December 2010

Fractal copyright

Perfect 10, the porn site that’s been waging a copyright-based war on Google’s ability to cache, excerpt and thumbnail Internet content, is taking a novel approach:

The copyright-infringement allegations are part of Perfect 10’s ongoing lawsuit against Google, a suit with a tortured procedural history. In 2007, a federal appeals court rendered a far-reaching decision, saying search engines like Google were not infringing copyrights by displaying thumbnails and hyperlinking to Perfect 10’s perfect babes.

Fast forward to today.

Part of the case, originally filed in 2005, is back before the San Francisco-based appeals court. Among other things, Perfect 10 alleges Google’s forwarding of Perfect 10’s takedown notices to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website constitutes copyright infringement.

Yes, Perfect 10 are claiming that the takedown notices they send out under the auspices of the DMCA can’t be published or redistributed because they’re copyrighted. Say what you will about the potential for overreach by IP owners, that’s kind of hilarious. Presumably if Wikileaks ever comes through with their rumored archive of Bank of America documents, BoA’s first move will be copyright-driven.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 9:35, December 27 || No Comments »

Media as the conservative heart

Steve Benen wonders why conservatives are so adamantly opposed to codified net neutrality:

I suppose it’s possible that these Republicans are just deeply confused, have absolutely no idea what net neutrality is, and are spewing nonsense just to rile up right-wing activists. It’s also possible these Republicans know the truth, but are shamelessly lying as part of a larger campaign to scare unsuspecting conservatives about a “big government” bogeyman.

But it’s worth appreciating the fact that the rhetoric from prominent GOP voices really is unhinged. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) insisted that “unelected, unaccountable Democrat [sic] FCC commissioners are taking over the Internet.” Incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the policy “another government takeover.” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told a national television audience yesterday, “[W]e’re starting to see the FCC say, ‘You have to come to us to get permission to manage your own website.'”

This is complete nonsense, of course, and it’s not even the kind of complete nonsense you might get by taking reality and spinning it. It’s the kind of thing you might get if, in Benen’s formulation, you knew nothing about the policy other than that liberals like it, and that you hate liberals. But it’s also the kind of position you might reach if you see the 1987 abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine as central to the rise of the modern conservative movement. Indeed, a Google search for “net neutrality” and “fairness doctrine” comes up chalk-a-block with right-wingers equating the two policies and warning of the imminent government takeover of online speech — one notable exception, by Art Brodksy, points out that the policies are actually quite opposite.

Those conservatives who see media as the life’s blood of their movement (correctly, I’d say) ultimately trace its origin to talk radio, and conservative talk radio really took off once the Fairness Doctrine was gone. Net neutrality — and broadly speaking, the Internet itself — is a much more complicated concept than broadcast technology and the old equal time rules, and I wouldn’t expect most political operatives to understand what it means or what it does. But if you give any random conservative two heuristics — liberals like it, and it gives government “power” over some communications medium — they’re going to oppose the policy.

Filed: We R in Control || 22:30, December 25 || 1 Comment »

More on “blog” evolution

One of the key factors in the evolution of the blog into something that can’t be easily stripped down to a primitive form is the parallel rise of group and institution-sponsored blogging. If blogs were originally records of what one person found interesting online, with maybe a bit of their own commentary, reader communities didn’t matter, and thus the ability to comment didn’t matter. Group blogs, such as Daily Kos, changed that by emphasizing community, discussion and organization, much of which hinged on the ability of readers to interact via comments (both with each other and with the bloggers). Similarly, institutional bloggers, such as those employed by major media outlets, have an incentive to use comment sections to build and retain site traffic.

Predictably, active comment sections have proven difficult to utilize to their maximum effectiveness. The more open comment sections are, the more likely they are to attract trolls and other malcontents, driving away potential community members who just don’t want to deal with it. Registration can help, as can techno-organizational factors like discussion-threading and comment-rating, but the risk of somebody pissing in the punch bowl will always be there. A couple days ago, Ezra Klein relayed some other bloggers’ hesitant feelings toward their commenters and would-be commenters, and suggested that he’s interested in moving toward the most highly controlled form of commenting, which is already employed by the likes of Talking Points Memo and Andrew Sullivan — e-mails to him that he would post if he felt like it.

I don’t think there’s anything majorly impactful or important about these specific developments, but I do think they’re worth noting as milemarkers on the road away from “the blog” and toward a broader theory of online publishing.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 22:46, December 24 || No Comments »

The airing of grievances

The lesson of 2008 sure seems to be that they’re going to keep getting away with it. First, nobody seems to be paying much attention to the banks that are going around stealing people’s houses:

When Mimi Ash arrived at her mountain chalet here for a weekend ski trip, she discovered that someone had broken into the home and changed the locks.

When she finally got into the house, it was empty. All of her possessions were gone: furniture, her son’s ski medals, winter clothes and family photos. Also missing was a wooden box, its top inscribed with the words “Together Forever,” that contained the ashes of her late husband, Robert.

The culprit, Ms. Ash soon learned, was not a burglar but her bank. According to a federal lawsuit filed in October by Ms. Ash, Bank of America had wrongfully foreclosed on her house and thrown out her belongings, without alerting Ms. Ash beforehand.

The press is getting these stories out there on a fairly regular basis, which suggests that there’s a systematic story that they’re overlooking. But maybe instead of a systematic story about the mortgage industry, it’s something even bigger they should be looking for. Kaplan, which owns the Washington Post and runs a for-profit university, has been stealing from its students with something called “guerrilla registration”:

Arlen Castillo had just begun an online associate’s degree program at Kaplan University when a family emergency forced a change of plans. Her mother in Florida learned she needed extensive surgery that entailed months of recuperation. Only two weeks into her first term, Castillo promptly withdrew to lend her mother support.

As Castillo recalls, a Kaplan academic advisor told her she could simply fill out a withdrawal form and incur no additional expenses beyond the registration fees she had already paid. But a year and a half later, in 2006, collections agents began hounding her, she says, demanding that she pay some $10,000 in supposedly overdue tuition charges. Despite having attended only two online sessions, Castillo had remained officially enrolled at Kaplan for nearly a year after her withdrawal.

Far from an aberration, Castillo’s experience typifies the results of a practice known informally inside Kaplan as “guerrilla registration”: academic advisors have long enrolled students in classes they never take, without their consent and sometimes even after they have sought to withdraw from the university, in order to maximize the company’s revenues, according to interviews with former employees.

This looks like a much deeper pathology than just a bunch of money-crazed Wall St. execs — it seems to infect a swath of American capitalism, and to have some important national news outlets in its thrall.

Filed: We R in Control || 22:26, December 23 || 1 Comment »

Daily Kos and the evolution of the blog

The beta of the Daily Kos redesign (aka “DK4”) was opened to the public today. Given the site’s status among the highest-traffic political blogs, it’s worth taking a look at. To me, the striking thing is how much it retains a great deal of the traditional blog format, particularly at a time when the format is being blurred beyond recognition by The Huffington Post and largely abandoned by the Gawker network. I argued in a paper for AEJMC this year that the existence of the blog as a primitive format in 2010 is an illusion — even though Daily Kos runs on its own platform as opposed to a commercial one like WordPress, it’s clear they have a commitment to the producer-audience relationship fostered by blogs as opposed to the top-down paradigm of online magazines.

As an example, take this description of DK4’s “mojo” system. In the Daily Kos community, mojo is essentially a metric of trust, based on past activity — comment recommendations over time get you there in the current system, but the new system is substantially more robust. As Kos describes in the post, it provides three categories of activities that build as indicators of community trust, but they do so without providing a lot of quantitative data. I find this particularly interesting, because one of the things that’s always struck me as a little odd at Daily Kos was the chest-puffing about having a low UID — that is, being a long-time member of the site (full disclosure: my UID is 8475). The UID is still on display in the new site, but the mojo score aggregates and subtly obfuscates the specifics of one’s community behavior. It’s a way of both encouraging engagement and discouraging argument from seniority. This is part and parcel of Kos’s expressed vision for the site — fostering and filtering quality content from the community. Unlike so many other giants in the liberal blogosphere — HuffPo, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress — and in the blogosphere and big-time social media in general, the creation and nourishment of community makes Daily Kos stand out.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 21:30, December 15 || No Comments »

Movies should be free as in markets

Next week, Netflix will be added to the S&P 500, while the New York Times Co. will be dropped, which is being seen as (altogether, now) a sign of the times. But the cozy business model Netflix has set up for itself — backing into a streaming media business that now outweighs its physical disc business, due to industry and consumer ignorance at the time the original deals were struck — may be on the way out. Despite having rebuilt the video rental business in its image, Netflix faces two major challenges in the near future.

The first is that their original licensing deals are about to start expiring in bulk. Studios were willing to sign over streaming rights quite cheaply back when there was no streaming market to speak of; they won’t be so eager now. For one thing, the booming market for streaming content makes those rights much more valuable than they once were. This is particularly true as non-PC media consumption devices — video game systems, netbooks, tablets, phones — become more and more a part of consumers’ TV- and movie-watching habits. But on top of that, Netflix isn’t doing anything with their streaming business that the studios don’t think they could do themselves. Indeed, this is the entire rationale behind Hulu — why let Amazon or Apple take a chunk out of a one-time sale, or Netflix take a chunk out of the subscription fees? Anyone can put bandwidth and storage space together, right? This is a simplistic take, of course, which ignores the ability to build a working business model, to create a functional user experience, etc., but those are in some ways ancillary to simply having a lot of content already on hand. Hulu even manages to start eroding the one major advantage Netflix has over any studio-operated competitor, which is that it doesn’t just have one studio’s content. If any major studios decide to walk away from Netflix, the difference in content availability becomes narrower.

Meanwhile, just as Netflix is using streaming as a way to hedge their bets on the future of postage costs, the future of bandwidth costs is uncertain, as well. When a major ISP decides to seriously challenge the de facto doctrine of net neutrality, Netflix is likely to be an early target. They’re a major user of bandwidth, and unlike some of the other likely targets — YouTube, Hulu, ESPN — they don’t have the backing of a giant company (that is, giant relative to S&P 500-member Netflix) or of a company with an existing relationship with the cable companies that dominate the ISP sector. Similarly, when a major ISP decides to go to metered usage — as many wireless carriers have already done — Netflix is going to suffer. If your $7.99/month “unlimited” streaming plan from Netflix requires you to add $30/month to your cable bill to get all the bandwidth you need, it suddenly becomes a lot less attractive.

The common denominator here is that Netflix has opened up a potentially huge new revenue stream for the movie and TV industries, and the existing power-players have a lot of incentive to shove their way in. They might enter as competitors, they might insert themselves as middlemen, but one way or another, they’re coming.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 10:05, December 12 || No Comments »