Category: Technology and Regulation

The effort to create a top-level domain suffix for adult Web sites has failed, for the third time (HT: X3). ICANN voted 9-5 to defeat the proposal, which was roundly opposed by an unlikely alliance of religious groups and the adult entertainment industry.

The proposal would have created a new “.xxx” suffix that would have allowed voluntary participation of adult content providers. Many in that line of work are concerned that such a voluntary program could become mandatory, “pushing them into a so-called online ghetto.”

Religious groups are concerned that such a voluntary program would simply legitimate pornographic content on the Web without effectively segmenting objectionable content from the rest of the Internet.

We’ve talked before about options for self-regulation that could function well in place of a dedicated domain suffix, such as an NSFW (not safe for work) HTML attribute.

But as long as the “.xxx” domain proposal includes a voluntary “opt-in” for adult sites, don’t expect the unlikely alliance of religious activists and pornographers to dissolve.

I’ve discussed previously the complex interrelationships between the next-generation gaming consoles and hi-def DVD formats, especially as complicated by the pornification of culture and technology.

So far I’ve focused on the battle between Sony’s PS3 (paired with the Blu-ray format) and the Xbox 360 (paired with the HD-DVD format), and argued that the hi-def formats rather than the porn industry itself would act as a decisive influence.

In an recent Newsweek article, Brian Braiker conclusively exposes the vacuous nature of the often highly exaggerated claims about the influence of the porn industry on technology (HT: Constitutionally Correct). He rightly wonders,

If people aren’t buying adult DVDs in the numbers the “official” estimates suggest—and, in fact, if cable and free online porn is driving the demand for physical product even lower—how does it make sense that porn will be the deciding factor in the battle for supremacy between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats?

It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why the “conventional wisdom” about the power of porn needs to be questioned. And there’s more and more reason to suppose that Blu-ray is beginning to turn the tide against HD-DVD, even though the latter is far more porn-friendly. New plans have also been announced about the release cheaper Blu-ray players from Funai Electric Co. Ltd and from Sony later in 2007, increasing the low-end competitiveness of the format.

There’s a good debate on video about the format wars here, which also addresses the question of porn’s influence. Tom Arnold, editor at Hollywood Reporter, raises the observation that neither format can win as long as both are readily available. In this way, the format wars can really be seen to mirror the “cola wars” of the 80′s between Pepsi and Coke. If the market is large enough, perhaps it can support multiple formats, brands, or flavors. Arnold also said, “Porn is not the driver.”

But beyond the issue of the influence of porn on the format war, and its indirect impact on the next-gen console conflict, the dichotomy of the PS3 vs. Xbox 360 also needs to be adjusted. The fact is that Nintendo’s Wii is an important and powerful player in the console gaming market. This despite the accusations leveled by some that the Wii is not truly “next-gen” because it displays at 480p resolution (which qualifies only as “enhanced” and not “high” definition). But this past February saw the Wii dominate both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 in sales.

So, assuming that the Wii doesn’t suffer from the attempt by a Christian group to label it a “portal to porno” because of the potential to access adult content through its connection to the Internet, the next-gen console contest is officially a three horse race.

Internet access is a feature shared by the other next-gen consoles too, and despite the rather unfriendly response from the gaming community to ThePornTalk.com’s message, I see it as a praiseworthy and well-meant attempt to inform parents about the reality of technological advances. It certainly is true parents often are unaware of the potential content and capabilities of game consoles.

Google recently announced that it has purchased the Trendalyzer software from Gapminder, a Swedish non-profit (HT: Slashdot). Trendalyzer is the brain-child of professor Hans Rosling, who was lecturing on international development “when it struck him that statistics were an underexploited resource, often presented in an incomprehensible fashion. To solve the problem he developed – along with his son – a new kind of software.”

One interesting aspect of this purchase is that the software’s inventor won’t profit from its sale, since it was run under the auspices of a non-profit and was financed by public money. “It’s not an operating business that was sold, just the software and a web site. Although I would gladly accept that kind of money,” said Rosling.

To see the software in action, see the video of a lecture given by Rosling in February of 2006. Don’t just pay attention to the software, however. Rosling has some pretty important observations about how the West views the “developing” world.


Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 19, 2007

The nearly decade-long battle between the European Union and Microsoft took another turn earlier this month, as the EU Commission offered a fresh threat to Microsoft: Submit to our demands or face stiff new penalties. The item at issue is an aspect of the 2004 ruling against Microsoft, in which “the Commission fined Microsoft and ordered it to provide its competitors with information allowing them to develop workgroup server software interoperable Windows desktop operating system.”

That ruling is still under appeal in a Luxembourg court, but the Commission is pushing Microsoft to comply with the original terms of the decision before that appeal is resolved. The EU has given Microsoft until the beginning of April to comply.

The crux of the Commission’s argument is that the interoperability information that Microsoft holds is not sufficiently innovative to be protected as intellectual property, and therefore should be released free-of-charge to competitors. But as Ronald A. Cass rightly asks, “how can such critical information, which is not readily discovered by others, also be deemed obvious and of limited value?”

The fact that Microsoft has licensed Quest Software under its European Work Group Server Protocol Program shows that there is value in the information, such that according to Quest the agreement will allow it “to expand upon its innovative interoperability solutions for customers working across heterogeneous server environments, such as UNIX and Linux.”

Jim Prendergast, executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership, responded to the EU Commission’s threats by saying, “These actions are a de facto trade barrier for American companies who must continue to meet a higher standard of regulation across Europe.”

Again, Cass notes that the decision of the Commission’s antitrust office, headed by Neelie Kroes, “suggests that trade secrets (information that is not disclosed and not patented) are by definition without innovative content — and therefore unworthy of any significant fee.”

A WSJ editorial concurs and criticizes this move because it arrogates the authority of determining the validity of patents in addition to all its other claimed powers: “Brussels no longer acts as merely prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in antitrust cases; it now claims the power to assess the worth of patents, too.”

What are some of the potential motivations for the EU Commission to take such steps? They are numerous. A giant corporation can be easily seen as a source of significant cash. The fines levied by the EU Commission could total more than $1 billion.

Then there is the perennial government instinct to expand the scope of its own powers. The Commission apprently bristles at any restriction of its authority.

Cass intimates that there is a larger trade issue at work. That is, EU officials want to put American companies at a competitive disadvantage by erecting “a de facto trade barrier.”

But there may be another aspect to this. Many EU governments are adopting open-source operating systems as cost-cutting moves. So, for instance, France announced late in 2006 that it would be moving from Microsoft to Linux (they recently decided on the Ubuntu distribution). The French government “believes it can save money using open-source software, despite the near-term costs of switching from Microsoft systems and retraining all employees.”

But those cost-savings could be hampered by Microsoft charging licensing fees for server interoperability. Novell has even noted that given the whole structure of licenses, fees, and costs associated with open-source software, “Microsoft is cheaper than Linux.”

Could the EU Commission be taking such an active role in reducing the costs of running Linux in order to reduce the costs paid by the constituent governments? That seems like a major potential conflict of interest and gives good reason to question the objectivity of the Commission in these cases. And if this is the case, it falls to the EU courts to uphold the integrity and objectivity of the rule of law in deciding Microsoft’s appeal.

According to published reports, China is planning on adding new censorship regulations covering blogs and webcasts (HT).

President Hu Jintao says the government needs to take these steps to “purify” the Internet, leading to “a more healthy and active Internet environment,” according to the Xinhua news agency.

Estimates put the number of Internet police manning the “Great Firewall of China” at 30,000-40,000. To see if those cops are looking at a particular website, test it at GreatFirewallOfChina.org.

You can also check out more details about the global spread of Internet censorship, “practised by about two dozen countries and applied to a far wider range of online information and applications,” in this FT story, “Web censorship spreading globally.” China is described as one of 10 “pervasive blockers,” and it seems that countries that are new to the censorship racket are “learning from experienced practitioners such as China and benefiting from technological improvements.”

Update: Apparently not having learned its lesson from the China debacle, which Sergey Brin called “a net negative,” this from Slashdot: “Google Aids Indian Government Censorship.”

Have you heard about Logos Bible Software? Here’s a bit about the founding of the company from the February NewsWire update (and on their blog here): “A couple of young Microsoft programmers with their entire careers of high-pay and lucrative Microsoft stock options ahead of them, dropped everything to join a partner and risk it all on pursuing their dream.”

The story continues: “They weren’t satisfied with using their skills to help businessmen have access to the latest and greatest in technology just so they could be more productive or do better in business…

They wanted more.

They wanted to use those same skills to help God’s people in every walk of life have better access to the treasures of God’s Word.

They wanted to use the latest and greatest in technology to create tools for taking people deeper into Bible study than they ever thought possible.”

Logos Bible Software is the tool of choice for many seminaries, including my own school, Calvin Theological Seminary. I continue to be impressed with the range and quality of the products offered by Logos. There clearly is a commitment to providing research tools that are relevant and highly powerful, tailored to theologians, pastors, and laypersons alike.

I’m especially a fan of their pre-pub system, which allows users to express interest in future products and get them at a discount, while giving the company an idea of the viability of a particular offering. For instance, check out pre-pub offering of the full 14 volumes of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. They’re now doing for Barth’s Dogmatics what they’ve done previously for Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, Luther’s Works, and Hodge’s Systematic Theology.

And now, Logos Bible Software has been named a finalist for the prestigious “Consumer Product of the Year” award given by the WSA, a technology and trade organization. The latest iteration of Logos’ premiere software, Logos Bible Software 3, is up for the award.

If you’re not familiar with Logos, check them out. To be sure, there are some other useful (and less costly) options out there, such as the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. But the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit and the God-centered commitment of the folks at Logos have combined to create a research tool well worth consideration.

If you are familiar with Logos, you can voice your support by voting for Logos Bible Software as the “Community’s Choice” winner at the WSA (it will be up to the official judges to award the “Consumer Product of the Year” honor).

If you would like to show your support, simply create an account and vote for Logos Bible Software.

You will have to create an account here.

Next, vote for Logos Bible Software here.

Last month Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced legislation from the previous Congress, this time as the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007, or GOFA (HT: Slashdot). According to the commentary on Slashdot, “GOFA would create a U.S.-government-designated list of ‘Internet restricting countries’ and would in most cases prohibit U.S.-based companies from censoring content or turning over users’ information to the governments of those countries.”

This law directly affects the situation of companies like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN who have been pretty roundly criticized for their practices in markets like China. Awhile back I discussed the complexity of these kinds of situations, attempting to recast the discussion within the context of this question: “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?”

Rep. Smith has repeated the oft-heard criticisms: “By helping dictators stifle free speech and spy on dissidents, American IT companies are putting profits before principles.” The Slashdot commentary notes that the major impact of the legislation is not likely to come in the area of censorship of Internet sites, but rather “where the law could make a difference is in the prohibition against turning over users’ personal data to law enforcement in censoring countries.” The piece also outlines why U.S. Internet companies might actually endorse such regulation, since it would give them bargaining power in negotiations with oppressive regimes.

Meanwhile, Google exec Sergey Brin has admitted that their policy of censoring web searches in accord with the demands of the Chinese government was ‘a net negative’ for their business, given the critical reaction from Western consumers and damage to the company’s reputation (HT: Slashdot).

Of course, given Google’s massive profit in 2006, including a fourth quarter near-tripling, the company can probably handle some short term negatives. And there’s speculation that Google’s growth may be a little too “hot” and so perhaps the fallout from Google’s practices in China, a net negative as it may be in itself, has done the company some good. After all, Google has now got a toehold in a hugely developing market.

Still, foreign companies have not been hugely successful so far in competition with domestic Internet companies in China, “partly because of regulatory restrictions that favor homegrown companies, but also because foreign companies often do not understand China’s Internet market, which is geared primarily to entertainment and mobile phones.”

What is clear is that the rise of economic freedom in China presents a multi-faceted challenge to the West to show how economic, religious, and political freedom are interwoven. Calvin College has received a $2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to educate Chinese scholars about “how philosophy, science, morality, economics and religious belief have interacted in the West.”

Other efforts are trying to include concerns about religious freedom within the broader context of human rights. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom is advocating that the U.S. government use the economic leverage represented by the Olympic Games, which come to China in 2008, to “pressure Beijing into reforming” its human rights practices (HT: ENI).

Joseph Loconte, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes in an extended essay in the current issue of Christianity Today, that “evangelicals could lobby for the creation of a U.S. Commission on Human Rights, in the same way they rallied in the 1990s for a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Perhaps adoption of the GOFA would be one small step in showing China just how the West views the relationship between freedom in various spheres of human activity.

Following up on my musings about the potential for the PlayStation 3 to position itself as the “family friendly” next-gen gaming system because of its on-board Blu-ray drive, it looks like Blu-ray is closing the gap on HD-DVD (HT: Slashdot):

VideoScan’s numbers indicate that during the seven days between Jan 7 and Jan 14, Blu-ray managed to close the gap of total discs sold since inception with HD DVD by over seven percentage points, suggesting that if the current trend continues, the two formats could be at disc sales parity within weeks.

And in news that might make the PS3 even more competitive, a senior exec at Sony said that “further slashing prices may be in store for the just-launched video game machine” (HT: Slashdot).

But the latest development is rather more disappointing. An enterprising and tenacious pornographer has found a way around Sony’s adult content ban by finding a Blu-ray replicator willing to copy their discs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 30, 2007

“ICANN Reviews Revoking Outdated Suffixes” (HT: Slashdot).

From the piece, “The Soviet Union’s ‘.su’ is the leading candidate for deletion.” A Google search turns up about 3 million sites with the .su suffix.

How exactly did the Soviet Union get a domain suffix? The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and wasn’t yet highly commercialized. But it seems that the administrative record for the .su suffix was created just in time, on September 19, 1990, a little over a year before the formal dissolution of the union on December 8, 1991.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 25, 2007

They say that technology drives culture (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”

Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,

Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.

Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.

Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?

McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.

But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.

“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”

At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.

We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?