Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Monday, June 28, 2010

Good in parts

I spent today at the Microsoft Open Government Unconference in Wellington. It was an interesting experience. On the one hand, I got the impression of a company trying to weave something from the whole “open government, open data” thread which is being spun out of a genuine desire by government folk to share things, and on the other hand there was the disconnect of trying to script the agenda for an “unconference” – a contradiction if ever there was.

posted by colin at 11:56 pm  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Film industry fails again

There’s a great New Zealand film called “Boy” – it’s a coming of age tale with a uniquely New Zealand flavour to it. It’s been in the cinemas here for three months, and it’s gone down very well. I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t know, because the film has been well-promoted. I think I saw that it was now the highest-grossing New Zealand movie ever. Well done to Taika Waititi and every one else involved.

That’s what makes it strange that the film industry apparently hasn’t released the film to Australia. There are a *lot* of New Zealanders living there. And it’s not surprising, after all the promotion, that people there want to see the film however they can get it. According to a press release yesterday from the industry, they are indeed getting it, via infringing downloads on the Internet. The film apparently got to the Internet via a member of the industry itself, since the copy uploaded is a “pre-screener” available only within the industry.

What I find odd about this story is that anyone is surprised. Why would they expect New Zealanders and other folk to wait months for a well-promoted hit film? It’s not as though the technology for them to release it in other countries as a paid, legal download doesn’t exist. Why, then, leave a big market like unsatisfied with a legal product when they have alternatives?

The same industry has just claimed that unlawful downloads in New Zealand are costing it $70million. They say things like this all the time, but the truth is that no-one knows and there’s no way to calculate it. The US Government Accounting Office recently published a report saying that all such claims were totally overblown and were no basis for policy.

It’s no accident, of course, that this story blows just as Parliament is considering a Bill to fine people heavily or cut off their Internet for file sharing. The industry has obviously made a calculation about how late in the hype cycle for “Boy” it could go and still get close to the Select Committee hearings, likely to be next month.

This sort of thing has been going on for so long that I’m wondering if it is deliberate. Is it actually cheaper for the film industry to promote a film then not release it in a market, then to go after people who download it and try to seek large fines? Perhaps this is far-fetched, but I’m struggling to see any other reason.

In the meantime, congratulations to Taika Waititi. Let’s hope he gets the chance to get the film distribution industry to see some sense.

Update: Miraz Jordan has written an excellent piece on the same subject – well worth reading as well.

posted by colin at 10:52 am  

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who owns the Internet?

According to Stuff, the US – or at least, some its senators – consider the Internet a national (i.e. American) asset and believe that the US President should be able to shut it down. Gosh.

By the same logic, the UK owns the international postage system. The Queen should be empowered to shut that down at will.

Seriously, it’s hard to doubt that the US could completely crash the Net if it chose. But it would be an act of infamy that would damage the economies of the rest of the world far worse than the banking crisis. How much more bad press do they need?

posted by colin at 4:52 pm  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Copyright and copywrong

On Tuesday I went to a copyright seminar organized by InternetNZ. The context is that Parliament is consulting on a Bill (a draft piece of legislation) to replace the appalling section 92A of the Copyright Act, which was killed at the last minute in 2009 by the then new National-led government.

Several themes came out from the seminar. The biggest one for me, which was mainly expounded by Nat Torkington, was that there is not a problem that needs to be solved here. Revenues for all the industries that claim to be affected by unlawful downloads are going up very healthily. They claim that their industries are being devastated by the huge volume of copyright infringements, but you would have to say that these claims are not backed up by the evidence. Even so, the so-called content industries are an order of magnitude smaller than the Internet industries they seek to control.

Another theme was the sheer inappropriateness of Internet termination as a penalty for anything. To the government’s credit, it has made termination a last resort which has to be enacted by a court, but even so it’s just not a useful thing to do. You don’t get your Internet connection cut off for far more serious offences. Why should copyright infringement be so special? We don’t cut the road to someone’s house if they have used it to move stolen goods. Just like road access, the Internet is used by everyone in a building, and by others to deliver services to the building.

The Bill sets out a regime of notices that get passed to and fro between a copyright holder and someone accused of copyright infringement, through the ISP concerned. This is mostly aimed at educating the downloader, many of whom don’t realise that they are doing something or illegal, or that they can be caught. This has always been the approach promoted by InternetNZ and it has a lot to commend it, although it was clear at the seminar that there’s still some detail to be worked out in the way it’s set out in the Bill.

Persisting in illegal downloading would lead to the Copyright Tribunal levying a fine. There was a lot of discussion on how much was reasonable. My view is that it should be set at a multiple of what it would cost to get the files legally, say three times the cost on iTunes. We would also need to figure out what to do if the file isn’t available legally in New Zealand but it is elsewhere – I’d probably suggest setting it at the cost in other markets, to provide an incentive for copyright holders to bring things to New Zealand at the same time as everywhere else. As Clare Curran pointed out in her speech in the House on this Bill, the oscar-winning movie Hurt Locker wasn’t made available in this country for months after it was released elsewhere, and not until after it had won its oscar.

The MED officials present were writing furiously for the most part. I’m hopeful that they took a lot of the very sensible points made back to the drafting process. They will probably be advising the Commerce Select Committee which is considering the Bill at the moment.

Talking of which, that committee has called for submissions by 17th June. It’s a really good idea to send them a submission. The process is straightforward – just write down clearly your arguments and what you want the committee to do with the Bill. You can look at this post for ideas. Probably the biggest point to ask the Select Committee for is to remove Internet account termination as any kind of option, because it’s disproportionate and unworkable.

posted by colin at 3:15 pm  

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Will Fastmail survive?

Yesterday the people who make the Opera browser announced that they had acquired Fastmail.FM, a commercial email host. Does this matter to anyone except the shareholders of those companies?

It might. Email is critical to many of us on the Internet. It may be true that email is for old people, but I find it pretty much essential for a great deal of the Internet’s usefulness. I’m a heavy user, in case you hadn’t gathered. I want to be able receive and send wherever I am and I archive everything. That’s a couple of gigabytes per year.

I move around a lot, connecting to the Internet through two or three different routes every day. Getting and sending email though the day used to be a problem for me because ISPs’ email servers tend to assume that you are connecting through that ISP. In the early 2000s I went through a phase of having to reconfigure the email client on my laptop wherever I was. To get round that I tried putting all email through a server I owned – Qmail on a Mandrake box – running in my home, running on a DSL line with dynamic IP. It does work, but it cost me grief to support it that I just didn’t need. (Gmail was in its infancy and wasn’t allowing you your own domain name at the time. Besides, I don’t like my Gmail address.)

Winding the clock forward to a few years back, I found Fastmail.FM. They are a specialist email hosting provider. They offer IMAP and SMTP over SSL (SSL is important because otherwise passwords are exchanged in plaintext, which might be over public wi-fi) and an email web client. They don’t do much else, but they do provide their email service brilliantly. I’ve been very happy with Fastmail for over three years. All my machines sync to the server, I have a nice fat email archive which I can search instantly, and I send and receive email on the move wherever I am. It’s just one less thing to worry about.

Now, Fastmail is being acquired. By a company with a marginally-functional email service of its own. Hmm.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Opera. They are another plucky David fighting the Goliath of Internet Explorer. They provide a credible browser which lots people like. They haven’t been as successful as Firefox, but then they haven’t had Google’s money behind them. I met their CE at the OOXML standards meeting in Geneva. He was saying some very sensible things.

But, I’m concerned that Fastmail might lose its service as a result. There are plenty of examples of companies getting acquired and effectively ruined. Will the acquisition of Fastmail cause it to lose focus in its email services? Opera says no, of course, and it’s encouraging that they say the Fastmail team will be kept on. Let’s hope that Opera means what it says and that Fastmail gets enhanced, not trashed.

In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what it would take to move my mail archive and where I would move it to.

posted by colin at 1:23 pm  

Saturday, April 10, 2010


The Princeton online dictionary define disingenuous as: “not straightforward or candid; giving a false appearance of frankness”. I can’t think of a better way to characterize some of the responses to the Commerce Select Committee’s sensible decision not to allow software patents in New Zealand.

I’m delighted with the decision. I’ve written before about the iniquities of software patents. Here are five reasons not to allow them:

  1. Patents are private monopolies permitted because they are supposed to encourage innovation. Yet there is no shortage of innovation in software in countries that don’t allow software patents.
  2. There is serious harm in software patents because their existence threatens software innovators who can’t tell if some idea is patented and have no way to evaluate a threat from someone who claims a patent over their work.
  3. Allowing software patents lead to unintended bad consequences such as the existence of patent trolls – companies which appear to exist just to threaten developers with patent suits.
  4. Patents cause a large deadweight cost in legal fees. That’s money which simply disappears from the software economy to the enrichment of patent lawyers.
  5. Software patents can’t be awarded fairly. Patents offices and courts seem incapable of making sane decisions about what is and is not an original “invention” in software.

There has been a chorus of approval of the Committee’s decision. But there have also been some people arguing against. Two come to mind:

posted by colin at 5:13 pm  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Can anything save OOXML?

Apparently not. Let me explain.

Two years ago I went as part of the New Zealand delegation to a meeting in Geneva called to determine the fate of a proposed new ISO/IEC document format standard, called colloquially OOXML or Office Open XML. Despite its name this standard had nothing to do with the OpenOffice word processing and spreadsheet program – which, in fact, uses a well established ISO standard format called ODF. Rather, OOXML was a an entirely different format invented by Microsoft for use by its Office 2007 suite.  Microsoft was very keen that OOXML be made an ISO standard, taking a full page ad in the Dominion Post claiming all kinds of benefits, including, mystifyingly, “provid[ing] choice about which software we use to exchange to documents” and “fostering innovation”.

The OOXML specification weighed in at 6,500 pages. At the time of the meeting in February 2008, national standards bodies had already voted not to standardize it. Their objections covered a huge range of technical problems with the standard, concerns that the standard might be encumbered with patent claims, and a view among some that setting multiple standards for the same thing would hinder the ability of people and businesses to swap documents between different word processors. The meeting I went to was intended to deal with the technical concerns.

By the time we arrived at the meeting 1,500 pages of changes had been proposed to the draft standard. The meeting, which had about 50 countries with an average of three attendees each, then tried to work its way through these changes to see if they could ‘fix’ the technical problems in the draft standard. Needless to say, it didn’t get a long way through and ended up voted to accept a lot of the proposed changes en masse.

posted by colin at 7:15 am  

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tell the government what you think of ACTA

The government has asked for submissions about ACTA, the so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, to be sent in by tomorrow. I’ve written one which you are welcome to read.

ACTA has the potential to change the way we use the Internet and to prevent future innovation on it. It’s hard to say for certain, because the draft texts are secret, To be fair to the New Zealand negotiators, they have (if the leaks are to be believed) argued to reduce ACTA’s impact – its collateral damage – on everyday use of the Internet. And they have asked some specific questions about what they should be trying to negotiate.

I’d like to suggest that as many people as possible send in a submission, even if it’s just “do not on any account agree to anything which would make ISPs liable for something they can’t control”. But ideally, take 20 minutes, review this page, then send your arguments and views to by close of business tomorrow.

posted by colin at 1:53 pm  

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How valuable is information?

Oliver Bell has posted a thought-provoking article called Information is Currency. He and I discussed some of these ideas over a beverage or two one night in Wellington recently. Reading through Oliver’s article, I find some things to agree and others to disagree with, so I’m taking the time here to write a reflective response.

The value of information depends on several things, including its scarcity and its usefulness to the potential end-user. I’m left wondering if there is information that is inherently valueless. I can think of examples of obscure trivia, but someone, somewhere, always seems to care. It can be argued (and Oliver presumably is arguing this) that search engines monetize obscure information by using it to sell eyeballs to advertisers.

Of course, search engines don’t sell the information itself. They sell a way of discovering it. The information itself has generally already been published for free. The information has value based on the network effect, i.e. that its a published in a standard form using the World Wide Web. The search engines are very much part of this system that imputes value to freely-published information.

So, then, the monetary value of freely-published information derives as much from the great mass of other web sites, from the search engines and from the Internet itself as it does from the information.

However, I’m interested as much in what we can do with information in bulk as I am in in assigning a numerical value to individual chunks. If I write a piece of software, say, is its optimal value realized if I sell licenses to use it or if I simply publish it for others to use as they see fit without monetary recompense? The answer to that question depends partly on who recognizes the monetary value. If we look at value to the community of computer users as a whole, allowing anyone to use the software will have the greatest value. If I look at it in terms of personal revenue-maximization for that piece of software, I would presumably retain the source code as a secret and sell licences to use it on the basis of my perception of each user’s ability to pay. This applies to any information goods, i.e. things that can be copied without using up physical resources.

There are two components to value of information in the Internet age – value derived from maintaining its scarcity and value derived from making it available. Both are highly dependent on usefulness. The former is usually captured by the publisher, the latter accrues to the community.

There may, as Oliver suggests, one day be a market for all kinds of personal information. The individual worth of each piece is likely to be very low. The worth to the community as a whole of pooling its information is likely to represent the major part of its technology and its culture.

posted by colin at 3:48 pm  

Friday, March 19, 2010

A warm welcome to ACTA negotiators

As is now well-known, the next round of negotiations for the controversial international treaty ACTA will take place here in Wellington on 12th-16th of April. Representatives of 13 countries and the European Commission will be in our city for that week.

To the ACTA negotiators: I bid you welcome. I hope you enjoy our lovely city (hilarious video), and that you take a few days or weeks to explore some more of our beautiful country. You will find most New Zealanders to be warm and friendly people who love to show New Zealand to visitors.

I’ve railed against many aspects of ACTA before – especially the secrecy around it – but that doesn’t change my desire as a proud New Zealander to welcome guests to our country. I’m sure all New Zealanders involved in the wider ACTA debate will agree with me.

posted by colin at 9:09 am  
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