The right to search?

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It’s a weird thing, how we have come to think of search as some kind of inalienable human right…like life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not.  There is no God given right for anything to be indexed or made search-able and there is no right or requirement to put any result anywhere. This issue has been a recurring theme throughout this year. Although the authorities in the US have consistently ruled on the side of Google against those calling foul over monopoly various European bodies have continued to attempt to fine Google or force them to return results differently. Perhaps the highest profile of these spats was the “right to be forgotten” and only this week Google unceremoniously booted all Spanish news content from its news index (although much of it can still be found in the main Spanish search).

Google is not touting a “buy it now” feature on its shopping search to retailers to allow end users the kind of one click ordering straight from the search results page which would be similar to what we have come to know and love from Amazon. Google has also been layering other kinds of offers around and above the inevitable Amazon result for almost any shipping search you care to carryout. No sooner has this feature come to light then the usual suspects are once again are yelling monopoly.

I have nothing against Amazon, I’m a constant Prime user, but I wouldn’t be offended if the Amazon result was pushed down in the search result…because I know I can always go straight to Amazon. Search is notoriously tough to do well and love them or hate them Google does it very well. Having said that it’s also voluntary…if various world governments want to force Google to publish their algorithms or force them to pay for news snippets I expect Google to respond as they did this week by simply shutting down that part of the service in that part of the world.

Google is too big to be stopped and on the whole does an amazing job. Are they an evil monopoly…maybe…but they are very good at being that. This year coming I expect to see either a bunch of potential trade disputes over search to gently fade away or a bunch of countries loosing access to the best search out there. It will be interesting to see who blinks first.

Hold the Front Page

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Google is locking Spanish publishers out of its popular Google News service in response to a new Spanish law that imposes fees for linking to the headlines and news stories on other websites.

Besides closing Google News in Spain, Google Inc. also is blocking reports from Spanish publishers in the more than other 70 other international editions packaged by Google News. Google News’ exile of Spanish publishers begins Dec. 16, a couple weeks before the start of a Spanish intellectual-property law requiring news publishers to be paid for their content, even if they are willing to give it away.

That means people in Latin America, where Spanish news organizations have sought to boost their digital audiences, won’t see news from Spain via Google News. Also set to disappear are reports in English from Spanish publishers like Madrid’s leading El Pais newspaper.

The lost access to Google News will likely make it more difficult for people to keep afloat on what it is happening in Spain. Spanish publishers also may lose a valuable source of traffic to their websites. Google says its main search engine and other services generate more than 10 billion monthly clicks that send Web surfers to other news sites throughout the world. Google News accounts for about 10 percent, or 1 billion clicks, of that worldwide volume.

Spain’s new law is designed to create a new source of revenue for the country’s publishers, who, like most of their peers around the world, have been hard hit as more readers and advertisers have abandoned printed editions for digital alternatives during the past decade.

The shift has hurt news publishers because digital ads aren’t nearly as lucrative as print ads. But the linking fees could now backfire if the lost access to Google News diminishes the traffic to Spanish news publishers, making it even more difficult for them to sell digital ads.

Even though Google News doesn’t display ads, it still helps Google make more money by deepening people’s loyalty to its products. The ads that Google distributes through its other services and other websites, including those run by news publishers, account for most of the company’s projected revenue of $66 billion this year.

The Pirate Ship May Float On

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In the late hours of Tuesday night, the Pirate Bay abruptly disappeared from the Internet, the result of a surprise raid on the site’s servers by Swedish police in Stockholm.

But forget the big-picture questions of Internet freedom or intellectual property. The real problem, for millions of Internet-users, is how am I going to watch TV?

The Pirate Bay is as much an idea and an orientation to entertainment media as it is/was a torrent-tracking site. Sure, the Pirate Bay technically indexed torrents, a peer-to-peer file format popular for sharing movies, music and other oversized files. But since its launch in 2003, the world’s “most notorious file-sharing site” has done something a bit more significant, and a bit more permanent, too: It’s made digital piracy a casual, inarguable part of the mainstream.

During just one month in 2013, more than 340 million people tried to download illegal content, an industry report claimed. In North America, Europe and Asia — the regions where most infringement comes from — that averages out to one in four Internet users.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Before the birth of the torrent protocol in the earlier parts of this century, sharing big files, like TV shows or movies was virtually impossible. But even then, an American guy named Bram Cohen invented, essentially, a new way for computers to communicate data and named it BitTorrent. Less than two years later, in November 2003, just as BitTorrent was starting to gain steam, a little-known group of Swedish activists launched a site to help people find and access these shared BitTorrent files.

Pirate Bay wasn’t the first torrenting site, by any means — but it quickly became the largest, and the one that stuck around. (It’s no coincidence that the popularity of the phrase “torrent download” grew, in lockstep, with the profile of Pirate Bay.) It helped, probably, that Pirate Bay was initially operated by Piratbyran, a sort of pro-piracy think tank, which lobbied extensively against intellectual property law and wanted to popularize torrenting for “moral and political” reasons. In other words, they had the courage of conviction on their side.

Even when The Pirate Bay split off from Piratbyran shortly after its founding, administrators for the site remained involved with the group, circulating petitions, hosting rallies and publishing on “the practical, moral and philosophical issues of file sharing.” And even when law enforcement and industry groups began going after the Pirate Bay — the site was first raided in 2006, and its founders arrested and charged with aiding copyright infringement three years later — the site stayed online, moving frequently to new domains and changing to a more secure, cloud-based infrastructure in 2012.

And yet, despite all these threats, torrenting — on Pirate Bay, the largest torrenting portal, and off it — has only become more popular and more entrenched. Between 2011 and 2013, for instance, unique users on torrenting sites jumped 23.6 percent. There are now tens of millions of people accustomed to getting their “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead” illegally, online. In fact, more people watch “Game of Thrones” by torrent than watch it on HBO — a figure that, more than any other, should hammer in how well-entrenched this whole digital-piracy thing is.

Pirate Bay could very well come back online soon; there’s certainly no evidence, at this juncture, to suggest that it won’t, and the site has bounced back from several such hurdles before. But even if TPB doesn’t return, the politics and the conventions it advanced — that content should be free, and if you torrent, they can be! — will be very difficult to eradicate.

You may be able to shut down Pirate Bay, but good luck raiding the Internet that Pirate Bay created.

Is North Korea Really Behind the Sony Hacks?

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There’s plenty of rumors and speculation, but one thing is certain: something has gone awfully wrong with the computer systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment – the television and movie subsidiary of the huge Sony Corporation.

The company has shut down its servers, after a ghoulish skull appeared on computer screens alongside a claim that internal data had been stolen and would be released if undisclosed “demands” were not met.

In parallel, Twitter accounts used by Sony to promote movies were hacked to display messages attacking Sony Entertainment’s CEO from a group calling itself GOP (the Guardians of Peace) who claimed responsibility for the hack.

11 terabytes of information had been stolen by hackers from Sony Pictures, and even tweeted a photograph of a sign placed in the lift of Sony Pictures’ London office asking staff not to use their computers or log into the Wi-Fi. If hackers have indeed hijacked Sony Pictures’ network, and stolen a large amount of data, it all sounds very dramatic, but the most the company has said publicly is that it is investigating an “IT matter.” The absence of hard facts about the hack has inevitably led to reporters filling in the vacuum with some guesswork and, in some cases, speculation that may be have shaky foundations.

For instance, one report claimed that Sony Pictures was exploring the possibility that North Korean hackers could be behind the attack – because of anger over an upcoming comedy film featuring Seth Rogan and James Franco working with the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

It does appear that North Korea is genuinely unhappy about the movie, but does it really seem likely that that would motivate what appears to be a widespread attack against the Sony Pictures computer network?

That hasn’t stopped other media outlets from repeating the original claim of a North Korean link without much in the way of questioning, churning out the same “news” without considering just how tricky it might be to attribute the attack to any particular country – especially when the victim itself appears to still be mid-recovery and mopping up the mess.

Does North Korea use the internet to spy on other countries? Is it possible that hackers sympathetic to North Korea (or simply people who aren’t fans of Seth Rogan) might want to disrupt Sony Pictures’ activities? Hopefully until we know the answer, Sony will do its duty to inform the public of what information has been compromised.

Wearable Meets Civil rights

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I own a wearable civil rights activist, well actually I don’t.  I have the poor mans GoPro the MuVi camera. It’s an excellent low cost HD video camera, sold as a police body camera. I put a 32 GB card in it and although the battery life isn’t long enough to last a full 8 hour shift it could easily cover the likely face time I might spend interacting with the public. It also has sound activation, so the moment anything more than silence occurs it kicks on pretty seamlessly. This clever piece of tech costs about $150 retail…including a high capacity card.

There are roughly 450,000 cops in the US (seems like a lot but that what the official numbers are).  Let’s assume that at any one time 1/3 of those cops are out and about.  By my math we could equip every operational cop in the US with an excellent body cam for a little over 22 million dollars. Since we have apparently already found the money to equip our civilian police force with enough body armor and automatic weapons to arm a major third world dictator (for I’m guessing a lot more than $22MM) there is absolutely no reason not to equip our police with these simple but wildly effective devices.

That it should come to this is sad…and I sympathize with the protesters who claim that if the death by cop of Eric Garner captured on camera couldn’t result in a Grand Jury indictment then putting an electronic muzzle on our out of control police force won’t make a difference. However in the same way that “the spy in the cab” installed in every one of the 16 wheelers on our freeways greatly cut down the crashes caused by truckers driving for thirty hours straight, I firmly believe body cameras will make a significant and immediate difference.

This isn’t a tech problem, it’s not “a black problem” it’s an American problem. We have armed the guys who couldn’t get the grades to go to college with sophisticated weapons, given them impunity and “hero” status. They aren’t, they are, in many cases, blue collar guys with way to much power an institutional disregard for our civil rights and a cultural contempt for certain parts of our society.

We can’t fix the roots of this problem quickly. This problem has been brewing for several decades.  We can’t un-ring the bell of a post a Jim Crow culture of separate and not equal and the damage done by the failed ‘war on drugs.’ That harm is done…we can perhaps heal over time…I hope so.

What we can do (for less than one eighth of the cost of a single F16 fighter jet)  is bring some measure of wearable accountability to the people who are suppose to protect and serve us all.

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