Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Social network patent war?

Today the first salvo has been launched in what will likely be a brutal and bloody patent war in the social networking world. Yahoo! has decided to go after Facebook with several patents which were bought from Friendster a now long defunct social networking site. As I've mentioned in previous posts companies that start suing over patents likely have lost their competitive edge. However, I think this is going to have long reaching impacts.

Facebook will likely try to find something they can use to counter-sue Yahoo! Which I believe will open a huge can of worms. A large number of companies have put forth effort into creating social networks and there are companies that are built on top of those networks. Essentially, this is an entire ecosystems of companies and products that interconnect and work together. Until now, it has been rather peaceful except for a few angry words tossed back and forth.

I'm not really aware of what patents are out there for these types of sites, however, it is likely that all the major companies are going to be scrambling for patents. Some of the companies involved have already been in patents wars, Google for example. I don't think Google is going to sit by and allow other companies to attack them the way that Apple has gone after Android. This would be an extremely foolish business move so, I think it makes sense for Google to actively defend (attack) competing firms by acquiring patents and aggressively targeting firms that may be infringing.

Apple has also tried to get into the social networking side of things with their Ping network. Based on their previous patenting strategies, it seems likely that they have built their own war chest of patents and we know how Apple likes to use them.

Yes, much of this is simply speculation. However, as the entire ecosystem of social media and networks have developed into a huge new area of business and marketing, we need to be aware of how these could impact us. Systems that allow access to multiple different social media accounts could be shut down using patents to enforce the use of each platform. I use tweetdeck and I know other people that use Hootsuite they essentially work in the same way (results may vary), but could a patent derail their use? I don't know at this point, but i'm not happy about the prospect. I've mentioned before my distrust of Facebook, which is why I use tweet deck and sign in using Incognito. An all-out patent war could seriously disrupt this growing environment and reshape the way we use these networks.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Entitlement for copyright owners

Business Insider had an article today about Reddit's FIA. In my article in the Urban Times last week I addressed some of these issues before he wrote this article. However, he raises points that I don't mention there and I feel that it's extremely important to discuss them.

First he says that the law would make the internet "Hugely Difficult to monitor." This raises a few questions. What does he mean by the internet? I helped define that in FIA, which I defined it as any data network including the web, social networks, FTP, peer to peer, email and a slew of other things. If he means this; then do we want the web to be easy to monitor? He trots out the case against it as child pornography of course, which I addressed in my Urban Times article. It's a powerful argument because it hits upon two competing sets of social norms, rights of privacy and abhorrence to child abuse.

The use of child porn is a technique that is designed to end the conversation and shut down dissent. It places supporters of privacy in a position that is not congruent with their belief system. Additionally, the connection between copyright and child porn mixes different issues and seriously different belief systems. This difference is extremely important as there have become two different competing sets of norms. The incumbent belief that copyright is stealing, and the one new that has been developed by Web Kids.I strongly suggest reading the previous link as it provides powerful arguments for the changing sets of norms that my generation and younger entail. (I'd be on the rather old side of that generation).

Using a somewhat bad analogy, we're using the "internet superhighway" and like the real highway people don't want everyone driving by to know what you have in your car. Even if you aren't doing anything illegal, do you want the cops to know that you have 5 cases of beer in the back and are going to be floating down a river all day? Probably not, cause they have no reason to know what you're doing. Now, our data is similar to those cases of beer. Using encryption puts that into the back of the trunk where a cop is required to have justifiable cause (in the US) to inspect it's contents. The person looking at the data would know the general direction your going and some of the ways you're getting there, but nothing more. Yes, it makes it more difficult to identify bad stuff, but it's difficult to do that on a real highway too. Just ask boarder patrol, and they have the right to inspect whatever they want.

Second, he essentially argues that copyright owners should have their content monitored by others. This is a huge subsidy for the copyright industry that will be paid for by other services. I'm going to use a physical world comparison, it doesn't work perfectly but it works reasonably well. Let's say that YouTube is similar to a Wal-Mart, or even Amazon.com. The author is arguing that YouTube needs to monitor as soon as the video is put on the web to ensure it is not infringing on copyrighted material. This would be similar to requiring Wal-Mart or Amazon.com to search for patent infringing technologies.

Why does this analogy work? In both cases these rights are state sanctioned monopolies. In both cases they are protecting a manifestation of an idea. Something that needs protection because it is extremely easy to protect. However, in Patent suits things are extremely different. The owners of the patent are required to sue companies that infringe on the patent. Wal-Mart and Amazon.com are both protected from the suit.

If Apple was allowed to sue Wal-Mart for the fact that an infringing technology is being sold there, Wal-Mart would have to bear the cost of policing their inventories for infringing material. In addition it would be in their benefit to be overly caution and remove potentially infringing products before anyone can see them. Part of the cost of owning a patent is the cost of policing products that may be infringing. By removing that burden from the copyright industry we are reducing the cost of the ownership of copyright and placing it on services like YouTube. This stifles innovation in services like YouTube because they have to include the extra cost of policy copyrighted material. A competitor to YouTube has a huge hurdle to overcome before they can even open.

Finally, he argues that the bill supports file sharing. I don't think that it does other than being based off of a different set of norms. I'd argue that the bill supports innovation over old business models. You can disagree with me on this, however it's been shown in several studies and some anecdotal evidence that increasing legal access to copyrighted content reduces pirating. If it is easier for a company to create interesting ways to provide access to content while paying the copyright industry then everyone wins. However, as Falkvinge puts it, "I don't care about industry profits." Realistically, I don't care about most companies profits, because I'm only dealing with the company to buy a product or service I want at a price that I believe is reasonable. If all the legal sources that are available to me to watch a show or listen to a song when a person wants to, it is not unreasonable for them to look for it elsewhere and then try to find it legally later if they liked it.

If the company is making bad choices for their business, why should the law change to improve their business model's chances of surviving? Anyone that supports free market capitalism should be horrified by this sort of industrial policy making. Essentially, these companies are being faced with disruptive technologies and working to push the government to protect them. It's similar to what has happened with the auto industry in the US.

In closing, FIA represents a dramatic change from the current norms and aligns more directly with a younger generation. This generation does not understand why companies prevent them from viewing content that they want to see. While being an open generation on Facebook, they also understand the importance of protecting the data that has been given to companies. They choose what information they share and with whom. They want an open internet so they have the ability to innovate like their parents generation. They believe that it should be a fundamental human right to have access to data and communicate with whoever they want. An industry that is not innovating should not have the ability to destroy the internet.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The difficulty of science

As reported in Science Insider yesterday, apparently the faster than light neutrinos may have been caused by a loose fiber optics cable. To me this also begs the question, were other results impacted by this loose fiber opitc cable?

This is where the difficulty in science lies. First, CERN had to admit that there was a faulty detector which could have caused the result invalidating what likely was the greatest finding in physics recently. Secondly, they are going to have to run the same tests again to make sure the results were bad. Finally, a bunch of other locations invested in their capabilities and will be able to test the results for themselves too. I think the last two are important. At one point Fermi lab indicated that they had seen faster than light neutrinos but it was beyond their capabilities to reach the required level of statistical significance.

I think that this does show an important factor within science. First, scientists have the ability to referee themselves on important earth (speed of light) shattering results. It indicates that the system works. Secondly, it shows there is integrity in scientists, as something like this essentially will make careers and set this group up for the rest of their lives somewhere. As they admitted what caused the error and are working to correct it in testing, it indicates they care more about the results than about their career. Although, lying about this after finding it would have ruined their careers just as quickly.

Why is that important though? Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Most scientists are trained in a very similar fashion. You are taught the basics during high school, moving to more advanced topics in college and finally many become experts by pursuing a PhD. All are taught about the idea of falsifiablity of hypothesis and theories as the cornerstone for scientific progress. Of course there are debates of if this is how things actually work in science, but typically it is. There are points where a major shift in scientific discourse but this can take a long time and must answer questions of the previous scientific perspective and answer questions the other perspective could not. A perfect example of this is Newtonian physics and Relativistic physics. Newtonian physics gives you Force = Mass x Acceleration, it's not really fully accurate, but it works well enough for daily activity. Under certain circumstances it's simply wrong. That's where Einstein came in and fixed it. It took a while for the shift of acceptance for this theory, but it's now the prevailing theory.

From a scientists point of view their incentives are oriented towards yearly output of papers that are accepted into high quality peer reviewed journals, such as Science and Nature and whatever is the best in their field. There are no incentives for making hoax theories. They would lose funding and eventually be jobless.

I think that this error at CERN can bring that into the discourse over topics such as evolution and climate change. It's indicative of the ethics that prevail in science today and that when theories are wrong work is done to find out why or how. Once that has been answered, new theories are suggested and eventually accepted. Understanding how this works will make topics like climate change and evolution less threatening.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Anonymous a "stateless" terror organization?

According to the Wall Street Journal the NSA is seriously considering labeling Anonymous a stateless organization. The Atlantic has some good discussion about this topic as well. I think this is something we should all be seriously concerned about. This has the serious problem of becoming something beyond scope like the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. These both allow the US to pursue military objectives in countries across the world for various different reasons. The War on Drugs mostly impacts the US, Mexico and large chunk of South America while the War on Terror allows the US to do the same in the US, nearly all of the Middle East and parts of Asia such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Now the US government is afraid that Anonymous was going to eventually target the US electric grid. This seems out of the scope of Anonymous for a few reasons, one they outline as that people's lives depend on the electric grid. Additionally, there's serious problems since Anonymous is much more dispersed than some of the other organizations that the US has focused on it will be difficult to determine something that was actually caused by Anonymous or something that some one claims was conducted by Anonymous.

It is likely that someone could claim to be a part of Anonymous and that they did an attack against something as serious as an electric grid but it will be difficult to prove that they did. Especially when there is a great deal of IP spoofing (this is a way of making a computer think your IP address (where you are on the physical internet connection this comes from your internet service provider) is a different IP address) going on and people will claim to be part of a group when they aren't.  I think that this will open a large can of worms.

Additionally, it brings up other concerns one that may impact me directly, will the NSA start looking at bloggers that are sympathetic to the ideas of Anonymous, using the web as a protest tool. If so then I've been overly sympathetic. That's not all though, during the SOPA/PIPA protests Anonymous sent out tweets with links that turned people into Low Orbit Ion Cannon (a software program) that commits Distributed Denial of Service attacks (brings down a web page). Essentially, even without being a part of Anonymous you become part simply by clicking a link on Twitter.

Are these people now linked with Anonymous and liable for any action the group does? These are serious questions that really need to be addressed if an announcement is made that Anonymous is a "stateless" organization. This also makes it very important to understand what protesting on the internet is allowed and what is not allowed. Sure Anonymous does steal information, but the information they steal seems to be fairly unsecured and not encrypted. It's time to have a real talk about all this means.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Protecting the internet

As I mentioned in my blog post from yesterday, the internet is extremely important. We all know that. It's fun to use it's become an incredibly important part of our economy and will continue to grow in general importance. In some ways Thomas Friedman is correct in the book the World is Flat, the internet has increased the ability for people all over the world to compete in the same way. However, where he goes wrong is that he assumes that this flattening and economic importance will protect the internet.

Unfortunately this isn't the case. We, the users of the internet, will have to continually work to protect the internet from special interest groups that seek to control its use. We have seen this in the US with SOPA/PIPA and with ACTA in Europe (And now Trans Pacific Partnership). A small group of companies in an industry that isn't really able to innovate is attempting to dominate the manner in which the internet is being used. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, there are already more agreements in the works. The most recent in the US is a bill being pushed by our dear friend Lamar Smith from Texas. Yup, same guy that did SOPA he's pushing a law that will require all ISPs to collect data on their users and store it for over 6 months. In addition websites are going to be required to collect similar data. The goal of the bill is to prevent child pornography.

This type of law is also being considered in Canada and there was a recent protest where a twitter user was pretending to be Vic Toews. This has rather upset Mr. Toews an MP there. However, these bills essentially destroy any sort of privacy on the internet. In many cases web companies simply hand over data to law enforcement agencies and governments without any need for a warrant or a court order. Twitter is one of the few companies that puts up a fight about user data. As users we really don't know how often our data is being handed over to any sort of governmental organization.

In addition to these individual laws and treaties China and Russia want the UN to become a governing body over the internet. I think this is a very interesting idea, however with the two countries that are pushing this change it also has cause for concern. Both of these countries really work to control the access of information for their respective peoples. A treaty at this level may make it more difficult for individual country's industries really impact laws relating to the internet and freedom. I am going to be watching this very carefully.

As users we need to be aware of these sorts of developments and make sure that we are active in protecting the thing we all love and use on a regular basis. The internet.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The importance of the internet

To all my loyal readers, I really apologize for my lack of posts this month. I've been busy with finishing my Master's thesis, which I finished on Friday. I'm currently hunting for jobs, and will be able to post more diligently. Hopefully, I'll get back into the groove I was in before I finished.

The Urban Times asked me to tweet some reasons why I love the internet. I think this was a great idea, it really got me thinking about how I use the internet and interact with the world. There are so many different levels possible to use the internet. In some ways, people look at the internet as something bigger than it is, and other times as less than it is.

For example. the RIAA and MPAA assume that Google is the end all be all of the internet. They act as if the internet is directed by and for Google. However, this isn't the case, Google has to keep up high quality services and constantly be on the look out for new rivals. If Bing or some other search engine was significantly better, people would migrate to that service.

This brings up a larger point. In many cases it's really simple to see the internet as simply websites and how we interact through these websites. Either through consuming content (many news websites), creating content (blogging and YouTube) or sharing and interacting with each other (Reddit, Twitter and Facebook). However there are many other routes to enjoy the internet. Gaming, discussion boards about specific topics, chatting through instant messaging programs and voice calls through Skype and other competing services. That doesn't even touch upon the myriad of IRC channels and other systems users enjoy that I'm completely ignorant of the workings of and use of.

The problem with copyright activists and congressional leaders that are trying to restrict the internet, is that they don't understand the different levels these things interconnect. Most likely they are concerned with the static pages of websites that link to content. It is through their ignorance that they do not understand how these laws would impact the highly fluid world of social media and content creation.

Memes are an important tool to remind us that we do not create content in a vacuum. Someone starts it with a picture or some turn of phrase and it catches on and some one remixes it and reuses it. However, that initial picture someone still owns. At the same time, the idea is like a dirty joke. It goes from person to person and no one really knows who created it. In the end we all own the joke or meme. Preventing the freedom to share, recreate, remix and reshare would destroy not the internet, but our culture. Our ability to share is what makes us human.

The internet has extended that ability to thousands of new people that had never been connected before in new and exciting ways. That is why I love the internet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Crowd Source Legislation

Crowd sourcing, is a name for a group of people taking part in something from all over the place. One of the first initiatives like this is open source software, a more recent version is Crowd source funding for businesses. These started as initiatives to give micro loans in Africa and other developing countries. More recently, websites like Kickstarter have allowed everyday people to help get new ventures starting (I plan on writing more about this later).

So what's the deal with the legislation? Well, essentially, this is building upon the momentum Reddit and other websites generated during the SOPA/PIPA protests. Members have decided to create something like an internet bill of rights. The idea is the create a better balance between content holders, private companies, governments and users. In China there's a great deal of censorship and Google and Twitter have both announced censorship based on the location of the user. This type of censorship would have killed the Arab spring before it happened.

OK? but that's not going to effect me in the US. Well, we don't know that. Yes, we have provisions against free speech, but that's against governments censoring speech. It's difficult to know what a private company will censor when this speech is in a quasipublic/private space. Facebook routinely censors groups and speech on their site. Additionally, look at what's happening with MegaUpload.com and their users. There was legitimate use on the website and the Department of Justice doesn't care. The EFF and the hosting company are working to find the legitimate data held on the site.

One of the goals of the act would be to reduce the ability of sites to censor speech. It's clear that this is an important goal of the act. Additionally, there are programs, like TOR, that have been developed to allow people behind censorship to circumvent it (See my post about how TOR works). However, there could be penalties for people that use TOR in the US to help people circumvent the censorship. These types of ideas are what the goal of FIA is.

If you're interested in taking your anger at SOPA/PIPA into a new direction and potentially become more involved in our government check it out here: http://www.reddit.com/r/fia/

But that's US based stuff. Yes, sure it is. It seems like most of the users interested are from the US. Many of the users involved would like to see this become a treaty instead of just a law. In that case involvement from many different countries would be ideal and requested. Additionally, there is no reason why this type of legislation should be restricted to the US. These ideas are universal.