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TBTF for 1999-12-16: Humble

Keith Dawson (dawson dot tbtf at gmail dot com)
Thu, 16 Dec 1999 23:52:11 -0500


Q u o t e   O f   T h e   W e e k

We are concerned with keeping the time for the country here. So far as time is concerned, that is what we take care of.

-- Dennis McCarthy, Director of Time, US Naval Observatory

Note added 1999-12-17: Many, many readers pointed out that in the email edition I had placed Dr. McCarthy at the Navel Observatory. Our government tax dollars at work providing omphaloskepsis for the American people, yada yada. Geez. A number of folks were kind enough to assume the error had been intentional. Thanks but no. Nicholas Bodley branched this Take It Offline forum to provide a locus for calumny. Go to it.

Is eToys paying in market cap for bullying etoy?

eToys stock has been cratering since December 1. Why?

By now you know that online toy retailer eToys, an Idealab company, has taken a group of European artists to court and stripped them of the domain name etoy.com, which the artists' collective owned years before eToys even existed. Here's the first press account [1] of the fiasco. This in-depth report by "Claire Barliant" was published in the Village Voice on 1 December. (A nearly identical story [2] by "Claire Adamsick" appeared the same day in the TwinCities City Pages.) See [3] for a seemingly complete and up-to-date list of media coverage on eToys/etoy. (Thanks to TBTF Irregular Ted Byfield, whose research provided these links.)

This David-and-Goliath story may have found a resonance among that part of the public that invests in Internet stocks. Here is a comparison over the last three months [4] of eToys' (NASD: ETYS) stock performance compared to an index of Internet stocks. Until very recent days the price behavior of eToys visibly followed the same trends as the rest of the Net stocks. Until 1 December. See this close-up [5] of the 10 business days ending 10 December.

The conjecture that eToys' impolitesse may have impacted their stock price started a lively debate on the TBTF Irregulars private mailing list and drew concentrated scorn from Declan McCullagh on his politech list. I've archived some of these comments (including McCullagh's) on this Take It Offline forum [6] and invite your thoughts on the matter. Simply visit the link and weigh in.

[1] http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/9948/barliant.shtml
[2] http://www.citypages.com/databank/20/991/article8260.asp
[3] http://dmoz.org/Society/Activism/Media_Activism/Culture_Jamming/etoy/Media_Coverage/
[4] http://tbtf.com/pics/etys-iix-3mo.gif
[5] http://tbtf.com/pics/etys-iix-10da.gif
[6] http://www.quicktopic.com/1/H/48YJE5JCeo7gQHEYLHy.html


Backflip and the limitations of privacy policies

Two privacy clauses we need to start seeing more of

A reader pointed me to a new Web service offered by the newly launched Backflip [7], which had been operating in stealth mode as The iTixs Project. Backflip's founders were early employees at Netscape. They offer a free service that personalizes Web searches. For them to do this you need to entrust Backflip with your entire browsing history and ongoing clickstream.

It'll probably be popular. Not for me though. In my view a site that offers services whose price is extremely sensitive and personal data ought to offer the strongest possible guarantees of user privacy. (On Thanksgiving day the New York Times ran an article titled "Storing your life in a Virtual Desktop" [8] at the top of their "Circuits" section. I was interviewed for this piece and the reporter quoted my extreme skepticism about the whole idea, on grounds of privacy and security.)

I read through Backflip's privacy policy [9] and it's fine as far as it goes, but here are two promises I wanted to see that are nowhere to be found.

  1. The Poison Pill. If we sell the company, it will only be on terms that bind the purchaser in perpetuity to apply the same or stronger privacy policies to Backflip's data.

  2. The Divorce. You have the right, when cancelling your account with Backflip, to request that we destroy all data collected as part of our business relationship. We will email you a confirmation that we have done so. Our data-lifecycle policies and practices are audited by the Better Business Bureau.
I have seen no discussion of the need for privacy policies that provide customers this level of assurance. Of all the privacy statements I've read, only that of Junkbusters [10] offers The Divorce.

If a database ever exists that catalogs every page I've visited, it will be on my own hard disk, and nowhere else.

Note added 2003-08-31: Erstwhile TBTF reader Greg Weiss sent this hopeful tale of a modern Web service that offers something close to a Poison Pill clause.
I've had several of my friends send me invitations to store my contact info in Plaxo [10a]. The emails are a bit in-your-face but tasteful enough I suppose...

I was debating whether or not to give them (a) my info and (b) my whole contact list, such as it is. Now sales contact lists, a.k.a. customer lists, are something I wouldn't necesarily want in someone else's database, and I know while I don't have much of that, other people at my current firm do.

So I went to read their privacy policy [10b], looking to see if they had a poison pill provision in case they "sold out."

They basically do have a... substitute that comes pretty close -- they promise to notify you in case of "change of control" business developments, and they also promise to notify you if the privacy policy changes and you can take your data out before the new policy takes effect.

Which is good enough, and I was delighted to see it. So I thought I'd highlight this worthiness to you and thank you for passing on the meme of "poison pill" privacy policies in the first place.

[7] http://www.backflip.com/
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/11/circuits/articles/25desk.html
[9] http://www.backflip.com/help/gh_privacy_out.html
[10] http://www.junkbusters.com/ht/en/aboutus.html
[10a] http://www.plaxo.com/
[10b] http://www.plaxo.com/support/privacy/


Threads German censorship of the Net
See also TBTF for
1999-12-16, 1997-04-04, 1996-08-08, 05-31, 02-04, 01-31, 01-22, 01-14, 1995-12-31

German high court overturns censorship verdict

And Australia cheers

TBTF Irregular Eric Scheid writes from Down Under to mark the overturning on appeal [11] of the pornography conviction of the former head of Compuserve Germany. Felix Somm was convicted [12] in May 1998 by a Bavarian court for aiding in the distribution of pornography -- by failing to prevent such material from being distributed over the Internet through his ISP. The charge was so ludicrously ignorant of the actual workings of the Internet that the prosecutors, having been convinced by the defense arguments, actually filed the appeal as soon as the verdict had been read.

The case has been watched with great interest in Australia because of the imminent implementation of a harsh Net censorship regime in that country (see TBTF for 1999-05-08 [13]). This article [14] lays out details of how the Australian Broadcasting Authority plans to carry out the broad censorship of Net content. An excerpt:

Net users will have to supply Web site operators with sensitive personal data if they wish to access R-rated material online. According to a consultation paper by the ABA, an age verification "restricted access system" must be in place on sites which are likely to be classified R by the Classification Board. . . Under the ABA proposal, persons seeking access to R-classified material must provide a number of details including their name, address, date of birth, email address, and credit card details or digital signature.

TBTF has followed Germany's blundering attempts to censor the Net since 1995 [15].

[11] http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,32609,00.html
[12] http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,32609,00.html
[13] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-05-08.html#s04
[14] http://www.newswire.com.au/9911/rating.htm
[15] http://tbtf.com/archive/1995-12-31.html#Tgcn


Threads Businesses based on domain names
See also TBTF for
2000-07-20, 04-19, 1999-12-16, 08-30, 07-08, 02-01, 1998-08-10, 04-20, 02-23, 02-09, 1997-12-08, more...

OpenSRS to blow open domain-name competition

Now any ISP can offer domain-naming services thanks to rock-bottom wholesale pricing

TUCOWS, which started out life as a Winsock shareware site, has announced the OpenSRS project [16]. OpenSRS wholesales domain names at $13 per name per year: it will allow any reseller -- ISP, Web site operator, VAR, or Web hosting company -- to offer low-cost domain-name registration services to customers. The resellers download and customize (open-source) client software that talks to the (proprietary) OpenSRS server. Resellers can register names for their customers in real time.

While OpenSRS claims to "leverage Open Source principles," it's not a true open-source project. Only the client software is available in source form (under the GNU General Public License). All development is done at TUCOWS. The server code is not released.

I spoke with Ross Wm. Rader <ross at tucows dot com>, architect and prime mover on the OpenSRS project. He said the rollout had been delayed by demand far in excess of what had been expected. Rader said that signed-up OpenSRS resellers number in the "high 3 digits." None is yet operational. I expect OpenSRS to make lots of waves when their resellers go online early next year.

[16] http://www.opensrs.com/


Threads Domain name policy
See also TBTF for
2000-04-19, 03-31, 1999-12-16, 10-05, 08-30, 08-16, 07-26, 07-19, 07-08, 06-14, 05-22, more...

NSI suspends its dispute-resolution policy

Old cases and suspended names to be revisited

Network Solutions has sent a letter to all parties who have requested invocation of NSI's Domain Name Dispute Policy, informing them that the policy will be superseded on 1 January 2000 by ICANN's new Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy [17]. NSI will not begin any new proceedings under the old DNDP.

Furthermore, according to the Fross Zelnick E-LEGAL Letter (not archived on the Web), on 1 January NSI will reopen all previous disputes that resulted in the suspension of a domain name under the old policy. If by 1 April 2000 the parties to each of these disputes have not informed NSI that the dispute has been resolved, the domain names in question will be reactivated. NSI has not made clear whether the names will be reactivated if within 90 days the parties involved begin dispute resolution under the new UDRP.

Meanwhile, the first UDRP dispute has been filed at the World Intellectual Property Organization [18].

[17] http://www.icann.org/udrp/udrp-policy-24oct99.htm#4ciii
[18] http://www.foxnews.com/js_index.sml?content=/scitech/wires2/1205/t_rt_1205_14.sml


The Internet Freedom Journalism Awards

Seeking the high and low points of 1999's Net news coverage

Internet Freedom, a cyber-liberties campaign in the UK, has just announced [19] an awards competition that intends to point an accusing finger at examples of bad journalism on the subject of the Internet, as well as to issue awards for good journalism. Capsule description:

The awards will name and shame the worst journalistic examples of caricature, misrepresentation, or stereotyping of Net users. The IFJA will also recognize high-quality journalism and highlight good practice by journalists striving to report news about the Internet.

The deadline for nominations [20] is December 31; awards will be announced on January 8, 2000. The award categories:

[19] http://www.netfreedom.org/news.asp?item=102
[20] http://www.netfreedom.org/nominations.asp


A systematic model for selecting cryptographic key sizes

How long a key will you need?

Lenstra-Verhuel key-size model Bruce Schneier's excellent newsletter CRYPTO-GRAM (see TBTF Sources [21]) alerted me to the work of Arjen Lenstra and Eric Verheul, who have produced a model [22] by which you can calculate how strong your cryptographic keys need to be. The authors claim that this is the first uniform, properly documented treatment of the subject.
The model, which formulates a series of explicit hypotheses about future developments and applies these to existing data about the cryptosystems, will enable organisations to arrive at a balanced evaluation of key size aspects when purchasing or developing cryptographic applications. The resulting key size recommendations are thus unbiased and not influenced by non-scientific considerations.

The bulk of Lenstra and Verheul's conclusions are contained in a single table [23]. I've excerpted the most salient data into a graph [24] -- use it to read off the key length you'll need in 2015 to fend off an adversary who will devote $40M over a year's time to the task of breaking your key.

[21] http://tbtf.com/sources.html
[22] http://www.cryptosavvy.com/
[23] http://www.cryptosavvy.com/table.htm
[24] http://tbtf.com/pics/lenstra-verheul.gif


Unimobile: a worldwide mobile device made of bits

Colorful, noisy, fast, and fun

During a California trip several weeks ago I had occasion to visit Gray Cell, the first Indian software company to win Silicon Valley venture capital. The company has been working quietly for three years in Bangalore and has now opened up an office in Campbell, CA in preparation for launching Unimobile [25]. This is a free software "device" that can talk to nearly any mobile gadget anywhere in the world -- text-enabled cell phone, pager, PDA, email, and (of course) another Unimobile. I was impressed by the product focus Gray Cell has maintained in realizing the Unimobile device in "bits, not atoms."

Gray Cell claims its database of worldwide phone services is the most comprehensive in existence, and I have no reason to doubt it. Do you know another service that can instantly tell you what telephone company issued the cell phone attached of any random phone number you choose to throw at it? If so I'd like to hear of it (and so undoubtedly would Gray Cell).

The Unimobile isn't quite like anything that has come before -- Gray Cell is opening up a new market. The device may not initially have much application in the world of business. It's colorful, noisy, fast, and fun. The product is targeted at young, technologically savvy, and above all mobile consumers worldwide. The US lags much of the rest of the world in its uptake of mobile and wireless technology, so the Unimobile will at first find a larger audience elsewhere than it does on these shores. (Gray Cell tells me they have two entirely separate marketing plans, one for the US and one for everywhere else.) An American may need a little time at first to appreciate what the Unimobile can do, though I expect that a 15-year-old Finn who lives on her cell phone would get it right away, so the product and its Web site come with extensive tours, tutorials, and help getting started. (The TBTF Irregulars [26] were privileged to test an early version of the Unimobile, and since many of us are Americans we may have influenced the amount and quality of handholding available in the product.)

Gray Cell wants to build a worldwide community of connected users who chat constantly with people on their buddy lists, and don't want to give up chatting when they leave their desks and go out into the world. The company will offer a growing roster of services to this mobile community and draw revenue from sponsorships and other non-intrusive forms of partnership. The Gray Cell executives I spoke to were adamant that they will never beam advertising to Unimobile users -- they truly "get it" that a mobile device is even more personal than a personal computer. Blasting advertising to a user's Unimobile would be an act akin to marching a brass band into a Quaker meeting.

When you download [27] and register a Unimobile, you get a free email address -- mine is dawson@unimobile.com -- which you can point to your normal email POP box, or to any text-capable device you travel with. Any Unimobile user, or indeed anyone at all with Internet access, can message you at your Unimobile address and you will receive the message in seconds on whatever device you have configured at the moment.

You can change the device's "skin" -- on-screen appearance and behavior -- to resemble your PDA, or your pager, or your cell phone -- complete with the look & feel of whichever brand and model you're most accustomed to. A number of skins will be included when the product launches and more will come from mobile device companies, hobbyists, etc. I expect Unimobile skins to be traded freely on Web sites the way Nokia ring tones [28] are today. See what I mean about the product not being targeted to business users? This soft device is all about lifestyle.

Unimobile is a 3-MB download [27]. It runs only on Windows. Give it a try.

Disclosure: I don't have any business relationship with Gray Cell, nor any financial interest in the company. One of their employees, Udhay Shankar, is a TBTF Irregular.

[25] http://www.unimobile.com/
[26] http://tbtf.com/the-irregulars.html
[27] http://www.unimobile.com/download/download.asp
[28] http://tbtf.com/archive/1998-12-15.html#s08


Threads Year 2000 straws in the wind
See also TBTF for
2000-02-06, 1999-12-16, 08-23, 01-26, 01-13, 1998-11-11, 10-12, 07-27, 05-25, 05-11, 04-20

Year 2000 Corner: assessing Y2K's worldwide impact

Government services and foreign trade look problematical everywhere

This BBC site [30] excerpts data from a Gartner Group assessment of the worldwide effect of the Y2K bug. (I have not seen this assessment. It appears the BBC began with an August 1999 Gartner report and added more recent data.) The BBC shows estimates for 11 countries (I assume Gartner covered more), in 11 categories of concern. For each country and category, Gartner estimates the bug's distribution and impact. I've taken the liberty of assigning numbers to these estimates:
Worldwide Y2K impact estimates

  distribution        impact
    1 = isolated        1 = minor
    2 = moderate        2 = moderate
    3 = widespread      3 = severe
and consolidating these data into a single table (below) and a 3D chart [31] whose vertical axis is an estimate of the Y2K bug's bite: the product of distribution and impact.

85% 67% 50% 34%
  USA, UK Brazil,
India Russia,
power 1 2 4 6
phones 1 1 4 6
gas 1 2 2 3
air 2 2 4 6
oil 2 2 2 4
food 1 1 2 3
water 1 1 2 2
government 4 4 6 9
banks 1 1 2 4
unrest 1 1 2 4
trade 3 3 3 6

totals 18 20 33 53

[30] http://news1.thls.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/millennium_bug/countries/
[31] http://tbtf.com/pics/y2k-gartner.gif


See anywhere from anywhere

An enchanted spyglass on the Web

Go visit NASA's magical telescope on the cosmos [32], a Web-based simulator that lets you construct a custom view of many solar-system objects from nearly any vantage point. The simulator grew out of early work at Cal Tech by graphics.god Jim Blinn, who has since moved on to Microsoft Research. (I recently heard this outfit referred to as the twentieth century's intellectual roach motel: the great minds check in but nothing ever comes out.)

Here's what Mars looked like from the NASA craft Mars98 about 7 hours before its too-final impact, from a distance of 50,177 km [33].

Thanks to TBTF Irregular Gary Stock for pointing out this marvel of the Web.

[32] http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/
[33] http://space.jpl.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/wspace?tbody=4&vbody=-116&month=12&day=3¢ury=19&decade=9&year=9&hour=18&minute=0&fovmul=1&rfov=30&bfov=30&porbs=1&sorbs=1&brite=1

Offlist Discussions

bul These are the spaces I've set up at Take It Offline [34], [35] for those who wish to comment on and discuss this issue's articles. I'll be monitoring and actively posting to these forums.

[34] http://www.quicktopic.com/
[35] http://tbtf.com/archive/1999-10-05.html#06


bul During Thanksgiving week your humble scrivener was quoted in articles in the Wall Street Journal [36] and the New York Times [37].

[36] http://interactive.wsj.com/documents/hotspots-1999-wannabes.html
[37] http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/11/circuits/articles/25desk.html

bul You've no doubt read about the steganographic identification data printed, as an anti-counterfeiting measure, on every color copy produced by (apparently) every color copier sold in the US. Lauren Weinstein gave the issue wide exposure in the Privacy Forum [38]. He investigated because I sent him a query and a couple of URLs. I completely missed out on the scoop, though. It's the sort of thing that keeps me humble.

[38] http://www.vortex.com/privacy/priv.08.18


bul For a complete list of TBTF's email and Web sources, see http://tbtf.com/sources.html.


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Layer of ash separates morning and evening milk.



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Most recently updated 2003-08-31