Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - December 5th, '09
"The way I see it, file and data integrity have to change or we will eventually lose all of our long-term archived data." – Henry Newman
"If you are selling water in the desert and it starts to rain, what do you do? Go to the government and get them to ban rain, or do you sell something else?" – Charles Nesson
"Unless we get it right, I think we risk not just shredding our constitution which I'm not in favor of, but shredding our way of life." – Rep. Jane Harman, D-CA
December 5th, 2009
Leaked Document Says EU Fears Obama Backs 'Three Strikes' for Net Pirates
Controversy over the secret global agreement on copyrights and counterfeiting being pushed by the United States erupted Monday after a leaked European Union document emerged suggesting the U.S. is pushing other nations to adopt a draconian global uniform policy. If established, the treaty could involve re-writing the law in many countries -- including the U.S. -- to include a "three strikes" policy similar to one recently passed in France, as well as possibly even jail time -- yes, jail time -- for Internet pirates.
President Barack Obama used an executive order last spring to keep the negotiations secret on "national security" grounds, but for the last several weeks, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, as it's called, has elicited growing cries of alarm.
Last month, potential members of the agreement, which include the world's rich nations -- and pointedly not China or other so-called developing nations -- concluded their sixth round of talks in South Korea. The next round is scheduled for January.
Europe 'Taken Aback by the American Position'
The leaked document is dated Oct. 29 and was published two weeks ago at linksaktiv.de, the website of a left-of-center German political party, says Michael Geist, a law professor who has been closely monitoring the issue at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. "I don't even think they knew what they had," he says.
"This document provides evidence of an attempt by the United States to drive countries toward a three-strikes policy, and it would also dramatically change U.S. law," Geist told DailyFinance.
The United States Trade Representative, Ron Kirk, who reports directly to President Obama, is currently negotiating the agreement on behalf of the American public, which Geist believes is woefully uninformed about the treaty, thanks in large part to its secrecy.
"There is complete omission of any kind of balance here, because it is being strictly driven through the prism of rights-holders," Geist says, speaking about Hollywood and the major American entertainment companies.
"Even the Europeans were taken aback by the American position," Geist says.
In the text, the EU representatives expressed alarm over the apparent lack of balance in the U.S. position, which, again, has not been made public. "This is a very important deficit of the current text," the EU said in the document. "It is politically very important to emphasize balance and fairness, to mention culture and individual creators and not only industry."
Information Blackout Is in Force
Geist suggested there is a reasonable middle ground, but in light of the treaty's secrecy, it is difficult to know where the negotiating parameters lie.
"I think a lot of people would be okay with protecting content, but this is about access," Geist says, referring to the ability of Internet providers to cut off the service of suspected internet pirates in exchange for a "safe harbor" from prosecution. In order to monitor Internet traffic for potential infringement, the providers would use controversial surveillance techniques, including "deep packet inspection," through which they would would track users' web activity for violations.
Last week, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, and Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio wrote to the Obama administration expressing their concern over the treaty. "The public has a right to monitor and express informed views on proposals of such magnitude," the senators argued. "For that to happen, they need to have access to information, including relevant meeting details such as time, place, agenda and participants, reports or minutes of meetings, and key documents and negotiating texts distributed to all members of the negotiation."
But the U.S. and other nations have refused to release information about the talks, leading watchers of the agreement to rely on leaked documents -- and causing a whirlwind of rumor and speculation without mush basis in fact.
Chris Israel, the second Bush administration's coordinator for international intellectual property enforcement, told DailyFinance last week that it makes sense to conduct the talks in secret. "The process behind ACTA is not substantively different from similar trade agreements," said Israel, managing partner at PCT Government Relations, which represents a major media company involved in the talks that Israel declines to name.
"This is an agreement between leading economies on intellectual property that seeks to tie together various individual bilateral agreements in a more comprehensive way. It's just a good thing to do," Israel said. "But it's not something you can negotiate online in the blogosphere. This involves senior officials talking in confidence with each other, going over the text line by line."
EU ACTA Analysis Leaks: Confirms Plans For Global DMCA, Encourage 3 Strikes Model
The European Commission analysis of ACTA's Internet chapter has leaked, indicating that the U.S. is seeking to push laws that extend beyond the WIPO Internet treaties and beyond current European Union law (the EC posted the existence of the document last week but refused to make it publicly available). The document contains detailed comments on the U.S. proposal, confirming the U.S. desire to promote a three-strikes and you're out policy, a Global DMCA, harmonized contributory copyright infringement rules, and the establishment of an international notice-and-takedown policy.
The document confirms that the U.S. proposal contains seven sections:
Paragraph 1 - General obligations. These focus on "effective enforcement procedures" with expeditious remedies that deter further infringement. The wording is similar to TRIPs Article 41, however, the EU notes that unlike the international treaty provisions, there is no statement that procedures shall be fair, equitable, and/or proportionate. In other words, it seeks to remove some of the balance in the earlier treaties.
Paragraph 2 - Third party liability. The third party liability provisions focus on copyright, though the EU notes that it could (should) be extended to trademark and perhaps other IP infringement. The goal of this section is to create an international minimum harmonization regarding the issue of what is called in some Member States "contributory copyright infringement". The U.S. proposal would include "inducement" into the standard, something established in the U.S. Grokster case, but not found in many other countries. This would result in a huge change in domestic law in many countries (including Canada) as the EU notes it goes beyond current eu law.
Paragraph 3 - Limitations on 3rd Party Liability. This section spells out how an ISP may qualify for a safe harbour from the liability established in the earlier section. These include an exemption for technical processes such as caching. As reported earlier, ACTA would establish a required notice-and-takedown system, which goes beyond Canadian law (and beyond current EU law). Moreover, ACTA clearly envisions opening the door to a three-strikes and you're out model, as the EU document states:
EU understands that footnote 6 provides for an example of a reasonable policy to address the unauthorized storage or transmission of protected materials. However, the issue of termination of subscriptions and accounts has been subject to much debate in several Member States. Furthermore, the issue of whether a subscription or an account may be terminated without prior court decision is still subject to negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council of Telecoms Ministers regarding the Telecoms Package.
Paragraph 4 - Anti-circumvention Provisions. ACTA would require civil and criminal penalties associated with anti-circumvention provisions (legal protection for digital locks). The EU notes that this goes beyond the requirements of the WIPO Internet treaties and beyond current EU law which "leaves a reasonable margin of discretion to Member States." The EU also notes that there is no link between the anti-circumvention provisions and copyright exceptions. The U.S. proposal also requires the anti-circumvention provisions to apply to TPMs that merely protect access to a work (rather than reproduction or making available). This would again go beyond current EU law to include protection against circumventing technologies like region coding on DVDs. From a Canadian perspective, none of this is currently domestic law. As previously speculated, the clear intent is to establish a Global DMCA.
Paragraph 5 - Civil and Criminal Enforcement of Anti-Circumvention. This section requires both civil and criminal provisions for the anti-circumvention rules, something not found in the WIPO Internet treaties. The anti-circumvention provisions are also designed to stop countries from establishing interoperability requirements (ie. the ability for consumers to play purchased music on different devices). The EU notes that this not consistent with its law, which states "Compatibility and interoperability of the different systems should be encouraged." Of course, might reasonable ask why such a provision is even in ACTA.
Paragraph 6 - Rights Management Information protection. This section includes similar criminal and civil requirements for rights management information.
Paragraph 7 - Limitations to Rights Management Information protection.
In summary, the EU analysis confirms the earlier leak (though the Internet chapter has seven sections, rather than five). The fears about the U.S. intent with respect to ACTA are confirmed - extending the WIPO Internet treaties, creating a Global DMCA, promoting a three-strikes and you're out model, even stopping efforts to create interoperability mandates. ACTA would render current Canadian copyright law virtually unrecognizable as the required changes go far beyond our current rules (and even those contemplated in prior reform bills). This begs the question of whether the Department of Foreign Affairs negotiation mandate letter really goes this far given the domestic changes that would be required. This latest leak also reinforces the need for all governments to come clean - releasing both the ACTA text and government analysis of the treaty should be a condition of any further participation in the talks.
European ISPs Lash out at Secret ACTA Negotiations
Secretive international trade negotiations intended to clamp down on counterfeiting risk undermining the openness and innovation-friendly nature of the Internet, said EuroISPA, a trade group representing Europe's Internet service providers (ISPs), on Monday.
If the ideas under discussion are adopted, ISPs may be forced to snoop on their subscribers and cut them off if they are found to have shared copyright-protected music on the Net.
Countries including the U.S., Japan, Canada, South Korea and Australia, and the European Union trading block, have been negotiating an anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA) over the past two years to combat the growing problem of counterfeiting of products ranging from designer clothes to downloadable music.
Trade officials from each of the participating countries met behind closed doors in Seoul earlier this month to discuss the most contentious element of the proposed trade agreement: how to deal with copyright infringement on the Internet.
The U.S. is leading the discussions on the matter. It has proposed that signatories of the trade agreement should "provide for third-party liability" for ISPs when their subscribers illegal share files, such as music or video, over their networks.
Under existing laws in the U.S., the E.U. and elsewhere, ISPs are granted immunity from prosecution for illegal activities carried out by subscribers across their networks.
The trade agreement would hand copyright owners a powerful weapon with which to beat ISPs, but ISPs question whether it would actually help combat illegal filesharing.
"Such heavy-handed measures would create a serious danger of undermining and restricting the open innovative space that lies at the very heart of the Internet's success," said Malcolm Hutty, EuroISPA's president, in a statement.
"This agreement would have a negative impact on Internet users without having an appreciable impact on fighting illicit use of copyrighted material," he added.
EuroISPA is concerned that the attempt to implement such measures through a trade agreement, rather than a conventional legislative process, will not allow the various stakeholders, such as ISPs and European citizens' representatives, to enter the debate.
According to an internal memo written by European trade officials at the European Commission earlier this year, the U.S. wants ACTA to force ISPs to put in place policies to deter unauthorized storage and transmission of infringing content, such as clauses in customers' contracts threatening the subscriber with being cut off if they are caught illegally sharing files over the Internet.
The U.S. used the term "graduated response," the same term being used in the U.K. and France to describe similar measures they are taking at a national level to clamp down on copyright abuse.
A recently passed French law otherwise known as the "three strikes" law means that people accused of illegally sharing copyright materials will receive warnings on the first two occasions, before having their Internet access suspended for a period.
The UK is considering introducing a similar law.
Meanwhile, at the European level, the European Parliament failed in its attempts to outlaw what many MEPs consider these draconian efforts to clamp down on filesharers.
The Parliament delayed the passing of a wide-ranging set of new laws for the telecommunications industry by insisting that any decision to ban someone from the Internet should be taken by a judge, and not by a government-appointed official.
In the end the Parliament gave up the fight under pressure, particularly from France and the U.K. Last week the telecommunications laws were passed with a clause calling for safeguards to citizens' rights to defense, but with no reference to the involvement of a judge in any decision to bar someone from the Net.
Web Giants Oppose Copyright Plans
Some of the biggest names on the web have written to Peter Mandelson to express "grave concerns" about elements of the Digital Economy Bill.
Facebook, Google, Yahoo and eBay object to a clause that they say could give government "unprecedented and sweeping powers" to amend copyright laws.
"We urge you to remove Clause 17 from the bill," the letter read.
However, the government has said it believes the clause will "future-proof online copyright laws".
"The law must keep pace with technology, so that the Government can act if new ways of seriously infringing copyright develop in the future," a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis).
The consortium believe that if Clause 17, as it is known, is approved it will give "any future Secretary of State" the ability to amend copyright laws as they see fit.
DIGITAL ECONOMY BILL
# Legal framework for tackling copyright infringement via education and technical measures
# Ofcom given powers to appoint and fund independently funded news consortia
# New duties for Ofcom to assess the UK's communications infrastructure every two years
# Modernising spectrum to increase investment in mobile broadband
# Framework for the move to digital radio switchover by 2015
# Updating Channel 4 functions to encompass public service content, on TV and online
# Age ratings compulsory for all boxed video games aimed at those over 12 years
"This power could be used, for example, to introduce additional technical measures or increase monitoring of user data even where no illegal practice has taken place," the letter read.
This would "discourage innovation" and "impose unnecessary costs" representatives of the firms wrote.
Others have suggested that the clause could be used to tweak laws so that search engines could not publish summaries of news stories in their results.
Bis said that clause 17 was a necessary extension of its plans to reduce copyright theft and that fears that government would mould copyright laws to their needs were unfounded.
"Business will not wake up one morning to a world in which government has taken extensive digital powers," the spokesperson said.
"There are substantial constraints on how the power can be used, with requirements for a consultation and votes in both houses of Parliament before anything can happen."
However, the consortium of companies say the clause is so broad ranging that it could risk "legitimate consumer use of current technology as well as future developments".
"We all acknowledge that new business models need to emerge to support creative content," the letter from European and UK representatives of the firms reads.
"They are inherently risky and entrepreneurs rely heavily on there being a consistent and stable approach to copyright enforcement.
"This clause would inject an unprecedented level of uncertainty in this regard."
Other groups including US digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation have objected to it.
Clause 17 is part of the government's Digital Economy Bill, outlined in the Queen's speech in November 2009.
The bill includes a shake-up of the radio spectrum, a classification system for video games and plans to tackle illegal file-sharing.
The so-called "three strikes" element of the bill would give regulator Ofcom new powers to disconnect persistent net pirates.
The plans have proved controversial with lobby organisation The Open Rights Group urging people to contact their MP to oppose the plans.
The bill will have its second reading in the House of Lords on 2 December. It will have to go through various other readings and drafts before it becomes law.
Thousands of Households to Get Filesharing Threat Letters
Lawyers at ACS:Law have been granted court orders to make ISPs hand over the details of customers suspected of sharing hardcore pornography.
It is estimated that around 25,000 BT customers and a further 5,000 customers of other ISPs are involved and they can expect to be receiving a letter within the next couple of weeks.
These letters are in fact demands for cash.
This is a practice introduced by the legal firm Davenport Lyons, but now being used by ACS:Law and the DigiProject.
It is a wonder that this is going ahead, but it is a clever tactic by the law firm to pick out porn, as not many people are likely to stand up and fight the case.
Inaccurate Copyright Enforcement: Questionable "Best" Practices and BitTorrent Specification Flaws
[Today we welcome my Princeton Computer Science colleague Mike Freedman. Mike's research areas include computer systems, network software, and security. He writes a technical blog about these topics at Princeton S* Network Systems -- required reading for serious systems geeks like me. -- Ed Felten]
In the past few weeks, Ed has been writing about targeted and inaccurate copyright enforcement. While it may be difficult to quantify the actual extent of inaccurate claims, we can at least try to understand whether copyright enforcement companies are making a "good faith" best effort to minimize any false positives. My short answer: not really.
Let's start with a typical abuse letter that gets sent to a network provider (in this case, a university) from a "copyright enforcement" company such as the Video Protection Alliance.
Now, any type of IP-based identification is not going to be perfect, especially given the wide-spread use of Network Address Translation (NAT) boxes and open WiFi at homes. Especially in dense urban areas, unapproved third parties might use their neighbor's wireless network for Internet access, potentially leading to the wrong homeowner being blamed. And IP-based identification relies on accurate ISP mappings from IP addresses to users, as these mappings change over time (although typically slowly) given dynamic address assignment (i.e., DHCP). But one could rightly claim that such sources of false positives are rare in practice and that a enforcement company is still making a best effort to accurately identify IP addresses engaging in copyright-infringing file sharing.
So what's a reasonable strategy to identify such infringing behavior?
Let me first give a high-level overview of how BitTorrent works. To download a particular file on BitTorrent, a client first needs to discover a set of other peers that have the file. Earlier peer-to-peer systems like Napster, Gnutella, and KaZaA had peers connect to one another somewhat randomly (or, in Napster, through a more centralized directory service). These peers would then broadcast search requests for files, downloading the content directly from those peers that responded as having matching files. In the basic BitTorrent architecture, on the other hand, the global ecosystem is split into distinct groups of users that are all trying to download a particular file. Each such group---known as a swarm---is managed by a centralized server called a tracker. The tracker keeps a list of the swarm's peers and, for each peer, a bit-vector of which file blocks it already has. When a client joins a swarm by announcing itself to the tracker, it gets a list of other peers, and it subsequently attempts to connect to them and download file blocks. How a client discovers a particular swarm is outside the scope of the system, but there are plenty of BitTorrent search engines that allow clients to perform keyword searches. These searches return .torrent files, which includes high-level meta-data about a particular swarm, including the URL(s) at which its tracker(s) can be accessed.
So there are three phases to downloading content from BitTorrent:
1. Finding a .torrent meta-data file
2. Registering with the .torrent's tracker and getting a list of peer addresses
3. Connecting to a peer, swapping the bit-vector of which file blocks each has, and potentially downloading or uploading needed blocks
Unfortunately, the verification that copyright enforcement agencies such as the VPA use stops at #2. That is, if some random BitTorrent tracker lists your IP address as being part of a swarm, then the VPA considers this to be sufficient proof to warrant a DMCA takedown notice (such as the one above), with clear instructions on how to pay a monetary settlement. Now, a very reasonable question is whether such information should indeed constitute proof.
Last year, researchers at the University of Washington published a paper with the subtitle Why My Printer Received a DMCA Takedown Notice. Their conclusions were that:
o Practically any Internet user can be framed for copyright infringement today.
o Even without being explicitly framed, innocent users may still receive complaints.
The title came from the fact that they "registered" the IP address of a networked printer with BitTorrent trackers, and they subsequently received 9 DMCA takedown notices claiming that their printer was engaging in illegal file sharing. (They did not, however, receive any pre-settlement offers such as the one above, which suggests a possible escalation of enforcement techniques since then.)
I have had my own repeated experiences with such false claims. This September, for instance, a research system I operate called CoralCDN received approximately 100 pre-settlement letters, including the one above. A little background: CoralCDN is an open, free, self-organizing content distribution network (CDN). CDNs are widely used by commercial high-volume websites to scalably deliver their content, such as Hulu's use of Akamai or CNN's use of Level 3. CoralCDN was designed to help solve the Slashdot effect, which is when portals such as slashdot.org link to underprovisioned third-party sites and cause that site to become quickly overwhelmed by the unexpected surge of resulting traffic. CoralCDN's answer was to provide an open CDN that would cache and serve any URL that was requested from it. To use CoralCDN, one simply appends a suffix to a URL's hostname, i.e., http://www.cnn.com/ becomes http://www.cnn.com.nyud.net/. CoralCDN's been running on PlanetLab---a distributed research testbed of virtualized servers, spread over several hundred universities worldwide---since March 2004. It handles requests from about 2 million users per day.
Because CoralCDN provides an open platform, one can access any URL through it via an HTTP GET request (with the exception of a small number of blacklisted domains and those for content larger than 50MB). Thus, requests to BitTorrent trackers can also use CoralCDN, as these are simply HTTP GETs with a client's relevant information encoded in the tracker URL's query string, e.g., http://denis.stalker.h3q.com.6969.ny...1&no_peer_id=1.
Notice that the HTTP request includes a peer's unique name (a long random string) and a port number, but notably does not include an IP address for that client. It's an optional parameter in the specification that many BitTorrent clients don't include. (In fact, even if the request includes this IP parameter, some trackers ignore it.) Instead, the tracker records the network-level IP address from where the HTTP request originated (the other end of the TCP connection), together with the supplied port, as the peer's network address.
When this request is via an HTTP proxy, things go wrong. Here, the BitTorrent client is connecting to an HTTP proxy, which in turn is connecting to the tracker. So this practice results in the tracker recording an unusable address: the combination of the proxy's IP and the client's port. Needless to say, the proxy isn't running BitTorrent, let alone on that particular (often randomized) port. Not only does this design damage the client's BitTorrent experience---other clients won't initiate communication with it, leading to fewer opportunities for "tit-for-tat" data exchanges---but this also damages the entire swarm's performance: Others' requests to this hybrid address will all fail (typically with an RST response to the TCP connection request). I was rather surprised to find this flaw in the BitTorrent specification.
So how is this related to CoralCDN and the VPA? For whatever reason, some publisher started including a Coralized URL for the tracker's location, as shown above (http://denis.stalker.h3q.com.6969.nyud.net/). I could only surmise why this was done: perhaps on the (mistaken) assumption that it would reduce load on the server, or perhaps in the hope of offloading abuse complaints to CoralCDN servers. The latter might have been useful if copyright enforcement agencies were going after the trackers, instead of the participating peers. In fact, we initially thought this was the case when these pre-settlement letters from the VPA started rolling in. More careful analysis, however, exposed the above problem: when the BitTorrent URL was Coralized, peers' requests to the tracker were issued via CoralCDN HTTP proxies. Thus, the tracker built up a list of peer addresses of the form (CoralCDN IP : peer port), where these CoralCDN IPs correspond to PlanetLab servers located at various universities.
Hence, when the VPA began sending out pre-settlement letters claiming infringement, they sent them to network operators at tens of universities, who turned around and forwarded them to PlanetLab's central operations and me.
What is particularly striking about this case, however, is that these reports were demonstrably false! There was no BitTorrent client running at the specified address (in the above letter, 184.108.40.206:40951), for precisely the reasons I discuss. Thus, we can fairly definitively conclude that the VPA never actually tested the peer for actual infringement: not even by trying to connect to the client's address, let alone determining whether the client was actually uploading or download any data, and let alone valid data corresponding to the copyrighted file in question.
This begs the question as to what should be required for a company to issue a DMCA notification and pre-settlement letters that assert:
I am not arguing that copyright owners should not be able to take reasonable steps to protect their copyrighted material. I am arguing, however, that they should take similarly reasonable steps to ensure that any claimed infringement actually took place. When DMCA notices are accompanied by oaths under "penalty of perjury" and these claims are accepted as writ, as they have de facto become, there should some downside for agencies that demonstrably do not act in "good faith" to verify infringement. Even a simple TCP connection attempt would have been enough to dispel their flawed assumptions. That currently seems to be too much to ask.
Court Refuses to Shutter Tracker Linked to Pirate Bay
A Stockholm court is refusing to order a Swedish internet provider to cut off a site the studios claim is The Pirate Bay’s new torrent tracker.
The Pirate Bay, the world’s most notorious filesharing website, announced two weeks ago it was abandoning its tracker, which had been the world’s largest — and a magnet for litigation — for years. The move was prompted by the emergence of DHT and PEX technologies, which allow peers to locate one another without a tracker, the site’s operators wrote.
Hollywood lawyers, however, claim that the Pirate Bay’s tracker is alive and well and still being used under a different domain, OpenBitTorrent — which was originally registered to Fredik Neij, one of the four co-founders of The Pirate Bay.
Neij and three co-founders were convicted in Stockholm and sentenced to a year in jail each in April for facilitating copyright infringement while running The Pirate Bay. The site is a gateway to copyrighted movies, music, games and software, with 22 million registered users.
Wednesday’s development is the latest in a string of attempts by Hollywood and the Swedish government to try to shutter The Pirate Bay following the convictions. But The Bay has outrun court orders to shut down, while defeating efforts to force internet service hosts to black out the site.
A Stockholm court on Wednesday said an ISP called Parlane is not required to block OpenBittorent. The court said the ISP is not liable for any infringement the tracker may facilitate.
Hollywood’s attorney, Monique Wadsted, noted that the court did not rule on the studio’s allegations that OpenBitTorrent was a front for The Pirate Bay, a charge that’s still pending.
“The court has not touched on the link between the tracker and The Pirate Bay, and that all the .torrent files on The Pirate Bay include [OBT's] tracker as the default tracker,” she told Swedish media, according to TorrentFreak. “The day we checked, there were 550,000 works that file-sharers [could download] through the tracker.”
OpenBitTorrent denies it is a “side project” to The Pirate Bay, whose founders remain free pending appeal.
Never Back Down – Pirate Bay Adapts To Stay Alive
Most other sites would have thrown in the towel by now, but despite unprecedented pressure, somehow The Pirate Bay remains alive and in pretty good health today. As one door closes, the site morphs and adapts to find ways to stay open and possibly even stay legal. Is the site becoming more and more difficult to shut down?
In the face of a massive and sustained legal onslaught orchestrated by the combined might of the global music and movie industries, one might have expected The Pirate Bay to fold up and die.
Yet as we sit here on the brink of December 2009, the site remains open. No other site in BitTorrent history has ever weathered so many storms, so many obstacles and so many setbacks, but still prevailed.
When threatened in an aggressive manner, most torrent sites show a little bravado but ultimately comply with the shutdown requests. Not so The Pirate Bay.
The huge raid back in 2006 resulted in the loss of masses of equipment, and this alone would’ve been sufficient to break the will of a lesser site. But within days the site was back online, and since then has hopped around various hosts and countries, evading every attempt to mortally wound it.
Earlier this year the 2006 raid bore its fruit, with the founders of the site being found guilty, given huge fines and ordered to spend time in jail. But even this development didn’t deter the world’s largest BitTorrent tracker. With appeals pending, hope remains.
Not even the promised financial penalties could cripple the site or its operators. Could the authorities find any assets belonging to the founders? Not a chance. Even the site had been handed over to new owners, Seychelles-based Reservella.
Threatening the site’s host would also prove useless, as the company is owned by Fredrik Neij. But eventually the authorities took direct action, by threatening the site’s indirect bandwidth supplier with fines if they continued to supply it with a connection to the Internet.
So down the site went yet again. True to form, back it came again within hours with a new ISP. Within 20 minutes that company was threatened by Hollywood. Losing that host, TPB set sail for the east and soon came back online. Again.
However, the site’s enemies were already hatching another plan.
After TPB relocated some of its operations to Ukraine, in October Dutch anti-piracy outfit BREIN found another chink in the armor. Traffic to the site was routed through The Netherlands via Nforce, a LeaseWeb customer. Nforce quickly complied with BREIN’s threats, and The Pirate Bay went down yet again – very temporarily of course.
Then at the end of October the Stockholm District Court delivered what should’ve been a killer blow, banning Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij from operating the site on pain of $71,000 in fines for non-compliance. But even this decision is proving toothless.
The Pirate Bay is no longer located in Sweden (and no longer runs a tracker), which causes a problem for the Swedish courts. As for the human flesh and bones included in the decision, they are proving just as elusive.
While both individuals are appealing the decision, both deny running the site anymore, having handed it over to others. Furthermore, Fredrik – aka TiAMO – lives in Thailand and has done for some time. Gottfrid – aka Anakata – can be found sleeping all day and operating his computers all night in the jungles of Cambodia. The locations of the pair clearly present a slight jurisdiction problem for the Swedish decision.
“I am wondering if Swedish law has the power to issue a prohibition or penalty against a website in another country and my adopted acts in another country with a website that does not exist in Sweden,” said Fredrik this week, commenting on the situation.
So, while the site is effectively banned in Sweden, it is not located in Sweden. However, because it no longer operates a tracker of its own it is much less responsible for the infringements of others than it was before. This potentially paves the way for the ban on the site to be lifted.
Furthermore, while the founders are banned from running the site in Sweden, they say they no longer run it. But in any event, neither of them live in Sweden.
In the meantime, the site remains up. Quite what the next move will be by the anti-piracy groups is open to speculation, but historically, one thing seems almost certain – The Pirate Bay will respond and refuse to be cowed.
One day it will disappear, of that there can be little doubt, but it will be at a time and a place of their choosing, not one dictated by their adversaries.
Pirate Bay Founders Granted Appeal Against Operating Ban
In October the Stockholm District Court banned two of The Pirate Bay’s founders from operating the site. If they continue to work on The Pirate Bay, both will have to pay fines of $71,000. The two founders immediately decided to challenge the verdict and the Appeal Court has now announced that it will grant the appeal.
The Pirate Bay and its founders have been on a legal roller coaster ride this year. Directly or indirectly they have been involved in a dozen court cases, most notably the trial in which four people associated with the site were sentenced to one year in jail and hefty fines.
Despite this unfavorable verdict the site remains online, as it adapts to become a torrent portal that is less likely to be shut down.
In yet another attempt to close the site, two of the site’s founders were ordered by the Stockholm District Court to stop operating the site in October, facing fines of $71,000 each if they choose not to comply.
The two founders, Gottfrid Svartholm and Fredrik Neij, both decided to appeal the verdict, and the Appeal Court has now announced that it will take on the case.
Gottfrid argued that the district court lacks the technical skills that are required, “…which is devastating to a case which is so technically complicated.” Fredrik further said that both he and Gottfrid have been living outside Sweden for a long time, adding that The Pirate Bay is no longer hosted in Sweden either.
Aside from the technical difficulties, the legal authorities may also find that it is pretty much impossible to prove that the two are actually working on the site, which is required to impose the fines. The Appeal Court will review these and other issues in the upcoming appeal.
Is the 'Bandwidth Hog' a Myth?
(This is a collaborative post between Fiberevolution and Dadamotive)
With the debate on net neutrality in full swing in the US, we've been hearing about Bandwidth Hogs again. 'Bandwidth Hog' is a sound bite that conveys a strong emotion: you can virtually see the fat pig chomping on the bandwidth, pushing back all the other animals in the barnyard with his fat pig shoulders all the while scrutinizing with his shiny piggy eyes to see if the farmer isn't around...
The image is so powerful that everyone thinks they understand what the term means , no one questions if the analogy is correct. In discussing this issue, Herman and I realised we had serious doubts about the existence of that potentially mythical beast. In fact, we are not sure even the telcos know what a bandwidth hog is and does.
But it makes great headlines: "Net Neutrality will force the telco’s to give The Internet away to Bandwidth Hogs". They claim that bandwidth hogs steal all the bandwidth and cause network congestion, and therefore their behaviour harms all the other regular and peaceful law-abiding users. And to add insult to injury they pay the same price as the others! No, policing and rationing must be applied by the benevolent telco to protect the innocent.
Unfortunately, to the best of our knowledge, the way that telcos identify the Bandwidth Hogs is not by monitoring if they cause unfair traffic congestion for other users. No, they just measure the total data downloaded per user, list the top 5% and call them hogs.
For those service providers with data caps, these are usually set around 50 Gbyte and go up to 150 Gbyte a month. This is therefore a good indication of the level of bandwidth at which you start being considered a "hog". But wait: 50 Gbyte a month is… 150 kbps average (0,15 Mbps), 150 Gbyte a month is 450 kbps on average. If you have a 10 Mbps link, that’s only 1,5 % or 4,5 % of its maximum advertised speed!
And that would be "hogging"?
The fact is that what most telcos call hogs are simply people who overall and on average download more than others. Blaming them for network congestion is actually an admission that telcos are uncomfortable with the 'all you can eat' broadband schemes that they themselves introduced on the market to get people to subscribe. In other words, the marketing push to get people to subscribe to broadband worked, but now the telcos see a missed opportunity at price discrimination...
As Herman explains in his post, TCP/IP is by definition an egalitarian protocol. Implemented well, it should result in an equal distribution of available bandwidth in the operator's network between end-users; so the concept of a bandwidth hog is by definition an impossibility. An end-user can download all his access line will sustain when the network is comparatively empty, but as soon as it fills up from other users' traffic, his own download (or upload) rate will diminish until it's no bigger than what anyone else gets.
Now I'm pretty sure that many telcos will disagree with our assessment of this. So here's a challenge for them: in the next few days, I will specify on this blog a standard dataset that would enable me to do an in-depth data analysis into network usage by individual users. Any telco willing to actually understand what's happening there and to answer the question on the existence of hogs once and for all can extract that data and send it over to me, I will analyse it for free, on my spare time. All I ask is that they let me publish the results of said research (even though their names need not be mentioned if they don't wish it to be). Of course, if I find myself to be wrong and if indeed I manage to identify users that systematically degrade the experience for other users, I will say so publicly. If, as I suspect, there are no such users, I will also say so publicly. The data will back either of these assertions.
Please email me if you're interested. And please publicise this offer if you're not in a position to extract such a dataset but are still interested in the answer. This is a much more important question than knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!
Anti-Piracy Group Refuses Bait, DRM Breaker Goes To Police
In order to force a change in the law, last month a man reported himself for breaching copyright more than a hundred times, hoping an anti-piracy group would take him to court. The group’s lawyer said they would respond by today – they haven’t – so the Danish copyfighter is now reporting himself to the police.
At the end of October, a Danish citizen took drastic action to draw attention to some restrictive and seemingly contradictory copyright legislation.
Henrik Anderson told TorrentFreak that in order to force his government’s hand on laws which allow him to copy DVDs for his own personal use, but forbid him to remove the DRM in order to do so, he decided to turn himself in.
Henrik informed the Danish anti-piracy outfit Antipiratgruppen that he had broken the DRM on more than one hundred legally-purchased DVD movies and TV shows for use on his home media center, an act forbidden – but seemingly also allowed – under Danish laws, both detailed below;
12.–(1) Anyone is entitled to make or have made, for private purposes, single copies of works which have been made public if this is not done for commercial purposes. Such copies must not be used for any other purpose.
§ 75 c. It is not permitted without the consent of the rightholder to make circumvention of effective technological measures
“I’ve started this because I don’t want to be a criminal,” Henrik told us, in his own similarly and deliberately contradictory way, noting that he’d requested a response from the group by today, December 1st 2009, indicating whether or not they intend to prosecute him.
However, in the period up to today, Henrik heard nothing from Antipiratgruppen, although their lawyer Thomas Schlüter did speak to the Danish press, saying that it was a political matter but had nevertheless reported the issue to the Association of Danish Videodistributors for consideration. In response, their chairman, Poul Dylov, said they would have a meeting to decide whether to report the matter to the police.
Antipiratgruppen said it would reply to Henrik by they date he requested. It seems they have broken their promise.
“Today was the last chance for the anti-piracy group to come up with an answer,” Henrik told TorrentFreak a few minutes ago. “And although, as you know, they told the press that they would give me an answer before the 1st of December, they have not done that.”
Henrik told us that even though he has broken the law, Antipiratgruppen doesn’t seem interested in responding. “They are obviously aware that there will be an outrage if they reported me to the police,” he points out.
The other possibility, he says, is that Antipiratgruppen themselves don’t see his actions as illegal – but this creates another problem. The Ministry of Culture have already written to Henrik informing him that breaking DRM in this way is against the law.
Clearly frustrated, Henrik told us: “But who should I follow? Those that determine the laws in this country? Or those who are lawyers for the companies that i’m committing a crime against?”
But Henrik has a solution to their inaction.
“I decided to try to see if I can report myself directly to the police, for the case must be resolved,” he told us.
Henrik feels that the situation he is trying to draw attention to can only be solved by him going to trial. Hopefully then the Minister for Culture and the Danish parliament will see that the law has to be changed.
A Push in Law Schools to Reform Copyright
In July, a U.S. court in Boston rendered a six-figure judgment against Joel Tenenbaum, a 25-year-old Boston University doctoral student, for illegally downloading and distributing 30 songs over the Internet.
The $675,000 judgment, or $22,500 per track downloaded, was neither the first nor the heaviest assessed against an individual for downloading and file-sharing copyrighted music without a license. But it has ignited activism and fierce debate on university campuses on the future of digital copyright.
Since 2007, U.S. university students have been a prime target of a litigation campaign by the Recording Industry Association of America, or R.I.A.A., the music industry trade group that has found university campuses to be hives of file-sharing activity.
“The music industry is acting like a digital police force,” Charles Nesson, a Harvard law professor who defended Mr. Tenenbaum at trial with the assistance of law students, said in a phone interview from Boston. “Academia must get involved, to bring fairness to the process.”
Mr. Nesson, who is also the director and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a cyberspace research center at Harvard Law School, is a passionate proponent of social change via the Internet.
“Joel was just a kid doing what kids do on the Internet,” Mr. Nesson told the court. The judge, however, ruled that Mr. Tenenbaum’s infringement of copyright was incontrovertible, and the jury found it to be willful — a finding that under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, as amended in 1999, rendered him liable for a fine of up to $150,000 per song.
A report in June by the analysis firm Forrester Research said that 27 percent of peer-to-peer, or P2P, network music sharers in the United States last year were in the 18 to 24 age group and 43 percent in the 25 to 34 age group. File sharing, a largely clandestine activity, is hard to measure, but Forrester said that, based on admitted cases, it estimated the number of file-sharers, as a percentage of all Internet users, to be two to three times greater in Europe than in the United States.
“Downloading is so easy, and there is so much free content on the Internet, it is hard to distinguish between illegal downloading, streaming free content and copying from a friend’s laptop,” said Rana Nader, a recent law graduate of Université Panthéon-Assas, in Paris, who also has a law master’s degree in multimedia and information technology from Kings College in London.
“When the product is digital, it does not feel like stealing,” said Ms. Nader.
In the past decade, peer-to-peer technology companies have mutated endlessly and rapidly in cyberspace, becoming increasingly difficult to police.
In the 10 years since Napster first offered its P2P service, the ability to create, access and swap music in user-friendly MP3 format has revolutionized the music industry for a generation of musicians, producers and consumers.
But along with ease of access has come legal uncertainty and risk.
“Internet has helped develop new forms of amateur entertainment,” said Mr. Nesson. “You no longer need a ‘label’ to put out a good song. Soon, we will not be able to tell what is copyrighted and what isn’t. That is why defining the limits of copyright and public right is fundamental to the development of cyberspace.”
Law school teachers are active participants, in classrooms, in the courts and before legislative assemblies, in the debate on how to reform laws often dating from the age of vinyl.
“File sharing is the way music is accessed today,” said Daniel Gervais, professor of international intellectual property law at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Our students ask, ‘Why can’t we continue to do it, but pay for it?”’
Last August, Mr. Gervais, who is also affiliated with the University of Ottawa in Canada, received funding from the Ontario Province government to propose changes to Canadian copyright law to meet the needs of users of copyrighted material. Fifteen students are helping him to complete the project.
“We are making ourselves heard by the legislature and the courts,” Mr. Gervais said.
For law students, digital copyright has become a hot topic. “Since 2008, our annual seminar on music and digital copyright has been more than full,” Mr. Gervais said. “Students all file-share; they are all on Facebook and Twitter. Copyright is connected to their own reality.”
One idea under study is to assess a global license fee, to be collected and paid by the Internet service provider, permitting unlimited media usage. This approach “has wide support here,” he said.
The fee would be levied by the service providers as a voluntary flat tax, payable by customers who accessed music online via file-sharing networks, and would be earmarked for artists or other rights holders, replacing royalties. Effectively, that would turn the service providers into the online equivalent of royalty-collection societies like Broadcast Music Inc., a U.S. music performing rights organization, or its British, Dutch, French and German counterparts, which for years have collected fees for artists from radio stations, bars, clubs and other performance venues.
“If you add all the monthly fees collected in all major music markets, you could get a total above $20 billion a year, which added to other revenues from ticket, merchandise and other sales would match or surpass the music industry’s best years,” Mr. Gervais said.
Yet, if some academics and lawmakers are looking at ways to legalize the sharing of copyrighted digital material for noncommercial use, others prefer the opposite tack of more draconian punishment for “music piracy.”
French lawmakers have opted in particular to criminalize music file-sharing.
“To impose a global fee is problematic,” Frédéric Pollaud-Dulian, a professor at University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne and a specialist in media law, said in a telephone interview. “Not all Internet users download copyrighted material. Also, to allow open access to copyrighted material deprives the copyright holders of control over their own work.”
The prevailing view in France, Professor Pollaud-Dulian said, remains that existing law should not be overhauled simply because new customs and practices, however widespread, do not fit. So, copyright laws should not be adjusted simply because people are using new technology to access music.
“We teach our students that illegally downloading music is a threat to creativity,” Professor Pollaud-Dulian said. “The work of an artist has monetary value. Being a musician is not a hobby.”
In October, the French Constitutional Council cleared the way for a controversial bill, known as Hadopi II, that empowers French courts to temporarily cut off the Internet access of copyright infringers or of individuals who fail to protect their broadband access line against illegal downloading.
“When you violate driving laws, your car is taken away,” said Mr. Pollaud-Dulian. “If you do not abide by hunting rules, your rifle is taken away. To say that depriving a user of Internet access infringes on a fundamental right is pure fantasy.”
Others view the loss of Internet access rights as an excessively punitive measure that violates a basic right, and a trademark of repressive regimes.
“In a democratic society, you need Internet access to participate in the sociopolitical process,” said Mr. Gervais. “Without it, you have less active and less informed citizens.”
According to Andrew Murray, a reader in law who specializes in cyberregulation and information technology law at the London School of Economics law department, the British government is consulting with law professors on a different version of the “three-strikes law.”
“We are looking at a measure where Internet access would be filtered or the user’s bandwidth cluttered to prevent downloading of copyrighted material,” said Mr. Murray, who also acts as an advisor to Creative Commons, a licensing organization created by Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford Law School professor, that allows copyright holders to extend licenses to users.
Meanwhile, Mr. Nesson and his team of law students are preparing to appeal the judgment against Mr. Tenenbaum. — up to the Supreme Court if need be.
“If you are selling water in the desert and it starts to rain, what do you do? Go to the government and get them to ban rain, or do you sell something else?” Mr. Nesson said.
Woman Arrested for Trying to Record 'Twilight' on Digital Camera
Taping three minutes of “Twilight: New Moon” during a visit to a Rosemont movie theater landed Samantha Tumpach in a jail cell for two nights.
Now, the 22-year-old Chicago woman faces up to three years in prison after being charged with a rarely invoked felony designed to prevent movie patrons from recording hot new movies and selling bootleg copies.
But Tumpach insisted Wednesday that’s not what she was doing — she was actually taping parts of her sister’s surprise birthday party celebrated at the Muvico Theater in Rosemont.
While she acknowledged there are short bits of the movie on her digital camera, there are other images that have nothing to do with the new film — including she and a few other family members singing “Happy Birthday” to her 29-year-old sister at the theater.
“It was a big thing over nothing,” Tumpach said of her Saturday afternoon arrest. “We were just messing around. Everyone is so surprised it got this far.”
She was nabbed when a worker saw her shooting video during the movie, Rosemont police said.
Managers contacted police, who examined the small digital camera, which also records video segments, Cmdr. Frank Siciliano said. Officers found that Tumpach had taped “two very short segments” of the movie — no more than four minutes total, he said.
Tumpach was arrested after theater managers insisted on pressing charges, he said. She was charged with criminal use of a motion picture exhibition. She remained jailed for two nights in Rosemont’s police station until being taken to bond court on Monday, where a Cook County judge ordered her released on a personal recognizance bond that didn’t require her to post any cash.
Rosemont police, though, seemed to sympathize with her situation, she said. “They were so nice to me,” she said.
Tumpach insisted she recorded no more than three minutes while in the theater — and said not all of the video she shot was of the movie. There’s footage of she and her relatives singing to her sister, she said. “We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her in the theater,” Tumpach said.
She also took pictures of family members in the theater before the film began, but an usher who saw the photo session never issued them a warning, Tumpach said.
As ads and previews ran on the big screen, she fiddled with the camera — which she got in July and is still learning how to work — and was surprised to see it took clear videos of the screen.
The footage she shot also includes the pre-film commercials, as well as her talking about the camera and the movie.
“You can hear me talking the whole time,” Tumpach said.
She plans to fight in court the felony filed against her because she said she did nothing wrong — and certainly didn’t try to secretly tape the movie.
“It was never my intention to record the movie,” she said.
Pub 'Fined £8k' for Wi-Fi Copyright Infringement
A pub owner has been fined £8,000 because someone unlawfully downloaded copyrighted material over their open Wi-Fi hotspot, according to the managing director of hotspot provider The Cloud.
Graham Cove told ZDNet UK on Friday he believes the case to be the first of its kind in the UK. However, he would not identify the pub concerned, because its owner — a pubco that is a client of The Cloud's — had not yet given their permission for the case to be publicised.
Cove would say only that the fine had been levied in a civil case, brought about by a rights holder, "sometime this summer". The Cloud's pubco clients include Fullers, Greene King, Marsdens, Scottish & Newcastle, Mitchell & Butlers and Punch Taverns.
The law surrounding open Wi-Fi networks and the liability of those running them is a grey area.
According to internet law professor Lilian Edwards, of Sheffield Law School, where a business operates an open Wi-Fi spot to give customers or visitors internet access, they would be "not be responsible in theory" for users' unlawful downloads, under "existing substantive copyright law".
She also said the measures that would be brought in under the Digital Economy Bill — measures that could include disconnection of the account holder — would not apply because the business could be classified as a public communications service provider, which would make it exempt. According to the terms of the bill, only "subscribers" can be targeted with sanctions.
According to legal advice sent to The Cloud by the law firm Faegre & Benson on 17 August, "Wi-Fi hotspots in public and enterprise environments providing access to the internet to members of the public, free or paid, are public communications services".
A public communications service provider must, under the terms of the Data Retention Regulations that came into force in the UK in April of this year, retain records for 12 months on communications that have taken place over their network. This data includes user IDs, the times and dates of access, and the online destinations that were being accessed. The content of the communications cannot be retained without the user's permission, due to data-protection laws.
However, there is a get-out clause in the Data Retention Regulations, in that no public communications service provider has to keep such records unless they are notified by the government that they are required to do so.
According to Edwards, this is because "only the big six ISPs have the facilities to comply, and because the government agreed [in its legislation] to repay some of the costs [of retaining such records]". She noted that this clause might itself be non-compliant with the EU data-retention laws that were transposed into UK law in April.
Edwards pointed out that, even if the sanctions proposed in the Digital Economy Bill come into force, "no-one will know who [the downloader] was, because the IP address that will show up [upon investigation] will be of the hotspot". She added that the rights holder seeking infringers of their copyright would probably not know that the IP address in question was not that of a subscriber.
It would then be up to the hotspot operator to point out that they were not the end user downloading copyrighted material. "But when would they get to say that? Maybe straightaway, maybe not until after disconnection — it's not currently clear," Edwards said.
My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement
I got something in the mail last week I’d been wanting for years: a Too Much Joy royalty statement from Warner Brothers that finally included our digital earnings. Though our catalog has been out of print physically since the late-1990s, the three albums we released on Giant/WB have been available digitally for about five years. Yet the royalty statements I received every six months kept insisting we had zero income, and our unrecouped balance ($395,277.18!)* stubbornly remained the same.
Now, I don’t ever expect that unrecouped balance to turn into a positive number, but since the band had been seeing thousands of dollars in digital royalties each year from IODA for the four indie albums we control ourselves, I figured five years’ worth of digital income from our far more popular major label albums would at least make a small dent in the figure. Our IODA royalties during that time had totaled about $12,000 – not a princely sum, but enough to suggest that the total haul over the same period from our major label material should be at least that much, if not two to five times more. Even with the band receiving only a percentage of the major label take, getting our unrecouped balance below $375,000 seemed reasonable, and knocking it closer to -$350,000 wasn’t out of the question.
So I was naively excited when I opened the envelope. And my answer was right there on the first page. In five years, our three albums earned us a grand total of…
What the fuck?
I mean, we all know that major labels are supposed to be venal masters of hiding money from artists, but they’re also supposed to be good at it, right? This figure wasn’t insulting because it was so small, it was insulting because it was so stupid.
Why It Was So Stupid
Here’s the thing: I work at Rhapsody. I know what we pay Warner Bros. for every stream and download, and I can look up exactly how many plays and downloads we’ve paid them for each TMJ tune that Warner controls. Moreover, Warner Bros. knows this, as my gig at Rhapsody is the only reason I was able to get them to add my digital royalties to my statement in the first place. For years I’d been pestering the label, but I hadn’t gotten anywhere till I was on a panel with a reasonably big wig in Warner Music Group’s business affairs team about a year ago
The panel took place at a legal conference, and focused on digital music and the crisis facing the record industry**. As you do at these things, the other panelists and I gathered for breakfast a couple hours before our session began, to discuss what topics we should address. Peter Jenner, who manages Billy Bragg and has been a needed gadfly for many years at events like these, wanted to discuss the little-understood fact that digital music services frequently pay labels advances in the tens of millions of dollars for access to their catalogs, and it’s unclear how (or if) that money is ever shared with artists.
I agreed that was a big issue, but said I had more immediate and mundane concerns, such as the fact that Warner wouldn’t even report my band’s iTunes sales to me.
The business affairs guy (who I am calling “the business affairs guy” rather than naming because he did me a favor by finally getting the digital royalties added to my statement, and I am grateful for that and don’t want this to sound like I’m attacking him personally, even though it’s about to seem like I am) said that it was complicated connecting Warner’s digital royalty payments to their existing accounting mechanisms, and that since my band was unrecouped they had “to take care of R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers first.”
That kind of pissed me off. On the one hand, yeah, my band’s unrecouped and is unlikely ever to reach the point where Warner actually has to cut us a royalty check. On the other hand, though, they are contractually obligated to report what revenue they receive in our name, and, having helped build a database that tracks how much Rhapsody owes whom for what music gets played, I’m well aware of what is and isn’t complicated about doing so. It’s not something you have to build over and over again for each artist. It’s something you build once. It takes a while, and it can be expensive, and sometimes you make honest mistakes, but it’s not rocket science. Hell, it’s not even algebra! It’s just simple math.
I knew that each online service was reporting every download, and every play, for every track, to thousands of labels (more labels, I’m guessing, than Warner has artists to report to). And I also knew that IODA was able to tell me exactly how much money my band earned the previous month from Amazon ($11.05), Verizon (74 cents), Nokia (11 cents), MySpace (4 sad cents) and many more. I didn’t understand why Warner wasn’t reporting similar information back to my band – and if they weren’t doing it for Too Much Joy, I assumed they weren’t doing it for other artists.
To his credit, the business affairs guy told me he understood my point, and promised he’d pursue the matter internally on my behalf – which he did. It just took 13 months to get the results, which were (predictably, perhaps) ridiculous.
The sad thing is I don’t even think Warner is deliberately trying to screw TMJ and the hundreds of other also-rans and almost-weres they’ve signed over the years. The reality is more boring, but also more depressing. Like I said, they don’t actually owe us any money. But that’s what’s so weird about this, to me: they have the ability to tell the truth, and doing so won’t cost them anything.
They just can’t be bothered. They don’t care, because they don’t have to.
“$10,000 Is Nothing”
An interlude, here. Back in 1992, when TMJ was still a going concern and even the label thought maybe we’d join the hallowed company of recouped bands one day, Warner made a $10,000 accounting error on our statement (in their favor, naturally). When I caught this mistake, and brought it to the attention of someone with the power to correct it, he wasn’t just befuddled by my anger – he laughed at it. “$10,000 is nothing!” he chuckled.
If you’re like most people – especially people in unrecouped bands – “nothing” is not a word you ever use in conjunction with a figure like “$10,000,” but he seemed oblivious to that. “It’s a rounding error. It happens all the time. Why are you so worked up?”
These days I work for a reasonably large corporation myself, and, sadly, I understand exactly what the guy meant. When your revenues (and your expenses) are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, $10,000 mistakes are common, if undesirable.
I still think he was a jackass, though, and that sentence continues to haunt me. Because $10,000 might have been nothing to him, but it was clearly something to me. And his inability to take it seriously – to put himself in my place, just for the length of our phone call – suggested that people who care about $10,000 mistakes, and the principles of things, like, say, honoring contracts even when you don’t have to, are the real idiots.
As you may have divined by this point, I am conflicted about whether I am actually being a petty jerk by pursuing this, or whether labels just thrive on making fools like me feel like petty jerks. People in the record industry are very good at making bands believe they deserve the hundreds of thousands (or sometimes millions) of dollars labels advance the musicians when they’re first signed, and even better at convincing those same musicians it’s the bands’ fault when those advances aren’t recouped (the last thing $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man yelled at me before he hung up was, “Too Much Joy never earned us shit!”*** as though that fact somehow negated their obligation to account honestly).
I don’t want to live in $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man’s world. But I do. We all do. We have no choice.
The Boring Reality
Back to my ridiculous Warner Bros. statement. As I flipped through its ten pages (seriously, it took ten pages to detail the $62.47 of income), I realized that Warner wasn’t being evil, just careless and unconcerned – an impression I confirmed a few days later when I spoke to a guy in their Royalties and Licensing department I am going to call Danny.****
I asked Danny why there were no royalties at all listed from iTunes, and he said, “Huh. There are no domestic downloads on here at all. Only streams. And it has international downloads, but no international streams. I have no idea why.” I asked Danny why the statement only seemed to list tracks from two of the three albums Warner had released – an entire album was missing. He said they could only report back what the digital services had provided to them, and the services must not have reported any activity for those other songs. When I suggested that seemed unlikely – that having every track from two albums listed by over a dozen different services, but zero tracks from a third album listed by any seemed more like an error on Warner’s side, he said he’d look into it. As I asked more questions (Why do we get paid 50% of the income from all the tracks on one album, but only 35.7143% of the income from all the tracks on another? Why did 29 plays of a track on the late, lamented MusicMatch earn a total of 63 cents when 1,016 plays of the exact same track on MySpace earned only 23 cents?) he eventually got to the heart of the matter: “We don’t normally do this for unrecouped bands,” he said. “But, I was told you’d asked.”
It’s possible I’m projecting my own insecurities onto calm, patient Danny, but I’m pretty sure the subtext of that comment was the same thing I’d heard from $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man: all these figures were pointless, and I was kind of being a jerk by wasting their time asking about them. After all, they have the Red Hot Chili Peppers to deal with, and the label actually owes those guys money.
Danny may even be right. But there’s another possibility – one I don’t necessarily subscribe to, but one that could be avoided entirely by humoring pests like me. There’s a theory that labels and publishers deliberately avoid creating the transparent accounting systems today’s technology enables. Because accurately accounting to my silly little band would mean accurately accounting to the less silly bands that are recouped, and paying them more money as a result.
If that’s true (and I emphasize the if, because it’s equally possible that people everywhere, including major label accounting departments, are just dumb and lazy)*****, then there’s more than my pride and principles on the line when I ask Danny in Royalties and Licensing to answer my many questions. I don’t feel a burning need to make the Red Hot Chili Peppers any more money, but I wouldn’t mind doing my small part to get us all out of the sad world $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man inhabits.
So I will keep asking, even though I sometimes feel like a petty jerk for doing so.
* A word here about that unrecouped balance, for those uninitiated in the complex mechanics of major label accounting. While our royalty statement shows Too Much Joy in the red with Warner Bros. (now by only $395,214.71 after that $62.47 digital windfall), this doesn’t mean Warner “lost” nearly $400,000 on the band. That’s how much they spent on us, and we don’t see any royalty checks until it’s paid back, but it doesn’t get paid back out of the full price of every album sold. It gets paid back out of the band’s share of every album sold, which is roughly 10% of the retail price. So, using round numbers to make the math as easy as possible to understand, let’s say Warner Bros. spent something like $450,000 total on TMJ. If Warner sold 15,000 copies of each of the three TMJ records they released at a wholesale price of $10 each, they would have earned back the $450,000. But if those records were retailing for $15, TMJ would have only paid back $67,500, and our statement would show an unrecouped balance of $382,500.
I do not share this information out of a Steve Albini-esque desire to rail against the major label system (he already wrote the definitive rant, which you can find here if you want even more figures, and enjoy having those figures bracketed with cursing and insults). I’m simply explaining why I’m not embarrassed that I “owe” Warner Bros. almost $400,000. They didn’t make a lot of money off of Too Much Joy. But they didn’t lose any, either. So whenever you hear some label flak claiming 98% of the bands they sign lose money for the company, substitute the phrase “just don’t earn enough” for the word “lose.”
** The whole conference took place at a semi-swank hotel on the island of St. Thomas, which is a funny place to gather to talk about how to save the music business, but that would be a whole different diatribe.
*** This same dynamic works in reverse – I interviewed the Butthole Surfers for Raygun magazine back in the 1990s, and Gibby Haynes described the odd feeling of visiting Capitol records’ offices and hearing, “a bunch of people go, ‘Hey, man, be cool to these guys, they’re a recouped band.’ I heard that a bunch of times.”
**** Again, I am avoiding using his real name because he returned my call promptly, and patiently answered my many questions, which is behavior I want to encourage, so I have no desire to lambaste him publicly.
***** Of course, these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive – it is also possible that labels are evil and avaricious AND dumb and lazy, at the same time.
Black Caucus Seeks to Ease Radio’s Woes
The radio business has nothing to do with the plan to overhaul the nation’s system for regulating banks and other financial institutions.
Except, it turns out, in Congress.
One of most intriguing mysteries here in recent weeks is why members of the Congressional Black Caucus have chosen to buck their party and president in trying to stall financial regulation reform.
The answer lies at least in part with an aggressive lobbying campaign by a troubled New York City-based radio broadcasting company, Inner City Broadcasting, whose co-founder is a prominent New York politician and businessman, Percy Sutton.
In a rare break with President Obama, the caucus, made up of black members of Congress, is holding back support for the legislation because it wants the administration to help minority-owned businesses, including Inner City, whose financial plight has been specifically identified in meetings with top administration officials.
Inner City Broadcasting, which owns 17 commercial stations nationwide and was co-founded in 1971 by Mr. Sutton, faces a possible financial collapse because of pressure by Goldman Sachs and GE Capital to repay nearly $230 million in debt, Pierre Sutton, his son, said in an interview Wednesday.
Inner City has been battered by declines in advertising, as have many stations around the country, which have experienced drops of 10 percent or more in the last year because of the recession and the move of advertisers to the Internet.
While others are suffering, too, Black Caucus members and lobbyists for Inner City in a series of meetings have pressed the administration for special help for black-owned broadcasters like Inner City, participants in the meetings said.
Caucus members made their case about minority-owned businesses directly to the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, and the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, last month.
In pushing its cause, Inner City hired a prominent Washington lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, which assigned to the case a former senior aide to Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and a former executive director of the caucus.
Mr. Sutton, even today at age 89, remains a prominent African- American power broker in New York City. The father and son have been major campaign contributors to one of the leaders of the caucus, Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, who is also a protégé of the senior Mr. Sutton.
Members of the caucus asked the administration to squeeze lenders like GE Capital and Goldman Sachs to renegotiate their loans with Inner City and other black-owned radio stations, arguing that these financial institutions themselves had already received federal assistance. Some caucus members even pushed to include black-owned radio stations in the bailout.
“There is a lot of concern about Inner City Broadcasting,” said Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who set up one recent meeting with Mr. Geithner and Mr. Emanuel at the request of the Black Caucus.
Mr. Frank said the radio stations were only one issue raised by the caucus, and that others included financial difficulties faced by black-owned auto dealers, newspapers, banks and government contractors.
Inner City and other radio stations have been a repeated topic, dating back to last spring, when Mr. Rangel and eight other Black Caucus members wrote to Mr. Geithner about the concern.
“It is absolutely essential that we do not allow this once-in-a-generation financial crisis to erase the modest inroads minorities have made into the broadcast industry,” the letter said.
Mr. Frank also said Wednesday that at the request of the Black Caucus members, he had called “private and public companies” on behalf of the radio station owners, to urge them to work with Inner City and other media companies.
He would not name the companies, but he did not dispute it when asked if it included Goldman Sachs.
The matter came to a head Wednesday, when 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus skipped a House Financial Services Committee meeting, intentionally missing a critical vote on the regulatory reform package, to reinforce demands they have placed on the White House to take steps to address the way the financial crisis has hurt black businesses, including Inner City.
That vote allowed the legislation to move to the full House floor, where it is expected to be taken up next week.
If caucus members vote against it, the legislation could fail, dealing a significant blow to the administration.
“While we appreciate the need for the expansion of regulatory authority, we can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street,” Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, said Wednesday, in explaining the decision by Black Caucus members to withhold their votes.
The administration declined to discuss requests related to Inner City and other radio stations.
“We share the concerns raised by C.B.C. members about struggling minority communities, and that’s why we’ve engaged in a positive way to make progress on these issues,” Jennifer R. Psaki, a White House spokeswoman, said in a written comment.
But privately, participants in some of the meetings said, the Obama administration has raised objections, saying it did not believe it was appropriate to pressure financial institutions to make concessions for specific loans or businesses, according to one person who attended a meeting with Treasury and White House officials on the topic but asked to remain anonymous.
Paul A. Brathwaite, a Podesta Group lobbyist who is the former executive director at the Congressional Black Caucus, said the financial crisis has had a particular impact on the radio industry, because of the combined effect of declines in advertising, recent changes in the way radio audience ratings are calculated and the squeeze in the credit markets that has made getting new loans or refinancing difficult.
Michael DuVally, a Goldman Sachs spokesman, confirmed Wednesday that the company has been involved in talks with Inner City Broadcasting about its debt. He would not say if it had received appeals from officials in Washington related to the matter.
But Pierre Sutton said Wednesday that this intervention by officials in Washington has already helped, as negotiations are under way with Goldman and GE Capital to refinance the loans.
“The awareness was certainly made more acute,” he said. “They got the message.”
Eric Lichtblau contributed reporting.
More Research To Back The Notion That Streaming Kills Piracy
Research conducted by London-based Global Web Index, a collaboration between online market research agency Lightspeed Research and Trendstream, suggests that streaming might in fact be the right antidote against content piracy.
The findings are in line with other research and conclusions reached earlier this year by The Leading Question, MusicAlly’s consumer research division, which suggested that the number of teenagers who download copyrighted content from illegal sources has fallen dramatically over the past few years in favor of streaming.
According to the Global Web Index, streaming video online has unequivocally turned mainstream with almost two thirds (64%) of Internet users watching video clips, almost a third (31%) watching full length TV and video programming and 13% sharing videos. 27% of UK Internet users have downloaded free TV shows/films to their desktops.
The research showed that the most active internet users – those who spend more than three hours a day online – are the most likely to download illegal content, either through a P2P network or unauthorized file sharing websites.
Contrary to popular belief, the research also shows that people who download illegal media content are not only driven by the desire to access it for free, but increasingly by the fact that they want to get their hands on the content as soon as it’s available, even if only legally in other countries.
Whilst the research shows that consumers don’t really like using P2P networks to obtain content, people tend to use them when they can’t find what they want any other way.
Tom Smith, Managing Director of Trendstream says:
“Thanks to the rise of online services such as Spotify, Hulu, iPlayer and of course YouTube, the environment has been created where you can stream almost all the content you would ever want. If everything I want is available on demand, the concept of ownership is diminished. I no longer need to have it on my hard drive. I just play what I want when I want. This is not only a threat to traditional packaged sales of music, TV and film, it will also kill off piracy. Why pirate when you can stream?”
To reach its conclusions, Global Web Index interviewed 16,000 web users in 16 markets for a first wave. The survey was carried out online between July 6 and the August 7 of this year: 2000 internet users were interviewed in the US and the UK, 1000 users in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, China and Canada and 750 users took part in the survey in The Netherlands, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, India, South Korea , Australia, Japan. GWI plans a second wave this and next month.
Why Movies Aren’t like Music
The movie business is often said to follow the lead of the music industry. Watch what happens to music on the Internet, wait a few years, and expect that the same things will happen to Hollywood blockbusters. Think of it as peering into the future, but without the Magic 8-Ball, Ouija board, or astrologer.
As content migrates onto the Internet, what happens to it? In many cases, it gets cheaper—even dramatically cheaper. This price compression effect has been catastrophic for newspapers, and it has whacked away a significant percentage of major label revenue from recorded music (although the music business as a whole remains exceptionally vibrant).
Given this reality, put yourself inside the mind of a Hollywood executive looking at the following two charts and see if it's possible to avoid heart palpitations. First up is the annual growth of compact disc sales, which throughout the late 1980s and the entire 1990s provided hitherto unimaginable wealth to the major music labels.
Not only did customers buy their old vinyl and cassette albums again on shiny plastic discs, but the labels essentially stopped selling the singles that were such a part of popular music back in the 1950s and 60s. The CD was a perfect way to deliver an entire album, and to command full album prices, even when it contained only a few hit tracks. The music fan who wanted Chumbawumba's "Tumbthumper" had better be prepared to cough up $12 for the full album. (Yes, I'm still bitter.)
Then, in the early part of this decade, the bottom began to fall out of the CD business, and this was the result.
By itself, the chart is not particularly terrifying. It could well be that the labels were transitioning to other revenue sources, or that a post-CD format was about to usher in a new golden age of even greater profits. As everyone knows, however, that's not (yet) what happened. Instead, the new post-CD format, digital downloads, almost immediately gutted album sales, returned us to the "age of the single," and through the magic of iTunes dominance established one dollar per song as the price for individual tracks.
The net result was a disaster for the major labels. Take a look at the second graph below, which overlays recording industry revenues with box office earnings and video game sales to show you just how badly music has been beaten up. The decline of the compact disc matches the overall decline in revenues quite closely.
Still inside the head of our fictional Hollywood executive? Good. Now imagine that you've watched the recording industry's woes for the last few years and have noted that, when content moved from the physical disc to the digital download, it was disaggregated, prices fell, and overall revenue plunged. Then you look at recent DVD sales numbers and see this:
A peak for DVD sales has already been reached; 2007 was the first year to see declines in total unit sales numbers. As someone whose job depends on making those quarterly revenue numbers go up, up, up, this certainly has to give movie executives pause. As films finally migrate in a real way onto the Internet, will the Internet once again exert its amazing downward pressure on price?
The Real Cost of Buying a DVD
JAPAN was the most expensive place to buy a DVD in 2008, according to Screen Digest, a consulting firm. But if time is also money, then workers in Mexico, who had to work an extra two hours to buy the same DVD, would probably feel aggrieved. Based on data from UBS, an average worker in Japan needs to toil for around 155 minutes to buy a DVD, whereas Mexicans must put their noses to the grindstone for about 280 minutes. China's workers are best off, on the job for just over half and hour and paying a mere $1.60 for a DVD. As the average film is around 100 minutes long, workers in Brazil, Hong Kong, France and India spend around the same time working to purchase a DVD as they spend watching it.
New Website Publicizes iPhone App Rejections
A new website aims to publicize the details surrounding the much-maligned iPhone application review process - Apple's secretive procedures that have been under heavy scrutiny this year, especially since the FCC's involvement regarding Apple's rejection of the Google Voice application. Notable iPhone developers have publically called out the company for this "broken" process and some have even announced their retirement from creating iPhone apps, including Facebook app developer, Joe Hewitt, based on philosophical differences with the perceived tyranny of the Apple gatekeepers.
On the recently launched site, App Rejections, iPhone developer turned blogger Adam Martin, has begun to document individual app rejections in an effort to help the development community understand what they can and cannot expect from the company's stringent, and sometimes seemingly arbitrary, vetting process for new apps.
According to the site's About page, Martin writes that "it's now gone from 'easy' to 'tricky' to avoid getting your app rejected by Apple." And since Apple has refused to document or discuss the matter of application rejections, he was inspired to create this website as a place to collect all the known application rejections.
The App Rejections site itself is in the format of a basic blog. There aren't catchy headlines, images, or accompanying snarky commentary in the individual posts as you would find elsewhere in the tech blogosphere - especially on TechCrunch where documenting high-profile app rejections has become somewhat of a pet project of blogger MJ Siegler. At the most, Adam may inject a few opinions of his own as to how certain things could be improved, but he clearly isn't on any sort of vendetta against the company.
Instead, each post details point-blank exactly why a particular application was rejected, examining information about the APIs used or rules broken in each case. The site also documents when formerly rejected apps finally make it through to the App Store in posts titled "approved" or "overturned," the latter referring to apps whose developers started some sort of appeal process.
Although the site is brand-new, with only two pages of posts so far, it could easily become an invaluable resource for iPhone developers confused by Apple's murky review process which can sometimes lead to apps sitting in limbo for months on end before any word from Apple is had.
Developers looking to have their personal experience documented on the site are advised to contact Martin via his company's Twitter account, @redglassesapps.
SpyPhone App Steals Personal Data from ALL iPhones
Who was that someone shouting loud that only Jailbreaking makes iPhone insecure? We now have a new App that makes even an UnModified/Virgin iPhone leak personal data like you have never seen before.
A Swiss iPhone developer has unveiled a new application that is capable of harvesting huge amounts of personal data from iPhones, including geolocation data, passwords, address book entries and email accounts information, images, Safari Browsing history, youtube, keyboard logger, etc. all this using just the public API exposed by Apple’s SDK.
In oder for this application, SpyPhone, to work, it does not need any exploits or any jailbreaking/firmware modification, attacks in order to access the iPhone’s data. Instead, SpyPhone relies on using the iPhone’s usability and depth of features to its advantage. Once an application is on an iPhone, it has unrestricted access to the large amount of the data and settings available on the device.
Seriot, the application developer, has posted the source code for SpyPhone online and gave a talk detail document on iPhone Privacy at a security conference, earlier this week.
Once on the iPhone, the application begins looking at the stored data that’s available in various other programs, such as the email address book and the keyboard cache, which keeps a record of every keystroke the user enters in a non-password field. This data normally is used for the iPhone’s autocomplete feature, but can be a gold mine of information for an attacker searching for intelligence on the iPhone’s owner. By default, the iPhone will tag any photos taken with the device with the date and location of the pitcure. The user can turn this feature off, but if it’s enabled, SpyPhone can access that data, as well as the log of which WiFi hotspots the device has connected to. All of this gives the attacker a better picture of the iPhone’s owner, his location and his interests, which is valuable data.
The Worst Part: SpyPhone is more like a Trojan sitting in your OS silently and stealing data. All of the SpyPhone’s operations are executed in the background, without the knowledge of the iPhone’s owner, and just like any other Trojan, the application can be set to email reports on each infected phone back to the attacker.
No doubt, Apple has taken utmost efforts to keep strict control over what applications (their rejections are the proof), but despite their effort, exposing a lot of core of the Operating system has leaded them to misery.
Barnes & Noble Delays Nook Shipments to Stores
Barnes & Noble Inc said on Sunday it would delay shipments of its newly launched Nook electronic reader to stores as the company strives to deliver preordered devices to consumers before the holidays.
"We expect to have them in our highest-volume stores on December 7th and in a very limited number," Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating told Reuters. The company had earlier hoped to have a limited number of e-readers in some of its stores around November 30, she said.
Barnes & Noble, which launched the e-reader in late October, is focused on getting the devices into the hands of its customers who ordered the $259 devices before November 20.
Earlier this month, the company said it had sold out of the Nook due to high demand, following a similar announcement by e-reader rival Sony Corp.
Experts predict that electronic readers -- which allow consumers to read off light, tablet-like devices that can download digital copies of books, magazines and newspapers -- -- will be a hot gift item this holiday season.
But supply issues could end up helping sales of the Kindle from rival Amazon.com, which analysts believe holds top market share in the category. The companies do not disclose sales figures or projections for their e-readers.
(Reporting by Alexandria Sage, editing by Matthew Lewis)
Amazon Says Kindle Sales Hit Monthly Record in Nov
Amazon.com said on Monday that its Kindle electronic book reader posted its best sales yet in the month of November, as rivals struggle with fulfilling their customer orders.
The online retailer said shoppers were buying several Kindles at once as holiday gifts, while businesses and organizations were buying the device "in large quantities" for employees or clients. Amazon does not provide precise data on Kindle sales.
Amazon's statement on Kindle's success this holiday season follows notices by Barnes & Noble and Sony Corp to their customers that they had sold out of their e-readers before the start of the holiday shopping season due to high demand.
While the higher-than-expected demand proves consumer interest in the device, Barnes & Noble and Sony also appear to have lost an opportunity to gain share against Amazon's market-leading Kindle device.
On Sunday, Barnes & Noble said it would delay shipments of its newly-launched Nook reader to stores as it strives to deliver pre-ordered devices before the holidays.
The bookseller said last week it had lowered its full-year earnings forecast as it expected a tough holiday season and higher costs to accelerate Nook production.
(Reporting by Michele Gershberg; Editing by Derek Caney)
Bob Keane, Del-Fi Records Founder, Dies at 87
Bob Keane, a record producer who discovered Ritchie Valens and helped start the careers of Sam Cooke, the Bobby Fuller Four and Frank Zappa, died in Hollywood, Calif., on Saturday. He was 87.
The cause was renal failure resulting from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Tom said.
Mr. Keane scored a coup for his fledgling Del-Fi label in 1958 after spotting Richard Valenzuela, a young Mexican-American singer and guitar player, performing at a movie theater in the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles. His signature tune, “Come On, Let’s Go,” barely qualified as a song, but the audience, mostly screaming teenage girls, suggested big potential to Mr. Keane.
“He just had little riffs and stuff — he couldn’t put a song together, and he couldn’t write a bridge,” Mr. Keane told Rolling Stone in 2004. Nevertheless, he continued, “I said to myself, ‘If I can put that guy on record, and get these girls like this, I’m gonna have something.’ "
Mr. Keane told the young singer to shorten his name to Valens and helped him develop his ideas into songs. Valens scored a modest hit with “Come On, Let’s Go” and then soared to the top of the charts with “Donna” and “La Bamba.” His eight-month career ended when he died in an airplane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.
Robert Verril Kuhn was born in Manhattan Beach, Calif., on Jan. 5, 1922. A Benny Goodman fan, he took up the clarinet at 5 and at 17 was fronting his own big band. The MCA talent agency, entranced by the idea of a teenage Goodman, signed him and promoted him as “The World’s Youngest Bandleader.”
In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and trained pilots in North Carolina. After the war he returned to Los Angeles and performed with several groups, including Artie Shaw’s band, for which he was the substitute frontman. In 1950 he was hired as the conductor for “The Hank McCune Show,” a television sitcom, and changed his name to Keene, later changing the spelling to Keane.
In 1957, teaming up with a businessman named John Siamas, Mr. Keane started Keen Records. Acting as the label’s A&R man, he signed Sam Cooke, who was singing with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers, and released his first non-gospel hit, “You Send Me.” It reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but Mr. Keane was pushed out of the record company. Undeterred, he started Del-Fi.
Mr. Keane maintained an open-door policy at his record label. Anyone could walk in and get a hearing. Over the years he recorded the soul singer Brenda Holloway (“Every Little Bit Hurts”), the doo-wop group Little Caesar and the Romans (“Those Oldies But Goodies”) and surf-music groups like the Surfaris, the Centurions and the Lively Ones.
In 1963 Zappa, a walk-in, brought Mr. Keane a collection of doo-wop and surf tracks that he had written and recorded in a studio in Cucamonga, Calif. They were later released as the album “Cucamonga.”
In 1965 Mr. Keane started an R&B subsidiary, Bronco, and hired Barry White as producer and A&R man.
Mr. Keane’s biggest success at Del-Fi was the Bobby Fuller Four, which reached the Top 40 with a cover version of Buddy Holly’s “Love’s Made a Fool of You” and broke into the Top 10 with “I Fought the Law.” In 1966, Fuller was found dead in a car near his home in Los Angeles, and Del-Fi records went out of business soon after.
Mr. Keane went on to sell accordion lessons door to door and, with more success, home burglar alarms. In the 1970s he devoted his musical energies to managing the career of his sons, John and Tom, who performed as the Keane Brothers. In the 1980s he resuscitated Del-Fi, whose catalog Quentin Tarantino ransacked for the soundtrack of “Pulp Fiction.”
In addition to his son Tom, of Los Angeles, Mr. Keane is survived by his wife, Dina, also of Los Angeles; a brother, Walker Kuhn of Riverside, Calif.; two other sons, Bob, of London, and John, of Los Angeles; a daughter, Chanelle, of Manhattan; and seven grandchildren.
In 2006 Mr. Keane published a memoir, “The Oracle of Del-Fi: My Life in Music with Ritchie Valens, Sam Cooke, Frank Zappa, Barry White and Other Legends.”
Eric Woolfson, Co-Founder of Alan Parsons Project, Dies at 64
Eric Woolfson, a founder and the principal songwriter and vocalist of the Alan Parsons Project, a British group that existed only in the studio and that took its ambitious, sophisticated progressive rock to the pop charts, died on Wednesday in London. He was 64.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter Sally Seddon.
Mr. Woolfson, a songwriter and keyboardist, met Alan Parsons in the summer of 1974 while working as a session musician at Abbey Road Studios in London. He had recently branched out into management, and Mr. Parsons, an engineer and producer who had just completed work on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” asked to be taken on as a client.
Before long the pair began discussing ideas about a new kind of group that would emphasize the engineer and producer rather than the musicians, in the same way that auteur filmmakers were turning the spotlight away from stars and onto the director. In 1975 they formed the Alan Parsons Project, a studio entity that had no permanent members, other than its two founders, and never toured.
Mr. Woolfson, who wrote nearly all the music and lyrics for the group’s 10 concept albums, sang lead vocals on many of its most famous songs, including “Time,” “Eye in the Sky” and “Don’t Answer Me.”
Eric Norman Woolfson was born in Glasgow on March 18, 1945. He taught himself to play piano. In the 1960s he was hired as a songwriter by Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ producer, and for a time he worked at Southern Music, where his fellow songwriters and lyricists included Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
During this period he wrote songs for Marianne Faithfull, Chris Farlowe, the Tremeloes and other artists.
As a fledgling manager, Mr. Woolfson signed Carl Douglas as one of his first clients and was rewarded when his “Kung Fu Fighting” reached No. 1 on the British and American charts. His chance meeting with Mr. Parsons, however, put his career on a new track.
For the group’s first album, Mr. Woolfson drew on material he had been developing based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” released on the Charisma label in 1976, was a surprise success, and Clive Davis signed the group to Arista Records, where Mr. Woolfson and Mr. Parsons made nine more albums before going their separate ways in 1990.
Initially Mr. Woolfson sang the lead vocals on demo tapes, and guest artists with a similar vocal style would perform on the final version. He lobbied Mr. Parsons to let him take the lead vocal on “Time,” which turned out to be one of the group’s biggest hits, reaching No. 15 on the Billboard pop chart in 1981. Thereafter, Mr. Woolfson sang lead on nearly all the group’s songs.
After splitting up with Mr. Parsons, Mr. Woolfson wrote musicals strongly influenced by the work he had done with the Alan Parsons Project. “Freudiana” incorporated music from a work in progress that EMI released without Mr. Woolfson’s participation, and “Gaudi” and “Gambler” incorporated some of the group’s songs.
Mr. Woolfson’s musical “Edgar Allan Poe” is now playing in Berlin.
In addition to his daughter Sally, of London, he is survived by his wife, Hazel; another daughter, Lorna Covington, of Bristol; and three grandchildren.
Robert Degen, Had a Hand in the Hokey Pokey, Dies at 104
Somewhere along the line — at a wedding, at a child’s birthday party, in third-grade music class — everybody has done the hokey pokey. Admit it: you sang the silly song, you did the silly dance.
You know the one:
You put your right hand in,
You put right hand out,
You put your right hand in,
And you shake it all about.
You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.
Popular as the song is, its authorship has long been in dispute, with the credit usually going to Larry LaPrise, who as part of a musical group, the Ram Trio, is said to have created it in Sun Valley, Idaho, as a novelty number to entertain vacationing skiers. The trio, whose other members were Charles Peter Macak and Tafft Baker, recorded the song, “The Hokey Pokey,” in the late 1940s.
There are many reasons to question this version of the song’s provenance, however. Among them is that a very similar song, “The Hokey Pokey Dance,” was copyrighted a few years earlier, in 1944, by a club musician from Scranton, Pa., named Robert Degen. Mr. Degen — who claimed for decades that Mr. LaPrise had stolen his song — died in Lexington Ky., on Nov. 23, his 104th birthday. (Mr. LaPrise died in 1996, and the two men never met.)
Mr. Degen’s death was confirmed by his son William.
Working as a full-time musician before World War II, Mr. Degen played guitar and banjo with different bands in clubs and restaurants and at parties in and around Scranton. For a while in the 1920s he belonged to the Scranton Sirens, a jazz ensemble that at one time featured both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He was not a full-time composer and did not copyright any other songs, his son said, adding that his father wrote “The Hokey Pokey Dance” with a musician friend, Joe Brier, while playing for the summer at a resort near the Delaware Water Gap.
The Degen-Brier version is rhythmically similar to the LaPrise version, though the melody is somewhat different. The lyrics of the opening verse are as follows:
Put your right hand in,
Put your right hand out
Put your right hand in and you wiggle all about.
Everything is okey dokey when you do the Hokey Pokey.
That is what the dance is all about.
However, neither version may be the original. A similar song, called variously “Hokey Cokey” or “Cokey Cokey,” was reportedly a favorite of English and American soldiers in England during World War II, the authorship attributed sometimes to a popular Northern Irish songwriter, Jimmy Kennedy, and sometimes to a London bandleader, Al Tabor.
Some Roman Catholic churchmen, meanwhile, have said that the words “hokey pokey” derive from “hocus pocus” — the Oxford English Dictionary concurs — and that the song was written by 18th-century Puritans to mock the language of the Latin Mass. Last year the Catholic Church in Scotland, concerned that some soccer fans were using the song as a taunt, raised the possibility that singing it should be prosecuted as a hate crime.
“This song does have quite disturbing origins,” Peter Kearney, a spokesman for Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who leads the Catholic Church in Scotland, was widely quoted in Britain as saying. He added, “If there are moves to restore its more malevolent meaning, then consideration should perhaps be given to its wider use.”
In any case, the song and dance became a popular phenomenon in the United States after the LaPrise version, arranged for a big band, was recorded in the early 1950s by Ray Anthony and his orchestra, on the B side of another novelty song, “Bunny Hop.” By the mid-1950s it was known by every child in the nation, and in 1956 Mr. Degen and Mr. Brier, who died in 1991, filed suit against the members of the Ram Trio and several record companies and music publishers for copyright infringement, asking for $200,000 in damages and $1 for each record of the LaPrise “Hokey Pokey.”
The suit was settled out of court, evidently in such a way that the two sets of authors would share ownership. Mr. LaPrise later sold the rights to his version to Acuff-Rose Music, a Nashville publishing company, started by the singer Roy Acuff, that was sold to Sony/ATV Music Publishing in 2002. William Degen said his father received regular royalty payments from Sony/ATV through his lawyer, Donald Lowry, and supplied a copy of a Sony/ATV check for $47,199.25 written to Mr. Lowry in March 2005. A spokesman for Sony/ATV, Marc Wood, said in an e-mail message that any agreement between the company and Mr. Degen was confidential. Attempts to reach Mr. Lowry were unsuccessful.
Robert Matthew Degen was born in Scranton on Nov. 23, 1905. His father was a farmer. He briefly attended a local business college before settling on music to make a living. After World War II, Mr. Degen gave up his full-time music career and worked as a furniture salesman until his retirement in 1970. He subsequently moved to Lexington, where his brother was then living.
In addition to his son William, who lives in Lexington, he is survived by his wife of 74 years, Vivian; a second son, Robert, a jazz musician who lives in Frankfurt, Germany; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren.
Last.fm Interview: Behind the Music
People who listen to Last.fm have scrobbled an incredible 275,000 years of audio around the world. In the time it took you to read that last sentence, they scrobbled a whopping 4,000 songs. In its first week on Xbox Live, 120 million minutes of music were streamed. The company is also in love with open-source software and Intel.
We know this because we hung Matthew Ogle, the company's head of Web development, over a barrel of piranhas until he sung like a canary.
When we got bored with the piranhas, we tickled his feet until he told us how Last.fm pays labels and artists, the kinds of hardware and software it uses to ensure smooth streaming, and how the London-based company plans to bring about the destruction of Spotify. (Disclaimer: Last.fm is owned by the same company as CNET UK, CBS Interactive.)
Yeah, we're pretty good to you. The full, undiluted interview is below. Grab it while it's hot.
Tell us about the hardware and software used to stream music from Last.fm.
"We stream all music directly off our servers in London. We have a cluster of streaming nodes including a bunch of powerful machines with solid-state hard drives. We have a process that runs daily which finds the hottest music and pushes those tracks on to the SSDs streamers that sit in front of our regular platter-based streaming machines. That way, if someone is listening to one of our more popular stations, the chances are really good that these songs are coming off our high-speed SSD machines. They're fast because every song is sitting in memory instead of being on a slow, spinning platter.
"This is something that worked really well for us during the launch of Last.fm for Xbox and it's one of the reasons we were able to handle the launch without hiccups. The SSDs are made by Intel. We actually contacted a few guys and said, 'Give us your craziest, most cutting-edge SSDs,' and the Intel ones came out on top. Beyond that, our streamers are all running Linux and using MogileFS -- which is an open-source distributed file system, which is a little bit like a software RAID system."
How much data passes through Last.fm?
"One number that's pretty cool is relevant to our recent Xbox launch. In our first week of use, 120 million minutes of music were streamed.
"One thing that's even more popular than our radio-streaming service is scrobbling -- the process of sending the name of the track you're listening to to Last.fm's servers. You can scrobble from over 200 different online music services and desktop clients, such as iTunes, Winamp, Hype Machine, etc.
"During peak hours, we get more than 800 scrobbles per second which translates to about 43 million scrobbles per day. Since 2003, which is when we invented scrobbling, we've broken 35 billion scrobbles. That translates to about 275,000 years of scrobbled music."
How big is the Last.fm music library?
"Thanks to scrobbling, again, we have pretty much the largest library online. Even if we don't have a piece of audio available for streaming, by virtue of scrobbling, we still know a lot about every track. Even if it's from your friend's garage band, scrobbling automatically creates a page for that artist and that track. Other users can then come along and fill out the wiki, upload images, and as more people listen, that track will get automatically connected to other tracks and become part of our recommendation system."
How do artists and labels make money from Last.fm?
"It's complicated, but we essentially pay per stream. Depending on which country you're in and what catalogue is available there, we'll stream tracks and produce regular reports to all the content providers that we work with and pay them royalties based on that. It's then up to the labels to distribute the wealth to their artists. We give the labels a breakdown of which artists should be accruing what royalties, so they have fairly good information on what they should be paying who.
"A lot of our content also comes from indie artists that aren't signed to a label. They can sign up to our music manager, upload their tracks to us, and get stats on how many times they're being played. For those guys, we have an artist royalty programme. There are more than 100,000 artists using that. You upload your music, tick a few boxes, and get a similar deal to the majors -- every time a track is streamed, you earn royalties and if you reach a certain threshold, you can request we cut you a cheque.
"The amount per stream depends on territory and on the advertising revenue that Last.fm makes in the given quarter, so it's not a fixed amount."
What are your plans to bring about the destruction of Spotify?
"We all admire Spotify and think they do a great job of being an online jukebox in the sky. One of the first features that Spotify rolled out in response to user demand was scrobbling. That's because, to a lot of passionate online music consumers, no matter where they're consuming music, if they're not scrobbling, then the music is being wasted.
"Even before Spotify reached out to us and we talked, they had engineers working on implementing scrobbling and it's been really successful. That's something we want to encourage more of in the future.
"We think we're part of a much larger online music ecosystem that our users are already aware of. They're already using a variety of sources to consume music and our role is to be the place that feeds back into and essentially that way we can act as the home base for your music life online. We don't think any other service, Spotify included, is really positioned to do that right now."
Last.fm is a powerful tool that lets you see into the mind of the music-buying public. It could be very valuable to the record industry at large. What's your working relationship with the record labels?
"We have pretty strong relationships with most of the majors and they've definitely been interested at one time or another in pulling specific data to, for example, judge what an artist's next single should be. In aggregate, a lot of our data is very useful to them and we're obviously very careful about that. We are hardcore geeks -- died in the wool Unix nerds if you go back into our history -- so as a result our data is under lock and key. It is stored in ways where you can get useful information out in aggregate, but we feel very strongly about ensuring individual users' private data is not identifiable.
"Our users trust us with something that's very important to them and close to their hearts. Scrobbling essentially gives us permission to spy on our listeners' music habits and the reason they let us do that is because they get so much more out of it at the other end, including full data export. We're constantly working on new products that make more use of our data and we have a team of music scientists that spend all day figuring out better algorithms.
"We've got a few things coming soon including a 'Best of 2009' feature, which is based entirely on scrobble. With this, you can overlay your personal listening history for the year on top of the larger trends.
Any plans to sell music digitally?
"We've debated this for years. When I first joined in 2005 that was one of the things on the whiteboard. Ultimately, now, in a way, buying music online is almost a solved problem.
"There are tonnes of shops like iTunes, lots of speciality online shops for different labels and genres, so our role is to make sure whenever you find music on Last.fm you can purchase it from the best shop in the best country in the format you want. We've been working hard on improving our system for linking to ecommerce, because we think that's very important."
Who's the most popular artist in the Last.fm's history?
"This may be quite underwhelming, but just in the last month The Beatles have ascended to the throne of 'most scrobbled artist ever'. Their recent re-releases have given them the extra push they needed. For a long time Radiohead and Coldplay were the chart toppers.
"This presents huge problems to our recommendation algorithm guys, because if you enter either of those bands, it recommends every other popular artist. We've had to do a lot of work to de-Radiohead-ify our algorithms!
"Generally though, having The Beatles on top represents the fact our audience spans all age groups."
How many people access Last.fm on a fixed PC versus those on the move?
"At the minute, about 5 per cent of all our streams are mobile streams and that's been growing steadily since we launched our first official iPhone app, which is now about a year and a half old. There are plenty of other apps built by third parties, which is something we're encouraging.
"Anywhere you're listening to music is where we want to be, so our mobile-streaming strategy is just as important as our mobile-scrobbling strategy. We want Last.fm to be your definitive music profile and the URL that you can send someone when they ask, 'Hey, what are you listening to?' We want to be everywhere and mobile's really exciting for that.
"On a related note, there are a couple of different apps in development using our events API and creating gig finders in your city. They take the list of concerts we have and overlaying those on a map to show you what's happening near you on any given night."
CBS is launching over-the-air HD radio stations in the US, where playlists are generated by Last.fm's weekly charts. Why is a Web 2.0 company embracing old-school radio?
"It's tempting to think of it as counterintuitive, but it's really complementary. There's never been a radio station that's actually influenced by what real people are listening to around the world with rich data updated weekly. It's also great for getting the Last.fm name and brand and what we're about in front of a wider audience who are used to traditional radio. It's a gentle way of introducing the concept and they might be intrigued about the workings behind it and go and check out the Web site."
Are you planning to launch such a service in the UK?
"We'll see how that goes. We're paying close attention to it and if it takes off then who knows, but there are no plans right now."
Apple Is Said to Be Close to Buying Music Start-Up
In the most recent sign that Apple is looking at alternative ways for people to store and play their digital music, the company is finalizing talks to acquire Lala, a four-year-old start-up based in Palo Alto, Calif., two people with knowledge of the discussions said Friday.
Lala, unlike Apple’s iTunes, lets users play the music they own from the Web — or in tech industry parlance, from the cloud. If Apple does acquire the company and introduces its own cloud-based streaming music service, it would let people skip having to download music they buy or synchronize their music collection between their computers and mobile devices.
A person’s music library would always be available on the Web and accessible on their PCs, smartphones and other Web-connected mobile devices.
Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said the company was “not going to comment on rumors and speculation.” A Lala representative could not be reached. News of the talks was first reported earlier on Friday by Bloomberg News and CNet, a technology news site.
“Apple is definitely watching streaming music, the traction of Pandora, of course, and other streaming applications on the iPhone,” said David Goldberg, the former general manager of Yahoo Music and chief executive of SurveyMonkey. “There’s a legitimate question here: why should people have to download music?”
But Mr. Goldberg added that it would be uncharacteristic of Apple to buy Lala rather than build such a service itself.
Other music industry insiders are wondering what Apple is buying exactly. Lala’s licenses for streaming music with the major music labels are not transferable over to any acquirer, and its service has not been a hit with mainstream consumers. The site is getting less than a million unique visitors a month, according to Compete, a Web analytics company.
One person with knowledge of the discussions said that the talks originated when Lala executives concluded their prospects for turning a profit in the short term were dim, and initiated discussions about a potential investment with Eddy Cue, Apple’s vice president in charge of iTunes.
This person said Apple would primarily be buying Lala’s engineers, including its energetic co-founder Bill Nguyen, and their experience with cloud-based music services.
Those engineers have built a service that music enthusiasts say is very easy to use. Lala scans the hard drives of its users and creates an online music library that matches the user’s collection, making it painless (and free) for people to get their music in the cloud.
Lala has gone through several iterations in its eventful history. It originally launched as a CD- swapping service in 2006. The next year it began allowing users to make copies of their music collections in the cloud, but had to stop when the music industry objected because the company had not gotten the proper licenses. Last year, it unveiled yet another model, letting customers either buy and download a song for 89 or 99 cents, or pay 10 cents for the rights to stream that song an unlimited number of times from the Web.
That proposition has been a bit too complex for many Web users, and earlier this year, Warner Music, one of the investors in Lala, wrote down $11 million of its $20 million investment.
Lala recently struck one agreement with Google to let searchers sample free music through its site, and another with Facebook to allow its users to give each other digital songs as gifts.
One reason Lala may not have taken off is that people do not necessarily want to entrust their music collection to the servers of a start-up whose prospects are uncertain. There would be no such uncertainty with Apple.
Susan Boyle Makes UK Chart History with Debut Album
The debut album of Scottish singer Susan Boyle, who shot to fame on TV talent show "Britain's Got Talent," has become the fastest selling album in Britain this year.
Entering the music charts in the top spot on Sunday, Boyle's "I Dreamed a Dream" sold more than 410,000 copies -- the biggest first week sales for a debut album in UK chart history, the Official Charts Company said.
This month, the Sony Music record became the largest global CD pre-order in the 14-year history of Amazon.com.
The dowdy 48-year-old church volunteer, whose audition has been viewed more than 300 million times online since it was broadcast in April, has become a sensation worldwide, appearing on top U.S. chat shows such as Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey.
"Susan Boyle's achievement is quite phenomenal," said Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company.
"After all of the excitement surrounding her appearance on 'Britain's Got Talent,' everyone expected her to make a big impact when she released her first music -- but to arrive with such a bang is exceptional."
The album has also topped the Australian and Irish charts and is also set to be No. 1 in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, Sony Corp's Sony Music said on Sunday.
Boyle, who was signed by music impresario Simon Cowell, also appeared in the UK singles chart with a cover of The Rolling Stone's hit "Wild Horses," which debuted at No. 9.
Peter Kay's Animated All Stars took pole position, with their single "The Official BBC Children in Need Medley" which climbed to the top spot from last week's No. 1.
The only other new entry in the top 10 singles was Rihanna's "Roulette," which debuted at number six.
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan)
"New Moon" Shines on Record Holiday Box Office
"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" rose to the top of movie box office charts for the second straight week on Sunday with a three-day haul of $42.5 million on a record-breaking holiday weekend in North America, according to studio estimates.
Over the five-day U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, the vampire romance starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner took in $66 million, pushing its two-week total in theaters to $230.7 million in North America, said independent studio Summit Entertainment, which backed the movie.
Internationally, the high-profile sequel to last year's monster hit "Twilight," based on the best-selling novels by Stephenie Meyer, has taken in $243 million for a worldwide total just under $475 million in two weeks.
Richard Fay, president of domestic distribution for Summit, said the movie continued to do strong repeat business from mostly teenage girls who are fans of the movies and books, and it was able to expand its audiences to include older women.
Total movie ticket sales for the five-day holiday period in North America reached a record $278 million, beating the old figure of $244 million set back in 2000 when "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Unbreakable" were the two top films, according to sales tracker Hollywood.com Box-Office.
Coming in at No. 2, also for the second straight week, was Sandra Bullock football film "The Blind Side" with three-day sales of $40.1 million and a two-week total of $100.5 million. Disaster film "2012" rounded out the top three with $18 million in three days, boosting its three-week total to $139 million.
"Blind Side," produced by Alcon Entertainment and released by Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros,, played well to all audiences. Bullock helped draw women, sports lured men and the feel-good tale about a woman played by Bullock who helps a homeless boy become a football hero attracted families.
"This is a movie that plays equally to both genders," said Andrew Kosove, co-chief executive of Alcon Entertainment. "A great deal of moviegoing is consensus driven (among families) and we were the consensus movie for the weekend."
Natural disaster flick "2012" also continued to score well. Internationally, its ticket sales now stand at $456 million, boosting its global haul to $595 million, said distributor Columbia Pictures, a unit of Sony Corp.
Among new movies, Disney comedy "Old Dogs" with John Travolta and Robin Williams was No. 4 in North America with $16.8 million on the weekend and $24 million for five days. Warner Bros' "Ninja Assassin" with Korean superstar Rain was No. 6 with $13.1 million and $21 million for the 3-day and 5-day periods, respectively.
Other noteworthy titles include Disney's "A Christmas Carol," which claimed the No. 5 spot with $16 million, pushing its North American cumulative ticket sales to $105 million.
Twentieth Century Fox expanded the release of its animated movie "Fantastic Mr. Fox," widely around the United States and it climbed to the No. 9 spot with $7 million on the weekend. Fox is a unit of News Corp
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
Avatar Cost £300m to Make... But is 'Dancing With Smurfs' Going to be the Most Expensive Flop Ever?
The story of Avatar - the new film from Titanic director James Cameron, and reputedly the most expensive ever made - will ring true to anyone who has ever felt so much as a twinge of guilt about their own carbon footprint.
It is the 22nd century and Earth has run out of its natural resources. It is now little more than a desert, without vegetation, wildlife or minerals.
But a newly discovered planet, Pandora, is a lush, exotic world which possesses everything we need, so a ruthless mining corporation hatches a plan to strip it bare and save the Earth while making billions for themselves.
'To sum it up, it's about ecology and greed,' says Sigourney Weaver, who dyed her hair red to play a botanist in the film. 'It took me a while to grasp what I was getting into, but then I realised no one has ever made a fantasy film like this before.'
Cameron himself is convinced cinema-goers will want to see it at least four times - hopefully quadrupling its box office potential.
'People will see the movie because they are curious,' he says. 'Then they'll go back to make sure they saw the fantastic things they thought they saw.
'By then, they'll be ready to see it for the third time - just to enjoy it - then a fourth time to savour the full experience.'
Certainly, the Hollywood executives who bankrolled this sci-fi juggernaut laden with 3D effects are hoping that Cameron's optimism is well placed.
For although the Fox studio indicates that Avatar cost around £180million - some £30million more than Cameron's previous epic, Titanic - Tinseltown gossip says the true cost was a staggering £300 million, thanks to re-shoots and Cameron's constantly changing ideas.
It's no wonder that everyone connected with movies is waiting to see what the box office figures look like when Avatar comes out on December 18.
Some believe a movie about an alien culture of giant blue humanoids can never make a profit, while others think it will save the film industry from the threats of DVD piracy and static ticket sales.
Someone, rather unkindly, has dubbed this long, po-faced epic Dances With Smurfs, after Kevin Costner's over-long po-faced epic Dances With Wolves.
Is Cameron's ambitious project likely ever to recoup its investment? Titanic, which cost around £150 million to make, was forecast to be a massive flop. And the prediction, when the film came out 12 years ago, was that it was going to lose at least £60 million at the box office.
In the event, it was the most lucrative film ever released, making a staggering £1.1billion and winning 11 Oscars to boot.
Critics may have carped about Titanic's hackneyed storyline and saccharine sensibility, but it was a globally loved phenomenon.
Like all James Cameron films, Avatar is a huge gamble, with audiences at early previews ecstatic at the 3D technology - less enamoured of his environmentally conscious sci-fi world
It personally enriched Cameron - a five-times married movie obsessive with a reputation for throwing the shoutiest tantrums in Hollywood - by an estimated £60million.
So why has Avatar, which has its London premiere next week, cost so much to make? It is Cameron's first feature film since Titanic and the price tag mostly reflects the fact that he wanted to make a photo-realistic sci-fi epic film in 3-D.
This 'live action' epic is about two-thirds computer generated and one-third real, and uses the most advanced motion capture technology.
There are only 37 cast members - all unknowns except for Sigourney Weaver - but there is a roll-call of thousands of digitally-created characters.
Much of the technology was created just to make the filming possible, and Cameron says his team had to invent dozens of new techno-phrases to describe the processes involved.
In fact, when he came up with the idea for Avatar 14 years ago, he was told it was an impossible dream, because the technology needed to make it come true didn't exist.
Describing the making of Avatar as 'computer graphics hell', he added: 'We were trying to create a world from scratch, working with computer generated characters that are photorealistic. That's tough. We set the bar high.'
The project was conducted with Cameron's customary mania for perfection, using close-up cameras so sensitive they could detect muscles moving under the skin of the actors' faces.
Each shot was captured by up to eight cameras simultaneously and the images were then turned into aliens. The final effect is said to be so convincing that you could be looking at actors in make-up rather than digitally created beings.
And every scene had to be shot twice on 3D cameras to make the film work in three dimensions.
The film's production designer, Rick Carter, says the created reality is vital to the success of the film.
'The real challenge is whether you feel the emotion coming through from the characters.
When you look into those eyes, do you feel the connection is real?'
It was Carter's job to create the fantasy planet Pandora, according to Cameron's specifications. One of the many spectacular features is that the planet lights up at night.
Cameron had seen a bioluminescent world when he was deep-sea diving during the making of Titanic, and so, for added realism, hired a professor of plant physiology, Jodie Holt, to help create the plant life on Pandora, which had to be toxic to humans but support vegetation.
Another academic, Professor Paul Frommer, of the University of Southern California, was paid to create a language for the tribe of 10ft tall blue aliens, called the Na'vi, who live on Pandora.
Frommer, a linguistics expert, spent four years working on the language, and said: 'I could have let my imagination run wild and come up with all sorts of weird sounds, but I was limited by what a human actor could actually do.'
The Na'vi language as he created it has more than 1,000 words, with a grammar of its own. The actors even had a voice coach, the renowned Carla Meyer, to help with pronunciation.
Frommer hopes it will have 'a life of its own' in possible prequels and sequels and that fans of Avatar may even trouble to learn it, as some Star Trek fans have studied the Klingon language. A Na'vi dictionary is already available online.
Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver is at pains to point out that the film will appeal to a much wider audience than sci-fi fans.
'In its way, it is an old fashioned kind of movie but with a seamless modern technology. It is a big, swashbuckling epic romance - the sort of story that has brought audiences into the cinema for almost 100 years.'
Because humans cannot breathe on Pandora, the SecFor mining company which sets out to pillage the planet creates human-alien hybrids, called Avatars.
The hero, Jake Sully, played by Australian actor Sam Worthington, is a paraplegic former Marine who volunteers to take part, blissfully unaware of the corporation's plans to steal Pandora's resources.
However, Jake is accepted into the Na'vi world, and falls in love with Princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). He learns to respect the Na'vi culture, which puts him at odds with SecFor, as they gear up to assault and take over Pandora itself in a massive final battle scene.
Worthington, 30, was unknown outside Australia, where he had made a few art films. 'I met James Cameron to discuss the film and discovered that his personal heroes weren't actors - they were scientists. That got me hooked.'
Worthington's take on Avatar is simplistic. 'It's a great film, and a story that isn't so far-fetched because we all know that we're bleeding our planet dry. Maybe it will make people realise that Earth needs saving from itself before it's too late.
'But we're not preaching - It's just a rattling good story.'
Some critics say it's a 'horrible film' - overinflated, hard to watch and ridiculous. There are also complaints that the Na'vi just don't work cinematically and that it's all a shade absurd.
But Leo Barraclough, of the entertainment industry magazine Variety, says he doesn't think such brickbats will affect its commercial appeal. 'It is one of the most anticipated films of recent years and I don't think it will much matter what the critics say.
'It is 12 years since Titanic, and James Cameron is a big movie maker, so people are going to want to see it because of that.
'Cameron is known for quality film making, with energy, intelligence and detail. Avatar has also been marketed very cleverly via the internet and tie-ins with MTV and Coca Cola and so on.'
More than one million people have logged on to the online trailer, and ticket presales are apparently phenomenal.
Rather unusually, Fox has sought to whet public interest in Avatar with special showings at IMAX cinemas around the world of a 16-minute extended trailer.
The marketing assault includes product tie-ins with McDonalds and the Coca-Cola Company, who are Fox's promotional partners: Coca Cola, for example, has produced 140 million cans of Coke Zero which, when held up to a webcam, will show a helicopter taking off.
Action figures and vehicles are being made for the global market by Mattel. They all contain i-Tags which show content and info when held up to a webcam. And a video game in 3D is already on the market.
It's all very clever, but will Avatar make its money back? Whether it's £180million, as the studio says, or £300 million as the grapevine has it, the film still needs to sell a lot of tickets.
To put this into context, big effects-laden movies such as Spider Man 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean cost around £150 million to make.
Fox, however, is able to stay calm about its financial exposure - because the costs have been split with two other investors. Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Film Partners are paying for about two-thirds of the production costs.
And Fox will also get a 15 per cent tax rebate from New Zealand, where all the live-action sequences and most of the effects were done, which is expected to return around £15 million.
Cameron has agreed to delay his profit participation until Fox and its investors recoup their costs. Perhaps he is so confident because Avatar will benefit from the higher ticket prices charged by 3-D theatres.
There are high hopes that it will help to continue the 3-D revolution, which is bringing audiences back into cinemas, and that it will push the sales of Blu ray discs next year when it is released.
Fox's co-chairman Tom Rothman describes Avatar as 'a creatively ambitious movie that is fiscally prudent'. It's clear that he is already thinking about a sequel. 'When you can move the popular culture, particularly with something newly created, that's a path to tremendous success,' he says.
A Takeover Movie for Hollywood to Watch
Not long ago, a first meeting between Hollywood executives and the potential new owners of their studio might have turned on Oscar prospects, this year’s ingénue or the exact dimensions of Russell Crowe’s salary.
But chieftains from Universal Studios, who met in New York recently with Brian L. Roberts and Stephen B. Burke, the top executives from the cable giant Comcast — which is proposing to take control of the movie company in a new venture built around its parent, NBC Universal, and Comcast’s entertainment channels — have been talking about “windows.”
Those are time frames during which pictures can be viewed in theaters, on disc, over subscription cable channels or via video on demand.
Despite a stall in the talks just over a week ago, Comcast has continued to close in on a deal that would give it the reins of an entertainment company valued at $30 billion. General Electric, which currently controls NBC Universal, would become a minority owner, while buying out a 20 percent stake held by its partner, Vivendi.
Because talks are continuing, executives from both Comcast and NBC Universal declined to discuss their plans for the film studio, which is to be run by its president, Ron Meyer, and his current boss, Jeff Zucker, during a regulatory review that is expected to last as long as a year.
Privately, however, people who have been briefed on the possible combination — and who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect the negotiations — said they expected Universal, hurt by weak films and industrywide erosion in DVD revenue, to become a laboratory for an owner that might have to reformulate the movie industry’s approach to its own customers.
In the short term, much of Hollywood is simply relieved that Universal has not been scooped up by companies like Time Warner or the News Corporation, which might have absorbed the company’s 4,000-film library while folding its operations into movie units of their own, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox respectively.
“Hopefully, it will give stability to the studio, because we can’t afford to lose another major film studio,” Michael Shamberg, a producer of “Erin Brockovich” and “Along Came Polly” for Universal, said of the Comcast deal.
Mr. Shamberg, who was interviewed via e-mail, said that corporate turmoil had recently curtailed activity at MGM, while units like New Line Cinema, Paramount Vantage, Miramax Films and Warner Independent Pictures had already been downsized or eliminated.
Comcast executives have not signaled changes in the mix of films at Universal, staff cuts or another round of management change. Only last month at Universal, its two chairmen, Marc Shmuger and David Linde, were forced out in a shake-up that left the former marketing president, Adam Fogelson, in the chairman’s post, under Mr. Meyer and Mr. Zucker.
It has been a pretty rough patch for Universal, which ranked as high as No. 2 in market share among Hollywood studios in the early years of the decade, but is now a dismal sixth in the wake of flops like “Land of the Lost.”
Internally, many at Universal are nearly giddy at the prospect of liberation from the management systems at G.E., which have galled studio managers since the conglomerate took charge in 2003, after successive ownership of the studio by Vivendi, Seagram, Matsushita and MCA Inc.
Under G.E., film executives have complained about what they see as a rigid insistence on quarterly profit growth — difficult to sustain in a business where a surprise hit like “Mamma Mia!” can be followed by a heavily promoted disappointment like “The Express” — and management review systems that have complicated routine matters like the hiring of a lawyer or a change in a release date.
Whatever its intentions, Comcast would have little choice over the next year or two but to stick with a slate of films that is largely in place. In May, the studio plans to release its long-planned Robin Hood film, which is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Mr. Crowe. Beyond that, films in the works include a “Meet the Fockers” sequel, and a comic adventure, “Stretch Armstrong,” based on a Hasbro toy.
In February, the studio is set to release “The Wolfman,” a period horror story, and in March it has a Matt Damon war thriller called “Green Zone.” Both were shot in 2008.
But executives and others briefed on the proposed combination also anticipate a thrust into digital distribution perhaps as aggressive as that signaled by the Walt Disney Company, which last month announced a new system, Keychest, intended to let consumers own digital entertainment for use on whatever device or viewing system they might like.
“If you buy a house, the new owners are going to put money into that house,” offered Chris Silbermann, the president of International Creative Management, though Mr. Silbermann said he had no specific knowledge of Comcast’s plans.
One obvious possibility could involve selling films to Comcast’s 24 million cable customers, via video-on-demand, at or near their DVD release dates, without the expense of a middleman.
A video-on-demand pioneer, Comcast picked up experience on the cheap when it invested a relatively modest $300 million in a partnership that since 2004 has owned MGM, and gained access to that company’s film library.
To date, about 90 percent of Comcast’s extensive on-demand offerings have come without additional charge as part of a basic subscription package, a system that has built customer loyalty and taught consumers to select films on cable rather than disc.
But the company for two years has been testing fee-based on-demand offerings simultaneously with DVD releases from at least seven companies, including Warner Brothers and Fox, in a number of markets, and has offered films as prominent as “Twilight,” “Gran Torino” and “Bride Wars,” splitting revenue with the studios that released them.
“For the first time, the ability to watch a movie becomes an impulse,” said Ryan Kavanaugh, whose company, Relativity Media, has helped finance films like “Fast & Furious,” “Duplicity” and the coming “MacGruber” for Universal. “I think it grows our business exponentially.”
Mr. Kavanaugh is one of many film executives who contend that a quick push toward on-demand can shore up industry profits that have been hollowed out by annual declines in disc sales.
If Comcast, or any owner, were to fail in devising a digital fix, the Universal studio — and the industry at large — could face radical changes to bring its operations in line with the fall in home entertainment revenue, said others who have been briefed on the situation at Universal.
The possibilities include a sharp reduction in the home video staff; the outsourcing of work now done by their own departments, like legal or marketing; and perhaps a severe review of expensive producer deals, weighing the legacy value of longstanding associated companies like Imagine Entertainment, Working Title Films and Stuber Productions against their prospective profitability to the studio.
Brian Grazer, chairman of Imagine, declined to be interviewed. Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, the co-chairmen of Working Title, and Scott Stuber, the principal owner of Stuber Productions, did not respond to queries.
Still, others predict that the film business, whose profits are already something of a rounding error within large corporations like G.E., Sony or the News Corporation, will only recede further as Comcast becomes preoccupied with the potential of other media properties that come with NBC.
“In a way, it’s the worst possible news for Hollywood,” Roger Smith, a former studio executive and editor in chief of Global Media Intelligence, said of Comcast’s proposed control of Universal within a much larger complex of cable channels and broadcast properties.
“They are an afterthought.”
In Secret Meetings, Comcast Wooed G.E. And Won NBC
Andrew Ross Sorkin and Tim Arango
The secret meeting was set for an early July afternoon in a condominium along the ninth hole of a golf course in Sun Valley, Idaho. Jeffrey R. Immelt, General Electric’s chief executive, arrived first, taking care to avoid being spotted by his own employee, Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of NBC Universal, who was mingling with other executives nearby.
Ralph J. Roberts, the 89-year-old co-founder of the cable giant Comcast, and its chief operating officer, Steve Burke, arrived 15 minutes later.
The gathering, which had been brokered by James B. Lee Jr., a vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase, was set up for one purpose: Mr. Immelt, who had resisted the urge to sell NBC for years, was finally ready to sell. For months, he had been in discussions with Mr. Roberts’s son, Brian, Comcast’s chief executive. But now, at the investment bank Allen & Company’s annual media conference — known for big deal-making — he wanted to hear it from the mouth of the company’s patriarch.
“Do you want to do this?” Mr. Immelt, dressed informally in a polo shirt, asked Mr. Roberts, who was wearing his trademark bow tie, and Mr. Burke, who was Mr. Immelt’s classmate at Harvard Business School.
“Yes,” Mr. Burke said.
Mr. Roberts, who founded Comcast in Tupelo, Miss., in 1963, said: “I’ve done a lot of deals in my life. Every deal has its time. This is the right time.”
On Thursday, G.E. is planning to finally announce what had leaked more than a month ago: it is selling a controlling stake in NBC Universal to Comcast, a deal that will once again reshape the media landscape.
The transaction, the largest during Mr. Immelt’s tenure as chief executive, will also reshape G.E., refocusing it into an industrial and financial conglomerate without the flash — and financial instability — of a television and film business. And in the process, he has been undoing much of the legacy of his predecessor, John F. Welch Jr.
The deal was a long time in the making and was filled with meetings at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia, in New York City apartments and on helicopter rides. It also featured code names: G.E. was Green, NBC was Navy, Vivendi was Violet and Comcast was Crimson (because of the Harvard link).
More than a half-dozen executives involved in those discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deal had yet to be formally announced and because the negotiations were considered confidential, helped reconstruct a nearly yearlong dance between G.E. and Comcast.
Mr. Roberts had long wanted to control not just the pipes into people’s homes, but the television shows and movies that flow over them. But since 2004, when he sought and failed to buy the Walt Disney Company, the media industry’s economics had cratered. Broadcast television was suffering through ratings declines, and a falloff in DVD sales had dented profits in Hollywood. But cable channels, of which NBC Universal has many, were flourishing.
The prospect of a deal with G.E. began in earnest in the late afternoon on March 3 on the 48th floor of JPMorgan, when Mr. Roberts and Mr. Burke came to meet with that firm’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, at the behest of Mr. Lee.
The meeting began with a general discussion of Comcast’s finances, but Mr. Roberts said the company did not need a bank to raise money. Instead, he changed direction by saying he had been pursuing Mr. Immelt about NBC but felt like he was getting nowhere. He felt that G.E. was in a vulnerable position and highlighted the fact that when NBC acquired the Weather Channel earlier in the year, it partnered with private equity instead of buying the network on its own. It was a sign, Mr. Roberts believed, that Mr. Immelt might not be fully committed to the television business. Mr. Lee said he was having breakfast the next morning with Mr. Immelt and agreed to mention Comcast’s interest.
A day later, Mr. Roberts was standing in the lobby of a Marriott hotel in Baltimore, where his daughter was playing in a squash tournament, when Mr. Immelt called his cellphone.
“I want you to know that I’m going to study this,” Mr. Immelt told Mr. Roberts. The two agreed that measures should be taken to ensure secrecy and that only a handful of executives should be informed. Mr. Roberts, who had the failed hostile takeover bid for Disney behind him, had one requirement: he said he would not participate in an auction.
“We’ve got to be monogamous,” he said.
Mr. Immelt’s evolution in thinking about NBC had come over the last year as his company’s fortunes were battered during the financial crisis. In the weeks after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, Mr. Immelt had spent many hours on the phone with the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., worrying about the conglomerate’s fate.
In the beginning of 2009, as the stock market continued to plunge and G.E. hovered as low as $5.87 a share, Mr. Immelt listened to presentations about its assets at a management retreat, where his thoughts began to crystallize. NBC Universal, whose cable channels continued to do well but whose flagship broadcast network was deteriorating, no longer appeared to be core to the business and he thought his capital could be redeployed better elsewhere.
Comcast had also undertaken an internal review to consider where the company could grow by acquisition. It considered buying another cable company, a mobile phone company or even Facebook. At one point, it considered acquiring Viacom, which owns several cable networks but is unencumbered by a broadcast network, but Sumner M. Redstone, the controlling shareholder in Viacom, was not interested in selling.
As the spring wore on, G.E. and Comcast met repeatedly, trying to come up with a structure for the deal. By August, the broad points, in which Comcast would acquire 51 percent of the company, with G.E. holding 49 percent, were agreed upon. G.E. can begin selling its remaining stake back to NBC three and a half years after the deal closes at a 20 percent premium to the market value. However, it would have to share 50 percent of any increase in the value of NBC with Comcast.
The deal nearly fell apart several times. Once, when it seemed that it had been derailed over price and structure, Michael J. Angelakis, Comcast’s chief financial officer, flew to the summer home of Keith S. Sherin, G.E.’s chief financial officer, in Cape Cod and took him and his wife out to dinner to put the deal back on track. By the end of dinner, they had shaken hands.
The largest complication was that Vivendi, the French conglomerate that owned 20 percent of the company, could force G.E. to pursue an initial public offering if they could not come to terms on a deal.
Even within the last two weeks amid a constant stream of leaks, it appeared the deal could collapse. Vivendi wanted to value the business at $6.1 billion; G.E. wanted to value it at $5.5 billion. They ended up at $5.8 billion, but there was still a worry about what would happen if G.E.’s deal with Comcast were blocked by regulators.
Mr. Immelt, after attending the state dinner last month at the White House, flew to Paris to persuade Vivendi to complete the deal. An agreement was reached over the weekend after he offered to pay Vivendi $2 billion even if the Comcast deal collapsed.
For nearly six months, only a small cadre of G.E. and Comcast executives knew about the deal — nobody at NBC was ever told — and it had not leaked. On Sept. 30, several hours after the talks were disclosed to a tiny group of executives at NBC, the blockbuster talks appeared on TheWrap.com, a Hollywood news site.
“I’m telling you to be prepared for this to leak,” Mr. Sherin had told Mr. Angelakis earlier that day.
Comcast Aims to Reshape Entertainment With NBC
Comcast Corp. announced Thursday it plans to buy a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion, giving the nation's largest cable TV operator control of the Peacock network, an array of cable channels and a major movie studio.
Although the deal could mean that movies could reach cable more quickly after showing in theaters, and that TV shows could appear faster on cell phones and other devices, it was already raising concerns that Comcast would wield too much power over entertainment.
Indeed, if the deal clears regulatory and other hurdles, Comcast would rival the heft of The Walt Disney Co. -- which Comcast CEO Brian Roberts already tried to buy.
Comcast, which already serves a quarter of all U.S. households that pay for TV, would gain control of the NBC broadcast network, the Spanish-language Telemundo and about two dozen cable channels, including USA, Syfy and The Weather Channel. It also would have regional sports networks, Universal Pictures and theme parks.
Shares of Comcast rose 36 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $15.30 in pre-market trading Thursday, as the company also announced an increase in its dividend.
In agreeing to buy 51 percent of NBC Universal from General Electric Co., which has controlled NBC since 1986, Comcast hopes to succeed in marrying distribution and content in a way Time Warner Inc. could not. AOL and Time Warner are undoing their ill-fated marriage Dec. 9. Time Warner has already shed its cable TV operations.
Comcast's Roberts and GE CEO Jeff Immelt have been discussing the deal for months, and the final weeks came down to GE's persuading French conglomerate Vivendi SA to first sell its minority stake.
Comcast made the deal because it is eager to diversify its holdings. It faces encroaching threats from online video and more aggressive competition from satellite and phone companies that offer subscription TV services.
For entertainment viewers, the deal means Universal Pictures movies could get to cable faster.
TV shows could appear on mobile phones and other devices faster as part of Comcast's plans to let viewers watch programs wherever they want. Comcast already is letting subscribers watch cable TV shows online in trials, with a nationwide launch in December.
On Thursday, Comcast pledged that NBC Universal shows that now cost money over its cable video-on-demand service would be free for three years after the deal closes.
Comcast also said it would maintain free, over-the-air TV on NBC stations -- a business model that is eroding because of falling advertising revenue. Comcast also pledged to improve public interest programming. And it said it would not let its business interests affect NBC News.
But consumer advocates worry about the deal, saying people could end up paying more for TV.
Under Comcast, subscription-TV operators such as DirecTV Group Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.'s FiOS service would be negotiating with a direct rival on how much they have to pay to carry NBC Universal's cable and broadcast channels.
An NBC Universal under Comcast might be less willing to budge than one under GE. Consumer groups worry that as a result, fees that are already creeping up could rise even faster, with the costs passed to customers in their monthly pay-TV bills.
NBC Universal is profitable, with operating earnings of $1.7 billion on revenue of $11.2 billion in the first three quarters of 2009, despite weakness in the fourth-place NBC broadcast network and Universal Pictures, ranked sixth in North American box office gross this year by Rentrak Corp./Hollywood.com.
Comcast wants the company largely for its lucrative cable channels. It is seeking more programming to beef up its video-on-demand offerings and rely less on cable revenue as the company loses subscribers to rival providers -- such as phone companies that are offering TV services -- or the Internet.
Meanwhile, GE needs cash to support its financing unit, GE Capital, which was devastated in last year's financial meltdown.
Under the deal, expected to close in a year if regulators and shareholders approve, GE would buy Vivendi SA's 20 percent stake in NBC Universal for $5.8 billion. Of that, $2 billion is payable in September 2010 if the deal hasn't closed by then, and the remaining $3.8 billion would be due at closing. NBC Universal is to be separated into a new joint venture.
Comcast would buy a 51 percent stake of the new company by paying $6.5 billion in cash and contributing $7.25 billion worth of cable channels it owns, including E!, Style and Golf Channel. Moody's analyst Neil Begley noted that Comcast is jumping in as media company values are relatively low and stands to benefit as business conditions improve.
GE would retain a 49 percent stake, with the option of unloading half its stake in 3 1/2 years and all of it in seven years. The new NBC Universal would borrow $9.1 billion that would partially go toward covering the money GE owes Vivendi.
Comcast would get to name three people to the board and GE two, and Comcast would manage the joint venture. Jeff Zucker would remain NBC Universal's CEO and report to Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke. NBC Universal's headquarters are expected to stay in New York.
Consumer groups fear that a Comcast-NBC combination would be so threatening that rivals would strike similar deals just to compete -- a sentiment echoed by DirecTV Chairman John Malone in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
And if media ownership were further concentrated, consumers would see higher prices and fewer choices, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, chief executive of the Media Access Project. He warned that online video and other new forms of competition could be squashed ''before they can gain a toehold in the market.''
Satellite TV rival Dish Networks Corp., meanwhile, worries that Comcast would be in a stronger position to withhold channels from competitors. CEO Charles Ergen has complained that a regulatory loophole lets Comcast bar his company from carrying Philadelphia sports games shown on Comcast's regional sports network. Comcast did not respond to requests for comment.
The Comcast-NBC deal is widely seen as a test of the Obama administration's resolve to fight media consolidation, but consumer groups aren't confident regulators will find a legal means to block the transaction.
Comcast would likely have to agree to some restrictions, such as treating rival cable, satellite TV and phone companies equally in programming talks instead of favoring its own cable operations.
Shareholders haven't been happy, either, at what they see as a renewed attempt at empire building after Comcast's failed $54 billion hostile bid for Disney in 2004.
Many investors sold off the stock at the first whiff of a possible deal with GE, afraid that Comcast would make an acquisition it couldn't handle and tie up money for dividends and stock buybacks that could boost Comcast's shares. Shares in Comcast have fallen 11 percent, vaporizing about $5 billion in market value, since word of the deal leaked Sept. 30.
In an effort to please investors, Comcast said it would increase its annual dividend by 40 percent, to 37.8 cents per share, and confirmed it would still buy back stock.
If the deal wins approval, Comcast would still have to make it work. It's betting that it could do a better job than Time Warner, which couldn't find a way to make its cable, AOL and content businesses operate well together.
Comcast said Burke, its chief operating officer, has plenty of experience in content given his former role as an ABC executive. But Time Warner, too, had a suite full of entertainment executives.
One problem at Time Warner was the conflicting interests between the cable and content sides. Time Warner's cable TV unit, before it was spun off into a separate company, considered bringing Warner Bros. movies to cable viewers earlier, for instance. But favoring one cable TV provider over another would have hurt the movie studio. Now Comcast could face similar challenges.
Comcast also would inherit NBC Universal's weaker units. Its NBC network has had trouble developing hit shows, reflected in the move to bring Jay Leno to prime time. Universal Pictures has been socked with some notable flops including ''Land of the Lost.'' And theme park attendance is down in the recession.
''These kinds of big mergers always have a `crapshoot' element to them,'' said Peter Fader, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. ''You can never predict with certain success or failure. You can always see it with 20-20 hindsight. This one will be no different.''
AP Business Writer Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Web-TV Divide Is Back in Focus With NBC Sale
As she prepared her daughter for college, Anne Sweeney insisted that a television be among the dorm room accessories.
“Mom, you don’t understand. I don’t need it,” her 19-year-old responded, saying she could watch whatever she wanted on her computer, at no charge.
That flustered Ms. Sweeney, who happens to be the president of the Disney-ABC Television Group.
“You’re going to have a television if I have to nail it to your wall,” she told her daughter, according to comments she made at a Reuters event this week. “You have to have one.”
But she does not, actually. For 60 years, TV could be watched only one way: through the television set. Now, though, millions watch shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” on demand and online on network Web sites like Ms. Sweeney’s ABC.com and on the Internet’s most popular streaming hub, Hulu.com.
How people watch TV on demand — and whether they should pay for the privilege — is a critical issue in the landmark deal, announced Thursday, that will give Comcast control of NBC Universal. In the deal, Comcast will become a co-owner of Hulu.
Like all its broadcast rivals, NBC rushed to put its popular shows on the Web years ago, hoping to secure a piece of the booming online advertising market and offset an eroding audience.
The viewers came in droves, but the ad revenues have not materialized as expected. By giving away TV episodes online, “the industry is literally tossing money and premium content away,” Barry M. Meyer, the Warner Brothers Entertainment chief executive, said in a speech in October.
Comcast, the country’s largest cable operator, has already been using its considerable muscle to limit how many shows are available online, lest people think they can cancel their costly cable subscriptions and watch free online. Now the company — which, if the NBC deal passes government muster, will own a piece of the biggest site that threatens to undercut its core business — is looking for ways to charge for ubiquitous access to shows.
With millions now watching TV on their computers, can the media companies put the Hulu genie back in the bottle?
The scramble by TV companies to preserve its ad model while giving consumers choice — what Comcast’s chief executive called in interviews Thursday “anytime, anywhere media” — mirrors the efforts of newspapers, magazines and radio companies to wring more money from digital media. But all are facing some entrenched habits.
“If you disrupt the consumer experience, you’re in trouble,” warns Mike Kelley, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Stephen B. Burke, the chief operating officer of Comcast, recently called streaming “the biggest social movement I’ve ever seen.”
“Online video consumption is off the charts,” he said at an industry conference.
NBC and the News Corporation, the owner of Fox, jointly formed Hulu in 2007. Disney later became an equity partner in Hulu. On Hulu and sites like it, TV episodes are available any time, usually for a full month after they premiere; the images are crystal clear, and the commercial breaks are short.
Hulu now draws more than 40 million visitors a month, according to comScore, and in October about five billion minutes of full episodes and short video clips were viewed. If online streams were included in TV ratings — and they eventually will be, Nielsen says — some shows would see considerable improvements.
While Hulu does not release revenue figures, executives privately concede the site is not yet profitable. The race to “get our content out to viewers where, when and how they want it” was well intentioned, Mr. Meyer said in October, but it is “undermining the basic business model — by making our content less valuable to the people who actually are paying for it.”
In response, Comcast and other operators are busy creating so-called authentication systems that will allow subscribers to stream a buffet of shows — but will lock out people who do not pay for cable.
“Hollywood needs a toll collector,” said Todd Dagres of the venture capital firm Spark Capital, and “Comcast can play the part because online video will erode traditional cable.”
Some are advocating for a pay model for TV streaming, and Hulu is widely expected to add a subscription arm next year. Chase Carey, the president of the News Corporation, said in October that Hulu needed to have a “subscription model as part of its business,” suggesting that the site could share some episodes for free and charge for others.
In an interview last week, Hulu’s chief executive, Jason Kilar, would not discuss forthcoming changes to the site, but said “we never aspired to be Hulu.org,” referring to a nonprofit domain name. The site continues to be bullish on the current ad-supported model, but Mr. Kilar indicated that it was eyeing multiple business models for TV and movie viewing for the future.
“If your ambition is to bring the world’s premium content to users, and to do so in a way that produces fair returns to content owners — and it is our ambition — there isn’t one single bullet,” Mr. Kilar said.
In other words, on-demand viewing is about to get a lot more complicated. In the short term, users can expect more commercials and, potentially, fewer options for watching hit shows like “CSI” and “House.”
Already, TV distributors have started to tighten the screws. For example, episodes of ABC shows usually appear online the morning after they premiere on TV — but last month each episode of the network’s alien invasion drama “V” was held back for four days. The message was clear: Watch “V” on TV.
Fearing backlash from distributors, cable channels have always been more stingy about allowing streaming. The Syfy channel, for instance, streams episodes of its drama “Eureka” eight days after they premiere on TV. Many cable shows are never streamed.
But they could come online through the authentication systems proposed by Comcast, Time Warner Cable and other operators. Sometimes called “TV Everywhere,” authentication proposes that it does not matter what screen people watch shows like “The Office” and “NCIS” on, as long as they pay a cable subscription and are counted by Nielsen.
Even authenticated subscribers can expect to see more ads online in the near future. Currently a typical sitcom will stream on Hulu with about two minutes of ads, a pittance compared with the eight minutes of ads on television. Comcast and other companies are already experimenting with higher levels of ads, and the trials indicate that consumers will sit through them.
“Given the amount of change you’re seeing happen,” Mr. Kilar said, “you’re going to see a tremendous number of experiments.”
Cable Giants to Put Shows Online
Time Warner, Comcast launch service in hopes of retaining customers
Customers of Comcast and Time Warner soon will be able to get their TV service in a new way: on their computers. In an unusual coordinated rollout involving many of the biggest competitors, the cable industry is embarking on a project dubbed TV Everywhere aimed at shoring up its franchises in the Internet age.
The basic idea behind the initiative is this: Customers who pay for basic cable subscriptions will get to watch select shows such as "Entourage" and "Mad Men" for free on desktop computers, mobile phones and any other device approved by their cable provider. The online shows will not be available to non-subscribers.
The cable industry hopes the service will give customers a new reason to keep their subscriptions and discourage people from fleeing to online competitors such as Hulu.com, YouTube and Netflix. Verizon's television service and satellite companies Dish Network and Direct TV say they are considering similar models.
All of this has grabbed the attention of federal regulators, especially as Comcast and NBC Universal engage in merger talks. A deal could be announced as soon as Thursday.
A Comcast-NBC Universal marriage would create an entertainment powerhouse. Together, the companies currently deliver one out of every five television viewing hours. Analysts say the merger could be a test cast for determining the extent to which government can regulate this new arena of online video.
Comcast won't speak directly about the merger, but it stresses that content it puts online isn't exclusive and that competitors will have access to the same shows and movies. Sources close to the merger negotiations said the companies will make commitments up front to regulators who will review the deal. Such concessions could include commitments to local broadcasting and promises to allow competitors to carry their content. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are private.
The Justice Department or Federal Trade Commission is likely to review the merger to consider whether it is anticompetitive. Already, sources close to the thinking at the Justice Department say officials are mulling competition concerns over programs such as TV Everywhere. The Federal Communications Commission will also review the merger, and while it doesn't have jurisdiction over Internet content, it will be pressured by consumer groups to ensure that Comcast doesn't bring exclusive NBC content to the Web. The agency has said it has a history of nurturing nascent video technologies to create more competition.
"The merger might give consumer groups a vehicle to argue that TV Everywhere will harm consumer welfare by preventing Internet video from becoming a viable cut-the-chord threat to Comcast's pay TV revenues," said Paul Gallant, an analyst at Concept Capital's Washington Research Group.
Indeed, Marvin Ammori, a media law professor at the University of Nebraska, warns that the TV Everywhere model could edge out small competitors who would provide alternatives to the cable subscription model. Ammori, an advisor to public interest group Free Press, said his group and others will urge regulators to closely scrutinize TV Everywhere's impact on consumers and competition for new video companies.
"TV Everywhere is an effort by the old guard, the incumbent cable industry, to make sure change doesn't come to the television," Ammori said. "And their way of doing that is to make sure you can't cancel your cable TV service and enjoy the dream of watching your favorite shows through new competitors like Hulu, Roku and Vuze."
Comcast plans to launch its version of the TV Everywhere service this month. Time Warner has said it would follow soon after.
Amy Banse, head of Comcast's digital media division, describes the effort as a way for customers to watch more shows in any way they want, be it on a mobile device, computer, in cars or on the television.
Comcast, like Time Warner, sees the strategy as a way to continue to deliver high-quality content in an era when customers are clamoring for shows on the Web.
"If we all give our stuff away for free, we're not going to have a business anymore. My business has real costs to it . . . for this to happen we have to get paid," Time Warner chief executive Glenn Britt said at a media conference this week.
How Robber Barons Hijacked the "Victorian Internet"
Ars revisits those wild and crazy days when Jay Gould ruled the telegraph and Associated Press reporters helped fix presidential elections. Is government supervision really the worst thing that can happen to a communications network?
It was 1879, and investor Charles A. Sumner sat at his desk, frustration pouring onto the page through his ink pen. Sumner, business partner to the radical economist and journalist Henry George, was finishing the concluding passages of a book about what had happened to the telegraph, or the Victorian Internet, as one historian calls it.
"This glorious invention was vouchsafed to mankind," he wrote, "that we might salute and converse with one another respectively stationed at remote and isolated points for a nominal sum."
But instead, he continued, "A wicked monopoly has seized hold of this beneficent capacity and design, and made it tributary, by exorbitant tariffs, to a most miserly and despicable greed."
It's a largely forgotten story, but one that still has relevance today. If you follow debates about broadband policy, you know that there are two perspectives perennially at war with each other. One seeks some regulation of the dominant industries and service providers of our time. The other seeks carte blanche for the private sector to do as it sees fit. Nowhere does the latter camp press this case harder than when it comes to network neutrality on the Internet, and appeals to the Founding Fathers aren't unknown.
"Our founding fathers understood that it is government that takes away people's freedoms, not individuals or companies," wrote entrepreneur Scott Cleland in an opinion piece for National Public Radio not long ago. Cleland opposes the Federal Communications Commission's proposals to codify into rules its principles prohibiting ISPs from discriminating against certain applications.
"At the core, the FCC's proposed pre-emptive 'net neutrality' regulations to preserve an 'open Internet' are not at all about promoting freedom but exactly the opposite. Freedom is not a zero sum game, where taking it away from some gives more to others. Taking away freedoms of some takes away freedom from all."
Reading this argument, one wonders if there ever was an age when the hands-off school of regulation got exactly what it seems to want—a network environment largely untarnished by public oversight.
In fact, there was such a time.
Three years before Sumner wrote his lament, the country was wracked by the most convulsive presidential election since the outbreak of the Civil War: Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York versus Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio. The Republican party had split between loyalists to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant and those appalled by its corruption. In truth, the resurgent Democrats were no better when it came to civic virtue, but they lured some Republicans away with Tilden, who famously battled bribery and graft as governor of New York.
When, on that November night in 1876, the popular results indicated a narrow majority for the reform candidate, many assumed the first Democratic victory in two decades. But not so at one of the Associated Press's most prestigious affiliates, the ardently pro-Republican New York Times. When prominent Democrats nervously contacted the Times asking for an update on the results, its managing editor John Reid realized that the election was still in doubt. He contacted top Republican party officials and had them spread the word via telegram—the electoral college votes in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were still in play.
It was easy for these men to access the telegraph system, because its main operator, Western Union, was also militantly pro-Republican. During the long controversy in Congress over who actually won the districts in the disputed election of 1876, Western Union secretly siphoned to AP's general agent Henry Nash Smith the telegraph correspondence of key Democrats during the struggle. Smith, in turn, relayed this intelligence to the Hayes camp with instructions on how to proceed. On top of that, AP constantly published propaganda supporting the Republican side of the story. Meanwhile, Western Union insisted that it kept "all messages whatsoever . . . strictly private and confidential."
Tilden supporters weren't fooled. By the end of the debacle—Hayes having won the White House—they called AP "Hayessociated Press."
The great giveaway
It was no secret why Western Union sided with Republicans. By the 1870s, the Party of Lincoln (Abe himself being a former railroad lawyer) had given away massive quantities of land for the construction of railroads and telegraphs: almost 130 million acres (about seven percent of the continental United States) was granted to eighty enterprises. Although the telegraph had been pioneered by Samuel Morse in the 1840s, the innovation didn't really take off, economically speaking, until it partnered with the railroads, at which point it became the Victorian era's version of our information superhighway.
The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 sped up the construction of a coast-to-coast railroad system, and it further subsidized telegraph growth as well. But Congress provided very little regulation or oversight for the largesse.
The result was the infamous Credit Mobilier scandal of the 1870s, a scheme that bears some resemblance to the Enron debacle of 2001. Rather than license the construction of the Union Pacific railroad to an independent contractor, its Board of Directors farmed the work out to Credit Mobilier, a company that was, essentially, themselves. In turn, Credit billed the UP vastly more than the actual cost of the project. To keep Congress quiet about the affair, the firm offered stock in itself to Representatives and Senators of any political persuasion at bargain basement prices.
In this context, it should come as no surprise that the nation's telegraph system quickly fell into the hands of one of the most notorious schemers of the Gilded Age.
I’m a Culture Critic … Get Me Out of Here!
Amid the smoldering wreckage of the popular culture, the author blames Reality TV, which has not only ruined network values, destroyed the classic documentary, and debased the art of bad acting, but also fomented class warfare, antisocial behavior, and murder.
I was recently in a Duane Reade drugstore, having a Hamlet fit of temporizing over which moisturizer to choose, when the normal tedium pervading the aisles was suddenly rent by the ranting distress of a young woman in her early 20s, pacing around and fuming into her cell phone. She made no effort to muffle her foulmouthed monologue, treating everyone to a one-sided tale of backstabbing betrayal—“She pretended to be my friend and shit all over me”—as mascara ran down her cheeks like raccoon tears. Judging from the unanimous round of stony expressions from customers and cashiers alike, her cri de coeur engendered no sympathy from the jury pool, partly because there was something phony about her angst, something “performative,” as they say in cultural studies. Her meltdown was reminding me of something, and then it flashed: this is how drama queens behave on Reality TV—a perfect mimicry of every spoiled snot licensed to pout on Bravo or VH1 or MTV. The thin-skinned, martyred pride, the petulant, self-centered psychodrama—she was playing the scene as if a camera crew were present, recording her wailing solo for the highlight reel. Proof, perhaps, that the ruinous effects of Reality TV have reached street level and invaded the behavioral bloodstream, goading attention junkies to act as if we’re all extras in their vanity production. There was a time when idealistic folksingers such as myself believed that Reality TV was a programming vogue that would peak and recede, leaving only its hardiest show-offs. Instead, it has metastasized like toxic mold, filling every nook and opening new crannies. Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s satire about a future society too dumb to wipe itself, now looks like a prescient documentary.
I’m not talking about competition shows where actual talent undergoes stress tests as creative imagination and problem solving enter a field of play—elimination contests such as Project Runway, Top Chef, and, for all its sob-sisterhood, America’s Next Top Model. It’s the series that clog the neural pathways of pop culture with the contrived antics of glorified nobodies and semi-cherished has-beens that may help pave the yellow brick road for Sarah Palin, Idiocracy’s warrior queen. It is a genre that has foisted upon us Dog the Bounty Hunter, with his racist mouth and Rapunzel mullet; tricked-out posses of Dynasty-throwback vamps and nail-salon addicts (The Real Housewives of Atlanta, et al., the stars of which pose in the promos in tight skirts and twin-torpedo tops like lamppost hookers auditioning for Irma la Douce); and endless replays of Rodney King throwing up on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. The influence of Reality TV has been insidious, pervasive. It has ruined television, and by ruining television it has ruined America. Maybe America was already ruined, but if so, it’s now even more ruined. Let us itemize the crop damage.
Reality TV has lowered network property values. On his weekly blog, author James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency) noted the significance of a memorial tribute to CBS news giant Walter Cronkite on 60 Minutes being followed by “a childish and stupid ‘reality’ show called ‘Big Brother,’” an Orwell-for-dummies exercise set in a hamster cage for preening narcissists where cameras surveil every calculated move. Kunstler observed, “This [scheduling] said even more about the craven quality of the people currently running CBS. It was also a useful lesson in the diminishing returns of technology as applied to television, since it should now be obvious that the expansion of cable broadcasting since the heyday of the ‘big three’ networks has led only to the mass replication of video garbage rather than a banquet of culture, as first touted.” Not entirely so. Quality cable dramas such as Nurse Jackie, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have immeasurably enriched our petty lives, though there’s really no excuse for Californication. But it is also true that the mega-dosage of reality programming has lowered the lowest common denominator to pre-literacy. Cable networks originally conceived as cultural alcoves, such as Bravo and A&E (Arts and Entertainment), abandoned any arty aspirations years ago and rebranded themselves as vanity mirrors for the upwardly mobile (Bravo) and police blotters for crime buffs (A&E). Pop music has been all but relegated to the remainder bin at MTV and VH1, where high-maintenance concoctions such as Paris Hilton, Flavor Flav, and Hulk Hogan’s biohazard clan of bleached specimens provide endless hours of death-hastening diversion. Since reality programming is cheaper to produce than sitcoms or ensemble dramas (especially those requiring location shooting, which is why the Law & Order franchises spend less time on the streets, more time haunting the shadows of dimly lit sets), intricate brainteasers such as Bones (Fox), Lost (ABC), and the original CSI (CBS) have to fight even harder to hold their own against the plethora of reality shows catering to romantic fools looking to land a rich sucker—all those Bachelors and Bachelorettes sniffing red roses between tongue-wrestlings.
Reality TV has annihilated the classic documentary. When was the last time you saw a prime-time documentary devoted to a serious subject worthy of Edward R. Murrow’s smoke rings? Since never, that’s when. They’re extinct, relics of the prehistoric past, back when television pretended to espouse civic ideals. Murrow and his disciples have been supplanted by Jeff Probst, the grinny host of CBS’s Survivor, framed by torchlight in some godforsaken place and addressing an assembly of coconuts.
Reality TV wages class warfare and promotes proletarian exploitation. While the queen bee of Reality TV, Bravo executive Lauren Zalaznick, is fawned over in a New York Times Magazine profile by Susan Dominus that elevates her into the Miranda Priestly of the exegetical empyrean (“To her, what she’s producing isn’t rampant consumerism on display to be emulated or mocked, or both—it’s a form of social anthropology, a cultural text as worthy of analysis as any other, an art form suitable for her intellect”), temporary serfdom is the lot of the peon drones being pushed to the breaking point. In an eye-opener published in The New York Times of August 2, reporter Edward Wyatt revealed the sweatshop secrets of Reality TV’s mini-stockades, where economic exploitation and psychological manipulation put the vise squeeze on contestants. “With no union representation, participants on reality series are not covered by Hollywood workplace rules governing meal breaks, minimum time off between shoots or even minimum wages,” Wyatt wrote. “Most of them, in fact, receive little to no pay for their work.” The migrant camera fodder is often kept isolated, sleep-deprived, and alcoholically louche to render the subjects edgy and pliant and susceptible to fits. “If you combine no sleep with alcohol and no food, emotions are going to run high and people are going to be acting crazy,” a former contestant on ABC’s The Bachelor said. And crazy makes for good TV, whether it’s Jeff Conaway unhinging on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew (“911!”) or some Bridezilla losing her precious shit over a typo in the wedding invitation. One particularly awful Bridezilla, named Karee Gibson Hart, whose threatening antics may have violated her probation, defended herself by claiming she was simply “playing the game,” putting on a diva act to show off her dramatic skills. Judge Judy might not buy that excuse, but there’s no question that reality programs often resemble drama workshops for hapless amateurs, a charmless edition of Waiting for Guffman.
Reality TV has debased the time-honored art of bad acting. Bad acting comes in many bags, various odors. It can be performed by cardboard refugees from an Ed Wood movie, reciting their dialogue off an eye chart, or by hopped-up pros looking to punch a hole through the fourth wall from pure ballistic force of personality, like Joe Pesci in a bad mood. I can respect bad acting that owns its own style. What I can’t respect is bad acting that doesn’t make an effort. In Andy Warhol’s purgatorial version of home movies, those clinical studies of dermatology in action, his casts of beefcake/speed-freak/drag-queen exhibitionists had to work it for the camera, which kept rolling whether the objects of inspection were re-applying an eyelash or hogging the bathtub; his superstars had volumes of dead air to fill, no matter how near they were to nodding out. In John Cassavetes’s cinéma vérité psychodramas, the actors were hot-wired for improvisation, encouraged to trust their ids and forage for raw truth stashed beneath the polite lies that make up our sham existence. These lancings of bourgeois convention weren’t pretty, but they required sustained outbursts from the showboats involved, an expansive temperament. What kind of “acting” do we get from Reality TV? Eye-rollings. Dirty looks. Stick-figure Tinkertoy gestures. Incensed-mama head-waggings. Jaws dropped like drawbridges to convey stunned indignation.
Emotionally, Reality TV is emaciated, envy and spite being the alternating currents. Nearly everyone conforms to crude, cartoon stereotype (bitch, gold digger, flamboyant gay, recovering addict, sofa spud, anal perfectionist, rageaholic), making as many pinched faces as the Botox will permit, a small-caliber barrage of reaction shots that can be cut from any random stretch of footage and pasted in later to punctuate an exchange. (Someone says something unconstructive—“That outfit makes her look like a load”—and ping! comes the reaction shot, indicating the poison dart has struck home.) Younger reality stars may have more mobile faces, though in time they too will acquire the Noh masks of the celebrity undead. Their range of verbal expression runs mostly from chirpy to duh, as if their primpy little mouths were texting. The chatty, petty ricochet of Reality TV—the he-said-that-you-said-that-she-said-that-I-said-that-she-said-that-your-fat-ass-can-no-longer-fit-through-the-door—eventually provokes a contrived climax, a “shock ending” that is tipped off in promos for the show, teasers replayed so frequently that it’s as if the TV screen had the hiccups. The explosive payoff to the escalating sniper fire on The Real Housewives of New Jersey was a raging tantrum by Teresa Giudice, who flipped over a restaurant table in a She-Hulk fit of wrathful fury and called co-star Danielle Staub a “prostitution whore” (an interesting redundancy), all of which helped make for a unique dining experience and quite a season finale. Good manners and decorum are anathema to Reality TV, where impulsivity swings for the fences.
Reality TV encourages and rewards vulgar, selfish, antisocial, pissy-pants behavior. Ever since “Puck” put MTV’s Real World on the map with his nose-picking, homophobic, rebel-without-a-clue posturings and earned notoriety as the first contestant to be evicted from the premises, self-centered jerkhood has put reality’s lab rats on the publicity fast track. On Bravo’s Shear Genius, Tabatha Coffey, doing a sawed-off version of Cruella De Vil, gloated with nasty delight after being eliminated from the show in a team challenge, because she was able to take a despised rival down with her; she exuded such Schadenfreude that she made losing look like sweet victory, a sacrifice worth making to louse up someone else’s chances. And what was the fallout from her unsporting, cold-dish behavior? Why, she received her own Bravo show—Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, where she got to be a bossy boots, bestowing her bad attitude on the less fortunate. TLC’s Jon & Kate plus Eight was a popular, wholesome family favorite, but it was a tacky act of alleged infidelity that turned the marital split of Jon and Kate Gosselin into a nova express, their uncivil war splashed across checkout-magazine covers as America took sides, choosing between Jon, the philandering dope with the dazed expression, and Kate, the castrator with the choppy Posh Spice hair. We are now stuck with them for the foreseeable future, just as we are saddled with MTV’s The Hills’ Spencer Pratt, who has just brought out a book—which is probably one more than he’s ever actually read—in which he caddishly boasts about his bastardly behavior toward Lauren Conrad, exulting in the wet hisses he and his wife, Heidi Montag, receive as America’s least-admired bobbleheads. From the New York Daily News: “He brags in the book that he made a point of telling every blog around that a sex tape of nemesis [and former Hills star] Lauren Conrad existed. Why? Because he could. He … says he wouldn’t have personally attacked Conrad had she not been so darn nasty to his then-girlfriend Montag.” He’s now thumping his chest in triumph at having helped drive Conrad off the show. “‘If I weren’t me, I’d hate me,’ he announces.” I hate him and I’ve never even seen The Hills, which only testifies to Reality TV’s phenomenal outreach, its ability to annoy even the uninitiated.
The ego maneuvers of a Tabatha or Spencer are minor-league Machiavelli compared with the latest scar on Reality TV’s record—the savage murder of former bikini model Jasmine Fiore, whose mutilated body was jammed into a trunk and discovered in a Dumpster. The chief suspect was her former husband, a reality star named Ryan Alexander Jenkins, whose paltry claim to fame was his having been a contestant on the VH1 reality show Megan Wants a Millionaire, that ample contribution to humanity. (The Megan in want of a millionaire is Megan Hauserman, a graduate of VH1’s Rock of Love: Charm School, who aspires to the title of “trophy wife.”) “The case cast an unsettling light on the casting practices of reality television, in particular the sometimes tawdry shows broadcast by VH1,” reported Brian Stelter, in a New York Times story headlined, with a delicate understatement bordering on self-parody, killing raises new reality tv concerns. Proper vetting would have revealed that Jenkins had been previously convicted of assault against a woman and would perhaps have disqualified him from appearing on Megan Wants a Millionaire and I Love Money 3 (also VH1). Nine days after Fiore’s disappearance, Jenkins was found hanging dead in a motel room, his suicide completing the circle of misery, brutality, and fame-grubbing futility. In his final caper novel, Get Real, the late Donald Westlake had his woebegone protagonist Dortmunder and his gang cast in a Reality TV series that would have them plotting and executing a heist as a camera crew tagged along, borderline accomplices in crime. An ingenious story line, but Get Real may have been outdone and then some by the Brazilian series Canal Livre, whose host, Wallace Souza, is alleged to have commissioned a fistful of murders to bump off rivals in the drug trade and to ensure that his cameras would be the first on the scene for the buzzard feast (arriving so promptly that gun smoke was still streaming from one victim’s body). Ordering a hit and then dining out on the corpse—talk about controlling supply and demand at both ends!
Reality TV gives voyeurism a dirty name. For film directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Andy Warhol to Brian De Palma to Sam Peckinpah (whose last film, The Osterman Weekend, was set in a house rigged with closed-circuit TV) to Michael Haneke (Caché), voyeurism has been one of the great self-reflexive themes in postwar cinema, James Stewart with his zoom lens in Rear Window being the primary stand-in for us, the audience, spying at life through a long-range gaze. In thrillers, the idle viewer becomes implicated, ensnared, in the drama unfolding and discovers that voyeurism is a two-way mirror: Raymond Burr, the watched, glares across the courtyard and meets Stewart’s binocular gaze—contact. In the voyeurism of Reality TV, the viewer’s passivity is kept intact, pampered and massaged and force-fed Chicken McNuggets of carefully edited snippets that permit him or her to sit in easy judgment and feel superior at watching familiar strangers make fools of themselves. Reality TV looks in only one direction: down.
Media Executives (Mostly) Read Free News
Here’s one of the headlines that we produced at this week’s Reuters Global Media Summit: “Media get real about paid-for Web news.” In it, we distilled media executives’ thoughts on the future of news to this: The romance with free content — stimulated by global ad spending that reached a peak of almost half a trillion dollars last year — was over.
Or… maybe it’s not over yet. Plenty of media executives, the people trying to find a way to get paid for what they produce when free stuff on the Internet makes that ever more difficult, still read free news. Not all, but some, even though they pay for some of it too. Here are some responses to the question we asked in New York and London: How do you read your news?
Nikesh Arora, president of global sales operations and business development at Google Inc (who, despite Google’s despised status among newspaper defenders, pays for some of his news):
I read my news in a combination of Twitter, Facebook, Google News and The New York Times. I get my New York Times delivered to my house. I have it before I wake up. I scan through it. I get my newspapers in planes and whenever I have a sort of down moment, I am following CNN, the BBC, Reuters (aw, thanks!), TechCrunch and a whole lot of other relevant people at Twitter… If I have a free moment at my desk, I will go onto the Google News site to see what’s happening in the world. For some reason, I feel as informed as I used to be when I used to read two newspapers every morning.
Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global:
I may not read my local paper much anymore, but I never miss reading the Journal. Primarily because I want to know what I’m missing. I’m looking at it more like a student than a consumer. I need this information — I don’t want it, I need it.
Andrew Barron, chief operating officer of Virgin Media:
Multiple sources: Internet, Blackberry… the Financial Times, The Times of London and the Daily Mail. He gets home delivery, but doesn’t read the papers until evening.
Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League:
I start in the morning, first thing, like somebody in their mid 50s, by going through traditional newspapers. And then I go from there to online. Obviously because of the nature of our business, I get news flashes instantaneously through my Blackberry.
Mark Greenberg, president and CEO of Epix:
I have to admit, I still watch the evening news. I’m sort of an old-fashioned kind of guy, a dying breed, an avid reader of the Times and the Journal. I will admit, though, that when I travel, I take my Kindle with me, and I prefer to download it. So it’s been an interesting change for me as a person who always liked reading paper, to now all of a sudden the Kindle, which has changed how I read a newspaper.
Hilary Schneider, executive vice president of Yahoo North America (and an alumna of Knight Ridder, an extinct newspaper publisher):
I’m a mixed-media consumer of news. I start every day on Yahoo, as you would expect, to get the highlights. I am a Kindle reader so I also, when I’m traveling, keep up through the Kindle. And I am a hard-core, old-fashioned newspaper reader on the weekends or when I’m on airplanes. (What she reads: The New York Times and San Jose Mercury News). (And what about reading the Kindle on an airplane?) The airlines used to not be savvy to the fact that that was an electronic device. It’s only recently that they’re asking me to turn it off, so it’s sort of a bummer.
Microsoft, News Corp Reports Overplayed: Source
Reports that News Corp and Microsoft were in talks for an exclusive deal that would exclude Google are overblown, a source close to the situation said on Tuesday.
There had been reports that Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corp, was considering removing the company's news from Google's Web search results, and was talking to Microsoft about listing the stories with its Bing search engine instead.
Microsoft would pay for the privilege, sources previously told Reuters, but it was not clear how much.
But a source said on Tuesday the financial basis for a deal may not be as strong as previously thought.
"While the companies have a common interest, the economics do not seem to be there for the common arrangement initially rumored to be under discussion," said the source who was close to the situation but not authorized to speak on the matter.
The potential deal had been seen as a way for news organizations, many of whom are a shell of their former selves due to advertising cutbacks, to profit from the content that they produce. Newspaper owners resent Google and other aggregators because the Internet companies make money from the advertisements that they display next to news search results.
Murdoch said on Tuesday that his Wall Street Journal had one million paying subscribers, and that News Corp intended to expand the subscription model to all of the company's papers.
He said he disagreed with those who said that people would not pay for an Internet subscription. "I believe they will," he told a U.S. Federal Trade Commission conference on the future of journalism in the Internet age.
He did not mention the discussions with Microsoft in his prepared remarks and declined to take questions after his speech. Representatives for News Corp could not be immediately reached and Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
Many people find their news on Google, which has 65 percent of the U.S. search market according to comScore. Microsoft had a 10 percent share of the U.S. search market in September, according to comScore.
Google has said it provides news organizations about 100,000 clicks a minute. It has said it would not pay to index news content on the grounds that copyright law permits indexing as a part of fair use.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)
Google to Limit Free News Access
Newspaper publishers will now be able to set a limit on the number of free news articles people can read through Google, the company has announced.
The concession follows claims from some media companies that the search engine is profiting from online news pages.
Under the First Click Free programme, publishers can now prevent unrestricted access to subscription websites.
Users who click on more than five articles in a day may be routed to payment or registration pages.
"Previously, each click from a user would be treated as free," Google senior business product manager Josh Cohen said in a blog post.
"Now, we've updated the programme so that publishers can limit users to no more than five pages per day without registering or subscribing."
Google users may start seeing registration pages appear when they click for a sixth time on any given day at websites of publishers using the programme, according to Mr Cohen.
This will only affect websites that currently charge for content.
The announcement is seen as a reaction to concerns in the newspaper industry that Google is using newspaper content unfairly.
Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and chief executive of Newscorp, has accused firms such as Google of profiting from journalism by generating advertising revenue by linking readers to newspaper articles.
Some readers have discovered they can avoid paying subscription fees to newspaper websites by calling up their pages via Google.
The dispute between media groups and Google reflects the general confusion over how traditional media can make money on the internet.
Every newspaper owner angry about Google's linking policy can use a simple remedy: add two lines of code to a file on your servers and Google will leave you alone.
Deep down, most media owners realise that the old "publish it and they will come" principle does not work in an on-demand world.
If Google would not link to their websites, the very same media groups would bitterly complain about Google's refusal to generate valuable online traffic.
Unless you own premium content (from the Wall Street Journal at one end to porn at the other), making money from on-demand content means first and foremost that your audiences have to be able to find you.
The problem: Nobody has quite figured out a business model for a world where consumers don't want their morning or evening news, but want the Now O'clock News - the "on-demand and to my taste" news.
This is because Google searches frequently link directly to newspaper articles, bypassing some sites' subscription systems.
Broadcasting and media consultant Steve Hewlett said that Google's response was "a pretty significant move".
"Rupert Murdoch is trying to build a consensus that paying for content online is right and that aggregators like Google that use newspaper content but don't pay for it are doing something wrong," he said.
Search for revenue
Newspapers are increasingly looking for new ways to make money from their online content amid a continuing decline in circulation figures and advertising revenues.
Earlier this week Johnston Press, the UK's largest regional newspaper publisher, announced plans to to begin charging for access to six of its titles online.
The move follows a 42% slump in advertising revenues at the group over the last two years.
Earlier this year, the Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) cut 1,000 jobs at its regional arm Northcliffe Media, which publishes more than 100 newspapers in England and Wales.
Newscorp, which owns the Times and the Sun newspapers in the UK, has also been affected by the downturn.
In June, it announced losses of $3.4bn (£2bn) for the previous 12 months, describing the year as "the most difficult in recent history".
It has also revealed plans to begin charging for access to all its online content. The corporation currently charges for access to its US title the Wall Street Journal.
Head-To-Head: ACAP Versus Robots.txt For Controlling Search Engines
In the battle between search engines and some mainstream news publishers, ACAP has been lurking for several years. ACAP — the Automated Content Access Protocol — has constantly been positioned by some news executives as a cornerstone to reestablishing the control they feel has been lost over their content. However, the reality is that publishers have more control even without ACAP than is commonly believed by some. In addition, ACAP currently provides no “DRM” or licensing mechanisms over news content. But the system does offer some ideas well worth considering. Below, a look at how it measures up against the current systems for controlling search engines.
ACAP started development in 2006 and formally launched a year later with version 1.0 (see ACAP Launches, Robots.txt 2.0 For Blocking Search Engines?). This year, in October, ACAP 1.1 was released and has been installed by over 1,250 publishers worldwide, says the organization, which is backed by the European Publishers Council, the World Association of Newspapers and the International Publishers Association.
If that sounds pretty impressive, hang on. I’ll provide a reality check in a moment. But first, let’s pump ACAP up a bit more. Remember back in July, when the Hamburg Declaration was signed by about 150 European publishers? The short declaration basically said that intellectual property protection needs to be increased on the internet, in order to protect high-quality journalism.
ACAP: Save Our Content!
Enter ACAP, as a lynchpin to achieving the Hamburg Declaration’s dream. From the official release put out by the European Publishers Council, which organized the declaration:
We need search engines to recognize ACAP as a step towards acknowledging that content providers have the right to decide what happens to their content and on what terms. The European Commission and other legislators call on our industry constantly to come up with solutions – here we have one and we call upon the regulators to back it up.
That quote is from Gavin O’Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Group CEO of Independent News & Media and chairman of ACAP.
To me, it reads like it’s the Wild West out on the internet. That search engines are doing whatever they want with content, with publishers having no control over what happens. ACAP would bring rules to the search engines, and those rules would have the force of law if some governmental bodies would force them on the search engines.
The Wild West Is Actually Tame
The reality is that the search engines do follow rules, ones they’ve created and enhanced over the past 15 years based on feedback from the entire web community (rather than from a select group of largely disgruntled news publishers). Moreover, in all this time there have been relatively few lawsuits over how search engines interact with news content. Only one really stands out in my mind, the case won by Belgian newspapers over being included in Google News.
It was an unnecessary lawsuit. The papers could have stayed out of Google News using existing controls. In fact, despite “winning” the lawsuit, the papers eventually sought reinclusion in Google News using existing standards (see Belgian Papers Back In Google; Begin Using Standards For Blocking).
Meet REP: On The Beat For 15 Years
What are those existing standards? Collectively, they’re called the “Robots Exclusion Protocol” or REP for short. REP is made up of:
* Robots.txt: created in 1994 as a way to block content on a server-wide basis using a single file (the robots.txt file)
* Meta Robots Tag: created in 1996 as a system to block on a page-by-page basis (see Meta Robots Tag 101: Blocking Spiders, Cached Pages & More for more about it)
The two standards both live at robotstxt.org, but they’ve never been updated there, nor is there any type of official group or organization behind REP. Instead, search engines have either unilaterally or collectively expanded what REP can do over the years. They serve as the de facto bosses of REP, Google in particular. If Google makes a change, other search engines often mimic it.
I used “robots.txt” in the headline of this article mainly because that’s often used by those who live and breathe this stuff as a common name for both parts of REP. But I’ll be sticking with REP for the rest of this article.
Some ACAP In Action
Enough of the preamble and background. Let’s roll our sleeves up and see how the two system compare, starting with something easy. How can you block ALL your pages from ALL search engines using REP? You’d make a two line robots.txt file like this:
How would you do it in ACAP? Again, just two lines:
Sounds easy enough to use ACAP, right? Well, no. ACAP, in its quest to provide as much granularity to publishers as possible, offers what I found to be a dizzying array of choices. REP explains its parts on two pages. ACAP’s implementation guide alone (I’ll get to links on this later on) is 37 pages long.
But all that granularity is what publishers need to reassert control, right? Time for that reality check. Remember those 1,250 publishers? Google News has something like over 20,000 news publishers that it lists, so relatively few are using ACAP. ACAP also positions itself as (I’ve bolded some key parts):
an open industry standard to enable the providers of all types of content (including, but not limited to, publishers) to communicate permissions information (relating to access to and use of that content) in a form that can be readily recognized and interpreted by a search engine (or any other intermediary or aggregation service), so that the operator of the service is enabled systematically to comply with the individual publisher’s policies.
Well, anyone with a web site is a publisher, and there are millions of web sites out there. Hundreds of millions, probably. Virtually no publishers use ACAP.
Even ACAP Backers Don’t Use ACAP Options
Of course, there’s no incentive to use ACAP. After all, none of the major search engines support it, so why would most of these people do so. OK, then let’s look at some people with a real incentive to show the control that ACAP offers. Even if they don’t yet have that control, they can still use ACAP now to outline what they want to do.
Let’s start with the ACAP file for the Irish Independent. Don’t worry if you don’t understand it, just skim, and I’ll explain:
# Allow all
# Changes in Trunk
OK, see that top part? Those are actually commands using the robots.txt syntax. They exist because if a search engine doesn’t understand ACAP, the robots.txt commands serve as backup. Basically those lines tell all search engines not to index various things on the site, such as print-only pages.
Now the second part? This is where ACAP gets to shine. It’s where the Irish Independent — which is part of the media group run by ACAP president Gavin O’Reilly — gets to express what they wish search engines would do, if they’d only recognize all the new powers that ACAP provides. And what do they do? EXACTLY the same blocking that they do using robots.txt.
So much for demonstrating the potential power of ACAP.
Well, how about the Wall Street Journal, backed by Rupert Murdoch, who’s been on an anti-Google bend of late. Same situation — the WSJ’s ACAP file is doing nothing more than what the robots.txt commands show. Actually, it does less. At least the robots.txt system allows for discovery of a sitemap file (more on this below).
How about the Denver Post? It doesn’t have an ACAP file, just plain old regular robots.txt file. Why’s that signficant? The CEO of the media company that owns the Denver Post — Dean Singleton — recently suggested he’d pull some of his content out of Google (see Hold On: Are More Papers Really Joining Murdoch’s Google Block Party?).
Singleton is also chairman of the Associated Press, which has been very anti-Google of late and which also is a backer of ACAP. So if ACAP allows the expression of control that publishers somehow don’t currently have, I’d expect the Denver Post to be among the poster children along side the Irish Independent and the Wall Street Journal.
Well, how about the Troy Daily News, which is one of the organizations that ACAP proudly lists as using its system. What’s happening with a rank-and-file publisher. From its ACAP file:
Request-rate: 1/10 # maximum rate is one page every 10 seconds
Visit-time: 0500-0845 # (GMT) only visit between 1:00 AM and 3:45 AM EST
Again, ACAP isn’t being used to express anything more than what’s already indicated in the robot.txt commands (the first section). Again, robots.txt actually goes beyond, as there’s support for a “crawl-delay” directive that ACAP doesn’t have.
That “request-rate” and “visit-time” telling search engines only to come by in the early morning hours? Have a chuckle at that. None of the major search engines recognize those commands. Similarly, visit the Hilton.com robots.txt file where you’ll see a similar but totally unrecognized command: “Do not visit Hilton.com during the day!”
Side-By-Side, REP & ACAP
OK, so even though no one’s using the special ACAP controls, let’s at least look at some of the key features and see how special they supposedly are. The table below lays out what REP offers against with ACAP.
In parentheses, I’ve noted the key commands used in both systems, for the technically inclined. Links lead to more information, as appropriate. Further below the chart, I’ve added more explanations as necessary.
Because REP has been extended by the major search engines, I’ve counted some areas as “Yes” for support if at least Google provides an option (given it has the largest marketshare of all). I’ve also noted the situation with Bing. As Yahoo search technology is slated to be acquired by Bing, I didn’t itemize its control offerings, since these will
For specific technical details on ACAP, see technical documents here. The easiest to comprehend is the implementation guide of Oct. 13, 2009. Also see the two crawler communication parts, if you want to dive in further.
Feature REP ACAP
Block all search engines Yes (User-agent) Yes (ACAP-crawler)
Block specific search engines (for example, block Google but not Bing) Yes (User-agent) Yes (ACAP-crawler)
Block crawling of all pages Yes (Disallow) Yes (ACAP-disallow-crawl)
Block crawling of specific pages Yes (Disallow) Yes (ACAP-disallow-crawl)
Block crawling of specific sections of web site Yes (directory matching) Yes (directory matching & named “resource sets”)
Block crawling via pattern matching or “wildcards” Yes: Google & Bing (*/?) No: REP Yes (*/?)
Block indexing (see note, below) Yes (use block crawling commands) Yes (ACAP-disallow-index)
Cloaking (Indexing content different than what human visitors see) No (Google views cloaking as spam; Bing frowns upon it but doesn’t ban just for cloaking) Yes (must-use-resource)
Block following links (doesn’t prevent finding links in other ways) Yes (nofollow, meta tag only) Yes (ACAP-disallow-follow)
Block making cached pages Yes (noarchive, meta tag only) Yes (ACAP-disallow-preserve)
Block showing cached pages Yes (use block making cached pages command) Yes (ACAP-disallow-present)
Block snippets / descriptions / quotes Yes: Google (nosnippet, meta tag only) No: REP & Bing Yes (ACAP-disallow-present-snippet)
Set maximum length for snippets No (At Bing, nopreview meta tag blocks hover preview) Yes (max-length)
Set exact snippet to be used Partial (meta description tag) Yes (must-use-resource)
Block thumbnail images Partial (just block images) Yes (ACAP-disallow-present-thumbnail)
Block link to site Yes: Google (noindex, meta tag only) No: REP & maybe Bing Yes (ACAP-disallow-present-link)
Prevent format conversion (say HTML to PDF) No Yes (prohibited-modification=format)
Prevent translation Yes: Google (notranslate, meta tag only) No: REP & probably Bing Yes (prohibited-modification=translate)
Prevent annotations such as ratings No Yes (prohibited-modification=annotation)
Prevent framing No Yes (prohibited-context=within-user-frame)
Urgent page removal No Yes (ACAP-request-take-down)
Block specific parts of a page No (though Yahoo has robots-nocontent attribute) Yes (must-use-resource)
Permitted Places (indicate places like specific IP addresses or countries where content can be listed) No Yes (permittedcountrylist & others)
Time limits (such as remove after set number of days) Yes: Google (unavailable_after, meta tag only) No: REP & Bing Yes (time-limit)
Canonical Tag (Indicate “main URL” to be used in cases of same content on multiple URLs) Yes Yes (must-use-resource)
Sitemaps (Provide list of all URLs to be crawled) Yes No
http x-robots tags (attach blocking to file headers, not within files) Yes No
Rich Snippets (custom descriptions) Yes: Google (Bing might inherit Yahoo Search Monkey) No
Crawl Delay (slows crawling speed for slow servers) Yes (Google: crawl-rate option in Webmaster Central; Bing: crawl-delay meta tag No
Parameter Consolidation (remove tracking that can cause duplicate content issues) Yes: Google (Yahoo also offers) No
OK, that’s the big chart. As you can see, there are some things that both systems provide and some things that are unique to each one. Here’s my personal take on the differences:
Jeers To ACAP!
Block Indexing: ACAP makes a weird distinction between blocking crawling (a search engine literally going from page to page automatically) and indexing (a search engine making a copy of the page, so that it can be added to a searchable index). For the major search engines, crawling and indexing are one and the same. I struggle to see an advantage to separating these out.
Cloaking: Those savvy to search engines know that Google hates cloaking, which is the act of showing a search engine something different than a human being would see. It’s often associated with spam. There are plenty of cases where people have shown misleading content to a search engine, in hopes of getting a good ranking. One example is from 1999, when the FTC took action against a site that was cloaking content that ranked for “innocent” searches like Oklahoma tornadoes and instead directed them to porn sites. The idea of a publisher forcing a search engine to allow cloaking would be somewhat similar to a newspaper being forced to write whatever a subject demanded be written about them.
Exact Snippet To Be Used: Similar to cloaking, allowing site owners to say whatever they want about a page sounds great if you’re an honest site owner. When you’re a search engine that knows how people will mislead, it’s not so appealing. In addition, sometimes it’s helpful to create a description that shows what someone searches for in context — and that doesn’t always happen with a publisher-defined description.
Annotation Blocking: It’s hard to interpret how this would work. Is Google’s SideWiki an annotation system, where comments are left alongside a publisher’s content but in a separate window? Or does this mean annotations on Google itself, such as SearchWiki allows? And should publishers be allowed to block people commenting about their pages on other sites? Does that block places like Yelp from reviewing businesses, if they link to them? Is Digg a ratings service? This option is a minefield.
Kudos To ACAP!
Maximum Snippet Length: Search engines are quoting more and more material from pages these days, it seems. The ability to limit how much they can use seems like a good idea that should be considered.
Meta Tag Only Commands: A number of controls such as blocking caching or snippets can’t be done in a single file. Now, for those using CMS systems, including free ones like WordPress, it’s relatively easy to add these codes to each and every page. But it would be nice to see the search engines add file-wide support for some of these options in the way that ACAP does.
Prevent Framing: I hate framing. I’d love to see a way to tell automated tools like URL shorteners that they can’t frame. But with the search engines, framing is pretty limited. Google does it with images, and you can block images from being indexed period, which eliminates framing. It does the same with cached pages, and you can block caching. Plus, it’s fairly easy for a site owner to block any type of framing.
Urgent Removal: If you’re a site owner, a system to get pages out of an index in a guaranteed period of time would be very convenient. However, this is probably better handled through webmaster tools that the search engines offer, as they allow a site owner to proactively trigger a removal, rather than waiting for visit from a crawler, which could take days. Ironically, at Google, they had a system to remove pages quickly. I wrote about it two years ago (see Google Releases Improved Content Removal Tools). But the documentation today is terrible. Little is explained if you’re not logged in. If you are logged in, the link for the webmaster version doesn’t work. The entire feature Google described in 2007 is gone.
Block Specific Parts Of Page: Who wants all their navigation being indexed, along with all the other crud pages often have on them? ACAP allows for only parts of a page to be indexed. Yahoo already offers this. Why not the others?
Permitted Places: The idea here is that you could allow your story to be listed in Google UK but not Google France, if you wanted. It might not be a bad idea, though that’s not usually the demand I tend to hear. Instead, site owners often are trying to figure out how to associate their sites with a particular country (Google has a tool for this).
Time Limit: You can time restrict when a page should be removed, a cached copy should be removed and more with ACAP. Google has some support here, though few use it, the search engine tells me. It also seems unnecessary. It seems far more efficient for a site owner to simply remove their own content from the web or block spidering, when ready. In either case, that causes it to drop from a search engine.
Jeers To Search Engines!
I think the biggest frustration in compiling this article was knowing that search engines do offer much control to publishers but finding the right documentation is hard. At Google, you can block translation, but it was difficult to find this page in the help pages offered to site owners. Bing has a way to block previews, but I couldn’t locate this within its help center. Google has a blog post saying that bing supports the nosnippets tag. Over at Bing, I couldn’t find this documented.
Cheers To Search Engines!
ACAP has focused on a publisher wishlist of options that often can be done in other ways. Don’t want thumbnail images in a search engine? OK, we’ll make a command, even though just blocking images would solve that problem.
In contrast, the search engine have added feature that have come from the outcries of many diverse site owners. Sitemaps, to provide a list of URLs for indexing. Crawl delay support. Richer snippets. Duplicate content tools, such as the canonical tag or parameter consolidation. They deserve far more credit than some news publishers give to them.
The Missing Part: Licensing
Did you catch the biggest option that ACAP does NOT provide? There’s no licensing support.
Remember how ACAP’s O’Reilly talked about how ACAP was needed to ensure “that content providers have the right to decide what happens to their content and on what terms.” ACAP really doesn’t provide that much more control than what’s out there now. It doesn’t give publishers significantly more “rights.” I mean, how many more “rights” can you have when you’ve got the nuclear option of fully withdrawing from a search engine at any time?
It’s the part I bolded that’s key, the “what terms” portion. ACAP is supposed to somehow support new business models. Part of the idea is that you might want to license your headlines to one search engine, your thumbnails to another, and this would all be bundled up in some partnership deal. To quote from the ACAP FAQ:
Business models are changing, and publishers need a protocol to express permissions of access and use that is flexible and extensible as new business models arise. ACAP will be entirely agnostic with respect to business models, but will ensure that revenues can be distributed appropriately. ACAP presents a win win for the whole online publishing community with the promise of more high quality content and more innovation and investment in the online publishing sector. ACAP is for the large as well as the small and even the individuals. It will benefit all content providers whether they are working alone or through publishers. A future without publishers willing and able to invest in high quality content and get a return on that investment is a future without high-quality content on the net.
Nothing in the ACAP specs I’ve gone through provide any type of revenue distribution mechanism, much less some type of automated handshake between a publisher and a search engine to verify permissions.
If REP & ACAP Files Could Talk
To illustrate this better, here’s a “real world” conversation of how ACAP supposedly works. I shared this recently with others on the Read 2.0 mailing list that I’m part of during a discussion, playing off some other conversation scenes that John Mark Ockerbloom had started. Several people said they found it helpful. Perhaps you will, too.
GOOGLE: Hi! I’m Google. Can you tell me if I can crawl your site?
PUBLISHER: Sure, but I might have some restrictions over what you can do.
GOOGLE: That’s cool. Just use a meta robots tag on particular pages to give me specific commands.
PUBLISHER: Well, on this page, I don’t want you to show a cached copy.
GOOGLE: Awesome, use the noarchive command. Done. What’s next?
PUBLISHER: On this page, you must always show the description I want shown for it.
GOOGLE: Use the meta description tag. We’ll consider that, but we can’t promise.
PUBLISHER: Dammit. You just want to rule the world.
GOOGLE: Look, we build description that are related to what someone searched for, dynamically. So if we find a page on your site, in response to a particular keyword, sometimes it makes sense to “snip” a description that contains that term from your page, so they immediately understand why your page is relevant to your search. And click to view it. That’s why we call them snippets.
PUBLISHER: Dammit. Do what I want. You’re not the boss of me.
GOOGLE: Well, we also get people who would say they have children’s games when instead, they have adult games — like porn. Seriously, true story. Plus, we’re the boss of us. I mean, is it OK if we declare that you must review us in the way we want in your publication.
PUBLISHER: Let’s move on. On this page, I don’t want any images to be used.
GOOGLE: Block them with robots.txt. Done.
PUBLISHER: This article, I only want you to list it for 30 days.
GOOGLE: Pull it down after 30 days. Or move the full article to a new location, and leave a summary page up, if you want remnant traffic. Or block it. Or use the unavailable-after meta tag.
PUBLISHER: I only want you to list this content if I have a paid partnership with you. My ACAP file will declare that to you.
GOOGLE: You have a paid partnership with us?
PUBLISHER: Well, not yet. But Murdoch’s promising us that will come.
GOOGLE: If you have a paid partnership with us, to give us permission to index your content, we know that internally. I mean, we don’t have many of those, and we’re not scanning the web and ACAP files to keep track of them. ACAP doesn’t even have a place for you to tell us this, anyway.
PUBLISHER: I don’t have a partnership. But I’m saying you should only index my content if you DO have a partnership. But you keep indexing it.
GOOGLE: Well, then block us. Surely you know if we don’t have a partnership or not. And you can use robots.txt to authorize indexing all you want.
PUBLISHER: But I want you to license our content!
GOOGLE: Yeah, we get that. Hey, check it out, have you see our free wifi at airports?
ACAP Not A Business Solution; Search Engines, Get Organized!
Overall, there are some ideas in ACAP that would be useful for the search engines to consider. However, there are many ideas outside of ACAP that would also be useful for them to consider. There’s nothing I see within ACAP that provides some type of crucial control that if only news publishers had, all their online woes would be over. What the news publishers really want are licensing agreements, and given that Google already has several of these without using ACAP (see Josh Cohen Of Google News On Paywalls, Partnerships & Working With Publishers), I can’t see that having it somehow advances any business model changes.
Certainly the search engines need to get their act together more, however. It’s time to stop referring people to the REP site which is run by no one. It’s time to stop having a myriad of help pages scattered about within their respective sites. Yes, they should continue to have their own help pages (see Google’s webmaster help from here; Bing’s from here). But I’d like to see Google and Microsoft take the lead to also consolidate material into a common site, perhaps building off Sitemaps.org.
How Google Can Help Newspapers
Video didn't kill the radio star, and the Internet won't destroy news organizations. It will foster a new, digital business model.
It's the year 2015. The compact device in my hand delivers me the world, one news story at a time. I flip through my favorite papers and magazines, the images as crisp as in print, without a maddening wait for each page to load.
Even better, the device knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read. So while I get all the news and comment, I also see stories tailored for my interests. I zip through a health story in The Wall Street Journal and a piece about Iraq from Egypt's Al Gomhuria, translated automatically from Arabic to English. I tap my finger on the screen, telling the computer brains underneath it got this suggestion right.
Some of these stories are part of a monthly subscription package. Some, where the free preview sucks me in, cost a few pennies billed to my account. Others are available at no charge, paid for by advertising. But these ads are not static pitches for products I'd never use. Like the news I am reading, the ads are tailored just for me. Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.
This is a long way from where we are today. The current technology—in this case the distinguished newspaper you are now reading—may be relatively old, but it is a model of simplicity and speed compared with the online news experience today. I can flip through pages much faster in the physical edition of the Journal than I can on the Web. And every time I return to a site, I am treated as a stranger.
So when I think about the current crisis in the print industry, this is where I begin—a traditional technology struggling to adapt to a new, disruptive world. It is a familiar story: It was the arrival of radio and television that started the decline of newspaper circulation. Afternoon newspapers were the first casualties. Then the advent of 24-hour news transformed what was in the morning papers literally into old news.
Now the Internet has broken down the entire news package with articles read individually, reached from a blog or search engine, and abandoned if there is no good reason to hang around once the story is finished. It's what we have come to call internally the atomic unit of consumption.
Painful as this is to newspapers and magazines, the pressures on their ad revenue from the Internet is causing even greater damage. The choice facing advertisers targeting consumers in San Francisco was once between an ad in the Chronicle or Examiner. Then came Craigslist, making it possible to get local classifieds for free, followed by Ebay and specialist Web sites. Now search engines like Google connect advertisers directly with consumers looking for what they sell.
With dwindling revenue and diminished resources, frustrated newspaper executives are looking for someone to blame. Much of their anger is currently directed at Google, whom many executives view as getting all the benefit from the business relationship without giving much in return. The facts, I believe, suggest otherwise.
Google is a great source of promotion. We send online news publishers a billion clicks a month from Google News and more than three billion extra visits from our other services, such as Web Search and iGoogle. That is 100,000 opportunities a minute to win loyal readers and generate revenue—for free. In terms of copyright, another bone of contention, we only show a headline and a couple of lines from each story. If readers want to read on they have to click through to the newspaper's Web site. (The exception are stories we host through a licensing agreement with news services.) And if they wish, publishers can remove their content from our search index, or from Google News.
The claim that we're making big profits on the back of newspapers also misrepresents the reality. In search, we make our money primarily from advertisements for products. Someone types in digital camera and gets ads for digital cameras. A typical news search—for Afghanistan, say—may generate few if any ads. The revenue generated from the ads shown alongside news search queries is a tiny fraction of our search revenue.
It's understandable to look to find someone else to blame. But as Rupert Murdoch has said, it is complacency caused by past monopolies, not technology, that has been the real threat to the news industry.
We recognize, however, that a crisis for news-gathering is not just a crisis for the newspaper industry. The flow of accurate information, diverse views and proper analysis is critical for a functioning democracy. We also acknowledge that it has been difficult for newspapers to make money from their online content. But just as there is no single cause of the industry's current problems, there is no single solution. We want to work with publishers to help them build bigger audiences, better engage readers, and make more money.
Meeting that challenge will mean using technology to develop new ways to reach readers and keep them engaged for longer, as well as new ways to raise revenue combining free and paid access. I believe it also requires a change of tone in the debate, a recognition that we all have to work together to fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age.
Google is serious about playing its part. We are already testing, with more than three dozen major partners from the news industry, a service called Google Fast Flip. The theory—which seems to work in practice—is that if we make it easier to read articles, people will read more of them. Our news partners will receive the majority of the revenue generated by the display ads shown beside stories.
Nor is there a choice, as some newspapers seem to think, between charging for access to their online content or keeping links to their articles in Google News and Google Search. They can do both.
This is a start. But together we can go much further toward that fantasy news gadget I outlined at the start. The acceleration in mobile phone sophistication and ownership offers tremendous potential. As more of these phones become connected to the Internet, they are becoming reading devices, delivering stories, business reviews and ads. These phones know where you are and can provide geographically relevant information. There will be more news, more comment, more opportunities for debate in the future, not less.
The best newspapers have always held up a mirror to their communities. Now they can offer a digital place for their readers to congregate and talk. And just as we have seen different models of payment for TV as choice has increased and new providers have become involved, I believe we will see the same with news. We could easily see free access for mass-market content funded from advertising alongside the equivalent of subscription and pay-for-view for material with a niche readership.
I certainly don't believe that the Internet will mean the death of news. Through innovation and technology, it can endure with newfound profitability and vitality. Video didn't kill the radio star. It created a whole new additional industry.
Teen Internet Addicts More Likely to Self Harm: Study
Teenagers who are addicted to the Internet are more likely to engage in self-harm behavior, according to an Australian-Chinese study.
Researchers surveyed 1,618 adolescents aged 13 to 18 from China's Guangdong Province about behavior such as hitting themselves, pulling their own hair, or pinching or burning themselves, and gave them a test to gauge Internet addiction.
Internet addiction has been classified as a mental health problem since the mid-1990s with symptoms similar to other addictions.
The test found that about 10 percent of the students surveyed were moderately addicted to the Internet, while less than one percent were severely addicted.
The students ranked as moderately addicted to the Internet were 2.4 times more likely to have self-injured one to five times in the past 6 months than students without an addiction, said Dr. Lawrence Lam from the University of Notre Dame Australia.
The moderately-to-severely addicted students were almost five times more likely than non-addicted students to have self-injured six or more times in the past 6 months, Lam and his colleagues from Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University reported.
"In recent years, with the greater availability of the Internet in most Asian countries, Internet addiction has become an increasing mental problem among adolescents," the researchers said in their study published in the journal Injury Prevention.
"Many studies have reported associations between Internet addiction, psychiatric symptoms and depression among adolescents."
They said their results suggested a "strong and significant" association between Internet addiction and self-injury in adolescence even after accounting for other variables previously associated with the behavior, including depression, family dissatisfaction, or stressful life events.
They said this suggested that Internet addiction is an independent risk factor for self-injurious behavior.
Experts interpret Internet addiction, among other things, as feelings of depression, nervousness, moodiness when not online, which only go away when the addict gets back online.
Fantasizing or being preoccupied about being online are other signs of Internet addiction.
"All these behaviors may be rooted in some common ... factors that require further exploration," they said.
(Reporting by Laura Buchholz of Reuters Health, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Miral Fahmy)
Do You Care About Privacy?
When blogging I don’t like to follow the herd mentality and report the same news you can read everywhere else. However is well worth mentioning the report from Juniper that augmented reality is set to explode with the mobile augmented reality market set to gross $732 million by 2012. The report attributes this largely to the adoption of Android and iPhone devices and their respective application stores making it easy for consumers to find and buy applications. It’s big news with lots of links but if you haven’t stumbled upon the story yet you can read about it here.
The report goes to talk about privacy and how there is a potential issue with geotagging data and who owns that data. I must admit that I have changed my mind over the whole privacy issue.
Until recently I didn’t care about privacy, if I chose to geotag my location it’s because I want people to know where I am. I want an application where I can share my location with all my friends and let them track me in real-time. I’ll turn it off when I don’t want people to know were I am.
But what happens when another user geotags your location with information you don’t want to share?
I recently tested an augmented reality application and took a picture from my house and uploaded it to the applications server. I’m going to keep the application anonymous, but between me uploading to see the 3D animation and deleting the picture another user quite innocently found my picture and put some details there that I wouldn’t necessarily want to have associated with my home address. There was nothing malicious about the action, just an Innocent simple modification but the result is I now don’t own that data.
In this particular photo my personal blog has become associated with my home address. If in the future I blog that I am on holiday, my home address is geotagged with my my blog feed telling everyone I am away and the house is empty. Since the picture was taken outside my house it wouldn’t take a particularly bright burglar to find where I live. Yes there are lots of applications that enable you to geotag your location, twitter clients for example so it’s unfair to pick on a particular application. However with other applications it’s your responsibility to turn the sharing on or off, if another user tags you and shares data how do you get it removed?
I looked though the applications UI and there is no report content option (if there is it wasn’t obvious), so I looked through the companies website and eventually found an email address where you can email about privacy. I sent an email asking for the picture to be removed and was surprised that I received a bounce because the ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ address doesn’t exists. I’m sure it’s an oversight and the company will correct it (I have asked).
What are you sharing?
Why should you care about geotagging?
* If you geotag a picture with your new 50″ plasma TV in the background and upload it to the web, congratulations you have just told everyone where you live and what you have of value.
* The web has a long memory, geotag something today and in six months is still on the web. When you tweet from the beach in Barbados telling your friends you are away for 2 weeks that picture of your 50″ plasma will still be out there along with it’s location.
* It’s easy to track down someones home address if you have their real name
I know this is an extreme case, I’m not anti geotagging or a privacy freak that thinks Google StreeMaps should be banned or anything like that, but I do think privacy is a real issue.
It’s not a problem that is unique to augmented reality applications but considering the growth expected in the industry it needs to be addressed and users protected from sharing to much data. In the meantime it’s up to us to think before you share.
Authority to Spy on Americans Unclear as Patriot Act Expires
House Defies White House and Renews Two of Three Expiring Provisions
Rushed into law by Congress just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001 three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act granting officials far-reaching surveillance and seizure powers in the name of national security, are due to expire this New Year's Eve.
Two differing bills passed by the House and Senate judiciary committees in recent weeks will have to be reconciled in Congress, but only when the Senate isn't backlogged by health care, Democratic aides told ABC News.
"This critical legislation protects our national security, as well as our civil liberties, and the clock is ticking," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., an author of President Bush's 2001 Patriot Act and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee under the Bush administration.
Sensenbrenner urged the House and Senate to act quickly in reauthorizing the provisions before they expire at the end of this year.
That timing is unclear. With so few weeks left in the year and the health care debate just beginning in the Senate, it's possible that Congress will first vote for a temporary extension to prevent certain Patriot Act authorities from sunsetting, according to an aide.
With full support from the Obama administration, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill last month reauthorizing the law that has in recent years sparked much controversy over rights to privacy protected under the Constitution, with some minor tweaks.
But House Democrats in the Judiciary Committee went much further reigning in executive authorities and raising the threshold of proof needed to legally seize Americans' personal records and conduct wiretaps on their phones. It also slapped on more restrictions, and required more government auditing, and reporting showing how the process could be modified to enhance civil liberties.
"We have the opportunity to fix the most extreme provisions of that law and provide a better balance," said Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., who introduced the House bill, which allows one provision of the Patriot Act to expire.
In renewing only two of the three sunsetting provisions, the House version has defied the White House, quietly pushing Congress to totally renew its predecessor's law.
This is not a new debate. Four years ago, then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who taught constitutional law, voted down the same provisions along with all Senate Democrats who insisted on changes to the bill that better protected libraries, limited clandestine search warrants, roving wiretaps, and FBI gag orders.
The end product was a compromised package that Sen. Obama said was far from perfect, but that was better than what was passed by counterparts in the House, which in a role reversal voted to renew President Bush's historically intrusive surveillance policies.
"This compromise does modestly improve the Patriot Act by strengthening civil liberties protections without sacrificing the tools that law enforcement needs to keep us safe," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.
If passed again as the Obama administration has signaled it wants, the next Patriot Act reauthorization won't be until 2013.
The expiring provisions of the Patriot Act are:
1. The Records provision. This allows federal investigators with a court order to compel anyone to hand over "any tangible thing" showing "relevance" to a terrorist investigation from all business, hospitals, and some libraries. According to the U.S. Attorney General's office, there have been 220 such orders issued, but no major case to date has transpired because of information procured from them.
Both the Senate and the House bills renew the provision, but remove that presumption of "relevance" so that the burden of proof falls on the government to report facts and circumstances justifying what the items sought have to do with an investigation. A higher threshold of proof is specified for library circulation records and patron lists in both bills, but the House goes further to add booksellers to that group.
2. The Roving Wiretaps provision. The provision authorizes authorities to track a target by wiretapping any multiple lines of communication without specifically naming a target or what kind of communication they're using to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts issuing the warrant. The FISA court grants about 22 such warrants annually, according to a government document.
The House bill renews the roving wiretaps, but puts more restrictions on the government proving an unnamed target as a specific individual to prevent dragnet operations. The Senate leaves the provision as is.
3. The Lone Wolf provision. This provision allows authorities to make use of secret surveillance orders to spy on non-Americans if there is proof that they are engaged in a terrorist activities, but not necessarily involved with a terrorist organization or foreign power. The Lone Wolf provision has never been used.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to allow the Lone Wolf provision to expire, stating that normal procedures for criminal investigations could be used instead; the Senate voted to renew it.
Perhaps more important than the expiring provisions is one that is not set to expire at all.
Acquiescing to a coalition of 20 civil libertarian groups, House Democrats used the reauthorization process as the opportunity to place tough restrictions and an expiration date on a provision concerning administration subpoenas, or national security letters (NSLs), fast becoming the central focus of this debate.
The secret letters are used by the FBI to compel third parties -- financial services such as Internet providers, travel and telephone companies -- to hand over client records like bank records, for instance, presuming they're relevant to a terrorism investigation, but without having to get a court order.
"To fail to narrow this authority would be reckless," said Michael German, formerly with the FBI and now policy counsel for ACLU's Washington legislative office.
There were more than 192,000 known NSLs that were issued by the FBI between 2003-2006, according to a government report. The FBI's 10 percent review of field office NSLs found at least 640 potential intelligence violations from 2003 through 2006, according to the Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine.
His office issued reports citing underreporting and "serious misuse" of the secret letters issued by the FBI to obtain personal information sometimes not covered by the law. After two reports since 2007, the number of secret letters dropped, but rose again in 2008 to 24,744 in that year alone, according to the Department of Justice.
"Where the FBI is investigating a particle person, where the FBI has reasonable suspicion a person is acting for an agent or on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization, they have robust authorities, and that is perfectly appropriate and justifiable," German told ABC News.
"But what the national security letters do is allow them [the FBI] to collect information about people they don't suspect of doing anything wrong. And that's just a bridge too far," he said.
The House agrees with the ACLU and voted to restrict the secret letters only to cases where officials can prove the suspect is a terrorist, engaged in terrorist activities, or are in contact with terrorists.
"Unless we get it right, I think we risk not just shredding our constitution which I'm not in favor of, but shredding our way of life," said Rep. Jane Harman, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee.
But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., denies that any civil liberties have been violated related to the use of any provision of the Patriot Act, and points out that the same secret letters existed before the Patriot Act was enacted to fight terrorism at home.
"The Patriot Act has been misused by some as a springboard to launch limitless allegations that are not only unsubstantiated but are false and irresponsible. The fact remains that the USA Patriot Act is vital to maintaining America's safety," he said.
"The Obama Administration's support of these reauthorizations will hopefully put an end to the myths and the hyperbole that surrounds the Patriot Act, as it is a needed piece of legislation to keep America and her citizens safe and secure," he said.
In recent weeks, the White House gave its blessing to the Senate version, co-sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., extending all three provisions without placing as many restrictions as the House version.
"We believe these measures will promote appropriate standards, oversight, and accountability, especially with respect to how information about United States persons is retained and disseminated, without sacrificing the operational effectiveness and flexibility of the underlying tools need to protect our citizens from terrorism and to facilitate the collection of vital foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in the letter expressing strong support to Leahy and Feinstein.
The government cites the case of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan man who is a U.S. citizen and found to have trained in al Qaeda camps, as proof that the Patriot Act should be renewed for future interceptions by the FBI. Zazi was arrested in September on charges he was planning an attack on American soil.
As for the abuse of the secret letters issued by the FBI, the Obama administration said it sees room for more oversight. U.S. Inspector General Genn A. Fine said in testimony to the Senate:
"As Congress considers reauthorizing provisions of the Patriot Act, it must ensure through continual and aggressive oversight that the FBI uses these important and intrusive investigative authorities appropriately."
Critics of President Obama accused him of flip-flopping on his position as a candidate when he voted to renew a law last year allowing the use of wiretaps and gave immunity to telecom companies that cooperated under Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, made public in 2005.
8 Million Reasons for Real Surveillance Oversight
Disclaimer: The information presented here has been gathered and analyzed in my capacity as a graduate student at Indiana University. This data was gathered and analyzed on my own time, without using federal government resources. This data, and the analysis I draw from it will be a major component of my PhD dissertation, and as such, I am releasing it in order to receive constructive criticism on my theories from other experts in the field. The opinions I express in my analysis are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Trade Commission, any individual Commissioner, or any other individual or organization with which I am affiliated.
All of the mp3 audio recordings & pdf FOIA scans included on this page can be found in this .zip file (100Mb). Please mirror!
Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers' (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.
The evidence documenting this surveillance program comes in the form of an audio recording of Sprint's Manager of Electronic Surveillance, who described it during a panel discussion at a wiretapping and interception industry conference, held in Washington DC in October of 2009.
It is unclear if Federal law enforcement agencies' extensive collection of geolocation data should have been disclosed to Congress pursuant to a 1999 law that requires the publication of certain surveillance statistics -- since the Department of Justice simply ignores the law, and has not provided the legally mandated reports to Congress since 2004.
"[Service providers] have, last time I looked, no line entry in any government directory; they are not an agent of any law enforcement agency; they do not work for or report to the FBI; and yet, you would never know that by the way law enforcement orders them around and expects blind obedience."
-- Albert Gidari Jr., Keynote Address: Companies Caught in the Middle, 41 U.S.F. L. Rev. 535, Spring 2007.
"The reason we keep [search engine data] for any length of time is one, we actually need it to make our algorithms better, but more importantly, there is a legitimate case of the government, or particularly the police function or so forth, wanting, with a Federal subpoena and so forth being able to get access to that information."
-- Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, All Things Considered, NPR interview between 5:40 and 6:40, October 2, 2009.
Internet service providers and telecommunications companies play a significant, yet little known role in law enforcement and intelligence gathering.
Government agents routinely obtain customer records from these firms, detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and of course, huge amounts of geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time.
These Internet/telecommunications firms all have special departments, many open 24 hours per day, whose staff do nothing but respond to legal requests. Their entire purpose is to facilitate the disclosure of their customers' records to law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- all following the letter of the law, of course.
'Juking' the stats
If you were to believe the public surveillance statistics, you might come away with the idea that government surveillance is exceedingly rare in the United States.
Every year, the US Courts produce the wiretap report which details every 'intercept' order requested by Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies during that year. Before the police, FBI, DEA or other law enforcement agents can tap a phone, intercept an Internet connection, or place a covert bug into a suspect's home, they must obtain one of these orders, which law professor and blogger Orin Kerr describes as a "super warrant," due to the number of steps the government must go through in order to obtain one.
The official wiretap reports reveal that there are approximately 2000 intercept orders sought and approved by judges each year.
As you might expect, the vast majority of these intercept orders are for phone wiretaps. Thus, for example, of the 1891 intercept orders granted in 2008, all but 134 of them were issued for phone taps.
The number of electronic intercept orders, which are required to intercept Internet traffic and other computer assisted communications is surprisingly low. There were just 10 electronic intercept orders requested in 2008, and only 4 of those were from the Federal government -- which was itself a massive increase over the one single order sought by the entire Department of Justice in both 2006 and 2007.
This graph, and the information contained within it, simply does not make sense. The number of electronic intercepts should, like the number of phone wiretaps, be going up over time, as more people purchase computers, and as criminals or other persons of government interest start to use computers to communicate and plan their business activities. Why were there almost 700 total (federal and state) electronic intercept orders obtained in 1998, but only 10 in 2008?
While I have no way of proving it, I suspect that there have never been a large amount of electronic intercept orders obtained in order to monitor computer communications. The electronic intercept orders, as reported by the US Courts, include those used to monitor computers, fax machines, and pagers. The wiretap report doesn't break down the numbers for these individual technologies -- but I suspect that the nearly 700 electronic intercept orders granted in 1998 were largely for fax machines and pagers. Thus, as these technologies died out, it is only natural that the number of electronic intercept orders declined
That still leaves us with one large question though: How often are Internet communications being monitored, and what kind of orders are required in order to do so.
The stats don't cover all forms of law enforcement surveillance
As I described at the beginning of this article, the government routinely obtains customer records from ISPs detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time.
However, while there are many ways the government can monitor an individual, very few of these methods require an intercept order.
In general, intercept orders are required to monitor the contents of real time communications. Non-content information, such as the To/From and Subject lines for email messages, URLs of pages viewed (which includes search terms), and telephone numbers dialed can all be obtained with a pen register/trap & trace order.
While wiretaps require a "superwarrant" which must be evaluated and approved by a judge following strict rules, government attorneys can obtain pen register orders by merely certifying that the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation -- a far lower evidentiary threshold.
In addition to the fact that they are far easier to obtain, pen register orders are also not included in the annual US courts wiretap report. Not to fear though -- a 1999 law requires that the Attorney General compile annual statistics regarding DOJ's use of pen register orders, which he must submit to Congress.
Unfortunately, the Department of Justice has ignored this law since 2004 -- when five years worth of reports were provided to Congress in the form of a single document dump covering 1999-2003. Since that one submission, both Congress and the American people have been kept completely in the dark regarding the Federal government's extensive use of pen registers.
Since we don't have any pen register stats for the last five years, it is difficult to do a current comparison. However, for the five years worth of data that we do have, it is possible to make a few observations.
First, in 2003, Federal agents used 15 times more pen registers and trap & traces than intercepts. Perhaps this was because each of the 578 Federal intercept orders obtained in 2003 had to be thoroughly evaluated and then approved by a judge, while the 5922 pen registers or 2649 trap & trace devices each received a cursory review at best.
Second, the number of pen registers and trap & trace orders went down after 9/11, at a time when the FBI and other parts of DOJ were massively increasing their use of surveillance. 4210 pen registers were used in 2000, 4172 in 2001, and 4103 in 2002.
It is important to note that these numbers only reveal part of the picture, as these statistics only cover the use of pen registers/trap & traces by the Department of Justice. There are no public stats that document the use of these surveillance methods by state or local law enforcement. Likewise, these stats only cover the requests made for law enforcement purposes -- pen register surveillance performed by the intelligence community isn't reported, even in aggregate form.
The reporting requirements for intercepts and pen registers only apply to the surveillance of live communications. However, communications or customer records that are in storage by third parties, such as email messages, photos or other files maintained in the cloud by services like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo Facebook and MySpace are routinely disclosed to law enforcement, and there is no legal requirement that statistics on these kinds of requests be compiled or published.
There is currently no way for academic researchers, those in Congress, or the general public to determine how often most email, online photo sharing or social network services deliver their customers' data to law enforcement agents.
While these firms deliver sensitive customer data to government agents on a daily basis, they go out of their way to avoid discussing it.
"As a matter of policy, we do not comment on the nature or substance of law enforcement requests to Google."
"We do not comment on specific requests from the government. Microsoft is committed to protecting the privacy of our customers and complies with all applicable privacy laws."
"Given the sensitive nature of this area and the potential negative impact on the investigative capabilities of public safety agencies, Yahoo does not discuss the details of law enforcement compliance. Yahoo responds to law enforcement in compliance with all applicable laws."
Only Facebook and AOL have publicly disclosed the approximate number of requests they receive from the government -- 10-20 requests per day and 1000 requests per month, respectively.
Follow the money
"When I can follow the money, I know how much of something is being consumed - how many wiretaps, how many pen registers, how many customer records. Couple that with reporting, and at least you have the opportunity to look at and know about what is going on.
-- Albert Gidari Jr., Keynote Address: Companies Caught in the Middle, 41 U.S.F. L. Rev. 535, Spring 2007.
Telecommunications carriers and Internet firms do not just hand over sensitive customer information to law enforcement officers. No -- these companies charge the government for it.
Cox Communications, the third largest cable provider in the United States, is the only company I've found that has made its surveillance price list public. Thus, we are able to learn that the company charges $2,500 for the first 60 days of a pen register/trap and trace, followed by $2,000 for each additional 60 days, while it charges $3,500 for the first 30 days of a wiretap, followed by $2,500 for each additional 30 days. Historical data is much cheaper -- 30 days of a customer's call detail records can be obtained for a mere $40.
Comcast does not make their price list public, but the company's law enforcement manual was leaked to the Internet a couple years ago. Based on that 2007 document, it appears that Comcast charges at least $1000 for the first month of a wiretap, followed by $750 for each month after that.
In the summer of 2009, I decided to try and follow the money trail in order to determine how often Internet firms were disclosing their customers' private information to the government. I theorized that if I could obtain the price lists of each ISP, detailing the price for each kind of service, and invoices paid by the various parts of the Federal government, then I might be able to reverse engineer some approximate statistics. In order to obtain these documents, I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with every part of the Department of Justice that I could think of.
The first agency within DOJ to respond was the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), who informed me that they had price lists on file for Cox, Comcast, Yahoo! and Verizon. Since the price lists were provided to USMS voluntarily, the companies were given the opportunity to object to the disclosure of their documents. Neither Comcast nor Cox objected (perhaps because their price lists were already public), while both Verizon and Yahoo! objected to the disclosure.
I then filed a second request, asking for copies of the two firms' objection letters. Those letters proved to be more interesting than the price lists I originally sought.
First, Verizon revealed in its letter that it "receives tens of thousands of requests for customer records, or other customer information from law enforcement."
Assuming a conservative estimate of 20,000 requests per year, Verizon alone receives more requests from law enforcement per year than can be explained by any published surveillance statistics. That doesn't mean the published stats are necessarily incorrect -- merely that most types of surveillance are not reported.
In its letter, Verizon lists several reasons why it believes that its price list should remain confidential. Of these reasons -- two stand out. First, the company argues, customers might "become unnecessarily afraid that their lines have been tapped, or call Verizon to ask if their lines are tapped (a question we cannot answer.)"
The second interesting reason is that:
"Our pricing schedules reveal (for just two examples) that upon the lawful request of law enforcement we are able to [redacted by USMS]. In cooperation with law enforcement, we do not release that information to the general public out of concern that a criminal may become aware of our capabilities, see a change in his service, correctly assume that the change was made at the lawful request of law enforcement and alter his behavior to thwart a law enforcement investigation."
I'm not sure what capabilities this section is referring to -- but I'd love to find out more.
Yahoo!'s letter is far less exciting, and doesn't even hint at the number of requests that the company receives. There is one interesting tidbit in the letter though:
"It is reasonable to assume from these comments that the [pricing] information, if disclosed, would be used to "shame" Yahoo! and other companies -- and to "shock" their customers. Therefore, release of Yahoo!'s information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies."
"Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects, according to judges and industry lawyers." Ellen Nakashima, Cellphone Tracking Powers on Request, The Washington Post, November 23, 2007.
"Law enforcement routinely now requests carriers to continuously 'ping' wireless devices of suspects to locate them when a call is not being made ... so law enforcement can triangulate the precise location of a device and [seek] the location of all associates communicating with a target."
-- Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA -- the Wireless Association, in a July 2007 comment to the Federal Communications Commission.
As mobile phones have become ubiquitous, the law enforcement community has learned to leverage the plentiful, often real-time location information that carriers can be compelled to provide. Location requests easily outnumber wiretaps, and as this article will reveal, likely outnumber all other forms of surveillance request too.
In terms of legal requirements, this information can often be gained through the use of a hybrid order, combining a Stored Communications Act request and a Pen Register request. As noted before, the former law has no reporting requirement, and the law requiring reports for the Pen Register requests has been ignored by the Department of Justice since 2004.
In March of this year, telecommunications lawyer Al Gidari, who represents many of the major telcos and ISPs, gave a talk at the Berkman Center at Harvard University. During his speech, he revealed that each of the major wireless carriers receive approximately 100 requests per week for customers' location information.
100 requests per week * 4 wireless major carriers (Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile) * 52 weeks = 20k requests per year.
While Gidari's numbers were shocking when I first heard them, I now have proof that he significantly underestimated the number of requests by several orders of magnitude.
Hanging with the spooks
Several times each year, in cities around the globe, representatives from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, telecommunications carriers and the manufacturers of wiretapping equipment gather for a closed door conference: ISS World: Intelligence Support Systems for Lawful Interception, Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Gathering.
ISS World is no stranger to the privacy community. Back in 2000, FBI agents showed off a prototype of the Carnivore interception system to attendees at ISS World. Days later, stories appeared in both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times after one attendee leaked information to the press.
ISS World had been on the list of events that I'd wanted to attend for a long time, even moreso after my research interests started to focus on government surveillance. Thus, in October of this year, just a month after moving to Washington DC, I found myself at the Washington DC Convention Center, attending ISS World.
Looking around at the name badges pinned to the suits milling around the refreshment area, it really was a who's who of the spies and those who enable their spying. Household name telecom companies and equipment vendors, US government agencies (both law enforcement and intel). Also present were representatives from foreign governments -- Columbia, Mexico, Algeria, and Nigeria, who, like many of the US government employees, spent quite a bit of time at the vendor booths, picking up free pens and coffee mugs while they learned about the latest and greatest surveillance products currently on the market.
The main draw of the event for me was two panel discussions: A presentation on "Regulatory and CALEA Issues Facing Telecom Operators Deploying DPI Infrastructure", and a "Telecom Service Providers Roundtable Discussions"
Not knowing ahead of time what the speakers would say, and not wanting to be called a liar if I later cited an interesting quote in a research paper, I decided to make an audio recording of the two panels.
One wireless company, 50 million customers, 8 million law enforcement requests for customer GPS information in one year
However, by far the most jaw-dropping parts of the telecom service providers roundtable were the following quotes:
"[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that's just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don't know how we'll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.
-- Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel.
"In the electronic surveillance group at Sprint, I have 3 supervisors. 30 ES techs, and 15 contractors. On the subpoena compliance side, which is anything historical, stored content, stored records, is about 35 employees, maybe 4-5 supervisors, and 30 contractors. There's like 110 all together."
-- Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel, describing the number of employees working full time to comply with requests for customer records.
"Cricket doesn't have as many subscribers so our numbers are going to be less. I think we have 4.5 - 5 million subscribers. We get approximately 200 requests per calendar day, and that includes requests for records, intercepts. We don't have the type of automation they do, and we can't do the location specificy that they can, because we don't have GPS."
-- Janet A. Schwabe, Subpoena Compliance Manager, Cricket Communications
"Nextel's system, they statically assign IP addresses to all handsets ... We do have logs, we can go back to see the IP address that used MySpace. By the way - MySpace and Facebook, I don't know how many subpoenas those people get, or emergency requests but god bless, 95% of all IP requests, emergencies are because of MySpace or Facebook... On the Sprint 3G network, we have IP data back 24 months, and we have, depending on the device, we can actually tell you what URL they went to ... If [the handset uses] the [WAP] Media Access Gateway, we have the URL history for 24 months ... We don't store it because law enforcement asks us to store it, we store it because when we launched 3G in 2001 or so, we thought we were going to bill by the megabyte ... but ultimately, that's why we store the data ... It's because marketing wants to rifle through the data."
-- Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel.
"Two or three years ago, we probably had less than 10% of our requests including text messaging. Now, over half of all of our surveillance includes SMS messaging."
-- Paul Taylor, Electronic Surveillance Manager, Sprint Nextel.
As the information presented in this article has demonstrated, the publicly available law enforcement surveillance statistics are, at best misleading, and at worst, deceptive. It is simply impossible to have a reasonable debate amongst academics, public policy makers, and members of the public interest community when the very scale of these surveillance programs is secret.
As an example, consider the following quote from the November 4, 2009 markup hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, which is currently considering a bill to expand the government's PATRIOT Act surveillance powers. During the hearing, Rep. Lamar Smith, the Ranking (Minority) Member said the following:
Unlike other tools which actually collect content, such as wiretaps, pen registers and trap-and-trace devices merely request outgoing and incoming phone numbers. Because the government cannot collect any content using pen registers, a minimization requirement makes no sense. What is there is there to minimize?
After reading this article, it should be clear to the reader that pen registers and trap & trace devices are used for far more than just collecting phone numbers dialed. They are used to get email headers (including To, From and Subject lines), the URLs of web pages viewed by individuals, and in many situations, they are used (along with a Stored Communications Act request) to get geolocation information on mobile phone users.
The reason I'm quoting Rep. Smith isn't to poke fun at his expense, but to make a serious point. How can we have a serious public debate about law enforcement surveillance powers, when the senior most Republican on the committee responsible for the oversight of those powers doesn't understand how they are being used? Likewise, this paragraph should by no means be read as an attack on Rep. Smith. How can he be expected to understand the extensive modern use of pen registers, when the Department of Justice continues to break the law by failing to provide yearly statistics on the use of pen registers to Congress?
My point is this: The vast majority of the government's access to individuals' private data is not reported, either due to a failure on DOJ's part to supply the legally required statistics, or due to the fact that information regarding law enforcement requests for third party stored records (such as email, photos and other data located in the cloud) is not currently required to be collected or reported.
As for the millions of government requests for geo-location data, it is simply disgraceful that these are not currently being reported...but they should be.
Microchip Wristband Becomes a Theme Park Essential
At Precision Dynamics, what started out as simple hospital ID product has become a high-tech admission pass, a cashless debit card, a hotel room key and a way to reunite lost children with parents.
In a nondescript manufacturing plant on a quiet San Fernando cul-de-sac, a khaki-green machine the size of a buffet table sucks in bright pink ribbon and spits out one of the hottest features in theme parks.
Here, Precision Dynamics Corp., a company that began making plastic hospital wristbands out of a Burbank garage more than 50 years ago, has become the nation's top producer of a new microchip-enhanced wristband for amusement parks, concerts, resorts and gyms.
The wristbands use the same technology as electronic tollbooths, security key cards and the newest U.S. passports. But at Precision Dynamics, this sophisticated electronic know-how has found its niche at theme parks, where the high-tech wristbands act as high-security admission passes, cashless debit cards, hotel room keys and a form of identification to reunite lost children with parents.
In the last year alone, Precision Dynamics' wristbands came on line at Great Wolf Resorts' newest water park in Concord, N.C.; at the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Galveston, Texas; and at Water World, one of the nation's largest water parks, near Denver, Colo. In total, more than 50 theme parks across the country strap the wristbands on visitors.
Company leaders envision a future when they can expand the technology for use in border security and hospital identification, among other purposes.
"All sorts of things can be done with this technology," said Walter Mosher Jr., a founder of the privately held company and a member of the board of directors.
Precision Dynamics began in 1956 when a friend who worked in hospital supplies suggested that Mosher, a UCLA engineering student, design a better wristband to identify patients at hospitals. At the time, hospitals made wristbands from plastic tubes, using separate tools to cut and fasten the bands on patients. For infants, hospital workers strung together lettered beads that spelled the babies' names.
At the machine shop at Burbank High School, Mosher and two partners devised a one-piece plastic wristband that required no tools to fasten. The business that began with only $2,000 in start-up money has since expanded to 680 employees, a handful of trademark patents and offices in Belgium, Japan, Italy, Mexico and Brazil.
In 2006, Mosher sued Precision Dynamics in a dispute over the election of board members. But the dispute was settled out of court last year with a deal that keeps Mosher as a shareholder and a member of the board.
The idea of using radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology in wristbands came to Mosher about 10 years ago when he learned that microchips were being implanted in dogs and cats to identify them in shelters and veterinary clinics. A short time later, company Vice President Robin Barber moved ahead with the idea after meeting with managers from Great Wolf Resorts, who wanted to let guests buy food and drinks at the water parks without carrying a wallet or cash.
The result was a patented wristband containing a tiny antenna and a microchip only slightly bigger than a postage stamp.
Each microchip is programmed with a unique 16-character code. A separate device known as a reader emits a low-power radio wave that activates the chip to collect the information and upload it into a computer. The reader must come within a few inches of the wristband to connect to the chip. Thus the wristband acts as a key to access a computerized debit account or unlock an electronic hotel room or a clothes locker.
The microchip wristbands now account for about $3 million in annual sales for Precision Dynamics, representing only a fraction of the company's more than $100 million in annual sales, according to company executives. The bulk of the company's business comes from the sales of wristbands that employ simpler bar-code technology to identify hospital patients, among other uses, and plain plastic wristbands with colors that tell security officers at theme parks and concerts who has paid for admission.
At theme parks, parents can use a kiosk to upload amounts that their children can spend, using the wristbands to buy food or play video games at the park. The microchips are coded so that the wristbands can be used only on a specific day. Once a hotel guest or theme park visitor departs, the wristbands becomes obsolete.
Because cashless spending is more convenient, industry reports suggest that visitors who use the wristbands spend as much as 25% more at resorts and parks.
"Our guests appreciate the convenience of it all," said Jennifer Beranek, a spokeswoman for Great Wolf Resorts. Precision Dynamics wristbands are used at seven of its 12 water parks nationwide.
But price remains a barrier for the technology. Simple wristbands that use bar-code technology, for example, sell for as little as 14 cents each; the RFID wristbands sell for about $1 each. An RFID reader sells for about $450, roughly twice the cost of a bar-code reader.
Perhaps the biggest hurdles facing the widespread use of the microchip wristbands are the added costs and the persistent fear that personal information could fall into the wrong hands.
Katherine Albrecht, a personal privacy advocate and a leading critic of RFID technology, has called the microchips used in such wristbands "spy chips" because she fears they will be used to track people's movements. But Precision Dynamics notes that the wristbands cannot be read unless they come within inches of a reader.
Mark Roberti, editor of the RFID Journal, an online and print periodical on the technology, said such fears are unfounded because the wristbands typically hold no personal information. Once the world's business leaders realize the wristbands are safe and effective, he believes, the technology will be widely used.
"Businesspeople have a bit of a herd mentality," he said. "This technology is very convenient, and it will continue to take off."
Paul Chang, IBM Corp.'s business strategy leader for emerging technology, agreed, saying RFID technology is already in wide use in Europe and Asia. But he said the U.S. is still playing catch-up. He noted that tickets issued at the Beijing Olympics were embedded with an RFID chip to stifle counterfeiters.
"Other parts of the world have already adopted this technology," he said.
Barber, Precision Dynamics' vice president, believes the future of the wristbands is in healthcare. The microchips can be programmed to hold a patient's blood type, medical history, drug allergy information and other data to reduce mistakes and confusion.
Unfortunately, too many hospitals today employ a variety of computer systems, many of which cannot communicate with one another, he said.
That, however, is not a problem at theme parks, he said. "The systems at theme parks are much simpler."
King to Probe Release of 9/11 Pager Messages
Anthony M. Destefano
Concerned about the release of 500,000 intercepted pager messages from Sept. 11, 2001, Rep. Peter King said he plans to have his Washington staff begin a preliminary investigation.
"It does raise security issues, and we will look into it in Washington," King (R-Seaford), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Friday.
The messages were compiled by the Web site WikiLeaks.org, a worldwide group that acquires information and releases it to the public. The Web site said the archives of pager messages were released to help "lead to a nuanced understanding of how this event led to death, opportunism and war."
No one at WikiLeaks could be reached for comment at various numbers listed for the group.
WikiLeaks did not disclose how the messages were intercepted. But the fact that so many could be collected did not surprise some computer experts.
"All pager traffic is non-encrypted," said Phil Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software Corp. of Los Angeles. "The fact that people are intercepting the traffic is not surprising."
Most pager users either don't need to intercept the traffic or do not have the expertise to do so, Lieberman said.
But clearly, those with the right technology can accomplish it. Literature of one pager company acknowledges that an experienced person with sophisticated equipment can break into the data transmitted for pagers.
Eugene Spafford, a Duke University professor who specializes in computer sciences, said it was unclear exactly how the WikiLeaks materials were originally compiled and given to the organization.
"They could have fell into the hands of somebody who decided to post it," Spafford said.
Lieberman believes the fact that many of the messages appeared to come from the Wall Street area is an indication that pager traffic there is monitored.
"Given the high value of the traffic on Wall Street and One WTC [World Trade Center], pager interception complexity and physical proximity are not a problem for someone looking to get a leg up on the financial system," Lieberman said in a follow-up e-mail.
"The warnings to users of text messaging and pagers is that there should be no expectation of privacy and that everything they are sending will be potentially available to their rivals in real time," he added.
Lieberman pointed out that users of government pagers who have high security needs already use encryption technology, but fire, police and emergency units don't need that for their daily uses.
One privacy lesson in the WikiLeaks disclosure is that high-tech communications gadgets create information that can surface years later, Spafford said. Nothing is private, he emphasized.
Wikipedia Ordered to Reveal Identity of 'Editor' Accused of Blackmailing Mother and Child
A businesswoman smeared by an anonymous contributor to Wikipedia has won a landmark legal battle to have her accuser unmasked.
The victim had 'confidential and sensitive' details about her professional life and her child written into her page on the online encyclopaedia.
She also received anonymous threatening letters suggesting her accuser would reveal information to the press.
The businesswoman's identity is secret by order of the court but is thought to be wellknown in business circles.
Now the website has been ordered to hand over technical information to help track down the blackmailer.
The case is the latest example of Wikipedia - which has 325million visitors a month and can be edited by anyone - being used for malicious or mischievous ends.
Mr Justice Tugendhat said in his judgment at the High Court: 'In ordinary language, the mother believes that she is the subject of an attempt at blackmail. On the information before the court, she has reason to believe that.'
The amendments made to the woman's entry involved information about her professional expenses claims and details about her child which the judge did not reveal.
She has also received two anonymous letters - although it was not possible to say if these were from the same person who altered the website.
One letter was a copy of an article about a company director convicted for false expenses claims 'which she understood to be linked to threats to disclose information about her professional expenses'.
The other was a copy of a letter apparently showing that details of her expenses claims had been sent to a newspaper.
The mother denies any wrongdoing-regarding her expenses and no story about her has been published.
The woman believes her accuser is a person she is currently 'in dispute with', but that person denies the allegation.
The judge said 'the range of suspects' could include employees or professional advisers working at the same company as the victim.
Following a complaint, the altered web page was removed by the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation, which supervises the encyclopaedia.
Wikipedia does not store the names of those writing or editing its entries - but it does keep the Internet Protocol (IP) address, which identifies every computer on the Internet.
The judge, who heard the case in private but made his judgement in open court, ruled that the user's IP address be disclosed so the victim 'may identify the alleged wrongdoer' and stop further breaches of privacy.
Wikipedia calls malicious altering of its pages 'vandalism'. Victims have included Tony Blair, whose entry once said he used to have a picture of Hitler on his bedroom wall.
Other well-known victims include David Beckham, who was listed as an 18th-century Chinese goalkeeper, and Robbie Williams, said to have made a fortune eating hamsters.
Controversial pages - such as those of politicians - are now locked and can be changed only by trusted editors.
A recent survey found that the average age of contributors is 26.8 years and 87 per cent are men.
The site claims to have a million editors, but critics say many are giving up due to tighter restrictions.
In the first three months of this year, the English-language Wikipedia lost more than 49,000 editors, compared to losing 4,900 in the same period last year.
EFF Sues Feds for Info on Social-Network Surveillance
The Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the CIA, the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and three other government agencies on Tuesday for allegedly refusing to release information about how they are using social networks in surveillance and investigations.
The nonprofit Internet rights watchdog group formally asked more than a dozen agencies or departments in early October to provide records about federal guidelines on the use of sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr for investigative or data gathering purposes, according to the lawsuit.
The requests were prompted by published news reports about how authorities are using social networks to monitor citizen activities and aid in investigations. For example, according to the lawsuit, government officials have: used Facebook to hunt for fugitives and search for evidence of underage drinking; researched the activities of an activist on Facebook and LinkedIn; watched YouTube to identify riot suspects; searched the home of a social worker because of Twitter messages regarding police actions he sent during the G-20 summit; and used fake identities to trick Facebook users into accepting friend requests.
The EFF needs access to the information to "help inform Congress and the public about the effect of such uses and purposes on citizens' privacy rights and associated legal protections," the lawsuit said.
None of the agencies contacted had complied with the EFF's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and only one, the IRS, had asked for an extension, according to the suit.
The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, names the defendants as the CIA, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the departments of Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, and Treasury.
The FOIA requests and the lawsuit were filed on behalf of the EFF by the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law.
Government surveillance of citizens, particularly in areas they consider private, should have oversight, said Shane Witnov, a law student who worked on the case for the Samuelson Clinic.
"Social-networking sites are becoming a part of the way we communicate every day and everyone thinks they are sharing information [on the sites] with just their friends," he said. "Governments are using the sites but not in the way [citizens] expect when they sign up."
The government agencies could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Cash Prizes for Catching CCTV Criminals
There are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain watching our every move.
In London, there are more CCTV cameras than any other city in the world with one camera for every eight Londoners.
But as victims of crime have found to their cost, catching criminals on camera is dependent on the equipment being both monitored and maintained.
BBC Inside Out's investigation has found that all too often Big Brother either is not watching, had a broken camera, lost the footage or could not be bothered to go through the tapes.
Even within the Metropolitan Police itself, there are differences of opinion about the value of CCTV.
One senior Met officer, Mick Neville, described London's CCTV network as an "utter fiasco", claiming it takes 1,000 cameras to solve just one crime per year.
But another senior Met officer disagrees. Detective Chief Inspector Julian Worker said: "For me, it is the most useful tool amongst the armoury of investigative tools that the Metropolitan Police and other police services throughout the country use. We are probably market leaders in the way that we utilise CCTV."
One UK businessman thinks he has come up with a solution by recruiting volunteers to watch live CCTV footage streamed over the web in return for cash prizes.
Businessman Tony Morgan sees his company, Internet Eyes, as the future with an army of volunteer spies monitoring live CCTV footage online and alerting police to any criminal activity they witness.
Their only incentive is a monthly prize of £1,000 for the best crime spotter of the month yet more than 10,000 recruits have already signed up.
But civil rights campaigners are not happy with the scheme.
Charles Farrier, from No CCTV, said: "Internet Eyes is a very worrying development - we are already the most watched country in the world. Now we have a private company asking private individuals to spy on each other."
Internet Eyes launches in early 2010 and is dependent on both volunteers sticking to their commitment to monitor the cameras and on police following up any leads that the volunteers alert them to.
Köhler Refuses to Sign Controversial Internet Child Porn Law
German President Horst Köhler has hammered another nail in the coffin of a controversial law to block child pornography on the internet by refusing to sign it, news magazine Der Spiegel reported Saturday.
The law, which critics argue would block access to other, innocent sites and therefore amounted to censorship, could breach Germany’s constitution, experts believe.
The law was written under the previous “grand coalition” government between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats and was pushed by then CDU Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
Merkel’s party and their new partners in government, the pro-business Free Democrats – who opposed the measure – agreed during coalition negotiations last month not to put the law into practice.
But because it had already been passed by both houses of the German parliament, it could not simply be dropped. Köhler’s refusal to sign it means it is now effectively stalled until the new government finds a constitutional way to kill it.
According to a Saturday report in business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger had agreed to kibosh the law by ordering the federal police not to act upon it. However, that would leave the law hanging in place.
One possibility, the Spiegel report said, is that the parliament issue a regulation repealing the law, which Köhler can wait to sign when it crosses his desk.
'Accidental' Download Sending Man To Prison
Matthew White, 22, said he was surfing for pornography two years ago on Limewire -- a fire sharing application that allows users to trade music, movies, games and pictures -- when he discovered that some of the files he had downloaded were images of children.
Matt claims he quickly erased the files.
"It didn't appeal to me," he said. "I was looking for women my age, so I just wanted to d More..ownload 'College Girls Gone Wild' and accidentally downloaded underage pornography."
About a year later, FBI agents showed up at his family's home. The family agreed to let agents examine the computer, and at first, they couldn't find anything.
Investigators later were able to recover the deleted images from deep within the hard drive.
"I asked them, 'Where did you get that? I don't remember that.' I asked them, 'Could I access that if I wanted to?'" Matt said. "They said no."
Facing 20 years in prison for possessing child pornography, Matt is pleading guilty on the advice of his public defender in hopes of getting a three and a half year sentence. He will also serve 10 years probation and have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Matt's father says other parents need to be warned about the consequences of stumbling across illicit material.
"One day, you're going to get a knock on the door and have your child taken away for many years," he said.
The FBI could not comment on this specific case, but said if child pornography is ever downloaded accidentally, the user needs to call authorities immediately. They may confiscate your computer, but it's better than the alternative.
Internet searches reveal a large number of complaints from people who say they've accidentally downloaded child pornography through Limewire.
Poll: 'Sexting' of Explicit Photos Common Among Young
Think your kid is not "sexting"? Think again.
Sexting -- sharing sexually explicit photos, videos and chat by cell phone or online -- is fairly commonplace among young people, despite sometimes grim consequences for those who do it. More than a quarter of young people have been involved in sexting in some form, an Associated Press-MTV poll found.
That includes Sammy, a 16-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area who asked that his last name not be used.
Sammy said he had shared naked pictures of himself with girlfriends. He also shared naked pictures of someone else that a friend had sent him.
What he didn't realize at the time was that young people across the nation -- in Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- have faced charges, in some cases felony charges, for sending nude pictures.
"That's why I probably wouldn't do it again," Sammy said.
Yet, "I just don't see it as that big of a problem, personally." That was the view of nearly half of those surveyed who have been involved in sexting. The other half said it's a serious problem -- and did it anyway. Knowing there might be consequences hasn't stopped them.
"There's definitely the invincibility factor that young people feel," said Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia and author of the book "Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus." "That's part of the reason why they have a high rate of car accidents and things like that, is they think, `Oh, well, that will never happen to me,'" Bogle said.
Research shows teenage brains are not quite mature enough to make good decisions consistently. By the mid-teens, the brain's reward centers, the parts involved in emotional arousal, are well-developed, making teens more vulnerable to peer pressure.
But it is not until the early 20s that the brain's frontal cortex, where reasoning connects with emotion, enabling people to weigh consequences, has finished forming.
Beyond feeling invincible, young people also have a much different view of sexual photos that might be posted online, Bogle said. They don't think about the idea that those photos might wind up in the hands of potential employers or college admissions officers, she said.
"Sometimes they think of it as a joke; they have a laugh about it," Bogle said. "In some cases, it's seen as flirtation. They're thinking of it as something far less serious and aren't thinking of it as consequences down the road or who can get hold of this information. They're also not thinking about worst-case scenarios that parents might worry about." Sexting doesn't stop with teenagers. Young adults are even more likely to have sexted; one-third of them said they had been involved in sexting, compared with about one-quarter of teenagers.
Thelma, a 25-year-old from Natchitoches, La., who didn't want her last name used, said she's been asked more than once to send naked pictures of herself to a man.
"It's just when you're talking to a guy who's interested in you, and you might have a sexual relationship, so they just want to see you naked," she said, adding that she never complied with those requests.
"But with my current boyfriend, I did it on my own; he didn't ask me," she said, adding that she was confident he would keep the image to himself.
Those who sent nude pictures of themselves mostly said they went to a boyfriend, girlfriend or romantic interest.
But 14 percent said they suspect the pictures were shared without permission, and they may be right: Seventeen percent of those who received naked pictures said they passed them along to someone else, often to more than just one person.
Boys were a little more likely than girls to say they received naked pictures or video of someone that had been passed around without the person's consent. Common reasons were that they thought other people would want to see, that they were showing off and that they were bored.
Girls were a little more likely to send pictures of themselves. Yet boys were more likely to say that sexting is "hot," while most girls called it "slutty." Altogether, 10 percent said they had sent naked pictures of themselves on their cell phone or online.
Criminal charges aren't the worst consequences. In at least two cases, sexting has been linked to suicide. Last year in Cincinnati, 18-year-old Jessica Logan hanged herself after weeks of ridicule at school; she had sent a nude cell phone picture to her boyfriend, and after they broke up, he forwarded the picture to other girls.
And three months ago, 13-year-old Hope Witsell hanged herself, after relentless taunting at her school near Tampa, Fla. She had sent a nude photo of herself to a boy she liked, and another girl used his phone to send the picture to other students who forwarded it along. The St. Petersburg Times first reported on Hope's death this week.
Other teenage suicides have been linked to online bullying, also a subject of the AP-MTV poll. Half of all young people said they have been targets of digital bullying.
That can mean someone wrote something about them on the Internet that was mean or a lie, or someone shared an e-mail or instant message that was supposed to be private. Less often, it can be more serious, such as taking pictures or video of someone in a sexual situation and sharing it with others.
The AP-MTV poll was conducted Sept. 11-22, and involved online interviews with 1,247 teenagers and adults ages 14-24. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The poll is part of an MTV campaign, "A Thin Line," aiming to stop the spread of digital abuse.
The survey was conducted by Knowledge Networks, which initially contacted people using traditional telephone and mail polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
On the Net:
C*U*2nite: Sexting Not Just for Kids
Editor’s note: Some of the interviewees are identified only by first names for privacy.
When Roger gets to an intimate stage with a woman these days, it usually doesn't take long until the sexy photos start. His dating partners either request that he send them a suggestive—or downright explicit—photo from his cell phone to theirs, or they just send one themselves, completely unsolicited.
"I'll say, 'You have an amazing body. You have amazing breasts,'" he reports. "The next thing you know, you'll get a picture of a breast," he says with a hearty laugh.
The Massachusetts resident has been enjoying the high-tech flirtation for years now, taking part in a trend the mainstream media has dubbed "sexting," a play on the term "texting" ("sex" plus "text" equals "sext"). The term has made headlines recently, as teens continually get themselves in sticky situations with a form of high-speed communication that thrives on informality, spontaneity, and—for many young folks—bad judgment.
The catch is, Roger isn't a teenager—or even a 20-something. He's a 59-year-old divorcé, and, thanks to his cell phone and a slew of sassy ladies, his love life is more interesting than ever.
Shocked? Don't be. More and more of the 50+ set, both single and married, are using text messaging to spice up their sex lives. Boomers, often sandwiched between teenagers, aging parents, and busy work schedules, are taking advantage of the new technology because it's fast, easy, and fun.
Relationship coach Suzanne Blake has seen and heard it all when it comes to sexting, including a wife who enjoys sexting her husband while he's traveling on business, telling (and showing) him what he's missing at home. While this may surprise some, Blake's not surprised at all.
"It's a misnomer that the biological changes of aging have to lead to a decrease in sexuality and sexual experience," she says.
Whether they're single and casually dating, married, or in long-term relationships, "Boomers want sexual activity," Blake explains. "They want to flirt. It makes them feel lively and young."
Jill, 50, certainly feels fresh and vital when she sexts.
"It makes you a little more brave," she says. "It takes the fear away, your inhibitions. I might be a little more bold in a text message than I would be over the phone or in person."
Sexting also makes the South Carolina nurse, who's been divorced for 15 years and enjoys casual dating, feel as if she had a "naughty secret."
"If you're sitting in a restaurant waiting for your food, you can just talk dirty to someone, and no one knows what you're doing," Jill says, in a slow Southern drawl. "I would rather talk on the phone. But I'm also comfortable with hiding behind texting if I want to say something dirty."
That's exactly the appeal of sexting, according to New York City psychotherapist and advice columnist Dr. Jonathan Alpert.
Because there's no anticipation of a direct verbal response, there's less at stake than if the conversation were being held the old-fashioned method: face-to-face," he says. "Where there's less risk of being critiqued or judged, there's opportunity for greater sexual expression."
It also fits nicely into longtime couples' busy schedules to keep things spicy, says relationship and sexual health expert Genie James, who recommends sexting to couples who need to travel away from one another or have trouble connecting throughout the day.
"It’s cheap," she says. "It's quick. It's right there. And nobody can hear you."
James continues, "It's about setting the stage for sex and keeping passion alive. A cell phone's in your hands every day. You're already doing it."
But beware, the experts warn. Sexting has its dangers, too, especially when it comes to people in the dating world.
One of the biggies? False advertising, says relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle. It's something online daters may be all too familiar with when their date shows up looking about 30 years older than his profile photo.
"They're overselling and over-promising," she says of big-talking sexters. "I think too much, too soon in relationships is not such a great thing. I suggest to people that you grow the relationship outside the bedroom so that when you come into the bedroom, it's your playpen."
Then there's the comfort factor. Not everyone likes receiving a sexually charged text or photo pop up on her phone as much as she thought she would.
Richard, 66, received an X-rated photo on his cell phone from a potential online date recently and surprised himself by being less than thrilled.
"It was a little bit embarrassing," the Iowa resident says sheepishly. "Well, it was very embarrassing."
The fact that he was with a group of colleagues after hours at a restaurant didn't help matters, either.
Sexting might be an interesting experiment, he says with a sigh, but after his experience, "It was like the fun kind of went out of it."
Experts Weigh In on Sextings Dos and Don'ts
Step 1 – Fan the Flame: New to sexting? "Sexpert" Genie James recommends texting a quick love note to your sweetie during the day. Some of her favorites are, "Love you most," or "I still want to go to the prom with you!"
Step 2 – Turn Up the Heat: When you're comfortable, try texting something slightly suggestive, James says. "Can't wait until tonight" would work even for shy novices. Feeling bold? She recommends turning things up a notch with something along the lines of, "Forget chocolate, I am craving the taste of you!"
Periodically – Houseclean: If you're sending or receiving racy notes or photos, delete them every so often, advises relationship coach Suzanne Blake. "If you lose your cell phone or it's stolen, pictures can be uploaded in a heartbeat." –And that's not to mention the possibility of your teenage kids innocently flipping through your texts or photos.
Always – Stay Grounded: If you're dating, keep expectations based on sexting in check, says psychotherapist and advice columnist Dr. Jonathan Alpert. Just because you're getting hot and heavy texts, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll get hot and heavy in person.
All Men Watch Porn, Scientists Find
Scientists at the University of Montreal launched a search for men who had never looked at pornography - but couldn't find any.
Researchers were conducting a study comparing the views of men in their 20s who had never been exposed to pornography with regular users.
But their project stumbled at the first hurdle when they failed to find a single man who had not been seen it.
“We started our research seeking men in their 20s who had never consumed pornography,” said Professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse. “We couldn't find any.”
Although hampered in its original aim, the study did examined the habits of those young men who used pornography – which would appear to be all of them.
Prof Lajeunesse interviewed 20 heterosexual male university students who consumed pornography, and found on average, they first watched pornography when they were 10 years old.
Around 90 per cent of consumption was on the internet, while 10 per cent of material came from video stores.
Single men watched pornography for an average of 40 minutes, three times a week, while those in relationships watched it 1.7 times a week for around 20 minutes.
The study found that men watched pornography that matched their own image of sexuality, and quickly discarded material they found offensive or distasteful.
Prof Lajeunesse said pornography did not have a negative effect on men's sexuality.
“Not one subject had a pathological sexuality,” he said. “In fact, all of their sexual practices were quite conventional.
“Pornography hasn't changed their perception of women or their relationship, which they all want to be as harmonious and fulfilling as possible,” he added.
Point, Shoot, Retouch and Label?
VALÉRIE BOYER is 47, a member of the French parliament and a divorced mother of three. She is tall, fashionable and, dare we say it, slim.
But she has also created a small furor here and abroad with her latest proposal: a draft law that would require all digitally altered photographs of people used in advertising be labeled as retouched.
Some think such a law would destroy photographic art; some think it might help reduce anorexia; some say the idea is aimed at the wrong target, given that nearly every advertising photograph is retouched. Others believe such a label might sensitize people to the fakery involved in most of the advertising images with which they’re bludgeoned.
Underneath it all is an emotional debate about what it is to be attractive or unattractive, and whether the changing ideals of beauty — from Sophia Loren to Twiggy — have ever been realistic.
“Michelangelo painted idealized bodies, so the idea of idealized beauty was already there,” said Anne-Florence Schmitt, editor of Madame Figaro, the newspaper’s glossy woman’s magazine. “It’s a fake debate.”
For Ms. Boyer, who has a background in health administration, the fight is really about her two teenage daughters, 16 and 17, and the pressures on young women to match the fashionable ideal of a thin body and perfect skin.
“I got interested in the subject of the body because it’s really a mother’s reflection,” she said. “It’s the closeness I have to adolescents that drove me to become interested in these subjects.”
It is a topic that consumes her. “If someone wants to make life a success, wants to feel good in their skin, wants to be part of society, one has to be thin or skinny, and then it’s not enough — one will have his body transformed with software that alters the image, so we enter a standardized and brainwashed world, and those who aren’t part of it are excluded from society.”
Her proposed law has yet to be voted on in the National Assembly, where Ms. Boyer sits as a member of the center-right from heavily Socialist Marseille. The legislation is aimed at advertising, though its preamble suggests expanding the measure to other kinds of photographs. Her initiative has already brought her attention, as part of a larger, passionate and confused debate about models, beauty and anorexia.
It’s a debate that goes well beyond France. In the United States, Self magazine, which champions accepting one’s “true self,” recently published a thinned-down photo of the singer Kelly Clarkson, with a headline pushing “total body confidence.” Lucy Danziger, Self’s editor, defended the photo as “the truest we have ever put out there,” but many disagreed. There was also a fuss about a bizarrely retouched photo of the model Filippa Hamilton, whose waist was reduced to the width of her head, for a Ralph Lauren ad in Japan. Brigitte, a popular German woman’s magazine, decided last month that as of 2010 it would only use photos of “ordinary” women. The editor, Andreas Lebert, said he was “fed up” with retouching photos of what he considered underweight models.
In France, Inès de La Fressange, a former model and clothes designer, calls Ms. Boyer’s bill “demagogic and stupid,” arguing that the causes of anorexia are complex.
Dominique Issermann, a French fashion photographer, thinks that Ms. Boyer has not only misunderstood the problem, but also the nature of photography itself. “There is this illusion that photography is ‘true,’ ” she said. But a camera can easily distort reality through the use of a different lens without any retouching. “As soon as you frame something you exclude something else,” she said, adding that photographs are “a piece of reality, but the reality of the world is different.” In family photos, for instance, “Someone always says, ‘That doesn’t look like you at all.’ ”
For Ms. Issermann, the problem is not photography, but a “prepubescent style” — a kind of adolescent androgyny, in which skinny, not very muscular young men are paired with skinny, not very curvaceous girls “disguised as women.” Still, she said, digital pictures often need retouching “to recreate the emotion that caused you to press the shutter in the first place.”
She pointed to her well-known shot of Keira Knightley taken for Chanel. Most people think the picture was retouched to enlarge Ms. Knightley’s partly exposed breast, Ms. Issermann said, but in fact the retouching was done “to add a bit on the thigh. She’s too thin there.”
“Between Botero and Giacometti, the world finds its way,” she said. “We still want heavenly people in a heavenly light. It’s the paradise of the image.”
But there are those in France who support Ms. Boyer’s labeling proposal. Philippe Jeammet, professor of psychiatry at the Université Paris Descartes, said it “is the least we could do.” He said that photos “are a factor of influence, especially for the most vulnerable young girls.” He would go further. “There should even be sanctions,” he said. “Retouched photos are a deception, an illusion, and we must think about the consequences.”
For Ms. Boyer, the issue is about standards and lying. She was recently struck by a magazine headline that read: “Be who you are!” On the back cover was an obviously Photoshopped picture of a teenager.
“The pictures contradict the message,” she said, and that contradiction is evidence of the “schizophrenia” that exists between “the representation of an ideal world, a very thin, tanned and white-toothed woman without wrinkles,” and “the plebe who has health problems, who doesn’t necessarily have white teeth, has wrinkles and puts on weight.”
Ms. Boyer knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. Her parents were pieds noirs who fled from Algeria in 1962 with nothing but “a beach bag, with photo albums, and my mother took the silverware and a doll they had just given me,” she said. The experience and the memories pushed her into politics.
Ms. Boyer drew attention last year when she drafted another law, which would make the promotion of extreme dieting a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of some $45,000. That law is largely aimed at Internet sites and blogs advocating an “anorexic lifestyle” like the pro-ana (for pro-anorexia) movement, which began in the United States. It passed the French lower house, but is stuck in the Senate.
There are several thousand pro-ana Web sites in France, Ms. Boyer said, and up to 40,000 women suffer from anorexia.
“Children look a lot at the Internet,” she said, adding, “even if you’re close by, even if you’re attentive, even if you love them a lot, that’s not enough to protect them. Especially when they target them, because pro-ana blogs are aimed at young girls in particular, they give them perverse advice, like, ‘Lie to your mother, say you’re going to eat at a friend’s house, cut your hair so you don’t have to say that you’re losing it.’ ”
But she’s also been involved in the government’s efforts to cope with obesity, more prevalent in France than many imagine. Two-thirds of French men and half of all women ages 35 to 74 are thought to be overweight, while a fifth of all adults are considered obese, according to a recent study by the Institut Pasteur. Already advertisements for highly caloric foods like soda and candy require labels that, for example, warn people to “avoid eating foods that are too greasy, too sugary, too salty.”
Christine Leiritz, chief editor of the French magazine Marie Claire, compared the labels to those Ms. Boyer wants on retouched photographs, suggesting that they will only tell people what they already know.
“Our readers are not idiots,” Ms. Leiritz said, “especially when they see those celebrities who are 50 and look 23,” like a much-remarked recent fashion shot of Sharon Stone that appeared this August in Paris Match. “Of course they’re all retouched.”
Magazines must police themselves, Ms. Leiritz said, but at the same time, “fashion provides a dream” that is important for women. “It’s not just explaining what to wear. I think a women’s magazine is also partly a dream, which is made possible by a certain perfection in image.”
Ms. Boyer herself loves fashion magazines. Shown a French Vogue that had a photograph of a reclining woman’s torso attached to a dog’s hindquarters, and asked if the photo needed to be labeled as retouched, she grabbed the magazine and said, “Magnificent!”
“I buy tons of women’s magazines. I love fashion and I love life,” she said. “But it seems to me that as a matter of professional ethics, you have to warn people that the image of the body has been modified.”
It’s a matter of honesty, she insisted. “Do you think you have to lie in order to dream? We must treat the public as adults, and I think it’s a true feminist battle. I don’t understand why women’s magazines aren’t rallying to it.”
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.
Cool-Tether Turns Phones into High-Speed Hotspots
Microsoft Research has found a novel way of beating the deplorably slow speeds of mobile broadband, by combining several phones together to make one high-speed hotspot.
Dubbed Cool-Tether, the system harnesses the mobile data connection of multiple mobile handsets to build an on-the-fly Wi-Fi hotspot.
It's not the first time Microsoft's unveiled the concept: a 2007 research project called Combine suggested a similar means of tapping the bandwidth of several handsets.
However, Combine proved too power hungry, because even when a phone was only asked to transfer a small chunk of data it remained in a high-power state for several seconds afterwards, quickly draining the smartphone's battery.
Cool-Tether alleviates that problem by calling on fewer phones to deliver longer bursts of data, maximising the amount of data delivered in those battery-draining sessions.
"To address the challenges of energy efficiency, Cool-Tether carefully optimises the energy drain of the WAN (GPRS/EDGE/3G) and Wi-Fi radios on smartphones," Microsoft's research paper claims.
"We prototype Cool-Tether on smartphones and, experimentally, demonstrate savings in energy consumption between 38%-71% compared to prior energy-agnostic solutions."
The system is most likely to be harnessed in developing nations such as India, where mobile internet is far more prevalent than fixed-line access.
Cameroon Leapfrogs Hong Kong in Malware Hosting Blocklist
One in three .cm domains booby-trapped, warns McAfee
Cameroon (.cm) web domains supplanted those in Hong Kong as most likely to harbour malware, with more than one in three (36.7 per cent) of domains registered in the West African country hosting viruses or malicious code.
The .cm used by Cameroon is a common typo for .com, a factor that security firm McAfee speculates may explain why cybercriminals have set up fake typo-squatting sites that lead to malicious downloads or spyware under the country's domain.
Meanwhile Hong Kong (.hk) websites have successfully managed to purge themselves of malware threats – droppings from the most risky domain last year, to a mid-table (34th) position next year. This year only 1.1 per cent of .hk sites pose a risk, compared to one in five .hk Web sites setting off warning bells in McAfee's equivalent report last year. McAfee credits "aggressive measures" from .hk’s domain managers in clamping down on dodgy registrations for the drop.
Hong Kong's newly-minted net sainthood contrasts with the position in the People’s Republic of China (.cn), which appears in second spot in McAfee's list of shame.
"This report underscores how quickly cybercriminals change tactics to lure in the most victims and avoid being caught," said Mike Gallagher, chief technology officer for McAfee Labs. "Last year, Hong Kong was the riskiest domain and this year it is dramatically safer.
"Cybercriminals target regions where registering sites is cheap and convenient, and pose the least risk of being caught."
McAfee's third annual Mapping the Mal Web report names Irish (.ie) sites as the safest in EMEA, with only Japanese (.jp) sites ranking lower in risk globally. British websites hold a relatively safe berth, appearing in 55th place on McAfee's list of shame.
Websites ending in ".com" came out as the second most risky domains in 2009, moving up from the ninth spot last year. By contrast, government (.gov) domains were the safest non-country domain.
McAfee analysed 27 million websites and 104 top-level domains using its SiteAdvisor and TrustedSource technology in compiling its report. SiteAdvisor tests websites for browser exploits, phishing, excessive pop-ups and malicious downloads, while TrustedSource offers a reputation system that tracks web traffic patterns, site behaviour, hosted content and more, to gauge site security risks.
The security firm reckons 5.8 per cent (or more than 1.5 million web sites) pose a security risk of one kind or another.
The top five riskiest country domains online for 2009, according to McAfee
1. Cameroon (.cm)
2. PR of China (.cn)
3. Samoa (.ws)
4. Phillipines (.ph)
5. Former Soviet Union (.su)
Matthew Komorowski produced this wonderful graph of the rise of hard drive capacity per dollar cost over the last few decades. Matthew derived the following fit to his data:
Now I just had to grab a spreadsheet and plug in some numbers. Here is some interesting predictions that result. Now nobody is saying that this equation will certainly fit future data. But the argument that it will is pretty hard to ignore. So for the moment, let's not argue that point, and assume that the equation will hold for another 20 years, more or less.
First of all, how much does hard disk storage cost? Well, unlike bread or gold or lumber, disk storage prices are on a continual slide downwards. That is what Matthew's equation given above tells us. So how drastic is this fall in hard disk storage costs? Consider:
• In 1989 the cost of 1KB fell below a penny
• In 2001 the cost of 1MB fell below a penny
• In 2013 we can expect the cost of a GB to fall below a penny
• In 2025 we can expect the cost of a TB to fall below a penny
I bought a 1 Gigabyte drive somewhere around 1992 for my company for $5000. Today I can buy 1000 times that same storage for about $250. Amazing!
Still, KB this and GB that doesn't necessarily mean anything to our intuition. So the question becomes, how might we relate these drives to something more every day, something tangible. Talking about the number of phone books that can be stored on a drive just doesn't cut it anymore, so how about considering HD Video?
Edit: The use of HD Video as an example in this exercise should not be taken as prediction on video formats to be used in the future! Likewise, our projection of the use of HD Video in the past is an intentional anachronism... We are just using HD Video as a yardstick here, nothing more.
Well, if we assume a hour of HD Video takes about 4 GB, we can divide the "Price Time Line" by how many seconds, minutes, etc. of HD Video a $100 hard drive can hold. So what does this "Time Line" look like?
• In 1981, your $100 got you about a second of HD Video
• By 1993, your $100 could cover about a minute of HD Video
• By 2000, your $100 got you about an hour and 15 minutes of HD Video
• By 2006, your $100 could buy you 1 and 2/3 days of HD Video
• And here is where things get really interesting...
• By 2012, your $100 will be able to buy you nearly 2 months of HD Video
• By 2016, the same $100 will be able to buy storage for almost 1 1/2 years of HD Video
• By 2020, your $100 will be able to buy you 1 1/2 decades of HD Video
• By 2024, your $100 will buy you 1.45 Centuries of HD Video
And if this trend holds for less than 20 years ....
By 2028 you will be able to buy space to store 1450 years of HD Video for $100...
That has GOTTA blow your mind.
Here is my spreadsheet. The shaded years are years for which we have data and fit the curve described above.
Error Correction: An Urgent Need for Files
I was at a preservation archive workshop hosted by a U.S. government agency recently — these are installations that must preserve information in a digital format forever — when it occurred to me that files need to be much better protected to make these kind of archives a reality.
The workshop was held to discuss some of the challenges facing preservation archives, which cannot change once documents are converted from their original analog format to digital.
Most of the industry participants agreed that over time, digital data will inevitably experience bits that flip (0 becomes 1, or vice versa). Over time, a bit or two or even more will flip or be read incorrectly, and the file might become unreadable or corrupted to a point where it is not usable. It is one thing to lose a single bit in a file, but if you lost a bit in the wrong part of a file definition, often called an application header or file header because it is at the beginning of the file, if that was lost or unreadable, the whole file might be lost.
A participant from the film industry mentioned that even film that is 100 years old and not perfect can usually be displayed, and most of the film is viewable and clear enough to the average person. The participant asked why digital file formats (jpg, mpeg-3, mpeg-4, jpeg2000, and so on) can't allow the same degradation and remain viewable. A great question, and one that no one had an answer for.
Headers and File System Superblocks
A vendor friend of mine who came out of the simulation industry told me that back in the 1970s, a project he was working on used two file headers for each of the simulation file outputs they were generating. That got me thinking about how file systems write multiple copies of the superblock, which essentially performs the same function as a header on a digital file. Almost every file has a header, from all Microsoft application files to digital audio and video to the data used to create your weather forecast, your car, or the airplane you fly on. The superblock for a file system allows the file system to be read, understood and processed, and if you lose a disk where the superblock is located, the file system tries to read other disks and determine if there is a valid copy of the superblock.
The need for this is no different than the header on an audio or video digital format or any other file. While it's only part of the problem, what if a file could be written with multiple headers and the application knew where to look for the headers? You'd want headers at different ends of the file because if a sector is corrupted, having two headers in the same sector likely won't help.
So let's say you have a header at the start of the file and then at the end of the file; how do you figure out which one is good? The obvious answer is to create a checksum of the header data and compare the checksums, which means that you will have to read the header and validate the checksum. Another way would be to add ECC (error correction code) to the header so minor corruptions can be corrected. This method is what happens for many telecommunications systems and on the Space Shuttle, which is called voting: Read three or more headers and compare the headers to see which two or more have the same results. I think the addition of ECC to the header is the most attractive option for a number of reasons:
* You are reading less data
* You are seeking less in the file, as you are only reading a single header and not multiple ones
* ECC allows the failure to be both detected and corrected, and is therefore more robust than using methods that validate checksums
* Today we clearly have the processing power to both validate and correct the header if the ECC fails
The drawback is that if the sector where the header is located is corrupted badly, you likely won't be able to reconstruct the file, so two headers plus ECC should be the solution for the most critical files. The advantage of having multiple headers protects against sector failure, compared to protection against a few bits or multiple bits flipping, depending on how much ECC you use.
Another feature of this method is that the headers could be large and maybe even padded to a full disk hardware sector, which is currently 512 bytes but might change to 4096 at some point in the future.
Precedents from Broadcast Industry, Dedupe
ECC methods have been around for decades; it is time to start consider using this technology so that files aren't lost over bit errors. With all the compression technologies in use, often the loss of a single bit can mean the loss of a whole file. How many times have you opened a digital picture at home only to find that it is unreadable?
Back in the 1990s, there were a few RAID companies that ignored errors on read for the broadcast industry. These companies did this because if you are playing a commercial for the Super Bowl, it is better to lose a few bits in replay than to not be able to play the commercial and lose millions in revenue. Very often the few bits that were lost were not even noticed. The broadcast industry has long known that it is better to lose a few bits than to lose the opportunity to send the broadcast down the wire. The problem we have today is that with the need for compression algorithms for pictures, video and audio, the loss of a few bits has a much more dramatic impact than it did when streaming uncompressed formats back in the 1990s.
Some applications create a per file checksum, but that does not correct a problem in the file; it just tells you the file has been changed, and when you cannot display something or it looks weird, that's kind of obvious anyway. I am a big fan of compression, and maybe what we need to do is take some of the lessons learned from the data deduplication industry. Many of the data deduplication products have ECC that is able to correct every block. The amount of ECC varies from vendor to vendor, but maybe what is needed for ECC for pictures of your mother-in-law might be different from the ECC required for a preservation archive of the U.S. government.
I surely want more ECC on my IRS records than on one of my underwater photos, although I am more than willing to give up disk space, CPU, memory bandwidth and time to process the ECC. It would be nice to have a way of setting and resetting the amount of ECC as needs change, but file formats still need a way of displaying a file even if there is a failure on one of the ECC areas. I should not have to lose a whole file if the ECC block for one of a fish's eyes is bad, using my underwater photo example. Just show me the fish and I will figure out what to do in Photoshop.
The way I see it, file and data integrity have to change or we will eventually lose all of our long-term archived data. The potential cost to industry and governments around the world — and the threat of the loss of our shared history — mean that we have to do something. Everything is going digital, from medical records to old movies, photos and documents. The current methods may have worked in the past, but they won't work in the future.
No Country for Old Typewriters: A Well-Used One Heads to Auction
Cormac McCarthy has written more than a dozen novels, several screenplays, two plays, two short stories, countless drafts, letters and more — and nearly every one of them was tapped out on a portable Olivetti manual typewriter he bought in a Knoxville, Tenn., pawnshop around 1963 for $50.
Lately this dependable machine has been showing irrevocable signs of age. So after his friend and colleague John Miller offered to buy him another, Mr. McCarthy agreed to auction off his Olivetti Lettera 32 and donate the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization with which both men are affiliated.
“He found another one just like this,” a portable Olivetti that looks practically brand new, Mr. McCarthy said from his home in New Mexico. “I think he paid $11, and the shipping was about $19.95.”
Mr. McCarthy, 76, has won a wagon-full of honors including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grant. Books like “Blood Meridian,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Crossing” have propelled him to the top ranks of American fiction writers.
Even nonreaders are familiar with his storytelling since his two most recently published novels, “No Country for Old Men” and the 2007 Pulitzer winner “The Road,” have been made into movies. (“No Country” won best picture and three other Oscars last year.)
Christie’s, which plans to auction the machine on Friday, estimated that it would fetch between $15,000 and $20,000. Mr. McCarthy wrote an authentication letter — typed on the Olivetti, of course — that states:
“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. ... I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.”
Speaking from his home in Santa Fe, Mr. McCarthy said he mistakenly thought that the typewriter was bought in 1958; it was actually a few years later. He had a Royal previously, but before he went off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, “I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find.”
Mr. McCarthy is known for being taciturn, particularly about his writing. He came to realize that not only his working method but even his tools are puzzling to a younger generation.
He remembers one summer when some graduate students were visiting the Santa Fe Institute. “I was in my office clacking away,” he said. “One student peered in and said: ‘Excuse me. What is that?’ ”
“I don’t have some method of working,” he said, adding that he often works on different projects simultaneously. A few years ago, when he was in Ireland, “I worked all day on four different projects,” he said. “I worked two hours on each. I got a lot done, but that’s not usual.”
Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer who is handling the auction for Mr. McCarthy, said: “When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.”
The institute is in a rambling house built in the 1950s that sits on a hill overlooking Santa Fe. “It’s been under not-so-benign neglect,” Mr. McCarthy said.
He is working to help upgrade parts of the house, like the library. It turns out that architecture is one of the many odd jobs that Mr. McCarthy said he had had in his life.
He joined the institute at the invitation of its founder, the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, whom he met at a MacArthur Foundation meeting years ago. “It’s just a great place,” said Mr. McCarthy, whose primary responsibilities at the institute are eating lunch and taking afternoon tea.
He still has a house in Texas. If he had his druthers, he would live there now, except “they wouldn’t move the institute.”
Manifesto in Defense of Fundamental Rights on the Internet
A group of journalists, bloggers, professionals and creators want to express their firm opposition to the inclusion in a Draft Law of some changes to Spanish laws restricting the freedoms of expression, information and access to culture on the Internet. They also declare that:
1 .- Copyright should not be placed above citizens’ fundamental rights to privacy, security, presumption of innocence, effective judicial protection and freedom of expression.
2 .- Suspension of fundamental rights is and must remain an exclusive competence of judges. This blueprint, contrary to the provisions of Article 20.5 of the Spanish Constitution, places in the hands of the executive the power to keep Spanish citizens from accessing certain websites.
3 .- The proposed laws would create legal uncertainty across Spanish IT companies, damaging one of the few areas of development and future of our economy, hindering the creation of startups, introducing barriers to competition and slowing down its international projection.
4 .- The proposed laws threaten creativity and hinder cultural development. The Internet and new technologies have democratized the creation and publication of all types of content, which no longer depends on an old small industry but on multiple and different sources.
5 .- Authors, like all workers, are entitled to live out of their creative ideas, business models and activities linked to their creations. Trying to hold an obsolete industry with legislative changes is neither fair nor realistic. If their business model was based on controlling copies of any creation and this is not possible any more on the Internet, they should look for a new business model.
6 .- We believe that cultural industries need modern, effective, credible and affordable alternatives to survive. They also need to adapt to new social practices.
7 .- The Internet should be free and not have any interference from groups that seek to perpetuate obsolete business models and stop the free flow of human knowledge.
8 .- We ask the Government to guarantee net neutrality in Spain, as it will act as a framework in which a sustainable economy may develop.
9 .- We propose a real reform of intellectual property rights in order to ensure a society of knowledge, promote the public domain and limit abuses from copyright organizations.
10 .- In a democracy, laws and their amendments should only be adopted after a timely public debate and consultation with all involved parties. Legislative changes affecting fundamental rights can only be made in a Constitutional law.
Note: This manifesto is the work of several authors, and the property of everyone. Copy it, publish it, pass it on as you will.
Until next week,
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