Thursday, October 27, 2005

Gauging Google's Grip

Laura Quilter and Siva have brought some clarity to my thinking with posts concerning the Google Print inititative. Laura rightly demonstrates that my last post fails to clearly explain what I mean by "handing over ... control" to the for-profit Google corporation. Laura states -
"The impulses guiding this post are clearly pro-public access and use, and pro-library, and I wholeheartedly support that. But the issue is couched as “handing over … control” of this information to a corporation. “[G]rant[ing] the right to create such a database.” Making a “choice” of entities to “manage and control” that database.

No, no, no.

The point of people’s support for Google Print is not that we support Google, love Google, or want Google to control our access to information. The point is that Google, and any other entity who wants to do it, should be able to add value to information. Google should not be THE ONE; Google should be ONE OF MANY. Picking and choosing a single entity presupposes that the information is already controlled, and this new use, this new added value, is to be carefully metered as a scarce resource."

At this point, we're not sure if the information is "already controlled" - I suppose that's what the lawsuit will determine. However, this "new added value" is, as Siva points out, under latent patent control. If Google has their way, the other "of many" services will be forced to the sidelines due to mediocre user interfaces/database management crippled by patent law. Of what use will the freedom to exercise "fair use" in the creation of an electronic database be if the deliverance of that database is controlled by software idea patents? Thanks to Laura as she has correctly pointed out that I am conflating issues here - my question is erroneous. Worry over copyright and patents governing the technology Google uses is an important, but separate issue. I suppose this is why - at this point - I am very much in favor of Google winning a lawsuit, but not in favor of letting them off completely unregulated. At this point, a regulation that the technology used by Google be patent-free and governed by a F/OSS license would be an important start. This would go a long way regarding fair competition and privacy for those searching books for snippets of text. But sadly, the public is not represented in the upcoming case. The arguments being made are intended simply to either score a win for Google or money for the publishers.

We then have possible future issues. For now, the issue may only revolve around the notion of a searchable database. But it is quite plausible that a deal will eventually be struck allowing Google to sell complete digital copies of the scanned works. Who will be on the public's side when Google agrees to such a venture whilst happily implementing the dubious practice of DRM on our "trusted computing" machines?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is Google The Right "Person" For The Job?

Siva Vaidhyanathan and other copyright watchers have been following the Google Print lawsuit story for a while now. For the most part, the debate has revolved around "fair use" and whether or not Google is infringing upon the artificially granted monopolistic privileges (aka "rights") of the copyright holders. But there is a twist that many seem to be overlooking. A twist that I had mentioned on Lawrence Lessig's blog and a twist that Siva isn't overlooking. He says -
"Please remember that this company is unaccountable to everyone but its shareholders. It depends on things like DRM, trade secrets, proprietary code, vague privacy pledges, and non-disclosure agreements to make this project happen. How can I cheer this on?"
I couldn't agree more. Google's informal corporate motto of "Don't Be Evil" is irrelevant. Google is a for-profit corporation. This means neither good nor evil as Google's capacity for "personhood" exists merely in a legal sense. It's not that conscience is ignored, it's that it simply does not exist. This means an exclusive obligation to Google shareholders without any regard to stakeholders (i.e. the public). Google is driven - by law - to maximize profit for its shareholders. The question of "good or evil" entirely misses the point. That is, Google's actions will be driven by the legal commandment to increase profit. We are looking at a corporation structured to maximize profit yet in control of the largest digital database of knowledge and culture to ever exist.

Personally, I'm not against having an institution be granted the right to create such a database. But I'm wary about handing over such privilege and control to a body that is not working for the people. Should a corporation control what could potentially become the world's first digital library? What is the purpose of a library? Why do libraries exist? For who do libraries exist? If this project is to become a globally accessible library, should there be someone controlling your right to read?

As the database of books increases in size and therefore scientific and cultural value, is an unregulated for-profit corporation the best choice to manage and control that database?

I think not.

Update (Nov. 21/05): To be clear, I do believe Google should be allowed to create this database and build the technology to search snippets of it. However, the technology that Google uses must be regulated. Issues around market competition and user privacy are key here. Requiring Google to release patent-free code that interfaces with the database under a F/OSS copyright license will go a long way to benefiting the public. The rights over the database and its descendants must be examined closely as well.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Perverse Propaganda

Back in May, I noticed an interesting yet disturbing competition being held by Microsoft in the UK.

Well, the results are in.

I was so intrigued by this twisted contest that I had to run to a friend's house to view the videos (I have nothing on my free system that will play .wmv files). Not surprisingly, I was unable to find a film that had any balance or sensitivity behind it. There were several offensive and predictable ideas put forth in these 30-45 second shorts. For instance, the biased analogy of physical property with intellectual works was a common theme (see "Pitfalls of a Stone Age Inventor"). One film ("Stolen Love") equated the acquisition of extrinsic rewards created through copyright law with the acquisition of female companionship.

But in particular, I had a hearty guffaw at the film titled "Piracy Awareness" wherein the filmmaker proposes the extreme idea that if you obtain "pirated" software, you will create a world with "No Computers". A young teenage girl is seen placing both hands on her cheeks, bellowing in amazement, "NO COMPUTERS?!" The (il)logic then follows with the claim that there will be "No Films, No Music, No Games."

Young boys and girls, let this be a lesson to you!

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Creative Commons: Beyond the Self

I just found this article by John C. Dvorak at PC Magazine online.

Those who understand the creative commons concept don't view copyright as simply a means for an author to benefit financially. That is, they understand there are people motivated by intrinsic reward rather than the maximization of profit. People recognizing that creativity is dependent upon the availability of what was created before them. People recognizing that ALL RIGHTS RESERVED is not necessarily the best defaulting legal structure to fulfill the purpose and provision of American constitutional copyright. Or simply, people concluding that the actual forfeiting of some rights to the public may, in the long run, produce more benefit for the author.

But then there are those looking just one way. Seeing just one thing. Pointed in one particular direction. Staring down a tunnel. With his eyes on the 'prize', John C. Dvorak proclaims -
"That's what's bothersome. Creative Commons trying to insert itself as another layer into a system that already protects content developers like me to an extreme. I mean my grandkids will own all my writing exclusively until 75 years after I'm dead, unless I sell all the rights to someone else. What more do I want from copyright?"
I don't know John, what do you want?

I know what I want John. I want you to read Tom Merritt's article then write him an email of thanks for calmly understating that you were simply "asking what good the Creative Commons serves". If I didn't know any better John, your article seemed more an attack than a matter of inquiry.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Africa Doesn't Need Free Software?

Although the average Nigerian makes ~$160 per annum, Microsoft is claiming that the low/no cost of free software is not something Africans need.

Gerald Ilukwe, general manager of Microsoft Nigeria, claims "expertise" is brought to Africans through proprietary alternatives and implies such "expertise" in the F/OSS world to be lacking.

When comparing free software with Microsoft products, Ilukwe makes the most egregious of remarks saying, "Microsoft is not a helicopter dropping relief materials; we're there in the field."

Mr. Ilukwe, do you mean kind of like the way the oil corporations are in the fields of Iraq?

He says this while there are many African institutions offering training in the deployment and use of GNU/Linux systems. Such as SchoolNet Namibia, The Shuttleworth Foundation, and the East African Centre for Open Source Software.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Cyber Coup

Thanks to Xeni via boingboing.

I've been following the "Internet control" story for a short while now but had no idea that such revolutionary events would occur so quickly. I had pictured in my mind years of political manouvering and debate. However, it looks as though there is a strong possibility that the United States will no longer dictate - from root on down - the majority of Internet servers. In a sudden coup, the reigns of the Internet may be pulled and twisted by several nations.

My intuition tells me this is a good turn of events. I have heard some claim that we should "not fix what isn't broken". However, I'm not sure a lack of worrisome symptoms implies that "breakage" was not an attribute of our current 'Net in the first place. Personally, my sense welcomes this political decentralization of what is inherently a decentralized e2e approach to networking.

It's really too early for me to say what will happen - really, too early for anyone to say. But for all who see the Internet as more than simply a medium for amusement, it will be key to pay close attention. As these events unravel over the coming months/years, the effects could be significant.