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July 24, 2009

A twisty path to Chrome in the enterprise

Despite the title of Andrew Conry-Murray’s article in InformationWeek — “Why Business IT Shouldn’t Shrug Off Chrome OS” — it’s on balance quite negative about the prospects for enterprises adopting Google’s upcoming operating system. Andrew argues that enterprises are going to want hybrid systems, Microsoft is already moving into the Cloud, Windows 7 will have been out for a year before Chrome is available, and it’d take a rock larger than the moon to move enterprises off their legacy applications. All good points. (The next article in the issue, by John Foley is more positive about Chrome overall.)

A couple of days I heard a speech by Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra at the Open Government Innovations conference (#ogi to your Twitter buffs). It was fabulous. Aneesh — and he’s an informal enough speaker that I feel ok first-naming him — loves the Net and loves it for the right reasons. (“Right” of course means I agree with him.) The very first item on his list of priorities might be moon-sized when it comes to enterprise IT: Support open standards.

So, suppose the government requires contractors and employees to use applications that save content in open standards. In the document world, that means ODF. Now, ISO also approved a standard favored by (= written by) Microsoft, OOXML, that is far more complex and is highly controversial. There is an open source plug-in for Word that converts Word documents to those formats (apparently Microsoft aided in its development), but that’s not quite native support. So, imagine the following scenario (which I am totally making up): The federal government not only requires that the docs it deals with are in open standard formats, it switches to open source desktop apps in order to save money on license fees. (Vivek Kundra switched tens of thousands of DC employees to open source apps for this reason.) OOXML captures more of the details of a Word document, but ODF is a more workable standard, and it’s the format of the leading open source office apps. If the federal government were to do this, ODF stands a chance of becoming the safe choice for interchanging documents; it’s the one that will always work. And in that case, enterprises might find Word to be over-featured and insufficiently ODF-native.

Now, all of this is pure pretend. And even if ODF were to become the dominant document standard, Microsoft could support it robustly, although that might mean that some of Word’s formatting niceties wouldn’t make the transition. Would business be ok with that? For creators, probably yes; it’d be good to be relieved of the expectation that you will be a document designer. For readers, no. We’ll continue to want highly formatted documents. But, then ODF + formatting specifications can produce quite respectably formatted docs, and that capability will only get better.

So, how likely is my scenario — the feds demand ODF, driving some of the value out of Word, giving enterprises a reason to install free, lower-featured word processors, depriving Windows of one of its main claims on the enterprise’s heart and wallet? Small. But way higher than before we elected President Obama.
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July 17, 2009

The strongest force in the universe continues to be irony

David Pogue reports that Amazon has deleted some books from people’s Kindles, even though people had paid for them. It seems that the publisher decided it didn’t want them offered after all. [NEXT DAY: More exactly, the publisher that owns the copyright objected to another publisher selling the book.] So, Amazon deleted the books and credited people for their purchase.

The books were George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. OMG.

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July 10, 2009

Internet freedom, but not equality

From the National Journal:

Sens. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., secured $30 million in federal funding for the State Department’s efforts to promote Internet freedom as part of the agency’s fiscal year 2010 spending bill. The program must be approved by the full Senate and the House before it makes its way to President Obama’s desk. The money would promote widespread, secure Internet use by individuals residing in countries practicing repressive Internet monitoring, censorship and control. The outlay is “a low-cost method of allowing people, especially those living under repressive regimes, to access all-source, uncensored, unfiltered information,” the senators said in a Friday press release.

“Tearing down these Internet cyberwalls can match the effect of what happened when the Berlin Wall was torn down,” Specter said. “This funding seeks to enable freedom of thought, expression and the unimpeded flow of ideas and information, and I am pleased my colleagues have recognized the program’s importance.” Brownback added the battle being waged in the streets of Iran and China is also being fought on micro-blogging site Twitter, social network Facebook and other platforms. “This is a pivotal moment for people living in oppressive regimes. The best way to ensure their ability to communicate and share their story with each other and the world is to keep the Internet open,” he said.

The House passed a State spending bill Thursday that did not include Web freedom funding but Energy and Commerce Committee member Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., earlier this week urged lawmakers to hold a hearing on the role of the Internet in giving a voice to those in repressive countries. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who in the 109th Congress chaired a high-profile Internet freedom hearing of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights, has repeatedly introduced legislation that would prevent U.S. tech firms from working with nations that capture and convict citizens for engaging in democracy promotion and human rights advocacy online.

The NY Times reports on danah boyd’s kick-butt keynote at PDF09, in which she pointed to the class divisions in the Net:

Is the social-media revolution bringing us together? Or is it perpetuating divisions by race and class?

Many of us would like to believe the Internet is a force for unity, but danah boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, thinks we’re deceiving ourselves.

Speaking last week at the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that explores how technology is changing politics, Ms. boyd asked a packed audience of activists, political operatives, entrepreneurs and journalists to raise their hands if they use Facebook. Almost every hand in the place went up. Then she asked who uses MySpace, and barely a hand was seen.

How could that be? Sure, Facebook is growing much faster. But MySpace is far from dead. In May, Web-traffic tracker comScore reported that Facebook and MySpace are neck and neck in terms of U.S. visitors, with 70.28 million that month for Facebook, up 97% from a year ago, and 70.26 million for MySpace, down 5% from last year.

vMs. boyd got some answers from group of people she’s been hanging out with over the last four years: U.S. teens. During the 2006-2007 school year, her conversations with high-school students began showing a trend of white, upper-class and college-bound teens migrating to Facebook–much like the crowd in the conference hall has. Meanwhile, less-educated and non-white teens were on MySpace. Ms. boyd noted that old-style class arrogance was also in view; the Facebook kids were quicker to use condescending language toward the MySpace kids.

“What we’re seeing is a modern incarnation of white flight,” Ms. boyd said. “It should scare the hell out of us.”

More in the article, including research by Eszter Hargittai… [Tags: ]

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July 7, 2009

Eszter cries “Grinch!” on MJ lottery

Eszter Hargittai uses the lottery for tickets to view Michael Jackson’s corpse to illustrate her point about the existence, persistence, and importance of the digital divide.

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June 26, 2009

[reboot] Government officials take it on the chin

I went to a fascinating breakout at Reboot at which two government guys came to talk about national policy. The government guys were culturally of the Reboot crowd (or so it seemed to me), and one of them came to his position straight out of a tech start-up. But the group of thirty people in the small, converted men’s room (!) met their openness with pent-up hostility. I was surprised at the anger. The gov’t guys ought to listen (which is what they were doing at this meeting), should not expect ideas for free, need to maybe do nothing, need to get the country over the digital divide, should give grants to small businesses, should stay clear of small businesses, don’t be afraid to lose control, build communities, participate in communities, stay out of communities… My untutored sense was that the Web community felt frustrated that this initiative was so late at getting started. As an American, I was actually impressed with the government folks’ openness and webbiness.

Afterwards, I talked with my friend Morten Kamper. He wasn’t at the session, but he said that there was concern that the government’s broadband committee is comprised of the telcos without sufficient citizen or webizen participation, and that Net neutrality is indeed an issue, as the telcos assume they can prefer some of their bits to others.

BTW, I asked the room if there was reluctance on the part of the government to be transparent, and, if so, where’s the Danish version of the Sunlight Foundation. The general answer I got was: There’s no official reluctance, but it’s going too slowly. And Ton Zijlstra said that in the Netherlands, the official policy is to be transparent but there are cultural resistances.

I also asked, at the beginning, if it was clear that the “broadband policy” they were talking about was actually committed to delivering an open, unfiltered, non-discriminatory Internet. The answer was “Yes,” with an implied, “Why would you even have to ask?” (And the answer to that implied question is: Because it’s not clear in America.)

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June 23, 2009

Isenberg on the WSJ on Iran on Nokia

David Isenberg questions the veracity of the Wall Street Journal’s report about Iran using Nokia equipment to do deep packet inspection. Interesting on its own and also as yet another example of smart bloggers raising journalism’s bar.

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June 18, 2009

Weak copyright spurs creativity

Michael Geist — Canada’s free-culture bulldog — summarizes a Harvard Business School working paper by economists Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf “File Sharing and Copyright” that argues that the inability to strictly enforce today’s draconian and clinically insane copyright laws has in fact benefited society. It’s been slashdotted.

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June 16, 2009

Google: Make security the default (Now with Iranian tweets)

Chris Soghoian has posted an open letter to Google, asking it to make encryption the default. This is in line with the talk he gave recently at the Berkman Center.

[Update later that day: Two hours after releasing the letter, Google agreed to try setting encryption as the default for a subset of users, as a trial. If it works out, they’ll consider expanding it.]

Also, Jonathan Zittrain has posted about why the Iranians have problems blocking Twitter. [Tags: ]

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June 9, 2009

[berkman] Lewis Hyde on the Commons

Lewis Hyde is giving a Berkman talk about the book he’s working on. The book is about the ownership of art and ideas, and argues that they should lie in a cultual commons, rather than be treated as property.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Lewis begins by talk about what a commons is. The term comes from medieval property ideas, and Lewis thinks of commons as a kind of property. He asks the group for a definition of property. Suggestions from the audience: “Exclusive rights.” “Anything I can use and have some degree of control over, not necessarily exclusively.” Lewis says that a 1900 dictionary defines property as that over which one has “rights of action.” Property is a bundle of rights of action. Lewis likes this definition because it includes human actors, Blackstone defines property rights in maximalist terms: the right to exclude the entire universe. Scalia also thinks property is the right to exclude. Lewis thinks the right to exclude is one of the bundle, not the whole thing. This is because, he says, he’s interested in commons. (He notes that in medieval times, “common” could be used as a verb. E.g., “a man may commons in the forest.)

Lewis talks about Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” essay. In fact, traditionally commons had governance rules to prevent the destruction of the commons’ asset, including the right of exclusion. “Commons were in fact not tragic. They lasted for millennia in Europe. Not tragic because they were rule-governed and stinted.” Why has the phrase “The tragedy of the commons” persisted? In part, because the phrase is catchy. In part because Hardin proposed it during the Cold War and it was taken as showing that common-ism doesn’t work.

There used to be an annual ritual of “beating the bounds,” to keep any gradual encroachment on the commons. “These were convivial affairs.” Lewis wonders if there are ways we can recover this resistance to encroachment.

Applied to the cultural realm, Lewis thinks cultural products are by nature in a commons. In the 18th century you get the idea that we could own poems, novels, etc. Until then, people thought of property as applying only to land. If something is not excludable, there’s no property in it. Many argued in the 18th century that therefore artistic works can’t be property. (Lewis recommends Terry Fisher’s article on philosophies of property. Terry points to four : Labor, moral rights, commercial utilitarianism, and civic utilitarianism.)

The first copyright law was in 1710 (Statute of Anne). By giving authors and publishers rights, it removed the “in perpetuity” of the crown’s monopolistic grants. It also created the public domain by creating a clear limit on the term of ownership: After 14 years, it enters the public domain. It’s as if the commons is the default state, says Lewis.

Jamie Boyle talks about the “second enclosure” in which everything is copyrighted by default, the term is extended. The second enclosure is an enclosure of the mind, says Boyle. Lewis now thinks there might be a third enclosure: The enclosure of wilderness of the mind. Lewis agrees that it makes sense to let the creator of a work, say a novel, get rewarded for it. “I wrote it, so it’s mine.” But, asks Lewis, what does the “I” mean? What is the self? He cites a 12th century Buddhist: “We study the self to forget the self.” To forget the self is to wake up to the world around you. Creativity comes out of self-abnegation. To get to something truly new, you have to a door open to the unknown. We usually think that the outside of owned property is the public domain. But that’s a domesticated sphere, things we are familiar with. There’s a old tradition that during the period of maturation, you have to leave the known world, go away from where instruction is given, and become familiar with your ignorance. (Lewis says he’s drawing on Thoreau.)

He takes an example from Jonathan Zittrain. When the Apple II came out, there was a spurt in sales because the first spreadsheet emerged, something that had not been expected. If you want a generative Internet, you have to be careful about what you lock down. Another example: In the 1980s, San Diego cell biologists patented a sequence of amino acids. They didn’t know its biological purpose. Ten years later, other researchers think that that sequence blocks blood to tumors. The patent owners sued the researchers. The patent gums up the system. Exploratory science goes into the unknown. “To enclose wilderness means giving property rights in areas where we as yet have no understanding what’s happening.” Lewis adds: “This makes no sense.” Lewis would like us to restore the idea that there are things that are unowned.

Emblematic of the third enclosure is silence. John Cage in 1952 came to Harvard to see/hear a completely soundproofed room. But Cage could hear a low rumbling and high whining. The low rumbling is the sound of your blood and the high whining is the sound of your nervous system. Silence for Cage meant not no sound but non-intention. He composed “4 mins and 33 seconds” which is a stretch of silence. The audience hears the ambient noise. In 2002 a rock group called the Planets put in a minute of silence. As a joke/homage, they credited it to Cage. The royalty-collecting societies started to send checks to Cage’s publisher. The publisher sued for copyright infringement on moral rights grounds (i.e., misattribution). They settled. But Cage held a Buddhist-like view of artistic creation. He tried to remove the self. A lot of copyright law assumes the work contains the imprint of the author’s personality. That’s one of the reasons we give a copyright. But those laws can get in the way of our ability to live in the wilderness, i.e., the third enclosure. How do you become a creator in a world in which scientists can patent unknown sequences and silence can be copyrighted?

Q: Maybe part of the problem in defending the commons is that we say we’re defending freedom, not as in free beer. Fighting for free beer is more compelling than fighting for free speech.
A: Beating the bounds was a fun event. So, yes, people have to want to do this.

Q: [me] How do we counter the fairness argument: If I did it, I ought to get the reward. How do we respond to that?
A: It’s hard to do this in political debate because it’s a long argument. I raise the question of the “I”: To what extent is my contribution really from me? With cultural works, you’re working in a vast sea of existing material. What you create is not entirely yours. Even if it becomes popular and useful, it’s other people who made it so. You can also point to the utilitarian consequences: The public interest is advanced by enabling things to enter the public domain.

Q: [jason] You’re making a creativity defense, i.e., that the commons is generative. But, if we take Cage or Thoreau to heart and say that true creativity consists of transcending the self, could we say that that leads to saying all works should be owned, so that you’re forced to create something new?
A: The puzzle is how much you can actually go to the wilderness. You can face it, but there’s no way to escape the world you come out of. Thoreau has The Iliad with him. There’s no way to escape the known. You always work from materials you’ve collected elsewhere.

Q: [ethanz] What’s so bad about private property? You’re hearkening back to a romantic conception that worked for a very small set of people. We’ve got an enormous amount of development vased on increasingly strong enclosure movements. Those movements have given us a great deal of what we love. Despite the first and second enclosures, creativity seems not to have been much hindered. Why should we worry about the third enclosure? Couldn’t we say that you’re attempting to protect and defend something that most of us have not experienced? How do we know that your romantic vision is superior to the world we’re interacting with?
A: I’m not against private property. The question is always where the lines should be drawn. I think we’ve extended the right to exclude too far. Yes, the world is quite creative. But we don’t know what we’re missing. With the enclosing of wilderness, we’re enclosing that which we don’t know about. Researchers are reluctant to do certain kinds of work, for fear of being sued.
Ethan: My diabetes medicine — recombinant DNA — exists because Eli Lilly worked within enclosures. How do we know we would have made the same progress if those enclosures weren’t there?
A: Let’s leave that hanging as a question. It’s a good question. You’re right that the existing dominant system has produced remarkable results.

Q: Michael Heller in The Gridlock Economy goes through the economic models that explain what we lose by locking stuff down. What’s the cultural loss?
A: Lessig and others write books about this… [Tags: ]

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June 7, 2009

Broadband isn’t the Internet

Here’s a comment aimed at the FCC that reminds the FCC that (a) broadband and the Internet are not really synonymous, (b) the value of broadband is that it gives access to the Internet, so, (c) when designing a national broadband package, we should make sure that it supports the value of the Internet.

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