Posts By: John Stuart

Foibles of a Free Internet

adblock logoThe latest round in the battle for a free internet came last week when Yahoo opted to ban adblockers from Yahoo Mail. Users of the mail service who were running adblockers were barred from accessing their email and presented with a message telling them to disable the plugins in order to continue. Needless to say, this move wasn’t very well received, but this type of heavy-handed tactic didn’t come completely out of the blue. Companies like Yahoo are increasingly bemoaning the negative impact of adblockers on the viability of ad-supported free content models. Yahoo’s action even led tech news site Cio.com to declare the web as ‘broken’.

The internet is most certainly at an important crossroads. The free and open nature – that allowed it to blossom and become the vast network that forms the backbone of modern society – may be poised to undo itself. 

The greatest threat to the very principles that made the internet so revolutionary and disruptive are not external but internal.

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Don’t Push the Big Red Button!

pizza buttonIt’s here, and it’s just in time for the holidays! Domino’s has unleashed a quick order button housed in a micro-sized pizza box. Amazon already unveiled their Dash Button, which allows customers to order frequently purchased items through Amazon Prime at the touch of a button. It was only a matter of time before the pizza gods would bless us with the same kind of convenience and fun; no one can resist pushing a big button.

The first batch of buttons is slated for release in the U.K. this December, with a second batch scheduled for February. Domino’s has said that they will let the public know when plans are finalized for releasing the button in other places.

A More Fair Approach to Fair Use

2000px-US-CopyrightOffice-Seal.svgIntellectual property law in the U.S. has not aged so gracefully with the development of internet content publishing. Obviously, this development could not have been foreseen until the very recent past, so it comes as no surprise. As usual though, the law is slow to adapt to the fast-paced changes that society at large is facing today.

Fair use is an aspect of IP law that has particularly caused issues in our modern ‘cut-and-paste culture. The confusion is detrimental to most of the important parts of U.S. copyright law, which is not always clearly defined anyway, and is often misunderstood. Fair use compliance is by nature something that can’t be quantitatively measured, which has turned out to be both an asset and a liability for those seeking protection under its wing. I believe the lawmakers behind IP laws recognized that a simplistic rubric for defining fair use could not ably address the nuances and complexities inherent in the issue, and that it must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. This gives those appealing for fair use designation the opportunity to defend themselves and their work. The downside is that it gives full discretion to the court.

In this internet age, there is so much content being produced and distributed that it’s not at all feasible to deal with intellectual property disputes on a case-by-case basis anymore. Copyright infringement is handled by computers running algorithms which alleviate people from having to do the grunt work, but are incapable of handling the nuanced and flexible nature of fair use laws. Copyright has always been ‘opt out’ by default, but until now the drawbacks of such a system have not been completely evident.

So in response to the problem, Youtube is announcing that they will provide legal services for select videos which fall victim to indiscriminate removal over copyright charges. Youtube has become a platform that is especially plagued by these issues. Hundreds of videos are uploaded to Youtube every minute by everyday internet users, many of whom will make use of copyrighted materials such as music, pictures or movie scenes. I’m sure most of us have clicked on a Youtube link only to receive a ‘content unavailable’ message, at least several times in our lives.

The number of small insignificant cases vastly outnumbers the large critical cases since now anyone (including many who have limited knowledge of copyright law and fair use) can upload content through platforms like Youtube. It’s safe to assume that most of the videos removed are not important enough to warrant legal action by the parties whose IP is potentially being infringed upon. Those same videos, therefore, are probably also the products of people who don’t have the means to take countermeasures. Making a case for fair use can be complicated and costly. The ‘opt out’ nature of copyright as it stands means that the cases not worth looking into will always be ruled in favor of the copyright holder unless an appeal to fair use is made, which discourages the legitimate use of copyrighted material for creative or educational purposes. This is antithetical to the original intent of copyright law, which was to encourage the production of new intellectual property.

This policy of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ is also damaging to sites like Youtube, for whom it is in the best interest to encourage content creation and to make users feel free to upload videos.

In the best case scenario, Youtube would be able to provide legal service for all users, but this is clearly not possible, considering the scale of such an undertaking. An undisclosed Youtube publisher, quoted in the ZDNet article linked above, noted that it’s a step in the right direction, but implementing an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ mandate would go much further towards finding a solution, since it is not possible for Youtube to offer protection for all users.

Youtube’s move to defend fair use content illustrates that they are aware of the value it contributes to the platform they operate. Thankfully, they are willing to do what they can to even the score. The real solution will not be to simply bandage the hole. Musicians and artists have begun to call for a more fundamental change in the archaic copyright law being applied to internet age IP disputes. For the time being, we may have to settle with band-aids.

Encryption and Terrorism in the Post-Snowden Era

9609572241_d02bd5cbf2_oIn the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris last weekend, the question hanging in the air is whether or not there is anything that can be done to prevent such tragedies. Foreign policy and attitudes towards refugees have taken center stage, eclipsing what could become a very serious issue: encryption.

Ever since the Snowden revelations, it seems that regulators are desperately grasping for justifications for snooping into data, even as companies have sought to demonstrate their commitment to providing security for consumers. I wrote an article last month which tackled Apple’s policy on encrypting data. The recent attacks look like fertile ground in which to sow the seeds of such a justification. But even the truly awful nature of the terrorism occurring overseas does not convince me to relax my stance on what I see as one of the most important policy issues of our day.

Policy makers have sought to blame the effectiveness of the terrorist attacks on the use of encrypted communication, causing Russia to push for a ban on encrypted services like Telegram. In the U.S., Silicon Valley is beset by politicians from all sides. Pavel Durov of Telegram skillfully set forth his opposition with an incisive and sarcastic quip for the Moscow Times ‘I propose banning words. There’s evidence [to suggest] that they’re being used by terrorists to communicate.’

I would hope that government officials’ arguments in support of creating backdoors are due to ignorance. The worst thing that could come of tragedies like the Paris attacks would be that they be used manipulatively. In the words of Chris Riley of Mozilla to International Business Times, ‘creating policy from a reactive posture is inherently problematic.’ I couldn’t agree more. The same IBT article mentions a letter signed by several leaders in the tech industry, including Mozilla, asking Obama to reject any proposals requiring backdoors to encrypted data. Such a proposal could set dangerous precedents, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. This includes countries with governments that have a history of gross violations of the trust and rights of their citizens. Once a backdoor exists, there is no way of controlling how or when it is used or by whom.

The idea that Durov so insightfully set forth in the above quote is an essential part of the debate that is obscured by the reactionary sensationalism prone to set in after such events as these attacks. If encryption is banned or companies are forced to provide backdoor keys to the government, terrorists and criminals will find other means of executing their goals.

Encryption is a technique, and it is not something that can be fully legislated against. It’s impossible for any government to prevent everyone from using encryption. It can be banned and made illegal, but that does not stop people from using it or putting it in place. After all, bombing cities and killing innocent people is also illegal, but terrorists continue to perform such acts. Only those already willing to cooperate with regulation would comply with providing backdoors to encrypted data. The government would be no closer to hamstringing terrorists.

Even if the government was somehow able to successfully breach all encryption, terrorists would only find other means of communicating, just like they did before encryption was accessible. By making encryption essentially useless – and just as easy for hackers, criminals, and oppressive regimes to break as it is for whoever it is that’s supposed to be protecting us from terrorism – policies that require backdoors wouldn’t hurt anybody as much as they would hurt average citizens.

We can only hope that the tech companies defending data encryption, and those aware of the dangers inherent in allowing for backdoors, can convince politicians to reconsider the matter. We should not let more corruption and injustice come of the evil that we currently mourn.

Three Cheers For Craft Beer!

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A flight of red ales from craft brewery, Black Shirt Brewing Company

I’ll admit it. I’m a complete sucker for craft beer and all the hype surrounding it. Beer has been a mainstay beverage in global civilizations for centuries. Everybody knows that there’s no better way to spend a friday night than enjoying an amber pint at your favorite pub with a couple of friends, relaxing after a grueling week of work. So what’s the big deal with craft beer, and why are so many willing to pay more for it than the Big Beer brands? The answer to those questions depends upon whom you ask. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can detail a few of the commonly given answers and explain why I enjoy drinking craft beer.

Some see it as a moral battleground. A theme commonly discussed among craft beer nerds (but little talked about by anyone else) is the fact that most of the beer consumed in the world is produced by a handful of giant corporations. Anheuser-Busch (AB inBev), one of these titan brewers, has recently been bidding on a merger with one of their biggest rivals, MillerCoors (SABMiller). The merger would purportedly make AB inBev the brewer of a third of the world’s beer.

Tipping the Scales

14876811184_e694b850bb_oJoe’s Crab Shack has just decided to experiment with forgoing tips at a few of its locations. Tipping is a longstanding American practice that has recently been called into question. It has been largely done away with in other parts of the world, but has been standard practice at sit-down restaurants in America for a very long time. But some people are now starting to question the practice, with many taking to social media and posting opinions and anecdotes about their tipping experiences. As you can imagine, the debate has been lively and passionate.

A criticism raised against tipping is that it usually correlates with employees being paid very low wages, leaving them to fend for themselves to make much needed extra money. The meritocratic logic in support of tipping says that good employees will be rewarded for their work and earn a lot from tips, and that bad employees will be incentivized to work harder to earn more in tips.

Those in favor of tipping would argue that it encourages good service because employees are forced to earn tips. It also teaches customers to evaluate their service and reward good service when they get it. Common sense suggests this should promote good service. The counter-argument is that employees are completely at the mercy of unpredictable customers and their varied moods. A customer who might have had a particularly glum day, and is in a bad mood (or who is just a jerk), might decide not to give a tip, whether or not they were actually provided good service.