April 23, 2014

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Now Available in Print and eBook: “Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring”

I am happy to announce that my new book, co-authored with Muzammil M. Hussain, is now available in print (Oxford University Press, Amazon, Google Books) and eBook (Kindle).

In April of last year, I presented some of our initial findings and described the methodology in a presentation at the Center for Information Technology at Princeton. You can listen to that presentation here:
Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Information Technologies and the Fuzzy Causes of the Arab Spring

Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring
Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain

Did digital media really “cause” the Arab Spring, or is it an important factor of the story behind what might become democracy’s fourth wave? An unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world’s most entrenched dictators. Howard and Hussain find that the complex causal recipe includes several economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. This book looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.

Philip N. Howard is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, with adjunct appointments at the Jackson School of International Studies and the Information School.

Muzammil M. Hussain is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication at the University of Washington and Visiting Scientist at the Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich.

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A Reivew of Oral Arguments in McBurney v. Young: State FOIA and State Rights

Yesterday, I attended oral arguments in the Supreme Court case of McBurney v. Young, which I have previously written about. The case involves two different petitioners who were denied access to state records under a Virginia “freedom of information” law that limits such access to Virginia residents only. McBurney is a former Virginia resident who wanted some records related to an ongoing child support dispute. Hurlbert is a government information aggregator and reseller.

At issue is whether this preferential treatment is constitutional under the Constitution’s “Privileges and Immunities” clause, as well as the “Dormant Commerce Clause.” In my previous post, I discussed these doctrines in more detail, but I devoted most of my time to describing the privileges and immunities argument — essentially that citizens must receive equal treatment across all states when it comes to “fundamental rights.” While waiting for arguments to begin, I was chatting with another person in the audience. I asked him whether he thought that the argument was going to focus significantly on states’ rights, and he said he expected more time to be devoted to the question of whether or not the rights in question were “fundamental.” It turned out that, with the boisterous support of Justice Scalia, states’ rights were the order of the day.

[Update: Transcript of the arguments is available here]

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“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Since the historic snow storm, “Nemo,” deposited a NOAA-certified 40 inches of snow on my hometown of Hamden, CT, I have been watching from afar to see how the town and its citizens are using a combination of digital technology, the traditional telecommunications network, and mass media to communicate in the aftermath of the storm. While I have been lucky enough not to have been directly affected by the historic storm, my senior citizen parents have been inside their house waiting for a snow plow to come for approximately five days. Since they are healthy and have food and heat, I have the luxury of writing about the use of communications technology by Hamden’s government during this weather emergency. The purpose of this post is not to pile onto an already overwhelmed town government, but to highlight fairly easily achievable improvements that Hamden’s government could make in its emergency communications that will make residents of the town safer the next time an emergency occurs.

On Friday morning, I woke up and heard the Mayor of Hamden, Scott Jackson, on CNN stating about the storm, “It’s a Disaster.” I was impressed to hear the Mayor of my approximately 60,000 person hometown with a national and international forum to talk about the weather emergency and recovery efforts. I figured this was only the first step in the process of informing town residents about what they could expect over the next few days. However, based on reviewing “The Town of Hamden, Connecticut” Facebook page, e-mails sent from the Mayor’s Office, the Mayor’s Twitter feed, and having conversations with my parents, there are three specific areas where the town could have communicated more effectively during this weather emergency. These failures of communication sell short the heroic work of the people working around the clock to plow the streets and respond to emergencies.
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Get Out the Vote, Cee-Lo Style?

This semester, Ed Felten and I are teaching a Freshman Seminar called “Facebook: The Social Impact of Social Networks.” This week, the class is discussing a recent article published in the journal Nature, entitled “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization“. The study reveals that if Facebook shows you a list of your closest friends who have voted, you are more likely to do so yourself. It is a fascinating read both because it is probably the first very-large-scale controlled test of social influence via online social networks, and because it appears that without much work the company was able to spur about 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 midterm elections.

I confess that last night I watched some of the wildly popular reality TV competition The Voice. What can I say? The pyrotechnics were more calming than the amped-up CNN spin-zoners. It was the first day that the at-home audience began voting for their favorites. Carson Daly mentioned that the show would take the requisite break on Election Night, but return in force on Wednesday. (Incidentally, I can’t decide whether or not this video urging us to “vote Team Cee-Lo” is too clever by half).
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Supreme Court to Hear State Freedom of Information Act Case “McBurney v. Young”

On Friday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to McBurney v. Young. This case formally concerns the “Privileges and Immunities Clause” of the Constitution. It raises questions about what access rights citizens have to government records and about who counts as a journalist. Oral argument will likely be scheduled for 2013.

Mark McBurney is a citizen of Rhode Island who requested public records from the Commonwealth of Virginia. His request was denied because the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) prohibits requests that are made by citizens of other states. About seven other states have similar limitations. McBurney appealed to the 4th Circuit, claiming that he should have the same rights of access as Virginians under the US Constitution’s guarantee that, “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” McBurney lost in the 4th Circuit earlier this year. However, in 2006, Matthew Lee (a citizen of New York seeking records from Delaware) had won a similar case in the 3rd Circuit. The Supreme Court is now tasked with reconciling this split.
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Introducing Myself: Technology, Society, and Public Policy

I’m a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton this year. My first months here have already been amazing. I’m pleased to be joining this blog as well!

My conceptual toolkit and my method comes mostly from sociology, but I’m also a former computer programmer. That means that I feel welcome in a place where policy people and computer scientists collaborate. My interests revolve around how technology and society interact, and I’ve been enjoying having these conversations with many new people. I research a variety of topics concerning the social impacts of technology — things like social interaction, collective action, and privacy & publicity. I’m also enjoying teaching a course this Fall at the Woodrow Wilson School called “New Media and Social Movements: New Tools for an Old Game” (syllabus here – PDF).
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TV Everywhere: Collusion Anywhere?

FreePress and the National Cable and Telecom Association (NCTA) are talking past each other about TV Everywhere, a new initiative from the cable TV industry. FreePress says TV Everywhere is the cable industry’s collusive attempt to limit competition; the NCTA says it’s an exciting new product opportunity for consumers. Let’s unpack this issue and see who might have a point, and who is blowing smoke.

We’re at a critical point in the history of television. In recent years, most people have gotten TV shows from a traditional cable or satellite service. Now more and more people are getting shows on the Internet. Cable companies need to adapt, somehow, or become dinosaurs.

Which brings us to TV Everywhere. The idea, according to the NCTA, is for cable companies to offer their residential subscribers online access to the same shows they get at home. Existing consumers get more, at no extra charge — who would complain about that? — but only if they keep buying traditional cable service.

FreePress tells a different story, in which cable industry companies have agreed among themselves that this is their sole Internet distribution strategy. If such an agreement exists, it is problematic — it looks like a classic market division agreement, which is bad for consumers and (as I understand it) presumptively illegal.

To understand why this would be bad, consider an analogy. Suppose there are only two pizza restaurants in Princeton, Alice’s Pizza and Bob’s Pizza, and neither one offers home delivery. Customers want delivery, so both restaurants are considering how to provide it. Alice and Bob meet, and they agree that Alice’s will only deliver to customers east of Nassau Street, and Bob’s will only deliver to customers west of Nassau Street. Alice and Bob have divided the market. Customers suffer because of the lack of competition.

Now obviously Alice and Bob are free to set reasonable limits on where they will deliver. Some customers may be too far away, or too difficult to deliver to for some reason. But customers would rightly complain if Alice and Bob agreed to divide the market. Even if we didn’t have smoking-gun evidence of an agreement, there might be very strong circumstantial evidence, for example if Alice offered to deliver to places five miles away while refusing to deliver to homes directly across the street from her Nassau Street restaurant, or if Alice and Bob’s restaurants were right next to each other but had totally disjoint delivery areas.

Notice too that Alice and Bob can’t get off the hook by pointing out that they are offering a new service — delivery — that they had never offered before. The problem is not that they are offering a new service, but that they have agreed not to offer certain other services.

How does this analogy apply to cable TV? Alice and Bob are like the cable companies, which are considering expanding beyond their traditional service. Home delivery of pizza is like Internet delivery of TV shows. As the cable industry expands to offer TV shows on the Internet, are they open to competing against each other, or have they agreed not to do so? If the cable companies have made an agreement to offer online TV shows only to their own residential customers, that looks like an agreement to divide the market — each company will be offering its product only in the limited geographic areas where it has a cable TV license.

So the key question — really the only one that matters, as far as I can see — is whether the cable companies have agreed not to compete. FreePress says, or strongly implies, that there is such an agreement. NCTA says there is not.

Who is right? Unfortunately the publicly available facts are consistent with either theory. Maybe TV Everywhere is just the first step and the cable companies will soon enough be competing with each other to distribute shows to Internet customers wherever they may be. Or maybe the companies have decided as a group to restrict themselves to TV Everywhere style services within geographic limits (or to otherwise restrict business models or prices).

At this point we can’t tell who is right. FreePress offers indirect but suggestive circumstantial evidence that questionable discussions might have occurred within the cable industry. The NCTA mostly just changes the subject, talking about the complexity of their industry and praising cable companies for offering shows on the Internet at all.

Unfortunately, public discourse about industry structure often confuses issues like this. We often say things like “the cable industry is worried about X” or “the cable industry wants Y”. That could be a kind of shorthand, meaning that the individual companies in the industry, facing competitive pressures, generally tend to worry about X or to want Y — perfectly reasonable market behavior. Or it could reflect an assumption that the industry acts as a unit, which of course is problematic. This ambiguity is especially common in political/policy debates, to our detriment. We’d be better off talking saying things like “cable companies worry about X” or “cable companies want Y”, just to remind ourselves that these are supposed to be independent actors who decide independently what they want.

For now, I’d say the cable companies bear watching. As the companies lay out their Internet strategies and products, I hope the antitrust authorities are watching closely. If the cable companies are really acting as competing companies, this will be obvious from their actions.

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Advice on stepping up to a better digital camera

This is a bit off from the usual Freedom to Tinker post, but with tomorrow being “Black Friday” and retailers offering some steep discounts on consumer electronics, many Tinker readers will be out there buying gear or will be offering buying advice to their friends.

Over the past several months, several friends of mine have mentioned that they were considering “moving up” to a D-SLR camera and asked me for advice. I’ve been what you might term a “serious amateur” photographer since high school, when I was the head photographer for the school yearbook and newspaper. (It was a non-trivial issue for me to decide whether to make my career in photography or in computers.)

To address this, I wrote a guide to upgrading your digital camera. I’ve written this for a non-technical audience. Pass it around and enjoy.

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NY Times Should Report on NY Times Ad Malware

Yesterday morning, while reading the New York Times online, I was confronted with an attempted security attack, apparently delivered through an advertisement. A window popped up, mimicking an antivirus scanner. After “scanning” my computer, it reported finding viruses and invited me to download a free antivirus scanner. The displays implied, without quite saying so, that the messages came from my antivirus vendor and that the download would come from there too. Knowing how these things work, I recognized it right away as an attack, probably carried by an ad. So I didn’t click on anything, and I’m fairly certain my computer wasn’t infected.

I wasn’t the only person who saw this attack. The Times posted a brief note on its site yesterday, and followed up today with a longer blog post.

What is interesting about the Times’s response is that it consists of security warnings, rather than journalism. Security warnings are good as far as they go; the Times owed that much to its users, at least. But it’s also newsworthy that a major, respected news site was facilitating cybercrime, even unintentionally. Somebody should report on this story — and who better than the Times itself?

It’s probably an interesting story, involving the ugly underside of the online ad business. Most likely, ad space in the Times was sold and, presumably, resold to an actual attacker; or a legitimate ad placement service was penetrated. Either way, other people are at risk of the same attack. Even better, the story opens issues such as the difficulties of securing the web, what vendors are doing to improve matters, what the bad buys are trying to achieve, and what happens to the victims.

An enterprising technology reporter might find a fascinating story here — and it’s right under the noses of the Times staff. Let’s hope they jump on it.

UPDATE (Sept. 15): As Barry points out in the comments below, the Times wrote a good article the day after this post appeared. It turns out that the booby-trapped ad was not sold through an ad network, as one might have expected. Instead, the ad space was sold directly by the Times, to a party who was pretending to be Vonage. The perpetrators ran Vonage ads for a while, then switched over to serving the malicious ads.

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AP's DRM Announcement: Much Ado About Nothing

Last week the Associated Press announced it would be developing some kind of online news registry to control use of news content. From AP’s press release:

The registry will employ a microformat for news developed by AP and which was endorsed two weeks ago by the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit research and development organization that has called on news organizations to adopt consistent news formats for online content. The microformat will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational “wrapper” that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.

The registry also will enable content owners and publishers to more effectively manage and control digital use of their content, by providing detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services and enforcement support. It will support a variety of payment models, including pay walls.

It was hard to make sense of this, so I went looking for more information. AP posted a diagram of the system, which only adds to the confusion — your satisfaction with the diagram will be inversely proportional to your knowledge of the technology.

As far as I can tell, the underlying technology is based on hNews, a microformat for news, shown in the AP diagram, that was announced by AP and the Media Standards Trust two weeks before the recent AP announcement.

Unfortunately for AP, the hNews spec bears little resemblance to AP’s claims about it. hNews is a handy way of annotating news stories with information about the author, dateline, and so on. But it doesn’t “encapsulate” anything in a “wrapper”, nor does it do much of anything to facilitate metering, monitoring, or paywalls.

AP also says that hNews ” includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online”. This may sound like a restrictive DRM scheme, aimed at clawing back the rights copyright grants to users. But read the fine print. hNews does include a “rights” field that can be attached to an article, but the rights field uses ccREL, the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, whose definition states unequivocally that it does not limit users’ rights already granted by copyright and can only convey further rights to the user. Here’s the ccREL definition, page 9:

Here are the License properties defined as part of ccREL:

  • cc:permits — permits a particular use of the Work above and beyond what default copyright law allows.
  • cc:prohibits — prohibits a particular use of the Work, specifically affecting the scope of the permissions provided by cc:permits (but not reducing rights granted under copyright).

It seems that there is much less to the AP’s announcement than meets the eye. If there’s a story here, it’s in the mismatch between the modest and reasonable underlying technology, and AP’s grandiose claims for it.