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Saturday 8 April 2000, 23:50 BST
Top story of the day is the continuing fallout from the Godfrey case. Following Demon's capitulation and the taking down of the Outcast web site, there have been further developments. Kamlesh Bahl, the former vice-president of the Law Society who recently resigned from her post after a welter of complaints from staff about bullying, had her website withdrawn by her ISP following a complaint about its contents. Finally, the web site of the Campaign Against Censorship of the Internet in Britain was was itself closed down by Instant Web, its ISP, following a complaint from Dr Godfrey about the story the CACIB published on their web site about the Outcast case. The CACIB having now relocated their site with a US-based host, they should hopefully be able to report on further developments without their host being sued for libel (though they've now added a note to the original article which makes it clear that neither Dr Godfrey nor his lawyers were directly involved in the closure of the Outcast site.)

Having said that, the first report of the CACIB case which I read, in this week's NTK, suggested that Dr Godfrey has indicated that he'd be prepared to sue UK companies which so much as host a Domain Name Service which points at sites containing an alleged libel. Since a DNS entry points to a particular IP address (in effect - he said, oversimplifying like mad - a server hosting a whole site or at least a significant portion of a site), this would imply that a UK ISP should block access to all of the new CACIB site so as to ensure that nobody could read a single allegedly libellous article.

You'll note that I keep emphasising the word "allegedly": that's because neither the Outcast web site nor the CACIB story has been found to be libellous by any court. The tactic of threatening libel suits in order to silence critics by threatening them with massive legal bills (remember, Demon only paid £15,000 in damages, but they also agreed to stump up around £230,000 to pay Godfrey's costs, and will have to find around the same amount again to cover their own libel costs) is an old trick. BBC News Online asks a very pertinent question: Would the net have stopped Maxwell? Everyone expected that the Internet would make it easier for small publishers to distribute their reports, but in fact the ability to make ISPs and web hosting sistes the "piggy in the middle" makes small publishers, who can't afford to take out insurance against libel suits or indemnify their ISPs against being sued, infinitely more vulnerable to secondhand legal pressure. Will the government take steps to protect freedom of speech on the Internet by amending the law to make it clear that ISPs are not the publishers of libellous material, or will it be happy to see the Internet turned into a shopping mall where nobody says anything nasty about anyone and we're all free just so long as we want to go shopping?
Continuing with that Internet-as-shopping-mall theme, the Online Journalism Review carries a scathing account of a presentation given by AOL's Senior Vice-President and General Manager, Jonathan Sacks, about online news. Basically, he made no apologies about the fact that AOL carries no original news stories whatsoever, and claimed that AOL sees the integration of news stories and opportunities to shop as its key mission.One part of me is pleased that he's at least open about his company's total lack of anything resembling journalistic integrity, because it should alert anyone who is interested in reading high quality news reporting to go elsewhere.

I know one of the big arguments against AOL is that they're so dominant in the US Internet access market that they have an enormous ability to distort the news received by the average online American by virtue of their editorial choices, but the way I see it is that as long as they allow users to access other news sites via the Web the only users who will soak up the AOL view of the world are those who are too lazy to look a step or two further for alternative news sources. I mean, how hard is it to bookmark a couple of news sites so as to get a little perspective on the news of the day?
Ask Jesus. I know it's not the first site to pull this trick, but it's still a good one. [Via NTK]
Home is where you're comfortable, not where you're born. That's the argument of Pico Iyer, who writes in Prospect Magazine about his experience of living in Japan and observing the similarities between modern Japanese culture and that of the England of his youth. [Via Bifurcated Rivets]
Blake's 7: The Movie is in development, according to a report at BBC News Online. I really can't see this happening, whatever enthusiasm there might be for the idea on the part of the producer. I know the show has a cult following, but then so did The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy and we've been treated to stories about various Hollywood writers and directors lining up that project for years now. Anyway, do we really need to know what happened next? One of the best things about Blake's 7 was the ending, with Blake dead and a strong implication that the rest of the Liberator's crew was cut down in a hail of gunfire.
Friday 7 April 2000, 23:50 BST
This year's US presidential campaign has seen the Internet take a more prominent role than ever before, from John McCain's use of his site to raise funds to the Bush's campaign's purchase of a swathe of Bush-related domain names before the campaign had officially begun. In many ways, this increased attention paid to the Web has boosted the prevalent feeling that this last year or so has been the year when the Internet truly became part of the mass media. (Whether this is a good thing is a different question.) However, Nicholas Confessore suggests in The Atlantic that the new wave of politics-related web sites, with their ability to disseminate detailed information about candidates' political positions and voting records, aren't likely to make any real change in the way politics works. He argues that in political web sites "content" - ie the politicians and their views - is king, and that the popularity of John McCain's web site had more to do with his distinctly old-fashioned biography (war hero, prisoner of war, long-serving senator) than his use of new technology to harness the support he received. In Confessore's view, as long as the system keeps throwing up uninspiring candidates no amount of web sites will improve participation rates.
Who Wants To Top The Charts? Please God, no!
In the wake of the DoJ-Microsoft suit, there's a fair amount of pro-market, non-interventionist sentiment, demonstrating a touching faith in the ability of the market to combat monopolistic practices. Salon has a fascinating critique of what is rapidly becoming the accepted wisdom in this area where law meets economics, both pointing out that intervention can be necessary and also dissecting the schizophrenic approach of free-marketeers whereby government intervention is bad but government intervention in the marketplace of ideas in support of monopolistic rights to exploit ideas (through the mechanisms of patent, trademark and copyright law) is a Good Thing.
Does anyone else think "Cultural Revolution?" The hysteria over teenage violence appears to be leading the United States down the path more traditionally trodden by totalitarian societies, where a culture of informants is encouraged. Judging by an essay in Feed, the Working Against Violence Everywhere campaign isn't about being socially responsible, it's about suppressing the slightest hint of nonconformist behaviour: I fully expect New Labour to introduce a British version within a matter of months.
Sixteen years in jail for stealing a Snickers bar? I don't care if this guy was a repeat offender, this is madness!
Why should purchases on the Internet be exempt from taxation? I know there are practical problems in figuring out which territory's tax regulations should apply, but I can't see why the fact that an order is placed via a modem rather than a voice call magically removes the transaction from the realm of the real world, where income from sales taxes is used to provide required goods and services. Feed (again) has a penetrating analysis of the problems inherent in the no-Internet-taxes-ever stance. In principle I'd be happy to see sales taxes reduced or eliminated, but only as part of a shift towards a more progressive tax system. If we're going to have sales taxes, they should apply to sales across the Internet too.
All I can say (echoing The Haddock Directory) is Yesssss!!!!
Thursday 6 April 2000, 23:59 BST
The Talmud and the Web don't seem on the face of it to complement one another. Indeed, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have been forbidden from using the Internet for leisure, for fear that they will fall prey to the myriad temptations on offer on the Web. However, Salon has found a growing trend for ultra-Orthodox Israelis to work in the software industry. Interestingly, the skills they learn to use in reading and interpreting the Talmud, which consists not just of a single text but of a text plus a whole series of commentaries, graphics, links between sections and other web-like features, make them well-suited to the mindset of a software engineer. To some extent this is just a particular instance of the general case that a trained, inquiring mind is better suited to engineering of all sorts than a more artistic, intuitive mindset - though in fairness, many programmers will report that they have made breakthroughs as a result of a flash of insight rather than their strictly analytical attempts to break down a problem - but it's still an interesting look at an apparently incongruous juxtaposition of the mindsets of the new and the very ancient. The article is broadly optimistic, both about the prospects of the companies it discusses which employ the ultra-Orthodox and about the wider implications of their working alongside secular Jews in a country which often seems to be torn between the two extremes of religious belief.
Over the last few years we've seen a number of mainstream films which use the tropes of fantasy and science fiction without being regarded as part of the genre: Being John Malkovich is a current example, but Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run also fit into this category. Peter Braunstein has written an essay in Feed which comments upon the trend for "domesticated sci-fi" films. I wish he'd used the term "speculative fiction" or "fantasy" rather than "science fiction" or "sci-fi," since the films he discusses make no effort to explain what causes the temporal or perceptual rifts which drive the films - in a science fiction film the characters might not find out what caused the phenomenon, but one of the concerns of the author would certainly be to explore some of the possible causes. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle had fun with this urge to explain and theorise in their novel Inferno, a retelling of Dante's tale. Their viewpoint character, a science fiction author, keeps trying to come up with convincing scientific explanations for the wonders he sees as he travels through Hell, reassuring himself that he can't really be dead (despite his remembering falling from a window while talking with fans at a science fiction convention) and must have been kidnapped by aliens or transported into some alternate reality.

I would take issue with Braunstein in one important respect: he suggests that science fiction has favoured scenarios in which the collective destiny of the human race is somehow subverted, rerouted, imperiled, or reversed. It's certainly true that there have been plenty of science fiction stories in which the entire human race, or an entire planet, is endangered, and if you're in the right mood such a tale can still provide a thrilling ride. However, since the "New Wave" of the 1960s authors have been expending at least as much effort in drawing rich, compelling studies of characters under stress as they have devising intriguing means of wiping out entire planets. Indeed, written speculative fiction, because of the much greater space for exploring a character's inner thoughts and motivations in a novel-length work compared to a screenplay, tends to offer a great deal more character development than pretty much any film in the genre you care to mention. Nevertheless, Braunstein's essay is well worth a read.
Wednesday 5 April 2000, 23:00 BST
After yesterday's big DoJ vs Microsoft announcement, today we saw the pre-appeal manoeuvring begin. The Register reported this morning that Microsoft had doubts about going along with Judge Jackson's desire that the penalties phase of the suit be settled within two months, but by later on today BBC News Online was reporting that they had agreed to try to fast-track this stage so as to clear the way for an appeal, very probably all the way to the Supreme Court. The more I read about this, the surer I am that despite the judge's damning verdict Microsoft are in the driving seat, in that they have the money to delay the final decision for quite some time yet, or to reach a settlement of the case if the DoJ decides that it wants a cosmetic victory rather than risking a long wait for a decision which is by no means certain. And all this time, Microsoft can still throw its weight around in the marketplace and acquire rival companies and make it harder to loosen its grip on the PC market.
One sign of the success of Microsoft's campaign to undermine rival browsers is articles like this Wired News story about the impending release of Netscape 6.0. (What the heck happened to Netscape 5, anyway?) I think the analysts the article quotes about how users don't care about which browser they use are only partly correct. It's true that as long as the browser they're supplied with does what they want it to many users won't mind what brand they use, but in practice the proliferation of sites which rely on the ability to download ActiveX applets, or which can't be viewed very well on an older PC because the latest browser overwhelms their PC's processor or memory capacity, is significant enough to be a noticeable problem. It doesn't help that articles like this cite statistics which imply that there are only two web browsers in the market: if, as is claimed, Internet Explorer has 65% of the market and Netscape has 35%, where does that leave Opera, iCab and Lynx? I'm not suggesting that they've anywhere near the level of market presence of the big two, but the failure of a survey to admit that these products even exists makes me wonder about the accuracy of their statistics and the quality of their sampling techniques.
If you haven't watched Jam yet, you owe it to yourself to arrange to be by your TV set on Thursday evening at 10.30pm, watching Channel 4. Chris Morris is a genius, and even though this series doesn't offer the accessible humour of The Day Today or the all-out war on media superficiality of Brass Eye it's still well worth a look. Jam looks as if it was directed by David Lynch at his creative peak and continues Morris' campaign to push the boundaries of "taste" as far as he can, then several feet beyond. If you want to know more about the man who was responsible for some of the darkest, craziest humour of the 1990s and who is clearly determined to keep disturbing the national psyche, go to Glebe's Thrift Funnel. [Via Derek Jolly, posting to uk.media.tv.misc.]
Tuesday 4 April 2000, 23:15 BST
Is this the first result of the Godfrey case? According to a report in The Guardian Netbenefit have closed down the web site of Outcast, a self-described "queer current affairs" publication, after the Pink Paper complained to the hosting company about some statements which Outcast had invited the Pink Paper to comment on prior to publication. The Pink Paper's lawyers wrote to Outcast's printers and Netbenefit and stated their intention to sue if they published libellous or defamatory comments. Netbenefit are quoted as being reluctant to have got involved in monitoring the content of the web site, but you have to suspect that their lawyers looked at Demon's fate in the Godfrey case and decided that it was cheaper and safer all round to pull the web site instead of risk defending a libel case. Outcast say that they intend to print the issue containing the statements which have upset the Pink Paper, but I suspect their chances of finding another host for their web site who will be willing to risk a libel suit are slim.

My problem with this is not that the Pink Paper are suing someone - contrary to some people's view, the Internet is not a separate universe and people should be liable for their statements. (The question of whether the English libel system itself is too strict is a whole different subject.) My argument is that in a case like this the web hosting firm or ISP is effectively forced to act as judge and jury: if Outcast didn't have an alternative means of publication (always assuming their printers don't follow Netbenefit's lead) they'd have effectively been silenced: not because they had libelled someone - that's a question of law which only a court can answer - but because they weren't rich enough to reimburse Netbenefit for any damages and costs that might be awarded against Netbenefit should they be sued by the Pink Paper. That can't possibly be in the interests of justice.
The other big legal story today is Judge Jackson's Conclusions of Law in the United States Department of Justice vs Microsoft case. A reasonable summary of the Judge's findings can be found here, and an analysis of the prospects for an appeal is here. Salon has two fascinating articles on the subject: a roundup of the reactions of various interested parties (unsurprisingly, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's response is the most content-free, a pure stream of marketing-speak and propaganda), and an article from columnist Scott Rosenberg which points out that while the appeal process continues - and there's little doubt that Microsoft will appeal, and will spend whatever it takes to delay a final verdict as long as possible - Microsoft will be able to continue to use its financial and marketing muscle to extend its influence over the marketplace. The Register adds that one more reason for Microsoft to stall as long as possible in the hope of reaching a settlement: with the possibility of a George W Bush presidency looming, they may wish to delay in the (not unreasonable) hope that the incoming team at a Bush Department of Justice will be less attracted to the idea of "structural remedies," ie dismembering the company.
After generating much excitement last month with its announcement of a flat-fee unmetered ISP service, AltaVista has finally confirmed that it will be launching a beta test version of its service next week, with a view to opening up the ISP proper after Easter. The Register points out that the AltaVista strategy seems to be to snag customers now even if it costs them a fortune, so that it can sell them broadband access of some description later. This strategy sounds wonderful, but what if a lot of the million customers who've expressed an interest in the currently announced service decide that they're happy enough with a slow unmetered service in preference to a fast but expensive ADSL or cable-based service? Wouldn't it be amusing if broadband access ended up being a minority interest?
Russ Freeman wants to help you keep track of your personal television schedule. He's interviewed in The Guardian about his company, which gives away a very useful electronic programme guide (32-bit Windows only at the moment, unfortunately) called DigiGuide which allows you to download TV schedules and highlight the programmes you're interested in.
Sometimes newspapers will go to great lengths to drag the Internet into an article. The Guardian ran a perfectly sensible article about the attempts by the author of The Turner Diaries to promote his virulent brand of bigotry and race hate by publishing his book, buying a record company which specialises in "vicious hatecore" music and running a web site. It's a well-written article and covers all the obvious bases, but suddenly in the last three paragraphs the author takes a sharp turn rightwards and warns that this isn't just an academic question, because the Internet now allows British citizens to order the various white supremacist publications which the author offers. Not that he's actually tried ordering them himself, or even cited instances where American race-hate literature has been imported. He just thought we should know that the Internet makes all those horrible things he's been talking about for the preceding 500-odd words available over here. The article's title: Gospels of hate that slip through the net. No mention that the Internet could equally well be used to spread anti-racist materials, no suggestion that the Internet gives equally extensive opportunities to left wing organisations to disseminate their views. No acknowledgement of the fact that British racists are quite capable of thinking up their own unpleasant ideas. Just suggest that the fact that the Internet can be used to spread bad words is a very Bad Thing and a danger to racial harmony in the UK. Pah!
Monday 3 April 2000, 23:00 BST
Sorry, no update for 2 April: I whiled away my evening watching Star Trek Voyager and having a 2¾ hour ICQ chat. Thank goodness for weekend phone rates!
The fuss over the DeCSS DVD decoding software highlighted how keen the Linux community was to be able to play DVDs under their chosen operating system. As you'd expect, one of the Content Scrambling System licensees has come along and announced that they will be producing a legal DVD playing suite for Linux. Wired News reports that InterVideo plan to publish an API so that programmers can alter the player's user interface, but the CSS and Dolby decoding modules of their software will remain a black box. I think that regionalisation of DVDs is a terrible idea, but as long as we're stuck with it making it possible to play DVDs using as many platforms as possible is probably the best way forward.
Wired News reports that Japanese local and national government agencies are considering testing a GPS-based system for keeping track of older citizens in case they stray, so that a concerned relative can locate their aged parent on a computerised map. Given a growing elderly population this idea has some merit, but what strikes me is that this idea illustrates nicely the difference in attitudes to privacy in Japan compared to that in the West. Can you imagine the fuss if someone suggested making this sort of product available via the government in the States?
The DNA double helix is one of the most evocative images in modern science. This site has some lovely ray-traced images of DNA, with some very nice artistic effects added. My favourite is probably a picture of DNA-as-a-paperweight. [Via User Friendly's Link Of The Day feature]
Wired News also reports on the recent decision in the States that deep linking is legal even between competitors, based on a court case which was resolved in favour of the ability of Tickets.com to link to specific pages within the TicketMaster web site. The article acknowledges that to longtime web users this outcome seemed the only sensible one, but then the reporter goes on to quote a suggestion by an "IP legal rights consultant" that commercial sites may turn the web into a sea of isolated sites by insisting that deep linkers pay a licence fee for the privilege, citing the examples of Microsoft's now-defunct Sidewalk site (which was originally sued by TicketMaster because of similar behaviour to that which led to the Tickets.com suit, until Microsoft agreed a licensing deal and the case was settled) and eBay's recently announced licensing deal with AuctionWatch, which also allowed the latter site to deep link into eBay's site. Maybe I'm missing something, but surely if the precedent set in this judgement is not overturned the sites won't be able to use copyright as leverage in order to force other sites to pay licensing fees in return for permission to deep link? Unless someone can find non-copyright grounds for barring deep linking, or this judgement is reversed on appeal, isn't this the end of the story (at least in the States - obviously a British court wouldn't be bound by this decision)? Or am I missing something really obvious here?
Keith Dawson has been writing the excellent Tasty Bits from the Technology Front newsletter since 1994. Somehow I missed the fact that he's also writing a weekly column for Boston.com's DigitalMASS. His thoughtful columns on such varied subjects as the history and significance of the HTTP 404 Error Code and the recent pressure from the US government to end Internet anonymity are well worth a read. [Via TBTF, obviously]
Following on from the "musicians strike back" anti-Napster article a few days ago in Salon, Scott Rosenberg has penned a fervent riposte suggesting that the musicians are just putting their heads in the sand and hoping the technological revolution will pass them by. He's at least candid enough to acknowledge that the self same "information just wants to be free, and technology's going to help it" tidal wave will affect the distribution of his journalism in time, but I still think that he, like the other proponents of the use of Napster to distribute copyrighted material as well as new material expressly intended for the public domain, is being unrealistic. True, home taping didn't kill the music industry. But home taping doesn't make perfect copies of the originals, and the distribution of home tapes on a global scale may be possible but it's a hell of a lot harder than putting a few files on a web site or distributing them using Napster. Rosenberg has also fallen for the fallacy that there's some sort of historical inevitability about the current wave of technology using the Internet to change the rules of information economics: it may not be possible for the music industry (and, once bandwidth increases enough to make it feasible to pirate films on a large scale, the film industry) to stamp out Napster, but it can sure as hell sue anyone trying to steal its intellectual property on a large scale. I can see nothing wrong with unsigned acts using the Internet to distribute their work and make a name for themselves, but I don't see why copyright law should be suspended just because technology makes it easier to pass off someone else's intellectual property.
Do you ever download a web page to read later, only to find that you can't remember the original URL? If so, InjectURL is the program for you. It will add a comment detailing the original URL of a saved web page and/or add a hyperlink to the top of the page. The one drawback I've found so far is that it doesn't work reliably with Opera, but if you're using Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator this is an essential download. Oh yes, and it's freeware.

Observant readers may be wondering why it's OK to copy web pages, but not to copy music (see above). Well, the musicians who object to their work being distributed didn't intend it to be used or distributed over the Internet, whereas I believe that it's implicit in making a web page available without charge and with no form of password authentication required that it's OK to store it offline for personal study only. I wouldn't pass on the content of a web page which I'd paid for (as I occasionally have when I've paid to download a story from a newspaper archive), or one which the author had explicitly marked as "not for open distribution" by protecting with a password. All this utility really does is make it easier to pass on the URL of a page to an interested party (and after all, often the page may have been updated since I downloaded it, so giving interested parties the URL is a lot better than letting them have a stale web page's contents anyway.)
Disaster in space. I wonder how much success they'd have had contacting Microsoft's helpline? "You're calling from what area code?"

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