February 11, 2014

The Day We Fight Back

Filed under: code, commons, networks — wseltzer @ 9:16 am

The Day We Fight Back Pervasive surveillance is an attack on the Web and the Internet. It demands both technical and policy responses, and both of those are fostered by what Jamie Boyle called “an environmentalism for the Net.”

The environmental movement had Silent Spring. We have cat signals and The Day We Fight Back.

December 11, 2009

The Goldilocks Problem of Privacy in Public

Filed under: commons, events, musings, networks, politics, privacy — wseltzer @ 8:55 am

One of the very interesting sessions at Supernova featured a pair of speakers on aspects of privacy and publicity: danah boyd on “visibility” and Adam Greenfield on “urban objects.” Together, I found their talks making me think about the functions of privacy: how can we steer the course between too much and too little information-sharing?

danah pointed out the number of places we don’t learn enough. We “see” others on social media but fail to follow through on what we learn. She described a teen whose MySpace page chronicled abuse at her mother’s hands for months before the girl picked up a weapon. After the fact, the media jumped on “murder has a MySpace,” but before, none had used that public information to help her out of the abuse. In a less dramatic case of short-sighted vision, danah showed Twitter users responding to trending black names after the BET Awards with “what’s happening to the neighborhood?” Despite the possibilities networked media offer, we often fail to look below the surface, to learn about those around us and make connections.

Adam, showing the possibilities of networked sensors in urban environments, described a consequence of “learning too much.” Neighbors in a small apartment building had been getting along just fine until someone set up a web forum. In the half year thereafter, most of the 6 apartments turned over. People didn’t want to know so much about those with whom they shared an address. Here, we might see what Jeffrey Rosen and Lawrence Lessig have characterized as the problem of “short attention spans.” We learn too much to ignore, but not enough to put the new factoid in context. We don’t pay attention long enough to understand.

How do we get the “just right” level of visibility to and from others? and what is “just right”? danah notes that we participate in networked publics, Helen Nissenbaum talks of contexts. One challenge is tuning our message and understanding to the various publics in which we speak and listen; knowing that what we put on Facebook or MySpace may be seen by many and understood by few. Like danah, Kevin Marks points out the asymmetry of the publics to which we speak and listen.

Another challenge is to find connections among publics and build upon them to engage with those who seem different, Ethan Zuckerman’s xenophilia. The ‘Net may have grown past the stage where just Internet use could be conversation-starter enough but spaces within it take common interest and create community. Socializing in World of Warcraft or a blog’s comments section can make us more willing to hear our counterparts’ context.

Finally, our largest public, here in the United States, is our democracy. We need to live peacefully with our neighbors and reach common decisions. Where our time is too limited to bestow attention on all, do we need to deliberately look away? John Rawls, in Political Liberalism, discusses political choices supported by an “overlapping consensus” from people with differing values and comprehensive views of “the good.” I wonder whether this overlapping consensus depends on a degree of privacy and a willingness to look away from differences outside the consensus.

March 24, 2009

Susan Crawford to the White House on Ada Lovelace Day

Filed under: Internet, commons, innovation — wseltzer @ 4:01 pm

Just in time for Ada Lovelace Day comes the news that Susan Crawford is headed to the White House as special assistant to the president for science, technology, and innovation policy.

Susan is one of clearest thinkers I know on technology policy — which is critical to the continued development of technology (see, for example, her “Biology of the Broadcast Flag” (PDF), showing early the errors of technology mandates). She founded OneWebDay, an “Earth Day for the Internet,” and reminded a global community that we sometimes need to demonstrate the Web’s values in order to preserve them. She understands that the Net’s openness and accessibility has fueled innovation around it, and has thought deeply about how we (as public, industry, and government) can help to keep that spirit going.

I’m thrilled to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day with the news of Susan Crawford’s appointment! I look forward to the advice she’ll be able to provide on the development of the open Internet.

September 5, 2007

Victory for the Public Domain in Golan v. Ashcroft

Filed under: commons, copyright, music — wseltzer @ 4:44 pm

Via Larry Lessig comes great news in Golan v. Ashcroft: the 10th Circuit held that “plaintiffs have shown sufficient free expression interests in works removed from the public domain to require First Amendment scrutiny of &sec; 514 [of the Copyright Act, which granted new copyrights to some foreign works in the public domain here in the United States].” It ruled for plaintiff composers, performers, and publishers of public domain works and sent the case back to district court.

The 10th Cir. broadened the one ray of light in Eldred, the suggestion that First Amendment review is warranted where Congress has “altered the traditional contours of copyright protection.” Re-copyrighting of works from the public domain works just such an alteration, the Golan court held. Traditionally, “works in the public domain stay there.”

Those building on public domain works should be entitled to assume the works will stay public.

May 10, 2007

WWW2007: Open Access and its Benefits

Filed under: code, commons, events — Wendy @ 1:48 pm

At the World Wide Web Conference, Building a Semantic Web in Which Our Data Can Participate panel. A few notes, loosely joined.

Open Street Maps generates and annotates street maps from open sources of data. In the UK and Canada, unlike in the U.S., street map data is protected by Crown Copyright, so folks who want to annotate maps generally can’t. Can we compare the range of map-based products available between US and UK/Canada to see whether openness or closure is better for this data, for the public? It would cost $400,000CAN to collect all the maps of Canada from official sources, an audience member says, and even then you wouldn’t be allowed to post and annotate them. In the US, $30 buys them all on a CD, in the public domain.

Freebase aims to create a meta-database of free information that can connect multiple sources of information. Jamie Taylor positions free information in Geoffrey Moore’s terminology of core versus context. If data is not your core competency, then you should open it up, let the community contribute to your costs of maintaining it — and helping you to find new uses for it. Along the business lifecycle, opening (or modularising) your data can allow you to focus on the core where you have comparative advantage, and force weaker competitors to move there too.

With collaborative databases, questions of the trustworthiness of the data come to the fore. Metadata becomes even more important, particularly metadata about origin, as well as validation by corroboration among multiple datasets. Freebase uses internal foreign keys to trace the source of datasets.

And thinking about the validity of contributed data can make us think about better ways to validate internally sourced data too. Can we trace its origins, compare it to others’ measurements? Can we build in the metadata fields that allow us to rate the trustworthiness of elements and collaborate to focus on the weak spots? Defensive programming is good for everyone’s data, even our own.

Peter Murray, talking about open access to scientific data, gives the example of PubChem. Before PubChem, each chemical supplier claimed copyright and proprietary interests in its catalogues. Now, if you’re not in PubChem, you might as well not exist, so they’ve opened up, opening access to chemical information as well as expanding their markets.

Just found a PDF of presentations.

March 5, 2007

Updating the encryption toolkit

Filed under: commons — Wendy @ 11:45 pm

Teaching my privacy class about encryption provides a good reason to update my own encryption setup — and it’s nice to see that user-friendly encryption on the desktop has proceeded quite a bit.

First, replace an expired PGP (GnuPG) keypair, gpg --gen-key, and submit the new public key, fingerprint 456CAD51, to keyservers.

Plugins for Eudora never worked particularly well, so I’d been using gnupg on the command line, and not so frequently as I’d have liked. The Enigmail plugin for Thunderbird brings pushbutton email encryption and signature.

Finally, the self-signed SSL certificate for seltzer.org needed renewal (and its CA had moved from San Francisco to New York). Another 5 minutes and that was back up.

Maybe social norms and unease-of-use don’t deter the use of encryption so much as they once did.

February 12, 2007

The Freedom Multiplier

Filed under: commons — Wendy @ 10:05 am

You can do great things with free content, and great things with free code, but combining the two multiplies their effect. So I found when I wanted to enhance my Free Software music system with more information about the compositions it played.

Wikipedia is by now among the canonical examples of what Yochai Benkler calls “peer production” of information. Working outside the traditional sphere of economic incentives, unpaid volunteers have built an encyclopedic database to rival Britannica, as a Nature study suggested. So I can learn a lot from Wikipedia, but I can learn about as much from Britannica if I have one, but where Wikipedia really shines is its access and the remix potential that comes from its generous license.

Popping up as the first result on a growing number of Google searches, Wikipedia brings knowledge closer than Britannica can. That one-click access also feeds a set of virtual network effects, if even a few of the people who read an entry from that search then go on to edit it or another article. The encyclopedia grows as its crowds seek more information.

Wikipedia’s liberal terms of use further enhance its value, because I’m not limited to browsing it from my desktop web browser: I can select a subset of documents to load on a Treo or preinstall on the $100 laptop from OLPC. Finally, add free software to the equation and you open up the true generative possibilities, in Jonathan Zittrain’s terms.

So back to that music system. A friend, listening with me the other day as MythTV played music, asked whether the system could show more than the standard artist-album-track and album art on-screen. Not yet, but why not? MythTV is open source, Wikipedia is open information, and has surprising depth in classical composers. A few hours of coding later (and preliminary patches shared with the MythTV community), my music library now knows the dates of all its composers, and can bring up a composer’s Wikipedia entry with a key-press while the music plays. Now, if I want to know who was writing music when the U.S. founders convened their Constitutional Convention, I need only ask MythTV (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26, for example).

February 6, 2007

Open Source Odysseys: Linux on the Laptop

Filed under: commons — Wendy @ 2:30 pm

Back in December, both the motherboard and the hard drive on my Thinkpad X41 Tablet died. Happily, Lenovo’s warranty service was superior, getting the machine back to me fixed three days after I shipped it out broken. Due to the timing of the hard drive failure, however, I found myself with a blank hard drive and no USB CD-ROM drive from which to re-load Windows.

From problem springs opportunity: I’d wanted to install GNU/Linux on this machine, and now I didn’t have to deal with re-partitioning! If I needed to move back to Windows later, I’d be no worse off. So I set up a network install from an Ubuntu disk I had around, and within the hour I was setting up applications and copying data back.

A month in, I haven’t regretted the switch nor pined for Vista. With the help of ThinkWiki, the machine sleeps, wakes, and works better than ever, even rotating the screen automatically in tablet mode. Firefox looks the same on any platform; OpenOffice.org has been a drop-in replacement for Microsoft Office, allowing seamless exchange with colleagues’ .doc and .ppt files and making it easy to generate PDFs, as a bonus; Thunderbird handles and filters email almost as well as Eudora; Wine runs the odd but necessary Windows app; and the command line and development environment underneath it all offer customization possibilities much harder to achieve in Windows. Ubuntu’s focus on combining power with ease of use has really paid off.

October 24, 2006

Tweaking Firefox (100-item search)

Filed under: commons — Wendy @ 1:51 pm

One of the first things I do when I download a new Firefox, is to update the Google search plugin to return 100 items on a screen. (Though Google often offers relevant results in the top 10, I find I’m as often searching to find “what’s out there” as to reach “the best result.”) Since I didn’t find instructions the first time I googled this hack, here it is:

Find the “searchplugins” folder — on Debian, it’s in ~/.mozilla/searchplugins, while on Windows, it’s probably C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\searchplugins, and open the google.xml file in your favorite text editor.
The guts of the search query is in the lines:

<Url type="text/html" method="GET" template="http://www.google.com/search">
  <Param name="q" value="{searchTerms}"/>
  <Param name="ie" value="utf-8"/>
  <Param name="oe" value="utf-8"/>


Add this line just below the oe (character-set) specification, and you’re good to search further, faster:

  <Param name="num" value="100"/>


While the file’s open, you might also spot the line
<Url type="application/x-suggestions+json" method="GET" template="http://suggestqueries.google.com/complete/search?\
output=firefox&client=firefox&qu={searchTerms}"/>

That’s a little “search suggestions” script to suggest terms you might want to use to complete your query (example) — but you might remove it if you don’t want all your half-typed inquiries sent to Google. On the browsing privacy front, you’ll also want to examine the anti-phishing feature. The basic version checks sites locally (updating a local list with periodic downloads), but the extended version sends Google the URL of every website visit, to check against Google’s list of badware.

You’ll probably also want to disable the automatic installation of new search plugins, lest the change get overwritten next time there’s an update. (Options, Advanced, Update)

I particularly appreciate the new “resume browsing” feature, given the number of times 20-tab windows have crashed on me…:

Resuming your browsing session: The Session Restore feature restores windows, tabs, text typed in forms, and in-progress downloads from the last user session. It will be activated automatically when installing an application update or extension, and users will be asked if they want to resume their previous session after a system crash.

October 19, 2006

Forbidding Vistas: Windows licensing disserves the user

Filed under: ICANN, commons, open — Wendy @ 12:18 am

Reading the Windows Vista license is a bit like preparing for breakfast with Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: You should be ready to believe at least six impossible things about what users want from software.

It is unlikely that a home user looking for a computer operating system has any of these “features” of the Vista EULA in mind: The Red Queen

  1. Self-limiting software
  2. Vanishing functionality through invalidation
  3. Removal of media capabilities
  4. Problem-solving prohibited
  5. Limited mobility
  6. One transfer only

    and a bonus,
  7. Restrictions on your rights to use MPEG-4 video

Details below. While Microsoft should be commended for putting its license into plain English, that doesn’t help to make the license restrictions any more palatable. Quoted italicized language comes from the Vista license.

1. Self-limiting software, or Mandatory Activation. “Your right to use the software after the time specified in the installation process is limited unless it is activated. … You will not be able to continue using the software after that time if you do not activate it.” Moreover, “[s]ome changes to your computer components or the software may require you to reactivate the software.” In order to use Microsoft Vista, you must consent to communication to Microsoft of information about the software and the device on which you have installed it. If you don’t do so in time, your software will begin to degrade in function.

2. Vanishing functionality through invalidation. “The software will from time to time validate the software, update or require download of the validation feature of the software. … [if validation fails] you may not be able to use or continue to use some of the features of the software.” Again, your computer must make periodic (period unspecified) contact with the Microsoft mothership if you want to continue to enjoy what you thought you paid for. Microsoft, of course, disclaims any liability for the consequences if their servers fail or mistakenly deny you validation.

3. Removal of media capabilities. “When you download licenses for protected content, you agree that Microsoft may include a revocation list with the licenses.” “[C]ontent owners may ask Microsoft to revoke the software’s ability to use WMDRM [Windows Media digital rights management] to play or copy protected content.” In other words, one movie or music file may take away your ability to play another, if the content owner (not the computer owner) chooses to cut back the Windows Media Player’s features. Don’t like the reports that Creative is removing radio recording functions from its MP3 players, under music industry pressure? Prepare for that kind of feature flux to be routine in Vista — you’ve agreed to it in the license.

4. Problem-solving prohibited. “You may not work around any technical limitations in the software.” Microsoft might be referring to anticircumvention of technical protection measures here, but since it’s often hard to tell the difference, from the user’s perspective, between a TPM and a bug, this reads as a prohibition on user debugging and problem-solving. After all, down-rezzing HD content or refusing to allow users to copy quotes from an e-book don’t strike most people as wanted features. Can you work around a document’s failure to save properly?

5. Limited mobility. “The first user of the software may reassign the license to another device one time.” If you upgrade your machines more frequently than you care to change operating systems, you’ll just have to pay again. Don’t worry about this applying too frequently, though, because most OEMs will probably keep bundling Windows with their hardware, thanks to Microsoft’s pricing encouragement, and Microsoft won’t offer refunds if you don’t like the terms on those OEM bundles.

6. One transfer only. “The first user of the software may make a one time transfer of the software, and this agreement, directly to a third party…. [T]he other party must agree that this agreement applies to the transfer and use of the software.” You can give your old computer to Dad, but if he wants to give his older computer to the neighborhood community center, they’ll have to find their own operating system (may I recommend Ubuntu?).

Bonus. MPEG-4 Visual Standard


NOTICE ABOUT THE MPEG-4 VISUAL STANDARD. This software includes MPEG-4 visual decoding technology. MPEG LA, L.L.C. requires this notice:
USE OF THIS PRODUCT IN ANY MANNER THAT COMPLIES WITH THE MPEG-4 VISUAL STANDARD IS PROHIBITED, EXCEPT FOR USE DIRECTLY RELATED TO (A) DATA OR INFORMATION (i) GENERATED BY AND OBTAINED WITHOUT CHARGE FROM A CONSUMER NOT THEREBY ENGAGED IN A BUSINESS ENTERPRISE, AND (ii) FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY; AND (B) OTHER USES SPECIFICALLY AND SEPARATELY LICENSED BY MPEG LA, L.L.C.

Humpty DumptyUsers never asked for these impossible limitations. Microsoft decided unilaterally to add them, claiming it could abrogate personal ownership, fair use, and first sale rights because “The software is licensed, not sold.” If Microsoft faced real market competition on the home desktop, users could vote with their wallets, but anticompetitive practices and network effects make Microsoft a like-it-or-not proposition for most users.

While Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty might have been able to choose the meanings of his words at will, on this side of the looking glass, software vendors shouldn’t be able to redefine the meaning of “buying software” by the simple attachment of a click-wrap license.

Public domain Tenniel images (1872) from The Victorian Web.

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