Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.

Friday, 17 April 2009

SCRIPTed, Vol 6 No 1, is now online

Yes, SCRIPTed, Edinburgh University's online journal of Law, Technology and Society, has reached its sixth volume, hence the cover picture. If you look hard at the top left corner of the big version, you can just see your humble scribe (look for the blue tie and thinning thatch).

Volume 6 Number 1 features another excellent set of papers and analysis pieces:

Peter S Jenkins on Virtual Worlds As A New Game Theoretic Model For International Law: The Case Of Bilateral Investment Treaties

Philip Leith and Maeve McDonagh on New Technology and Researchers’ Access to Court and Tribunal Information: the need for European analysis

Eddy D Ventose on Patent Protection for Second and Further Medical Uses Under the European Patent Convention

Nigel Waters on The APEC Asia-Pacific Privacy Initiative – A New Route To Effective Data Protection Or A Trojan Horse For Self-Regulation?

Rolf H. Weber and Romana Weber on Social Contract for the Internet Community? Historical and Philosophical Theories as Basis for the Inclusion of Civil Society in Internet Governance?

Wiebke Abel and Burkhard Schafer on The German Constitutional Court on the Right in Confidentiality and Integrity of Information Technology Systems – a case report on BVerfG, NJW 2008, 822

Daniel B. Garrie and Maureen Duffy-Lewis on Conquering the Tower of e-Discovery Babel: New Age Discovery for the 21st Century

Miranda Mowbray on The Fog over the Grimpen Mire: Cloud Computing and the Law

Herbert Zech on Nanotechnology – New Challenges for Patent Law?

plus conference reports and book reviews.

Congratulations to Wiebke, Shawn and everyone else at SCRIPTed for another excellent issue.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Amazon, Twitter, and the Gay Books Purge that Wasn't

A little bit of background: over the holiday weekend, news began to spread that Amazon had done something rather odd and disturbing with many, if not most, books that dealt with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual themes. They hadn't been removed from sale, but their sales rank had been suppressed. As well as being a direct indicator of a book's popularity, this is a key factor in Amazon's automated book recommendation system, so a book without a sales rank is far less likely to be offered up to potential customers. I know a few authors, and their Amazon sales rankings are something they take a keen interest in. For Amazon to remove them for a whole category of books is naturally going to concern both the authors of those books and anyone interested in that category. And when that category is LGBT books... well, you can imagine that suspicions of Agendas, or Moral Panic, or even Censorship started to circulate.

And circulate they did, thanks to Twitter. April 2009 might well go down as the month that Twitter went mainstream, firstly with The Guardian's April Fool, and then with the Twitter '#AmazonFail' tag, by which Twitter users alerted to the issue could chose to follow comments and updates about it.

(Two points here. Firstly, this highlighted for many people the power of Twitter tagging as showing a use for what is often regarded as a rather trivial medium. A Twitter tag in effect allows users to get an instant paging service on a current topic in short, bize-size form that can easily be pushed to a phone or PDA. It's an excellent way of forming an instant community-of-interest, as this example showed. Secondly, I wonder if anyone will do a study into the way that 2009 has seen '[name]gate' as the label for a scandal be supplemented by '[issue]fail' as the instant term for a controversy, at least online?)

I won't dive into discussion or explanation as it has been done far better elsewhere. US editor and blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden has made some sensible observations (and there are a few more in the comments to that post, admittedly amidst a lot of wibble). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog has what seems to be credible news from sources within Amazon on what happened. But most interesting to me are the comments from tech blogger (and long-term friend) Simon Bisson on what this tells us about Amazon's infrastructure.

And what it tells us may not be good news for Amazon, or indeed its shareholders. To quote Simon:

"The simple answer is Amazon's architecture. It's highly distributed, and there's no operations team. Each component (and over 200 go into a single page) is run by its development team, of four to five people. They are responsible for its features, its development - and for making sure it runs effectively."

We had a term for this when I was in the RAF: "Spring-Loaded", as in 'crammed full of cogs and springs that will explode in a shower of little bits of brass unless the lid is screwed down very tight'. Another term is "System of systems", popular as a cool-sounding buzzword but a phrase that should strike fear into the heart of anyone who understands that ten fragile things stacked up together are in fact likely to be more, not less, delicate than one fragile thing alone.

I don't think for a second this was an evil reactionary plot by Amazon to purge itself of LGBT publications or to appease the Religious Right. Whilst that, if true, would have been very bad for Amazon's reputation, I think the actual explanation may in the long run be even worse. If it turns out that such an embarrassing incident could have arisen from a single coding error, and that Amazon's infrastructure allowed the error to pass undetected, propagate around the world and then take days to fix, then it rather makes the world's best-known online ordering brand look like a massive house of cards. At the very least, it will be an object lesson both in scalability of architectures and in corporate image management in the age of Twitter.

I look forward to the e-Commerce conference papers with interest.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Patry on Copyright

No, not the six-volume epic, but rather the talk given last week in London by its author, Google's copyright counsel William Patry. As well as a comprehensive summary here - with replies to comments by Patry himself - the SCL has made the talk, together with introduction, questions and closing remarks - available for download.

I have not been shy in bemoaning the way that the digital rights dispute too often becomes a sterile shouting match between extreme positions on both sides; those who would make copyright all-encompassing and eternal against those who would do away with it altogether. I am keen to see evidence of any respectable middle ground and I think Patry lays it out very well. There is a good case for the rights of creators to be protected, but such protection must be evidence-based and economically justified. Otherwise, as Patry points out, we are at best in the realm of emotional arguments and at worst at risk of following the same ideology-breeds-policy route that has made such a mess of the global economy.

We need more articulate exponents of the middle ground. I've had to defend the very concept of intellectual property against well-meaning activists who assume that anyone connected with IP law must by definition be a copyright maximalist. This is no more true that assuming that anyone dealing with land law would advocate the banning of rights of way and other easements. Equally, not everyone who questions proposals to further extend the term of copyright is a wild-eyed IP abolitionist! Those of us who disagree with either extreme are not sitting on the fence; we're trying to take a sensible middle view. This does not mean that we imagine that we have easy solutions, for as Patry admits it will be difficult to resolve the issues arising from current IP law. But just because something is difficult does not mean that we should not attempt to think sensibly about it, or to ask that those who do make policy do so on the basis of evidence and debate, not emotion and rhetoric.