The True Intent of SOPA

The Great Firewall of China has been an inapt metaphor for the entirety of its existence. Its purpose is to keep its citizens in rather than to keep invaders out like the original Great Wall. Some will point to its exclusion of non-Chinese companies from the Chinese web space, but ultimately, the government was more than willing to play ball with those who were willing to compromise. The only thing the Great Firewall has in common with the Great Wall, is that they were both built to protect the builders.

Reasons Claimed by SOPA Proponents

The Great Firewall of America is no different. It is being built by the people who would benefit most from its construction. Just take a look at the witness list at the House hearing for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA or H.R. 3261). 5 of the 6 witness list are outspoken advocates for SOPA. Most notable is Michael O’Leary, Senior Executive Vice President of Global Policy and External Affairs for the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). During the course of the hearings, O’Leary made multiple fallacious claims that googling names of movies such as “J. Edgar” or “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” would return pirated versions of the movie. According to O’Leary, this link will show you lists of pirated versions of the movie. I’ll let you judge for yourself the veracity of his claim.

Many in support of the SOPA bill will claim that enforcement would be balanced and fair. They would claim that I am exaggerating the effects of the SOPA bill through hyperbole. During the course of the hearing, Michael O’Leary not only showed support for SOPA, but stated that “the Internet isn’t broken” in places like China and Iran. Wait. Isn’t China the home of some of the worst copyright infringement in the world? O’Leary’s statement must be made from either pure ignorance or to fallaciously support legislation that is not truly intended to protect against copyright infringement. When countries notorious for human rights abuse are held up as successful Internet models, it’s quite apparent that the Great Firewall of America is an apt name for the SOPA construct.

Let’s look at other potential motivations for SOPA. While the name of the bill certainly seems reasonable and desirable, how big of a problem is online piracy? The MPAA published this document about piracy in America. If you analyze their claim that there are $58 billion in losses per year from piracy and that 13% of all adults have pirated, you’ll find that the MPAA claims that your average downloader should be buying 200 more DVD’s a year. Lest we forget, the MPAA has a history of using hyperbole to defend its own interests. In his 1982 testimony, Jack Valenti, former President of the MPAA, stated the following to Congress,

“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

Clearly the effects of the VCR on the media industry was poorly understood and greatly exaggerated by the MPAA. Videotape sales ended up being a significant new revenue stream for the MPAA for many years, even spawning the spinoff media rental industry which still exists today.

Failure to Understand the Internet as as Medium

During the hearing, it became painfully obvious that the proponents of SOPA simply do not understand the Internet as a medium. Representative Ben Quayle expressed concern that there were no successful business models that could survive without SOPA to prevent piracy. Yet services like iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon now represent some of the largest services in media representing billions in revenue every year. Furthermore, there have even recently been disruptive business models like Spotify which have been able to assert themselves in the environment that SOPA proponents claim is not possible to exist in.

It is apparent that proponents of SOPA like the MPAA are simply failing to adapt their business model as technology evolves. In the 1980’s, the MPAA fought against the VCR claiming concerns over about copyright violations. In the 2010’s, the MPAA is fighting against the Internet as a medium. The difference is, this time the stakes are much higher. SOPA’s scope extends far beyond alleged piracy. It creates a web environment almost identical to that of China that restricts internet access, which has recently been declared a human right by the United Nations.

The True Intent of SOPA

If the most recent hearing was any indication, the proponents of SOPA are not interested in working with the technology and Internet industries to find solutions to stem online piracy. When has a fair and balanced discussion ever been held when the debate is stacked 5 to 1? Supporters of SOPA clearly do not understand the Internet as a medium and are constructing a system in which the deck is stacked in their favor. As many tech giants have pointed out, SOPA is devastating to the technology and Internet industries. How long will we suffer the claims that media giants cannot make enough money, even as they are increasing their own compensation?

The Stop Online Piracy Act is being constructed to allow a stranglehold on the American Internet. Make no mistake. Its constructors are building it with this intent in mind. Just like the Great Firewall of China, the Stop Online Piracy Act is a misnomer. Hidden behind an innocuous name, the bill’s intent is not to stem piracy as its proponents suggest, its true intent is to control the Internet itself.

Advertisements

US Bill Creating the Great Firewall of America

History of Chinese Internet Censorship

In the western world, China has long been infamous for its human rights abuses. Prior to Deng Xiaoping’s re-opening of China to the west in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, these abuses were largely hidden from the West. With the advent of globalization, the PRC quickly realized the dangers of the internet to China’s fragile societal balance. Beginning in 2005, China began enlisting Western aid in Chinese internet censorship. Western companies like Cisco and Google have long abetted the Chinese government in establishing the so-called Great Firewall of China.

As Western social media developed, the PRC quickly recognized the power of these sites and moved to restrict its citizen’s access to these web sites. While some of these actions may appear to be antitrust behavior to allow local Chinese companies a competitive edge, make no mistake that the primary reason for censorship is the ongoing restriction of information from Chinese citizens. Nonetheless, as the Chinese web has developed, Chinese ‘netizens’ actively find ways around the Great Firewall and discuss social issues around the world. Numerous free tools such as Freegate, Freenet, and Vtunnel provide solutions for Chinese netizens to access the internet in the free world. As Chinese netizens find ways around the firewall, China has continued to step up its policing of the Chinese web.

The Power of Social Media in China

Over the past few years, more and more of China’s human rights abuses have come to light through social media. Ai Weiwei’s recent incarceration and the PRC’s bullying of Ai through gigantic back tax charges has resulted in Ai Weiwei speaking out about his incarceration. Using Google+, Ai was able to communicate methods of donation to help fight back against the $2.4 million back taxes claimed by the Chinese government. According to Chinese law, in order to contest tax charges of this nature, half of the sum must be presented as  collateral. In an awe-inspiring demonstration of the power of Chinese social media, Ai’s supporters around the world have already donated more than $1 million in 2 weeks.

Despite the outpouring of support from the West, Ai Weiwei is quick to criticize Western foreign policy.

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights… With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

Unfortunately, Ai is more than correct in his assessment. Unfortunately, Western politicians’ short-sightedness extends beyond Chinese foreign policy.

Internet Censorship in the United States

On October 26, 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced in the House of Representatives. This bill aims to quell loosely defined “online piracy.” I’d like to compare SOPA to the Chinese web landscape by discussing the two major things that SOPA would do if passed.

1. SOPA allows for suspension of service prior to being found guilty

SOPA does away with the “safe harbors” defined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These safe harbors allow some degree of protection for providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Google from liability for copyright infringement. SOPA would hold any site with user-generated content responsible. In Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., it was demonstrated that big media corporations have not considered fair use in the past when issuing takedown notices. In the SOPA world, the alleged rightsholder would be able to force former safe harbors to suspend service prior to being found guilty of infringing on rights. None of the sites that rely on user-generated content would be able to survive in this environment.

While China is not as concerned with IP laws as America is, there are obvious parallels here. The major Chinese Twitter-clone, Sina Weibo, is often forced to censor information without proof of guilt. This frequently involves blocking references to activists like Ai Weiwei who are trying to express free speech. The important point to note here is that in Ai’s case, he has not necessarily been proven to be guilty of anything prior to the repression of his speech. Similarly, whether or not the rightsholders’ property is being infringed upon, the alleged infringer would have to suspend services immediately.

2. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist web sites

Under Section 102 of SOPA, the Attorney General could order American companies from doing business with any alleged infringing web site. While proponents of SOPA have avoided using the term blacklist, make no mistake. SOPA allows the US government to blacklist websites.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head yet, they should be. This is exactly what China has done with the Great Firewall. We have seen many times in China and recently in the Arab Spring that the censorship of internet is a strong component of the suppression of human rights. Recently, the UN has declared internet access a human right. SOPA would be infringing on American human rights in order to protect big media companies from infringement on their content.

Ultimately, SOPA attempts to control the American web space in the same way that the PRC suppresses human rights in China in the name of intellectual property protection. Look, at the end of the day, online piracy is a serious problem. However, SOPA is not the way to deal with it. If the DMCA needs to be revised to adjust to today’s web, then so be it. Let’s be clear here. This is not a slippery slope argument. SOPA puts in provisions that allows the US to control the internet the same way that the PRC does in China.

To  help fight this bill,

Contact your Congressmen

AND

visit americancensorship.org and show support for American Censorship Day tomorrow, November 16, 2011.

Business Negotiations – Parallels with Texas Hold’em Poker

Recent lapses in blog posting have been a result of traveling overseas. I’m currently in China participating in some high level business negotiations. As a former semi-professional online poker player, I’ve found a number of parallels between business negotiations and poker.

1. Both are games of Partial Information

At the inception of any new business relationship, there will always be some hesitancy in the sharing of information. As the relationship deepens, more and more information is shared. However, at no point will all information be shared. In both scenarios, parties playing optimally will make decisions based on a limited data set, making assumptions for information which cannot be confirmed. Poker players do this by analyzing a hand range, or a set of hands that the opponent could possibly have.

Extra information can be gained in a number of ways. In business negotiations, parties may choose to perform due diligence to gain an information advantage. Quid pro quo information exchanges can help one party gain an advantage if the information being given has less value than perceived by the other party. In poker, players may analyze previous hands to determine betting and sizing patterns, or physical tells. Poker players often engage in ‘table talk,’ the use of speech to elicit a verbal or physical reaction that may cause the opponent to unintentionally reveal information.

2. Information Valuation is essential

While the scale of the information may be different, it is crucial for successful players to understand the value of their information. In a business negotiation, falling revenue streams would be extremely valuable information that should not be relinquished easily. A poker player making a bluff certainly would not reveal his cards to his or her opponent.

Information valuation extends beyond valuation of your own assets. Parties must successfully evaluate the value of their opponent’s assets as well. This may seem obvious in business, as many deals involve extensive valuations of the other party’s assets. Poker players attempt to judge how valuable their opponent thinks their hand is.

However, this is still a very shallow view. Experienced poker players will understand not only their opponent’s valuation of their own hand, but the relative value of their chips relative to the value of their hand. Different players will have different views of chip values. Wealthier players may value their chips less than poorer players. This analyses is important for successful negotiations as well. The other party’s valuation of its own assets should be the basis of negotiations, not your own valuation of their assets. If my desire for your asset is high but your desire for your own asset is low, I would be remiss to to pay a high cost for your asset.

3. Empathy allows parties to gain more information

To fill in gaps in information, assumptions are made in unclear areas. These assumptions can be sharpened by evaluating the situation from the shoes of the other party. In both business and poker, it’s important to understand the thought processes of the other parties in order to understand how they value different assets. An obvious empathetic gain would be to understand that a drunk poker player is likely to value his chips more for their entertainment value than their monetary worth. A prudent poker player would realize that his opponent may be less risk adverse and try to give opportunities for the opponent to gamble at a lower expected value.

While drunk businessmen may be a common sight, prudent businessmen will obviously avoid situations where their judgment will be impaired. Nonetheless, crucial pieces of information can still be gained. As business negotiations deepen, parties will find themselves more and more familiar with other parties. An indication that one party may be fired if a deal does not go through is an obviously valuable piece of information that can only be gained through empathy.

4. Emotional Detachment is important to success

Human beings naturally incorporate emotions into their everyday decisions. While some are certainly more easily influenced by emotion than others, any claiming immunity from emotion in decision-making are delusional or some sort of advanced robot. In the previous discussion of empathy, the employee who may be fired if a deal does not go through should not allow this information affect his decision in the negotiations process. In the same vein, a poker player should not allow his or her anger at a previous hand to cause him to gamble out of frustration.

This emotional detachment is obviously difficult for all humans. At the poker table, there are few mechanisms that will help deal with emotional stresses.When I was playing online poker extensively, I would change my computer background to simple text such as “Relax, poor decisions will lose money in the long run.” To disconnect me from the value of the money, I would surround my monitor with sticky notes with notes like “A big blind is just a tool.” However, the most important tool by far was my network of friends, poker playing and otherwise who would provide support during runs of bad luck.

While emotional impact on business negotiations is generally more subtle, it is still important to build teams who will be capable of preventing you from allow emotion to affect your decision-making. This can only occur through the allowance of open, honest discourse. If a team member fears your wrath, he or she may neglect to alert you of a bias that you are not accounting for in your own decision-making.

Information comes through diligent research. Understanding of value comes through extensive experience. Empathy and emotional detachment however are human traits. Some are of course naturally better than others. Nonetheless, these abilities can be strengthened through practice and team-building. Ultimately, these traits must be carefully balanced. The more empathy you have for someone, the more difficult it will be to make a decision that may harm them.

While all analogies are imperfect, there are many valuable lessons which can be learned at the poker table, although they may be more expensive then they are worth.

The 100 Year Anniversary of the Republic of China and Sino-US Relationship Trends

Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the Republic of China, known to most of the western world as Taiwan. October 10th, 1911 marked the end of traditional imperial rule in China, and the first attempt at democracy. Below is a promotional video from the event (Chinese), primarily discussing the history of the ROC and associating past figures and events with the freedom and prosperity seen in Taiwan today.

Prior to the 1970’s, the US recognized the Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, and actively worked to prevent the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from claiming a seat in the United Nations. At the height of the Cold War, the PRC were active combatants in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Nonetheless, in 1972, just 2 years after the end of the Vietnam War, President Nixon made a famous trip to China to normalize relations with the PRC.

PRC-US relationship normalization culminated in the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in 1979, beginning US recognition of the PRC as the legitimate government of China in lieu of the ROC. At the same time, the US passed the Taiwan Relations Act, allowing for de facto diplomatic relations to continue with Taiwan.

While the Taiwanese economy far outpaced the PRC’s from the 60’s to the 90’s, the shift of PRC policy to the socialist market economy in 1978 has allowed the PRC to excel in recent years. With World Trade Organization acceptance of China in 2001, offshoring of American jobs to China have propelled the Chinese economy.

With the recent US economic struggles, many Americans have become increasing frustrated with perceived trade imbalances between the US and China. While have speculated about the resurgence of a red scare in response to economic pressures, others have been more vocal about denouncing China. However, the use of patriotism as thinly veiled racism is nothing new. Nonetheless, American policymakers have begun to combat aggressive Chinese economic policies with constructs like the recent China currency bill. At the same time, many US companies like Merck continue to move jobs overseas to China.

While relationships between the US, China, and Taiwan continue to be rocky, American corporations have tied the US to the hip with China. As the largest US bondholder, China has expressed concerns in US economic performance. Ultimately, US foreign and economic policy are supporting the continued shifting of jobs from the US to China. Measures like the China currency bill are too little, too late in the struggle to maintain US economic dominance. The wheels were set in motion when Nixon first visited China nearly 40 years ago.

While obviously, it is not beneficial for the US to normalize relations with Taiwan at this point in time, this is a stunning reminder of how US political rhetoric is often markedly different from US policy.

Chinese Consumerism – Death of the Knockoff Culture

A recent LA Times article explores the phenomenon of plummeting knockoff phone sales as the number of smartphones skyrockets. While this article examines the economics of this shift, it fails to capture the shift in Chinese culture that has led to this outcome.

Anyone who has visited China is familiar with the 山寨 (shan zhai) culture. The clothes that most lower and middle class Chinese wear are simply imitations of Western styles from 5 years ago, made in local shops and sold at significantly lower prices. Popular tourist destinations include places like the Museum of Science & Technology subway station in Shanghai. Here, vendors hawk row upon row of knockoff goods.

“Hello friend! We have special deal for you! Gucci, Prada, whatever you want, we have!”

The products they sell are as fake as their enthusiasm and English abilities. Out of curiosity, I purchased a fake IWC watch for $10. What a surprise it was, when it stopped ticking and the minute hand became dislodged less than a month later.

However, the Chinese knockoff culture extends beyond just fake luxury goods. It permeates throughout the Chinese lifestyle. Fake food scandals are seemingly a daily occurrence, with news stories about tainted milk and reused cooking oil dominating the news. When Chinese people encounter a good deal, it is assumed that the deal is fake in some form or fashion. The inevitability of these scandals in daily life is deeply rooted in the frustration of a populace unable to accomplish social change.

The shift from acceptance to avoidance of the knockoff consumer culture stems from the differing viewpoints of Chinese society. The younger generation, brimming with optimism from increased opportunities, is no longer willing to accept the fake culture their parents resigned themselves to. While the stratified social classes still promote the worship of big brand names, the willingness to accept substitutes has all but disappeared.

I traveled to Shanghai for the first time in 2010. During this trip, it was plain to see the awe on the locals’ faces when they saw my authentic iPhone. When I lost my phone in a cab, I was distraught. However, I was somewhat mollified by the recognition that the relative value for me was significantly lower than its value to whoever found it. For many (such as a taxi driver), the value of this item was equivalent or greater than an entire year’s salary.

When I returned in 2011, I noticed the googly eyes I once got using the iPhone in public had all but disappeared. Many of my friends in Shanghai had purchased their own authentic iPhones and looked forward to their next luxury purposes. One thing the LA Times article fails to capture is the level of sacrifice made by many of these people to afford these items. One lower-middle class friend of mine spent over 1/10th of her annual salary on an iPhone. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as China’s GDP per capita was approximately $7,500 in 2010 according to the IMF.

While it is true that the relative price of smartphones has dropped over time, the insistence of the younger generation for quality over cost is a marked departure from Chinese culture which has dominated in the past. Expect the youth of China to affect social change in all of China over the next decades through traditional capitalist means, their wallets. As China continues to embrace consumerism and capitalism, expect a resurgence in use of the Chinese idiom,

一分錢一分貨。

Simply put, you get what you pay for.

Steve Jobs Death, His Influence on Generation Y, and His Failures

Growing up with a Computer Scientist for a father, my life was destined to be heavily influenced by technology. I was exposed to Apple products at a very young age, spending numerous hours playing computer games on the family’s Apple IIe.

While the picture above shows a green monochrome monitor, the monitor I was using had grown old and showed color only in a warm, faded yellow. Next to the computer, we kept a well organized box of 5 1/4″ floppy disks, unfamiliar to anyone born in the 90’s and beyond.

This computer was a gateway for me to explore computer games such as Dung Beetles or Taipan!. It’s difficult for me to understand a world without personal computing. While personal computers were not integrated into everyday lives at this point, Generation Y’s reliance on computers accelerated such that we were required to pass typing speed tests on computer keyboards to graduate from middle school.

Apple has a long history of iconic advertising. In this iconic ad from the 1984 Super Bowl, a runner hurls a large hammer at a screen, symbolically representing the power of the Apple Macintosh to “combat conformity and assert originally.” The Thought Police and other Orwellian elements were meant to represent IBM and its stranglehold on the personal computing industry.

How ironic that the Apple brand Jobs created has is now growing into the conformist structure. Thousands of Apple fanatics wait outside stores for days to be the first to snatch new Apple products. Hordes of people define their lives through the number of Apple products they own.

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered a superb commencement speech at Stanford University.

His final words are powerful: “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Yet the Apple brand he has created is the exact culture which avoids these exact principles. While Jobs delivered the world to the fingertips of millions, he simultaneously encouraged them to pursue easily digestible content and stop thinking. While many have focused on his story as a triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit, his creation is the mortal enemy of this spirit.

While the magnitude of Jobs’ legacy is certainly enormous, only posterity will be able to accurately assess whether his impact was positive or negative. However, it is important to recognize the failures of Steve Jobs as much as his strengths.

Platform Selection

To begin the development of my site, I selected a number of criteria to select the platform:

  • Agility/Flexibility
  • Convention Over Configuration
  • Internationalization
  • Open Source
  • Active Community

Based on my research, I decided upon Ruby on Rails. This platform seems to provide all the criteria I’m looking for in a web development platform. The MVC framework makes it significantly easy for a non-programmer to jump right into web development.

Based on some google and stackoverflow searches, I’ve decided to start with Agile Web Development with Rails, 4th Edition, by Sam Ruby, Dave Thomas, and David Heinemeier Hansson.

Agile Web Development With Rails, 4th Edition

Hopefully I’ll be able to follow along and make modifications to the Depot applications as needed to match my own programming goals.