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: