The Wild West Getting Less Wild?

Or something else? Virtual Worlds Get Real About Punishment (pdf)

Virtual worlds have often been called the digital equivalent of the Wild West, where animated alter egos can live in a fantasy frontier. But in some of these universes, a sheriff has come to town.

Slipping a four-letter word into an instant message now could land a user in a virtual timeout. Repeated attempts to make friends with an uninterested character could result in a loss of blogging privileges. And if convicted of starting a “flame war,” or an exchange of hostile messages, a user may endure the ultimate punishment — permanent exile.

A virtual world for mobile devices, called Cellufun, has established a courthouse, where rule-breakers are indicted by their peers and tried by a jury of other community members. If found guilty of a charge, such as using profanity, users must carry out varying levels of sentences, from being mute for 20 minutes to being banished.

For the duration of punishment, a user’s avatar — a cartoon version of his or her real-life self — is pictured behind bars.

[…] Virtual worlds such as Second Life and Cellufun began with few rules and little oversight. Avatars can create their own societies and carry out realistic activities, such as buying land, building houses and forming social groups. But as the worlds’ populations grow, some have developed more sophisticated legal codes and justice systems to police members’ behavior. Many virtual worlds hope that creating an orderly environment will entice more users — and prevent the need for real-world legal intervention.

See the classic A Rape In Cyberspace

WaPo Column on Deep Packet Inspection

Rob Pegoraro – Internet Providers’ New Tool Raises Deep Privacy Concerns (pdf)

Taking these companies at their word, what’s there to worry about? We trade privacy for convenience all the time. We visit sites that keep far less detailed records of our comings and goings with “cookies” — the small placeholder text files they drop on our hard drives. Millions of people subject themselves to more intensive scrutiny when they use Google’s Gmail service, which scans the text of each message to place more relevant ads.

If deep packet inspection lives up to its promises, it might even yield a cash benefit. Internet providers using this technology could afford to offer customers a deal: Accept this scrutiny, and we’ll knock $10 a month off your bill.

But systems such as deep packet inspection unnerve a lot of Internet users for sound reasons.

Comcast Tries A New Approach

Comcast to slow Net service for some users (pdf)

The Federal Communications Commission found on Aug. 1 that Comcast had improperly blocked peer-to-peer programs such as BitTorrent that are used to share videos and other files.

In an order posted on its website yesterday, the FCC gave the Philadelphia-based company 30 days to provide details of its “unreasonable network management practices” and show how they would be changed by year-end.

[…] The new system will move away from a focus on specific applications that hog Web traffic, Bowling said. Comcast will determine “in nearly real time” whether congestion is caused by a heavy user, he said.

“If in fact a person is generating enough packets that they’re the ones creating that situation, we will manage that consumer for the overall good of all of our consumers,” Bowling said.

Also: FCC Orders Comcast to Stop Blocking Some Large Files (pdf)

Just In Case You Thought There Were Restrictions On Surveillance

Hey, we really *are* “Suspected Terrorists.” (even more links) I think I need a button: New Guidelines Would Give F.B.I. Broader Powers

A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion, Democratic lawmakers briefed on the details said Wednesday.

The plan, which could be made public next month, has already generated intense interest and speculation. Little is known about its precise language, but civil liberties advocates say they fear it could give the government even broader license to open terrorism investigations.

Will this be enough to get Obama to draw the line? *hah*

Later: A New York Times editorial — A New Rush to Spy

The F.B.I. has a long history of abusing its authority to spy on domestic groups, including civil rights and anti-war activists, and there is a real danger that the new rules would revive those dark days.

Clearly, the Bush administration cannot be trusted to get the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties right. It has repeatedly engaged in improper and illegal domestic spying — notably in the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping program.

The F.B.I. and the White House no doubt want to push the changes through before a new president is elected. There is no reason to rush to adopt rules that have such important civil liberties implications.

Apple and Education — Again

Welcome, Freshmen. Have an iPod.

Experts see a movement toward the use of mobile technology in education, though they say it is in its infancy as professors try to concoct useful applications. Providing powerful hand-held devices is sure to fuel debates over the role of technology in higher education.

“We think this is the way the future is going to work,” said Kyle Dickson, co-director of research and the mobile learning initiative at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which has bought more than 600 iPhones and 300 iPods for students entering this fall.

Although plenty of students take their laptops to class, they don’t take them everywhere and would prefer something lighter. Abilene Christian settled on the devices after surveying students and finding that they did not like hauling around laptops, but that most always carried a cellular phone, Dr. Dickson said.

It is not clear how many colleges plan to give out iPhones and iPods this fall; officials at Apple were coy about the subject and said they would not leak any institution’s plans.

Open Science

A provocative look at the movement: Out in the open: Some scientists sharing results (pdf)

Openness has always been an integral part of science, with scientists presenting findings in journals or at conferences. But the open-science movement, with many of its leaders in the Boston area, encourages scientists to share techniques and even their work long before they are ready to present results, when they are devising research questions, running experiments, and analyzing data. In such open forums, the wisdom of the crowd could offer the ultimate form of peer review. And scientific information, they say, should be available without the hefty subscription fees charged by most journals.

It is an attempt to bring the kind of revolutionary and disruptive change to the laboratory that the Internet has already wrought on the music and print media industries. The idea is that opening up science could speed discoveries, increase collaboration, and transform the field in unforeseen ways.

On the other side are people who see the benefits of the status quo. For centuries, scientific discoveries have occurred at a steady clip, without the help of wikis or Web tools. Journals publish papers that have been scrutinized by specialists, ensuring that bad research doesnt mislead other scientists or the public.

Scientists who plunge into openness also risk giving a competing lab a leg up. […]

I’m Shocked! The MBTA Tried To Use The Courts To Cover Up A Security Failure?!

MBTA admits ticket not secure (pdf)

The MBTA acknowledged in court yesterday that its CharlieTicket system is vulnerable to fraud, validating a key finding of three MIT students who drew attention to the security problems as part of a class project.

The admission came during a hearing at which a federal judge lifted a 10-day order barring the students from talking about their findings and denied the MBTA’s request to keep them silent about the most sensitive parts of their research for five months.

[…] “I hope it gives people comfort that they can do security research . . . without fear that they’re going to be dragged into federal court and gagged,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the students.

The MIT student paper, The Tech, has a sizeable repository of court documents. See also the EFF MBTA v Anderson page

If It’s Good Enough for Doctors …

We can hope it’ll be good enough for us: Data miners fight law that shields doctors (pdf)

Companies like IMS Health Inc., based in Norwalk, Conn., have built an industry around gathering prescription data and selling the information to pharmaceutical companies for millions of dollars each year. Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co. Inc., and nearly every other drug maker uses the data to identify which doctors are prescribing their drugs and which are prescribing the competition. When freebie-wielding salespeople show up at their offices, most doctors don’t know they’re being targeted based on their own prescribing habits.

But the political tide may be turning against IMS Health and competitors like Verispan, a unit of Surveillance Data Inc. After years of steady growth, they are fighting against laws in three New England states to keep prescribing information out of their hands.

Judges in Maine and New Hampshire have handed the companies early victories, declaring laws aimed at stopping the commercial use of prescription data unconstitutional. But an impending decision by the federal appeals court in Boston could overturn those actions and open the door to more restrictions nationwide.

Related headache for those who want to lean into the punch: California Licenses 2 Companies to Offer Gene Services

Slate’s Manjoo on Behavioral Targeting

Behavioral ad targeting, Web companies’ favorite new way to invade your privacy.

Though theyre all approaching it in different ways, a bunch of large Internet firms—including ISPs like Charter and AT&T and Web companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and perhaps even Google—are crawling toward adopting “behavioral targeting” systems. Predictably, privacy advocates are pushing lawmakers to outlaw or significantly limit this sort of invasive advertising. Proponents of behavioral targeting defend the practice in much the same way Charter did—Web surfers will benefit from close monitoring of our habits because well soon be getting more “relevant” ads. Considering the large networks that Web companies now manage and the money they can make by selling ads tailored to your surfing habits, it seems obvious that behavioral targeting will soon rule the Internet ad market. As the targeted-ad boom approaches, we Web surfers need to prepare ourselves—and think of how we might be able to take advantage even as we have targets on our backs.

Pandora and C(A)RB

Giant of Internet Radio Nears Its ‘Last Stand’ (pdf)

Pandora is one of the nation’s most popular Web radio services, with about 1 million listeners daily. Its Music Genome Project allows customers to create stations tailored to their own tastes. It is one of the 10 most popular applications for Apple’s iPhone and attracts 40,000 new customers a day.

Yet the burgeoning company may be on the verge of collapse, according to its founder, and so may be others like it.

[…] The transformation of words, songs and movies to digital media has provoked a number of high-stakes fights between the owners of copyrighted works and the companies that can now easily distribute those works via the Internet. The doomsday rhetoric these days around the fledgling medium of Web radio springs from just such tensions.

Last year, an obscure federal panel ordered a doubling of the per-song performance royalty that Web radio stations pay to performers and record companies.

Traditional radio, by contrast, pays no such fee. Satellite radio pays a fee but at a less onerous rate, at least by some measures.

As for Pandora, its royalty fees this year will amount to 70 percent of its projected revenue of $25 million, Westergren said, a level that could doom it and other Web radio outfits.

See also Music Biz *Still* Trying to Kill Web Radio (pdf)