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.

Lessig

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?

Content marketing, user data and the dangers of free WordPress themes

Bit of a link post from me today as I’ve been working on a number of things for clients, and also updating some other projects. So rather than adding to the list that I intend to blog about someday, here’s some important things to consider:

Arm yourself with content, for Goliath is coming: Interesting post which reiterates a lot of the things I’ve been saying about content and marketing over the last 6 months – now is the time to start doing it. More and more companies are realising how useful content and social media marketing can be, and how much ROI it can produce, so you’re going to see more and more content fighting for attention. And given that it takes time to build an attentive audience, you don’t want to wait around any longer!

Myspace on the auction blog. What happens to user data?: Given that I’ve just been writing about social media content and user data from the perspective of future historians having access, it’s also important to consider what happens to that data if a site sells to another owner, rather than shutting down. How do you feel about your content, information and contacts being transferred? Another reason to adopt a hub and spoke model, with ownership of your own content/business/contact hub. And it’s so easy to do with the availability of self-publishing tools…

The hidden dangers of free WordPress themes: But although setting up WordPress, for example, is pretty easy, there are still dangers that you need to be aware of. For instance, only using themes from trusted sources, and checking them before you install them. Do you know what links are contained in the theme you downloaded from a random website? The original post shows the examples of how you can actually decode what could be hidden in a theme. There are a couple of solutions – one is to only pick themes from trusted sources, and the other is to bite the bullet and pay for themes from trusted sources. For instance, in my case, I tend to pay for themes from StudioPress, but there are some other good alternatives, such as Woo Themes (which I’ve used on some client sites, for example).

So why not spend the weekend getting started on your 2011 digital content and marketing. And feel free to pose any questions in the comments – if I can’t answer them, there’s a growing number of people reading this site who probably can!

Taiwan police ask Plurk for IP addresses of users

Microblogging service Plurk has been pretty successful outside the U.S, but having already been the victim of a ban in China (followed by MSN China cloning the site with their own product), the service has now been asked by Taiwan police to provide the IP addresses of some Plurk users, without being supplied with a court order by police.

As reported on Global Voices, Alvin Woon, one of the founders of Plurk, posted a message saying he’d been asked by police for the information.

Unless a court deems it necessary, what the police are asking is technically illegal. But it turns out that it appears to be usual practice for the police, who have confirmed that they would make around 10 such requests to Plurk every month. Since Woon is not located in Taiwan, and the Plurk servers are in America, he hasn’t complied with the request.

But obviously Plurk isn’t the only website being asked for user details and IP addresses, and other companies are being more cooperative with police enquiries. Given current laws being proposed and implemented in the UK, U.S and Australia, along with the approach of China to internet freedom, it’s more important than ever to have an understanding of your rights, your privacy, and the attititude of any social network/blog/hosting company/ISP that you use. One book I’d recommend for a greater understanding of the nature of law on the internet and how it can be changed by Governments would be Code: Version 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig

Privacy update for Google Buzz – removing auto-follow

Google has rolled out updates to Google Buzz in the wake of privacy concerns, including replacing auto-following with suggestions for people to follow. And although the change was actually made back in February, an update today will make this change apparent to anyone who signed up before February 13th.

Aside from the fact that there has been a sizeable user backlash on the privacy problems initially created by Google Buzz, and potentially the service has failed to take off, Google also has another major privacy issue. Google Buzz is under investigation by the U.S FTC (Federal Trade Commission).

One example of the reason is that White House Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin, a former Google employee, recently found his Google Buzz account revealed many of his Gmail accounts publicly, including a number of Google lobbyists or lawyers. His account has now been deleted after a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.

There’s also a new Youtube channel for Google to share tips and tricks on using Google Buzz.

And new settings in your Googlemail preferences mean that you can now control which Buzz items arrive via email in future, to decide between comments on your posts, comments on posts after you’ve contributed, and comments on posts after you’ve been @replied on them. The promised ‘mute’ button hasn’t quite arrived yet, but the problem with Buzz is that it needs to keep changing incredibly quickly to adapt, and it needs to work across 50+ Gmail languages from the start without causing problems with latency or downtime.

Every other social network started small and then grew exponentially – Twitter, Facebook, Myspace etc. In the case of Google Buzz, it attempted to get a headstart by launching to millions and then adapting – something which might prove akin to trying to change natural evolution.

How the ‘traditional’ world punishes social networking

If you’re familiar with social networking it can be easy to scoff at the latest report of the non-digital native world failing to understand the benefits of the connected world. But sometimes, being ahead of the curve can carry a cost.

A U.S. University Professor was recently suspended because of a Facebook status update on what was intended to be a private page for family and friends. Similarly in the UK, a joke on Twitter led to an arrest under the Terror Act and a lifetime ban from an airport. And in a related privacy matter, a school appears to have been using anti-theft software on laptops issued to students to spy on them.

But all of these might appear to be isolated cases against individuals or small groups – and some might argue that publishing anything remotely contraversial is foolish, even in jest, on a public platform, whatever your privacy settings – and events like this one don’t help.

But there are far more insiduous happenings taking place which can affect all of us – how would you feel about the fact that Facebook and Twitter Usage Could Raise Your Home Insurance Premium by 10%?

Or that banks are mining social media sites for personal information which can affect your credit score?

You can argue that telling the world about your location, or revealing any financial information justifies the data collection – although the suggestion that some Facebook application exist purely to collect this data surreptitiously has to be somewhat alarming.

But given that social media and social networking is so new and quickly evolving, and that there’s no proof that mentioning your location, your new purchase, or joking about your future actions has any relation to reality, it’s important to remember that traditional institutions still have the tendency to believe anything published as factual evidence. Even as half the UK population converses via Facebook, it appears we’re all still cast into the role of rebels on the fringes of society who need to be aware of laws, regulations and risks that haven’t moved anywhere near as quickly as they should in the face of the ever-increasing rate of change.

The problem isn’t that the world can’t move quickly enough to build a logical framework which facilitates individuals, businesses and governments to a reasonable level – the problem appears to be that none of the people in a position to do it have the knowledge/incitement to bother, and so we’re left with a legion of the internet-enabled complaining about the inability of the internet-challenged to wield power correctly.

The question is what will you do about it?

Why I won’t be signing up to Blippy…

A fair number of tech luminaries have been writing about Blippy recently – a new service which tracks your on and offline card purchases and shares them with followers. Not surpising with investors including Sequoia Capital, Jason Calacanis and Evan Williams. And Louis Gray has been publishing his experiences with the site.

I’m not averse to sharing my purchases and recommendations, and I’m fairly realistic about online security. Despite taking precautions, I’m aware that all banks and ecommerce sites have to transmit data, and that phishing and scam sites will always be a part of online life, as much as card cloning and skimming is a part of offline life.

I’m also happy to share a lot of info on social networks, only drawing the line at things which reveal more about my family than they might wish. After all, I’m choosing to let people know where I am or what they’re doing, but my family should choose their own privacy levels for themselves.

But surely there’s a big security risk inherent in the way Blippy works, which noone seems to have highlighted?

If you phone your bank or credit card company, they’ll generally require security details. And if you’re unable to provide them, or in addition, they’ll ask for you to reference a couple of recent purchases…

What does Blippy show? Recent purchases

While I believe banks and other financial organisations should be adjusting their security to the new online world (and at the moment many are a bit subpar), it seems like a pretty big element of a financial security check to be sharing right now. So in the same way I’d happily use a location service to share when I’m in the pub but wouldn’t check into my home address, I think I’ll be giving Blippy a wide berth.

UK Govt – tackling piracy but in court on privacy!

Quite funny seeing which stories followed each other on PaidContent this morning – one story is following the response from UK ISPs to Lord Mandelson’s proposal to disconnect illegal filesharers – but that immediately followed that the EC has set a two month deadline to overhaul UK rules on digital privacy.Or the UK Govt will end up in court.

Interestingly, it appears the EC are reacting fairly strongly to the UK passing of behavourial-targetting technology, e.g Phorm, but meanwhile France already has a law forcing ISPs to identify filesharers and using a three-strikes rule with disconnection as the eventual punishment, and the UK is looking likely to follow.

The conclusion is that my privacy matters when a private company wants to advertise to me, but doesn’t when private business industries influence a Lord to go against EU legislation which states access to the internet is a fundamental human right.

(For a nice, well-reasoned summary, read Hannah Nicklin’s open letter to Lord Mandelson – it includes plenty of useful links to relevant sources of information, including Ben Goldacre’s comprehensive dismantling of the claimed ‘seven million’ British people illegally downloading).

When concerns over social networks go way too far…

Businesses and organisations can either embrace the opportunities and challenges of increasingly easy social interaction, or they can react against it. And two recent examples show how worrying that reaction can be.

Most digitally-aware people realise that anything you put on a public (or even supposedly private) social networking site can be seen by people including your employers.

But how about Bozeman City, in Montana, which requires job applicants to hand over their log-in information and passwords to any internet chat rooms, social networks or forums?

Why should potential employees have any right to privacy at all?

And then a media company, which by rights should know better, gets shown up. The Associated Press has issued social media guidelines, which not only match the restrictions put out by other media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal,  but actually asks employees to monitor and edit what appears on their social network profiles, even when it’s written by their friends.

From the guidelines (via Mashable)

“Q. Anything specific to Facebook?

It’s a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn’t violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted. Also, managers should not issue friend requests to subordinates, since that could be awkward for employees. It’s fine if employees want to initiate the friend process with their bosses.

The News Media Guild, which represents 1500+ AP employees is rightly speaking out about the matter, which could, in theory, see AP employees punished for something written by someone else on their profile wall etc. Or, as is equally likely, a spambot.

Court allows Viacom to invade privacy of Youtube viewers

Due to the litigation case between Viacom and Google, a federal court has ordered Google to produce:

all data from the Logging database concerning each time a YouTube video has been viewed on the YouTube website or through embedding on a third-party website

Time to boycott any Viacom products? Read more details on how this erroneously ignores the protection of the US Video Privacy Protection Act on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website. For the record, actions like this are a far bigger problem than Twitter failing to scale!