Tag Archives: internet

Blocks, both technical and mental

Blocking content from the Internet is getting a lot of press of late. The last couple of weeks has seen the Pirate Bay being blocked by a number of large ISPs and debate over whether the blocking of “adult” content should be opt-in or opt-out.

Unfortunately the enthusiasm to “protect the children” and “protect the copyright holders” seems to have pushed aside much of the debate of whether we should be doing this at all or whether it’s practical.

Whether we should be doing it or not is political. I have my opinions1 but what I want to concentrate on here is whether or not blocking such content is actually possible.

There are a number of different ways of vetting content. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they’re all deeply flawed.

First, a common one from politicians: the Internet is just like TV and cinema:

Perry said that she has been accused of censorship over the campaign, but argued that the internet was no different to TV and radio and should be regulated accordingly.

No, no it isn’t. There are a handful of TV channels, even taking cable and satellite into account, and a relatively small number of movies released every week. It’s practical to rate movies. TV programmes are distributed centrally, so pressure can be placed on a small number of UK-based commercial entities when they do naughty things.

The Internet is very different. Firstly, counting the number of web pages is rather harder. This is what Wikipedia has to say:

As of March 2009, the indexable web contains at least 25.21 billion pages.[79] On July 25, 2008, Google software engineers Jesse Alpert and Nissan Hajaj announced that Google Search had discovered one trillion unique URLs.

Note that even the smaller number is from three years ago. I’d bet that it’s not smaller now. Clearly the same system of rating an regulation clearly isn’t going to work on that scale. And even if it was possible to rate each of these sites, the UK government has little leverage over foreign websites.

There are basically three ways to automate the process: white list, black list and keyword scanning.

A white list says “you can visit these websites.” Even assuming no new websites are ever added and no new content is ever created, rating those 25 billion pages is not practical. I don’t think we want an official approved reading list.

A black list is the opposite: “you can visit anything except these pages.” We have the same scale problem as with white lists and a few more. Much of the Internet is “user contributed” and it’s not hard to create new sites. If my site is blocked, I can create a new one with the same content very, very quickly. Basically, there’s just no way to keep on top of new content.

Keyword scanning is exactly as it sounds. Your internet traffic is scanned and if certain keywords are spotted, the page is blocked. It’s automated and dynamic, but what keywords do you look for? “Sex”? Well, do you want to block “sex education” websites? “Porn”? That would block anti-porn discussion as well as the real thing.

The scanners can be a lot more sophisticated than this but the fundamental problem remains: there’s no way to be sure that they are blocking the correct content. Both good and bad sites are blocked, and still with no guarantee that nothing untoward gets through.

In all cases, if children can still access “adult” content with relative ease — both deliberately and accidentally — what’s the point?

Of course I’m not in favour of taking content without paying for it or exposing children to inappropriate material. But, to use a cliche, the genie is out the bottle. Like the reaction to WikiLeaks there is little point in pretending that nothing has changed or that the same techniques and tools can be used to fight them.

Instead, if you’re a publisher you need to make your content legally available and easier to access than the alternative. iTunes has showed that people are willing to pay. So far, you’ve mostly shown that you’d rather treat paying customers as criminals. That’s not helping.

As for protecting children, it all comes back to being a responsible parent. Put the computer in the living room. Talk to them. Sure, use white or black lists or filtering, just be aware that it can never be 100% effective and that not everyone has children that need protecting. Whatever the Daily Mail and your technically unaware MP says, you can’t say the connection is being checked, problem solved.

  1. I’m basically anti-censorship and in favour of personal responsibility. There are already laws covering the distribution obscene materials, why should there be restrictions on legal materials? []

Just say no to SOPA

You’ve almost certainly seen that Wikipedia is kinda-sorta offline today protesting a proposed US law that would effectively give copyright holders the ability to blacklist pretty much any website without judicial review.

While rights holders do have legitimate concerns over people taking content without paying for it — I don’t like to call in piracy or theft — this really isn’t the answer. Wired sums it up nicely:

SOPA and PIPA represent a legal strategy that focuses the attention of business leaders on stopping losses rather than promoting innovation and building new products. It obfuscates the fact that piracy is, in the long run, an unavoidable cost of doing business, one that should be bearable provided the fundamentals of the business (say, customer satisfaction) are sound.

If there’s one thing that the iTunes Store taught us, it’s the people will actually pay for convenience.

But the first word, and therefore this final word, goes go to TheOatmeal, who makes the point better by using an analogy involving kittens and flamethrowers. You should watch the whole thing.

A new CEO for Yahoo?

Rumour has it that Yahoo! are looking for a new CEO. Some people have been putting their name forward for the role, or at least offering suggestions for Carol Bartz’s successor. This post is in response to Joe Stumps list of ideas.

To be clear, I know that list is not completely serious. I know that he’s not really angling for the CEO role and I understand that many of the options would not be achievable even if they were the best thing for Yahoo! That’s not the point I’m trying to make.

The point, in summary, is that buying a bunch of companies to get smart people is not going to fix Yahoo!s problems.

Let’s look at some of the suggestions and, more importantly, how they inter-relate.

I’d buy Instagram and put them in charge of both Instagram and Flickr. They would have 100% autonomy over the entire “Yahoo! Photo” division.

Fine. Instagram has done really well. But what makes it successful? (Assuming that it is successful. So far it has managed to attract a lot of users but there’s no revenue stream as far as I can see.)

Is it the photo part? Well, partially. It has filters that people like playing around with. Another key to its success is the sharing, social side. But…

I’d buy Path and With for the sole reason of bringing Dave and his team on to lead the new “Yahoo! Social” division.

What’s the direction of the company if “Yahoo! Photo” and “Yahoo! Social” are both doing social stuff? Who decides how to share photos or videos?

And how is social distinct from mobile?

I would buy Twitter and Square in order to bring Jack Dorsey on full-time to run a new division called “Yahoo! Mobile.” He would have 100% autonomy over the entire mobile strategy.

Part of the success of both Instagram and Path are the fact that they’re “mobile.”

Mobile and social are not divisions any more than a technology company should have an “internet” division; they are fundamentals that need to influence all modern web “properties.”

Buying companies is not a solution. They’ve bought plenty over the years, but that didn’t help. What happened to Flickr? How “Yahoo!” is it? What about Delicious?

What Yahoo! lacks is not smart people or good technology, it’s a coherent way of tying everything together. Unfortunately that can’t be fixed by maintaining existing fiefdoms or importing new ones.

My delicious.com bookmarks for June 2nd through June 7th

My delicious.com bookmarks for January 23rd through January 29th