Technology

WEEKLY RECAP

Tea Parties, Pirate Ships and a Kayak: A Summer at Sea

For seven months, a New York Times reporter named David Rohde was held prisoner by Taliban kidnappers. However, you wouldn’t learn that from reading The New York Times — or even Wikipedia, for that matter.

In addition to other news organizations, the Times reportedly asked Wikipedia not to publish information on the abduction. For Wikipedia, that meant monitoring Rohde’s entry and quickly deleting information regarding the kidnapping as soon as anyone put it up.

Everyone involved seemed to have good intentions — they figured that the more publicity the case got, the tougher it would be to negotiate the journalist’s release. And who knows, maybe the news blackout really did save lives. Recently, Rohde and Tahir Ludin, another reporter, managed to escape.

Once they were safe, the story broke, and an ethics debate quickly followed. Information was apparently suppressed by organizations whose goals are the free flow of information: a leading newspaper and a free-for-all online encyclopedia. It wasn’t government censorship, but does that make it OK? If censorship for a cause that’s clearly good is acceptable, then when is it not? Who decides?

More to the point, perhaps, who cares? According to Peter Sussman, a longtime member of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, it seems as though it’s becoming easier to justify censorship to people in the United States. He told us, “As a general point, our opposition to censorship has become weakened, and the locus of censorship is changing from state censorship to corporate censorship. The public is now more credulous about the reasons being given to them to shut them off from knowledge about really important issues.”


Listen to the podcast (11:05 minutes).


On Second Thought …

China is no stranger to massive, government-driven public works projects, whether a huge hydroelectric dam, an incredible Olympic stadium or a defensive wall you can see from space. But the country’s government appears to be waffling a bit on its effort to build a virtual barrier, one meant to block Web surfers from accessing so-called undesirable content.

Weeks ago, Chinese officials proclaimed that every computer sold in the country would have to come with software called “Green Dam Youth Escort” preinstalled. It was presented as a way to stem the flow of pornography, but there was concern the software might also be used to block other forms of expression.

Computer makers scrambled — most didn’t exactly seem eager to comply with what amounted to a mandate for censorship, but they weren’t about to let themselves be shut out of the huge China market, either. People inside and outside the country criticized the edict on several fronts: They railed about censorship, they said the software would render computers insecure, they alleged that it used code stolen from another app, and they said the whole thing was futile anyway since anyone who really wants to find the Internet’s forbidden fruit will figure out a way.

Then, on the eve of the deadline for implementing the Green Dam order, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology backed away and said the software wouldn’t be required after all. At this point, it’s still unclear why officials changed their minds — and there’s some worry that they may issue an even harsher mandate later.

Paving Over the Pirate’s Paradise

There may soon be a blockade around The Pirate Bay to keep out digital buccaneers, proud media plunderers and technological scofflaws. A Stockholm-based company is coming in with bulldozers to tear down the hive of scum and villainy and create a cute little oceanside community with some nice condos, a Chili’s, and a Pinkberry.

Last I checked, the Bay was still doing what it’s always done — providing users with the information they need to start up BitTorrent sessions and download media files, most of which are copyrighted. Earlier this year, though, The Pirate Bay was slapped with a crippling court judgment for facilitating the unlawful sharing of movies, music and other media over BitTorrent technology.

The site’s founders are facing huge fines and jail time, and they’ve decided to sell the site to Global Gaming Factory. GGF is also buying a company called “Peerialism,” and with these assets, it hopes to create a place that still caters to file-sharers but does so in a way that also compensates copyright holders — somehow. The Pirate Bay’s founders say they’re not selling out, and that GGF would be foolish to undermine the very thing that makes the site so popular, so there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Well, some fans think otherwise, and they’re taking their business elsewhere — if what they do can be called “business.” In truth, there are lots of well-stocked torrent trackers out there that do the same thing The Pirate Bay does. The reason they haven’t been blown out of the water yet might have something to do with attitude. The Pirate Bay’s proprietors famously flouted the legal warnings they received, and they readily published responses that usually weren’t very civil. That loud and proud defiance may have won them more fans, but it undoubtedly made them a much bigger target as well.

Steve’s Back, Look Busy

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is officially back at work, as foretold in prophecy. When he started his medical leave last winter, he said he’d be back in late June, and he kept his promise.

There was no fanfare, at least not on the public side of things — no grand processions or interviews, just a short and sweet confirmation from Apple and a few sightings around the Cupertino campus. Jobs has been through some very tough medical times, so it’s unclear what kind of hours he’ll put in now that he’s officially back at the wheel.

His return got some investors talking once again about a company’s obligations when it comes the disclosure of a CEO’s health. Not that Apple crashed and burned without Jobs — the stock has almost doubled since his announcement that he needed to take a few months off. Maybe that’s because it coincided with an overall market meltdown, and Wall Street has since recovered somewhat. Or maybe it’s because the iPhone 3GS came out on time. Or perhaps it has something to do with the weather in Corpus Christi. Apple stock is kind of funny like that.

Look Ahead, Not Behind

The average Palm investor is apparently someone who doesn’t like to dwell on the past, and that’s good for Palm, because its recent past kind of stinks. It reported another atrocious three months for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year — net losses doubling to 91 and a half million, and gross profits at less than one-third of what they were a year ago.

Despite the grim news, on the day after the Q4 report plopped out, investors sent Palm shares up over 15 percent. Optimism about the Pre probably had a lot to do with that. Palm’s latest quarterly numbers reflected the months just before the Pre shipped — when anticipation for the device was heating up. Really, if you’re a Palm fan, are you going to buy a Centro if you know a much nicer phone is just around the corner? Palm’s execs expressed confidence the Pre and its webOS platform will give the company a much-needed shot of adrenaline, and it looks like investors listened.

Still, Palm’s got a lot to compete with. The iPhone 3GS just came out, and Apple claims it sold 1 million units in its first weekend –10 times the number of Pres that sold over its debut weekend. Then you’ve got the HTC Hero around the corner, not to mention whatever RIM, Nokia and Samsung manage to dream up in the meantime. It’s not exactly Thunderdome out there, but it’s close. A dozen platforms enter, maybe three or four platforms leave — something like that.

Fixing a Hole

Instead of reinventing the wheel, cellphone makers have been busy reinventing the charging port — that little hole in your phone that you plug the cord into when you need to recharge it. Sometimes that port also exchanges data with a computer via USB. Sometimes it’s shaped like a nice, common Micro USB port, but too often it’s some weird trapezoidal thingy that only works with chargers and wires made by the company that made your phone.

Because of that, it’s hard to share chargers among two or more phones. Every new phone has to come with its own special charger, and if you lose it or break it, you have to buy a new one that’s at least 20 bucks more expensive than it ought to be just because of the proprietary shape of the business end.

The European Commission and a collection of major wireless tech companies have agreed to end the madness as early as next year — in Europe, at least — by standardizing on Micro USB. This follows the GSM Association’s February agreement to set a similar global standard by 2012. The European agreement includes heavyweights like Apple, Nokia, Samsung, Motorola and a half dozen others.

Surprisingly, some of the parties to the EU deal are not on board with the worldwide initiative. Perhaps they regard this kind of thing as just an experiment. I mean, giving consumers a practical solution that makes things easier and less insane? That’s crazy talk.

Copy or Coincidence?

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That might be true once in a while, but it’s also a phrase that copycats love using to excuse themselves when they just plain rip off the work of someone else.

Travel Web site Kayak.com isn’t using such strong language right now — not out loud, at least — but it has expressed concern about how closely the travel portion of Microsoft’s new Bing search engine resembles its own site, both in functionality and design. Microsoft denies that it copied anyone, but Kayak wants to have a sit-down session with Redmond anyway.

If that doesn’t lead to some hand-shaking, Kayak might have a little legal room to mount a copyright challenge over this. Still, it would be hard for Kayak to establish intent — and when you think about it, it doesn’t seem there are that many different ways a travel Web site could be designed and still be easy to use.

E-tail Tea Party

“No taxation without physical location.” That’s for you, Amazon — go ahead and pass it on to your lobbyists. No charge. You’re welcome. It can be your rallying cry against states like North Carolina, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

That’s right, Amazon is starting a tax revolt, and it’s being joined by fellow e-tailers like Blue Nile and Overstock.com. They’re reportedly dropping online affiliate programs in those states in response to new tax laws.

Affiliates are basically partner sites that make money by kicking buyers over to the parent site when they want to make a purchase. The problem is that most states are broke, and they need to raise revenue. So North Carolina, Rhode Island, Hawaii — and soon perhaps others — decided to require any e-tailer that has an affiliate partner based in their state to collect sales taxes on purchases by customers residing in their state.

Taxing an online business that has a physical presence in a state is nothing new. However, these newly adopted laws — and some that are on the drawing board — require sellers with no physical presence in a state to collect sales taxes from its residents, according to a letter of protest Blue Nile sent to its affiliates.

Realistically, though, it’s unclear how long this tea party can last. Online affiliates are a huge part of Amazon’s growth strategy, and for a lot of online shoppers, sales tax isn’t as big a deal as the convenience offered by shopping online.

1 Comment

  • "…Or perhaps it has something to do with the weather in Corpus Christi. Apple stock is kind of funny like that."

    I’m wondering why Corpus Christi? I’m guessing it was whimsy, right? Corpus Christi has some serious weather, but it’s about as far away from Cupertino as you can get, when it comes to influence on technology or the stock market.

    Believe me, I’ve lived and worked in each of those places for years. They’re on opposite ends of the American cultural and intellectual landscape.

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