ORGCon 2012: My experience and thoughts

There’s never been a more important time to be aware of the issues around Digital Rights, whether your main concern is copyright, privacy, or internet access. You can debate whether being able to get online is a human right, or is the tool that now enables many of your human rights, but either way, it’s an essential utility for many, many people, and if you don’t get involved, you leave it to big business and your government to make the decisions that will affect you.

So a good time to attend my first ORGCon, organised by the Open Rights Group.


Open Rights Group

ORGCon 2012 – was it a good event?

It’s tricky to seperate out the event itself from the essential topics it covered, but in essence, it was a really well put together event. As a non-member it cost £26, but the line-up of speakers included Lawrence Lessig and Wendy Seltzer visiting from the U.S along with Cory Doctorow as the three ‘headliners’ ORG themselves picked out to promote the event.

The venue was the University of Westminster, and it worked pretty well, aside from some slight congestion in narrow passageways. The main room was big enough to seat everyone, and by running four streams of talks and activities it meant that everyone was able to cram into pretty much every event, although the ‘Defeating ACTA’ talk did prove so popular it spilled out into the corridor. It was also a very central location, just yards from Oxford Circus, which was particularly handy when public transport tried to make me miss Cory Doctorow’s opening talk – I made it in time to catch about half of it.

The day included open space/unconference sessions which sadly I didn’t check out due to some of the other talks I felt were essential, but they apparently went well, and everyone was invited to the pub etc to carry on chatting (I ended up heading home after, mainly due to post-cold/flu exhaustion!).


The talks:

The good news if you didn’t attend is that all talks were filmed and will be available online at some point – but I definitely think it was worth seeing Doctorow, Lessig et al talk in person and experience the passion, enthusiasm and intellect that each has.

So first up was Doctorow’s ‘The Coming War on General Purpose Computing’, an updated version of a talk he’s previously given on how copyright is just a minor skirmish as increasingly general purpose computing devices are restricted by spyware and rootkit methods which are similar to those used in repressive regimes. I stayed in my seat to catch Wendy Seltzer on Organizing for the Open Net, and both were extremely interesting and useful talks, followed by a panel debate on the Communications Bill and Copyright Enforcement.

A nice day and indecision over lunch meant I skipped the lunchtime ORG volunteer sessions, but I did catch a bit on How Secure is the Anonymisation of Open Data with Ross Anderson of Cambridge University, before failing to get into Defeating ACTA and lurking in the corrider for Jeremie Zimmerman and Erik Josefsson, before finally snaffling a seat for People not Profiles: Do Not Track & Data Protection followed by the Lessig closing keynote on IP activism.

Rather than dissecting each talk one by one, the overall themes of the day were a lot of useful information, some inspiration, and some very useful approaches to reframing and refocusing how you might put your effort into campaigning or activism in favour of individual digital rights. Lessig, in particular, opened up the ways in which future efforts could be far more successful in the wake of action over SOPA and PIPA.


The only minor criticism was that sometimes the information on practical steps was missing from the talks I happened to be in – there were other sessions which covered things such as activist tools, but some of it did feel a bit like a recap of information that you might have already put together if you followed rights activity over the last couple of years. I suspect that was why ‘Defeating ACTA’ and the manner in which is was delivered proved to be so popular – if you haven’t checked out La Quadrature du Net, it’s worth taking a look, particularly as they have a full English version of the site!

It might have also been helpful to have had some way to better integrate the non-ORG faithful, as I wasn’t the only person who was new to the event and would have felt a bit isolated if I hadn’t bumped into a couple of people I knew (I went old school after gadget failure). But the mix of attendees and speakers was really interesting as much in the crowd as onstage. It was great to hear some of the insight from Google’s UK Policy Manager, Theo Bertram, and from Tom Lowenthal of Mozilla on Do Not Track in a session shared with Lillian Edwards on data protection regulations.

Will I attend again?

Definitely – although it was quite interesting at times being someone who believes in digital rights, and the rights to individual privacy on one hand, and on the other works on projects and with clients where user data and advertising are essential to offering a better service. I didn’t get a chance to raise a couple of the questions I had regarding both Google and Mozilla unfortunately, but I know who to ask now, so will go into more detail in due course, but I did come away with a slightly strange feeling that on one side we have the forces of big business and government, and on the other we have privacy and rights groups and campaigners – the one voice missing seemed to be that of the small businesses that are getting caught in the middle.

Although it was a bit of a long day – getting up not long after 6am, and getting back at almost 9pm after delays due to inebriated rail passengers, it’s definitely given me a lot of things to think about, work on and blog about. And where else can you discuss politics with the pirate party on the way back from lunch?

ORGCon 2012 – a day on digital rights well worth your time

Whether you’re a content creator, publisher or just have an interest in the future of the internet, it’s well worth checking out the ORGCon 2012 event on March 24, 2012, which is organised by the Open Rights Group to cover everything around digital rights.

Not only is it an important topic, but they’ve also got an impressive line-up of speakers (including Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig, Google UK’s Manager Theo Bertram and Mozilla Privacy Expert Tom Lowenthal amongst many others), panelists (it’ll be interesting seeing the likes of Bill Thompson debating copyright enforcement), and some workshops and other stuff. You can see the full programme on the ORG site.

It’s £26 if you’re a non-member of ORG, and free if you sign up to support ORG now. So it’s a cheap way to see some very intelligent people on very important topics even if you’re not planning on becoming more involved with the Open Rights Group. Then again, if you’re not considering it following on from SOPA,PIPA,ACTA etc…

I’ve bought a ticket, so if you do plan on going, let me know as it’d be great to grab a drink either during the day or in a pub afterwards.


Doctorow video on copyright and piracy – must watch

Nice video of Cory Doctorow posted by the Guardian, and popping up in my RSS feeds thanks to The Pirates Dilemma.

The timing is particularly nice considering part of the video covers Hollywood and Youtube – and the latter has announced Creative Commons licences will now be part of the service when you upload or want to find content to mashup. It’s brilliant news, and the only question I have is why it took so long to happen?

I probably haven’t spent enough time educating enough of my clients about the benefits of utilising Creative Commons – a good reminder to start doing that right now.

The death of the Open Web has been somewhat exaggerated

I’ve just been reading through a short and interesting piece by Virginia Heffernan referring to ‘The Death of the Open Web.

She compares the move from open websites to the walled garden of apps to the move from cities to suburbs, and with some justification. After all 55 million+ people with an iPhone or iPad are app users, alongside the Murdoch-led impetus for content paywalls to once again attempt to block off certain areas of the web for certain companies.

But I think there are arguments against her two points – and a more pressing threat to the continued life of the open web.

Noone denies the success of the application approach for the iPhone and iPod Touch – the small screen means that applications have proved hugely successful at utilising a smaller space and handheld processing power to achieve great results. And many people are actively downloading enough applications for it to be an income stream which many individuals and businesses have, and will continue, to invest in.

But the iPad? There have been initial sucesses with some applications, but at the same time, many people are reporting that they’re increasing using the fast browser to surf the web just as effectively – if not moreso than many of the lacklustre apps rushed out for launch. A lot of websites are now utilising HTML5 (Including my employers, Absolute Radio), and the built-in connectivity of the open web (I’m thinking hyperlinks as much as social bookmarking) carries a lot of advantages over the application approach.

By the same token, the rise of the paywalls doesn’t mean that everyone will follow, or that they’ll be a sustainable success. Certainly the like of The Guardian will stand to benefit in traffic by remaining open, and for many pieces of content, a free, open alternative will always exist – if not by an existing rival, then from one of the myriad of new people seeing a paywall-created opportunity.

As an example, check out the investments being made by Demand Media, Yahoo and AOL to invest in trafic acquisition by content at the same point as major mainstream news organisations are retreating into their shells.

But the real threat?

That comes from the infrastructure of the internet – one which is not inherently open or closed. And that infrastructure could be increasingly dictated not by evolution or the needs of users, but by the attempts to inforce legality and particularly copyright.

I’m not suggesting that artists and industries don’t have the right to profit from their endeavours, but that the way in which those efforts are currently being enacted could result in effects far beyond the intention to protect content-creators.

For a more comprehensive explanation, I highly recommend Code: Version 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig

That’s the real threat to the Open Web and all the benefits that it brings to the world as a whole.

Ingredients missing from Twitter’s Blackbird Pie to embed tweets

Twitter’s message embedding tool, Blackbird Pie, is now live. Well at least it would be, if the application hadn’t already toppled over due to the interest in it:

Twitter's new Blackbird Pie application for embedding tweets crashes on launch day

The above tweet had to be captured the old-fashioned way. But having had a look at the posts about the service before it fell over, I have to admit I’m fairly disapointed so far.

So on the plus side:

  • You just submit the url of a tweet to get the code
  • It picks up the font used in your tags to emulate your blog style.
  • It copies whatever background the original tweeter used.
  • The @tags, hashtags and account itself are all clickable.

But on the downside:

  • It was never that tricky to embed a tweet before – I just used the Aviary plugin for Firefox for a quick screengrab, upload the image, and then manually link to the account or hashtag as needed.
  • I’ve yet to see someone display an embedded tweet, but what happens if Twitter decides to remove that content from their system?
  • The block of code provided is a huge amount to copy and paste just to embed an element. Certainly something I wouldn’t want to have to edit to fit the size of any site/blog.
  • It seems like a hugely missed opportunity so far. Embedding an individual tweet isn’t a problem – but what is more problematic is capturing a few, or a whole conversation between one or more people. I’m sure I’ve seen one tool for capturing conversations but can’t remember what it is, and using my own quick screenshot method or Blackbird Pie it’ll still be a pain.
  • It’s crashed already, despite being built by people familiar with the size and scale of Twitter. And it’s not even showing a Fail Whale (Fail bird?)

Blackbird Pie seems undercooked

I’m really not sure why Twitter has released this now. We’ve had their acquisition of Tweetie, the release of BlackBerry and Android applications, and the launch of Promoted Tweets. Why rush out something which doesn’t actually offer anything particularly beneficial to users? Unless it’s simply there to add control for Twitter (And perhaps promotional partners).

After all, it may help when dealing with DMCA issues with particular messages.

Did Microsoft China copy and clone Plurk?

Is Microsoft China’s MSN Juku a straight theft of code and design from Plurk, the microblogging service which has had major success in the Asian world?

Despite fading after initial interest in the West, Plurk now claims to be ten times bigger than Twitter in Taiwan alone, and the preferred method of microblogging in many Asian countries, despite access to the site being banned by China in April 2009. At the time, Plurk’s top five countries were Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, the U.S and China, so it was a big issue.

Now the issue has got even bigger, as described in a blog post by Plurk co-founder and lead developer, Amir, which states what they think has happened:

  • Microsoft China officially launched its own microblogging service, MSN Juku/Hompy/Mclub, some time in November, 2009.
  • The service’s design and UI is by and large an EXACT copy of Plurk’s innovative left-right timeline scrolling navigation system.
  • Some 80% of the client and product codebase appears to be stolen directly from Plurk!
  • Plurk was never approached nor collaborated in any capacity with MS on this service.
  • As a young startup, we’re stunned, shocked, and unsure what to do next and need your support and suggestions.

And judging by the images and code displayed on the Plurk blog, it seems far too suspicious to be a mere coincidence.

Spot the difference:


And again…


And once more with feeling:


It’s pretty amazing that a company of the size of Microsoft China would even think about stealing code to power a new launch, and that it’s gone this far if so. The only logical reason could be that China’s internet laws and lack of access to the outside world could lead to people thinking no-one would notice.

The question the Plurk team is asking is how to tackle the problem?

My guess is that the bad publicity wouldn’t necessarily worry Microsoft China, but might worry Microsoft itself a little more, particularly given all the efforts to fight Chinese piracy and protect intellectual property that Microsoft has supported. It’s a big harder to do that when you’ve got a clone of a reasonably well-established and successful company sitting there for all to see.

Techcrunch has also covered the story, and I’m looking forward to seeing what, if any, response they get from Microsoft.

My guess will be that MSN Juku will go quiet for a while, before perhaps reappearing with a slightly more unique codebase and design. If not, perhaps the only other option will be for Microsoft to get into acquisition mode – something that didn’t work out well for Google and Jaiku, and isn’t likely to work when the starting point is a complete rip-off!

Update: The outcome is that yes it’s a clone, but apparently done by a third party developer when everyone else was obviously on holiday or in a meeting. The site has been taken offline indefinitely, and the only remaining question is whether Plurk, which is a pretty small and young startup, will bother to try and take matters further, which given the legal resources MSN has, is probably unlikely…

Be careful when naming your Twitter application…

If you’ve built a third-party application for Twitter, you’ll want to think carefully about what you call it, following the company trademarking the term ‘Tweet’.

The official response has been posted on the Twitter blog by Biz Stone, after Robin Wauters highlighted the issue over at Techcrunch. The official announcement is:

‘We have applied to trademark Tweet because it is clearly attached to Twitter from a brand perspective but we have no intention of “going after” the wonderful applications and services that use the word in their name when associated with Twitter. In fact, we encourage the use of the word Tweet. However, if we come across a confusing or damaging project, the recourse to act responsibly to protect both users and our brand is important.

Regarding the use of the word Twitter in projects, we are a bit more wary although there are some exceptions here as well. After all, Twitter is the name of our service and our company so the potential for confusion is much higher. When folks ask us about naming their application with “Twitter” we generally respond by suggesting more original branding for their project. This avoids potential confusion down the line.’

Which is interesting from a marketing point of view – Twitter has namechecked and praised some of the great apps currently using the word ‘Tweet’, including Tweetdeck for example, and suggests it may only use the trademark to go other apps which try to pass themselves of as official, for example.

Then again, ‘to tweet’ or ‘I’ve just tweeted’ suggests common usage of the word as a verb anyway. I’d be interested in hearing from any legal experts about what that would mean for any trademark cases.

And Mark Evans points out that is currently a site claiming to be about birds.

So if you can’t use ‘Twitter’, and might want to stay away from ‘Tweet’, what about Twit?

Well, that could cause problems as well – Robert Scoble reports that Leo LaPorte has trademarked ‘Twit’ for his longrunning TWiT TV netcast network (It stands for This Week in Tech if you didn’t know, rather than being Twitter related, and is something I recommend having a listen to…). There’s a related Friendfeed discussion going on…

So you might want to steer clear of Twitter, Tweet and Twit.

There are obviously reasons why Twitter wants to maintain some clarity between company products and 3rd party applications – particularly when they might be launching more of their own for premium users. At the same time, the constant referrals to ‘Tweet’ and ‘Twit’ have definitely helped publicity and common usage of the parent service, as has the availability of such services.

At the same time, the generic terms aren’t as well used – for instance, microblogging. Which is a bit of a shame, given 140char’s ranking for the term ‘microblogging blog‘!

Personally, I’d recommend building your own brand name – it’s a long term win but means you aren’t tied to one service or risking trademark problems. The short term benefit of going for the most common Twitter terms is likely to be waning as so many exist, and you’ll be able to carve out your own niche.

Who will kill online newspapers first? Their subjects, or the lawmakers?

It could be a great time to run a newspaper soon, if Judge Richard Posner has his way.

He has suggested that linking to copyright material should be outlawed,

‘Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent . . .’

You can read his blog post, or the appropriate level of disbelief in Erik Schonfeld’s coverage, as he rightly points out this idea would outlaw public discourse, freedom of speech and fair use rights.

Jeff Jarvis mentions a column by Connie Schultz which proposes content would be available only on the originators website for the first 24 hours.

If either law ever came into existence, I have the perfect way to create a hugely successful news source.

Licence it all under Creative Commons.

While the rest of the newspaper sites are struggling to understand that they can’t coerce people into only linking to them in the correct, legal, or desired way, a Creative Commons site would clean up in inbound links and traffic until it was the only one standing!

What about when the subjects we cover start to control the news?

An interesting series of articles is just starting over on Nieman Journalism Lab, discussing what happens when Sports Leagues are able to become media moguls and control the news.

In the U.S., Major League Baseball has launched it’s own cable TV channel MLB Network, which is the focus of the first of the four part series.

But it isn’t just leagues that can afford TV which offer a threat.

It’s every organisation or business which is now able to reach consumers/fans directly via Facebook, Twitter, Email etc. All enabling them to reach an ever-increasing audience to distribute their beliefs, opinions and news.

Whether or not that content is well-received is another matter, but the simple fact is that it’s out there, and increasing daily. And will only increase for every bit of evidence that can indicate it’s more effective in driving transactional revenue than straight advertising.

Every media business needs to be planning for what happens if and when the subjects of your stories (and advertisers) start telling them for themselves.

Saturday link round-up

Some interesting links for the weekend:

London’s best free wi-fi hotspots – Timeout: The type of guide I kept meaning to find/write, and suddenly it appears!

Email is such a blunt tool – Neil Perkin: Neil not only writes consistently great posts but always seems to find the perfect images to illustrate them, along with brilliant visual presentations.

Social Media is good for you – Faster Future: Nice post from Dave Cushman as a counterpoint to the shock headline-grabbing about how Facebook/Twitter etc are replacing the other scourges of humanity – the radio, record player, television, video nasties, video games etc. See also my earlier post responding to the social networking health threat

Gordon Brown is apparently going to protect ‘high quality’ content on the internet – Cnet: For ‘high quality’, assume he means traditional media – and for how he’s going to protect it – he has no idea, or at least he isn’t telling anyone…

Swedish ISP won’t retain user data – Ars Technica: ‘Jon Karlung, the head of ISP Bahnhof, says that his company won’t turn over any user data to authorities because it refuses to keep any log files. That decision is legal—for now’. This is why I love the Swedes so much!

Awesome new Twitter plug-ins for WordPress

You may notice a new icon on every post. It comes from Dan Zarrella (@danzarella), who I continue to be hugely impressed by.

It started back in December when I spotted his interesting analysis of Retweeting, and I’ve followed his Tweetback project. But now he’s gone waaaaay further with the TweetSuite Plug-in for WordPress.

It includes:

  • Server-side (no-JS or remote calls) TweetBacks
  • ReTweet-This buttons for each TweetBack
  • A digg-like Tweet-This Button
  • Automatic Tweeting of new posts
  • A Most-Tweeted Widget
  • A Recently-Tweeted Widget
  • A My-Last-Tweets Widget
  • A My-Favorited-Tweets Widget

I’m using it here and on, and so far it’s been simple and easy to use, and has worked ‘out-of-the-box’.

Interestingly, there’s already an alternative to Tweetbacks – The Twittbacks WordPress Plugin created for Smashing Magazine by Joost de Valk. (He’s also on Twitter as @jdevalk)

One outcome of the two plugins is an interesting post by Jonathan Bailey on whether reproducing Tweets could lead to copyright problems.

In the meantime, I’m using TweetSuite, and so far I can highly recommend it – the only suggestion that immediately sprang to mind is that the icon might be better placed at the footer of a post rather than top left or right, but that’s a minor point!