Category: Technology

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Spam, Spam, and More Spam

computer6a.jpgAccording to CNN:

The number of “spam” messages has tripled since June and now accounts for as many as nine out of 10 e-mails sent worldwide, according to U.S. email security company Postini. . . .

“E-mail systems are overloaded or melting down trying to keep up with all the spam,” said Dan Druker, a vice president at Postini.

His company has detected 7 billion spam e-mails worldwide in November compared to 2.5 billion in June. Spam in Britain has risen by 50 percent in the last two months alone, according to Internet security company SurfControl.

The United States, China and Poland are the top sources of spam, data from security firm Marshal suggests.

About 200 illegal gangs are behind 80 percent of unwanted e-mails, according to Spamhaus, a body that tracks the problem.

Experts blame the rise in spam on computer programs that hijack millions of home computers to send e-mails.

Net Neutrality: Law, Money, and Culture

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Bill Moyers enters the fray in the raging legal debate over net neutrality tonight, with a documentary on PBS. The Wu/Yoo debate on the topic gets the central issues on the table: should we permit dominant ISP’s (like Verizon and Comcast) to discriminate among the “bits” on their networks, giving more rapid service to preferred sites? I’ve offered some tentative thoughts on the matter, and these continue in that vein.

The net neutrality battle may offer us a classic efficiency-equity tradeoff. Imagine a world where everything on the internet came to you four times faster, but dominant ISP’s could cut deals with certain sites that made their content come 10 times faster. On many classic economic accounts, that would be Pareto-optimal–everyone’s better off. As some very smart people (like Philip Weiser) have claimed, that differential pricing could finally lead to revenue levels that would remedy the US’s unacceptably slow pace of getting people connected to broadband (and faster) networks.

But on the other hand, what about the competitive disadvantage of those unable to cut the deals? Compare this article reprinted in the Boston Pilot (the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s official paper) touting net neutrality and this piece from Brookings-AEI disparaging it as a form of “price control.” The economists just tend to miss the cultural importance of media consolidation. That’s what convinced me that the stakes are ultimately a “battle for mindshare” (to use Hannibal Travis’s evocative metaphor), and can’t be cast in simple economic terms.

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Form of Internet Access Task Force: FTC Group to Examine Net Neutrality

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According to ComputerWorld the FTC has created an Internet Access Task Force to examine whether broadband providers are behaving anti-competitively. Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras has framed the issue this way:

I have to say, thus far, proponents of Net neutrality regulation have not come to us to explain where the market is failing or what anticompetitive conduct we should challenge.

First, the quote seems like an invitation for those who support net neutrality to approach the FTC with their arguments. Second, it seems that the question might be put differently so that it asks what anti-competitive behavior we face without net neutrality legislation. The problem may be that proving the undesired behavior now is not possible because it has yet to occur. (Those who have examples speak up and let the FTC know). Even for those who see the NN problem as huge (here’s a link Larry Lessig and Robert W. McChesney’s piece on the topic), the arguments seem quite general and assert that not maintaining net neutrality would lead to X, Y, or Z result but don’t provide the evidence that Majoras appears to want.

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AOL’s Treasure Hunt for Spammer’s “Nazi” Gold

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AOL is prospecting for gold. Literally. CNET reports that AOL won a $12.8 million verdict against three men one of whom is Davis Wolfgang Hawke, an alleged neo-Nazi and spammer sending ads pushing penile implants and diet pills. The judge in the case “granted a motion giving AOL the right to any property that Hawke left with his parents or his grandparents.” So AOL is planning on using sonar and radar to search Mr. Hawke’s parents’ property. His parents, Hyman and Peggy Greenbaum, (according the article Mr. Hawke changed his name from Andrew Britt Greenbaum to cover his Jewish heritage) are not pleased and think their son is not a spammer and that “their son would [not] be ‘stupid’ enough to bury gold bars on their property.”

Curiously, CNET reports that Mrs. Greenbaum believes gold bars do exist, just not on her property. She also thinks her son is hiding in Belize.

With all the oddity on the defendant’s side, AOL’s spokesperson may be the winner in the understatement category as he noted “This particular defendant may have a colorful and outrageous history–there are some conditions that might make this case unique” but asserted that AOL always goes after assets and property and cited past examples such as AOL’s taking a Porsche, a Hummer, and gold coins.

So my question is does AOL sell these items on its site or on eBay?

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What Does It Mean to Be Interoperable?

PlugsInteroperability and content protection (a/k/a DRM) have been much in the news lately. As Deven blogged below, the French DADVSI law recently passed the French Parliament and then last week was modified by the Constitutional Council. Meanwhile, Apple is grappling with Norwegian regulators over the interoperability issue as well. And Randy Picker recently raised the issue of interoperability and video game servers over on the University of Chicago blog.

In the abstract, most people are in favor of interoperability, just like they are in favor of lower taxes, bigger houses, and better-tasting beer. But when it gets down to nuts and bolts, what’s the best way to provide for interoperability? More specifically, does an interoperable content-handling device need to protect the content in exactly the same way as the original device (which would arguably limit the amount of innovation)? Is there some sort of threshold of “good enough” protection that could be identified and mandated (and if so, by whom)? Or is it solely up to one party to decide?

Of course, there are many who hate content protection in all its forms; their answer is no doubt that the law should provide the broadest exception for interoperability possible, because that weakens content protection the most. This post is not really aimed at those people; debating the limits of an interoperability exception with diehard content protection opponents is a bit like discussing Carthaginian-Roman relations with Cato the Elder.

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Can Dead People Still Vote on an Electronic Voting Machine?

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With close votes apparently the norm for now and recounts causing all sorts of upheaval, one group has claimed that a certain electronic voting machine can easily be manipulated to change votes.

According to the Open Voting Foundation (OVF), Diebold’s TS voting machine has a major security flaw. (Note: The group and site are quite new. The link is to a press release on the home page, so it may move). OVF asserts that “with the flip of a single switch inside, the machine can behave in a completely different manner compared to the tested and certified version.”

OVF’s President has stated “Diebold has made the testing and certification process practically irrelevant,” … “If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election, anything is possible with the Diebold TS — and it could be done without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.”

In addition, OVF claims that the model in question lacks a verified paper trial against which votes could be cross-checked. For those who want to see the innards of the machine OVF has posted pictures and the most important one is of the boot configuration.

Why does this matter? If this assertion is correct, “in the TS, a completely legal and certified set of files can be instantly overridden and illegal uncertified code be made dominant in the system, and then this situation can be reversed leaving the legal code dominant again in a matter of minutes” it appears that dead people can again vote and entire groups of votes can be excluded. As VerifiedVoting details the Help America Vote Act may have great potential to eliminate punch cards and other dubious voting systems but just because new technologies are available that does not mean that we should blindly assume the dangers of voter fraud and election rigging are gone. They may indeed simply be harder to detect.

HT: Slashdot

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Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative Redstate.com would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”

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Tin Men

As a follow-up to my post about an apparently sleazy car sales tactic a few days ago, I thought I’d point you to a fascinating undercover look at the world of car sales from Edmunds.com. The reporter spent 3 months as a new car salesman, part of it at a high-pressure showroom dedicated to a Japanese brand, and the other at a “no-haggle” dealership for an American brand. In general, the article reminds me of the movie Boiler Room, as well as my own brief career in high-pressure sales (don’t ask). The traditional car lot is a shark pit of deceptive maneuvers aimed at separating marks from their money. The “no-haggle” lot seems much better, but it also seems like it’s not doing a lot of business.

There’s evidence the Internet is changing the whole business:

I was already beginning to see the impact of the Internet because of something that happened during my first few days there. [The reporter talked to a man waiting in the maintenance area, who tells him he got an "awesome deal" on one of the dealership's new SUVs -- $300 below invoice.] I asked how he did it. He said he checked prices on the Internet. He then called the fleet manager and made the deal over the phone.

I had a schizophrenic reaction to this. Part of me admired the fact that he had outfoxed the dealer. But the car salesman side of me was angry that I never “got a shot at him.” It seemed like just a matter of time before people who, in the past, walked onto our car lot, would be on the Internet making deals.

The salesmen are only vaguely aware of this developing trend. I was standing on the curb next to George and we saw one of these high-demand SUVs ready for delivery.

“Another damn Internet sale,” George said. “Why don’t they turn that car over to us? We’d get a grand over sticker. Instead they’re selling it at invoice. Does that make sense?” As the days passed I noticed more and more cars marked “carsdirect.com.” And as I approached people on the car lot they often informed me that they were here to see the fleet manager. More Internet customers.

This indicates that wealthier, computer-savvy customers may be circumventing the sleazy sales tactics, leaving the sharks to prey only on poorer, less-informed customers. It could develop into yet another element of the “poor tax.”

HT: Consumerist

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Video Games as Art?

Half-Life CoverSo I’m listening to one of my favorite soundtracks — from the game, Half-Life. Video games are becoming more and more like cinematic experiences. (In many cases, they are being converted into really bad cinematic experiences, such as the Doom movie or Alone in the Dark, but that’s not my point right now.) In addition to soundtracks, video games like Half-Life have plots, scenes, characters, and dialog. A lot of this is rudimentary — the dialog, for example, is pretty limited, and character development is sparse — but it adds a level of depth and complexity to games that only recently were as simple as Space Invaders.

Still, as Roger Ebert pointed out last year, it’s silly to think they rival movies as story-telling formats:

“[V]ideo games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

Ebert got a lot of hate-mail from gamers for this comment, but I think he’s essentially correct that games are inferior story-telling devices, at least given today’s technology. The more interesting question is whether the loss of “authorial control” that Ebert correctly ascribes as the fundamental difference between a game and a movie makes games “inherently inferior” as narrative devices.

Half-Life and Half-Life 2 illustrate both my points and Ebert’s.

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Cyberspace as Marchland

Wind Farm at South Point, HIThe picture I provided to Dan for his introductory post was taken at South Point on the Big Island of Hawaii, which my wife and I visited last month on our honeymoon. South Point is, as the name implies, the southernmost point on the Big Island and therefore the southernmost point in the United States. It is accessible only via an 11-mile-long, one-lane, barely paved road that cuts directly through a sparsely inhabited, windswept plain to the ocean. At the end of the road, the only signs of life are the makeshift parking lot for visitors, a nondescript navigational beacon, and a rickety pair of boat launches. The area is as isolated as it looks. Although other parts of the island are booming, particularly the area around Kona, the south side of the island, and South Point in particular, has been left behind. The guide books all warn against paying for parking at the nearby “Visitor’s Center;” in fact it is an abandoned building, and the people charging are squatters, not state employees. The proprietor at one of the B&B’s we stayed at told us that people go to live at South Point when they don’t want to be found.

The area is also littered with the remains of failed business ventures. One of the more spectacular of these is the wind farm just north of South Point, pictured above. I have no idea who built the wind farm, or why. But there are now several dozen wind mills standing in various states of disrepair. A few still spin, making a plaintive low whistle that you can listen to if you stop the car and turn the engine off (your entertainment mileage may vary). Most are rusted in place. Several have one or more blades missing. The scene reminded me of what Shelley must have had in mind when he wrote Ozymandias, thinking of Luxor and knowing little of ancient Egypt’s history:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The whole thing strikes me as an apt metaphor for cyberspace. Getting there requires tying South Point and Ozymandias to colonial America, turbulence, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and peer-to-peer filesharing.

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