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March 28, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas

Las Vegas shouldn't exist. Who drops a sprawling display of electric lights with huge fountains and luxury hotels that into the best desert scenery on the planet during an energy crisis? Indoors, it's Britain in mid-winter; outdoors you're standing in a giant exhaust fan. The out-of-proportion scale means that everything is four times as far away as you think, including the jackpot you're not going to win at one of its casinos. It's a great place to visit if you enjoy wallowing in self-righteous disapproval.

This all makes it the stuff of song, story, and legend and explains why Jeff Jonas's presentation at etech was packed.

The way Jonas tells it in his blog and at his presentation, he got into the gaming industry by driving through Las Vegas in 1989 idly wondering what was going on behind the scenes at the casinos. A year later he got the tiny beginnings of an answer when he picked up a used couch he'd found in the newspaper classified ads (boy, that dates it, doesn't it?) and found that its former owner played blackjack "for a living". Jonas began consulting to the gaming industry in 1991, helping to open Treasure Island, Bellagio, and Wynn.

"Possibly half the casinos in the world use technology we created," he said at etech.

Gaming revenues are now less than half of total revenues, he said, and despite the apparent financial win they might represent problem gamblers are in fact bad for business. The goal is for people to have fun. And because of that, he said, a place like the Bellagio is "optimized for consumer experience over interference. They don't want to spend money on surveillance."

Jonas began with a slide listing some common ideas about how Las Vegas works, culled from movies like Ocean's 11 and the TV show Las Vegas. Does the Bellagio have a vault? (No.) Do casinos perform background checks on guests based on public records? (No.) Is there a gaming industry watch list you can put yourself on but not take yourself off? (Yes, for people who know they have a gambling addiction.) Do casinos deliberately hire ex-felons? (Yes, to rehabilitate them.) Do they really send private jets for high rollers? (Cue story.)

There was, he said, a casino high roller who had won some $18 million. A win like that is going to show up in a casino's quarterly earnings. So, yes, they sent a private jet to his town and parked a limo in front of his house for the weekend. If you've got the bug, we're here for you, that kind of thing. He took the bait, and lost $22 million.

Do they help you create cover stories? (Yes.) "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" is an important part of ensuring that people can have fun that does not come back to bite them when they go home. The casinos' problem is with identity, not disguises, because they are required by anti-money laundering rules to report it any time someone crosses the $10,000 threshold for cash transactions. So if you play at several different tables, then go upstairs and change disguises, and come back and play some more, they have to be able to track you through all that. ID, therefore, is extremely important. Disguises are welcome; fake ID is not.

Do they use facial recognition to monitor the doors to spot cheaters on arrival? (Well...)

Of course technology-that-is-indistinguishable-from-magic-because-it-actually-is-magic appears on every crime-solving TV show these days. You know, the stuff where Our Heroes start with a fuzzy CCTV image and they punch in on a tiny piece of it and blow it up. And then someone says, "Can you enhance that?" and someone else says, "Oh, yes, we have new software," and a second later a line goes down the picture filling in detail. And a second after that you can read the brand on the face of a wrist watch (Numb3rs or the manufacturer's coding on a couple of pills (Las Vegas. Or they have a perfect matching system that can take a partial fingerprint lifted off a strand of hair or something and bang! the database can find not only the person's identity but their current home address and phone number (Bones). And who can ever forget the first episode of 24, when Jack Bauer, alarmed at the disappearance of his daughter, tosses his phone number to an underling and barks, "Find me all the Internet passwords associated with this phone number."

And yet...a surprising number of what ought to be the technically best-educated audience on the planet thought facial recognition was in operation to catch cheaters. Folks, it doesn't work in airports, either.

Which is the most interesting thing Jonas said: he now works for IBM (which bought his company) on privacy and civil liberties issues, including work on software to help the US government spot terrorists without invading privacy. It's an interesting concept, partly because security at airports and other locations is now so invasive. But also because if Las Vegas can find a way to deploy surveillance such that only the egregious problems are caught and everyone else just has a good time...why can't governments?

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).

March 21, 2008


This is a shortened version of a talk I gave at Musicians, Fans, and Copyright at the LSE on Wednesday, March 19, 2008.

Most discussions about copyright with respect to music do not include musicians. The notable exception is the record companies' trophy musicians who appear at government hearings. Because these tend to be the most famous and well-rewarded musicians they can find, their primarily contribution to the dabate seems to be to try to make politicians think, "We love you, we can't bear that you should starve, the record company must be right." It's a long time since I made a living playing, so I can't pretend to represent them. But I can make a few observations. Folk musicians in particular stand at the nexus of all the copyright arguments: they are contemporary artists and songwriters, but they mine their material from the public domain.

Every musician, at every level of the business, has been ripped off (PDF), usually when they can least afford it. The result is that they tend to be deeply suspicious of any attempt to limit their rights. The music business has such a long history of signing the powerless - young, inexperienced musicians, the black blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta, and many others - to exploitive contracts that it's hard to understand why they're still allowed to get away with it. Surely it ought to be possible to limit what rights and terms the industry can dictate to the inexperienced and desperate with stars in their eyes?

Steve Gillette, author with Tom Campbell of the popular 1966 song "Darcy Farrow", says that when Ian & Sylvia wanted to record the song, they were told to hire someone to collect royalties on their behalf. That person did little to collect royalties for many years. Gillette and Campbell eventually won a court judgement with a standard six-month waiting period - during which time John Denver recorded the song and put it on his best-selling album, Rocky Mountain High, giving the publisher a motive to fight back. They were finally able to wrest back control of the song in about 1990.

In book publishing it is commonplace for the rights to revert to authors if and when the publisher decides to withdraw their work from sale. There is no comparable practice in the music business. And so, people I know on the folk scene whose work has gone out of commercial release find themselves in the situation where their fans want to buy their music but they can't sell it. As one musician said, "I didn't work all those years to have my music stuck in a vault."

Pete Coe, a traditional performer and songwriter, tells me that the common scenario is that a young musician signs a recording contract early on, and then the company goes out of business and the recordings are bought by others. The purchasing company buys the assets - the recordings - but not the burden, the obligation to pass on royalties to the original artists. Coe himself, along with many others, is in this situation; some of his early recordings have been through two such bankruptcies. The company that owns them now owns many other folk releases of the period and either refuses to re-release the recordings or refuses to provide sales figures or pay royalties, and is not a member of MCPS. Coe points out that this company would certainly refuse to cooperate with any effort to claim the reversion of rights.

In a similar case, Nic Jones, a fine and widely admired folk guitarist who played almost exclusively traditional music, was in a terrible car accident in about 1981 that left him unable to play. Over the following years his recordings were bought up but not rereleased, so that an artist now unable to work could not benefit from his back catalogue. It is only in the last few years, with the cost of making and distributing music falling, that he and his wife have managed to release old live recordings on their own label. Term extension would, if anything, hurt Jones's ability to regain control over and exploit his own work. (Note: I have not canvassed Jones's opinion.)

The artists in these cases, like any group of cats, have reacted in different ways. Gillette, who comments also that in general it's the smaller operators who are the biggest problem, says, that term extension "only benefits the corporate media, and in my experience only serves to lend energy to turning the public trust into company assets".

Coe, on the other hand, favors term extension. "We determined," he said by email in 2006, "that once we'd regained our rights, publishing and recording, that they were never again to pass out of our control."

Coe's reaction is understandable. But I think many problems could be solved by forcing the industry to treat musicians and artists more fairly. It's notable that folk artists, through necessity, pioneered what's becoming commonplace now: releasing their own albums to sell to audiences direct at their gigs and via mail, now Web, order.

What the musicians of the future want and need, in my opinion, is the same thing that the musicians of the present and past wanted: control. In my view, there is no expansion of copyright that will give it to them.

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).

March 14, 2008

Uninformed consent

Apparently the US Congress is now being scripted by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. In a twist of perfect irony, the House of Representatives has decided to hold its first closed session in 25 years to debate - surveillance.

But it's obvious why they want closed doors: they want to talk about the AT&T case. To recap: AT&T is being sued for its complicity in the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance of US citizens after its technician Mark Klein blew the whistle by taking documents to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which a couple of weeks ago gave him a Pioneer Award for his trouble).

Bush has, of course, resisted any effort to peer into the innards of his surveillance program by claiming it's all a state secret, and that's part of the point of this Congressional move: the Democrats have fielded a bill that would give the whole program some more oversight and, significantly, reject the idea of giving telecommunications companies - that is, AT&T - immunity from prosecution for breaking the law by participating in warrantless wiretapping. 'Snot fair that they should deprive us of the fun of watching the horse-trading. It can't, surely, be that they think we'll be upset by watching them slag each other off. In an election year?

But it's been a week for irony, as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has had his sex life exposed when he dumped his girlfriendand been accused of - let's call it sloppiness - in his expense accounts. Worse, he stands accused of trading favorable page edits for cash. There's always been a strong element of Schadenpedia around, but the edit-for-cash thing really goes to the heart of what Wikipedia is supposed to be about.

I suspect that nonetheless Wikipedia will survive it: if the foundation has the sense it seems to have, it will display zero tolerance. But the incident has raised valid questions about how Wikipedia can possibly sustain itself financially going forward. The site is big and has enviable masses of traffic; but it sells no advertising, choosing instead to live on hand-outs and the work of volunteers. The idea, I suppose, is that accepting advertising might taint the site's neutral viewpoint, but donations can do the same thing if they're not properly walled off: just ask the US Congress. It seems to me that an automated advertising system they did not control would be, if anything, safer. And then maybe they could pay some of those volunteers, even though it would be a pity to lose some of the site's best entertainment.

With respect to advertising, it's worth noting that Phorm, which we is under increasing pressure. Earlier this week, we had an opportunity to talk to Kent Ertegrul, CEO of Phorm, who continues to maintain that Phorm's system, because it does not store data, is more protective of privacy than today's cookie-driven Web. This may in fact be true.

Less certain is Ertegrul's belief that the system does not contravene the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which lays down rules about interception. Ertegrul has some support from a informal letter from the Home Office whose reasoning seems to be that if users have consented and have been told how they can opt out, it's legal. Well, we'll see; there's a lot of debate going on about this claim and it will be interesting to hear the Information Commissioner's view. If the Home Office's interpretation is correct, it could open a lot of scope for abusive behavior that could be imposed upon users simply by adding it to the terms of service to which they theoretically consent when they sign up, and a UK equivalent of AT&T wanting to assist the government with wholesale warrantless wiretapping would have only to add it to the terms of service.

The real problem is that no one really knows how Phorm's system works. Phorm doesn't retain your IP address, but the ad servers surely have to know it when they're sending you ads. If you opt out but can still opt back in (as Ertegrul said you can), doesn't that mean you still have a cookie on your system and that your data is still passed to Phorm's system, which discards it instead of sending you ads? If that's the case, doesn't that mean you can not opt out of having your data shared? If that isn't how it works, then how does it work? I thought I understood it after talking to Ertegrul, I really did - and then someone asked me to explain how Phorm's cookie's usefulness persisted between sessions, and I wasn't sure any more. I think the Open Rights Group: Phorm should publish details of how its system works for experts to scrutinize. Until Phorm does that the misinformation Ertegrul is so upset about will continue. (More disclosure: I am on ORG's Advisory Council.

But maybe the Home Office is on to something. Bush could solve his whole problem by getting everyone to give consent to being surveilled at the moment they take US citizenship. Surely a newborn baby's footprint is sufficient agreement?

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).

March 7, 2008


This year, 2008, may go down in history as the year geeks got politics. At etech this week I caught a few disparaging references to hippies' efforts to change politics. Which, you know, seemed kind of unfair, for two reasons. First: the 1960s generation did change an awful lot of things, though not nearly as many as they hoped. Second: a lot of those hippies are geeks now.

But still. Give a geek something that's broken and he'll itch to fix it. And one thing leads to another. Which is why on Wednesday night Lawrence Lessig explained in an hour-long keynote that got a standing ovation how he plans to fix what's wrong with Congress.

No, he's not going to run. Some 4,500 people on Facebook were trying to push him into it, and he thought about it, but preliminary research showed that his chances of beating popular Silicon Valley favorite, Jackie Speier, were approximately zero.

"I wasn't afraid of losing," he said, noting ruefully that in ten years of copyfighting he's gotten good at it. Instead, the problem was that Silicon Valley insiders would have known that no one was going to beat Jackie Speier. But outsiders would have pointed, laughed, and said, "See? The idea of Congressional reform has no legs." And on to business as usual. So, he said, counterproductive to run.

Instead, he's launching Change Congress. "Obama has taught us that it's possible to imagine many people contributing to real change."

The point, he said, will be to provide a "signalling function". Like Creative Commongs, Change Congress will give candidates an easy way to show what level of reform they're willing to commit tto. The system will start with three options: 1) refusing money from lobbyists and political action committees (private funding groups); 2) ban earmarks (money allocated to special projects in politicians' home states); 3) commit to public financing for campaigns. Candidates can then display the badge generated from those choices on their campaign materials.

From there, said Lessig, layer something like Emily's List on top, to help people identify candidates they're willing to suppot with monthly donations, thereby subsidizing reform.

Money, he admitted, isn't the entire problem. But, like drinking for an alcoholic, it's the first problem you must solve to be able to tackle any of the others with any hope of success.

In a related but not entirely similar vein, the guys who brought us They Work For You nearly four years ago are back with UN democracy, an attempt to provide a signalling function to the United Nations> by making it easy to find out how your national representatives are voting in UN meetings. The driving force behind UNdemocracy.com is Liverpool's Julian Todd, who took the UN's URL obscurantism as a personal challenge. Since he doesn't fly, presenting the new service were Tom Loosemore, Stefan Mogdalinski, and Danny O'Brien, who pointed out that when you start looking at the decisions and debates you start to see strange patterns: what do the US and Israel have in common with Palau and Micronesia?

The US Congress and the British Parliament are all, they said, now well accustomed to being televised, and their behaviour has adapted to the cameras. At the UN, "They don't think they're being watched at all, so you see horse trading in a fairly raw form."

The meta-version they believe can be usefully and widely applied: 1) identify broken civic institution; 2) liberate data from said institution. There were three more ingredients, but they vanished the slide too quickly. But Mogdalinski noted that where in the past they have said "Ask forgiveness, not permission", alluding to the fact that most institutions if approached will behave as though they own the data. He's less inclined to apologise now. After all, isn't it *our* data that's being released in the public interest?

Data isn't everything. But the Net community has come a long way since the early days, when the prevailing attitude was that technological superiority would wash away politics-as-usual by simply making an end run around any laws governments tried to pass. Yes, technology can change the equation a whole lot. For example, once PGP escaped laws limiting the availability of strong encryption were pretty much doomed to fail (though not without a lot of back-and-forth before it became official). Similarly, in the copyright wars it's clear that copyrighted material will continue to leak out no matter how hard they try to protect it.

But those are pretty limited bits of politics. Technology can't make such an easy end run around laws that keep shrinking the public domain. Nor can it by itself solve policies that deny the reality of global climate change or that, in one of Lessig's examples, back government recommendations off from a daily caloric intake of 10 percent sugar to one of 25 percent. Or that, in another of his examples, kept then Vice-President Al Gore from succeeding with a seventh part to the 1996 Communications Act deregulating ADSL and cable because without anything to regulate what would Congressmen do without the funds those lobbyists were sending their way? Hence, the new approach.

"Technology," Lessig said, "doesn't solve any problems. But it is the only tool we have to leverage power to effect change."

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.