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July 30, 2010

Three-legged race

"If you are going to do this damn silly thing, don't do it in this damn silly way," Sir Humphrey Appleby tells Jim Hacker in a fit of unaccustomed straight talking.

We think of this often these days, largely because it seems as though lawmakers, having been belittled by impatient and malcontent geeks throughout the 1990s for being too slow to keep up with Internet time, are trying to speed through the process of creating legislation by eliminating thought, deliberation, and careful drafting. You can see why they'd want to get rid of so many civil servants, who might slow this process down.

In that particular episode of Yes, Minister, "The Writing on the Wall" (S1e05), Appleby and Hacker butt heads over who will get the final say over the wording of a draft proposal on phased Civil Service reductions (today's civil servants and ministers might want to watch episode S1e03, "The Economy Drive", for what their lives will soon be like). Hacker wins that part of the battle only to discover that his version, if implemented, will shut down his own department. Oops.

Much of the Digital Economy Act (2010) was like this: redrafted at the last minute in all sorts of unhelpful ways. But the devil is always in the details, and it was not unreasonable to hope that Ofcom, charging with defining and consulting on those details, would operate in a more measured fashion. But apparently not, and so we have a draft code of practice that's so incomplete that it could be a teenager's homework.

Both Consumer Focus and the Open Rights Group have analyses of the code's non-compliance with the act and a helpful <"a href=http://e-activist.com/ea-campaign/clientcampaign.do?ea.client.id=1422&ea.campaign.id=7268">online form should you wish to submit your opinions. The consultation closes today, so run, do not walk, to add your comments.

What's more notable is when it opened: May 28, only three days after the State Opening of the post-election parliamentary session, three weeks after the election, and six weeks after the day that Gordon Brown called the election. Granted, civil servants do not down pencils while the election is proceeding. But given that the act went through last-second changes and then was nodded through the House of Commons in the frantic dash to get home to start campaigning, the most time Ofcom can have had to draft this mish-mash was about six weeks. Which may explain the holes and inadequacies, but then you have to ask: why didn't they take their time and do it properly?

The Freedom bill, which is to repeal so many of the items on our wish list, is mute on the subject of the Digital Economy Act, despite a number of appearances on the Freedom bill's ideas site. (Big Brother Watch has some additional wish list items.)

The big difficulty for anyone who hates the copyright protectionist provisions in the act - the threat to open wi-fi, the disconnection or speed-limitation of Internet access ("technical measures") to be applied to anyone who is accused of copyright infringement three times ("three-strikes", or HADOPI, after the failed French law attempting to do the same) - is that what you really want is for the act to go away. Preferably back where it came from, some copyright industry lobbyist's brain. A carefully drafted code of practice that pays attention to ensuring that the evidentiary burden on copyright holders is strong enough to deter the kind of abuse seen in the US since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) is still not a good scenario, merely a least-worst one.

Still, ORG and Consumer Focus are not alone in their unhappiness. BT and TalkTalk have expressed their opposition, though for different reasons. TalkTalk is largely opposed to the whole letter-writing and copyright infringement elements; but both ISPs are unhappy about Ofcom's decision to limit the code to fixed-line ISPs with more than 400,000 customers. In the entire UK, there are only seven: TalkTalk, BT, Post Office, Virgin, Sky, Orange, and O2. Yet it makes sense to exclude mobile ISPs for now: at today's prices it's safe to guess that no one spends a lot of time downloading music over them. For the rest...these ISPs can only benefit if unauthorised downloading on their services decreases, don't all ISPs want the heaviest downloaders to leech off someone else's service?

LINX, the largest membership organisation for UK Internet service providers has also objected (PDF) to the Act's apportionment of costs: ISPs, LINX's Malcolm Hutty argues, are innocent third parties, so rather than sharing the costs of writing letters and retaining the data necessary to create copyright infringement reports ISPs should be reimbursed for not only the entire cost of implementing the necessary systems but also opportunity costs. It's unclear, LINX points out, how much change Ofcom has time to make to the draft code and still meet its statutory timetable.

So this is law on Internet time: drafted for, if not by, special interests, undemocratically rushed through Parliament, hastily written, poorly thought-out, unfairly and inequitably implemented in direct opposition to the country's longstanding commitment to digital inclusion. Surely we can do better.

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.

July 23, 2010

Information Commissioner, where is thy sting?

Does anyone really know what their computers are doing? Lauren Weinstein asked recently in a different context.

I certainly don't. Mostly, I know what they're not doing, and then only when it inconveniences me. Don't most of us have an elaborate set of workarounds for things that are just broken enough not to work but not so broken that we have to fix them?

But companies - particularly companies who have made their fortunes by being clever with technology - are supposed to do better than that. And so we come to the outbreak of legal actions against Google for collecting wifi data - not only wireless network names (SSIDs) and information identifying individual computer devices (MAC addresses) while it was out photographing every house for StreetView, but also payload data. The company says this sniffing was accidental. Privacy International's Simon Davies says that no engineer he's spoken to buys this: either the company collected it deliberately or the company's internal management systems are completely broken.

This was the topic of Tuesday's Big Brother Watch event. We actually had a Googler, Sarah Hunter, head of UK public policy, on the premises taking notes (as far as I could discern she did not have a camera mounted on her head, which seems like a missed opportunity), but the court actions in progress against the company meant that she was under strict orders from legal not to say anything much.

You can't really blame her. The list of government authorities investigating Google over the wifi data now includes: 38 US states and the District of Columbia, led by Connecticut; Germany; France; and Australia. Britain? Not so much.

"I find it amazing that Google did it without permission and seemed to get away with it without anyone causing a fuss," said Rob Halfon MP, who took time between votes on Tuesday to deliver a call to action. "There has to be a limit to what these companies do," he said, calling Street View "a privatized version of Big Brother." Halfon has tabled an early day motion on surveillance and the Internet.

There are two separate issues here. The first is Street View itself, which many countries have been unhappy about.

I was sympathetic when Google first launched Street View in the US and ran into privacy issues. It was, I thought and think, an innocently geeky kind of mistake to make: a look! This is so COOL! kind of moment. In the flush of excitement, I reasoned, it was probably easy to lose sight of the fact that people might object to having their living room windows peered into in a drive-by shoot and the resulting images posted online. Who would stop to ask the opinions of the inept, confused user of typical geek contempt, "my mother"?

By the time Street View arrived in Europe, however, there was no excuse. That the product's launch has sparked public anger in every country with every launch, along with other controversial actions (think Google Books), suggests that the company's standard MO is that of the teenager who deliberately avoids her parents' permission because she knows it will be denied.

It is, I think, reasonable to argue, as Google does, that the company is taking pictures of public areas, something that is not illegal in the US although it has various restrictions in other places. The keys, I think, are first of all the scale of the operation, and second the public display part of the equation, an element that is restricted in some European countries. As Halfon said, "Only big companies have the financial muscle to do this kind of mapping."

The second issue, the wifi data, is much more clear-cut. It seems unquestionable that accidental or not - and in fact we would not know the company had sniffed this data if it hadn't told us itself - laws have been broken in a number of countries. In the UK, it seems likely that the action was illegal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) and the Computer Misuse Act would apply. Google's founders and CEO, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt, seem to take the view that no harm, no foul.

But that's not the point, which is why Privacy International, having been told the Information Commissioner was not interested in investigating, went to the Metropolitan Police.

"There has to be a point where Google is brought to account because of its systemic failure," he said. "If all the criminal investigation does is to sensitise Google, then internally there may be some evolution."

The key, however, for the UK, is the unwillingness of the Information Commissioner to get involved. First, the ICO declined to restrict Street View. Then it refused to investigate the wifi issue and wanted the data destroyed, an action PI argued would mean destroying the evidence needed for a forensic investigation.

It was this failure that Davies and Alex Deane, director of Big Brother Watch, picked on.

"I find it peculiar that the British ICO was so reluctant to investigate Google when so many other ICOs were willing," Deane said. "The ICO was asleep on the job."

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. .

July 16, 2010

Music tax

According to various press write-ups Music Education in the 21st Century in the United Kingdom, published yesterday, worries that older forms of music like brass bands, classical, and folk music could become extinct. Despite the fact that you can put any kind of music you want on an iPod, kids just aren't hearing anything but pop, rock, hip-hop, and rap.

This is in the same week that the Performing Rights Society for Music released a paper proposing to levy fees on ISPs in proportion to the amount of copyrighted material being illegally downloaded via their networks.

These are connected issues.

There are so many problems with the "music tax" proposal that you barely know where to start. The paper describes ISPs as "next-generation broadcasters" and unlicensed media consumption as providing value to ISPs; and proposes using Detica's deep packet inspection to analyze traffic and track "plausibly illicit file sharing".

ISPs are infrastructure providers. A few, mostly cable companies, are broadcasters - Virgin in the UK and Comcast in the US - whose core business is providing TV. But most are phone companies, landline or mobile - BT, Verizon, Vodafone, T-Mobile. To ISPs serving the mass market heavy downloaders who soak up their bandwidth are pariahs who don't pay proportionately for their usage. Finally, the belief that it's easy to tell identify illicit data streams is laughable.

And that's without considering the civil liberties implications of having a private company snoop on everyone's downloads at the behest of a single industry sector.

But we've been through what's wrong with this type of proposal before. What may not be obvious is the connection between the decay we began with of older musical forms and the enactment of policies that make the recording industry happy. Brass band music varies considerably in its provenance, but if there's one thing almost all classical music and traditional folk music have in common besides holding an important place in British cultural heritage it's this: they're out of copyright. Policies enacted at the behest of the copyright industries - for example the Digital Economy Act (which BT and TalkTalk| want to challenge, by the way) - do nothing for these types of music and their performers.

The 2003 Licensing Act brought in a requirement for pubs and other locations that have long hosted small music events to get entertainment licenses. The upshot: it's easier and cheaper for pubs to have a television or recorded music playing than it is to allow live musicians to sit in a corner and play folk music, even though acoustic music is typically less likely to annoy the neighbors with noise overspill. There have been consultationsa bout changing this and there is currently a bill in the House of Lords, but in the meantime dozens of small folk clubs and acoustic sessions have ended for lack of a welcoming venue. Most of those could have been saved by the exemptions proposed in the bill: audiences of under 200, acoustic music only, ending before midnight, and so on. These issues have been much discussed on the Usenet newsgroup uk.music.folk, and the Live Music Forum delivered a petition with 17,000 signatures to number 10 Downing Street on July 8.

It's particularly ironic that this has happened at a time when the folk scene has had the best influx of energizing young performers for several decades: John Spiers and Jon Boden, Bellowhead, Faustus, the Emily and Hazel Askew, and many others (as a general rule, anything involving Tim Van Eyken is good). These are fresh, high-energy reinterpretations of English folk music created by superb, passionate musicians, not at all the dying, airless flatness of academia some might imagine. The fact that most folk performers consider a turnout of 200 a great night doesn't mean they're - it is to laugh! - less competent than Lady Gaga.

But a lot of the point of folk music - like the open-source software movement - is that it's participatory (If you can sing, then you can write a song, sings my friend Bill Steele, writer of "Garbage!", the song made famous by Pete Seeger). Music, like sports, software coding, and scientific exploration, is something that people need to believe they can do themselves - and of all the genres folk is probably the most accessible in that regard. It would certainly suit the recording business for music to become a black box like a mobile phone or a game console, something people pay to use without looking inside it. But society as a whole would be poorer for it. Government and education should be encouraging kids to play, learn, and experiment, to be fellow creators, not consumers.

So, Messrs Cameron and Clegg: if you want to do something for music and musicians, amend the Licensing Act to encourage live performance by live musicians in small venues. Amend contract law so that musicians aren't forced into giving away all rights in perpetuity with no reversion. Require the new owners of failed record labels to pay royalties on the back catalogues they've acquired instead of allowing them to take the assets and dump the liabilities. Music is bigger than just those four big labels, y'know.

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

July 9, 2010

The big button caper

There's a moment early in the second season of the TV series Mad Men when one of the Sterling Cooper advertising executives looks out the window and notices, in a tone of amazement, that young people are everywhere. What he was seeing was, of course, the effect of the baby boom. The world really *was* full of young people.

"I never noticed it," I said to a friend the next day.

"Well, of course not," he said. "You were one of them."

Something like this will happen to today's children - they're going to wake up one day and think the world is awash in old people. This is a fairly obvious consequence of the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomers, which author Ken Dychtwald has compared to "a pig going through a python".

You would think that mobile phone manufacturers and network operators would be all over this: carrying a mobile phone is an obvious safety measure for an older, perhaps infirm or cognitively confused person. But apparently the concept is more difficult to grasp than you'd expect, and so Simon Rockman, the founder and former publisher of What Mobile and now working for the GSM Association, convened a senior mobile market conference on Tuesday.

Rockman's pitch is that the senior market is a business opportunity: unlike other market sectors it's not saturated; older users are less likely to be expensive data users and more loyal. The margins are better, he argues, even if average revenue per user is low.

The question is, how do you appeal to this market? To a large extent, seniors are pretty much like everyone else: they want gadgets that are attractive, even cool. They don't want the phone equivalent of support stockings. Still, many older people do have difficulties with today's ultra-tiny buttons, icons, and screens, iffy sound quality, and complex menu structures. Don't we all?

It took Ewan MacLeod, the editor of Mobile Industry Review to point out the obvious. What is the killer app for most seniors in any device? Grandchildren, pictures of. MacLeod has a four-week-old son and a mother whose desire to see pictures apparently could only be fully satisfied by a 24-hour video feed. Industry inadequacy means that MacLeod is finding it necessary to write his own app to make sending and receiving pictures sufficiently simple and intuitive. This market, he pointed out, isn't even price-sensitive. Tell his mother she'll need to spend £60 on a device so she can see daily pictures of her grandkids, and she'll say, "OK." Tell her it will cost £500, and she'll say..."OK."

I bet you're thinking, "But the iPhone!" And to some extent you're right: the iPhone is sleek, sexy, modern, and appealing; it has a zoom function to enlarge its display fonts, and it is relatively easy to use. And so MacLeod got all the grandparents onto iPhones. But he's having to write his own app to easily organize and display the photos the phones receive: the available options are "Rubbish!"

But even the iPhone has problems (even if you're not left-handed). Ian Hosking, a senior research associate at the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre, overlaid his visual impairment simulation software so it was easy to see. Lack of contrast means the iPhone's white on black type disappears unreadably with only a small amount of vision loss. Enlarging the font only changes the text in some fields. And that zoom feature, ah, yes, wonderful - except that enabling it requires you to double-tap and then navigate with three fingers. "So the visual has improved, but the dexterity is terrible."


In all this you may have noticed something: that good design is good design, and a phone design that accommodates older people will also most likely be a more usable phone for everyone else. These are principles that have not changed since Donald Norman formulated them in his classic 1998 book The Design of Everyday Things. To be sure there is some progress. Evelyne Pupeter-Fellner, co-founder of Emporia, for example, pointed out the elements of her company's designs that are quietly targeted at seniors: the emergency call system that automatically dials, in turn, a list of selected family members or friends until one answers; the ringing mechanism that lights up the button to press to answer. The radio you can insert the phone into that will turn itself down and answer the phone when it rings. The design that lets you attach it to a walker - or a bicycle. The single-function buttons. Similarly, the Doro was praised.

And yet it could all be so different - if we would only learn from Japan, where nearly 86 percent of seniors have - and use data on - mobile phones, according to Kei Shimada, founder of Infinita.

But in all the "beyond big buttons" discussion and David Doherty's proposition that health applications will be the second killer app, one omission niggled: the aging population is predominantly female, and the older the cohort the more that is true.

Who are least represented among technology designers and developers?

Older women.

I'd call that a pretty clear mismatch. Somewhere between we who design and they who consume is your problem.

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.

July 2, 2010

Pay per view

There are journalists who make money, but not many and not often. Newspaper owners, however, have traditionally been in better shape, as the cynical, experienced reporter Richard Wagner observes in Tom Stoppard's 1978 play Night and Day, "We're working to keep richer men than us richer than us." (He is, of course, countered later in the play by the photographer George Guthrie, who marks his final exit with, "Information, in itself, about anything, is light.")

But we live in strange and disturbing times, and the question of how to stay richer than journalists has been exercising a lot of newspaper owners lately. With advertising revenues dropping, circulation dropping, classifieds vanishing online, and online readership proving less profitable, clearly something has to give. In October, the Evening Standard began giving away its print run, right around the same time that Rupert Murdoch announced he would begin charging online readers.

Well, today's the day: as of this morning The Times is behind a paywall. You can read the front page, but click on a story and you're asked to pay £1 for 24-hour access or pay £1 for a 30-day trial after which you pay £2 a week. The paper's articles have already been blocked from appearing on Google News for more than a month. The joint effect, as Search Engine Watch memorably says, is that Rupert Murdoch has turned The Times into a newsletter.

Based on the figures SEW cites from Hitwise and if the trend continues, that's about right.

Although paywalls - or, in Variety's case, a velvet rope - are the fashionable must-have for newspapers in 2010 that portals were to ISPs in 1995, they're not a new concept. People have been trying paywalls for years; they've been going up and down as often as the proverbial whore's knickers.

I think the first was either Slate (dropped after a year or few) or the New York Times, more than 15 years ago. The latter's paywall had a twist: the site was free to US residents but international readers had to pay - the justification was that advertisers weren't interested in paying to reach non-US readers. It came down with the rise of the search engines; a few years ago the paper tried charging for its star colunnists' output (thereby marginalizing them), and now plans a new paywall structure for next year, although people arriving at stories by following links from other sites will still have free access. Nieman Labs has an interesting game to let you try the effect on revenues of varying subscriber levels.

Long before Murdoch's acquisition, the Wall Street Journal was also an early paywall adopter - with some, unusual, success, although as time has gone on more and more of the paper has been freely accessible online.

Murdoch is likely to be about to discover that his newspapers are not exempt from what many other newspapers and weeklies have already found out: the subscriber numbers are, in general, awful to terrible.

The key contrast here is with the Guardian, which is willing - and able because of its ownership by a trust - to measure its success in influence as well as money. Editor Alan Rusbridger, outlined in January the extent to which the Internet has made the paper a global voice.

The answer to the question of what people will pay for seems to me straightforward: people will pay, even online, for publications that save them time, save them money, or provide information they have to have that they can't easily get elsewhere. People will not, particularly in this economic climate with so many other things clamoring for their limited financial resources, pay for things that are easily replaced with free content. It's unsurprising that the business and financial papers have had the longest and most successful paywall runs: their constituency had to read them (and could expense or tax-deduct them), and it took their subscribers a long time to recognize how much of their information had become directly available. In the 1980s, subscribing to Standard & Poor's quarterly reports on ten companies cost something like $250 a year; today, you can get more detailed information than that service provided daily for free.

In the US, what's happened to newspapers seems to me a direct consequence of chain ownership and Clear Channel thinking: dropping local news and commentary in favor of national wire service stories seems doomed to make your paper interchangeable with Google News. In the UK, the situation seems more simply one of changing business models, and in my view Rusbridger's entangle-yourself-in-the-Net approach is the preferable one, certainly so if you see journalism as a more than just a product.

But as much as I hate paywalls - and I think if they become widespread they will pose a serious problem for the economic viability of freelance writing - I have to hope that they succeed at least partially. Because if they don't, then the only sources of income for journalism will be advertising, sponsorship, and patronage (in which I'm including bloggers whose day jobs support their blogging habit). To get a full range of voices and stories you need a balance of financial and commercial pressures. And advertising support can be even more fragile than fickle consumers who abandon their newspapers for quick scans of Google News and their RSS feeds.

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.