Mark Cuban still won’t admit he was wrong

In what has to be one of the most often-quoted comments about an Internet company, billionaire basketball-team owner Mark Cuban said in 2006 that “only a moron would buy YouTube.” Within a matter of months, of course, Google paid $1.65-billion for the company that Mark said would undoubtedly be “sued into oblivion.” And was YouTube sued into oblivion? No. So by my count, that means our billionaire media analyst has been wrong at least twice on the topic of YouTube.

So has the Dancing With The Stars hoofer ever admitted that he was wrong? Not on your life. In fact, he’s now telling Silicon Alley Insider that YouTube has only become a success because it started following his advice, which was to focus on legitimate content that could be monetized through advertising. But even in his email to Nicholas Carlson he gets YouTube and the true nature of its business wrong: he says that the user-generated content side of the company is probably “losing its ass” and that “If they get out of the UGC business, they actually would be profitable.”

As usual, Mark misses the point: the user-generated content — the video clips of startled hamsters and surprised panda bears and Charlie biting his brother’s finger — are exactly what draw the audiences that generate the pageviews that YouTube monetizes through ads on other content. As YouTube has described in a somewhat defensive post on its blog, the business is doing quite well now, thank you very much, despite repeated claims by people like Cuban that bandwidth costs and/or lawsuits would bankrupt the company. Don’t quit your day job, Mark.

Facebook and Google get their hands slapped

Should Facebook and Google users in the U.S. thank the Canadian government for protecting their privacy? A pretty good case could be made that they should. Both Internet giants have had their hands slapped by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, and have had to alter their policies as a result (although Facebook is still considering its full response to the CPC complaint), and those changes have had the net result of protecting the privacy of U.S. users as well.

In the case of Facebook, the Privacy Commissioner’s office filed notice last week that the social-network provider’s protection of personal data didn’t meet federal standards on a number of points — 22 of them, to be exact. The government department advised Facebook to alter its practices to bring them into compliance, or possibly face court proceedings that would compel the company to abide by the rules.

One of the aspects of Facebook’s privacy protections that caught the Commissioner’s eye was the amount of personal data that is transmitted to or shared with the creators of third-party applications that Facebook users often agree to add to their profiles. Under the company’s rules, these third-party apps don’t have to provide much detail about what they plan to do with your personal data, and they collect a lot of data that isn’t really necessary, according to Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

This is something that many users have noted (and programmers as well), but in Canada that kind of personal data collection and retention isn’t just an irritation or curiosity, it’s potentially a breach of Canadian law. The law in question is the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (or PIPEDA), which sets strict limits on what information can be collected, the amount of disclosure required, the purposes to which it can be put, and how long it can legally be retained. It is different in many key respects from U.S. privacy laws.

The Facebook investigation raised what the Commissioner’s office called “significant concerns around the sharing of users’ personal information with third-party developers creating Facebook applications such as games and quizzes.” The agency said that the company “lacks adequate safeguards to effectively restrict these outside developers from accessing profile information.”

The Commissioner’s report recommended a number of changes, including “technological measures to ensure that developers can only access the user information actually required to run a specific application” as well as taking steps to “prevent the disclosure of personal information of any of the user’s friends who are not themselves signing up for an application.” The investigation also found that Facebook has a policy of indefinitely keeping the personal information of people who have deactivated their accounts.

This is the second time that Canada has stepped in to advise a major Internet player of their neglect of privacy rules. Last year, Google came under fire from the Commissioner’s office over its Streetview” service, which hasn’t even launched in Canada yet. After reports emerged that cars belonging to Google had been seen filming in Toronto and other major cities, the federal agency released a statement calling on the company to change its methods to better protect people’s privacy.

In particular, the Commissioner said that revealing the faces of specific individuals without their consent was a breach of Canadian privacy laws, and so was revealing personal information such as car license plates. In the U.S., taking a photograph of someone in a public place without their consent is legal, but in Canada such photos are considered an invasion of privacy, unless they are taken for artistic or journalistic purposes, such as reporting on a news event.

Google responded by using automated technology to blur the faces of people in its Street View photo montages – a feature it is also rolling out in the U.S. and other jurisdictions as well.

Was the NYT wrong to keep quiet? Yes

It’s been more than a week since New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from his captors in Pakistan, so maybe now is a good time to try and look dispassionately at the massive coverup that prevented news of his kidnapping from being reported for more than six months — a coverup that included not just 40 or so mainstream media outlets but Wikipedia as well, with the personal help of founder Jimmy Wales. Raising such ethical issues seemed somewhat crass in the days following his miraculous escape (although that didn’t stop some observers, including Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, from being early critics of the coverup). But those issues deserve to be talked about in more detail.

For the record, I don’t know David Rohde. From all accounts, he is a wonderful friend and colleague, not to mention an excellent reporter who has a great deal of experience working in troubled areas. All of which is — I would argue — completely irrelevant to the issue at hand, namely whether the New York Times and its senior management were right to conceal evidence of his kidnapping, and whether the editors at dozens of other outlets were right to go along with this plan.

I would argue that they were not, and that if anything the coverup has made things harder not just for future kidnapping victims such as Rohde, but for newspapers and other mainstream media outlets as a whole.

(Please read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

China announces “Green Dam” policy

What would happen if the federal government ordered all computer makers to implement technology that filtered certain websites and tracked the online behaviour of all users? That’s effectively what happened in China a few weeks ago, when the government announced its “Green Dam” policy — a mandatory process by which computer manufacturers and retailers were to be required to include filtering software, software that would be directed primarily at pornography and adult content, but that would also allow the government to block content critical of Chinese authorities or policies.

The Green Dam project was to go into effect July 1, but with just hours to go before the deadline, the government decided to postpone the launch, although it isn’t clear whether the proposal is being cancelled, or whether it has just been delayed. A statement from the offical news wire Xinhua said that computer makers complained they needed more time to implement the software behind the Green Dam policy.

There were other concerns, however, that might have convinced the Chinese authorities to postpone or possible even cancel the requirement. One was an outcry from computer makers and distributors at being forced to become an extension of the government’s censorship policy, something that until now has been accomplished primarily through controls on Internet service providers and websites directly. An international group of business organizations — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the European-American Business Council and the Information Technology Industry Council — sent a strongly-worded letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, and the U.S. government sent letters arguing that such a policy might breach China’s obligations as part of the World Trade Organization.

There were also claims by one U.S. company that the filtering software PC makers were required to install was a copy of its own technology and therefore a breach of trademark laws. And a Chinese technology consultant said that its investigation of the software showed that it contained security holes that would make users’ PCs vulnerable to hackers.

As some observers have pointed out, the Green Dam project threatened to extend the range of companies affected by — and implicated in — China’s repression of its citizens, from just the Big Three search companies (Google, Microsoft and Yahoo) to every computer maker and distributor inside or outside the country. And China isn’t the only repressive government to stir up these kinds of issues by turning to technology as a way of extending its reach: Iran has also been in the news recently because of its Internet-filtering technology.

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, the Iranian government has developed highly sophisticated censorship technology that is based on software and equipment from several European companies, including Nokia. The Finland-based company’s involvement has sparked outrage from a number of quarters, including an Internet petition aimed at forcing Nokia to stop selling its technology to Iran. The company, meanwhile, has said that it only sold Iran standard voice-monitoring software, not anything that provides deep-packet inspection capabilities or Internet monitoring.

If nothing else, the postponing and potential cancellation of China’s Green Dam project shows — as Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices notes — shows that if companies and organizations and foreign governments stand together, it is possible to get even the most intractable of governments to bend.