The future of TV has just arrived

Hollywood just isn't sure what approach to take with NetFlix, by Milena Popova

Netflix, the US TV and movie streaming service has been in the news rather a lot recently. It seems Hollywood can't quite figure out whether it should be embracing or trying to kill the company.

As Greg Sandoval points out, Netflix is posing significant commercial challenges to Hollywood's current business models and distribution channels. It competes - with astounding success - with channels as diverse as DVD sales, movie sales to airlines, and cable and broadcast television.

And why wouldn't it? I could fork out $10 for a DVD, of $8 a month for all the films I want to watch. I could fit my life around the schedule of the network that happens to carry my favourite show, or I could stream it off Netflix whenever it suits me.

As traditional distribution channels are currently more lucrative for studios, they feel threatened by Netflix. Yet, the popularity of the service, its rapid growth and the simple fact that it is able to compete on all of these fronts should give you an idea of where the future lies.

There is a legitimate concern here that Netflix will become sufficiently big and dominant in the market to start dictating terms - similarly to iTunes' role in the digital music market, or Amazon's when it comes to book selling. A monopoly like that wouldn't be good for the studios, and frankly, it probably wouldn't be good for consumers. Having said that, Hollywood studios and TV networks are hardly paragons of market competition themselves.

So one by one, the big TV networks and film studios are beginning to freeze out Netflix. HBO has been doing this for a while, but was recently joined by Showtime and Starz. Both are imposing delays on new original shows going up on Netflix. If these networks have their way, Netflix will become an outlet of the lowest-value, most dated content, and users will get bored with it, so Sandoval.

It is possible - even likely - that these moves will hurt Netflix, but they will probably hurt the networks a lot more. Because let's face it, I could fit my life around the schedule of the network that happens to carry my favourite show... or now that I've been left without a legitimate, paid-for way of getting my show whenever I want, I can go to the BitTorrent site of my choice, download it that way, and watch it when it suits me. Oh, and this way, I can keep it too, DRM-free, to watch even when I don't have a net connection! Oops.

At the same time, there has been another significant development for Netflix over the last few weeks.  They have just outbid HBO for David Fincher and Kevin Spacey's new original series, "House of Cards". Yes, you read that right, an online video streaming service is going to be producing original content. This is a game-changer.

If this experiment succeeds, Netflix will no longer be only a distributor of other people's content, reliant on studios and networks, they will be a big player in content production themselves. I suspect that even if this particular experiment doesn't succeed, the next one, or the one after that will - I doubt we can put that genie back in the bottle.

Combine this with news this month that Paramount is partnering with BitTorrent to release a movie online, and I think we've just seen the beginning of a paradigm shift in long-form video content, i.e. anything longer than a YouTube clip.

Indulge me as I engage in a little crystal-ball gazing for a minute. As we all know, film studios are already freaking out about piracy, mostly in the form of bootleg DVDs, though increasingly also when it comes to downloads. We haven't seen similar moves from TV networks yet, though torrenting TV shows is arguably everyone's favourite secret hobby these days.

We use it to watch shows when it's convenient for us, or to get access to shows not yet available in our particular geography. There has been some recognition of this threat, and so far networks have shown a remarkably sane and restrained reaction: the Lost finale aired at the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, and BBC America have finally decided to air Doctor Who on the same day in both the US and the UK. This way, both fans and the network win. Hopefully, we will see more of this.

However, I suspect we will also start seeing more of a crackdown on torrenting TV series in general. At the same time, we will hopefully see more experiments with legal online video content delivery. That may take the form of further original content commissioned by online distributors like Netflix, the industry's own experiment Ultraviolet, or something else no one's thought of yet.

I also hope to see a lot more crowd-funded independent productions trying to make the online distribution model actually pay. We as consumers have a powerful role to play during this exciting time. We can vote with our wallets and our feet. So let's make sure we encourage competition, discourage DRM, encourage independent productions, and encourage services which fit our requirements best, rather than those with the highest profit margins for the studios.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra


Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: aharvey2k (Aaron Harvey)

Return to the red page district

.xxx is now, eventually, a domain name. But Wendy Grossman argues that its time has been and gone

Last week's agreement to create a .xxx generic top-level domain (generic in the sense of not being identified with a particular country) seems like a quaint throwback. Ten or fifteen years ago it might have mattered. Now, for all the stories rehashing the old controversies, it seems to be largely irrelevant to anyone except those who think they can make some money out of it.

How can it be a vector for censorship if there is no prohibition on registering pornography sites elsewhere? How can it "validate" the porn industry any more than printers and film producers did? Honestly, if it didn't have sex in the title, who would care?

I think it was about 1995 when a geekish friend said, probably at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, "I think I have the solution. Just create a top-level domain just for porn."

It sounded like a good idea at the time. Many of the best ideas are simple – with a kind of simplicity mathematicians like to praise with the term "elegant". Unfortunately, many of the worst ideas are also simple – with a kind of simplicity we all like to diss with the term "simplistic". Which this is depends to some extent on when you're making the judgement.

In 1995, the sense was that creating a separate pornography domain would provide an effective alternative to broad-brush filtering. It was the era of Time magazine's Cyberporn cover story, which Netheads thoroughly debunked and leading up to the passage of the Communications Decency Act in 1996.

The idea that children would innocently stumble upon pornography was entrenched and not wholly wrong. At that time, as PC Magazine points out while outlining the adult entertainment industry's objections to the new domain, a lot of web surfing was done by guesswork, which is how the domain became famous.

A year or two later, I heard that one of the problems was that no one wanted to police domain registrations. Sure. Who could afford the legal liability? Besides, limiting who could register what in which domain was not going well: .com, which was intended to be for international commercial organizations, had become the home for all sorts of things that didn't fit under that description, while the .us country code domain had fallen into disuse.

Even today, with organizations controlling every top-level domain, the rules keep having to adapt to user behavior. Basically, the fewer people interested in registering under your domain the more likely it is that your rules will continue to work.

No one has ever managed to settle – again – the question of what the domain name system is for, a debate that's as old as the system itself: its inventor, Paul Mockapetris, still carries the scars of the battles over whether to create .com. (If I remember correctly, he was against it, but finally gave on in that basis that: "What harm can it do?") Is the domain name system a directory, a set of mnemonics, a set of brands/labels, a zoning mechanism, or a free-for-all?

ICANN began its life, in part, to manage the answers to this particular controversy; many long-time watchers don't understand why it's taken so long to expand the list of generic top-level domains. Fifteen years ago, finding a consensus and expanding the list would have made a difference to the development of the net. Now it simply does not matter.

I've written before now that the domain name system has faded somewhat in importance as newer technologies – instant messaging, social networks, iPhone/iPad apps – bypass it altogether. And that is true. When the DNS was young, it was a perfect fit for the internet applications of the day for which it was devised: Usenet, Web, email, FTP, and so on.

But the domain name system enables email and the web, which are typically the gateways through which people make first contact with those services (you download the client via the web, email your friend for his ID, use email to verify your account).

The rise of search engines – first Altavista, then primarily Google – did away with much of consumers need for a directory. Also a factor was branding: businesses wanted memorable domain names they could advertise to their customers. By now, though probably most people don't bother to remember more than a tiny handful of domain names now – Google, Facebook, perhaps one or two more. Anything else they either put into a search engine or get from either a bookmark or, more likely, their browser history.

Then came sites like Facebook, which take an approach akin to CompuServe in the old days or mobile networks now: they want to be your gateway to everything online (Facebook is going to stream movies now, in competition with NetFlix!) If they succeed, would it matter if you had – once – to teach your browser a user-unfriendly long, numbered address?

It is in this sense that the domain name system competes with Google and Facebook as the gateway to the net. Of all the potential gateways, it is the only one that is intended as a public resource rather than a commercial company. That has to matter, and we should take seriously the threat that all the net's entrances could become owned by giant commercial interests. But .xxx missed its moment to make history.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series

Image: CC-AT Flickr: hansol

Good & bad in Google Books search settlement decision

Analysis of the US court ruling on the Google Books settlement

Tuesday's decision rejecting the proposed settlement in the Google Books case, Authors Guild v. Google, got a number of things right. For starters, as we wrote shortly after the decision was announced, we're glad that the court acknowledged the importance of the privacy concerns we helped to raise.

With respect to the class action analysis, the court correctly concluded that the settlement did not take account of the interests of all of the class members, such as academic authors. As UC Berkeley law professor (and EFF board member) Pamela Samuelson noted in a letter quoted by in the decision,

Academic authors, almost by definition, are committed to maximizing access to knowledge. The [Authors] Guild and the [Association of American Publishers], by contrast, are institutionally committed to maximizing profits.

For example, academic authors, if they had been represented at the negotiating table, might have pushed harder for settlement terms that would have allowed readers open access to orphan works.

On the policy front, the court recognized – as do we – the extraordinary potential benefits of the settlement for readers, authors and publishers. We firmly believe that the world's books should be digitized so that the knowledge held within them can made available to people around the world.

But the court also recognized that the settlement could come at the price of undermining competition in the marketplace for digital books, giving Google a de facto monopoly over orphan books (meaning, works whose owner cannot be located).

The court concluded that solving the orphan works problem is properly a matter for Congress, not private commercial parties. Sadly, Congress has thus far lacked the will to do so. Perhaps yesterday's decision will finally spur Congress to revisit this important issue and pass comprehensive orphan works legislation, that allows for mass book digitization.

That said, the court also got some things fundamentally wrong in its copyright analysis. For example, it states that "a copyright owner's right to exclude others from using his property is fundamental and beyond dispute" and then proceeds to quote at length from the letters of numerous authors (and their descendants) who share the misguided notion that a copyright is, by definition, an exclusive right to determine how a work can be used.

We respectfully disagree. Copyright law grants to authors significant powers to manage exploitation of creative works as a function of spurring the creation of more works, not as a natural or moral right. And those powers are subject to numerous important exceptions and limitations, such as the first sale and fair use doctrines.

Those limits are an essential part of the copyright bargain, which seeks to encourage the growth and endurance of a vibrant culture by both rewarding authors for their creative investments and ensuring that others will have the opportunity to build on those creative achievements.

Thus, as the Supreme Court has explained, such limits are "neither unfair nor unfortunate" but rather "the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art." If the legal issues raised in the underlying lawsuit are ever litigated on the merits, let's hope this or any future judge keeps the traditional American copyright bargain firmly in mind.

The court also insists that it is "incongruous with the purpose of copyright laws" to ask copyright owners to come forward (via the proposed settlement's opt-out procedures) to protect their rights if they object to Google's activities. Actually, that is precisely what our legal system assumes, that is, that the copyright owner carries the burden of asserting its rights.

And a good thing too, because in many cases, as the orphan works discussion demonstrates, the rightsholder may not be findable (this is especially the case when the original author has died or the publisher has gone under) or may not be interested in asserting their rights. Either way, putting the onus on the rightsholder to step forward expands the breathing space for re-use of creative works.

Finally, the court gives undue credence to the alleged concerns of foreign rightsholders, even though most non-U.S. works were excluded from the proposed settlement, concluding that whether or not the international law concerns are legally valid, "it is significant that foreign authors, publishers, and, indeed, nations would raise the issue." If, as the court suggests, the orphan works problem can only be solved at the global level, we fear that solution is far-off indeed.

The court urges the parties to go back to the drawing and craft an "opt-in" solution. We worry that limiting digitizers to an "opt-in" approach will result in the creation of limited digital bookstores instead of vast digital libraries. Regardless, we'll be watching to see what parties to the lawsuit do – and who is invited to participate in the process.

This article originally appeared here. You can visit the EFF main site here.


Corynne McSherry is Intellectual Property Director at EFF, specializing in intellectual property and free speech issue

Image: CC-AT Flickr: geishaboy500

The Digital Economy Act, or the BPI v Parliament?

It is disappointing that a couple of ISPs are trying to frustrate the Digital Economy Act which had been enacted by Parliament, says the BPI. Saskia Walzel argues that it was predictable that laws which had been forced through parliament without proper scrutiny would run into trouble

Today the High Court starts to scrutinise the copyright infringement provisions of the Digital Economy Act 2010. Section 3 to 18 of the Act are subject to a judicial review, brought by the ISPs BT and TalkTalk. If successful, that part of the Act will be squashed by the High Court. Acts of Parliament are hardly ever judicially reviewed, but permission to judicial review has been granted because the Digital Economy Act potentially violates a string of laws governing telecommunications providers, privacy and human rights.

The hundreds of people who watched the parliamentary debate on the Digital Economy Bill online are likely to have been left with the impression that the Bill did not receive the kind of scrutiny a law with such fundamental impacts usually gets.

They are right – after completing all five stages of debate in the House of Lords, the Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on the 16th March 2010. The Bill’s 2nd reading was scheduled for the afternoon of the 6th April. On the morning of the 6th April Gordon Brown formally asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament on the 12th April, the general election being on the 6th May.

In a process known as “wash-up” the Commons Committee and 3rd reading were done on the 7th of April, with no report stage. The usual to-and-fro between both Houses was done on the 8th of April, the same day the Bill received Royal Assent and became law. Essentially the usual parliamentary scrutiny was cut short once the election was called, and a process that takes months was completed on a procedural basis within two days.

Hours before the bill received royal assent on the 8th April, the BBC reported that it had caused outrage on social networking sites and revolts by Labour MPs. Two days earlier, hours after the election had been called, Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart had stood up in an almost empty House of Commons to talk about how essential access to the internet is in creating a more equal and more informed society.

She went on to lambast the wash-up process for denying parliament the right to properly scrutinise the bill. As a commentator on YouTube later said “I literally applauded for this lady”, and I remember that was the sentiment of many who watched her online and tweeted about it.

The outrage on social networking sites had erupted just days before the bill entered the House of Commons, when an email by the then Director of Public Affairs for the BPI, Richard Mollet, from the 11th March 2010 was leaked. In “weekly minutes”, Mollet informed Warner, EMI and Sony, as well as PPL (a collecting society for music) and the IFPI (an international umbrella group for recorded music trade associations) about the bill’s progress through parliament.

At the time Mollet considered the outlook of getting the bill through parliament as “good and middling”. The principal threat at that point appeared to be the ”security services” which “imperilled” the web-blocking provisions (now section 17 and 18). Mollet was less concerned about the House of Commons, which was about to scrutinise the bill. He wrote:

“As for the House of Commons – which will be sent the Bill next week – there is a strange sense of detachment. MPs with whom we spoke back in Autumn are already resigned to the fact that they will have minimum input into the provisions from this point on, given the lack of time for detailed scrutiny. One leading backbencher has told us that there is “little point in meeting, since the Bill will be determined at wash-up”. That said, John Whittingdale – an inveterate “timing sceptic” (ie he’s for the Bill but doesn’t think it will get through in time) has said this week that he still thinks it could be lost if enough MPs protest at not having the opportunity to scrutinise it. Whilst true in constitutional theory terms, the hard politics of the situation makes it seem unlikely. And inveterate opponents like Derek Wyatt and Tom Watson continue to blog and tweet with critical comments, but there is not the sense of a groundswell of massive opposition to the Bill.”

Immediately after the leak, Glyn Moody’s call for a groundswell of massive opposition flooded Twitter after he was retweeted thousands of times. Speaking in the House of Commons after the election had been called, Labour MP John Grogan read out the above passage of the leaked email, arguing that “We should not take our orders from such a lobbyist... given all that has happened in the past few weeks and in the past year... this House should say, "No, we're not going to pass this Bill by means of a thinly attended debate tonight, and the wash-up tomorrow.”

In the end, parliamentarians and the people witnessed Mandelson’s Ministers forcing the bill through parliament. Parliamentarians predicted that the law would run into trouble, and declared their intention to subject it to further scrutiny. Soon after the general election, Lords and MPs started to set the wheels in motion to make the Digital Economy Act subject to a select committee inquiry and post-legislative scrutiny.

Nobody can pretend that the Digital Economy Act would by now have been implemented if it was not for BT and TalkTalk. Just before permission was granted to judicially review Section 3 to 18 of the Act, the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee launched an inquiry into whether these sections established a fair and proportionate process. In February this year, the Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt announced that Ofcom would review Section 17 and 18 of the Act, the web-blocking provisions, to establish whether they “could work in practice”.

Asked recently why Section 3 to 18 of the Act had not yet been implemented, nearly a year after they became law, Hunt explained to the House of Commons that the sections are “very difficult to implement because many of its measures did not get proper parliamentary scrutiny as the hon. Gentleman's discredited Labour Government rushed it through Parliament in their final dying days.”

The reality is that the Digital Economy Bill would not have stood the test of full parliamentary debate and scrutiny. It should not be surprising that a law that was forced through parliament in such a brutal way would run into trouble. And neither should it be surprising that parliamentarians who had been denied the opportunity to fully consider the bill would seek to subject the Act to scrutiny. Those who threw constitutional theory out of the window have landed us with a Dangerous Dogs Act of a legislation – unworkable in practice, and lacking in public support.


Saskia Walzel is policy advocate at Consumer Focus. She tweets as SaskiaWalzel

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: berrgovuk

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman speaks to ORGZine about the Digital Economy Act, copyright, education and more

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Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: chrys

Who owns your twitter username?

Milena Popova looks at the latest twitter controversy and speaks to @girlgeeks

When you signed up to Twitter, did you read the small print? Or did you just scroll past the 10-line box of monospaced font Twitter gives you to view their Terms of Service (which are actually six-and-a-half pages long, excluding the "Twitter Rules” which are also part of the ToS), and click “Create Account”? If you’re anything like me, you probably did the latter, and thus missed the following crucial point:

We reserve the right at all times (but will not have an obligation) to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services and to terminate users or reclaim usernames.

What you probably also missed was this gem from Twitter’s Trademark policy (not technically part of the ToS as far as I can tell):

When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.
When we receive reports of trademark policy violations from holders of federal or international trademark registrations, we review the account and may take the following actions:

  • When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder's active use.

So you, me, and the vast majority of the rest of the Twitter community had a very rude awakening last Friday when Twitter “reclaimed” an established username from an active account to hand it to a company with a registered trademark. I spoke to Morna Simpson, the original and now re-instated owner of the @girlgeeks Twitter account and one of the women behind Girl Geek Scotland.

Girl Geek Scotland is probably best described as a Scotland wide community group (or network) that promotes women in technology. It is part of the Girl Geek Dinners Network founded by Sarah Blow in 2005, often referred to as “Girl Geeks" in shorthand and which estimates around 98 groups and 30,000 participants worldwide. Girl Geek Scotland has four teams one in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen as well as a newly formed media team.

I sometimes joke that it is an elaborate hobby because all our team members work completely voluntarily. Most of our team members work full-time and some own their own businesses, so it is a case of squeezing in the work after hours or at the weekends. We pay our own expenses and we even buy our own tickets for the Girl Geek Dinners that we run. It can be exhausting! We do it because diversity in general is a really important issue and women's rights are also human rights!

For Morna, this is clearly a labour of love, and she has worked tirelessly on it for over two years, building the community, the brand, and its social media presence, including on Twitter.

We have a very broad social media presence that goes back two years in our messy setting-up period. We use Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Vimeo, Delicious, Pinboard, Linkedin and more. When people blog about Girl Geek Scotland or even when we appear in mainstream press, my Twitter name is frequently used as a key point of contact. It appears in all our mail-outs.

However, @girlgeeks (my Twitter name) is also my personal digital identity. That means that I express my personal (sometimes political) point of view, and sometimes spend time chatting with my friends online.

What is really important about this issue is that @girlgeeks has become a key point of contact for others to get in touch with me. It has become so much a part of my persona that I am sometimes introduced to an audience or individuals as "girlgeeks". I use it in my email signature. So people use it to find me on Skype, blogs, my personal Linkedin and so on.

When Twitter reclaimed the @girlgeeks username, and added an underscore to Morna’s account, this had a massive impact:

I was put in the position of losing a great deal of personal and business contacts whose first point of contact would often be through my Twitter username. To give specific examples, Girl Geek Scotland has received sponsorship and speaker contacts through my @girlgeeks account and I have personally received job offers through it.

The work that I had done (unpaid and voluntarily) in support of the Girl Geek community worldwide was in danger of being credited to an organisation that I am not associated with. The good work of the Girl Geek Scotland team - which I am very proud of - would not be visible. The work that I have done personally could easily be confused with the work of this company.

To add insult to injury, Morna was not given advance warning or the opportunity to dispute the username change. She simply got an email from Twitter, informing her that “We have received a report from Girl Geeks Limited regarding your account, @girlgeeks. To resolve confusion with the trademark owner, we have added an underscore to your username, now @girlgeeks_, and have released the trademarked username to the trademark holders for their active use on Twitter.”

It is easy to see how Twitter, as a commercial service, would be tempted to serve the interest of other commercial companies before those of their users - it is a common conflict of interest in ad-supported business models. Ads on Twitter may not be as intrusive as elsewhere, but that’s what promoted accounts and trends essentially are.

Other web-based business that have fallen into this trap include LiveJournal and Facebook, both of which have been criticised for their treatment of users as a monetisable commodity. Facebook is notorious for its gung-ho approach to users’ privacy; LiveJournal has faced much criticism both for taking the service in a direction users didn’t want and for more serious incidents such as the adverts it was serving containing malware.

Nor is this the first time a commercial company has - accidentally or deliberately - trampled all over individuals, smaller businesses or communities - either in the real world or online. When this kind of dispute happens between big companies, it is generally the lawyers who benefit. When a company is picking on an individual or smaller organisation, chances are that person or organisation will not have the resources it takes to pursue their rights through the courts, so in many cases it would simply be the end of the road.

Luckily for Morna, she had a wide established network of supporters, some of them reasonably influential in the right areas. So when @girlgeeks became @girlgeeks_ on Thursday night, people noticed, they blogged about it and retweeted it. By Monday, over 20,000 people had heard of the incident, and many of them had made their feelings known on Twitter.

There is nothing like a good PR disaster to bring a company to its senses: when faced with customer or community outrage, you had better be damn sure you're doing the right thing. By the time I spoke to Morna on Tuesday, the Girl Geeks trademark owner had realised this - and the impact of their actions on Morna and the Girl Geek Scotland community - and offered to return the @girlgeeks username, which is now back with Morna.

Beyond this, however, Twitter have so far not offered to comment or apologised for the incident. Morna has asked them both for an apology and to review their trademark policy.

I am inclined to believe that this particular incident was not the result of malice, either on the side of the trademark owner or Twitter - it was simply an error of judgement, and those happen to the best of us. Twitter in particular, however, has an opportunity here to learn from this mistake and revise its trademark policy, which currently is wide open to abuse.

Twitter’s main competitive advantage at the moment over other services like Jaiku, Plurk and the popular, Free-Software-based is that it has a critical mass of users: if all your friends are on Twitter, you’re not going to go talk to yourself on Jaiku. If, however, enough of your friends are sufficiently put off by one too many errors of judgement or PR disaster, suddenly services like start looking a lot more attractive.

In Morna’s words,

Twitter users should lobby Twitter to support individual rights and to review their policies to make changes which are more supportive of individuals and the ethos of free speech and open communication that they have become so closely associated with.

And if that lobbying doesn’t work, we should vote with our feet.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra


Image: CC-AT Flickr: michperu (Manuel Iglesias)

Writing for ORGZine - a trip down memory lane

Milena Popova reflects on her time in the Digital Rights movement

I've been writing for ORGZine for about three months now, and I can't shake a certain feeling of deja-vu. I used to be, if not active, then certainly extremely interested in a few areas of digital rights back in the late 90s and early 2000s. My particular geekdoms were largely centred around the Open Source space and the music downloads space (remember Napster?)

I then graduated from University, got a real job in IT and promptly became much less of a geek in my spare time - until I came across the Open Rights Group a couple of years ago, and was persuaded to become a supporter when they took on the BBC over a Dalek knitting pattern. So what had I missed in the intervening years? Not much, as it turns out.

For a start, we are still having the copyright debate, except that now the UK has followed in the footsteps of the US DMCA with our own Digital Economy Act. Okay, Creative Commons has expanded its reach which is great news, but the mainstream content industries continue to stick their collective heads in the sand, sometimes in creative new ways. What's a girl to do other than try to hit them where it hurts, and point out alternatives to the monumental stupidity that is DRM?

Things aren't much better on the Open Source side. Writing this article on a possible security backdoor in OpenBSD and the advantages of Open Source security, I might as well have been back in the year 2000. When I mentioned it to a friend who shares some of my interests in the Digital Rights space he said, "But surely that debate has been had and concluded and the good guys won ten years ago?"

To some extent that's true: within certain communities - geeks and techies like my friend and me - that debate is well and truly dead. To the public at large, and more scarily to most of our leaders and policy makers, this is still new ground.

What finally convinced me that I had really gotten into my time machine and headed back ten years was this wonderfully sarcastic Computer World article on the recent "cyber espionage" announcement by the Foreign Office. I looked at the name of the author and rather thought that sounded familiar. Eventually it clicked: back when we were still having the Open Source debate, Glyn Moody wrote Rebel Code, a wonderful little book on the history of Linux and the Open Source movement. And here he is, still preaching Open Source, and here I am, still doing the same.

What both the copyright and Open Source space have in common is that law-makers are easily influenced by powerful lobby groups in these areas - the content industry and technology vendors. There is currently one person in the House of Commons who has worked as a scientist (Julian Huppert MP), and not that many more who have worked in technology.

They are under a powerful onslaught of "education" by lobby groups. Those of us who settled these debates ten years ago amongst ourselves need to reach out to our MPs, our ministers, and where possible to key civil servants and try to reverse some of that brain washing they've undergone by lobbyists.

What you can do? You can join the Open Rights Group. And next time the UK government declares it 'doesn't know how much it spends on IT but by golly, it'll spend less!', you can write to your MP or the responsible minister and try to educate them. Be polite, be gentle - explain the issues, explain why they should care. One by one, sooner or later, we'll get them.


This article originally appeared here and is licensed under Creative Commons AT-NC-SA

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-AT Flickr: ** Maurice **

Over-stating the Internet's importance in Libya

Jillian York looks at the role of the Internet and mobile phones in Libya and beyond

Lots of conversations in my life these days are inspired by single tweets. And those tweets, for me at least, are often inspired by my own frustration in the media’s ineptitude on certain issues. One of those issues, of course, is understanding the effects of social media and the Internet more generally in the Arab world. The other day, after reading a jumble of cyberutopian bullshit (and yes, the real outlier stuff Evgeny Morozov talks about), I tweeted:

Please, spare me the “Internet/free flow of info/Libya” meme. 5% Internet penetration, friends, does not a “net revolution” make.

Allow me to explain. Regardless of which side of the contrived fence you stand on, you are unlikely to deny the anecdotal usage of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites for political organizing in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Perhaps you, like Morozov, contend that the Internet is more a tool of repression than one of liberation.

Or perhaps you argue that these revolts would have happened without the invention of the Internet. Whatever your orientation, you are no doubt able to see how, in a country where nearly one-third of the population accesses the Internet and millions are on Facebook alone, the advent of social media was helpful in both organizing and disseminating information.

Which brings me to Libya. Libya is not, in any sense, Egypt, nor is it Tunisia. There are others who could explain the political differences, so allow me to ruminate on two interesting and very relevant factors: Internet and mobile penetration. The stats below are from the International Telecommunications Union – one of several organizations that track such data–but are generally representative:

ITU Internet and mobile penetration stats

ITU Internet and mobile penetration stats

The normative question in relation to the Internet (mobile is obviously a different story) is, then, how much do basic indicators like Internet and mobile penetration affect the effectiveness of such tools for organizational or revolutionary purposes? Or, can a tiny group of Internet users* influence a countrywide movement?

After posting my tweet, I got an email of polite disagreement from Clay Shirky who, among other things, noted:

“Making the question “net revolution or nothing” kills the part of the conversation that could be about how serious the effect of the net was, in any situation. There’s a lot of space between inert and essential.”

And he’s right, of course, but I pointed out that he was not my target demographic; rather, the tweet was directed toward that elusive class of cyberutopians Morozov so often addresses (note: they might not be the majority, but they do exist). Nevertheless, it sparked an interesting conversation on various aspects of the debate, a couple of which I’ll point to here.

First up, the media. The mainstream US media has perhaps been the biggest cyberutopian of them all. I watched as, during the Tunisian revolt, they shied from overhyping the Internet then, turning to Egypt, began to gain confidence in their reporting. I fielded literally hundreds of calls from journalists who wanted to know (and I quote) “exactly how Egyptians are using social media.”

I wrote a blog post about it. I cheered a little inside that they were asking me (and more importantly, actual Egyptian activists) rather than the likes of Tom Friedman. And I did my best to talk to Egyptians and check all of my facts (which is not to say I’m always right, or right to all), as did a lot of journalists I spoke with. Bravo, all around.

And now, with Libya, we’re back to where we were in 2009 with Iran: Completely dumbfounded and, unable to check facts with Libyans on the ground, reporting inanities. Take Isabel Kershner’s garbage New York Times piece on how Arabs are surprised (gasp!) that an Israeli created an autotuned version of Qaddafi that is (gasp!) actually kind of funny. Or ABC News’s piece (parroted later by Wired) on the use of a Muslim dating site (which they claim is the “Muslim”) to “rally the revolution”.

The first example is straight up ridiculous, while the second could be true (as Shirky points out, “it is often better to think of dissidence than dissidents, because when a population gets radicalized, they will use the tools they have to hand.”) But it is nevertheless a single anecdote, not a diagnosis of how the Internet has been used in Libya.

Now, to that point: Frankly, we–and by we I mean folks in this space as well as the media–simply don’t know that much about the Libyan Internet. We know that the blogosphere is limited in size, and that the Libyan exile community is active in this space and read by Libyans in-country. We know that Internet cafes in Libya are under heavy surveillance much of the time. We know that the Internet is only nominally filtered.

We also can assume that Libyan Internet users are largely urban, a point that Shirky argues has a more complex meaning than what I had initially thought:

I think social media (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera) was useful in Libya, even given 5% penetration, because of the disproportionate value net access has in what became the sites and among who became the participants of the uprising, and I don’t think this makes me a woolly headed “X Revolution” labeler — I think it makes me someone who lived through the progress from <1% penetration to ~75% in my own country, and I remember how much of an effect 5% can have on synchronization and coordination of key urban groups.

To that point, I responded that Madagascar might be an appropriate comparison to Libya in terms of Internet use for protest. Shirky agreed:

Yeah, and that’s because Antananarivo is to Madagascar more like Seoul is to South Korea than to the Cairo::Egypt — what happens in Tana is largely what happens in Madagascar, full stop, at least politically, so the leverage of small degrees of connection is hugely amplified by civic density.

I’m not feeling conclusive about any of this, but I think one of the most important points to consider in all of this is Shirky’s offhand definition of “social media” (net/mobile phones/digital Al Jazeera), to which I would add “satellite TV” and possibly landlines. Of course, acknowledging such a broad definition would challenge the media narrative as well as numerous funding initiatives.

And now to the point of mobile, which is well outside my area of expertise (and thus I invite you mobile advocates to jump in here): Libya was the first African country to reach 100% mobile penetration. It now stands at 150% (which yes, means people own more than one mobile, not uncommon in the Maghreb). Why is this playing second fiddle to the media narrative of soccer and dating sites? Why isn’t mobile the point of focus here? Hell, I ought to ask myself the same question (answer: I’m already spread too thin).

It seems obvious to me that mobile (150% penetration), and not the Web (5%) is the real champion tool here. So how do we start that conversation? What are the key factors? How do we measure one against the other? Let’s talk about that, please.

*in Libya, about 320K people have access, and we have to assume that some are apolitical or support Qaddafi


This article originally appeared here and is licensed under Creative Commons AT-NC-ND

Jillian York is a Boston-based writer, researcher, and activist. You can visit her blog, or follow her on twitter

Image: CC-AT Flickr: شبكة برق | B.R.Q

Kremlin moves to prevent a social media revolution

After seeing the impact social media has had in the Middle East revolutions, new plans would aim to prevent a similar situation arising in Russia, argues Laura MacPhee

As Luke Harding could verify, Russia’s record of free speech leaves much to be desired. This political issue has come to the fore again, this time in a digital context. The Kremlin has announced plans to make social networking sites accountable for user comments, a suggestion which has been justified on public order grounds.

It is no secret that social media has played an important role in the Middle Eastern uprisings; and the government fears that similar citizen protests could take hold in Russia. If these measures were implemented, however, they would pose a serious threat to the Russian people. Such rules increase the power of the government and weaken the citizen’s position.

This move would represent an important change in law and policy. The inevitable consequence of this would have a chilling impact. Imposing this kind of legal regulation on speech is a form of indirect censorship, and indeed may breed direct censorship on the part of the websites. The idea is to turn the site operators against the users they set out to empower.

John Hood makes this point very succinctly: “Security agencies have proposed that owners of social-media sites be made responsible for all comments on their sites, a way to pressure them to turn over data on individual users who might be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Self-censorship is an inevitable consequence of operating within this framework. If users know that they are liable to be prosecuted for their comments, they are less likely to dare to make them. This is reinforced by the legal incentive on the websites to report users instead of ‘protecting’ them. In reality, preeminent organisations like Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to be subject to such coercion. But bigger challenges will be faced by Russian websites, which cannot depend on this international reputation.

Nonetheless, the principle remains the same. This practice constricts freedom of both expression and association. The internet is increasingly used as tool to raise support for a cause, and to inspire corresponding action. The Kremlin is patently aware of this fact, and feels threatened.

The administration’s fear of being overthrown is very real. President Medvedev answered the question of a potential push for regime change by the opposition with apparent certainty: “Let’s face the truth. They have been preparing such a scenario for us, and now they will try even harder to implement it.”

This has hardly been the Russian government’s first attempt to control online social media. They have previously launched a more proactive offensive in training a “school of bloggers” who then disseminate propaganda in favour of the government. This method functions as both a sword and a shield for the Kremlin, who can also use these bloggers to counter online attacks on the regime. Although the original initiative was closed down, the same practices were adopted by the regions and have continued.

In a nation with 40 million internet users (who tend to be middle class and more politically engaged), it is unsurprising that the government wishes to exercise such control. The internet has been exposed as a tool for liberation, so it is an obvious target for those who wish to suppress this.

Recent events have shown that as the potential for expression increases, so does the potential for censorship. This new policy is just part of a series of measures adopted in a bid to control the internet and restrict the new powers it has offered citizens.  


Laura MacPhee is an editorial intern at the Index on Censorship, she tweets as @lcrmacphee

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: On The Go Tours

Online community shames Minister out of office

Milena Popova looks at how an ad-hoc online collaboration exposed a German Minister's history of plagiarism.

Much has been talked recently about what (if any) impact Twitter has on revolutions, and what Wikileaks will do for Western democracy. Mr. Morozov’s glum assessment aside, technology is having a massive impact on the relationship between the state and the individual in many areas - sometimes to the advantage of the state and sometimes otherwise.

You will almost certainly have heard of some of the tools provided by - things like Write to Them or They Work For You. They make it incredibly easy for individuals to engage with and keep an eye on their elected representatives. Online campaigns are beginning to gain traction and can boast some impressive successes, not least the recent campaign to stop the government selling off forests, headed by online campaigning group 38 Degrees. Now in Germany, a government minister has fallen as a result of an ad-hoc online collaboration.

On February 16th, Sueddeutsche Zeitung - one of Germany’s main broadsheets - published an allegation that Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg had used plagiarised material in his PhD thesis (German link). The Minister immediately and strongly denied this. Within a day of the first allegations, the GuttenPlag Wiki (German link) had been founded.

GuttenPlag is an ad-hoc volunteer project which is examining the published version of zu Guttenberg’s thesis for possible plagiarism. By February 21st, GuttenPlag had published an interim report (German link), having found that over two thirds of all pages in Guttenberg’s thesis contained significant plagiarised passages. Some of the more interesting finds include:

  • The thesis begins with a plagiarised passage.
  • Plagiarism of an essay by a first-year student.
  • Failure to correct spelling mistakes from the original source.
  • Plagiarism of close party colleagues.

Faced with mounting evidence and the Minister’s refusal to resign, the people - and especially academics - took to the streets. Finally, after nearly two weeks of daily revelations of further instances of plagiarism, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned as Defence Minister on March 1st.

There a few note-worthy items about the GuttenPlag Wiki’s role in the affair. I was struck by the scientific rigour of the work, almost as if to make up for the lack of such rigour in its subject. These were not 16-year-old kids: judging by the style and quality of work the vast majority of GuttenPlag contributors are academics, or at the very least students, themselves. They are very particular about explaining their methodology, documenting their assumptions, and generally being as transparent as possible about what they are doing and how.

Secondly, in some ways this is nothing new: it is simply the use of technology to facilitate collaboration, as it happens across countless organisations, private, public and voluntary around the world on a daily basis. It’s nothing that the likes of Wikipedia haven’t don’t before - using technology and the internet to harness the power of volunteers. Yet the way the effort was targeted to meet a single objective - investigate the allegations of plagiarism against the Defence Minister - is what made it distinctive in the landscape of technology uses for political purposes. This is also arguably what made it so successful.

The GuttenPlag Wiki is different to the likes of They Work for You: work on it will probably stop in the next few weeks, sooner rather than later it will be gone as its objective has been achieved. There is, of course, still plenty of space and scope for more permanent tools like Write to Them and They Work for You, but ultimately we must remember that it’s not technology itself that is powerful and liberating - it’s what we choose to do with it.


Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: Junge Union Deutschlands

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