29 January, 2012



Twitter database reveals the 4,411 takedown notices it received last year

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 04:40 PM PST

Martial artist takedownTwitter has been tap-dancing around foreign governments’ demands to remove tweets, as VentureBeat’s Jennifer Van Grove reported this week. Now the company has made public the 4,411 takedown notices Twitter has received in the U.S. under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

You can read the text of these notices, dating back to November, 2010, on Chilling Effects, a website dedicated to collecting and analyzing legal notices that affect online users and publishers. The sheer volume of notices averages out to almost 10 per day.

Most of the requests, as Ars Technica reports, come from copyright holders asking Twitter to remove links to pirated content. The notices are a provision of the DMCA, which gives website operators like Twitter a “safe harbor” from being held liable for copyright infringement, provided that they remove the offending links or content when they receive a notice like this.

Technologists and proponents of the notion that “information wants to be free” often criticize the DMCA for giving copyright holders excessive power, restricting the ability of consumers to remove copy protection technologies, for instance. This database shows that the law definitely creates a legal burden on Twitter, whose lawyers must vet every one of those requests.

On the other hand, publishing every takedown request, as Twitter has done, makes the whole process much more transparent. It also enables Twitter to continue operating more or less unfettered: As long as it deals with takedown requests in a reasonable way, it’s not responsible for policing its massive customer base, doesn’t have to install restrictive content-monitoring schemes, and doesn’t need to delete user accounts altogether.

As for Twitter’s decision to block certain tweets only in the countries that restrict them, advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (which helps run Chilling Effects) is actually supportive. “I think the proper target of people’s outrage ought to be the countries that do the censoring,” not Twitter,  EFF legal director Cindy Cohn told Ars.

Photo: Flickr/icantcu


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Microsoft goes after fake Halo 4 beta site

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 04:21 PM PST

If you get an invitation to sign up for the Halo 4 beta, don’t fall for it. The site associated with the invites, Halo4beat.net (pictured), is a fake.

Halo 4 is one of the most anticipated games of 2012 and it is expected to launch in the holidays. Spots in the beta test are likely to be coveted.

Microsoft has filed a complaint with the National Arbitration Forum to have the site permanently shut down and its domain name taken.

David Ellis, creative director of Microsoft’s 343 Industries, warned a couple of weeks ago that the page was a fake. The site reportedly shut down after that, but Microsoft is going after it anyway, since the URL used in the apparent “phishing” scam is still out there. Microsoft has to show that the domain in question was registered maliciously in order to win the case.

Last June, Microsoft bought the domain name Halo4.com for an undisclosed amount.

[screen image credit: Fusible]


Filed under: games

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Making sense of the connected TV craze

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 04:03 PM PST

Wall of TVs at the LG booth at CES 2012

Connected TV was front and center at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month: Panasonic, LG, and Sharp all shone spotlights on Internet-enabled televisions, along with just about every other TV manufacturer. MySpace even decided to resurrect itself at CES as a social-TV experience. With all of the articles, press events, parties, celebrity sightings and sheer volume of tech TV news, the full picture of “connected TV” could be easy to miss.

But now, after the dust of CES has settled and the hangovers have worn off, it is clear that connected TV, while not a new phenomenon, is poised to make major headway as 2012 progresses. Here are five pieces of the puzzle that are worth keeping an eye on this year.

Do I know you?

Personalization is the future of "smart" media. It's not just about hooking up TVs to the Internet. It's about delivering the right content to the right screen at the right time. Expect to see content that understands who we are and where we are. If the "where" is a bus stop or a train headed to work, our devices will know that we don't want to watch "The Godfather." Based on our past viewing history, we'll get served up sports highlights or a goofy YouTube clip to pass the commute time nicely. Dijit, for example, has started working on social content recommendations and integrating the viewing experience with personal social graphs. Expect smart video to learn who you are, what your routine is, and what you should be watching.

Size matters

We’re not talking about the size of the screen in your family room, either. Truly personalized video requires “big data” architecture and real-time analytics. Networks, broadcast channels, studios and cable providers will need tools that can mine through massive amounts of data and and translate that into actionable insights. Personalization is a growing trend across a number of sectors (even in law enforcement). Video publishers will gain accurate business intelligence from comprehensive analytics that go beyond market samples, charts and graphs to help maximize revenue and guide strategic ad placement.

The paradox of choice

All of the news from CES lends credibility to the obvious: We're about to see a lot more content in many more places. And while unlimited choice across a myriad of devices sounds great in theory, it can overwhelm viewers to the point of paralysis. Personalized media knows what you like to watch and lets you know what you should be watching. Hulu handing viewers the power to choose which ads they want to watch is an early step in that direction. But the need for manual input is still very crude, not to mention extremely expensive for advertisers.

Let's get our story straight

We'll need to agree on some common terminology. Television over Internet Protocol has been referred to as "connected TV," "smart TV," even "cloud TV." It shows a young, somewhat fragmented industry that has some maturing to do. And while developing a standard lexicon isn't top priority, it is important that we figure out what connected TV really is — the enablement of great, TV-quality experience delivered over IP.

Connected TV is primed for prime time

Study after study shows that connected TV is no longer an early-adopter phenomenon. According to the 2011 Consumer Usage Report published by Nielsen, nearly a quarter of people indicated plans to purchase a connected TV, while 17 percent already own one. In fact, the term "online video" is headed toward extinction. Most can agree that in the future, most, if not all video content will be consumed over IP.

But that doesn't mean they are willing to "rough it" online. Not surprisingly, our VideoMind Video Index Report found that people are viewing more long-form content on big screens. As more viewers access their favorite shows and movies online, expect more content to follow the eyeballs. With new offerings from established firms like Google and start-ups like Simple.TV, expect an online television landscape that looks a lot like TV as we know it today, only with a far greater emphasis on viewer choice, interactivity and social engagement.

Connected TV is not new, but the influx of investment — time, money, publicity and products — is pushing video toward a critical evolutionary stage. Most TVs sold today offer some means of connectivity. According to our Video Index Report, video played on connected TV devices and game consoles grew more than 200 percent in Q3 2011 alone. Advanced Television writes that 80 percent of all television units shipped in 2015 will be connected. Add BluRay players and gaming consoles to the mix and it's clear that we've reached an inflection point that will see the real winners in the market decided over the next 12-24 months.

Bismarck Lepe, OoyalaA co-founder of online video service provider Ooyala, Bismarck Lepe now drives the company’s product vision as president of products. As Ooyala’s founding CEO, Bismarck raised the company’s early funding and signed many of the company’s first media partnerships. Bismarck was previously a senior product manager for Google, where he managed the early growth of AdSense display and video advertising and launched more than 25 different Google AdSense products.

Top photo: LG’s booth at CES 2012. Photo by Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat.com

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Google choosing between advertisers and searchers. Guess who is losing?

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 03:09 PM PST

Google classic postcard imageThe first thing you need to keep in mind about Google’s business is that it’s an advertising marketplace.

The “search engine” part of Google, the part we love, is constantly under assault as Google tries to adapt and keep its business growing.

Now, with the introduction of Search Plus Your World earlier this month, Google has shown us it may believe it has enough clout that it can more or less ignore its original customers, the individuals who use search engines to find relevant content. Instead, it appears intent to focus on building its marketplace, expanding its audience, and delivering ever-better results to advertisers — even if that means degrading the experience to search engine users.

Search Plus Your World is the feature that integrates results from your social network, led by Google+, into search results. You can disable Google’s social search, but it’s on by default. Search Plus has some odd effects, such as prioritizing results from Google+, which is a tiny network compared to other, larger social networks like Facebook. Those results aren’t often especially relevant, so it looks like Google is just trying to pump up usage and pageviews for its own social network at the expense of competitors.

As VentureBeat’s Matt Marshall argued here last week, Google seems to be selling its soul. In the past, Google has always kept search engine relevancy sacrosanct, but for the first time, Google appears to be wavering on that. Search engine expert Danny Sullivan found additional fodder for this argument this week, when he found an obvious bit of (irrelevant) search engine marketing cluttering up a search he made for “santorum.”

Now a search marketing expert, Tom Blue, has discovered another bit of irrelevance: Some random post by M.G. Siegler showing up in the fourth position in a search he did for the word “television.” Siegler is a former VentureBeat writer, a minor Silicon Valley celebrity and a tech investor, but he’s certainly not the kind of worldwide expert who you’d expect to show up on the first page of results for a topic as massive as television, especially with an offhand post about a product that doesn’t exist yet. He’s also not in Blue’s circles on Google+. A search for “Christmas” put Siegler in the #2 slot.

Now, of course, there may be a logical reason Siegler is showing up in Google’s results. Many of Blue’s contacts may also be contacts of Siegler, and so Google’s algorithm may be listing Siegler as relevant to folks like Blue even if they’re not directly connected with Siegler. But the fact is, Siegler’s results aren’t relevant to Blue (as he attests in his post), and that’s where this fails. It increasingly appears this is all part of on-going experimentation by Google to tinker. To be fair, Google may be doing this quickly, to try to find a way that works better for people. But by moving quickly and not testing relevance before inserting such results so quickly, Google is opening itself up to criticism about why it’s doing this.

Greg Gorman comments, on Tom Blue’s Google+ page:

The point is, they are injecting Google+ into the results, and rather highly into the results, regardless of the relevance of that particular result. The algorithm may go something like this: search Google+ for the same search critieria, and then post the most important person’s results.

The procedure seems to be fairly straightforward: Put the Google+ result somewhere between the second and fifth position.

When I tried the same “television” search, guess who showed up in Siegler’s spot? Me. I had a similarly irrelevant post about the same nonexistent television as Siegler, but, in Google’s defense, at least I’m relevant to myself. A search for Christmas turned up a photo of some boozy Christmas gifts my friend John Abell had received, the lucky bastard.

When I tried the search again in Chrome’s incognito mode, hiding my personal information from Google, the Google+ and blog posts disappeared.

There’s some indication that Google has heard the cries of outrage, and has already started scaling back social search results, as PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy reports.

That might come too late for some. Like Mat Honan at Gizmodo, I’ve experimented with switching my default search engine to Bing, and I’ve found that its results are at least as relevant as Google’s, and often more so, given that they’re not cluttered up with marginally-useful social search results. As a bonus, you can still use the + operator in Bing searches, which is nice for a search geek like me. Also, with Bing, I can copy the URLs of search results directly from the results page, instead of having to click through to avoid Google’s nasty, long referral URLs.

The Search Plus scandal is a warning to be cautious about relying on the search results from any one provider, and it’s a reminder that, whether you use Google or Bing, you are not the primary customer.

When Google ruffles feathers by changing its search results to prioritize its own products, such as Google+, over far more popular services like Twitter and Facebook, it’s making a calculated gamble: What it stands to gain from its customers (advertisers) outweighs any goodwill it might lose among its producers (you).

Yes, you are a producer of Google’s core product. Every time you do a search on Google, watch a video on YouTube, visit a website with Google AdSense ads on it, or post an item on Google+, you’re providing the raw material that Google needs: Attention. That brief instant that your eyes sweep across the ads on this page before locking on to these very fascinating words are the ore from which Google refines its product.

Add up a billion such passing glances, plus the occasional click, organize them through a marketplace designed to help advertisers find the optimum combination of keywords and context, and Google has a hot commodity indeed. Advertising produced nearly all of Google’s $37.9 billion in 2011 revenues. The advertising contingent is led by America’s much-beloved financial industry, which contributed $4 billion to Google’s top line.

Google has already been personalizing search results, tailoring them to your location, for instance — a practice it’s maintained since 2006. Yet few people are aware of this, and I suspect even fewer care. (When I spoke to a high school journalism class in Palo Alto yesterday, none of the students knew that Google delivers different results depending on who and where you are.)

As a result, I don’t expect Google to change its behavior radically. It may scale back the number of Google+ results, and it might make some efforts to include more results from other social networks. But at the end of the day, its mission is to increase the number of people looking at Google-delivered advertisements, whether that means growing usage of its search engine, increasing the reach of its AdSense program to more websites, or driving more poeple to use Google+. Or even abandoning search altogether.

Image credit: Flickr/dullhunk

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How a teen-founded company won the Node Jam

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 11:47 AM PST

Five years ago, a fifteen-year-old student built a website; this week, the same website won the Node Jam at Node Summit, the conference focusing on all things Node.js.

Quizlet is a site you might never have heard of unless you were a teen or an educator, yourself.

The flashcard-focused site helps millions of students who need to memorize information and prepare for tests by making learning both fun and effective.

The teenage founder, Andrew Sutherland (pictured), built the product to solve a personal problem. “I was puttering along with my dad with some call-and-response type quizzing,” he wrote. “‘Man, I love doing this’ was NOT what I was thinking. So I put my thinking cap on, and the first line of code for Quizlet was written that night.”

Of course, the first line of code for Quizlet predated the creation of Node.js, the server-side JavaScript technology that’s on every developer’s fingertips these days. So we got in touch with the Quizlet team to find out why they made the switch.

“We decided to use Node because it was the best technology to enable our new multi-player learning game at our scale,” wrote Quizlet CEO Dave Margulius in an email to VentureBeat.

He explained that “at scale” for Quizlet means around 600,000 visits each day, including heavy bursts of traffic during in-class and after-school hours. All told, the site sees 6 million unique visitors each month and has been doubling in size every year since its public launch in 2007.

“[Node is] also perfect for the collaborative nature of Quizlet,” Margulius continued. “We'll be doing more and more with it. Also the innovation momentum behind node right now is really compelling.”

When we think about Node, real-time apps and games are two of the verticals that immediately come to mind — those are also two important components of Quizlet’s product.

“Our game, which involves for example a whole class creating sentences out of the same word at the same time and then rating them (with a special teacher view available too), is all real time,” wrote Margulius. “Node can support the speed and number of connections we need to make the game work with minimal latency.”

In an email with VentureBeat, Sutherland chimed in with some words of support for young would-be founders and developers.

“When I started Quizlet, I built it out of my bedroom after school and on weekends while going to high school,” he said. “With all the open source tools available, I was able to figure out the servers, the design, the database, etc. Now it’s even easier with Github and StackOverflow. So really, it’s a matter of pushing yourself.”

He also gives some advice that we’ve heard before from many successful startup founders and investors: Build tools that you, yourself would use; attempt to solve your own problems.

“I built Quizlet not because I wanted to be running my own cool startup, but because I had an idea of a tool that would be helpful to me,” Sutherland wrote. “I was Quizlet’s first user, and many of the best things on there came not from any sort of research or brainstorming, but using the product for my classes and iterating on it.

“So my advice to other students would be to just build something that’s useful and relevant to their lives, and if it’s good you might just find that it’s relevant to a lot of people. It turns out… students think [Quizlet is] a useful tool for themselves, and they tell their friends and teachers about it.”

Check out this interview with Quizlet founder Sutherland, courtesy of Joyent, the company that supports Node.js development and enterprise solutions:

Quizlet is entirely bootstraped and has “significant seven-figure revenue” from advertising and paid products, Margulius tells us.

And if you’re looking for a job, Node-ophilic devs, Quizlet is hiring. “We're in aggressive innovation and growth mode right now, hiring engineers, building several cool new products, of which the Node.js based multiplayer learning game you saw is one,” said Margulius.

Filed under: dev, VentureBeat

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What is ACTA and why are thousands of Europeans protesting it?

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 11:20 AM PST

members of parliament in Poland don Guy Fawkes masks to protest ACTAHas Europe gone mad? A trade agreement most Americans have never heard of has sparked outrage and protests across the pond.

Twenty-two of the European Union’s 27 member states signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) in Tokyo on January 26. In response, thousands of Poles marched in the streets, members of Poland’s parliament donned Guy Fawkes masks, and a member of the European Parliament quit in protest.

By contrast, when U.S. President Barack Obama signed the ACTA treaty on behalf of the U.S. on October 1, 2011, few in this country noticed. But when a somewhat similar bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), entered Congress the following month, it spurred massive opposition that culminated in a worldwide internet protest on January 18. SOPA is now all but dead, while ACTA lives on.

So what is ACTA and why are some people so upset about it? Let’s take a look.

What is ACTA?

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is an international treaty aimed at giving countries the ability to stop copyright infringement and other forms of intellectual property theft. It’s meant to create an international legal framework so that different countries can work with one another more cooperatively. You can read the full text of ACTA (.pdf).

Why are Europeans upset?

One major reason is that the countries that have signed ACTA conducted negotiations largely in secret. The European Parliament was not fully involved and citizens of the signing countries were not consulted. The French member of the European Parliament who quit, Kader Arif, issued a furious statement objecting to ACTA, according to ZDNet UK:

I want to denounce as the greatest of all the process that led to the signing of this agreement: no association of civil society, lack of transparency from the beginning of negotiations, successive postponements of the signing of the text without any explanation being given, setting aside the claims of the European Parliament [despite those views being] expressed in several resolutions of our Assembly. … This agreement may [have a] major impact on the lives of our citizens, and yet everything is done [so that] the European Parliament has no say. I will not participate in this charade.

What about the U.S.?

Senator Ron Wyden objected to Obama’s signing of ACTA on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional for a President to sign a treaty without the consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Obama did not consult the Senate, so there are some grounds for thinking that ACTA is not a legitimately-signed treaty.

What powers does ACTA give copyright holders?

The governments signing on to ACTA have pledged

  • to give copyright holders a way to request personal information about suspected infringers from ISPs (with a warrant),
  • to give copyright holders legal means to pursue people suspected of circumventing copyright protection or DRM technologies,
  • to seize goods at their borders if they’re suspected of containing infringing content.

In addition, ACTA gives rights holders the ability to collect damages equal to the market value of the infringing content. In other words, if you copy an album that sells for $15 or a game that goes for $50, that’s how much you owe.

What else has got people upset?

Unlike U.S. copyright law or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, ACTA includes no fair use provisions. For instance, the DMCA lets people subvert copy-protection technologies in order to make personal backups, and copyright law in general allows exceptions for copies made for educational or scholarly use. ACTA has no such provisions. As an international treaty, it’s meant to supersede national law — which brings us back to the question, in the U.S., of whether this is a legitimately ratified treaty.

If I’m not pirating music, I don’t have to worry, right?

Not really. ACTA also applies to patents, and might criminalize possession of otherwise legal generic “grey market” drugs, if you happen to be passing through a country where those drugs are still  under patent. It could also impose obligations on customs and border patrol agents to determine whether material infringes intellectual property: Imagine how that might work when you’re flying into a new country or driving across the border from Canada.

To learn more, read Mike Masnick on TechDirt and M. Scott Fulton on ReadWriteWeb.


Filed under: VentureBeat

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Pass the popcorn: Y Combinator startup caught stealing from 37signals

Posted: 28 Jan 2012 11:08 AM PST

Here’s some developer drama for your Saturday morning: Curebit, a Y Combinator startup that just closed a round of funding from Dave McClure’s 500 Startups fund, has been caught red-handed stealing HTML code, images, and the like from 37signals.

37signals, for those of you not familiar with the inner workings of the machine we call the Internet, is a web shop founded by Ruby on Rails creator DHH (short for David Heinemeier Hansson) and Jason Fried.

In terms of UI leadership and thought leadership, especially around startups, it is without doubt one of the more influential brain trusts in the web community.

In other words, not the most low-profile place from which to nab a little “inspiration.”

Evidence shows that not only did the Curebit team copy 37signals; they’re serving some assets right from 37signals’ original site. Click the images to see larger versions:

Check out these designs, code, and assets from Highrise, a 37signals product, and from Curebit:

In a Hacker News comment thread, one of the Curebit founders insists the whole thing was a big mistake — the team was just testing and slipped, fell, and landed on 37signals’ work.

“Were A/B testing different pages, came across the 37signals post, and were like, ‘Wow, we should see how that converts!’” wrote Curebit co-founder Allan Grant.

“We… did not really think through the implications of what we were doing. We just kind of thought about it as a fun test to run.

“Clearly it was stupid.”

Yes, clearly.

Ironically, a 6-month-old blog post from 37signals about A/B testing reads, “What works for us may not work for you. Please do your own testing. Your conversion rates may suffer if you copy us.”

Your conversion rates or, you know, your credibility and integrity and the ability to have lunch in Silicon Valley ever again.

On Twitter, some of the Internet’s more colorful personalities are currently battling it out in a war of colorful words. After the discovery, DHH called the Curebit team “fucking scumbags” and Grant himself “a person of poor moral character.”

Grant fired back with a series of defensive tweets, finally telling DHH, “It’ll all be ok. Chill dude.” Probably not the best response to a famously irascible and fairly prominent character. Dude.

DHH then unleashed on Grant, saying, “I can’t believe you keep digging. For every [asinine] excuse, you’re making the original act an order of magnitude worse.

“There is no valid way to rip off people’s designs and have it be ok. Not ‘We’re small;’ not ‘We’re A/B testing.’”

To McClure, the startup’s leading investor in a recent $1.2 million round of funding, DHH writes, “Yo, is your money no good at Curebit? Because it doesn’t seem to be able to buy them decency or designers.”

McClure says he is “speaking to [Grant] about it.”

We’re willing to file this story under “lean startup wankery,” folks. Founders, take note: No matter how many corners you cut and no matter how small your team is, you still have to spend time and money on development and design. Yes, even when you’re testing. Otherwise, you will be publicly spanked and have your startup card revoked by some BDFL or other.

Filed under: dev, VentureBeat

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