Monthly Archives: February 2008

Regulating online content

Kind of related to my previous post.

Recently we witnessed how Pakistani government was trying to block YouTube, and when that did not work they just took the entire country off the grid. What caused that decision was supposedly discovery by the authorities that YouTube has content critical towards Islam (HE).
But Pakistan is not alone in attempts of screening the internet. Europe is in the midst of heated debate about filtering online content too. There the authorities want to block child pornography and terrorism-related websites (very broad definition). And recently similar sentiments have been voiced in Australia.

Israel of course is not lagging behind. Together with the internet censorship law passing in first hearing another law proposal, calling to monitor talkbacks on news websites, has passed in the first hearing too. According to this latter proposal (HE of the original) individuals leaving talkbacks on news websites will be personally legally responsible for their content. In other words a typical reply like “shut the f@#k up, you have no f#@king clue what you are talking about” could lead to a legal suit. This is in fact a more liberal version of the previous iteration of the same proposal according to which all people leaving talkbacks were supposed to identify with their real name.

Are we witnessing a trend? I wonder what the internet will look like in 10 or 20 years… the efforts seem to push it more and more towards the television model. What do you think?

A very dark day for Israel

Last night I had a conversation with a friend about some issues I have with organized religion. And here, today it is striking again and the victim of the day is the State of Israel.About half a year ago I blogged about the pending law for internet censorship in Israel and about emails I sent to members of the Knesset advocating against it. What happened today is extremely sad – the law was actually passed in the first round of hearings (HE1; HE2; HE3; HE4). Well, it looks like it was passed primarily as a result of political opportunism of Shas, the largest religious party in the Israeli Knesset, but more about it later.

The essence of the law (assuming it will pass the committees and another two rounds of hearings as it is) is that by default the internet in Israel will be screened for “inappropriate content”. The screening will be done by a committee in the ministry of communication that will set the standards for what “inappropriate” means. People will be given an option to opt out from the screening program, but the default will be a limited version of access to the Web with screening done at the level of the ISP. The articulated logic of the law is that of guarding the children from online predators, from explicit sexual conten, and violence. In order to opt-out from the screening program, one will have to prove their age.

The problem with the law is quite obvious for it in fact introduces government censorship to the internet. The idea that a committee of government officials will decide for the citizen what is appropriate and what is not for them to consume sounds as if taken from a really bad science fiction movie. In this day and age, there is no democratic society that in the world that practices such a rude and intervention in the private information-life of their citizens. Any decision on the appropriation of content will bear ideological flavor and more so, as the act of passing this law indicates, to political pressures. But beyond the expected “flexibility” of definition of “appropriateness” the mere act of intervention of the government into my personal information seeking practices is mind boiling! The places where it happens, it refers to explicitly unlawful content, such as child porn or Nazi propaganda, with solid definitions and free of political pressures.

What is particularly disturbing in this case is that the law is hypocritical on so many levels. The hypocrisy is at the very core of justification behind the law – the desire of guarding the young and gentle minds from all the horrors of the internet and especially from online predators. Here are a few points on that topic:

  • Following the debates surrounding this law proposal, the Israeli ISPs agreed to subsidize screening software for their clients, offering it practically for free. This way any concerned parent could simply ask for this service and gain piece of mind (HE).
  • Not only that, but apparently there was an alternative law proposal suggesting to make the previous point a legal responsibility. It asked to make it obligatory for the ISPs (1) warn their clients about the “dangers” of the internet and (2) offer them opt-in solutions to screen their internet access. This law proposal was rejected (HE).
  • On a related note, the “save the kids” logic still does not justify the “opt-out” nature of the program. Does the state has so little face in parents’ ability to make decisions about their kids information diet? Shouldn’t parents be responsible for making those decisions, particularly when options such as those in the previous bullet are offered? Because right now there is a strong sense that be apparently taking the responsibility from the parents, the state is encouraging sort of an intellectual laziness on behalf of the parents most of whom will not know about or bother to engage with issues of information consumption of their kids. Moreover, many of those who don’t have kids, will most probably not know or not bother to take care of this issue when they are those who have to initiate (you can take a look at some numbers of online behavior patterns in US, which shed light on the level/lack of engagement of people with the medium, and at Eszter’s thoughts on why people do not switch from Google).
  • On a slightly more sophisticated note, if the proponents of the law would actually study the issue before making a political/ideological decision that is going to affect lives of an entire country, they would see that content (porn) is not the primary threat. For example, they could read a recent study on the subject and see that in order to guard the children fro m online predators, they should be educated for appropriate online behavior. Moreover they would see that in fact the only way to block “inappropriate” content is shut down the entire internet because a lot of “inappropriate” content is generated in online interactions and not in static web pages. Maybe they would understand that there is no simple blocking solution in this case, but instead embracing the medium and learning/educating how to deal with it (also see HE).

Lastly, I think the way this law was passed adds to its own inappropriateness (here is a complete list in HE of who voted and how on this proposal). Apparently this proposal was not even part of the agenda for this particular session of Knesset. However, the shaky position of Kadima-Avoda government, gives Shas a lot of power to manipulate what is being discussed these days by the lawmakers and how. Just today another Shas-driven law proposal was discussed, aimed at strengthening the limitations on abortion (HE) and at the same time 475 million shekels were granted to Shas religious institutions (for example, they maintain an independent education system, which is cheaper than the governmental one – oh the absurd) , which is apparently higher than government subsidies to the entire cultural sector in Israel (HE). The political discipline of the religious voter is paying off, while the secular and progressive voters spend their time expressing they outrage in talkbacks on major news websites (until those will get censored too – HE), but when it comes to voting or holding their elected representatives accountable, they find more important things to do (HE). Even the Israeli bloggers who used to advocate strongly against the law (for example HE1; He2) are silent and as up to this point there has been little or no reaction (last posts are dated back in summer last year).

As i said, today is a very, very dark day for Israel…

Go identify yourself!

Sex and the City (and the new media)

I will probably have to explain in person later to all those who wonder why I know that, but the official trailer for Sex and the City (the movie) is out and it is available on YouTube. Now this is where it is getting interesting…

If you look at the related videos on that YouTube page you will something that I don’t think was possible even just 10 years ago. Together with the official trailer you can see links to many amateur videos featuring the actual shooting of the film in NYC. For example this:

and this:

I find it fascinating. The entire idea of movie marketing and creating a buzz around new and anticipated creations is getting here to whole new level. People are talking about it, trying to guess what is going on, and are gaining a peak into the unknown and yet so expected. Whether the creators want that or not, the ubiquity of digital video recording allows the fans and even random people who were passing in the area to become part of the buzz around the movie.

And there is apparently an entire blog dedicated to the process of movie creation (probably not only one). It has pictures, video clips, and commentary about the upcoming movie – most of which is generated by fans and the rest by the blog owner. The disclaimer on blog sais it is not affiliated with the movie or HBO and the domain ownership is routed back to Ontario, Canada. But thinking about this, nobody stops HBO from doing the same and encouraging similar behavior because after all it helps promoting their movie.

My brief observation of this incident made me thinking about the ongoing battle between the traditioal movie industry establishment and what is labeled as “new” media. I think it shows how in fact the two can coexist in a new type of culture. Not a type of culture where there are creators, people who are ripped off, and thieves of original content, but a type of culture where there are creators and their fans and the two coexist and feed each other (both creatively and financially). However it seems as if it will take a long time or a sudden shift in thinking (particularly by the industry) for this new types of culture to emerge. Anyhow, we live in interesting times…

More on Digital Divide in US election

Following on my previous post about Obama’s talk at Google, here is a very interesting post from Andy Carvin shedding more light on the candidates’ rhetoric about social role of information technology, digital divide, and the related education. Having read a lot about the discourse surrounding these issues, it is striking me again and again how little change there was in this domain. They are still talking about technology in rather technocratic and deterministic terms, framing it mainly as an economic factor.

It is also interesting how the political discourse reacting to academic research and market forces. Only about a decade ago, the discourse focused primarily on issues of physical access. This view gained a lot of criticism from the academic community and research (like this) showed that skills play a very significant role in what we label as the digital divide. Simultaneously, it seems like the markets for infrastructure neared certain levels of saturation (i don’t have exact data on that, but my own observations). The combination of the two created another domain to public discourse about digital divide – skills. We can see both components in Andy’s post or in fact in any other political speech/document on the subject.

Of course i am simplifying a very complex story, but i hope that I manage to clarify the basic idea. Now it will be interesting to see what happens next. The academic community moved further with conceptualizing the digital divide in terms of inequalities and viewing it as a more complex social construct. What is going to be an associated market change and how will it impact the public discourse?

Just some thoughts triggered by reading blogs…

Washington Post on mobiles

Just recycling the news.  Washington Post technology section is featuring the mobile phone today.  As usual, there is a deterministic flavor to the article (“mobile revolution”, “transform the world faster than did electricity, automobiles, refrigeration, credit cards or television”, etc.).  However, it has many interesting facts about the mobile industry and, even more interesting, the gaps between predictions about mobile communication markets and the actual outcomes (which made me think about my previous post on market analysis again).  If you have a few minutes to spare, it makes an interesting read.

Facebook numbers drop?

Recently there is a buzz in the blogosphere about the drop in FB numbers. It looks like people got tired of constant stalking of their own friends or just moved on to other platforms. It may be just a seasonal fluctuation, but it also may be that the growing number of social networks websites crossed a point where people are not coping with managing so many instances of their social connections and are backing off. If that is the case, it looks like the next big service will be a system that will allow a single control panel for all the major social networking website. For example Eszter just blogged about FriendFeed which seems like a move in this direction. What do you think?

Market analysis – studying the trends or setting them?

Recently I read a Ynet article (HE) on the future of digital photography in light of growing presence of mobile phones with embedded cameras. The basic argument of the article is that the growing numbers of mobile phones with embedded cameras and the constant improvement of image quality produced by these cameras, are inevitably leading to extinction of photo-cameras as we know them.

To a degree this is a typical article trying to analyze technological trends with a deterministic flavor. However, what really surprised me is the way they build support for their argument. The support comes from analysts who suggest various numbers that are supposedly illustrate the point. For example they point at Nokia as the largest producer of digital cameras who went from producing 100 million mobile phones with embedded cameras in 2005, to 140 million in 2006, to 170 million in 2007. All is good, but how do we know if the people are buying the phones because of the camera or because of the phone? In fact, today it is really difficult to buy a phone without an embedded camera. I even got one for free.

Another example the analysts provide is that in 2006 there were 750 million users of mobile phone cameras and 500 million users of regular digital cameras; in 2009 they expect 3 billion users of mobile phone cameras and 1.3 billion users of regular digital cameras. One thing that isn’t clear to me is what constitutes a user. I may be an anomaly, but since i got my phone with embedded camera a year and a half ago, i took something like 20 pictures with it, most of which stayed in the phone and will probably remain there (and i am a picture freak taking probably at least 100 pictures a month). My guts feeling is that everyone who owns a mobile phone with embedded camera was considered a user for the purposes of this analysis. I think their argument could be stronger if they would actually refer to the usage patterns of the various types of cameras. Alternatively, and i wonder if this is feasible, it could be really interesting to estimate the actual number of pictures taken by mobile phone cameras vs. regular digital cameras.

So, the question I had in my mind after reading this article was a more general one about the role of market analysts. To what degree their role is analyzing the trends vs. setting them? Of course i am not doing justice to the cited analysts, because i have never seen their actual reports and I am sure these are more detailed compared to the highlights picked be the media. At the same time they are being used to propagate certain agenda and they don’t seem to object.

The analysts are in a privileged position compared to everybody else, for they are looked up to as experts and in this sense they do act as agenda setters, particularly when it comes to technology. I would even go further by saying that they are in a position to influence the frameworks we use to think about and interpret technology and innovation. Putting it in Giddens’ terms, they enjoy comparatively stronger agency and thus ability to shape the relevant structures, and the media here serve as an amplifying mechanism.

So, the question i am stuck with at the moment is to what extend market analysis is in fact aimed at analyzing trends and to what extend it is actually setting them. What do you think?

Information seeking and voting behaviors

I think the current presidential election in the US is really interesting. Whatever the outcome of democratic primaries will be, it will be a historical nomination. This is why i think our WikiCandidate project is particularly timely, but that is not the central theme of this post (you can still however go and register at the website :)

Recently Hitwise published an interesting analysis comparing demographic profiles* of visitors to campaign websites of Clinton, Obama, and McCain (the three leading candidates). Their analysis shows really nicely how stereotypically liberal voters tend to visit Clinton’s and Obama’s websites, and stereotypically conservative voters tend to visit that of McCain.

The interesting part is however the information seeking behavior of those who are labeled as independents, as they are the ones who perceived as deciding voice in this election. When they account for group size, Hitwise conclude:

So the data indicates that Clinton and McCain’s websites are appealing to a broader sprectrum of voters than Obama and that McCain is appealing most to those more likely to include Independents.

which i think is interesting.

The question for me now is what is the link between information seeking behavior and voting patterns. Is the fact that I often visit Obama’s website associated with higher probability of me voting for Obama? There must be quite a lot of research on this topic. I wonder also how these behaviors are correlated with mainstream media consumption and prominence of particular candidates in given periods of time? Another thing that I think would be interesting to compare is Obama vs. Clinton, as this is the most discussed political battle at the moment. Somehow this comparison is missing from Hitwise analysis.

Frankly, I envy Hitwise and the data they have about online behaviors. There are so many interesting questions one could investigate…

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* More about the profiles here (look for “update”).

The wonders of Russia

I am currently assisting Phil Howard with his World Information Access Project. Particularly, i am looking for raw data on internet access in Russia (if you have any, please let me know).

Browsing the RUnet, i came across this post telling the story of the campaign website of Dmitry Medvedev, the leading presidential candidate in Russia. Apparently, his campaign website is hosted by the Russian Academy of Science…

Although the blog telling this story is explicitly anti-Medvedev, the information they use to determine this fact is publicly available. So, what do you say my internet gurus, is it really so?