A breath of fresh air

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.

Ello Manifesto

Ugly behaviour

I’ve read a couple of reports that Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 will be set to “do not track” by default. Historically, the default do not track setting in most browsers has been “off” – meaning that websites that check for the setting were free to set tracking cookies. Websites and marketing partners like to track our browsing activity so that they can deliver targeted advertising. They claim that tracking is done anonymously without violating privacy, but some people argue that it’s easy to make the connection between a person’s IP address or mobile device and the real person.

SBS reports that privacy advocates have been pleased with Microsoft’s decision to allow the user to turn tracking on if he or she wants to. “We believe consumers should have more control over how data about their online behavior is tracked, shared, and used,” Microsoft chief privacy officer Brendon Lynch said in announcing the move.

Some website owners and advertisers, however, are up in arms and have declared that they will ignore the setting and track users’ browsing anyway. The statements they’ve made in response to Microsoft’s initiative are disingenuous, to say the least. According to the SBS article, ‘The Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium of the largest US media and marketing associations, told its members they can ignore or override the default settings in Microsoft or other browsers. “The trade associations that lead the DAA do not believe that Microsoft’s IE10 browser settings are an appropriate standard for providing consumer choice,” said the alliance, which includes the Better Business Bureau. “Machine-driven do not track does not represent user choice; it represents browser-manufacturer choice.”’

Yahoo! agreed, saying it will not recognise the default do not track setting. A Yahoo! blog post said Microsoft had acted “unilaterally” and that “this degrades the experience for the majority of users and makes it hard to deliver on our value proposition to them.”

Pardon? Where is user choice when the default setting is “track”? How does turning tracking off degrade the user experience? The “value proposition” involved has no benefit to the user. These people didn’t complain when the choice to be tracked was taken away from the user by default. They didn’t argue then that it was “browser-manufacturer choice”. I think they realise they are on slippery ground here. They must fear that if the default setting is “off” then no one will ever turn it on… and they’ll lose their revenue streams.

US House of Representatives members Edward Markey and Joe Barton, who head the House privacy caucus, expressed disappointment over the actions by advertisers and Yahoo!, saying they highlight the need for better privacy laws. “If consumers want to be tracked online, they should have to opt-in, not the other way around,” the two lawmakers said in a statement.

The SBS article goes on to say that some analysts argue that wiping out all online tracking would undermine the economic model of the Internet. Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) analyst Daniel Castro said most consumers do not object to online tracking if they understand that ads support the websites they visit. “You can’t say you don’t want targeted advertising but you do want free access to websites,” Castro said. “People like free content and they are willing to make some tradeoffs.”

Hmmm, how does he know that? I guess they might do market research, but in all the years I’ve been online no website has ever asked me if I want advertising to offset the cost of providing free content. My experience is that sites shove their ads down your throat whether you like it or not. Some are so bad that the advertising almost drowns out the content.

I’ve never been able to understand the advertising-supported model. I made a conscious decision to not have advertising in any form on any of my websites, with one exception – this site’s host offers a discount in return for a text link, “Linux Web Hosting by Arvixe” on each page. My reasoning was that it’s a small piece of text, and it relates directly to this site. (I did feel the need to add “Disclaimer: this link earns me a 10% discount on hosting costs!”) My belief is that if you’re going to offer free content it should really be be free. If you can’t afford to offer it for free you should charge for it. Of course, that would tend to drive visitors away, and no doubt that’s why they go for the advertising.

Others complain that turning off tracking threatens the internet “economic model”. Richard Frankel, president of the ad technology firm Rocket Fuel, said that even though “everyone claims to hate online advertising” there would be very little content on the Internet without it. Frankel said that imposing tracking restrictions would cut revenues and thereby “would stifle investigative reporting, dissuade open discussion and commentary, and muffle free speech.”

Rubbish, Mr Frankel. The Internet survived quite nicely before some people got greedy and decided they could make money out of it. As for stifling investigative reporting and muffling free speech… what a load of codswallop! I’d actually call it self-serving rhetoric.

There are plenty of sites that provide their content free of advertising. Advertisers waste their time trying to pitch to many Internet users, anyway, because a lot of us block advertising in our browsers. I have an excellent program that blocks all ads, so I don’t even see them, let alone click on them.

The hypocrisy of the statements by website owners and advertisers above is stunning. They would have more credibility if they had protested that the choice was taken away from users when the default do not track setting was “off”. If they carry out their threat to ignore do not track, then they deserve our contempt.

A tale of two cities… er, approaches

Richard O’Dwyer is a student from Sheffield in England. At the moment he is fighting an extradition order to the United States. As we all know, the US likes to style itself “the land of the free.” It seems, however, that some people are more free than others… and that the “others” part of the equation don’t even have to be US citizens, let alone live in the US.

Richard’s crime is that he set up a small website linking to sites where people could watch US TV and movies online. The studios would be grateful that Richard was drawing attention to their products, wouldn’t they? Um, no. They decided he was infringing copyright. Now, the first thing to note is that the site was merely “a ‘human-powered search engine’ for people looking for places to watch films, TV and documentaries online. Users could post links to video content – on YouTube, the now-defunct Google Video, MegaVideo or elsewhere – that contained full TV programmes or films. O’Dwyer’s site would check the link worked and add it to its search engine. The site quickly became a specialised search engine for TV and film content, plus a forum for people to discuss and review the films.” [1] Second, Richard complied with legal notices from publishers asking him to remove links, on the few occasions he received them.

According to The Age, “the US authorities became concerned about a site linking to content often still within copyright. To sell a counterfeit CD or DVD of a copyrighted work is an offence, as is deliberately uploading such a work to the internet. American customs officials, after campaigning from industry bodies [emphasis mine], contended that linking to such items on other sites (as search engines and others automatically do) would also be covered by such laws. This is a contentious interpretation of the law, even in the US, where linking has in some court cases been regarded as protected speech under the first amendment.” [2]

If linking in this way is an extraditable offence, why aren’t these “authorities” pursuing Google, Bing and all the other search engines? Maybe it’s something to do with Richard’s status as an individual – a uni student without the multi-million dollar legal teams retained by companies like Google and Bing’s owner Microsoft. Pardon my cynicism.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has defended Richard O’Dwyer, and started an online petition to ask the UK home affairs minister to stop his extradition.

Once again, the studios demonstrate their head-in-the-sand approach to copyright matters. Shame on them.

On the other hand…

Elgato, a company that makes PVR software and TV tuners for computers became aware that gamers were pirating Elgato’s EyeTV video recording software to record the video coming out of their game consoles. Using the movie/TV moguls’ approach, Elgato would trot out its lawyers and demand that people stop infringing its copyright… right?

Actually, they didn’t. They first looked at how people were using their software. Gamers were making recordings using EyeTV and video capture cards, then uploading the results to sites like Youtube. Elgato decided it could offer a better solution. “We ended up finding [pirated] registration keys on YouTube where people were describing how to use our TV software and capturing devices but connected to gaming consoles. We could have continued to blacklist all the pirated keys and try to fight back. Instead we looked at the combination of capturing devices, software and workflows people were using, and at the results they were getting,” said Lars Felber, the company’s product marketing manager. “We decided that we could do better, with dedicated hardware and software which was really tailored to gamers’ needs and would help them get better results.” [3]

Elgato now produces the Game Capture HD, an elegant (and fairly cheap) way for people to record video from game consoles. Mr Felber remarked, “The response from gamers has been great. Looking at their requirements and giving them what they wanted has certainly been a good move for us.”

Are you listening, entertainment industry?

[1], [2] The unlikely poster boy for a culture war: how a knock on the door changed film fan Richard’s life forever

[3] Elgato’s Game Capture HD – fighting back against piracy

Do the Easter Island statues have bodies?

An email doing the rounds at present expresses surprise that excavations have revealed that the stone statues on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean are actually buried and that under the surface they have bodies.

This is not actually a surprise for archaeologists, who have been studying the statues on the island for about a century (that’s archaeologists in general – not particular people), and have been aware of the torsos since the earliest excavations in 1914.

The current digs referred to in the email are being conducted by the Easter Island Statue Project. In an article, Easter Island heads have great bodies! Jo Anne Van Tilburg, the director of the project, explains that about 150 of the statues on the island stand upright on the slopes of the quarry where they were carved. They are buried to varying degrees by material washed down from above. After the existence of the statues was reported to the outside world in 1868 “many sketches, essays, newspaper articles, and books were published describing the statues embedded in the slopes as ‘heads’.” More than 90 excavations since that time have uncovered bodies of statues.

The EISP website has excavation reports and lots of photos.

A victory for common sense

In 2008 a number of film industry companies took Australian Internet service provider iiNet to court in an effort to make the ISP liable for illegal downloads made by its users. The film studios argued that by not acting to prevent illegal file sharing on its network iiNet was essentially “authorising” the activity and was therefore liable. The studios lost that case, Federal Court Justice Dennis Cowdroy finding that the ISP was not liable for the downloading habits of its customers. Of course the studios appealed. They lost the appeal, and, sore losers that they are, appealed to the High Court – Australia’s highest judicial authority.

Today five High Court judges handed down a unanimous decision in favour of iiNet. They awarded costs (estimated at NINE MILLION DOLLARS) to iiNet.

The studios are now bleating that “the current Australian Copyright Act isn’t capable of protecting content once it hits the internet and peer-to-peer networks…” (Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft managing director Neil Gane). What utter rubbish. The ISPs have long argued that content owners already have sufficient remedies through the courts and it is not the job of the ISP to decide whether someone is guilty of content piracy. Sensibly, the courts have agreed.

Kim Heitman, a Perth IP lawyer who is secretary of Electronic Frontiers Australia, said today’s court decision “means that the content owners need to decide if they are going to continue to try to keep hold of their 20th century business model or open an online shop.” Exactly. If the motion picture and music industries made their wares readily available for download at a reasonable cost piracy would be greatly reduced, possibly almost eliminated.

I don’t condone piracy but I do have some sympathy for those who download illegally. The film and music proprietors have no one but themselves to blame for the present high level of illegal downloads. Their head-in-the-sand attitude which sees everyone but themselves at fault needs to change. While they’re at it they can abolish their stupid DVD regions which add unnecessary cost to DVDs sold in Australia, and restrict what we can buy from overseas.

Full story at The Age.