Category: Technology and Regulation

Via Slashdot, news comes today that Google’s next shareholders meeting will feature a vote on a shareholder resolution to protect free speech and combat censorship by intrusive governments.

According to the proxy statement, Proposal Number 5 would require the recognition of “minimum standards,” including, that “the company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures,” and that “the company will not engage in pro-active censorship.”

Part of the basis cited for the proposal is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

One of the specific provisions of the declaration related to freedom of speech is Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It’s pretty clear that China’s censorship practices, which include a so-called “great firewall,” violate this provision.

I’m curious to see how this resolution fares and how the directors, especially considering that Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said that the company’s cooperation with China “a net negative.” External considerations might also be at play, given the potential for legislation like the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 to regulate the activities of companies like Google.

Socrates in some sense has come full circle. In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Central Florida in Orlando have received a grant to create life-like virtual representations of historical figures, with whom students can interact, dialogue, and inquire (HT: Slashdot).

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio and video footage,” said Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science and director of UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. Leigh is UIC’s lead principal investigator.

This project seminally resembles the technological world depicted by Robert Silverberg in his mid-80′s novella, Sailing to Byzantium. In that work set in the 50th century, Silverberg’s characters travel to variously themed reconstructions of cities, complete with interactive simulacra of historical or mythological figures.

The UIC/UCFO project will focus on creating digital “avatars,” who mimic the mannerisms and characteristics of the persona they represent: “Leigh said his team hopes to create virtual people who respond with a high degree of recognition to different voices and the various ways questions are phrased.”

Some commentators wonder if the concept has commercial appeal. Judging from the popularity of the cities in Silverberg’s novella, I would certainly think so.

But what is more striking is how a project like this provides an answer, albeit one that is incomplete, to the conundrum of communication posed by Socrates himself so long ago.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the following critical observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

We now have within our sight a superficial answer to Socrates’ critique; these avatars will presumably be able to know “to whom they should reply,” and “to whom not.” Indeed, the simulacra might be able to give more than “one unvarying answer.”

But I think in some ways this simply sharpens rather than dismisses Socrates’ criticism. Will these avatars, in spite of the technological achievement of interactivity, fundamentally represent anything more than the illusion of intelligence, or “the attitude of life”? Whence comes the dynamism and spontaneity of human rationality, willing, and consciousness? Is it possible to truly recreate such things by means of “artificial intelligence”?

John Berthoud of the National Taxpayers Union has a piece in today’s Washington Examiner about the battle between Microsoft and the European Commission. Berthoud writes that it is part of a larger “anti-American” program, and “another example of old-guard European protectionism.”

Berthoud writes, “The EC’s actions against Microsoft are not isolated. It has acted against other American businesses as well. For instance, in 2001 the EC blocked General Electric’s planned acquisition of Honeywell. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Charles A. James said at the time that the EC’s decision ‘reflects a significant point of diversion’ with U.S. American antitrust regulators.”

It’s true that Microsoft isn’t the only target, although it is the one of the biggest and perhaps the most significant in the digital realm. It seems that any American company that successfully innovates and offers a valuable product can be threatened by EU regulators. The Commission has launched an investigation against Apple for potential violations of EU law, by selling music for different prices in different countries.

Berthoud gives the following advice to the EU, “Rather than try to stifle American innovation, perhaps Europe should focus more on encouraging homegrown entrepreneurial advances to vie with U.S companies.”

But it seems pretty clear that in the case of operating systems and software, the EU has chosen its horse to favor: open source. Next week we’ll examine some of the claims of superiority that might be influencing the EU’s adoption of open source software.

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.


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.