Friday, April 13, 2012


So I've been neglecting this blog horribly lately. I've been so busy with school for the last few weeks with an insane workload, so I haven't had a chance to write anything.
I'll be back in a bit, once I have a chance to write a good post.

Friday, March 16, 2012

EU Copyright Reform blocked

(This was originally going to be my only article today, but then I learned that Iran is being disconnected from the world banking system, and I couldn't just ignore that.)

Copyright works something like this: You claim the copyright to a work. Then, as long as you're alive, you own the rights to it. Then you die, but your estate has the copyright to it for the next 70 yeas. The problem is that during the net 70 years,, it can happen that the work, called an orphan work, is effectively lost, because there is nobody to claim the copyright, and because the owner is dead, nobody can produce it. It's in a copyright limbo of sorts.

In Canada, they have legislation to deal with that scenario, where the Copyright Board can grant a license if the owner cannot be found.

In Europe though, there aren't any provisions like that, so on March 1st 2012, one of the committees in the European Parliament met to determine how to prevent that from happening, and the 24-seat council voted 12-14 (with 1 abstention) to amend that law (the final reform will be voted on in the European parliament, and this vote was simply about a single amendment).

I'm going to let that sink in. If you don't get it, read it again.

There were a total of 26 votes counted, with only 23 people present to vote, which means that the voter turnout here was 113% (although, this does pale in comparison to the 140% voter turnout in some regions in the last Russian election).

The problem that this presents, aside from the obvious problem of the Legal Affairs committee (JURI), which is the committee responsible for maintaining the integrity of trustworthiness, having messed up such a simple vote, is that the 3 extra votes actually determined the outcome.

If it was a 17-9 vote, then regardless of what happened to the 3 votes, it would have passed. But with a 12-14 vote against the reform, it presents a unique situation. If 12 people voted for the reform, and only 11 against, it should have passed. If 14 people voted against the reform, and only 9 against, then it should have failed.

Now, I get it. Mistakes happen. That's why there are recounts after almost every election, because someone miscounted. I'm hardly one to call someone a criminal for a genuine error.

That's why when a re-vote was requested, it was denied. How they can deny a re-vote after the results were clearly incorrect is beyond me. How they can claim that it's democratic... Your guess is as good as mine.

To quote Christian Engström, a member of that committee, "There is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to democracy in the European Union".


Deleting Iran

As everyone is fully aware, Iran is striving to become a nuclear state, and the world is very uneasy about that, so much so that sanctions have been imposed against Iran (List of Sanctions against Iran). But this latest sanction is one of the most interesting.

The EU Council has ordered SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), the company that manages the world's largest electronic payment system, to disconnect all Iranian banks. Despite being privately owned, it is used by almost every bank in the world to conduct transactions on an international level.

And now, Iran has no access to it.

What does this actually mean? Simply put, it means that Iran no longer has access to any international banks, and cannot transfer any funds to any banks outside of the country. Indeed, Iranian banks will no longer be able to transfer funds electronically between themselves.

Though there are some banks not subject to EU sanctions, the vast majority are, and this will serve to isolate Iran by severely restricting its trade and commerce. How can a country conduct business when it doesn't have any way of sending any payments?

But while this will affect the government, it has an even larger impact on the civilians there. Many Iranians live and work abroad, and send money to their families on a regular basis. Unfortunately, these money transfers would all be blocked, leaving their families with less money.

While I agree with sanctions against Iran in order to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, I think this is especially heavy handed, and quite reckless.
Tactics like this will do more to harm the people than it does to the government, and was not fully thought out (unless of course, it was done to make the people suffer, which would put more pressure on the government, which makes this plan despicable as well).

The best way to appreciate how this will impact the average Iranian is to consider what would happen if the USA was suddenly disconnected from the internet.

While they would still have an American intranet (equivalent to the Iranian banking system), they wouldn't be able to import or export any new information (money), and people living or working outside the country would be unable to contact (support) their families back home. The currency would also be worthless on an international scale, because the only way to exchange it would be to physically cross the border and exchange it (which is the case in Iran, because they wouldn't have have access to electronic payment systems). While this would certainly impact the government, it wouldn't affect them directly, but would be done primary to harm civilians and use them as leverage against the government.

So should they continue to sanction Iran? Yes, but not like this.

SWIFT article
VOA News article
ABC News article

Monday, March 12, 2012

Homeless Hotspots

So this is probably the most bizarre stories I've read in a while.

At SXSW this year, a technology convention of sorts in Texas, BBH Labs, the research branch of BBH, a communications firm, announced a new initiative to raise funds for the homeless.

Last year, they created an interesting program called Underheard in NY, which gave four homeless residents of NYC prepaid phones and twitter accounts, so they can share their experiences with the world. That program was a huge success, with people around the world donating time and resources to them to improve their quality of life (a number of them were offered jobs, and one even found his daughter, who he hasn't spoken to for 11 years prior).

But as great a success as that was, it helped exactly 4 people in New York.

Now, BBH Labs is launching their "Homeless Hotspots" program.

The basic premise is this: Homeless people in Austin this year, who register for this program, of course, will be given a MiFi device, and a t-shirt with their name, as well as an access code. Users then (hopefully after introducing themselves), connect to the network, and use the code on the shirt to access the internet. They then pay a fee ($2 is the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use), the whole of which is given to the person whose access code they used.

And it sounds great, albeit bizarre.

But the internet, being the internet, has found problems with this initiative.

Mark Horvath, who created We Are Visible, a campaign to help provide people in poverty with access to technology and social media, questions BBH about its motives. He points out that Underheard in NY was created and run by 4 interns at BBH Labs, and that as soon as it became too popular, BBH proper took over the project, and shut it down. The 4 homeless men from NYC were essentially abandoned afterwards. He mentions that BBH is currently trying to make a reality TV show based on the same idea, drawing into question their motivation for this new project. Nevertheless, he finds the project interesting, and it interested in seeing how this can be used to fight homelessness and poverty.

Other opinions run the gamut, from the logical questions about how homeless people can charge electronic devices (the battery pack has more than enough power to last the shift), what happens if it breaks (a new unit will be walked over to them), and perhaps most importantly, what keeps them from being mugged because they have an expensive electronic device (this project is currently meant for events, which are generally much safer), to general outrage that people are being used like this (which BBH Labs mentions is a more interactive version of the newspapers that the homeless currently sell to make money).

Personally, I don't think this will work. While I think there's nothing wrong with the way these people are being treated (it's certainly no worse than working a minimum wage job at a company like McDonalds), I just don't think it can actually work "in the real world". It may work very well at events, but I simply find it too gimmicky to work on a larger scale.

I think the main problem they'll experience with this is that so many people have smartphones. A few years ago, when you needed an access point to get web access, this would have worked much better, but now that so many people have smartphones, and almost every smartphone user has a data plan, many of these people will either just use their phone to find the information they need, or they'll tether their computer to their phone, and use their data plan.

What do I think of having the homeless do this? I think it's a good idea. While I find it a little demeaning, it's no more demeaning than your average minimum wage job (which, because these people are living on the streets or in shelters, they most likely wouldn't be able to get them), but it's also a much better option than the alternatives (such as panhandling and begging for change), and it's also much more likely to earn them money than the next best options (selling Street Newspapers, because so many more people use Wi-Fi than read those papers).

So what do I think of all this? I think it's a really good idea, but I don't think it's something that scales to a city-wide scale (or even downtown), and because of the ubiquity of smartphones, I don't think it has a large enough market for this to work as well as it could. But I'm sure if applied properly, it would make a huge difference to the people who participate in it.

Some more reading material if you're interested:
Homeless Hotspots homepage
BBH Labs article on Homeless Hotspots
Wired article
Slashdot article
There does seem to be a good amount of misinformation being spread on this, so I'd start with the BBH article, before reading Wired and Slashdot.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Looking the gift horse in the mouth

So last week, a couple dozen "members" of Anonymous were arrested in Europe. This post isn't about that.
But it is about Anonymous, and the dangers of helping them.

Now, I'm not saying that they're dangerous and should be avoided (but god help you if you manage to anger them), but what they do is certainly illegal (thought  the morality of their actions is a very contentious issue), and when dealing with them, there are certain risks (certainly not the least of them being the FBI showing up on your doorstep).

But while almost everything they do is illegal, they keep painting this Robin Hood-esque picture of themselves, where they hurt the "greedy" and "evil" corporations to help the "poor" and "suffering" civilians, which is why it came as something of a surprise to find that they were distributing a program that would install the Zeus virus onto their computers.

It's interesting though, because the Zeus client does exactly what it claims to do, in addition to stealing your banking information. It also functions as a DDoS client.
And the way they did it was quite clever as well. Instead of directing people to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC, it's the DDoS client that Anonymous usually uses), they directed people to a modified version of the Slowloris DDoS tool, that upon use would download the virus while still working as a DDoS tool.
It's not very surprising though. The DDoS tools work by connecting the computer to a network that can determine the targets and activate the attack remotely. Needless to say, adding a virus into the mix was a logical next step.

But I find it very unusual that they actually did this.
Now, I know that Anonymous isn't a group, and that there's no real authority, but I find it very unusual that nobody noticed this until well after it happened. With the number of people involved in Anonymous and their technical knowledge, I'm a little surprised that nobody caught this.

I'm even more surprised though, that they would have actually dared to do this. They have a hard enough time with the media, as well as every major corporation and politician, telling the world that they need to protect American ideas and property from people like that, but now they've gone and done something to alienate everyone who would actually help them.

And there are a few opinions floating around about what actually happened.
First, there's the claim that it was just some stray "hacker" trying to steal people's information, and that he abused the unstructured nature of Anonymous in order to achieve this.
Second, there's the claim that it was actually someone in Anonymous, but this seems to go against their ideals and goals, so it seems unlikely at best.
Third, there's the claim that this was a sting operation by the FBI or some other government group. While I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories, there are so many things wrong with the MegaUpload takedown and the subsequent actions that I'm not willing to dismiss this entirely.

Now, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about Anonymous here. I'm not trying to convince anyone that it's dangerous to support them, nor am I trying to portray them as martyrs here, but this is a very unusual event, where Anonymous (or someone claiming to be them, and their ability to do so is perhaps Anonymous' greatest strength and weakness) is harming the people it claims to be trying to protect, so naturally I'm a little surprised.
And since I have this lovely corner of the internet (and apparently I have readers now!) I thought I'd talk about it for a bit.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Were the SOPA protests a one time deal? Cary Sherman hopes so.

NB: Originally, this was going to be an article about Cary Sherman's recent interview here (hence the title), but I found his OP-ed that I referenced to be so outrageous that I got a little carried away and wrote about that instead. I'll try to write about the interview (which is even worse) later.
Cary Sherman, as most of you probably don't know (I didn't know, and I try to be pretty knowledgeable about this), is the current CEO of the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, the umbrella organization that represents the American recording industry, primarily the recording studios and distributors, and whose members "create, manufacture and/or distribute approximately 85% of all legitimate recorder music produced and sold in the United States".

In February, soon after the SOPA protests, he published a New York Times OP-ed titled "What Wikipedia Won't Tell You", claiming that Google and Wikipedia "unfairly" equated SOPA with censorship. The OP-ed is a pretty interesting piece, and tries to analyze the democratic process, when applied to the internet and technology.

So the article starts pretty simply, stating that music sales in the USA are roughly half of what they were in 1999, and it currently hovering around 10,000 people (which is interesting enough, when you consider the penalties they try to impose on anyone found violating copyrights, and the amount of money that these people actually get from those lawsuits). But it doesn't take long for him to try to spin those facts. SOPA represents their "constitutional imperative to protect American property, ... and to combat foreign criminals who exploit technology to steal American ingenuity and jobs."

Unfortunately, there's no Americanized version of Godwin's law, so I'll need to actually go through this. It's their constitutional imperative (because the country was founded on the constitution), and it's done to combat foreign criminals (which is often equated to illegal immigrants and terrorists), and exploit technology (which they don't, but people assume that these are hackers who can break into their bank accounts) to steal (which is very much debatable, and I personally disagree with) American ... jobs (because nothing seems to be as dangerous as the idea of low employment rates). But, technically speaking, none of that is false, but it is so horribly twisted and spun that it's hard to actually call it true.

He goes on, to explain that "censorship" is a loaded term (which it is, and that's why people use it), equating censorship to Iran and China, but at the same time saying that if an American court has determined it to be illegal, then it is not censorship. Interestingly, Iran and China can say the exact same thing, that if it violates that nation's laws, then it can lawfully be shut down. Indeed, if he wanted to use Iran as an example, executing homosexuals is perfectly justifiable, as long as it is illegal.

But according to Sherman, equating a law that does exactly that is not censorship. I fail to see how it is any different.

Rather than continuing to argue about the points people are most worried about, he proceeds to launch and ad-hominem attack at Google and Wikipedia, claiming that they are hypocrites, and that they are abusing their power, and the authority and trust they are given as a result of being major websites, and accuses them of trying to manipulate the facts and tricking their users. The irony of that claim is staggering. There is no single person trying to manipulate the facts to persuade the public to accept this bill more than Cary Sherman.

Sherman proceeds to muse about why so many Americans protested this bill. Was it SOPA they were protesting? Or was it censorship? How many of them actually knew what SOPA entailed? And perhaps most importantly, and a point which Sherman seems unable to grasp, how many were opposed to the very idea of SOPA, and how many were opposed to the structure and details of that bill?

The last point is of particular importance. Sherman seems to find it unacceptable that people are opposed to that instance of the law, finding it to be a flawed piece of legislation that could be easily abused?

But I think the most telling sign that he does not properly understand the issue at hand is when he claims that real censorship is the result of the "hacker group Anonymous", and their attacks on the DOJ and MIAA websites following the MegaUpload raid.

Sorry, let me try that again, it's a subtle point. The hacker group Anonymous.

I know it's pedantic of me, but Anonymous is not a group, and they're not actually hackers. They follow a highly democratic mob mentality, only succeeding in their attacks when they have enough support, and they use DDOS attacks, which hardly constitutes hacking.

Sherman's calling them a hacker group illustrates that either he does not actually understand who they are or what they do, or else he is deliberately trying to mislead the public.

He wraps up his article, saying that we need "reason, not rhetoric", in order to best achieve our goal of a safe and legal internet. Ironic? Yes. Hypocritical? Definitely.

But he does make a good point, and one I actually agree with. "[O]thers may simply believe that online music, books and movies should be free".
And yes, yes they do.
I do.
But that's a discussion for another time.

Monday, February 20, 2012

For the children!

Someone asked me what I think of Bill C-30.

Here's the short version of the Bill: 
- The minister gets to appoint an inspector.
- The inspector can enter any place owned or controlled by a telecom company, without a warrant (except someone's private home)
- The inspector has the right to examine, reproduce, and use anything (both physical and virtual) found there, without a warrant

So what exactly do they have access to?
Well, all "data relating to the telecommunications functions of dialling, routing, addressing or signalling that identifies or purports to identify the origin, type, direction, date, time, duration, size, destination or termination of a telecommunication generated or received by means of a telecommunications facility or the type of telecommunications service used." In short, everything.

And, as you might expect, these companies "must have the capability to do the following(a) provide intercepted communications to authorized persons;"

What do I think of it? It's outrageous.

First, it gives the government access to *everything*.
They get your credit card information, your financial information, your emails, your browsing history, everything. And they can do this without a warrant. This means that even if you haven't been suspected of anything, you still lose all your privacy.
And there's so much room for abuse too. A Liberal candidate sends an email about some scandalous activity? The Minister has the right (the right! not just the ability) to get that email from the ISP. Political dissidents? They can easily be tracked, and anything they say can be used against them - for instance, someone sending his friend a message saying "Everything would be better if Harper died", could be construed as a threat, and they can be arrested. 
Far-fetched as it may be, this bill paves the way for that scenario.

Second, it's something done "for the children".
Now, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against trying to protect children. But the way this Bill is being presented, and the spin Toews is giving it sickens me.
Essentially, if you don't support this bill, then you support child pornography.
By that same logic, if you don't support a bill giving the government access to your home (whenever they want, with the right to do whatever they want), then you support murder and rape.

Third, while this bill may help "protect the children" (which, let's be honest, is like stripping you of all your privacy "so the terrorists don't win"), it's hardly going to be effective.
Consider that there are over 30 million Canadians. According to AT&T, the average user consumes about 18 GB of data per month. That means that per month, the government will need to review about 540,000 TB of data each month (give or take).
Let me rephrase that.
Each month, the government will need to pay people to review 540,000 TB of data. Given a transfer rate (from disk to RAM) of 1 GB/s, which is well above what we have now, would take about 1000 household computers about a week to read, plus the time it would take to actually scan it, which would be several orders of magnitude higher. As a result,  it would take too long to run for this to data to actually be useful.
But the hardware is cheap; the government would need to hire people to program it (which, because it's the government, these contractors would charge extraordinary amounts), people to run and monitor it, and people to analyze the results.
And if you didn't see what I was getting at, all this would be prohibitively expensive.

But there's more!
The ISPs and telecom companies would need to hire more people to manage all the data they're collecting. They'd also need to get new equipment for this, and they'd need to hire more than a few lawyers to make sure they don't violate any privacy laws.
And, like any company, they don't want this to cut into their profits.
So how do they offset these expenses?
By passing them to the customer. That's right, it's the average Canadian who gets to pay the price for this.

So what does this new bill give us?
A prohibitively expensive and unenforceable law that the average Canadian must pay for, even though it will yield no results.

But here's the thing. I think Toews knows how outrageous it is.
Some people also think that he added outrageous parts to this bill so he could go back, make them more moderate, and then appease everyone by calling it a compromise.
I'm not a huge conspiracy fan though, so I'll leave that one alone for now.

To any ordinary person, opposing this bill makes me just another ordinary person.
To Vic Toews, that makes me a pedophile.
I'll let you decide for yourself where you stand.