Has the YouTube Effect stuck again? Wael Abbas, a well-known online activist in Egypt, says his YouTube video account has been suspended and his Yahoo! e-mail accounts have been shut down. Abbas had this pesky habit, you see, of posting graphic videos showing police brutality, and his site had become one of the most popular blogs in Egypt.
In one prominent incident, Abbas posted a video on his blog of a police officer binding and sodomizing an Egyptian bus driver who intervened in a dispute between police and another driver.
The video was one of the factors that led to the conviction of two police officers, who were sentenced to three years each in connection with the incident.
YouTube wouldn't comment on Abbas's specific case, but a company spokesman told CNN that in general, such graphic videos are a no-no:
There are plenty of other video-sharing sites and third-party tools out there for posting viral videos, but Abbas says he's lost his entire archive, the fruit of years of painstaking work. Also this month, Yahoo! accused Abbas of spamming and shut down two e-mail accounts of his.
It's too early to tell if the Egyptian government had a hand in this, in which case we may have another case of U.S. tech companies kowtowing to authoritarian regimes. YouTube has a shadowy history of eliminating objectionable content to preserve market access, and the company isn't fully transparent about how it makes such decisions. So, this is going to remain murky. But I think the lesson to online activists is nonetheless clear: Don't use YouTube, and save your work offline.
UPDATE, Nov. 30, 2007: According to CNN, Abbas's YouTube account has been reactivated. YouTube said in a statement that he is free to upload his videos as long as he does so with enough context to show that he is trying to get an important message across.
Millions of Westerners fear their jobs may be offshored as the Internet and cheap telephony make it easier for countries with abundant supplies of labor, such as India and China, to compete with Western service firms. The world is flattening, you might say, and it makes many people nervous.
So, should we be afraid that our jobs are all going to be sent to India? On the contrary, I see yet another opportunity for trade to give us what we want, whether it's extra leisure time or getting things done more efficiently. Thousands of ordinary Americans, for instance, are embracing the use of affordable "virtual personal assistants" (VPAs) in India via sites like GetFriday.com for such tasks as booking dinner reservations, helping the kids with their homework, or even playing "World of Warcraft."
And they love it. Take Michael Levy, a U.S. lawyer who employs a VPA in India. He relishes his new-found freedom: "You become lazy... It's just wonderful." And Web sites such as IwantaPA.com offer "empowerment" not only for independent professionals, but also for small to medium enterprises and large enterprises, 24/7, and without the burden of office space or paying out benefits. All for a third the price of regular PAs.
That said, having a VPA is not all gumdrops and lollipops. Two years ago, A. J. Jacobs of Esquire wrote a humorous account of his experience outsourcing his life to a number of VPAs in India, including a woman named Honey. Jacobs writes:
I THINK I'M in love with Honey. How can I not be? She makes my mother look unsupportive. Every day I get showered with compliments, many involving capital letters: "awesome Editor" and "Family Man." When I confess I'm a bit tired, she tells me, "You need rest. . . . Do not to overexert yourself." It's constant positive feedback, like phone sex without the moaning.
Sometimes the relentless admiration makes me feel a little awkward, perhaps like a viceroy in the British East India company. Another cucumber sandwich, Honey! And a Pimm's cup while you're at it! But then she calls me "brilliant" and I forget my guilt.
Sounds great, right? But Jacobs's story raises some interesting questions: Is employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon? (Jacobs did experience other pangs of guilt as he found himself making stranger demands simply because he could.) Or is it a genuine win-win transaction, where clients in the West make the most of their purchasing power while entrepreneurs in the East expand their markets?
Sounds great, right? But Jacobs's story raises some interesting questions: Is employing a VPA in India to respond to your every whim a neo-imperial, exploitative phenomenon? (Jacobs did experience other pangs of guilt as he found himself making stranger demands simply because he could.) Or is it a genuine win-win transaction, where clients in the West make the most of their purchasing power while entrepreneurs in the East expand their markets?
In India, what was supposed to be a promising "e-government" service has been withdrawn after it became misused as a tool for harassing young women.
Last year, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh started out with an innovative service that was supposed to promote transparency: People could use their mobile phones to text-message a car's license-plate number, and would then receive a message with information about the vehicle, including its date of purchase, the taxes and fees paid on it, and the name, address, and phone number of the owner. The details could assist someone buying a used car or a police officer who quickly needed information about a vehicle involved in an accident, theft, or other crime. (Sounds like it could've also been used to track down someone who cut you off in traffic.)
Instead, it became a way for men to get the contact info of young women drivers and then harass them. The state's Transport Department received a number of complaints from women who were being harassed. Those complaints—along with the fact that the volume of messages sent to the department had jumped "several fold"—caused the texting service to be withdrawn.
The whole story raises questions about how much information should be made publicly available in this day and age. Records of people's births, divorces, house sales, crimes, and, in some cases, even incomes have been publicly available in many places for a long time. But accessing those records usually required a trip to city hall, filling out forms, and paying photocopying and postage fees. Now, in more places around the world, we can access the juicy details of people's lives—such as whether their houses are in foreclosure—all while wearing our pajamas in front of our home computers.
Not enough Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in your life? The Iranian president has been blogging on and off for about two years—and now he's looking for feedback. In his latest post, Ahmadinejad asks for more readers write to him about Iran's relationship with the rest of the world:
As you know, the purpose of running this blog is to have a direct and mutual contact and communication with the viewers and even though I have received many messages from the viewers to update the blog and write new notes, I preferred to write less and spend more time on reading the viewers' messages – and not let this communication tool become just a one-way medium.
And apparently, people are responding. Here are some of the more colorful comments, both in agreement with and opposition to Mahmoud. All errors of grammar and spelling original:
I in fact think you are a great leader and I am actually contemplating moving to Iran because of the ignorance of people and the harsh things they say about all middle eastern countries... - Adara in Canada
Mr. President Allow me to express my admiration for your policy. You are a great example of how one should stand up to the bullies of the world. Keep up the good fight. You are a spoksmen to all the free people, not just Muslims. - Filip in Macedonia
After watching video of your experience at Columbia University I felt tryly ashamed to be an American. The ignorance and intolerance exhibited by Mr. Bollinger in his introduction speech was totally unacceptable and certainly not a befitting welcome for a world leader and scholar such as yourself. - Allison in the United States
Hey! Do all you non-Iranians realize that if you were in Iran, you wouldnt have any rights?! You couldnt serve in the military or police force...youd be discriminated against!!!! Why the hell do you support someone like this?! - Xochitl in the United States
You are a terrible, despicable human being. You WILL be attacked by the US or Israel and will be destroyed! - "Your gone" in the United Kingdom
How does it feel to be the most hated person on the planet? - Martha in the United States
If you read other languages, you can also check out the comments made on the non-English versions of the site. Translations of "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Personal Memos" and their respective comments are also available in Arabic, Farsi, and French.
My friend Beth stumbled across a Web site that ranks the readability of blogs. What level of education is required to understand your favorite blog? Type in the URL here, and voilà! It tells you the reading level. The site actually rates any Web site, not just blogs. So, dear readers of FP Passport, you will be glad to know that you are currently reading at high-school level. You are officially more edumacated than those who only look at the ForeignPolicy.com home page without delving into the blog. They read at a junior high-school level.
What about the readability level of some other popular Web sites out there? New York Times (junior high school), Washington Post (high school), Financial Times (genius), Economist (genius), Arms Control Wonk (college undergrad), Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish (high school), Daniel Drezner's blog (high school), the State Department's Dipnote (high school), and the Huffington Post (junior high school).
And the readability of the home pages of presidential candidates? Here are a few: Hillary Clinton (elementary school), Rudy Giuliani (genius), Barack Obama (genius), Mitt Romney (elementary school), John Edwards (genius! His blog, however, is at junior high-school level), John McCain (junior high school).
This silliness reminds of a Web site that was all the rage a few years ago: The Dialectizer. Type in a URL, and the site will translate it into your choice of dialects, including "redneck," "jive," and "cockney." The headine and intro for The List on FP's Web site this week, translated into Elmer Fudd-speak, reads: "De Wist: Five Weasons to Be Dankfuw Dis Danksgiving." Oh, dat scwewy wabbit!
Hat tip: BKNY 2.0 (elementary school)
When Google launched its fancy Web site for the 2007 Australian federal elections, the company gave no hint about Easter eggs—fun little surprises put there by mischievous programmers—buried in its mashup map section.
But blogger Ben Balbo poked around and found two animated graphics of Prime Minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd having some fun with each other.
Here we see these bitter political rivals tossing the Frisbee at Bondi Beach in
And here we see them playing a vigorous game of rock, paper, scissors in front of Parliament, presumably deciding the fate of the nation:
And there's more, Ben says:
I've been reliably informed that there are another 6 "easter eggs" hidden around Seaworld on the Gold Coast, Tanunda in Adelaide, a well known Melbourne sporting venue, near Barrack St Jetty in Perth, near Mandorah in Darwin and near the Botanic Gardens in Hobart.
The elections are slated for Nov. 24, which is this coming Saturday.
(Hat tip: Google Maps Mania)
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's latest offering, "Lust, Caution," is racking up international film awards and steaming up silver screens around the world. His spy thriller, set in WWII-era Shanghai, features a young woman who has been recruited to seduce and assassinate a Japanese collaborator. It also features sex scenes so explicit that it received an NC-17 rating in the United States. And in China, government censors threatened to yank the movie from theaters unless Lee trimmed some of the more graphic sex scenes. He complied, and now the movie has become one of China's top box office draws, bringing in 90 million yuan in only two weeks. It's tapped to become one of country's biggest hits this year.
The seven missing minutes from the Chinese version of the film has caused some moviegoers to cross the border into Hong Kong to see the uncensored version. It's also prompted many movie fans to flock, unsurprisingly, to the Internet, where they try to download uncensored versions. But pirate wannabes may instead find themselves downloading a virtual STD instead. Chinese anti-virus company Rising International Software is warning Web surfers that several hundred sites that are offering free downloads of "Lust, Caution" are embedded with viruses that can steal personal passwords of users.
The possibility of contracting computer viruses isn't the only warning officials are issuing about the movie. Doctors in Guangdong province are advising viewers to be careful when copying some of the more adventurous sexual positions depicted in the film. Xinhuanet, the portal for the official news agency Xinhua, quoted a doctor saying,
Most of the sexual maneuvers in 'Lust, Caution' are in abnormal body positions... Only women with comparatively flexible bodies that have gymnastics or yoga experience are able to perform them. For average people to blindly copy them could lead to unnecessary physical harm."
Perhaps when editing the movie, Lee should have renamed it "Lust, Caution, but especially Caution."
Throughout the week, we've been posting e-mails from U.S. foreign service officers on their reaction to the State Department's controversial decision to "draft" FSOs for service in Baghdad. Yesterday, the State Department's official blog, Dipnote, got into the act by posting a letter from Anbar-based FSO John Matel. Matel advises his fellow employees to cowboy up and consider how ridiculous they look to those in uniform, who were never asked for their opinions about being sent to Iraq:
I will not repeat what the Marines say when I bring up this subject. I tell them that most FSOs are not wimps and weenies. I will not share this article with them and I hope they do not see it. How could I explain this wailing and gnashing of teeth? I just tried to explain it to one of my PRT members, a reserve LtCol called up to serve in Iraq . She asked me if all FSOs would get the R&R, extra pay etc. and if it was our job to do things like this. When I answered in the affirmative, she just rolled her eyes.
If these guys at the town hall meeting do not want to come to Iraq , that is okay with. I would not want that sort out here with me anyway. We have enough trouble w/o having to baby sit. BUT they are not worldwide available and they might consider the type of job that does not require worldwide availability.
We all know that few FSOs will REALLY be forced to come to Iraq anyway. Our system really does not work like that. This sound and fury at Foggy Bottom truly signifies nothing. Get over it! I do not think many Americans feel sorry for us and it is embarrassing for people with our privileges to paint ourselves as victims.
A shorter version of this post was written on Matel's personal blog last week. It's strange that Dipnote would choose to publicize departmental infighting this way. My initial assessment of Dipnote as a collection of glorified press releases might have been premature. Karen Hughes has only been gone for a week, and already this supposed tool of public diplomacy is being used to browbeat State's own employees. I doubt that Dipnote will be posting the other side's views any time soon, but they have proven us wrong before.
Passport, on the other hand, is still interested in hearing from FSOs on both sides of the debate. Keep those e-mails coming.
UPDATE: DipNote Bloggers write in:
DipNote was started to provide a forum for dialogue with the public and provide greater transparency into the Department. Given his perspective as a PRT team leader in Al Anbar Province, we thought our readers would benefit from hearing about Mr. Matel's experiences in the field. Mr. Matel has his own blog, so we asked if he'd like to blog for our site as well as his own. Since the issue of directed assignments is in the news, we thought his post on the issue was particularly timely and decided to post it. We would not characterize his post as "browbeating" his colleagues; he's expressing his opinion in a forum for open discussion. That's what blogs are for, right?
As for Dipnote iteself, initial reactions to have been ...shall we say, varied. At first, some commenters indicated that the blog would be nothing more that a "collection of glorified press releases." Ironically, others later indicated that, "It's strange that DipNote would choose to publicize departmental infighting this way." We understand the ratoinale behind both of those sentiments, but are not allowing polarizing comments to sway us from our mission to provide a fair and objective forum.
As we stated in our first post, we hope to cut through the opacity of the Department and provide an open forum. If directed assignments are what people are taking about, we'll blog about it. We're always open to anyone who wishes to contribute a blog entry expressing varying points of view and we'll run it on Dipnote.
While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."
—Rep Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, to Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang (the chagrined-looking fellow pictured above) and General Counsel Michael Callahan, at a congressional hearing Tuesday on the tech company's business dealings in China.
The source of Lantos's ire? Yahoo provided information about reporter Shi Tao's e-mail account to the Chinese government, leading to the journalist's imprisonment.
Google Earth is a cool tool that's fun to play around with. Now you can also use it for something more serious—monitoring countries' progress toward achieving the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, eight objectives to be reached by 2015 that form the blueprint of a mighty effort to make poverty history.
Launch Google Earth (download it first if you don't already have it) from the MDG Monitor Web site and you'll be able to click on capital cities all around the world to monitor their corresponding countries' progress toward achieving the MDGs. For example, you can learn that due to improvements in health and education, Madagascar brought its poverty rate down from 85.1 percent in 2003 to 67.5 percent in 2006. (The goal is to reduce the percentage of Madagascarians living on less than $2 a day to 50 percent by 2012.) There are also links to complete country profiles, such as this one for Madagascar.
Not to be outdone, the World Bank has put a bunch of its own data and links to its projects around the world into a Google Maps mashup. It's not quite as flashy, but you don't need to download any special software to view it. Is this the beginning of a map war between the World Bank and the U.N.?
(Hat tip: Mark Leon Goldberg)
Remember the case of Shi Tao? He's a Chinese journalist who was imprisoned back in 2004 for supposedly leaking state secrets by writing an e-mail to a New York-based pro-democracy group, describing how the Chinese government planned to crack down on local media covering the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo supplied information about Shi's e-mail address to the Chinese authorities, leading to his arrest and 10-year prison sentence.
Finally, Yahoo is issuing a mea culpa for its role in the case. More specifically, Yahoo's top lawyer is apologizing for failing to tell the U.S. Congress that Yahoo knew more about the case than it claimed in testimony given last year. U.S. lawmakers have been querying Yahoo about its business practices in China for the past couple years. Last year, Callahan said that Yahoo had no information about the Chinese government's wishes for customer information. Lo and behold, it turns out Yahoo was in possession of an order from Beijing seeking information about Shi. Callahan's apology comes in advance of another Congressional hearing next week about the challenges and moral quandaries that U.S. companies like Yahoo face in doing business in authoritarian places such as China. It's great that Yahoo is starting to come clean, but that's undoubtedly little comfort to Shi Tao, who still has at least another seven years to go in prison.
This, from a Google news conference Wednesday, is a gem:
[R]esponding to a question from an analyst [about Microsoft's stake in Facebook], co-founder Sergey Brin said: "We don't feel, at a higher level, that we need to own every successful company on the Internet," he said. "We can partner with these companies."
A sign of things to come? One downbeat report about China's biggest search engine company now has the power to shake the U.S. stock market:
The Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong breached 29,000 for the first time, taking its gains for the year to 46 per cent. Almost all of this has been achieved since August 20, when Chinese authorities announced plans to allow Chinese retail investors to invest there. Indices in China, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and India set new highs.
The momentum carried over to Europe and, initially, the US. The FTSE 100 rose 91.5 points, or 1.4 per cent, to close at 6,724.5, just eight points shy of a seven-year high reached on June 15. On Wall Street, the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average were trading at record highs at noon.
But investors grew nervous after JPMorgan lowered its sales estimates for Baidu.com, a Chinese search engine that had been described as China’s Google.
"People are throwing money at Baidu and similar companies across Asia," said Andrew Wilkinson, senior market analyst at Interactive Brokers. "It's a bit of a wake-up call, perhaps."
For the past several years, visitors to Google search page have smiled at the scribbles of Dennis Hwang, the graphic designer who comes up with the creative sketches that are incorporated into the Google logo on special occasions. The first doodle Hwang created for Google was on Bastille Day back in 2000, when he incorporated a French flag and some fireworks into the company logo. Other notable Google doodles have been the double helix to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, a sketch of Einstein to commemorate the scientist's birthday, and "Google" spelled out in dots in honor of Louis Braille's birthday.
For the most part, Hwang's doodles have been viewed as a public expression of Google whimsy, a way to have a little fun and inject some levity into what would otherwise be a dull, minimalist home page. But last week, this seemingly harmless logo offended some people:
The doodle was intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. But some conservative bloggers are angry that Google honored an achievement of the United States' totalitarian archenemy during the Cold War, the Los Angeles Times reports. They're especially pissed that Google has never posted a doodle to honor American troops' achievements on Veteran's Day or Memorial Day. (Never mind that Google regularly drapes its logo with the American flag every July 4.)
It's actually not the first time that Google has come under fire for its doodles. On past Thanksgivings, Google's incorporation of a turkey into its logo has drawn criticism from Brazil, Australia, and other parts of the southern hemisphere, with claims that Google is too focused on the north. Google has altered its logo for non-Western holidays like Persian New Year and Chinese New Year, but I'm afraid we're getting to the point where Google will be scrutinized for every single doodle it publishes. It's a pity that this politicization of the Google logo will only work to dampen down the tiny bit of creativity we have left in the corporate world.
After an internal investigation, six Japanese civil servants at Japan's Agriculture Ministry were accused of neglecting their work and spending countless hours editing Wikipedia pages. It might have been acceptable if they were toiling away on articles for say, beef exports or rice cultivation, but the six bureaucrats were busy tweaking entries about the ever-popular manga comics. Their favorite page was the one devoted to Gundam, a popular animated series on robots. One of the six had apparently made 260 changes to the Gundam site since 2003. Tsutomu Shimomura, a spokesman for the ministry, made it extremely clear that this was NOT in their job description:
The agriculture ministry is not in charge of robots.
And to discourage others from following suit, the six received a harsh, verbal reprimand. That'll keep 'em in line.
That was fast: The good folks at Dipnote, the new blog of the U.S. State Department, have heard our complaint and updated their blogroll to include FP Passport. Who says the State Department bureaucracy is cumbersome? Obviously, there are some folks with fine taste over there in Foggy Bottom.
I should note that it's a great sign that State is doing this, and especially that the blog allows comments. One other interesting project that State has embarked upon is having a few of its Arabic speakers go into mainstream Arabic-language online fora such as al-Jazeera, BBC Arabic, and Elaph.com and try to combat misperceptions of U.S. policy. What I like about this effort is that State's commenters are not trying to hide their State department affiliations, but are openly posting in their own names and as State Department employees. That's a good thing, Saudi political analyst Adel al-Toraifi told the New York Times:
Toraifi said the bloggers had generated some debate in the Arab World and had been the subject of a column in an Algerian newspaper lauding the State Department for discussing policy with ordinary people, something the writer said the Algerian government would never do. Indeed, several analysts said having State Department employees on the Web helps to counter one source of radicalization - the sense that Washington is too arrogant to listen to the grievances of ordinary Arabs, so violence is the sole means to attract attention.
At the end of the day, public diplomacy of this sort can only do so much; it's the policies that have to change before Arabs will embrace the United States. (Just as the State Department has a lot of work to do before most pundits will pronounce it a healthy institution.) But there's nothing wrong with open dialogue. In that spirit, I hope that Dipnote embraces its comment section as an asset and, as Mark Leon Goldberg stresses, gets engaged with other bloggers instead of just regurgitating press releases and standard talking points. We all understand the need to stay on message, but nobody wants to read a blog full of the usual boilerplate.
(Thanks to Passport reader JR for the tip.)
Last week, thanks to the good folks at the U.N. Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet David Miliband, Britain's blogging new foreign minister and a young star of the Labour party. Miliband was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, where he gave a speech on Thursday that focused on the link between inequality and insecurity, and he met with me and a few other bloggers for a 25-minute Q&A session.
The British press, typically, has a love-hate relationship with Mr. Miliband, slamming him for being too young to be foreign minister (the baby-faced Miliband is just north of 42) or for hiding his charisma in order to make Prime Minister Gordon Brown look better. Andrew Grimson deploys the latter approach here for the Telegraph:
Ever since Mr Miliband was captured by Brownite agents and taken to King Charles Street, where he was locked in a gilded cage at the dreaded Foreign Office and exposed to the full force of the regime's re-education programme, there had been fears he might crack under the strain.
In yesterday's speech [at the Labour Party conference], there were clear signs of the intensive de-Blairification process through which Mr Miliband has passed. Like every other Cabinet minister, he was only allowed to speak for an insultingly short time, and was under strict orders not to outshine Comrade Brown in any way.
I found Miliband to be warm, smart, knowledgeable, and sincere—if not quite oozing the kind of "gravitas" that generally befits his position. As former cabinet minister Clare Short put it in a recent Seven Questions, "I don't wish him any ill, but it's 'Harry Potter for foreign secretary'—a very, very clever boy, but there's a sort of weightiness, a solidity that he just cannot have because of his age." Miliband seems to understand this, positioning himself as a new kind of foreign secretary. Commenting on why he launched the blog, he said:
Foreign policy used to be about diplomats talking to diplomats. And now, it is about that, but it's also about citizen-to-citizen, business-to-business contacts... Opening up the debate about foreign policy is a good thing, not a bad thing.
I asked him directly about the age issue, and he had this to say:
You can't do anything about your age apart from wait. I think that in the end, you've got to be judged by what you say and what you do, and I think that most people are grown up enough to realize that. At least I hope so.
Today, Sept. 18, is the 25th anniversary of the smiley-face emoticon. At 11:44 a.m. on this day in 1982, Scott E. Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, first typed the smiley-face emoticon, :-), on an online bulletin board as part of a discussion about how to signal that an online comment is being made in jest.
The historic phrase, located after a "heroic effort" of digging through ancient backup tapes, reads as follows:
I propose the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways.
A reproduction of the original bulletin board thread that gave rise to the emoticon is available here. (The discussion reveals that "&" and "#" were also proposed joke markers. The character "&" supposedly looks like a "jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter," and "#" supposedly resembles "two lips with teeth showing between them.")
Fahlman writes on his Web page about :-): "I've never seen any hard evidence that the :-) sequence was in use before my original post, and I've never run into anyone who actually claims to have invented it before I did."
Fahlman seems to have cemented his place in history as the creator of the smiley-face emoticon, which has spawned the creation of other emoticons and given Internet users worldwide the ability to express what in verbal communication is normally conveyed through tone of voice. In doing so, he has probably helped millions of people avoid all sorts of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. And that should make everyone feel :-).
Think Internet games are just an innocuous, childish pastime? Think again. For one serious online gamer in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, it became a matter of life and death. The 30-year-old man dropped dead from exhaustion in a cyber cafe on Monday after an intense three-day gaming marathon. Unfortunately, he isn't the country's first ill fated victim of online gaming. Earlier this year, a week of non-stop action claimed the life of an "obese young man" who couldn't seem pull himself away from the computer screen to find time to sleep.
China is expected to overtake the United States in Internet users within the next few years, and many of those users will be of the hardcore variety. According to one report, as many as 14 percent of China's estimated 20 million Internet users under the age of 18 could be classified as computer addicts. But we shouldn't lose hope in this young generation quite yet. There's always a trip to Internet-addiction boot camp.
This passage from a recent piece by Joshua Davis in Wired concerning last spring's cyber attack on Estonia's Internet infrastructure reads like a deleted scene from The Matrix:
Across the dinner table from Aarelaid sat Kurtis Lindqvist, the man in charge of running Stockholm-based Netnod, one of the world's 13 root DNS servers, which direct global Internet traffic. That makes Lindqvist a sort of Olympian in the IT crowd. He is a handsome 32-year-old with a dimpled chin and close-cropped hair. By day, he wears a trench coat and shades, but the geek in him is just below the surface. He loves to play badminton and often programs late into the night. And, befitting the trench-coat-and-shades look, he belongs to a clandestine alliance of Internet elite with the power to cut off global Internet flows. He's one of the so-called Vetted: the select few who are trusted by the world's largest ISPs and can ask them to kick rogue computers off the network.
The Vetted constantly crisscross the globe to expand their network of trusted members, and by a stroke of luck, Lindqvist and some others were in Tallinn that week for what was referred to as a BOF — a birds-of-a-feather — meeting with European network operators.
So what is this mysterious geek Illuminati?
As far as I can tell, "the Vetted" refers to the Internet Architecture Board. The IAB traces its origins back to DARPA, the tech-research division of the U.S. Department of Defense that created an early precursor of the Internet in the 1970s. Today, the IAB, no longer under DoD control, is responsible for overseeing "aspects of the architecture for the protocols and procedures used by the Internet." The IAB also oversees the Internet Engineering Task Force, of which Lindqvist is a member. The IETF oversees global TCP/IP protocols and does indeed hold regular "Birds-of-a-Feather" meetings. Far from being a clandestine society, however, the IETF is an open community whose meetings are open to anyone who happens to be interested.
No, I don't like staying up at night. I even told Wired to correct this. I like to sleep at night. Also, I don't think I have done serious programming for years...
I also believe that I have never owned a trench-coat. I do own a half-long beige jacket though...:-)
I'm still not sure I trust a guy who uses emoticons to protect us from Russian cyber terrorists.
UPDATE: In an e-mail exchange with Blake, Passport's editor, Lindqvist writes:
Actually, exactly what [the Vetted] refers to I suggest you ask Wired about, I have never attributed this term to anyone - and I am not exactly sure myself. Second guessing the author of the Wired article, I would assume this does not refer to the IAB as the IAB has no operational role at all. It has an oversight function inside the IETF, that sets the technical standards for the Internet. It's members are appointed by a well defined process inside the IETF.
No word yet from the folks at Wired, however.
Quick moves, right? But some Islamist fundamentalists also apparently see the British soccer star and the American singer as beloved cultural symbols whose deaths would bring the West to its knees. It's a tactic Joseph Stalin apparently tried to pull more against another powerful American symbol more than 50 years ago.
As legend has it, Stalin threatened to assassinate the Duke in an effort to silence the ardent anti-communist and deal a crushing blow to the American cultural machine against the backdrop of the Cold War. This being the new millennium, though, Beckham and Timberlake were threatened not by the Soviets but by Islamist radicals with Internet access and a grievance against Western cultural imperialism. The threat came in the form of a video posted on YouTube. According to several Web sites following the story, it was a British al Qaeda-linked group tied to exiled cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed that posted the video.
Watching the video, though, it doesn't exactly seem like the most sophisticated of plots. There's a shot of Eminem in a newspaper with the headline, "This Is the Way to Hellfire." There's a photo of 2-Pac underneath the words, "Servant of Shaytaan." And a smiling Beckham is juxtaposed with the question, “What Made u Among the Losers?” In the end, it looks more like a low-budge PSA than a serious wake-up call to Western civilization.
Worse yet for the would-be killers, this over-the-top exchange from Fox News suggests they made have made another monumental miscalculation: "Isn't this an instance where you might be rooting for the terrorists?"
Wired's Noah Shachtman has the goods:
For years, the military has been warning that soldiers' blogs could pose a security threat by leaking sensitive wartime information. But a series of online audits, conducted by the Army, suggests that official Defense Department websites post material that's far more potentially harmful than blogs do.
The audits, performed by the Army Web Risk Assessment Cell between January 2006 and January 2007, found at least 1,813 violations of operational security policy on 878 official military websites. In contrast, the 10-man, Manassas, Virginia, unit discovered 28 breaches, at most, on 594 individual blogs during the same period.
The difference may be that soldiers blogging in combat zones are instinctively more careful than the desk jockeys back in Washington. As Army spokesman Gordon Vlan Veet put it:
Often these bloggers are stationed in the combat areas and they more than anyone understand the importance of security and the potential impact any OPSEC violations could have on themselves and their fellow Soldiers, Airmen and Marines."
The BBC reports that Wikipedia Scanner, a tool that can identify the source of edits to Wikipedia pages, revealed that workers from CIA computers have altered a number of Wikipedia entries. So what insightful additions did the Agency allegedly contribute?
On the profile of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the tool indicates that a worker on the CIA network reportedly added the exclamation "Wahhhhhh!" before a section on the leader's plans for his presidency.
A warning on the profile of the anonymous editor reads: "You have recently vandalised a Wikipedia article, and you are now being asked to stop this type of behaviour."
The entries for Porter Goss, former CIA director, and Oprah Winfrey were also apparently edited by the CIA network user, though these changes were "more innocuous."
The many Internet scams that fool people never cease to amaze me. Consider the case reported by the Telegraph on Monday:
An Australian sheep farmer who sought love over the internet was instead kidnapped and held hostage for 12 days after his African "bride" turned out to be a group of machete-wielding gangsters.
The man, Des Gregor, flew to Mali to meet and marry his online lover "Natascha" (and accept his dowry of gold bars worth $85,000), only to be kidnapped by a group of men who demanded a £42,000 ransom from his family. Eventually, Australian police working with Malian forces foiled the scam. But it wasn't actually the first time Gregor got caught up in this type of scam. Three years ago, he traveled to Russia to meet a different online lover. Nobody really knows what happened there, except that he didn't return with a bride as intended.
A while ago, NBC's Dateline aired a show called "To Catch an I.D. Thief," in which the show tracked people around the United States as they fell for online "lovers" who easily manipulated them into helping out with various criminal schemes. The trail ultimately led to Benin (which borders Nigeria, land of many an e-mail fraud), though Dateline never really got to the bottom of the conspiracy. But what was particularly striking was the ease with which Internet lovers can convince their targets to do some remarkably stupid things. As Des Gregor now warns, before divulging your bank account details or catching a plane across the world to meet up with your online lover, "Make sure you check everything out 100 percent." Sounds like good advice.
Piracy of intellectual property--including software, music and movies--is a huge point of contention between the US and less IP-sensitive countries. Last year, for instance, a Russian website accused of illegally distributing music files fueled a dispute between Russian authorities and the US Trade Representative's office.
Enforcement of IP laws is lax but getting better in many parts of the developing world, especially in countries that are cleaning up their act in hopes of gaining WTO membership (Ukraine, China). Beyond poor enforcement, another reason why piracy is so rampant is because the price of software in developing countries is just too high for the local market. It's easier for many to just buy priated copies at reasonable prices and take the gamble of breaking the law. Even if they are caught, the legal consequences are usually minimal.
Microsoft's South African division is hoping to gain market share and combat piracy at the same time with the introduction of a pay-as-you-go software subscription. Instead of forking over $700 for a legal copy of Microsoft Office, users can subscribe to Office for as little as $10 per month. Microsoft will also open up the subscription service to users in Romania.
Beyond just combatting piracy, Microsoft's move could also be a first strike to prevent the developing world from embracing Google Apps, a $50/year web-based software package offering many features similar to Microsoft Office.
The wife of U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards as quoted by CIO Insight, a business journal aimed at IT executives:
We can't make John black, we can't make him a woman. Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars. Now it's nice to get on the news, but not the be all and end all.
This story has been bubbling around the Internets for a few days, but it's now getting mainstream coverage. The BBC reports:
An online game in China that allows players to eradicate corrupt officials has proved so popular its website has crashed, state media reports.
Since its launch eight days ago, the game, "Incorruptible Fighter", is reported to have been downloaded more than 100,000 times.
The game was devised by a regional government in east China to highlight the problems of corrupt officialdom.
Ha, ha. Wacky story, right? But to me, it merely illustrates that Chinese authorities are seriously floundering in their efforts to combat corruption. Until the government there becomes truly accountable to the public, no amount of executions (which are, in many cases, really about internal Communist Party politics and not corruption per se) or diversionary tactics like creating "Incorruptible Fighter" are going to solve this problem.
UPDATE: Here's a screenshot of the game.
It's ridiculously easy for anyone with an Internet connection to see how the U.S. media is covering Iraq. But it's nearly impossible to find out how the Iraqi media covers the United States. That is, unless you are fluent in Arabic, have a deep understanding of all the factions jostling for power in Iraq, scan the Internet obsessively, and basically dedicate yourself full time to the job.
That's exactly what Daniel Kimmage and Kathleen Ridolfo of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have done for their report, Iraqi Insurgent Media: The War of Images and Ideas. In their 74-page report (pdf), the two analysts find that Sunni insurgents are spreading their message through a rich array of media—disseminating slick daily press releases, printing weekly and monthly magazines, posting video clips, and producing full-length feature films. But messages from the insurgents are hardly unified. There are platforms for those sympathetic to al Qaeda, websites for the Baathist "resistance" movements, and postings from revolutionary brigades. These diverse groups have one thing in common when communicating with Iraqis: They're flexible, and they're fast.
Even more troubling, if you take the aggregate messages from all the media outlets they investigated—as Kimmage and Ridolfo noted in the Q&A period after their presentation Thursday at Washington's New America Foundation—you hear a lot more from global jihadist movements than you do from nationalistic insurgents. It's not that people on the ground are necessarily more intent on propagating Greater Islam rather than on uprising against the Shiite Maliki government. But rather, it suggests that global jihadists from abroad are better than Iraqis at disseminating the message of jihad. After all, it's probably a lot easier to spread propaganda from a computer in, say, Damascus (or London or Glasgow, for that matter) than it is from Mosul.
Although it may be hard to log in from Iraq, it seems like everyone there's got a cell phone. And what do people like to watch on their phones? As RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin said Thursday, they like to look at "traditional" pornography, and they like to watch "political pornography". Lots of people think that looking at traditional online pornography cools lovers' ardor in the bedroom. Somehow, though, I don't think the virtual jihad works that way.
Michael Kovatch was clever enough to buy the domain name iPhone.com ... back in 1995. Apparently, his thinking at the time was not that Apple would eventually make what some have dubbed the "Jesus Phone," but rather that Internet telephony would take off.
And now, after selling iPhone.com to Apple, he's a millionaire.
But Kovatch is just a rank amateur compared to Kevin Ham. Ham, a retired Canadian doctor and the owner of both God.com and Satan.com, rakes in an estimated $70 million per year from the 300,000 domains he owns. One of Ham's most brilliant schemes has been squatting on ".cm" Web addresses, which correspond to Cameroon but are just a typo away from ".com". And so, Ham—in a partnership with Cameroon's government—owns nytimes.cm, Beer.cm, and others, which redirect to Agoga.com. It's a hell of a way to earn a living.
According to a new study (PDF) conducted by the Communications Workers for America, a union for telecom employees, the United States is a sluggish 16th among industrialized nations in terms of Internet speed. The CWA crunched numbers for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, and found that the median download speed in the U.S. was 1.9 megabits per second (mbps). It compared that to data from other countries provided by the International Telecommunications Union.
In Japan, which topped the list, the median download speed is 61 mpbs, 30 times faster than in the United States. That means a movie that would take 2 hours to download in the U.S. would only take 2 minutes in Japan.
But never mind entertainment. What about more vital uses for the Internet, such as telemedicine in hospitals, education, and business? The United States needs to do much better. In fact, that 1.9 mbps number probably overstates the speed of American connections. The study claims 80,000 respondents, "nearly all" of whom had cable or DSL connections. Other studies, however, estimate that 30 to 40 percent of Americans are still rockin' dial-up.
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