A glimpse of the future

Scuttlebutt. Heh…

The future of new media is in registration

I love keeping up with the news. I also love news about news media, and for that there’s no better place than Editor & Publisher. They report on the news industry, including TV, print, and even new trends like blogging and digital news distribution (well, it’s new to this industry).

E&P covered a Columbia University panel about new media held a couple of weeks ago. Among the participants were five people from Internet sites of various TV and print media companies and Craig of Craigslist. This panel came shortly before reports of print newspaper circulation declines and Internet newspaper reading increases.

The article is well worth reading to see the various perspectives in the news industry about where it’s headed. The one comment that really stuck with me was this from Andrea Panciera of projo.com about user registration:

"We have to explain to [readers] better what value they are getting from us to get them to cross that registration wall," Panciera explained. Another way to draw them in is to focus on what they want specifically online. For instance, classified ads, movie listings, or a specific article about a family member from 10 years ago.

I’ve heard and read similar comments from other sources — that user registration is an essential part of keeping newspapers alive in the Internet age. Part of requiring registration is to track the users through the site — what do they read, how often do they check the site, plus getting demographic information is always helpful. Like Panciera said and other commenters mention, registration lets papers target users with articles, ads, or other content.

Registration is the sin qua non of the Internet. IM handles, blog accounts, email addresses, shopping sites, domain names — they all require some form of registration. While you keep some registrations to yourself like a blog account or your Amazon login, others you make available to anybody who doesn’t want to waste the time to register. On most news sites, I see no benefits to registering except that the site can track me and what I click. If the future of newspapers or any industry depends on registration, then they’re in much deeper trouble than they want to admit.

In the future, let’s resolve not to use the word "scuttlebutt"

Despite the terrible title of this article, one of the biggest problems for companies has been solved. IBM will offer services for companies to keep track of their image in the information age. Sifting through news articles, blogs, and other crud on the Internet is hard enough without having to deal with spam, porn, and spam. Imagine PayPal’s surprise when they find this site. I bet the CEO will go nuts! Just kidding — I’m sure that any savvy company already knows who is badmouthing them and where to find news about themselves.

Who would use this service? As the article suggests, financial institutions. I bet stock trading companies would love to know the latest headlines about WalMart in the blogosphere. In all honestly, this will make no difference to financial institutions because stock prices are determined by profits, not practices. And other companies have little incentive to track their own image unless they’re trying to quell protests.

But the most important question is this: What editing genius let the word "scuttlebutt" slip into this article? Nobody in my generation uses that word. And "scuttlebutt" hardly applies to news. I think "digital detritus" is a much more appropriate description.

The future of file sharing is in jail

For those of you worried about getting sued for copyright infringement when you download music tracks, the penalties may get much stiffer. The Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2005 proposed by the Attorney General would make copyright infringement a felony, with the potential of jail time, among other changes like making intent to infringe illegal and letting the government seize any equipment involved in such infringement. The bill has not been sent to Congress yet.

While this would harmonize copyright law with, say, murder laws (where "intent" is planning or lying in wait, not just having a motive), I wonder what these changes mean to individuals. Would the act of downloading a file sharing program be considered intent to infringe copyright? Signing up for a Usenet account? Surfing to a site that offers torrents of unauthorized, copyrighted material? Using lots of bandwidth? There’s already the No Electronic Theft Act, signed in 1997, which deals with this issue in part.

What about designing a file sharing program? I look at this law in light of the Grokster ruling. Intent is absolutely a consideration now when determining the legality of file sharing applications. Several P2P companies are rolling over as a result — either going legit or closing down altogether. If it passes, this law would ensure that any company entering the P2P market and any existing P2P services would have to play by the rules or else find their CEOs in jail. If this law does pass, I guarantee that every P2P system that distributed copyrighted material illegally or sites associated with it (like BitTorrent trackers) will be shut down within a year. And the ones that open after those close. And the ones after that. And only those hosted in the United States.

Tag this and get 1% off your order

Amazon.com is adding tagging features — letting users add words and phrases that describe the items for sale. Tagging is supposed to help people find content by letting them choose descriptors and searching for them, and it’s one of the defining buzzwords of Web2.0-speak. I can run around the web and look for all the pages that are about slacking, tag them with some program, then my tags and the slacking tags made by others can be searched by anybody. Then multiply that by the number of words in the English language and all the web pages out there and you’ve got a huge amount of user created searchable information.

I’m not really fond of tagging yet. It suffers from two fundamental problems. First, you need lots of people to tag lots of pages/images/information for tagging to be really useful. Anything that doesn’t have a tag is hard to find, just like any web page not searched by Google might as well not exist. You need to provide incentives for people to tag. Otherwise the many people who don’t tag will freeload off the few who do, and large amounts of useful content will never get tagged.

The other problem is a vocabulary and technology problem. I may tag a photo of young people with the word "children" while someone else might tag it with "kids." Both words are right, but the mystery person and I use different words to describe it. Tagging exacerbates the differences in individual vocabularies.

To solve this, you can use smart technology. If we both tagged the photo with "children" and "kids" and other photos use those two words together, then maybe there’s a connection between the two words and one can substitute for the other. But then the words "kids" and "disneyland" might also appear together often, and they are not the same thing at all. If computers understood the meanings of words, then maybe this problem would go away (search for "kid" and see how close "child" is).

I had a great time tonight… Can you drop me off at Yahoo Headquarters?

Yahoo and Match.com are being sued for fraud because they send employees on dates for their dating services. There’s even a term for it — "date bait."


I’m ahead of our time. The problem is I’m only about 2 months ahead.

Bob Cringley has a decent weekly article where, like me, he tries to see through the fog of business, technology, and trends to get a glimpse of the future. Unlike me, Bob actually has "connections" and "good information" while I merely stab in the dark. This week, he wrote an article about Google’s latest move — putting mini-supercomputers at locations where Google recently bought high speed, fiber optic Internet connections.

Quote Bob, Nov 17, 2005:

Google hired a pair of very bright industrial designers to figure out how to cram the greatest number of CPUs, the most storage, memory and power support into a 20- or 40-foot box… The idea is to plant one of these puppies anywhere Google owns access to fiber, basically turning the entire Internet into a giant processing and storage grid.

And remember the Google Web Accelerator that came and disappeared? It’s back! Only this time the Web Accelerator will have the proper hardware and network infrastructure to make it worth using.

Quote me, Sept. 21, 2005:

I was thinking about Google’s plans in relation to their web accelerator product before their Wifi plans were announced… I thought Google was going to push their search engine and web acceleration to WiFi access points, making for the fastest damn Internet you’ve ever experienced. In return, they would then record all your traffic and [use that information as a basis for making new services].

Sometimes I get things right. Sometimes.

Apologies to George Carlin for bastardizing his joke in this section’s title.

Policy Void

Do not stare directly at void. If void begins to glow, seek shelter immediately.

The stories of the week are tied together, in some way, with the absence of law or policy — a policy void. Policy void is the state where something — in these cases, some kind of socio-technological interaction — is not regulated by the government. During that time, individuals, companies, and organizations are free to do whatever they want in that space with little or no legal repercussions. The social, business, and other effects of these actions is another story.

Take RFID for example. No law has been written (at least not that I know of) to regulate the use of these devices. Companies have rolled them out into products, like Gillette who put RFID tags into razors and then took pictures of people who bought them. It was completely legal for Gillette to do that, but they felt the repercussions afterwards from people concerned about their privacy and that use of RFIDs. The US Government is putting RFIDs into new passports, which has some security experts worried that malicious people could retrieve the data contained in those chips. How will incidents like these shape the laws that will undoubtedly be written in the future to regulate RFID use?

Keep that example in mind with these other stories which have their own policy void implications.

Word of the day: pseudonymous

The facts of this case really terrify me. If you make harsh public comments about your employer (or let out a company secret) and they find out, you deserve to be fired. That, in a word, is stupid. Yeah, I’ll cut out an exception for whistle-blowers and other extenuating circumstances. However, if you make those kinds of comments and expect to get away with it, you are deluding yourself.

Take the case of an employee at some random company. He degrades his employer, including the ‘n’ word, and gets fired because of it. Big whoop, right? Not exactly. This guy posted those comments on a Yahoo message board using a pseudonym — a name which included his company’s stock symbol. The company saw those comments, sued "John Doe," then subpoenaed Yahoo to disclose the poster’s identity. A month after getting his identity, the company dropped the suit and fired the guy.

Again, I have no problem with an employee being fired for badmouthing his employer publicly. You just don’t do that. However, I have a real problem with this case. It sets a bad precedent that any company can subpoena the identity of any pseudonymous Internet user, like our now unemployed Yahoo user. The company defended its actions saying they had to determine whether the poster was a "high-ranking employee" of the company. Does that matter if he had been one or not? (He wasn’t.) What if it was some poor slob who owned stock in the company and was only complaining about its fall from $50 to $10 a share, looking for catharsis? What if the person was unrelated to the company altogether and was making up those comments? Could they have identified the guy without sending Yahoo a subpoena? Could Yahoo have refused to turn over the identity of the guy?

Now this unemployed fool is suing his ex-employer for wrongly using a subpoena to unmask his Yahoo identity. I don’t know how he’ll put this on his resume, but a quick search in Google for his name will turn up this story, and that doesn’t bode well for his future employment prospects. Who would hire an employee that’s going to trash talk the company he works for?

As long as companies can subpoena the identities of anyone using Yahoo, MySpace, Blogger, AOL Instant Messenger, or any other Internet service just because they said something nasty, the Internet will be a much colder place for everyone. In short, we need better privacy laws.

MS Pushes Crack Privacy

As much as I’ve been critical of Microsoft in the past, they’re really on to something now. First, they just announced their plans to unite many of their services and make them available online, including MS Office, XBox Live, and more, showing that MS might actually get this Web2.0 thing. Also announced this week, MS is pushing Congress to enact federal privacy laws which would include, among other things, improved transparency about how your data is used, who it’s shared with, and standards for its secure storage and transportation.

Of course MS has an interest in this, and I’m certain that they would love to see some of their security technology become part of new federal data privacy standards. Remember that US citizens have no explicit right to privacy — just a kludge of privacy-like rights regarding your health information, financial data, and who you’re fucking. As Sun CEO Scott McNealy famously told reporters years ago, you have no privacy so any improvement is a win for consumers, right?

Unfortunately, we’ve already seen what happens when we have no laws regarding the privacy of our data. (I have more links but you get the point.) The funny thing is that the EU countries have a guaranteed right to privacy, but it comes with its own pains like the trouble GM had making a phone book that included the numbers of their European employees. Privacy is something that gives individuals confidence in commerce and in their everyday lives, and I would welcome any step in ensuring digital privacy rights as long as those laws let me badmouth my employer on Yahoo message boards.

And by the way, my privacy is still for sale. Cheap.

Dibs on the one where the guy goes to sleep for 30 years and wakes up and tries to reclaim his life… oh… it’s taken already?

The US Patent Office published the first of what will certainly be thousands of storyline patents — a patent on, you guessed it, the storyline of a novel, play, movie, or whatever. As my former Professor Braunstein taught me, there was a guy who once invented a new kind of novel. It had to do with espionage and governments and military and they sold really well. However, Tom Clancy does not have the right to sue other people who use espionage, governments, and military as the primary elements of their novels.

Patents have gotten a bad rap lately. With patents for online shopping carts, tire swings, or html links, it’s easy to complain about the USPTO. You can look for your own opinion about why this is happening, but I think it’s mostly because of the huge growth of patent applications and patents granted in the last 20 years. More patent applications means more crap will get through. I wonder if the USPTO’s staff has increased in the same proportion to the number of patent applications.


Anyway, the beauty of copyrights is that they’re really narrow so infringing a copyright is really hard to do without outright plagiarizing a work. These patents seem to flip that on its head, so that anyone can patent a plot then go nuts suing everyone who even comes close to it. This is wholly the realm of copyright law. Anyway, I can’t see how this promotes the progress of science and useful arts at all.

The patent has not been accepted yet, and I can only hope it’s rejected soundly (which will almost certainly result in a lawsuit, which I can only hope gets dismissed too). As a post-modernist friend of mine said, there are only three kinds of novels anyways — man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself — so doesn’t that mean that every story is unoriginal?

If the patent does get accepted, I’m going to patent a story about a man who gets into an altercation with an animal, then another man, then himself, and once I have the patent I’ll file my first lawsuit against Ann Rynd because her writing sucks. And then I’ll go after the estate of L. Ron Hubbard and see if I can shut those Scientologists up once and for all.

I’ve changed my mind. I do want storyline patents. And I want them all.