Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Apple and the copyright maximalist cause

Apple Inc. has recently filed for a patent for a system to prevent people from filming events  such as concerts and sporting events. Although this patent does not describe any systems that are implemented in any Apple products, it does point to Apple responding to the concerns of the copyright maximalists in the content industry, most likely in an attempt to secure favourable licensing terms.

Apple has always been a company that has kept tight rein on the use of its hardware/software and has been zealous in its defence of its own intellectual property, so it is unsurprising that it would take this position. However, the ubiquity of its iTunes as a content distribution service makes receiving preferential licensing treatment in return for acquiescing to the content industries' ideology a potential further constraint to the online content distribution channel. In fact, it has the potential to set Apple up as a monopoly provider of content.

The content industries essentially left the online content distribution business when they pursued their litigation against Napster (and their subsequent litigation-as-a-business-model) and Apple has filled this gap with the iTunes store.

iTunes has been the most ubiquitous  model for online content delivery (with some oblique competition from Amazon and a johnny-come-lately from Google) and has an effective monopoly on legal content distribution. The filing of this patent indicates that Apple is prepared to further ingratiate itself with big content to secure its monopoly over content distribution. The danger of this is that as content producers effectively lobby governments and have quisling technology companies prepared to acquiesce to their particular brand of copyright maximalism, the nascent disruptive forces of content distribution over internet will be stymied.

The lobbying of governments is enhanced by tame technology companies providing a "model" system for legal content distribution, even though this "model" system might be utlimately mandated by preferential agreements struck between content producers and those distributors that are prepared to toe the ideological line. All of this will come not just at the expense of consumers, but at the expense of amateur creativity and the unique documenting of cultural events by amateur recordings.

Apple has signaled its intentions. So although they make shiny, shiny things, Apple is not your friend. Through its near-monopoly iTunes store and cosying up to the copyright maximalists it represents a threat to creativity on the web, albeit wrapped in shiny packaging with an 'i' in front of its name.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Constructing strong and memorable passwords

The recent Sony PlayStation Network (PSN) hack has revealed that weak passwords are still all the rage with classics such as "password", "123456" and bizarrely "Seinfeld" (considering PSN was launched in 2006, well after the final show in 1998) making up the top passwords selected for access to the PSN.

It's an age-old problem of computer security that no matter how secure the system, users will always be the weakest link - and that weakness is often expressed in password choice. Most users will excuse weak passwords or the re-use of passwords by arguing that "its impossible to remember", which is true if you expect that they'll remember a random collection of numbers and letters. The best way to construct a strong password is by the use of memes - and if you make your memes fun then people will use them to construct their own passwords.

An article in the Fairfax press suggests choosing a nursery rhyme (or other memorable phrase), taking the first letters of each word and substituting some for numbers and symbols will form the basis of a strong password which you can then customise for each service by adding a letter, such as 'F' for Facebook. Although this is a good method it still doesn't pass the memorable test because the nursery rhyme or whatever is not associated with the service. Also adding the letters to designate which service makes the password guessable if one is compromised (a fact the article acknowledges).

A method that I have suggested to people which tends to be effective is to choose a song that they can associate with the service and follow the method suggested in the article. This makes the password memorable and creates vastly different passwords for each service. A few examples that came out of this excercise were a favourite ABBA song for a NAB internet banking password (NAB sounds like ABBA apparently), Please, Mr Postman by the Beatles for a mail service and Taking it Easy by the Eagles for eBay (Taking it eBay, possibly?!). Regardless of the memes used (or their taste in music), each of these elements were memorable to the person making the password. From there it is a simple matter of constructing it along the lines outlined in the article (although I also suggest a consistent substitution scheme for example the first substitution is always a symbol).

So for example, if you chose U2's "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" for your Google services:
IsHfwILF goes to 1sHfw1LF and if your service allows symbols: !sHfw1LF, which isn't a bad password even though the attempt at irony in the song selection is terrible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ignorance powers the climate change debate

The recent furore over Cate Blanchett appearing in an ad [video] supporting climate change has highlighted the strong current of anti-intellectualism that is driving the carbon pricing debate. The opposition has shown itself all too keen to pander to Australia's inherent cultural cringe to brand celebrities, economists, and scientists who support a carbon price as elitist and out of touch. It is interesting to note that it was Blanchett that garnered all of the criticism and not Michael Caton, an actor more associated with "ordinary Australians" through his roles in "The Castle" and "Packed to the Rafters". The reason for this is to play into the narrative that the opposition is trying to build around an "elitism" that is supposedly at the heart of carbon pricing.

This characterisation of the debate as an "us and them" rather than a debate about ideas is a hallmark of the tea-party style politics that have become such a feature of the rhetoric of the right. This dichotomy between "us" the ordinary citizen and "them" the intellectual elitist is the very building block of the astroturfing "movements" that are built up by powerful interests who are happy to stand behind and manipulate these so-called people's movements to further their own corporate interests. The involvement of Koch Industries in undermining climate science and engineering the "debate" both by manipulating the right-wing media and by funding the Tea Party in America is well documented but in Australia we are only just beginning to see the rise of a similar model of politics.

Combined with the new activism of large corporate interests in the mining industry, the rhetoric by the opposition and its News Ltd. cheerleaders is straying dangerously close to that of the Tea Party - building the dynamic of "us and them" that is so characteristic of tea-party politics.

The Government has not helped itself in this regard. Its inability to disassociate itself from the "elitism" narrative, built in some part by the intellectual Kevin Rudd, has fed into the anti-intellectual narrative. This was highlighted almost comically in the debate over the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) on mining. The miners ad depicted an "ordinary" mine-worker talking to "ordinary Australians" about issues to which they could relate. Compare that with the Government's ad set in a lecture theatre, the very epitome of "academic elitism". Feeding this narrative that has carefully been built up by the opposition and its powerful allies effectively devastated the government's reforms.

The opposition effectively builds this anti-intellectual narrative with its simplistic sloganeering and cheap politics. Distilling every argument down to its simplistic "us and them" dichotomy, eschewing debate. It is combined with careful dog-whistling to the extreme right to assure them that whatever policies they do actually put forward are always done with a wink and a nod to the extremes.

This unhelpful narrative undermines the whole public policy process, but then it is the opposition's goal to reduce every debate to sloganeering. The opposition doesn't even try to engage in the policy debate, barely selling their own alternative "direct action" plan as it is their intention to merely frame any debate regardless of its content into an "us vs. them" slanging match. This charactisation of the debate away from actual policy to the "us and them" rhetoric enables the seemingly hypocritical attack on Blanchett for her wealth and elite status while praising the even more wealthy Gina Rinehart. The narrative paints Rinehart as the "down to earth mine worker" and Blanchett as the "elitist intellectual".

The building of the anti-intellectual narrative is what has leads to the more unhinged types resorting to making death threats and engaging in campaigns of bullying against scientists doing their research. Even though those that build the narrative would seek to deny the connection.

The dangerous narrative is of little concern to the activist corporate interests. It is important to them that debates are reduced to dichotomies of "us and them" as it makes it easier for them to mobilise astroturf anti-intellectual movements against those which would seek to limit their power. It enables them to excuse their own hypocrisy, shut down debate and mobilise their astroturf campaigns with their cries of "out of touch elite". Anti-intellectualism is a powerful force which tea party politics has harnessed both here and in the US and it has been ruthlessly exploited by the new right.