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January 25, 2008

Xenu strikes again

I see that the war between Scientology and the Net, first spotted in about 1994, has erupted again. Same issues, slightly different people, similar behavior.

Then (1993-1996): a bunch of Scientology critics collided with a bunch of Scientology adherents in the Usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. The critics, besides posting criticism, began posting chunks of the documents that were normally only revealed to Scientologists after they'd been through many (expensive) levels of Scientology training. For an explanation of what the documents are, see here.

The Church of Scientology reacted as documented in the first-referenced article back there (even now, often the one thing I've written that people remember). The newsgroup got flooded with hundreds of messages containing copied and pasted chunks of pro-Scientology material. There was a "Cancelbunny" that began cancelling the critics' messages. Real people got their real homes raided and their real hard drives confiscated. The anonymous mail server in Finland, used for posting some of the secret documents, was raided and, when its owner, Julf Helsingius, realized he couldn't really promise anonymity in the face of the law, shut down. Keith Henson, an engineer and fringe science adventurer (cryonics, space colonization, rocket building), was sued by the CoS for copyright infringement after he openly posted some of the secret documents. He lost in court, declared bankruptcy, picketed Scientology offices, was sentenced to jail, fled to Canada, ordered to present himself for extradition, fled back to the US, and finally spent sic months in jail.

1998: Usenet stopped being the most important forum for Net discussions probably sometime around 1998. At which point, flooding the Web seems to have become the strategy: give every Scientologist E-Z software for building their own site, and watch the numbers grow. "Web spam", a.r.s. called it; that was a time when sheer numbers might still influence what came top of search engine listings.

Early 2000s: The fight moved to where the most important gatekeepers were: search engines. The first note of the battle over spam links, Digital Millennium Copyright Act removal notices, and Google's behavior dates to 1998. A 2002 sampling shows pretty much the same pattern as the Usenet era, without the real-life drama, as does this 2001 article.

Now: this week, I see that an Internet group calling itself "Anonymous" have been launching DDoS attacks on Scientology Web sites, taking them intermittently offline. It's good to see that longstanding a.r.s. Scientology critics like Jeff Jacobsen think this tactic is wrong. Because it is, and not just because DDoS attacks are illegal.

Scientology's online critics have always skated a fine line between good and bad forms of protest. There was, for example, a possibly legitimate argument for posting the secret documents, even if they were copyrighted. Most copyright laws make exceptions for quotations for criticism and parody; critics could also reasonably argue that given the amount Scientologists pay for their access to these documents they ought to have the right to get some idea of what kind of teachings they were actually going to be paying for. After all, most religions – in which category Scientology places itself – publish their beliefs openly. Where would we be in Marriott hotels at night without our free copies of the Bible and the Book of Mormon? It's only businesses – in which category Scientology does not place itself willingly – that claim the inner workings of the products they sell are trade secrets.

There was, therefore, an defensible case that the critics who reacted to copyright threats by publishing the documents as widely and as often as possible were acting in the public interest. You may disagree with it, but it is a legitimate argument to say that people deserve to see what they're buying. A supposed church that counters that argument by claiming that publication will cause it financial hardship could find itself on shaky moral, if not legal, ground.

There is no such case to be made for DDoS attacks. If a site's owner is doing something illegal, report them to the police, counter their bad speech with more speech, or counter their bad technology by documenting it and creating better technology. The Web and search engine wars were carried out in just that way: documenting the influx of thousands of near-identical pro-Scientology Web sites and presenting the evidence to both the search engines themselves and the Web at large was exactly the right way to convince people that something questionable was going on. And the results of the changes search engines made have been long-lasting (in Internet terms). Type "Scientology" into Google today, and you get a set of hits that seem fairly representative of all points of view: top hit CoS's own site, next two hits Wikipedia's entries, third hit one of the best-known critics, Operation Clambake.

Operation Clambake's owner, Andreas Heldal-Lund, has also, I'm glad to see, come out against the DDoS operation. As he says, it's hypocritical to defend your own activities on the grounds of freedom of speech and then deny it to other people. Freedom of speech means freedom for speech you disagree with.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

January 18, 2008

Harmony, where is thy sting?

On the Net, John Perry Barlow observed long ago, everything is local and everything is global, but nothing is national. It's one of those pat summations that sometimes is actually right. The EU, in the interests of competing successfully with the very large market that is the US, wants to harmonize the national laws that apply to content online.

They have a point. Today's market practices were created while the intangible products of human ingenuity still had to be fixed in a physical medium. It was logical for the publishers and distributors of said media to carve up the world into national territories. But today anyone trying to, say, put a song in an online store, or create a legal TV download service has to deal with a thicket of national collection societies and licensing authorities.

Where there's a problem there's a consultation document, and so there is in this case: the EU is giving us until February 29 (leap year!) to tell them what we think (PDF).

The biggest flaw in the consultation document is that the authors (who needed a good copy editor) seem to have bought wholesale the 2005 thinking of rightsholders (whom they call "right holders"). Fully a third of the consultation is on digital rights management: should it be interoperable, should there be a dispute resolution process, should SMEs have non-discriminatory access to these systems, should EULAs be easier to read?

Well, sure. But the consultation seems to assume that DRM is a) desirable and b) an endemic practice. We have long argued that it's not desirable; DRM is profoundly anti-consumer. Meanwhile, the industry is clearly fulfilling Naxos founder Klaus Heymann's April 2007 prophecy that DRM would be gone from online music within two years. DRM is far less of an issue now than it was in 2006, when the original consultation was launched. In fact, though, these questions seem to have been written less to aid consumers than to limit the monopoly power of iTunes.

That said, DRM will continue to be embedded in some hardware devices, most especially in the form of HDCP, a form of copy protection being built, invisibly to consumers until it gets in their way, into TV sets and other home video equipment. Unfortunately, because the consultation is focused on "Creative Content Online", such broader uses of DRM aren't included.

However, because of this and because some live streaming services similarly use DRM to prevent consumers from keeping copies of their broadcasts (and probably more will in future as Internet broadcasting becomes more widespread), public interest limitations on how DRM can be used seem like a wise idea. The problem with both DRM and EULAs is that the user has no ability to negotiate terms. The consultation leaves out an important consumer consideration: what should happen to content a consumer pays for and downloads that's protected with DRM if the service that sold it closes down? So far, subscribers lose it all; this is clea

The questions regarding multi-territory licensing are far more complicated, and I suspect answers to those depend largely on whether you're someone trying to clear rights for reuse, someone trying to protect your control over your latest blockbuster's markets, or someone trying to make a living as a creative person. The first of those clearly wants to buy one license rather than dozens. The second wants to sell dozens of licenses rather than one (unless it's for a really BIG sum of money). The third, who is probably part of the "Long Tail" mentioned in the question, may be very suspicious of any regime that turns everything he created before 2005 into "back catalogue works" that are subject to a single multi-territory license. Science fiction authors, for example, have long made significant parts of their income by selling their out-of-print back titles for reprint. An old shot in a photographer's long tail may be of no value for 30 years – until suddenly the subject emerges as a Presidential candidate. Any regime that is adopted must be flexible enough to recognize that copyrighted works have values that fluctuate unpredictably over time.

The final set of question has to do with the law and piracy. Should we all follow France's lead and require ISPs to throw users offline if they're caught file-sharing more than three times? We have said all along that the best antidote to unauthorized copying is to make it easy for people to engage in authorized copying. If you knew, for example, that you could reliably watch the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory (if there ever is one) 24 hours after the US broadcast, would you bother chasing around torrent sites looking for a download that might or might not be complete? Technically, it's nonsense to think that ISPs can reliably distinguish an unauthorized download of copyrighted material from an authorized one; filtering cannot be the answer, no matter how much AT&T wants to kill itself trying. We would also remind the EU of the famed comment of another Old Netizen, John Gilmore: "The Internet perceives censorship as damage, and routes around it."

But of course no consultation can address the real problem, which isn't how to protect copyright online: it's how to encourage creators.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

January 11, 2008

Beyond biology

"Will we have enough food?"

Last Saturday (for an article in progress for the Guardian), I attended the monthly board meeting at Alcor, probably the largest of the several cryonics organizations. Cryonics: preserving a newly deceased person's body in the hope that medical technology will improve to the point where that person can be warmed up, revived, and cured.

I was the last to arrive at what I understand was an unusually crowded meeting: fifteen, including board members, staffers, and visitors. Hence the chair's anxious question.

The conference room has a window at one end that looks into a mostly empty concrete space at a line of giant cylinders, some gleaming steel, some dull aluminum. These "dewars" are essentially giant Thermos bottles, and they are the vessels in which cryopreserved patients are held. Each dewar can hold up to nine patients – four whole bodies, head down, and five neuro patients in a column down the middle.

There is a good reason to call these cryopreserved Alcor members "patients". If the cryonics dream ever comes to fruition, they will not have been dead now. And in any case, calling them patients has the same function as naming your sourdough starter: it reminds you that here is something that cannot survive without your responsible care.

To Alcor's board and staff, these are often personal friends. A number have their framed pictures on the board room wall, with the dates of their birth and cryopreservation. It was therefore a little eerie to realize that those visible dewars were, mostly, occupied.

I think the first time I ever heard of anything like cryonics was Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. Reading about it as a serious proposition came nearly 20 years later, in Ed Regis's 1992 book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Regis's book, which I reviewed for New Scientist, was a vivid ramble through the outer fringes of science, which he dubbed "fin-de-siècle hubris".

My view hasn't changed: since cremation and burial both carry a chance of revival of zero, cryonics has to do hardly anything to offer better odds, no matter how slight. But it remains a contentious idea. Isaac Asimov, for example, was against it, at least for himself. The science fiction I read as a teenager was filled with overpopulated earths covered in giant blocks of one-room apartments and people who lived on synthetic food because there was no longer the space or ability to grow enough of the real stuff. And we're going to add long-dead people as well?

That kind of issue comes up when you mention cryonics. Isn't it selfish? Or expensive? Or an imposition on future generations? What would the revived person would live on, given their outdated skills. Supposing you wake up a slave?

Many of these issues have been considered, if not by cryonicists themselves for purely practical reasons then by sf writers. Robert A. Heinlein's 1957 book The Door Into Summer had its protagonist involuntarily frozen and deposited into the future with no assets and no employment prospects, given that his engineering background was 30 years out of date. Larry Niven's 1991 short story "Rammer" had its hero revived into the blanked body of a criminal and sent out as a spaceship pilot by a society that would have calmly vaped his personality and replaced it with the next one if he were found unsuitable (Niven was also, by the way, the writer who coined the descriptor "corpsicle" for the cryopreserved). Even Woody Allen's Miles Monroe woke up in danger.

The thing is, those aren't reasons for cryonicists not to try to make their dream a reality. They are arguments for careful thought on the part of the cryonics organizations who are offering cryopreservation and possible revival as services. And they do think about it, in part because the people running those organizations expect to be cryopreserved themselves The scientist and Alcor board member Ralph Merkle, in an interview last year, pointed out that the current board chooses its successors with great care, "Because our lives will depend on selecting a good group to continue the core values."

Many of them are also bad aarguments. Most people, given their health, want their lives to continue; if they didn't, we'd be awash in suicides. If overpopulation is the problem, having children is just as selfish a way of securing immortality as wanting longer life for oneself. If burdening future generations is the problem, doing so by being there is hardly worse than using up all the planet's resources in our lifetime, leaving our descendants to suffer the consequences unaided. Nor is being uncertain of the consequences a reason: human history is filled with technologies we've developed on the basis that we'd deal with the consequences as they arose. Some consequences were good, some bad; most technologies have a mix of the two.

After the board meeting ended, several of those present and I went on talking about just these issues over lunch.

"We won't be harder to deal with than a baby," one of them said. True, but there is a much bigger biological urge to reproduce than there is to revive someone who was pronounced dead a century or two ago.

"We are kind of going around biology," he admitted.

Only up to a point: there was enough food.

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).

January 4, 2008

If God had meant us to vote...

It seems like a couple of years now that people in the UK have been asking me, "Do you think Hillary or Guliani is going to win?" Sometimes they mention Obama. But it's like the meme of a few years ago about Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming president: the famous name dominates the coverage beyond all reason.

When the Schwarzenegger thing came up, I tried patiently to explain about the Constitution: to be elected president, you must have been born a US citizen. I assume the Founding Fathers, even without the benefit of having seen George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart, were worried that some English king would come over to the US, get himself naturalized, win the president's job in one of those democratic elections, and then push the country back to colonialism.

"They'll amend the Constitution," people said.

Well, not quite. It takes an incredible amount of effort to onstitution: the prospective amendment has to pass both legislative houses by a two-thirds majority, and then three-quarters of the states. Often, there's a time limit of seven years, which is what eventually scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment. (Apparently the fastest-ever passage of an amendment, 107 days, was not getting Prohibition repealed but lowering the voting age to 18 during the Vietnam War.) While there was, apparently, an attempt in 2004 to introduce an amendment allowing foreign-born, naturalized citizens to become president, it's hard for me to believe even Schwarzenegger thinks he has a chance in his lifetime; he's 60 this year. Certainly, it's not a possibility people inside the US seem to take seriously.

That so many people outside the US think of the chief presidential candidates as Hillary, Obama, Giuliani, and Schwarzenegger tells you how little of the US's real politics seeps out to other countries. Fantasy politics all you want, sure: as many British friends as American ones bought into The West Wing's fictional White House.

Very fictional: Josiah Bartlett might have managed to get elected president despite being a Catholic (Kennedy) and having multiple sclerosis, but he'd never be able to overcome the twin disadvantages of being a Nobel Laureate in economics and, above all, being SHORT. Martin Sheen is 5 foot 7. You have to go all the way back to 1900 and William McKinley to find a president that small, and even then that was short by historical standards. In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost the election when moving around the debate podiums to shake hands with George H.W. Bush revealed that he "http://www6.miami.edu/debate04/art/pagephotos/sphotohistory.jpg">barely came up to Bush's shoulder. Over and out.

Most reports guesstimate Obama at six feet, but Clinton reportedly clocks in at 5 foot 8 and a half – tallish for a woman, maybe, but not for a presidential candidate. Giuliani claims 5 foot 10 (though some observers claim he's shorter). And John Edwards comes in at 5 foot 10.

John Edwards? Things look very different from inside the US. Here, although Clinton, Obama, and Giuliani are still getting most of the headlines there are plenty of other candidates to pick from even just within the Democratic party, all of whom look more like a US president usually looks: white, male, and middle-aged. Giuliani's best moment may have been when, as New Yorkers gleefully keep saying, his every sentence was summed up by Democratic hopeful Senator Joseph R. Biden as "a noun, a verb, and 9/11",

Yesterday's Iowa caucus – the first primaries of the 2008 presidential election – is the first real data we've had. And reality started to hit: Giuliani polled 4 percent; the Republican front runner is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who suddenly came out of nowhere in the last few weeks . Clinton polled 30 percent, which sounds respectable until you find out she came third, narrowly below Edwards. Obama led with 37 percent. Lots more to go there.

Some more notes for the coming weeks:

- Giuliani was more or less hated in New York while he was mayor.

- Clinton, like her husband, was politically hated when she was First Lady, despite her exceptional star-name fundraising ability.

- Huckabee crossed WGA picket lines to appear on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on January 3 (without a deal with striking union writers, Huckabee was the best Leno could do for a guest.) When asked, he said he thought Leno had a deal with the WGA. No. "Oh." Oops.

- Vice-president Dick Cheney has vehemently denied all possibility that he will run. "And if elected I will not serve."

- Lots of press speculation that New York's current mayor, the megawealthy Steve Bloomberg, will enter as an independent.

- No matter who runs, from the primaries onwards the technology of voting is going to be an unholy mess and doubtless, in some districts, a deciding factor.

I can't guess November's nominees, but I don't expect to see Clinton among them unless it's as someone's vice-president (and who's going to want Bill hanging around kibitzing?). Clinton's trailing Edwards, even if it's only the first state, suggests the big show will feature dismal, "safe" choices.

Cue Utah Phillips: "If God had meant us to vote, he'd have given us candidates."

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. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).