Referral links

Unlike other ads on this page, the two links below are to services I use - if you're looking for a new SIM or broadband connection I can personally recommend them, and these are specific referral links that I can get bonuses from if you sign up, so please use them :-)

Get a free giffgaff Sim Broadband from £5.99 a month with an included wireless router when you sign up to Plusnet - terms apply

Sunday, 10 July 2011

News Of The World "scandal" - the people have not beaten Murdoch

[Short link if you need it: or retweet me]

So where do I start with this one? You all know the story that broke on July 5th 2011 about News International's UK tabloid newspaper the News Of The World (Henceforth NoTW) having "hacked" the phone of the missing Milly Dowler in 2002. Now I won't condone interfering with a police investigation and I agree that a subcontractor of the paper deleting voicemails was seriously out of line and that those individuals responsible need to be brought to account for it. But the reaction to it worried me and I believe the majority of the public got it wrong. I seemed to be one of the only people who wasn't supporting a boycott. But why? (Note,. other than in the references section, most links are to twitter posts I made at the time - this isn't just a perspective with the benefit of hindsight)

For one thing, since I haven't heard otherwise, I can only assume that the 'voicemail hacking' was done by guessing a voicemail password. As an analogy, if my bank doesn't use encryption to their website, it's the bank's fault (if I ignore an invalid certificate though, it's my fault). If I don't leave my front door open when I go out then I shouldn't be surprised if I suffer a theft. If I use a stupid password on my phone, then I shouldn't be surprised if people access it. There have been enough cases of 'hacked' passwords/twitter accounts etc. that there's no excuse for it. Either disable voicemail, protect it properly, or don't complain about it. We're in a technological age, some basic security awareness is essential.

As I said, I am disgusted at journalists deleting potential evidence in voicemails, however a few people expressed disgust that it led the family to believe that Milly was still alive. I don't subscribe to that view since why would you assume that if she was missing then a kidnapper wasn't the one accessing it? Making an assumption about the safety of the missing person based on whether new voicemails can be left is a little silly.

In the 24 hours after the story broke there was a big campaign, particularly on twitter with the use of the #saynotoNOTW hashtag and asking people to support a boycott this week's News Of The World. That then became a campaign to push advertisers to withdraw advertising from the paper this weekend. Some did, others like Tesco refused (but later agreed to give profits from selling it to charity) This is where I really started to have a problem with it, and here's why:

  1. I think it's safe to assume that the Milly voicemail deletions did occur, but this event was nine years ago and most of the people who were working for the paper at the time have moved on. I think I heard one person report that there were only about three people left from the original team. Penalising current employees over an event which was not caused by the current journalist team is unfair.
  2. Is there any suggestion that another tabloid would not have done the same if they'd been using the same agent to do the 'hack'? Bear in mind that a 2006 report suggested that illegal trading in personal information was rife across the industry and NoTW were not the top culprit.
  3. Who are they targetting? I wonder how many of the people looking to boycott the paper were the sort of person who would have bought it anyway? NoTW readers are interested in sensationalism - that's the target audience so I wonder how many of the regular readers that would have bought into the boycott anyway.

All of these point to one thing - that the campaigns were targetting the wrong issue. The problem is not just the staff of NoTW, it's a need to solve industry-wide problems and making sure that journalists do not expect or allow routinely being in receipt of illegally obtained information. The industry regulation is broken, and deflecting from that issue by targetting NoTW as a scapegoat is not something that will solve the problem.

So what happened? The campaign, superficially, was quite successful as many retailers pulled their advertising and then on Friday the news broke that the NoTW was to be shut down and that the 'boycott' target issue on July 10th, 2011 - Issue 8674 in a 168 year run, was to be the last one. Job done, people power has succeeded in preventing this from happening again.

I quickly wrote an aggrieved rant on Google Plus because I believe there are several problems with what has been achieved:

  1. It results in people who had NO INVOLVEMENT in the scandal that triggered the campaign losing their jobs.
  2. It doesn't fix the regulatory issues that allows journalists to consider questionable means of getting information to be acceptable. Sort the PCC (Press Complaints Commision) out.
  3. Those in charge of the paper at the time, such as Rebekah Brooks, were allowed to have no punishment (so far).
  4. Most importantly, it's likely that News International wanted to kill off News Of The World anyway

The last point is critical. Before this story broke there were reports that News International had changed their management structure in part with the intention of moving to 7-day newspapers i.e. stopping the 'Sunday only' ones - such as the News Of The World. Now would I go as far as to say that News International started the scandal? Probably not, but I think that once it came out they would have been in no hurry to object to it and the wheels were quite probably already in motion to kill off the paper, this way they managed to do it with the blessing of the public, while going out with a teary fanfare of a collectable 'farewell' edition. They're giving proceeds to charity but ultimately the targetted campaign against the current paper has given News International what they wanted anyway. Overall effect zero because in itself the campaign has not solved the problems.

The other advantage to NewsCorp is that since they have ambitions to take over BskyB in the UK then acting like "the good guy" and bowing to "public pressure" to close NoTW (which they wanted to do anyway) deflects control from the issues that haven't been addressed as people rejoice in their success. I hope they don't get control of BskyB but if they do, then losing NoTW in exchange for BskyB probably works out well for them.

So where now? The masses have campaigned for this and filled up my timelines with anto-NoTW sentiment. What's now needed is for something to be done about the issues. The campaign focussed on punishing the paper, not those involved. The real campaign (assuming the public isn't already bored of this story now) is to fix the media industry and possibly target the outrage at people who are paying the police for information.

I'm fed up of it, it would appear (judging by the reactions I had from the posts linked through this article) that hardly anyone agrees with me but I still maintain that the majority feelings and campaign directions were misplaced, and that Rupert Murdoch's empire has outsmarted most of you. I'm taking the moral high ground on this for trying to put across that view. Murdoch's got what he wanted - his trusted people safe (for now, but likely to be questioned by police) and the a publication shut down that he didn't want to continue. But maybe that will change as things unfold over the next few weeks and months as more facts come out.

That's all folks.


Saturday, 2 July 2011

Google+ - Could it replace facebook, twitter or both?

Shortened link to this page if you need it - or on twitter feel free to retweet me instead.

(This article split into two sections - one an overview and comparison with alternatives, second a bulletted list of observations/things to be aware of about how it works) feel free to skip to below the line if you don't want all the waffle!)

I've been playing around with Google+ for a few days now, and so far I like it. They've got everything just about right, and unlike Diaspora they've got the project live in a reasonable state, although currently still limited access while they iron out the bugs (contrary to other people I think that's a good thing, and that inviting 'the masses' at the moment would be bad if they come to it believing it's a production ready facebook competitor at a time when things might not work - I think Diaspora's probably suffered a bit from that)

The 'hangouts' are cool and allow multiple person videoconferencing within the site if you have a webcam, or just voice chat if you don't. if you have neither you can still listen and post by, well, typing on your keyboard - how quaint!

A concept like facebook lists called "circles" is inherent in Google+. You add people to a "circle" - think of it as "circle of friends". The circle's name is only visible to you, NOT those in it so you can get away with abusive circle names if you feel the need! You then post updates into circles and only those in the circle have visibility of posts you make (you can alternatively post publicly for all to see). People can, of course be in multiple circles. The 'built around privacy' aspect of Google+ gives me more faith than facebook's half-assed approach.

So now I'm going to get to the point - what's it for?. Well at the moment most of the posts people are making on there are about google+ itself, and that's a good thing. There are people playing with the technology, experimenting, discovering things, providing feedback, and not polluting it with inane nonsense at the moment. That's the point of having this test phase. But where will it go? Where will Google+ be in a year's time? Let's look at it's main competition:

Does it replace facebook? Potentially. xkcd think it can :) it will depend on how the things corresponding to facebook groups and pages work out. And of course I haven't seen any support for building apps on the platform as yet - there is no API at the time of writing. Maybe Google (perfectly reasonably) want to stay out of that arena of authorising potentially dodgy games and leave that minefield to facebook (how many of you block farmville posts?) and hope Facebook dies a death like due to such nonsense in a similar way to when MySpace got silly allowing too much control over profiles and made them messy. I wouldn't blame them, although it would be a revenue stream, and Google is a business. And a lot of people use such games from Zynga and others and are likely not to move to a platform that doesn't have them. I wonder what deals are being done under the covers right now for Google+ app developers. For me I'm personally happy with how Google have implemented their facebook alternative and I'd absolutely switch to this as a replacement.

Does it replace twitter? That's a harder question to answer. I've seen people say they'd use it as an alternative to twitter but I'm not so sure. I use facebook and twitter in completely different ways, and the people I connect to on each are not the same. Twitter is for high volume public thoughts so I post several times a day, and if you miss something, who cares? Facebook is more of a platform where I restrict posts and more likely to read every post from people. The use cases are different. I think different people choosing to use it differently could be a problem. if they were to implement 'public circles' (see later on) then I'd consider a switch. For now, I wouldn't want to 'spam' my family/close friends with all my twitter stuff (which would of course have to be public) so I won't be considering it to replace twitter any time soon.

In the case of twitter I also use it to discover new people in a way I wouldn't on facebook.That's a massive reason why it's been so successful. Google+ feels somewhere in between the more public twitter and more "intimate" facebook. My concern is that I wouldn't want my relatively sedate 'facebook-like' stream polluted with my 'thought of the moment' public posts that I put on twitter. Maybe that's a reason to use Buzz, but I really don't want to throw all my social networking to one company. But you can't dismiss the fact that Buzz hasn't gone away and lurks in Google+ as a tab on your profile and unlike twitter, Buzz has a cleaner reply mechanism for enabling comment threads. Bottom line is that, at least for now, I see Google+ more as a locked down potential facebook replacement, which is something we really need, and I don't see me giving up on twitter any time soon.

As a final word I'll mention this article on the google+ killer feature - once you're in it shows up on all the bars across the top of the screen on google sites. it's a good way of trapping you in, and so far facebook is about the only other site that's been able to do that.

This should possibly be a separate blog entry but here are some technical observations based on my use so far, most of which I've posted to Google+ since I started using it so I'll include links:

  • When you use the mobile site you have to accept T&C that allows them to take your location. Surely it's down to whether I allow the web browser to send it - odd that it's a separate acceptance point in the T&C, and why can't I decline and still use the mobile UI?

  • There isn't an option to post to 'all of circle A but exclude B' where B is a specific person or other circle. You might want to hide posts from specific people e.g. when planning a surprise for them, but at the moment you'd have to duplicate the circle without those people.but I'd rather have facebook's exclude list - this was an issue I raised against diaspora. Google plus has "+add more people" for visibility, so "-exclude people" wouldn't be too much more complex. I've fed this back to them.

  • There doesn't appear to be an equivalent of "Post to someone's wall". Maybe that's good for privacy but sometimes it's useful to be able to do it. You can still tag someone in a post just to them, of course but it's nice to have the facebook option of letting their friends see and comment on posts you've made to them. Maybe google consider it too open for abuse though.

  • It's a bit of a shame not having an easy to remember URL for your stream. A shortened version of mine is in the header of this blog (it's a link after my twitter ID although it's quite hidden in blue on blue!) whereas on twitter/fb you have the top level site followed by your username. I assume this is to avoid publicising your email address so is an anti-spam measure but it's still a bit.

  • I think it could do with 'public circles' which are shown on your profile that people can add THEMSELVES to. I can't know what every 'follower' will be interested in, so if I publicise that I like Motor racing and mobile technology I'd like to create circles of those (so non-interested people don't get spam) but also allow THEM to choose whether to follow those posts.

  • The 'feedback' bug reporting system is quite cool. When you bring it up you can cut & paste a screen shot to include in the bug report. Really simple to use and a great feature to have in a bug system!

  • I'm still in two minds about the 'reshare' privacy issues. There was an initial concern that you could 'reshare' someone else's post in your feed and set the privacy to 'public'. I think that's just the privacy fanatics going a bit nuts. You can still cut and paste or take a screenshot after all so is there really any point in restricting? Anyway, for now this "privacy loophole" has now been closed and you can only 'reshare' to specific circles. We'll see if that's retained. Compare to twitter, where a protected account can't be usefully retweeted, but you can use the old style "RT" to replicate the content into your own separate post i.e. "cut & paste".

  • [ADDED: 31 July 2011] The new black google bar at the top of many google pages is also at the top of iGoogle and lets you get to G+ easily. But once you're there, there's no navigation link to get back to iGoogle like there is for gmail/docs/photos etc. Give me an ig link on the top please.

  • [ADDED: 31 July 2011] If the public circles idea was implemented, you could have a 'blog' circle that would let you categories specific posts as long term 'blog' entries and potentially encourage new people into blogging more in a fairly lightweight way than they're used to. G+ already has the ability to edit posts, and have good comment threads like any more mature blogging system. I'd like to be able to click on someone's 'blog circle' and see the 'meaty' posts that they've made. Facebook have tried this with 'Notes' but I've never seen it catch on because it feels like more of a bolt-on rather thanintegrated naturally.

[EDIT: 31 July 2011] With a month's worth of use my top 3 'wish list' from the above are (1) Public circles (2) navigating back to iGoogle (3) "A but exclude B" posting. With those implemented I'd be ancouraging everyone onto iGoogle now

Of course some, or all, of these may have changed by the time you read this since the product is in a trial period. I might update this blog with more issues as I find them!

Facebook privacy mess - a technical (not T&C-based) perspective

I've blogged on some of facebook's stupid changes before and there have been plenty of concerns over some of the things that they've done over time regarding privacy options. In truth most of them are reasonably valid concerns but let's be honest, they are a business and the way they are going is understandable regardless of whether or not you agree with it because they have a huge captive audience. However some of the things that they do is just purely nonsensical from the perspective of actually enabling users to put the restrictions they want in place.

Despite them making strides forward with the settings, they still have glaring holes. This article will show you some of the things the just don't seem to have got right:

Control of posting from external apps
If you give an external app access to post to your wall, then it's impossible to set the visibility of that app's posts to anything other than your default visibility. If you use an app that posts on a particular topic and you don't want to spam everyone, then you'll want to restrict it (usually to a group), but you can't. The same thing also (in my opinion) gives facebook places an anti-competetive advantage over Foursquare etc. This is also true of all mobile apps and the web interface. The options are not there.

Default "per-post" settings
If you use the privacy control drop down on the main facebook page to adjust the visibility of your posts and select the 'make default' checkbox then it actually does more than just set the default for all future posts - it actually acts as a global filter on all your posts and changes your overall privacy setting so people not in the group can't see your posts, regardless of what visibility they were posted with. If I want my default privacy post to be 'group X' but have the ability to change individually selected posts to 'all friends' then I basically can't do it. You have to make 'all friends' the default and select 'group X' for each post ... which as per the first point you can't do from external apps. I've accidentally stopped people from seeing my wall several times accidentally.

Visbility of photo albums etc.
When you create a facebook album with photos there's no way for your friends to tell what visibility they have. If, for example, they wanted to show someone else a facebook album then they can't easily cut & paste the album/photo link and know if it'll work. The only way to check is to cut & pasting into a non-logged in browser (which still doesn't tell you if it has visibility to 'anyone logged in' or 'friends of friends'). Now that's not great in itself, but in most cases there's nothing to stop you sharing individual images within the album anyway and bypassing the restrictions. Just cut and past the 'Download image' fbcdn link.

With the first two points together you can see that it's basically impossible to use list-based access control from a mobile device, which is frankly ridiculous in this day and age.

The first point about not allowing control via external apps is something I tried to feed back to them, however I didn't get a response. That probably says something in itself.

There is also an issue where sometimes if you see "friend X commented on Y's status" then despite you not being able to view Y's stream, you will be able to click on that link and see it. It appears intermittent, but happens enough that it seems to have been a bug for some time now. (If anyone has details of when it happens let me know!)

I've had this blog post in draft for a couple of months and not put it up. I'm posting it now to get it out there, but finally they might have some competition to get them out of their complacent mode. Google+ has just gone into limited trial, and they get the privacy options right in terms of allowing restrictions for any posts easily. It'll be an interesting battle...