Life in the SnakePit

Sony’s content v. consumer electronics schizophrenia is not directly cited in this tale, but I am confident it played a role in Lack’s downfall: Behind the Music: How a Sony-BMG Feud Went Public

“It’s the subtleties of this business that can kill you,” said Jay L. Cooper, a longtime Los Angeles music attorney. “I’ve seen some of the best and the brightest come into this business and be destroyed by it because they don’t understand.”

Further, Mr. Cooper said, “If you don’t have the confidence and the respect of the people that are working for you, you’ve got a real problem.”

[…] Mr. Lack and his team presided over an estimated $400 million in cost cuts, which included cutting 2,000 people from the payroll. Sony BMG’s sheer scale promised to give Mr. Lack more muscle to establish new standards in the industry, which has been desperately trying to reinvent itself in the era of file-swapping, CD-burning and iPods. But it also gave birth to an in-house rivalry — and not the friendly kind — between Sony’s labels and BMG’s.

[…] Even some critics found him refreshingly candid. Indeed, one curiosity of the internal discontent with Mr. Lack was that many of his critics agreed with his positions, for example, that the company should do more to use its music videos and other visual content to generate new revenue. Many also supported his stance that Apple Computer’s iTunes music service should sell songs for a range of prices instead of its flat rate of 99 cents a song.

Being right, however, did not translate into respect.

And beneath the surface, some executives who worked with Mr. Lack even before the merger found his style less than inspiring.

“It was very difficult for him to approach any situation without assuming that whatever the ‘record guys’ were doing was wrong,” said Rick Dobbis, who was president of Sony Music’s international arm before being squeezed out in the merger, and is now a manager and industry consultant. “It was difficult to believe that you would get support for your ideas.”

Net Neutrality NYT Editorial (Also Steven Levy’s)

Editorial: Tollbooths on the Internet Highway

When you use the Internet today, your browser glides from one Web site to another, accessing all destinations with equal ease. That could change dramatically, however, if Internet service providers are allowed to tilt the playing field, giving preference to sites that pay them extra and penalizing those that don’t.

The Senate held hearings last week on “network neutrality,” the principle that I.S.P.’s –— the businesses like Verizon or Roadrunner that deliver the Internet to your computer –— should not be able to stack the deck in this way. If the Internet is to remain free, and freely evolving, it is important that neutrality legislation be passed.

In its current form, Internet service operates in the same nondiscriminatory way as phone service. When someone calls your home, the telephone company puts through the call without regard to who is calling. In the same way, Internet service providers let Web sites operated by eBay, CNN or any other company send information to you on an equal footing. But perhaps not for long. It has occurred to the service providers that the Web sites their users visit could be a rich new revenue source. Why not charge eBay a fee for using the Internet connection to conduct its commerce, or ask Google to pay when customers download a video? A Verizon Communications executive recently sent a scare through cyberspace when he said at a telecommunications conference, as The Washington Post reported, that Google “is enjoying a free lunch” that ought to be going to providers like Verizon.

Later: Steven Levy also has a piece in Newsweek: When the Net Goes From Free to Fee [pdf]

It’s true we desperately need our broadband providers to give us bigger Internet pipes to feed our need for bandwidth-gobbling activities like streaming video. (We are way behind countries like Japan and South Korea, which typically offer consumers speeds up to 50 times faster, often at lower prices than what we pay for our poky consumer-level cable and DSL.) But as explained by AT&T’s head of external affairs, Jim Cicconi, the increase in capacity would come mainly in those new limousine lanes. “We’re building a new capacity, and we have the right to charge people to use it,” he says. While AT&T promises not to block or degrade the services and Web sites in the free lanes, companies that don’t pay (or are denied access because of competitive reasons) would essentially be relegated to an eternal traffic jam.

The broadband providers say that they do support an open Internet, and we should view these premium services as supplements, to ensure that applications like voice and video get reliable quality. But the bottom line is that your bits won’t be treated the same as my bits.

“This would literally be the end of the Internet,” says Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig. His complaint isn’t that the Googles of the world may have to pay if they want fast-lane access—the winners can take care of themselves. Instead, he fears that the next Google won’t ever get the chance to establish itself—because it would be stuck in the slow lane. Google itself finds the concept abhorrent, and not because it may have to pay AT&T. “New innovation in the marketplace increases our business,” says Google’s Vint Cert, a recent hire who is one of the Internet’s creators. If start-ups can’t go fast, he says, the Internet will be a “zero-sum game.”

Control and Distribution: Video Clips

A Video Clip Goes Viral, and a TV Network Wants to Control It

When a video clip goes “viral,” spreading across the Web at lightning speed, it can help rocket its creators to stardom. Alas, the clip can also generate work for corporate lawyers.

[…] Fans immediately began putting copies of the video online. On one free video-sharing site, YouTube (www.youtube.com), it was watched a total of five million times. NBC soon made the video available as a free download from the Apple iTunes Music Store.

Julie Supan, senior director of marketing for YouTube, said she contacted NBC Universal about working out a deal to feature NBC clips, including “Lazy Sunday,” on the site. NBC Universal responded early this month with a notice asking YouTube to remove about 500 clips of NBC material from its site or face legal action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. YouTube complied last week. “Lazy Sunday” is still available for free viewing on NBC’s Web site, and costs $1.99 on iTunes.

Julie Summersgill, a spokeswoman for NBC Universal, said the company meant no ill will toward fan sites but wanted to protect its copyrights. “We’re taking a long and careful look at how to protect our content,” she said.

OT: Photographic Milestone Coming

1-Hour Brainstorm Gave Birth to Digital Imaging [>a href=”docs/washpost/2006-02-20_washpost_ccds.pdf”>pdf]

In a one-hour brainstorming session in late 1969, Boyle and Smith drew up the basic design for a memory chip they called a “charge-coupled device,” more familiarly known as a “CCD.” It worked fine for data storage — but anybody could see that its future lay in its breathtaking potential for capturing and storing images.

CCDs are what made digital still and video cameras possible. CCDs can X-ray a child’s teeth, see a person’s insides during laparoscopy, and produce stunning images of the Martian desert from the “eyes” of NASA’s traveling rovers.

Although less familiar to the public, Boyle and Smith’s device has become as ubiquitous as the laptop computer or the laser. These integrated circuits capture and store light in devices as mundane as supermarket bar-code readers and as spectacular as the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tomorrow, the National Academy of Engineering will recognize their breakthrough, awarding them the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize, one of engineering’s most prestigious honors.

Also Digital Moves to Top-Tier Cameras

WaPo’s Great Firewall of China #2: A Look At WikiPedia

Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors [pdf] (note that the PDF includes all the graphic panels, etc accompanying the article)

But today, four months after Shi submitted his letter, Wikipedia remains blocked.

The government has declined to explain its actions. But its on-again, off-again attempts to disrupt access to the site highlight the Communist Party’s deep ambivalence toward the Internet: The party appears at once determined not to be left behind by the global information revolution and fearful of being swept away by it.

[…] But as the Chinese Wikipedia flourished, the authorities apparently came to see it as another threat to the party’s control of information, and an example of an even more worrying development. The Internet has emerged as a venue for people with shared interests — or grievances — to meet, exchange ideas and plan activities without the party’s knowledge or approval.

[…] Studies suggest this digital interaction is changing the traditional structure of Chinese society, strengthening relations among friends, colleagues and others outside family networks. In a multinational survey, a much larger percentage of Internet users in China than anywhere else said online communication had increased their contact with people who shared their hobbies, professions and political views.

The Communist Party polices these emerging Internet communities with censors and undercover agents, and manages a Web site that it said received nearly a quarter-million anonymous tips about “harmful information” online last year. But the methods the party uses to control speech and behavior in the real world have proved less effective in cyberspace, where people get away with more, and where the government is often a step behind.

When authorities catch up, citizens often have already weakened the party’s grip on public life and succeeded in expanding civil society. They have organized charity drives for rural schoolchildren and mobilized students for anti-Japanese protest marches. And they learned to work together to write an encyclopedia.

Implementing RealID: No Fun For Anyone

Plan20for20ID20Cards20Drawing20Criticism20-20Los20Angeles20Times [pdf]

But as state legislators around the country now struggle to implement the law by a May 2008 deadline, many say it is highly problematic.

Officials in California say that meeting federal requirements could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, and that it could also increase identity theft and lead to invasions of privacy. The act is “a man-made disaster,” said state Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland).

Later: A suggestion for a rethink of the debate – Op-Ed Contributor: A Card We Should All Carry

Escalating the Censorship War

Beating censorship on the Internet [pdf]

While Congress battles with US Internet companies that help China restrict its citizens’ Internet access, independent computer specialists are developing technologies that could reroute Internet information and put it beyond the reach of government censors.

“It was sort of a moral imperative for us to take action and do something about it,” said Lance Cottrell, president and founder of Anonymizer Inc. of San Diego.

[…] Meanwhile, a band of Internet volunteers headquartered in Cambridge has launched the Tor Project, which uses people’s spare Internet bandwidth to help others bypass the censors. And in Canada, computer scientists at the University of Toronto are working on a similar project, called Psiphon.

Anonymizer and Tor have attracted strong support from the US government. American military and intelligence services are major customers of Anonymizer, because it lets them scan foreign Internet sites without revealing their identities. The Voice of America, a broadcasting service sponsored by the US government, uses Anonymizer to help people in Iran tune in, despite their country’s efforts to block the signal.

[…] Ironically, both systems make use of digital technology that the US government was fighting to suppress a decade ago. In 1993, computer scientist Philip R. Zimmermann faced a threat of prosecution for publishing Pretty Good Privacy, a data encryption program that scrambles computer files so that only the intended recipient can read them.

The government tried to prevent the release of information on encryption out of concern that criminals and terrorists would use it to conceal their activities. But by 1996, federal prosecutors dropped the investigation of Zimmermann. Now the government sees encryption and anonymous Internet surfing as powerful tools for freedom.

A Look At The Changing Debate On Wiretapping

Legalize it? [pdf]

This week, however, congressional Republicans pushed the debate in a new direction. Even as they prepare to investigate some aspects of the NSA program, many are apparently willing to accept that warrantless surveillance of Americans is an important tool in tracking terrorists. Some members of Congress are now asking how they can revise the law to make domestic eavesdropping legal some of the time.

[…] Scrapping court-approved warrants for some category of domestic wiretaps would be a major departure for American law. So while congressional Republicans are beginning to argue, along with the president, that such a step is necessary because of the value of the NSA program to national security, Democrats (and many scholars) think it’s entirely premature. They want to keep the focus on whether Bush exceeded his authority in approving the program in the first place. For better or worse, however, efforts to find a legal framework to accommodate warrantless wiretapping are already underway. The tug of war over what could be one of the most important changes to American law in a generation reveals very different opinions about how best to balance national security and civil liberties-and who should watch the watchers.

More on Pandora

Introducing . . . Your New Favorite Band [pdf]

The station is truly customized because it builds a play list around your personal tastes. Essentially, you create the station by naming favorite artists. Then Pandora analyzes the type of music that that artist plays and will find similar types of songs — maybe a top-40 track or a lesser-known tune still trying to find an audience.

Start of a WaPo Series: The Great Firewall of China

The Click That Broke a Government’s Grip [pdf] (see also U.S. Firms Balance Morality, Commerce [pdf])

Although just a fraction of all Chinese go online — and most who do play games, download music or gossip with friends — widespread Internet use in the nation’s largest cities and among the educated is changing the way Chinese learn about the world and weakening the Communist Party’s monopoly on the media. Studies show China’s Internet users spend more time online than they do with television and newspapers, and they are increasingly turning to the Web for news instead of traditional state outlets.

The government has sought to control what people read and write on the Web, employing a bureaucracy of censors and one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated system of filters. But the success of those measures has been mixed. As a catalyst that amplifies voices and accelerates events, the Internet presents a formidable challenge to China’s authoritarian political system. Again and again, ordinary Chinese have used it to challenge the government, force their opinions to be heard and alter political outcomes.