Longstanding Practice Becoming A Little More Obtrusive

Why online shopping is not quite the same as the brick-and-mortar kind: Retargeting Ads Follow Surfers to Other Sites [pdf]

In the digital advertising business, this form of highly personalized marketing is being hailed as the latest breakthrough because it tries to show consumers the right ad at the right time. “The overwhelming response has been positive,” said Aaron Magness, senior director for brand marketing and business development at Zappos, a unit of Amazon.com. The parent company declined to say whether it also uses the ads.

Others, though, find it disturbing. When a recent Advertising Age column noted the phenomenon, several readers chimed in to voice their displeasure.

Bad as it was to be stalked by shoes, Ms. Matlin said that she felt even worse when she was hounded recently by ads for a dieting service she had used online. “They are still following me around, and it makes me feel fat,” she said.

With more consumers queasy about intrusions into their privacy, the technique is raising anew the threat of industry regulation. “Retargeting has helped turn on a light bulb for consumers,” said Jeff Chester, a privacy advocate and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. “It illustrates that there is a commercial surveillance system in place online that is sweeping in scope and raises privacy and civil liberties issues, too.”

The First Thing *I* Thought Of When I Heard The Decision

I also think the challenge to his standing is what’s going to be the decision’s undoing, too. I’m not a fan of Alex Beam, so *I* didn’t give him this lead. I wonder who did — it’s definitely some Cambridge “inside baseball:” The researcher’s revenge [pdf]

If you have been following the latest stem cell brouhaha, you know that a federal judge just threw a monkey wrench into hundreds of million of dollars of ongoing research at MIT, Harvard, and across the country. Press coverage has been remarkably restrained in describing the prime mover behind this litigation, Dr. James Sherley, a researcher at the Boston Biomedical Research Institute in Waltham.

Sherley is portrayed as a “man of faith’’ who is opposed to human embryo stem cell research because the embryo is part of the chain of life. But I have another theory. I think it is quite possible that Sherley is a histrionic, aggrieved, and vengeful man who is striking back — successfully — at the academic biomedical complex that humiliated him just a few years ago.

Ramping Back Up…

It’s been a busy summer, and the blog has suffered. It’s going to take a little time to get back up to speed, but you have to start somewhere. So, a collection of things.

Today’s Boston Globe profiles one of the many firms that one can hire to “sanitize” your online reputation: For a fee, digital dirt can be buried [pdf]. I’m sure that the “cat-bin woman,” Mary Bale, can’t afford what it would take to expunge her moment of insanity. Of course, she’s not alone in being singled out by a digital witch-hunt, but there’s a real question of how dangerous this sort of activity is getting. Of course, the Germans are going to police the use of Facebook in their effort to fight, but that looks just ridiculous — just as the US Government has learned to avoid strictures on privacy by hiring commercial firms to do the legwork, the Germans will simply find someone else to troll Facebook for them — Germany Plans Limits on Facebook Use in Hiring [pdf]

One might have hoped that, with the release of Common As Air, we might expect to get further along on the discussion of how the faulty application of the “property” metaphor to creative work carries real risks for us all, but all you have to do is read the comments to Dan Gillmor’s latest piece on the subject at Salon to see that we’re getting nowhere. Of course, a read of the opening of Hyde’s book (as far as I’ve had time for this week) points out that the constituencies that benefit from the perpetuation of the faulty metaphor are working overtime to maintain the confusion.

And today’s Globe also points out that Joel Tenenbaum and Charlie Nesson are continuing with their fight — Student appeals award of $67,000 [pdf]. You have to admire the tenacity: although, even my limited exposure to Charlie has shown me that he can be a pretty compelling guy. It would be fun (although, probably pretty expensive, in this case) to get into a fight with him on your side.

Technological Mediation, Alienation and Human Choice

An op-ed from today’s NYTimes: The First Church of Robotics [pdf]

THE news of the day often includes an item about some development in artificial intelligence: a machine that smiles, a program that can predict human tastes in mates or music, a robot that teaches foreign languages to children. This constant stream of stories suggests that machines are becoming smart and autonomous, a new form of life, and that we should think of them as fellow creatures instead of as tools. But such conclusions aren’t just changing how we think about computers — they are reshaping the basic assumptions of our lives in misguided and ultimately damaging ways.

[…] What bothers me most about this trend, however, is that by allowing artificial intelligence to reshape our concept of personhood, we are leaving ourselves open to the flipside: we think of people more and more as computers, just as we think of computers as people.

[…] Technology is essentially a form of service. We work to make the world better. Our inventions can ease burdens, reduce poverty and suffering, and sometimes even bring new forms of beauty into the world. We can give people more options to act morally, because people with medicine, housing and agriculture can more easily afford to be kind than those who are sick, cold and starving.

But civility, human improvement, these are still choices. That’s why scientists and engineers should present technology in ways that don’t confound those choices.

An Entree To Joseph Turow’s Work

Amazon’s Prime Suspect [pdf]

I’m a member of Amazon Prime, and I can’t help congratulating myself. Though I should know better, I persist in believing that Amazon Prime, a program that for an annual fee gets me “free” two-day shipping on purchases from Amazon, is something I’ve been tapped for — like Skull and Bones. […]

So it wasn’t easy to suppress despair the other night when someone casually mentioned that there might be something . . . a little . . . chumpy about Amazon Prime. He wasn’t even talking about the auto-renewal, though it’s true Amazon doesn’t exactly grab you by the lapels to warn you that your card has been charged again, or about Amazon’s new program to draw students in by waiving the Prime membership fee for the first year. He hinted at something more sinister.

There have apparently been allegations that Amazon has dabbled in differential pricing. To spell it out, though it pains me: Amazon has in the past charged certain customers higher prices than others.

Sux To Be BMI?

At least, that’s the opening premise of this profile of the performing rights organizations: The Music-Copyright Enforcers [pdf]

Most Americans have no problem with BMI charging for its music — except when they do. As Richard Conlon, a vice president at BMI in charge of new media, put it: “A few years back, we had Penn, Schoen and Berland, Hillary’s pollster guys, do a study. The idea was, go and find out what Americans really think about copyright. Do songwriters deserve to be paid? Absolutely The numbers were enormously favorable — like, 85 percent. The poll asked, ‘If there was a party that wasn’t compensating songwriters, do you think that would be wrong?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes’ So then, everything’s fine, right? Wrong. Because when it came time to ask people to part with their shekels, it was like: ‘Eww. You want me to pay?’ ”

[…] The excuses fell like rain. On the road, Baker’s client-management software offers her a list of common excuses — 24 in all — to keep track of what she’s told. But in the end, she knows it’s a game, a game she’s going to win. Because after all the phone calls, letters and visits, she possesses a secret weapon: the law. Whether or not a music user believes copyright infringement is a big deal, violators face fines of anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per song. If after several years, a violator refuses to back down, Baker ups the ante and sends what is known in-house as “the Larry Stevens letter,” named after one of Baker’s bosses, informing them that their case is being referred to BMI’s lawyers. Most but not all cases are settled out of court. That’s because in 51 years, BMI has never lost a single case it has tried.

Genachowski’s Dithering ==> The Tiered Internet?

It seems like it’s an endemic problem with this administration: talk big to your constituents, then hesitate in the face of every critique while the opposition offers up “workable” compromises — until there’s nothing left. The FCC has had time to get broadband regulation in hand, but we are instead going to find ourselves living with a “market” solution: Google and Verizon in Talks on Selling Internet Priority [pdf]

Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

[…] Such an agreement could overthrow a once-sacred tenet of Internet policy known as net neutrality, in which no form of content is favored over another. In its place, consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.

Any agreement between Verizon and Google could also upend the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission to assert its authority over broadband service, which was severely restricted by a federal appeals court decision in April.

Later: an NYTimes convened discussion — Who Gets Priority on the Web?; Larry, Z and others!