests is being organised on YouTube and Facebook.

I'm glad to report that this blog is thetan free since 2004.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The TechnoLlama Index

I found this handy little widget elsewhere, and I thought that I would give it a go. I have chosen some Techno-Llama related topics, and I'm trying to see how often they are mentioned in the news. Does the mainstream media share my own interest for open source, open access and the such? Now you know! Can you think of other topics for future indices?

Pirate Bay sued

(via Wiebke Abel) In an altogether unsurprising turn of events, Pirate Bay has been sued in Sweden for "aiding copyright violation and preparing to aid copyright violation" according to Mathias Klang. This promises to be the first real test to BitTorrent and other linking technologies, as the legal question to be asked will be whether linking to a tracker is enough to constitute contributory infringement.

The guys at Pirate Bay do not seem at all concerned by these turns of events, a belief which may be justified. They do not host their servers in Sweden, they are apparently placed at an undisclosed location, but a simple traceroute seems to indicate that they are still located there. Most importantly, they apparently carry a political punch in Swedish politics by having the Pirate Party. They also claim that their numbers are very good (with 2.5 registered active users). In an ironic twist of events, they have found out that the police is actually selling the documents they obtained from previous raids. They comment:

"It also came to our attention that it's now possible to buy the documents, from the police!, in the current investigation about The Pirate Bay. But only on paper. And it's not 4000 pages, it 4620 pages. And they cost 6050 SEK for all of them (about 1000 USD). Our view of it? Why not just make a PDF, make a torrent of the PDF and seed it. We know a perfect place you can do that for free, and nobody would have to pay for all those pages of investigation. And a hell of a lot of trees would be saved... And even though the information in the investigation might be a bit personal at times (alcohol intake, sex addictions) we're not suing the police for commercially exploiting the material they took from us without permission."
I know this is wrong, but you have to admire the people at Pirate Bay. If not anything else, I dig their sense of humour.