Why Not Just Fight With Everyone?

Did these guys really expect that nothing was going to change? Amazon under fire on books as Google debate rages [pdf]

Amazon.com came under fire from Britain’s book publishing and retailing industries on Monday even as the debate raged over a perceived threat presented by Google Inc.

The chief executive of HarperCollins UK, said she feared the online book seller more than the Web search leader, which has created a stir with plans to digitize every book.

“We all want to talk about Google, but personally I see Amazon as a bigger threat because Amazon has shown a lot of signs that they actually want to move into the publishing space,” said Victoria Barnsley

[…] Meanwhile, one of Britain’s biggest book retailers said it is contemplating severing ties with Amazon.com and creating its own online retail space.

Alan Giles, CEO of HMV, which owns the bookselling chain Waterstone’s, said he is not sure the shops should continue having Amazon host their Internet presence.

[…] Barnsley, the HarperCollins executive, said she had no plans to swear off Google, but noted that her company is spending millions of pounds to build its own digital repository.

“We will not do what Nigel Newton wants, which is not talk to Google,” she said. “It would be mad to just shut down the dialogue.

“I do think that search — which is what Google is about — is going to transform our industry. I think it’s the most exciting that’s happened.”

Revisiting Internet Liability

Ideas & Trends: The Ads Discriminate, but Does the Web?

That is the result of a social bargain made 10 years ago, meant to nurture what was then a strange and nascent thing called the Internet. A part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 said that online companies are not liable for transmitting unlawful materials supplied by others.

Now that the Internet is more mature, some legal experts say, it may be time to re-examine that bargain, and to ask some fundamental questions. Are online companies common carriers, like the phone company or FedEx, and so not responsible for the content of what they transmit? Or are they like newspapers and magazines, which are held accountable for publishing advertising they had no part in creating?

Does it make sense to allow lawsuits against this newspaper for the letters to the editor in this section but not for postings from readers on the paper’s Web site?

A lawsuit against Craigslist filed by a Chicago fair-housing group last month, over the “clash with me” ad and more than 100 others, asks those questions.

See also James Perry’s testimony at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity

Internet Advertising Cases

While each one of the previously mentioned cases are important, perhaps the most concerning issue we have confronted since the hurricanes is the matter of discriminatory Internet advertising. In early December, I received information from an evacuee concerned about several advertisements she noticed on katrinahousing.org. In a matter of minutes, a print out of the ads was faxed to me. At first glance, I didn’t believe them. When I conferred with Lucia Blacksher our staff attorney, she thought surely the ads must be a hoax. We read the ads together in awe:

  • “I would love to house a single mom with one child, not racist but white only”

  • “Not to sound racist but because we want to make things more understandable for our younger child we would like to house white children”
  • “Provider would provide room and board for $400, prefers 2 White females.”
  • “Prefer white Catholic family, children welcome;” and

  • “Room available to single white mother with child or younger to middle aged white couple.”

We immediately sought to determine the authenticity of the advertisements. We logged onto katrinahousing.org and searched for housing in the state of Louisiana. Instantly 5 discriminatory advertisements popped up… “We are [a] white couple and prefer a white family due to the neighborhood we live in.” I spent the better part of that day searching Katrinahousing.org and several other websites, only to find that the advertisements were not the exception, but rather, the norm. After only cursory research, we found illegal discriminatory housing ads littering five different websites purporting to assist Katrina and Rita evacuees: Katrinahousing.org, Katrinahome.com, Nolahousing.org, Dhronline.com and Relief.welcomewagon.com. I was further disappointed to find that one of the websites publishing discriminatory advertisements, Dhronline.org, is a FEMA sponsored website. As on January 13th, I have submitted to you again, 28 pages of demonstrating the nature and extent of the discriminatory advertisements. You will note that they discriminate against African-Americans, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, non-Christians, families with children and other protected groups (see Attached).

[…] Our major concern in the cases, however, is that some of the respondent websites have purported that they have no liability for having carried the discriminatory advertisements. This is in spite of clear language from the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 as amended in 1988, and subsequent case law upholding the Act’s advertising provision. […]

[…] The rise in these cases, likely comes because of the rise of the use of the internet in housing searches by consumers. According to American Home Guides, “the Internet has actually surpassed newspapers in the ability to bring home buyers to sales offices.” In fact, American Home Guides estimates that “75 percent of potential homebuyers first turn to the Internet for housing information.” (http://www.americanhomeguides.com/membership/importance_of_adv.html).

So what exactly is the effect of the CDA? Well it does limit liability of Internet providers that publish defamatory or obscene speech because of the actions of another. However, the CDA is not meant to affect discriminatory housing advertisements because discriminatory advertising is distinctly different from defamation or obscenity. Never the less, to the extent that the Act has been or might be misinterpreted to bar fair housing claims, it must be made clear that the CDA does not allow Internet providers to publish discriminatory advertisements. I implore members of this committee and congress in general to amend the CDA and state clearly that nothing in the CDA limits the effect of the federal Fair Housing Act or any similar state fair housing law.

Roombas and Hackers

My robot [pdf]

When iRobot Corp. introduced the Roomba in 2002, the Burlington company was hailed for making available the first home robot.

But for some, the disc-shaped machine that zips across floors sucking up dirt and dust is more than an electronic housekeeper: It’s a science project on wheels, a surrogate pet, even a fashion statement.

People are reprogramming and revamping their Roombas to add new functions, and to have fun.

“The vast majority of our customers have no need and no desire to be programming their robots,” said iRobot chairman and cofounder Helen Greiner. ”But there are a few people out there who really enjoy hacking things.”

[…] And iRobot is happy to help them experiment. In October, it introduced a $30 kit that lets people reprogram the software in older Roombas so they can modify how it works. The newest models feature a digital data port, similar to those found on PCs, that allows the robot’s sensors and motors to be controlled by a computer. And iRobot is even giving university robotics labs free Roombas to use as teaching aids.

The idea is to encourage a new wave of robotic innovation by users that won’t cost iRobot a lot of money. Investors have rebelled against the company’s recently announced plans to increase spending on research and development. The company’s stock, which sold for almost $38 in mid-January, closed Friday at $28.78 on the Nasdaq stock exchange.

Speaking of Net Neutrality….

The High-Speed Money Line

“The networks of today have to be upgraded,” said Carl Russo, the chief executive of Calix, a company that sells Internet television equipment. “You can push this bag around all you want, but at the end of the day, we will pay for it.”

The most obvious tactic would be to raise consumers’ subscription rates. But Mr. Russo and others say that is unpalatable to the Bells, which portray themselves as the low-cost broadband providers, and even harder for cable companies, which already charge subscribers premium prices for their faster connections.

The government is unlikely to fork over any money to help the cable and phone companies expand their networks. Lawmakers would be pilloried if they used taxpayer dollars to subsidize the highly profitable telecommunications companies directly. So phone and cable companies are turning to a new source: Web content providers. For the most part, the Internet sites now get a free ride because network operators have to transport equally all data that travels on their networks. Some content providers do buy extra servers so that consumers can zip around their sites more quickly, but they absorb that cost themselves.

The idea of the service providers is to create a system where Web sites can, for a fee, bump their data into a kind of fast lane, where it will not be mixed in with everyone else’s. A mom-and-pop online retailer might consider this unnecessary, but a company selling, say, videos online could see it as crucial.

[…] “Economics 101 says that if iTunes raises its rates, some consumers will switch to other music download sites, download fewer songs or even make more illegal downloads,” said Bruce Leichtman, who runs the Leichtman Group, a market research group which follows the cable and phone industries. “The higher price would lower demand in some shape or form.”

Another possibility, critics say, is that smaller Web sites would be crowded out. A big company like Apple, they argue, has the money to pay network providers for faster access and absorb the cost. But mom-and-pop online Web sites might not. If they were unable to compete with bigger, faster sites, the result could be less diversity of content on the Internet.

“Tollbooths and gatekeepers are the exact opposite of what the Internet is all about,” said Michael J. Copps, a Democratic commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. “Down that route consumers can count on paying more and getting less — less content, fewer services and reduced innovation.”

The big network operators argue that they would never deliberately slow or block access to Web sites, because doing so would raise a furor in Washington. Besides, they say, angry consumers could switch Internet providers in protest.

That may be true in big cities like New York and Washington, where there is a variety of Internet service providers. But in many other cities, there are typically two and sometimes only one broadband provider — the cable or phone company.

Network Architecture and Business Models

Media Frenzy: How Much Profit Is Lurking in That Cellphone?

What is significant about the News Corporation and CBS announcements is that both companies plan to sell their new services directly to consumers. Instead of buying these services through a mobile phone carrier, users can go directly to Web sites or can send text messages to an address that will instantly sign them up for, say, a “Napoleon Dynamite” wallpaper that they can use to amuse themselves and their friends. In the case of CBS’s new service, users can sign up to pay 99 cents a month for news alerts from CBS News, and $3.99 for alerts from the syndicated program “Entertainment Tonight.”

For media companies, direct selling is just one advantage that mobile technologies have over other forms of distributing information and entertainment, including the Internet.

Another is that young consumers, in particular, have come to view their mobile phones as fashion accessories, giving rise to a whole new category of personal media products, such as ring tones and avatars, which are animated images of oneself that are sent to friends with messages. (If you have to ask what these are, you probably don’t need one.)

A third advantage is that anything bought through a mobile phone — even if not purchased through your service provider itself — can be automatically added to your monthly phone statement, avoiding the bother of having to enter a credit card number.

Add them up and these features illustrate why mobile media could be a big deal: they turn consumption into both a fashion statement and an impulse purchase, while further letting the genie of what-I-want-when-I-want-it out of the bottle.

Speech Access Control By (Anonymous) Bureaucracy

Link By Link: Popular Web Site Falls Victim to a Content Filter

“Access denied by SmartFilter content category,” was the message a Halliburton engineer in Houston said he received last Wednesday when he tried to visit BoingBoing.net from his office computer. “The requested URL belongs to the following categories: Entertainment/Recreation/Hobbies, Nudity.”

[…] The culprit, SmartFilter, is a product of Secure Computing of San Jose, Calif. It is marketed in a few different flavors to corporations, schools, libraries and governments as a sort of nannyware — a way for system administrators to monitor and filter access to Web sites among users of their networks.

This is accomplished with a central database of millions of Web sites organized into 73 categories — things like “General News” or “Dating/Social” or “Hate Speech.”

At some point late last month, it seems, a site reviewer at Secure Computing spotted something fleshy at Boing Boing and tacked the Nudity category onto the blog’s classification. The company’s database was updated and, from that point on, any SmartFilter client that had its network set up to block sites with a Nudity designation would now automatically block Boing Boing.

The impact quickly rippled across the globe, which had the ancillary effect of outing corporate and government SmartFilter clients, as their employees and citizens, now deprived of their daily fix of tech-ephemera, blasted their overlords in anonymous e-mail messages to Boing Boing’s editors, who then posted them to the blog.

[…] “Committing resources necessary to properly identify the nature of tens of thousands of Boing Boing posts — and a handful of images with that total — would bankrupt Secure Computing,” Mr. Doctorow said. “So in order to fulfill their promise to their customers, for Secure Computing, half a percent is the same as 100 percent.”

[…] Ms. Jardin and her co-editors are compiling a catalog of tips and tricks that oppressed users everywhere, from corporate cubicles to China, can use to get around Internet censors and access information freely.

The growing list, published at boingboing.net/censorroute.html, includes one nifty workaround, first published in December at OReillynet.com, that simply pushes a forbidden URL through Google’s translation tool.

Another Image Contest

Cosby’s Lawyers See No Flattery in an Imitation

The “House of Cosbys” cartoon tells the story of Mitchell Reynolds, an obsessed Bill Cosby fan who builds a machine that clones Cosbys, each of whom has a special power (like data analysis). It had been the No. 1 rated show on Channel101.com for three consecutive months.

Last Thursday, Andy Baio, a blogger who made the cartoon available on his site waxy.org starting last November, received a similar letter demanding he take down the show along with some snippets from Mr. Cosby’s out-of-print album, “Cosby Talks to Kids about Drugs.”

Although Mr. Roiland and Channel 101 eventually were forced to comply with the request, Mr. Baio has refused to take down “House of Cosbys” and has taken the stance on his Web site that it is satire and protected under the First Amendment.

“It’s so absurdist and surreal and pitch perfect from start to finish, I’ve probably seen it a hundred times,” he said.

Ahh, Copyright Terms

The King’s Legacy, All Shook Up

Not much has changed at Graceland, a reverentially preserved 21-room Colonial Revival-style mansion, since Elvis’s former wife, Priscilla Presley, opened it to the public 24 years ago. Video projectors beam low-tech videos of a sweaty, singing, hip-swiveling Elvis onto walls. In a racquetball court behind the house, dozens of his gold records, along with various sequined jumpsuits and trophies, are on display. And, of course, there is the Jungle Room — the wood-paneled den famously decorated in skins and skulls and green shag carpeting.

Revenue at Elvis Presley Enterprises, which operates Graceland, has barely changed in recent years, either. It has been stuck at about $40 million annually since 2000, and money for improving the property has been scarce.

That is all about to change. And when the change is over, Graceland may look a lot like Disneyland.

Starting this month, Robert F. X. Sillerman, the billionaire media entrepreneur who paid more than $100 million in 2005 for control of Elvis’s name and likeness — but not his music — plans to overhaul Graceland from a run-down tourist attraction into a sparkling destination resort.

[…] What Mr. Sillerman does not have are the rights to Elvis’s music, which Elvis’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, sold back to Elvis’s record label, RCA, which was later acquired by Sony BMG. Colonel Parker and Mr. Presley split $5.4 million from the sale but gave up all future royalties — a mistake that Mr. Sillerman called “colossal.”

Later, from the NYTimes editorial page: Owning Elvis

LATimes on Net Neutrality

Keep the Net neutral [pdf]

Now, however, some of the country’s largest Internet providers — AT&T and BellSouth in particular — are complaining that the deal is flawed. It’s not enough for them to be paid by their customers; they also want to extract fees from the companies their customers do business with. For example, if an AT&T customer watched video from Google’s online service, AT&T would bill Google for the privilege of having those bits delivered swiftly and intact.

Providers are also floating plans to charge people according to the things they do online or the amount of data they download. For example, those who use Internet-based phone service instead of Ma Bell could have to pay an extra fee. Or basic ISP plans could cover the equivalent of 200 song downloads — but add a surcharge for anything more.

Comments from various telecom executives have spurred Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other Internet companies to lobby Congress for protection against targeted, “discriminatory” tolls from the companies that own the Internet’s pipes. They warn that powerful network operators such as AT&T could distort competition between Web-based businesses by giving some sites or services preferential treatment — either because they’re affiliated with the service provider or because they pay extra fees. They argue that consumers, not interested middlemen, should decide who succeeds or fails.

[…] If there were vigorous competition among providers of high-speed Internet access, lawmakers could trust the market to find the right balance between preserving the Internet’s openness and enabling network operators to experiment with new business models. Sadly, many parts of the country have only one or two providers of high-speed networks, and that’s not enough to keep those providers honest.

That’s why lawmakers should adopt “Net neutrality” rules, to preserve the open and nondiscriminatory nature of the Internet, which has been critical to innovation online. That innovation is an increasingly vital part of the U.S. economy.