Friday, April 24, 2009

TechnoLlama has moved!

TechnoLlama Blog has re-located to its own domain.

While I spent a long time in Blogspot, and had a great time here, I have decided that it is time to move on and host my own Wordpress blog. The features and powerful customisation opportunities offered by Wordpress make it very appealing for someone who wants to take their blog “to the next level”.

The feed has now been updated, so the stories should redirect you to the proper location. Update your links.

The end of piracy?

(via ORG-discuss list) Pirates, pirates, pirates. it's all there is in the news lately. Pirates in Somalia, pirates in Sweden, pirates online, pirates in culture. We have pirates jumping out of our breakfast cereals it seems. Last week saw the pinnacle of hyperbolic coverage of piracy of the Internet sort when the Pirate Bay operators were sentenced to a year in jail. We were promised by talking heads on TV that the ruling would be the beginning of the end of internet piracy, and that a new and happy future where everyone respects copyright law is finally within reach.

But then reality got on the way again. First it was a report from Norway that informed us of something we already knew anecdotally, and that is that teenagers who download music (legally or illegally) are 10 times more likely to pay for music than those who do not. In other words, the next generation of music consumers is downloading. This is the market, deal with it.

Then Bram Cohen gave an interview to The Register (I know, I know), where I think he gave the most insightful view of why there will always be a surplus in music production:

"Music has a bigger problem, it's that people want to make it. It's the peacocks tail. The reason guys make music is that they want to get laid. So men are usually willing to pay a lot of money in the hope of getting laid. Anything that helps you get laid with amazing regularity is something you would expect a tremendous oversupply of. So we have unbelievable amounts of music. People pay a lot to learn how to play music and it's ridiculous to expect people to make money off it. Normally if you want to make money you do something no one wants to do."
Must learn to play an instrument... but I digress. So, there will always be an offer surplus, and those who consume the most are also the ones you have been fighting during the last 10 years. Moreover, another study shows that users view P2P subscription services favourably, particularly if it comes with their ISP. This at the same time as yet another effort to try to sneak in three-strikes into European regulations have been unsuccessful.

A picture is starting to emerge, so here is some free advice for the music industry. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of money in pursuing a failed business model, why not look for other avenues? Copyright owners have been pursuing P2P providers for too long, and there is no indication whatsoever that they will be able to eliminate file-sharing through the courts, as another service will simply take the place of the previous one. This is why copyright industries have been pushing for the unpopular "three-strikes-and-you're out" strategy, because it leaves enforcement in the hands of the intermediaries. However, why not make them partners in your business and allow some form of blanket licensing scheme by which ISPs charge a higher broadband premium service with a download package. The artist gets the money, the ISPs geta cut (and do not have to enforce a nightmarish policy), and the user gets what they want.

Too much of a happy ending? Unrealistic utopian wishful thinking? To quote a great man, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

User-Generated Gaming

Old-time favourite game City of Heroes has made a giant innovative leap by being the first massively multiplayer online game to implement user-generated gaming. While other games and virtual worlds offer user-generated content, what makes City of Heroes unique is that it has created a system that allows players to design their own missions and story-arcs within the game, and to offer those to other users (see the video here). The best-rated and most downloaded missions give "influence" to the player (the in-game currencies). An interesting feature of the new content-creation system is that it has been implemented as a "game-within-a-game" concept. A new in-game company in the Paragon Isles called Architect Entertainment sells heroes and villains virtual world subscriptions so that they can create their own missions. Simulations making simulations, Baudrillard would be proud.

The second thing that crossed my mind when I read about this innovation was to consider the many legal angles that this development unleashes (the first thought was that perhaps it was time to dust-off the spandex suit and don the cape once more, but I digress). City of Heroes, like most other MMOGs, claims ownership over all content created by users, and this is no exception. The CoH end user agreement states:

"(c) Customer content. Customers can upload to and create content on the Publisher’s servers in various forms, such as in selections he makes and avatars and items he creates for the Game, and in bulletin boards and similar user-to-user areas ("Customer content"). By submitting Customer content to or creating Customer content on any area of the Service, the Customer acknowledges and agrees that such Customer content is the sole property of the Publisher. To the extent that the Publisher cannot claim exclusive rights in Customer content by operation of law, the Customer hereby grants (or warrants that the owner of such Customer content has expressly granted) to the Publisher and its related Game Content Providers a non-exclusive, universal, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, sublicenseable right to exercise all rights of any kind or nature associated with such Customer content, and all ancillary and subsidiary rights thereto, in any languages and media now known or not currently known. The Customer shall indemnify and hold the Publisher harmless from and against any claims by third parties that the Customer content infringes upon, violates or misappropriates any of their intellectual property or proprietary rights. "
As I said, this is typical of most MMOGs. All rights to content remain with publisher NCSoft, if the user has any rights by law (such as moral rights I guess), the publisher is given a licence to those rights, and the user is liable for any breach or harm arising from the created content. Typically one-sided affair that accumulates all the benefits and washes its hands off any pitfalls. However, something else has struck me when reading through the legal documents. The patch notes for the new release have updated the Code of Conduct to forbid users from making parodies! These now state that "Parodies and derivative works are not allowed." How interesting, given the fact that parodies are allowed in most copyright legislation. However, because this is a user agreement, they seem to be relying on contractual pre-emption of copyright law.

Having said that, NCSoft have been brave in allowing such a change to the game mechanics, and it seems that they were well aware of how difficult it would be to draft policies that would be both fair and would discourage trolling, griefing and abuse. In an interesting article, developer Joe Morrissey admitted as much. How can you avoid people creating obscene and/or objectionable content? If you give power to users to remove content themselves, how do you avoid "grief removals", where players intentionally flag content as inappropriate when it is not. And most importantly, how can you filter out the word "penis"? The most interesting aspect of the game self-regulation process is that NCSoft has implemented a data mining policy that tries to find out patterns. This is interesting, as it seems logical that people prone to create objectionable content will do it repeatedly, while griefers will also be re-offenders. Morrissey says:
"In MMOs you datamine. That's the only real way to know what's going on with your game once it has gone live. So for Architect, we wanted to track as much as we could. We need to see what content is getting flagged. Who is flagging it? Who is being flagged? Has the person ever been banned? If so, how often and for how long? What's a person's overall rating? Has he ever flagged content as inappropriate and been wrong? How often and what content? That last bit helps track down the grief voters."
This is both ingenious and practical; it also serves as a possible regulatory lesson to be learnt outside virtual worlds. Data mining for regulatory purposes is not a new idea, but it is a powerful tool for keeping a lid on user-generated content abuses. Although I still do not like the City of Heroes' copyright policy, I think that they are headed in the right direction when it comes to governance and self-regulation.

Before anyone interjects and mentions Second Life, no, Second Life it is not a game! Besides, it is impossible to write SL content because of the lag (/scratch).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pirate Bay 4 to serve criminal sentence

The decision on the controversial Pirate Bay case has been made public, and it is generating quite a stir. The Pirate Bay lost their case, which was not really a surprise, what struck me, and I am sure many others, is the severity of the decision. Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, Carl Lundstrom and Peter Sunde have to pay :-30 million SEK (€2.7 million EUR, or $133,399,889,832,933 Zimbabwean dollars). But most importantly, the four have to spend a year in jail for assisting copyright infringement. While I have not been able to find a translation of the ruling, press reports claim that the court declared that Pirate Bay was guilty of providing a site with "sophisticated search functions, easy upload and storage, and a website linked to the tracker".

Without having access to the full decision it is difficult to give a proper legal analysis. However, the legal issue behind torrent file sharing remains the same. Tracker sites such as Pirate Bay do not host any of the shared content, but they facilitate the file exchange by making available tracker files which informs the internet who is sharing content at any given time. While no content is hosted, it is clear that the raison d'etre of this and other sites is to facilitate copyright infringement. It is for this reason alone that Pirate Bay would always be on the losing end of litigation, as it is quite clear that they do indeed facilitate the making available of infringing copies to the public.

As with the Grokster case, Pirate Bay's downfall seems to have been one of intent. It is one thing to make clear statements about not holding copies of a work, but it is certain that tracker sites facilitate widespread copyright infringement. Research has shown that most torrent traffic goes through Pirate Bay, which makes their argument much weaker. Their unashamed brashness may have also played against them when it came to sentencing. "Assisting making available copyrighted content" is still an offence carrying a jail sentence. The four defendants have vowed to appeal, but it seems like they might suspect that they could lose that, I find it telling that Pirate Bay has moved its servers to Thailand, and some of the defendants have left Sweden.

There are wider questions about the case. Will the music industry take it as encouragement and start suing other tracker sites? Roger Wallis, a visiting professor at the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology, and a witness at the trial (and subject to a flower online campaign), declared that “This will cause a flood of court cases. Against all the ISPs. Because if these guys assisted in copyright infringements, then the ISPs also did. This will have huge consequences. The entire development of broadband may be stalled.” While I am not sure about the accuracy of the statement from a legal standpoint, Dr Wallis may be right about the ISP implications. It has become clear in recent months that the copyright industries are starting to wage a war against ISPs and their role in copyright infringement. Their tireless pursuit of the 3-strikes policy is just one of the fronts in which this battle is being fought. This is a tricky strategy, as the 3-strikes policy is very unpopular, and as proved recently by France, one that politicians may be unwilling to back up (with the exception of South Korea).

Whatever the larger repercussions for future litigation may be, one thing is clear. The Pirate Bay will continue to operate for longer. Words like genie, bottle, Pandora and box keep popping into to my head.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

SCRIPTed April 2009


  • After Marper: Two Readings,
    Two Responses

    Roger Brownsword , pp.1-3| HTML |
Reviewed Articles
  • Virtual Worlds As A New Game Theoretic Model For
    International Law: The Case Of Bilateral Investment Treaties
    Peter S Jenkins, pp.4-32| HTML |
  • New Technology and Researchers’ Access to Court and
    Tribunal Information: the need for European analysis

    Philip Leith and Maeve McDonagh, pp.33-56| HTML|
  • Patent Protection for Second and Further Medical Uses Under
    the European Patent Convention

    Eddy D Ventose, pp.57-74 | HTML |
  • The APEC Asia-Pacific Privacy Initiative – A New Route To
    Effective Data Protection Or A Trojan Horse For Self-Regulation?

    Nigel Waters, pp.75-89 | HTML |
  • Social Contract for the Internet Community? Historical and
    Philosophical Theories as Basis for the Inclusion of Civil
    Society in Internet Governance?

    Rolf H. Weber and Romana Weber, pp.90-105| HTML |
  • The German Constitutional Court on the Right in
    Confidentiality and Integrity of Information Technology Systems
    – a case report on BVerfG, NJW 2008, 822
    Wiebke Abel and Burkhard Schafer, pp.106-123 | HTML |
    Conquering the Tower of e-Discovery Babel: New Age
    Discovery for the 21st Century
    Daniel B. Garrie and Maureen Duffy-Lewis, pp.124-131 | HTML |
  • The Fog over the Grimpen Mire: Cloud Computing and the

    Miranda Mowbray, pp.132-146 | HTML |
  • Nanotechnology – New Challenges for Patent Law?
    Herbert Zech, pp.147-154 | HTML |
  • So What are Sports’ Legal Rights and Wrongs? Report of
    the AHRC SCRIPT Murrayfield Discussions
    Abbe E. L. Brown, pp.155-159| HTML |
  • Governance of New Technologies: The Transformation of
    Medicine, Information Technology and Intellectual Property.
    Final Conference Report
    Shawn H.E. Harmon and Wiebke Abel, pp.160-170 | HTML |
Book Reviews
  • Parallel Trade in Europe: Intellectual Property, Competition and
    Regulatory Law
    By Christopher Stothers
    Reviewed by Colm Brannigan
    , pp.171-174 | HTML |
  • Governance And Information Technology: From Electronic Government To
    Information Government

    By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and David Lazer (eds)
    Reviewed by Catherine Heeney
    , 175-178 | HTML |
  • Gringras On The Laws Of The Internet
    By Clive Gringras and Elle Todd; and
    Jurisdiction And The Internet: Regulatory Competence Over Online Activity
    By Uta Kohl
    Both reviewed by Daithí Mac Síthigh
    , pp.179-181 | HTML |
  • International Domain Name Law: ICANN And The UDRP
    By David Lindsay
    Reviewed by Cédric Manara
    , pp.181-183 | HTML |

  • Self-Regulation In Cyberspace
    By Jeanne Pia Mifsud Bonnici
    Reviewed by Thomas J. McIntyre
    , 184-187 | HTML |

  • Information Technology Law
    By Ian J. Lloyd
    Reviewed by Shefalika Ghosh Samaddar
    , 188-193 | HTML |

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amazonfail: cyber-censorship, cyber-hype, or YHBT?

What better way to kick-start the internet after Easter break than a good old cyber-censorship row? All the ingredients are there: giant e-commerce company with large share of the market, gays, religion, porn, erotica, geeks, twitter... mix and watch the blogosphere and the twitterverse go "Kablooey!"

During the weekend I started picking up the #amazonfail tag on Twitter, as well as noticing a large spike on the discussion of Amazon in Twitscoop, a site that trends what people on Twitter are talking about. The story seemed both compelling and outrageous. Amazon changed its book-ranking system so that it would filter out adult content. In their words:

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."
The problem was that there seemed to be some confusion over what constitutes "adult" content, and it soon became clear that it was mostly gay and lesbian literature that was getting the axe, while straight erotica was largely left untouched. The response was a flurry of Tweets bearing the #amazonfail tag, and a number ofblog posts from people angered at the situation. My favourite (taken from this article in The Guardian) is: "THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK is ranked; THE JOY OF SEX is unranked. In other words, Amazon would rather you make napalm than get laid."

However, things are starting to settle down, and the picture does not seem as straighforward as it did on Sunday. Firstly, Amazon has finally made an unambiguous apology for what it calls a glitch. Secondly, Amazon has started fixing the error, and titles are regaining their sales rank. Thirdly, there is a theory that this might have been caused by trolls looking for lulz, or in this case, mega-lulz. In other words, the glitch was either caused or noticed by a troll or a hacker, and they chose Easter weekend to let it be known through Twitter. Perhaps knowing that anything having to do with religion, books and gays would replicate like microbial beings in a syrupy concoction, these trolls bid their time knowing that Amazon would be slow to respond. Sit back, watch, and enjoy. YHVT.

The most plausible explanation at the moment seems to be a combination of bad coding and bad PR. Lilith Saintcrow posted this from an insider at Amazon:
"Well, this is the real story: a guy from Amazon France got confused on how he was editing the site, and mixed up “adult”, which is the term they use for porn, with stuff like “erotic” and “sexuality”. That browse node editor is universal, so by doing that there he affected ALL of Amazon. The CS rep thought the porn question as a standard porn question about how searches work."
Several things stand out about this story. Firstly, if it was Amazon's idea to sanitise their searches, they should learn that their customer base is both sophisticated and interconnected, so any hint of censorship or foul play will send them running to Twitter. PR and development departments everywhere should have a picture of Barbara Streisand hanging from each meeting room to remind them of how wrong things can go. Secondly, I am not sure whether the whole Amazonfail debacle paints Twitter in a positive or negative light. True, the information about the glitch was widely publicised, and it prompted a reaction from Amazon, but the shrillness of some commentary was jarring and over-the-top. It was almost as if every person on Twitter was trying to outdo the previous one with displays of faux outrage.

As useful as these tools are, we still need to be reminded that sometimes looking closely before jumping to conclusions is a prudent course of action, even in the age of instant information. I have been reading an excellent book by Cass Sunstein called Infotopia, where he warns about the dangers of closely knit cyber-enclousures. Surprisingly, the internet seems to be fostering mono-cultures of little or no diversity, where people with similar opinions tend to stay together and reinforce each other's views and preconceptions; a communal confirmation bias if you will. Certain memes are repeated and enhanced in a form of feedback loop that turns rumour into fact, and innuendo into established truth.

I'm off to find something else to get worked-up about.

Update: When one looks at a search result for the word bouncy, it is not difficult to argue that Amazon may have a point in wanting some sort of filter for adult content. Pingu the Bouncy Penguin and Bouncy Boobs 3 do not belong in the same search page.

Monday, April 13, 2009

GikII Call for Papers

GikII Comes to Amsterdam!
17-18 September 2009
Institute for Information Law (IViR)
University of Amsterdam

GikII 4th Edition, a two day workshop on the intersections between law, technology and popular culture, will be held on September 17-18th, 2009 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The chairs of the event are Joris van Hoboken, Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Information Law, Ian Brown, Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, Andres Guadamuz, Co-Director, SCRIPT Law and Technology Centre at the University of Edinburgh and Lilian Edwards, Professor of Internet Law, Sheffield University. IViR is hosting GikII in partnership with Creative Commons Netherlands.

There will be no workshop fee. Lunch, coffee and a conference dinner will be arranged free of charge. We will limit registration to 40 participants, so register early!! Preference will be given to attendees who are providing a paper.

GikII - Not for the Lulz!?

GikII is a forum for the intersection of law, technology and popular culture. After previous editions in London, Edinburgh and Oxford, GikII has gained enough steam to hit the continent. Topics covered at the last editions included killer robots, virtual property, copyright online, the many lives and deaths of privacy, fandom, avatar culture, Roman slaves and knitted Daleks. Last year’s presentations can be viewed here <>.

We invite all of you that have a paper on any aspect of law AND technology, science, geek culture, blogging, creative commons, wikis, science fiction or fantasy, computer games, digital culture, gender on-line, virtual worlds, series of tubes, or deep packet inspectors, to come to GikII 4 and join us for two inspiring days of cutting edge collisions of the worlds of law, tech and popular culture. LOLcats, robot scientists and cheezburgers are especially welcome.

The call for papers

If you would like to participate, email your abstract of no more than 500 words. This should be sent to by July 1 2009. We will confirm acceptances by August 1.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

If Bill Gates was on Facebook...

His page would look like this:

Some absolute gold in there. "Bill Gates just bought Azerbaijan". The Wall-to-Wall between Bill and Steve. And I love the gift from Linux on the bottom-left corner.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Phorm launch in the horizon

Phorm (also known as Webwise) has declared that it is finally set to launch its service in the UK with BT's ISP service. Phorm is a service that allocates web users a unique number, it then monitors websites that the user has visited and looks for recurring keywords related to its advertisers. It then associates those keywords with the user's number, so that when the user visits a site containing a web advert, it will display relevant commercials. For a more detailed explanation, read Richard Clayton's excellent report.

As a founding supporter of ORG, I do not like Phorm. I understand their claims of anonymity and security, but I am still not convinced that this level of surveillance is either useful or necessary. Phorm seems to add an unwanted layer of interception to the internet, and I am not sure that users will like to have such records made of their browsing habits. Phorm claims that it destroys those records, but I am still uneasy. Who is to say that in this difficult financial climate, they won't change their data retention practices to sell more information about web users?

Something that is perhaps unsurprising, yet still disappointing, is that Phorm seems intent in misrepresenting and hiding what it does to the public. There was a public outcry when they conducted a series of test runs with unsuspecting BT customers. BT is also intent in claiming that Phorm's main function is to "increase protection against online fraud". They also seem to brush all consumer concerns under the rug. They claim:

"That being said, what we did not take into account was the fact there would be a very small number of very determined people who would do their very best to make it appear in the worst popular light. I am surprised by the fact, after it has been repeatedly explained how the technology works, they seem to be very keen on misunderstanding what it does."
No, thanks to people like Richard Clayton, we do understand how it works quite well, and we are still very concerned about it. As a BT customer I won't be opting in of the system, as the Information Commissioner has declared that Phorm can only operate with the consent of the user.

If you don't like Phorm, join the Facebook campaign. Phew, I managed to reach the end of the post without any clever "eph" replacement, ephing well done. Doh!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Is Google an amoral monopoly?

I have read with interest Henry Porter's scathing indictment of Google in yesterday's Observer, an article generating some heated discussion online. While I often enjoy his writings, I have to say that on this occasion he has written a thoroughly misinformed article that seems to conflate concepts and technologies. I won't get into the attack on Scribd as it is a site that I am unfamiliar with, but will concentrate on his views about Google (others have dealt with this point).

While I want to highlight specific errors and inconsistencies with the article, I believe that Porter is informed generally by a visceral dislike of authority, exemplified by today's article against data retention regulations. While I share some of his views with regards to civil liberties, I cannot help but suspect that in this instance he is barking up the wrong tree (I have always been amused by this English phrase, how does a dog bark at the wrong tree anyway? But I digress). Anyway, Porter's first dodgy argument comes when talking about Google's strategy against PRS by removing music videos from his site. He says:

"Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned. It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe."
This is a horrendous misrepresentation of the PRS-YouTube debate. Google is a business, and as such it has a right not to lose money every time a video is played. The music industry is asking for way too much money every time a video is played on YouTube, and Google has every right to remove such outlet for musicians if their demands are not sensible. YouTube provides a valuable service to artists by letting them reach an audience, and one might add, Google is entirely willing to pay for it. It is very telling that artists like Billy Bragg are vociferously complaining about Google's negotiating tactic, because they know that not having this service will be detrimental to their market exposure. Why should Google be expected to provide them with a valuable service and suffer financially from it? I for one believe that Google is entirely justified in calling PRS' bluff. Does Google hold disproportionate power? Maybe, but Google should not be expected to support flawed business models. Porter then goes on to say:
"Despite its diversification, Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time."
What a diabolical paragraph! This seems to imply that anyone who does not create content and simply offers an aggregating service is by definition a "parasite" that has done no investment whatsoever. Google has invested millions of dollars in creating a vast an complex infrastructure that allows users to access, create and aggregate content. This can be as valuable as the act of creating the content itself. I am writing this using a Google service, and have found some information using two other of its services: the search engine and newsreader. These are tangible, useful and valuable services that make it easier for content creators to get their message across. If Porter cannot see this as a non-parasitic function, then I am afraid that his arguments inhabit a sphere of wrongness that rationality cannot touch. The content industries are filled with aggregated service providers: publishers, distributors, retailers, hardware and portable media manufacturers, publicists, administrative staff, et cetera. Are all of these "parasites" as well? Porter continues:
"One of the chief casualties of the web revolution is the newspaper business, which now finds itself laden with debt (not Google's fault) and having to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive. Newspapers can of course remove their content but then their own advertising revenues and profiles decline. In effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Were newspapers to combine to take on Google they would be almost certainly in breach of competition law."
Now I think we come to the hidden reason behind the article. While Porter claims that Google is not to blame for the debt incurred by the newspaper industry (how kind of him to exculpate them of something nobody has accused them of), he seems to imply that Google is to blame for some of the printed media's woes. Firstly, newspapers are not forced to give their content for free, Google News searches and offers a small snippet of news articles, and sometimes also small pics from the original source, but the full article is still linked to, so that users can go to the source easily. This is an excellent service, and one that I use often. I cannot see what is the problem with allowing a search engine to index your content and make it available to a wider audience. Secondly, is Porter arguing that news sources could offer a similar service if they grouped together? Forgive me if I laugh at such a ridiculous notion.
"This particular 11-year-old has known nothing but success and does not understand the risks, skill and failure involved in the creation of original content, nor the delicate relationships that exist outside its own desires and experience. There is a brattish, clever amorality about Google that allows it to censor the pages on its Chinese service without the slightest self doubt, store vast quantities of unnecessary information about every Google search, and menace the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny. And, naturally, it did not exercise Google executives that Street View not only invaded the privacy of millions and made the job of burglars easier but somehow laid claim to Britain's civic spaces. How gratifying to hear of the villagers of Broughton, Bucks, who prevented the Google van from taking pictures of their homes."
Wow! In one paragraph Porter has managed to simultaneously accuse Google of childish immaturity and fiendishly calculating greed. No mention that Google is compelled to follow Chinese law if it wants to have business there, just as it is compelled to follow anti-terror legislation in the West, some of which he complains about today. And we will simply ignore the fact that very few people have complained about Street View, and most of us are actually enjoying a very nice service. By the way, where is the evidence that burglars are using Google Street View to plan their dastardly misdeeds? Why applaud the technophobes and their mob-rule, pitchfork-wielding mentality?

I know that I am coming across as a Google apologist, but it really upsets me that an innovative company that offers millions of users valuable services that define our current Internet experience gets such an unfair treatment. I am indeed bothered by Google's market dominance, but that is a regulatory argument that we will have to explore in the near future. However, Mr Porter makes a wrong-headed attack on the search engine giant that does not further the necessary debate that we should be having.

Disclaimer: This post is brought to you by Blogger, a Google subsidiary, and FeedBurner, another Google service. You may have found it on Google's search engine, or followed a tweet (future Google company). Yes, there's nothing to be worried about...

Friday, April 03, 2009

The cameras are at the gates!

The unveiling of Google StreetView UK is being met with that uniquely British mixture of outrage, amusement and derision that I can never quite get right (much like the intricacies of the English language I suspect, but I digress). On Wednesday the village of Broughton in Buckinghamshire blocked the StreetView car from entering the town because of concerns that it could be used by burglars to check out houses. A villager saw the car approaching and quickly alerted his neighbours, who promptly blocked the van from coming into town.

I wonder who is in the right here legally speaking. Does Google have the right to circulate around town taking pictures? Have the neighbours the right to block the van from entering the village? My instincts tell me that Google would have the right to circulate in a public road, but this is an area of law completely alien to me.

What has surprised me more than the level of coverage is the clear opposition to Street View from privacy advocates, to the extent of threatening to sue Google. I know that there are potential privacy issues, but really, aren't people taking things too far? I have found Street View extremely useful, helping me find a restaurant in London and to identify a place where I will be speaking later today. Could I have done those things without Street View? Sure, but knowing where you're going in advance is a great advantage, particularly if you're running late. I personally think that the benefits greatly outweigh the annoyances and privacy concerns.

Needless to say, there are hundreds of amusing stories developing as we speak. Fred Goodwin's house was supposed to be blanked out, but the next-door neighbour's home was mistakenly removed instead. There is also a divorce in the making, as a woman found out that his husband had been cheating on her when she saw his car in front of his mistress' house. The mind boggles.

I for one recognise potential privacy issues, but I am delighted by the technology. And yes, I have already wasted some time simply clicking on the arrow. It is strangely addictive.

Update: Thanks to Jac for pointing out that the divorce story in The Times is a hoax.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Twitting humble pie

My dislike of Twitter is well documented. I had checked Twitter before I opened an account in July 2008, and I must admit that I did not like it at all. Perhaps it was the fact that I could not find any interesting people to follow, or that those feeds I subscribed to were filled with dross. I also felt that Twitter was simply replicating an existing medium, that of the Facebook status change. After a short try I concluded that Twitter was the last refuge of the criminally inane and the chronically self-obsessed, and stopped using it for a while.

Since then I have fallen out of love with all things Facebook (I was never a big fan to begin with), and I have stopped using status updates. Really, does the world need to know that I have just had coffee, what I had for dinner, or that I am in the process of writing another article? The only useful function of FB status updates for me was to let people know in which country of the world I was at the moment (PanGloss jokingly referred to my status updates as "Where in the World is Technollama?")

Some weeks ago I decided to give Twitter another try, and started purposefully looking for relevant people to follow. The reason for this is that I felt that there was a tipping point in the making (or a Twitting Point as some have called it). According to some, Stephen Fry has single-handedly been responsible for this explosion, but I believe that it also has to do with a large number of celebrities joining Twitter, although I don't get the point of following the likes of Demi Moore and Britney Spears, whose streams are probably not even written by them. What is true is that due to this explosion of users, there are enough feeds out there to be able to pick and choose who to follow.

As with other social media, I think that the key is to find exactly what it is for. At first I was using it much as I would Facebook status updates, but have since decided that the world is not interested in whether I am sitting in a bar having an exotic cocktail, or that I am deprived of caffeine. Therefore, I have made a vow of not following vapid self-absorbed feeds that tell me whether someone wants to go to the toilet, or is involved in complex mind-games with fellow commuters. Life is short.

What has changed my mind about Twitter then? I have discovered real uses for the technology! Mostly, it is a great place to exchange links, and to direct people to interesting events, blog posts, articles, research, and conferences. I have also found a number of truly informative feeds, and it also helps that fellow geek friends have joined the Twitterverse: klang67, nicsuzor, lilianedwards, macsithigh, machine_envy, jordanhatcher, jwlockhart, thornet, just to name a few. There are also a number of news feeds from organisations that make joining worthwhile, such as guardiantech, creativecommons, and EFF. And there is the funny stuff, such as darthvader.

The"gotcha" moment for me however came last week when I started using hash tags for the first time. These are flags that allow people to search and follow similar interests or events. Last week I attended the COMMUNIA workshop in London, and was surprised by the possibilities presented by those annotating the presentations with useful links and comments. This week for the SCRIPTed conference we ran a similar experiment, and I personally found it very useful. Thankfully, Becky Hogge attended sessions I did not, and I was able to find out about papers that interested me, and prompted me to follow-up on them.

So I have to admit that my initial misgivings about Twitter were wrong, and that there are potentials with this social media. Is it filled with useless data as well? Yes, but isn't that the same with any other medium?

I'm now off to advertise this post on Twitter.

Update: John Lockhart had mentioned this, and I finally found it:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Are blogs killing traditional journalism?

Doom and gloom for journalists. Recent weeks have seen a number of stories about the demise of local papers prompted by the rise of the Internet. Last Sunday The Observer had a similar piece that asked a leading question: Who would you rather trust - the BBC or a blogger? The answer was supposed to be obvious, but reading the comment section has been enlightening. Many of us are starting to answer "bloggers of course!"

The bulk of the argument by Nick Cohen is this:

"Why, then, mourn the passing of the hack? The best reason for wanting my colleagues to survive is that serious reporters and broadcasters offer a guarantee that what they say is true. If they stray, their editors impose journalistic standards and insist on objectivity. They may not have the best or fullest story or the most vivid account, but readers should be able to assume their work is reliable, while a blogger's commitment to objectivity can never be assumed."
I don't know what newspapers is Nick Cohen reading, but this bears little resemblance to the British press as it is now. In one corner you have the tabloids, whose relationship with truth and accuracy is akin to that of a vampire and garlic. On the other end you have ideologically-driven rags whose every page is dedicated to pushing specific ideologies (e.g. Daily Mail and immigration).

Bloggers wear their biases clearly, and there is no encouragement to dumb-down a topic. Blogs written by experts are much better places to find informed opinion than a piece written by someone with little grasp of what is being talked about.

I don't think blogs will kill journalism, but they will act as a much needed supplement. In some sense, we are all journalists now, aren't we?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

5th COMMUNIA workshop

Last week I attended the 5th COMMUNIA workshop on Accessing, Using, Reusing Public Sector Content and Data. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of the presentations, the depth of the discussion, and the pragmatic approach to the topic of public sector information. I mean pleasantly surprised not because the previous workshops were irrelevant or lacked quality, but because one expects wide-ranging workshops like these to be uneven in quality. As you can surmise from my introduction, this workshop broke the trend, and quality and relevance were very even.

The highlights for me were:

  • Tom Watson MP (Minister for Digital Engagement and Civil Service Issues). I must admit that I was sceptical about the inclusion of a politician in the programme, and was therefore expecting a contentless keynote. However, it became clear that Tom Watson MP really gets that when we talk about creativity nowadays, we are not only talking about the "creative industries".
  • Simon Field (Chief Technology Officer, Office for National Statistics). This was one of my favourite presentations, not only because it contained slides from Edward Tufte, but because it made a very important point about not only hodling the right data, but the way you present it is of utter importance.
  • Richard Owens (WIPO). Again, a meaty presentation from policymakers, showing that the "openness" agenda is gaining traction in some policy circles.
  • Edward Betts (Open Library). Very interesting presentation about the open library project. I particularly liked some of the references to the potential copyright problems of ghost writing (as in actual deceased writers), or the copyright of reincarnated people.
  • Hilary Roberts (Imperial War Museum on Flickr Commons). Hilary presented a clear example of how to distribute content from a museum colection online, and about the reasons behind the reluctance from memory institutions to adopt CC.
Kudos to the organisers, this was highly enjoyable workshop, despite the open source fashion show (trust me, you DO NOT want to know).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

PRS not horsing around with copyright

(First ear muffs, next headphones?)

The British Performing Right Society (PRS) has been in the news recently thanks to its continuing struggle with Google. The PRS is also known for its forceful pursuit of performance fees from an unsuspecting public, such as suing companies whose workers listen to the radio where it can be heard by the public, or asking garage owners to tell their customers to turn off the radio as they drive in.

Now a stable owner in Wiltshire has been asked by the PRS that she must turn off her radio when employees are around, or pay a licence fee. The problem is that the purpose of the music is not for the employee's benefit (who do not like classic music and turn it off at any opportunity), it is for the benefit of the equine guests at the Malthouse Equestrian Centre.

I know that attacking the PRS is like flogging a dead horse, they are such an easy target that I will stop hoofing a laugh and happily ride away from any further equestrian puns. However, there are some interesting questions here. Shouldn't the law establish a minimum number of employees that would qualify a business for licence fee? If purpose and intent are of importance as to whether or not a fee should be paid, shouldn't there be an exception for equine listeners? Similarly, I am left wondering about how exactly does the PRS calculate how to collect its royalties. For example, we have to assume that they are collecting fees for composers and publishers that they do not represent. Who gets that money? Do they pocket the difference, or give it back to the licence fee payers? Is there a change in fee for works whose composer should be assumed to be in the public domain. I know that the sound recordings in most instances will still be under copyright even if the composer is long dead, but shouldn't there be reduced fee as the work performed only applies to publishers and not composers?

And what about the fairness of calculating exactly how much a licence should be worth? A woman who plays music to her reluctant employees and a handful of guest horses is surely not in the same category as a pub owner with hundreds of customers. The PRS makes this point in its fee guideline to customers:
"The rates in this section vary depending on the number of days in the year music is played in the workplace, canteens or staff rooms; the number of half-hour units per day music is played in the workplace, the number of employees in the workplace to whom the music is audible and the number of employees to whom the canteen/room is available."
Fair enough, but my question is whether there is a societal interest in having a blunt collective rights management system that seems intent in squeezing the last penny from the public. This is particularly relevant when one considers that collective rights societies have already extracted money from the radio station. Is this fair?

I will leave you with this thought. In Spain the burden of proof lies with the collecting society, which has given rise to a number of cases of cafes and bars playing only Creative Commons music. Shouldn't we have something similar in the UK? It would be interesting to have some test case in which a bar plays only CC-licensed music.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blurring the real and virtual boundaries

Mathias Klang has posted about an interesting development in the increasing complex interaction between the real and the virtual worlds. Swedish game developer MindArk has been granted a banking licence by Swedish Financial Supervisory Authority. MindArk are known for developing and managing the remarkable Entropia Universe, which is the "first virtual universe with a real cash economy". Entropia is almost always mentioned when talking about virtual economies because its virtual currency has a high exchange rate with real currencies, and they also offer credit cards and other innovative financial mechanisms. The fact that they are now a recognised credit institution is a huge development for virtual worlds, as it makes it even more likely that there will be a viable commercial interface between the real and the virtual.

This comes at the same time as other developments are coming along in virtual worlds which I believe open some interesting interacting options between avatars and real life. For example, World of Warcraft is now advertising a service that allows users to "print" their avatar with a 3D printer, hence having a real world representation of their characters.

My mage gets ready to teleport into the real world.

The possibility of having more direct interaction with avatars outside of virtual worlds opens up interesting questions. What is to be done about intellectual property rights? Could anyone set an avatar 3D printing service without Blizzard's consent? What are the rights of the resulting statuettes? This does not even mention what could happen with an over-imposed world of augmented reality. I know some people are already starting to talk about the IP implications of 3D printing, so at least there is a discussion about these questions out there (LawClanger has been writing an article on this).

Do these developments mean that there will be orcs storming virtual banks, as predicted by Charles Stross?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Software patent workshop reminder

Wednesday 1 April 2009
Moot Court Room, Old College

This event is the idea of Professor Philip Leith, Queen's University Belfast, and it is organised as part of SCRIPT's Information Technology Law Foresight Fora. The objective of the event is to bring together a small number of practitioners and policymakers from Europe to discuss the current state of case law and practice with regards to computer implemented inventions (CII). There has been a split between UK and EPO case law, and it is hoped that this workshop will explore some of the issues that led to such state of affairs.

There are very few spaces available, if you would like to attend email Andrés Guadamuz at


1 APRIL 2009
9:30-10.00 Registration and Coffee
10:00 -10:05

Andrés Guadamuz, SCRIPT

10.05-10:10 Introduction to CII at the European Patent Office
Joerg Machek, EPO
10:10-11:10 CII practice and case law in Europe
Chris Gabriel and Alex Gardiner, EPO
11:10-11:40 CII practice - A European patent attorney's perspective
Axel H Horns, Patentanwalt Axel H Horns
11:40-12:10 CII practice - A UK patent attorney's perspective
David Pearce, Potter Clarkson
12-10-12:40 UK case law
David Musker, R G C Jenkins
12:40-13:30 LUNCH
13:30-14:30 Round Table
14:30 COFFEE

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

SCRIPTed conference deadline

The hard-working organisers of the excellent and much awaited SCRIPTed conference have written to let me know that there are only a small number of places left, so get thee to the registration page ASAP! The programme is looking extremely good, but I am biased because I am chuffed at being in the last panel with Lilian Edwards and TJ McIntyre.

The keynote speakers are:

  • Professor Bartha Maria Knoppers, University of Montreal, Montreal, Canada
    “Population Biobanks: International Collaboration and Access”
  • Professor Jon Bing, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
    “The computerisation of legal decisions”
  • Mr Antony Taubman, World Intellectual Property Organization, Geneva, Switzerland (new director of the WTO IP Division)
    “Centripetal and Centrifugal Trends in International Governance of IP”
I'm really looking forward to the event, so much so that I have almost finished my presentation, which is uncharacteristic of me.

There will also be a workshop on software patents / computer implemented inventions the day after the conference, so if you are interested email me to reserve a space.

UN-star Galactica

For the last weeks I have been glued to my torrents watching the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica (two episodes to go!). In case anyone objects to the downloading, I own the entire series on DVD, save for the unaired ones of course. To me there is no doubt that Galactica is the best drama out at the moment, in any genre. It deals with the big topics of our era: torture, evil, genocide, religion, power, war. If cultural relevance required a measure, it could be called the Galactica.

However, its relevance seems to have inspired the U.N. I was surprised to learn that yesterday there was a panel at the U.N. discussing the issues of "human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith" portrayed in the series. The Today programme even had a spot on it, although both the journalist and John Humphreys could not disguise their contempt.

Frakkin' well done.

Update: Galactica is not just for geeks.

Monday, March 16, 2009

UK public sector websites to contain user comments

One of the most useful features of the participatory web and the user-generated revolution is that it allows interaction from consumers (gosh, how do I hate it when I start using journalistic commonplace terms such as revolution, debacle or meltdown). Now the British government is about to jump in the bandwagon, as Gordon Brown announced last week that government websites will allow users to make comments and recommendations. The Prime Minister said that:

"For I believe government has been much too slow to make use of the enormous democratising power of information. People take it for granted that they will access other people’s reviews and ratings before buying something on e-bay or Amazon, and yet we do not yet have systematic access to other people’s experiences when choosing a GP practice or nursery. We have clearly got the balance wrong when online businesses have higher standards of transparency than the public services we pay for and support."
I for one find this to be very good news, it's almost as if the PM has finally realised that we are in the 21st century, and that there are other ways of garnering the public's interest. Wouldn't it be great if you were able to find out if your GP is any good?

Nevertheless, David Mitchell has written an excellent article on yesterday's Observer where he warns about implementing this policy (David Mitchell is UK's version of PC in the Mac ads). He rightly points out that comment sections across the web are often filled with vitriolic and unjustifiably angry posts that have no other objective than denigrate and mock the writer. Do we really want hundreds of comment pages around the country that consist of nothing more than baseless and angry rants about public service staff? This is a good point, as everyone who has spent any time in blogs and internet forums will attest to.

The solution? A new internet meme is born! Mitchell suggest that people should go to any website with a comment function, and should simply write "It just goes to show you can't be too careful!" This bland one-liner should act as a form of soothing counterpart to all the bilious animosity prevalent online.

So you know, it just goes to show you can't be too careful!

Friday, March 13, 2009

New report on the state of global Cyber-censorship released

Yesterday was World Day Against Cyber-censorship [insert snarky comment about the abundance of "Days against X" here]. To celebrate (is "celebrate" the right word?), Reporters Without Borders has released a report on the state of internet control and surveillance. The report labels 12 countries as "enemies of the internet", claiming that they have turned their access to the network into an intranet, allowing them to completely monitor what gets through. The Dirty Dozen of censorship are Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Other countries mentioned in the document as places which exert excessive control are Australia, Bahrain, Belarus, Eritrea, Malaysia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

The report does make an interesting point about the effectiveness of cyber-censorship:

"But is blocking of news online still effective? Through experience and thanks to their technical knowledge, Internet users have learned to get round some censorship installed on the Web by their governments. In countries where access to news is prized, it is not unusual to find software to defeat online censorship installed on computers in cybercafés, and also managers willing to put them to use if need be. Internet experts belonging to some of the most recognised institutions constantly create and fine-tune software versions so as to adapt them to the reality of the virtual world and to ensure that news is accessible to all."
While the document mentions some private companies, I was surprised not to find mention of some of the new censorship threats in countries like the UK, such as Cleanfeed. Nevertheless, this is a sobering and welcome reminder of just how restrictive the web can be.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

YouTube starts blocking music videos in the UK

This news item has been covered everywhere, but it is worth highlighting. YouTube has decided to blackout all of its official music videos as of yesterday in the UK due to a negotiating failure with the British Performing Right Society (PRS), the collecting agency for British writers and composers. YouTube claims:

"Our previous licence from PRS for Music has expired, and we've been unable so far to come to an agreement to renew it on terms that are economically sustainable for us. There are two obstacles in these negotiations: prohibitive licensing fees and lack of transparency. We value the creativity of musicians and songwriters and have worked hard with rights-holders to generate significant online revenue for them and to respect copyright. But PRS is now asking us to pay many, many times more for our licence than before. The costs are simply prohibitive for us - under PRS's proposed terms we would lose significant amounts of money with every playback. In addition, PRS is unwilling to tell us what songs are included in the license they can provide so that we can identify those works on YouTube -- that's like asking a consumer to buy an unmarked CD without knowing what musicians are on it."
PRS on the other hand are "shocked and disappointed". ORLY?

So, who is in the right here? There can be no doubt that YouTube have taken this step as a negotiating strategy, and it does seem a bit disproportionate. However, it is the logical strategy given the over-reaching demandsthe from PRS. Seemingly, PRS is suffering from chronic short-sightedness that would rather lose the vast promotional value of YouTube to its associates in exchange for a squeezing a few more pence from the service providers. Demographics do not lie, and YouTube has become one of the best places to promote new musical talent to younger audiences, as well as cementing interest in established brands. I find it astounding that PRS does not see the new technologies as allies instead of cash cows that must be milked for all they are worth.

Who wins? Believe it or not, independent labels win. As of today, typing "music video" on YouTube will return several independent videos not affected by the blackout, including one of my new favourite songs, Oren Lavie's amazing "Her Morning Elegance". Here is an anecdote for the bright sparks at PRS: I first saw this video on YouTube after it went viral, and now I have the CD playing on my computer as I write.

I have little doubt that PRS will have to cave in on this one, as I cannot imagine PRS members being happy about being shut out of one of the largest promotional outlets they have at the moment. If they do not relinquish their demands, other valuable services are set to follow YouTube's lead, such as MySpace.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why seeding is good for you

xkcd's take on the PirateBay trial.

So kids, fire up your torrent clients and start seeding.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Open source, file systems and patents

Do you ever wonder how things work? Here at TechnoLlama we spend an obscene amount of time wondering precisely how applications and gadgets work. How does a media server allow me to watch downloaded TV shows in my PS3? How are long files negotiated between a Mac and a PC? Which file protocols are required to make Linux and Windows systems talk to one another? The answer to some of these essential yet often neglected questions is one of standards. If every device in the world operated its own file system, then things would not be able to communicate with one another. Mac, Linux and PC formats would each exist in their own little worlds and the technology world would be a little bit more difficult than what it is. Thankfully, file systems can talk to one another, allowing us to execute files across platforms, so the ext* system in Linux can access information in Windows FAT drive.

This seems straightforward enough, but the issue is that some file systems are protected by patents, specifically, Windows File Allocation Table (for example, this 1989 U.S. patent). Traditionally, interaction with devices has been permitted through cross-licensing agreements between the major file system providers, which has allowed some of these patents to go unchallenged. This has been for everyone's benefit, as a world where different file systems could not talk to one another would be problematic to say the least. However, the delicate balance has finally been broken as Microsoft has sued car-navigation maker TomTom for infringement of their file system patents.

Some background information is required. Gadgets and electronic devices that have some form of graphical user interface require an operating system to run on. Media players, digital cameras, mobile phones, GPS systems, PDAs, all of them have built-in and often bespoke operating systems. The Linux kernel is very popular with gadget manufacturers because it offers a stable, scalable, modifiable and cheap option for manufacturers. In order for these devices to talk to Windows, they have to implement some form of compatibility with Microsoft's FAT, which would require a licence. These are commonly handled in the industry through cross-licensing, Microsoft allows the manufacturer to use FAT if they in turn licence them with some of their own claims. Cross-licensing is widely practised, and allows the industry to operate without having to go to the courts at the drop of a hat. However, the Linux kernel is licensed through the GPL v2, which imposes an obligation on developers using modified code to allow the user to "copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to these terms and conditions." Furthermore, the GPL makes it clear that even if a developer is subject to patent infringement restrictions through litigation or an agreement, then they must stop distribution of the modified code. Section 7 reads:

"If, as a consequence of a court judgement or allegation of patent infringement or for any other reason (not limited to patent issues), conditions are imposed on you (whether by court order, agreement or otherwise) that contradict the conditions of this License, they do not excuse you from the conditions of this License. If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously your obligations under this License and any other pertinent obligations, then as a consequence you may not distribute the Program at all. For example, if a patent license would not permit royalty-free redistribution of the Program by all those who receive copies directly or indirectly through you, then the only way you could satisfy both it and this License would be to refrain entirely from distribution of the Program."
This is clear as day. If anyone develops a program using the Linux kernel code and embeds it to a gadget, then they must make that code available without restrictions. What has come to light is that Microsoft has entered into secret cross-licensing agreements with various manufacturers who use the Linux kernel that amount to breach of the condition set in section 7 of the GPL. TomTom refused to sign such an agreement, so they got sued.

This could very well be the opening shot in the much awaited software patent war between Microsoft and FOSS developers. If the allegations are true, then the Free Software Foundation may not have any other option but to start suing people for breach of the GPL. The question is, who will be sued first?

*opens popcorn and sits watching avidly the ensuing Armageddon*

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Book Review: Rainbows End

Before being attacked by the Lynne Trusses of the world, the title of Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is not missing an apostrophe. The book is named after a retirement community which was chosen by either "an everyday illiterate or someone who really understood the place.” Vinge is part of a wave of technologically sophisticated authors depicting the post-internet world, this cadre includes Charles Stross, William Gibson and Cory Doctorow, yet I am reluctant to call this movement cyberpunk. Post-cyberpunk maybe?

The book is very technical in nature, and includes dialogue on instant messaging (thankfully not on chatspeak); it also introduces several new acronyms for neuroscience technologies that we may have in the future: JITT (Just In Time Training), and YGBM (You Gotta Believe Me). It is possible that all of this SMing and techno-speak may put-off some people, but they do work in the context of the hyper-connected world described by Vinge. While the text conversations get clunky at times, the story makes up for it, and the characters jump out of the page, particularly the main character, erstwhile poet and recovered Alzhaimer sufferer Robert Gu.

The world of Rainbows End is what makes the novel memorable, and I beleive that it showcases three new technologies that make it an excellent read for cyberlaw classes. In this world, medicine has not only managed to expand lifespans considerably, it has begun reversing the process of ageing, particularly neurological debilitating diseases such as Alzheimers. Vinge's real triumph is to describe what would a world inhabited by rejuvenated elderly would look like, particularly because medicine cannot cure everything. So there are people like Robert Gu who have made astounding recoveries, while there are other lucid yet infirm elderly on wheelchairs. This world is also one where wireless broadband is ubiquitous, but the internet looks nothing like ours. Computers are wearable and include contact lenses that over-impose an information layer to reality, so the future web is a vast world of augmented reality where people can wear avatars in everyday life, but also where everything and everyone is tagged with information. The third technological feature of this world is that it is a strictly controlled hardware environment, where every piece of gear has embedded protection that connects with both Homeland Security and with certificate authorities. This allows a level of control that we cannot dream of, but it is also a rather vulnerable world.

There are some really interesting considerations of this post-geriatric world. Leaving aside the bioethics of the technologies described, I found the social implications staggering. We already live in an era sharply divided along generational lines. The wired generations live in a different world than that of the analog ones. While the number of older people adopting some of the technologies is growing (my mother has joined Facebook and frequents internet forums), there is still a large disconnect with the possibilities presented by the user-generated world, so there are entire generations left behind. This is not really explored in social research in cyberspace, but Vinge presents us with an important question. What if lifespans keep getting longer, and older generations have the mental learning capabilities that they had when they were younger? The answer is both shocking and elegant. Send them to school! In Rainbows End, schools are filled with the very young and the very old, both learning how to use and navigate the datastreams. This makes a lot of sense, but it also presents some challenges for a society where the old and the new clash in such manner. There is an endearing connection between teenagers and the old geezers that I found both believable and desirable. Technology could bring back respect for one's elders. What a liberating idea!

Rainbows End is also the ultimate user-generated world. Users can modify themselves, but also their environment. There is one fan-generated layer covering the entire world which has mapped Pratchett's Discworld into our own, so if you were in China you would be in the Agatean Empire, if you were in London you would see Ankh-Morpork, and presumably if you were in Australia you would see XXX. In fact, the world is filled with these "belief circles" where fans choose which reality to inhabit, and sometimes they clash and fight for recognition and space.

Finally, Rainbows End depicts a tightly controlled network environment, where every piece of hardware must have a valid certificate issued by an authorised certificate authority. This is simply the endgame of Trusted Computing, and the embedding of technological protection measures not only into media, but into every single piece of equipment that has a chip inside. While in theory, this allows a level of surveillance unmatched even by our CCTV crazy environment, it can also be circumvented. Vinge's genius is that he recognises that even if those pushing for secure hardware environments get their wishes fulfilled, hackers would still be able to circumvent the technologies by using illegal gear. But also, Vinge describes the dangers of such a world, which would be vulnerable to cascading failures if someone was able to attack a single ceritficate authority and void a whole lot of permissions.

To conclude, Rainbows End is a wonderful look at the near future, but one that leaves some questions for us to decide. I like his view of the post-geriatric world, and I think that augmented reality will soon be here. The book is filled little gems and witticisms that make it highly enjoyable and readable if you get past the texting.

And yes, rainbows do end.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Amazon to restrict read-aloud functions

The Guardian has an excellent post on the Amazon Kindle controversy. The Author's Guild threatened legal action against Amazon because the Kindle's read-aloud function "is not paying anyone for audio rights". Neither does my sister when she reads books to my nephews, but I digress.

What a sad state of affairs, some authors seem intent on stifling a new technology simply because they are not squeezing out the last penny from users.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's GikII time

GikII returns! Wait, we've tried that one before. GikII Strikes Back! Nah, George Lucas does not deserve it. Thy Geek Will Be Done! Better...

After three successful runs dealing with the legal implications of Harry Potter, tattoos, knitted Daleks, Buffy avatars (or was it Angel's avatar?), robots behaving badly, and MMOGs; GikII is back bigger and better. This year we are splitting in two camps, SoGikII in Sydney, and GikII 4 in Amsterdam.

So reserve the following dates in your calendar:

9 June, 2009
Sydney, Australia

GikII 4
17-18 September 2009
IViR, University of Amsterdam

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eircom to filter out pirate sites

Ireland has been suffering a bit of a copyright nightmare recently. Firstly, Eircom was sued by the music industry, and settled out of court conceding that it would implement some form of "three-strikes-and-you're-out" policy. As Sheldon from BBT would say "It is a sports analogy. Baseball to be precise".

Now it seems like Eircom will further bow down to the demands of an angry music industry by filtering out "pirate sites". This is such a far-reaching, disproportionate and blunt response that I am quite literally lost for words. It seems like the response from a panicked music industry is to revert Western ISPs to a type of totalitarian filtering state where only approved content can get through. Whatever happened to our dream of a free Internet?

What worries me the most is that strategies like these one tend to replicate across the globe. First it was New Zealand with its "guilt by accusation" legislation. Then it was Ireland thanks to a spineless Eircom. I am not a fan of slippery slope arguments, but it would not be an exaggeration to fear that something similar could happen in other countries. I am particularly concerned about potential official action following the Digital Britain report.

Here is an idea for a new business. Go somewhere sunny and set up a remote VPN company. What? Someone already wrote a book about such a thing? Drat!

Monday, February 23, 2009

The DRM war was won, but...

Some people didn't get the memo.

Curiously though, I think I know who the person in the cartoon is!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dissecting a virtual world phishing attack

An interesting development in the latest cybercrime trends has been a marked increase in attacks against online games and virtual worlds, as I have posted previously. One element that I have missed in the discussion about game hacking has been the methods with which cyber-criminals obtain login details and passwords in order to empty the virtual coffers of gamers around the world. I had generally assumed that hackers obtained passwords through a combination of means, including keylogger software, social hacking, guesswork and bad security on the part of the user. I was not aware of large-scale phishing attacks, so when I received my first WoW phishing message, I was both taken aback by its realism, and also in awe of how many people must be falling for this.

First some background. Last year I opened a US World of Warcraft account for occasionally playing when I am back in Costa Rica. I generally do not use this account, so it would be ripe for hijacking. Yesterday I received this message from what looked like a legitimate Blizzard account. I will reproduce it in its entirety only removing the actual link for obvious reasons:


Subject: Blizzard Account Administration
From: Blizzard []
Reply-To: Blizzard []


An investigation of your World of Warcraft account has found strong evidence that the account in question is being sold or traded. As you may not be aware of, this conflicts with Blizzards EULA under section 4 Paragraph B which can be found here:
WoW -> Legal -> End User License Agreement

And Section 8 of the Terms of Use found here:
WoW -> Legal -> Terms of Use

The investigation will be continued by Blizzard administration to determine the action to be taken against your account. If your account is found violating the EULA and Terms of Use, your account can, and will be suspended/closed/or terminated. In order to keep this from occurring, you should immediately verify that you are the original owner of the account.

To verify your identity please visit the following webpage:
[HTTPS link removed]

Only Account Administration will be able to assist with account retrieval issues. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and your continued interest in World of Warcraft.

Account Administration
Blizzard Entertainment

This was a short and concise message that actually seems plausible, as it arrived to the email account with which my US WoW account is registered. It reads well, with no suspiciously dodgy English or ludicrous made-up names; it also points to the relevant legal documents and articles. Thankfully, I immediately checked the links, and rightly enough, the most important one did not direct to Blizzard, it led to, which is a small website hosting service. I visited using Google Chrome (which is new enough not to have developed exploits), and this is what I found:

Which looks exactly like the Blizzard's own account management screen found here. Once I entered some meaningless login and password, I got a large page asking for all sorts of details, including name, address, email, and interestingly, the following:

In short, this is all that is needed for anyone to hijack an account, take all the money and items with them, and run. Every guild has stories of members who have been compromised, and from time to time one can hear the desperate cry of a poor sod in Trade chat who shouts "I'VE BEEN HACKED!"

It is important to stress that Blizzard seems to be taking this very seriously, so they have initiated a campaign to make sure users are aware of the security risks involving their account. There is also a procedure in place in order to reinstate money and items to the victims. However, what is not mentioned anywhere is that these actions constitute a crime, and I am concerned that this is precisely the reason why there is such an increase in hacking activities against gamers. As I have mentioned before, there seems to be some reluctance from crime enforcement agencies to respond to cybercrime in general, and game account hacking would seem to be even at the lowest end of priorities. So, a geek had his magic sword stolen? Who cares?

If hackers have moved towards sophisticated phishing attacks, then we are talking about an entirely new level of engagement. Banking phishing sites are usually taken down within hours of the attack through action from anti-phishing organisations. However, the offending site in this specific attack is still up and running 24 hours after the message was received. This seems to indicate that cyber-criminals are catching up to efforts to curb their scams, and are moving to easier pickings in the shape of virtual worlds. The fact is that virtual goods are worth real money, so the temptation for criminals to make some quick earnings through hacking must be the drive behind the growing number of hijacks. While a criminal will certainly get more money from hacking a bank account, it seems that they realise that hacking a virtual world account is less likely to result in prosecution.

The last element in the line of attacks is that according to the email headers, this message came from New Zealand and what appears to be a compromised Hotmail account. Hotmail seems to be a favourite of phishers and spammers, with Youtube videos explaining how to create fake Hotmail accounts.

Much as with bank phishing, there seems to be a toxic triangle that allows some of this to happen. Firstly, email services like Hotmail seem to make it easy for hackers to exploit the system to send fake emails. Secondly, law enforcement and anti-phishing authorities seem unaware and/or uninterested about the phenomenon. Thirdly, users are still falling for many of these attacks due to lack of care and lack of education.

I'm now off to install some anti-keylogger software. I don't want to lose my enchanted knives.