Friday, November 30, 2007

Did you remember to log out of facebook?

From the New York Times (Nov. 30):

The system Facebook introduced this month, called Beacon, is viewed as an important test of online tracking, a popular advertising tactic that usually takes place behind the scenes, where consumers do not notice it. Companies like Google, AOL and Microsoft routinely track where people are going online and send them ads based on the sites they have visited and the searches they have conducted.

But Facebook is taking a far more transparent and personal approach, sending news alerts to users’ friends about the goods and services they buy and view online.

Remarkably, Facebook defends this practice.

“Whenever we innovate and create great new experiences and new features, if they are not well understood at the outset, one thing we need to do is give people an opportunity to interact with them,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, a vice president at Facebook. “After a while, they fall in love with them.”
I think that they have crossed the line into spyware, and very few people are going to fall in love with this. The clear line, in my mind, is related to the fact that activities on the web that have nothing to do with Facebook are being reported to them, even if they are not posted there.

My approach, when I need to visit Facebook, will now be the following:
  1. Go to the Facebook site and log in (I do not click the box that says "remember me").
  2. Read whatever brought me there.
  3. Log out.
  4. Delete cookies (for Firefox):
    1. Go to the Tools pull-down menu and select Options
    2. Click on the Privacy tab and then the "Show Cookies" radio button
    3. Select Facebook and click on "Remove Cookies"

Of course, this is tedious. I don't use Facebook that often, so it's OK. If you trust them, you can use their privacy settings (top bar, just to the left of "log out"), but I don't (not after reading the statements from Facebook spokespeople about this issue).

Predictably, one can find more sophisticated fixes on the web. This is from Nate Weiner on Idea Shower (from Nov. 7):
  1. Get Firefox
  2. Download and Install the BlockSite plugin for Firefox.
  3. After restarting Firefox select ‘Add-ons’ from the Tools menu.
  4. Click the ‘Options’ button on the BlockSite extension
  5. Click the ‘Add’ button
  6. Enter http://** into the input box
  7. Click ‘OK’
  8. Click ‘OK’ again and you are good to go.

Facebook has reported switching to an opt-out version of Beacon. However, the details are not simple (see the Washington Post, and New York Times again). The bottom line is that Facebook wants you to try Beacon.
Facebook executives say they do not want to add a universal opt-out button because then users would not be able to try out Beacon on different sites to see what it can offer. -NYTimes

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Is the U.S. Bridge Federation pandering to Beijing censors?

A story in yesterday's New York Times about the U.S. Bridge Federation's proposed sanctions against members of the U.S. women's team deserves attention. These women are being punished for holding up a small hand-written sign that says "We did not vote for Bush" at the world bridge championships in Shanghai. The USBF justifies itself by saying that a private organization can "control the speech of people who represent them." Various bridge players quoted in the article found the sign offensive, but the motives of the USBF are not presented in this article. Certainly, partisan Bush supporters can be extremely defensive these days, but the sanctions imposed are very serious to the people involved, while the protest itself seems a bit mild (even Bush must know that many people voted against him). I think that something else is going on here.

The sort of thing that these women did demonstrates more clearly than just about anything else they could have done that they are people who are accustomed to freedom of speech. That is perceived as very dangerous in China, where the government is struggling to maintain censorship in a country with increasing ties to the rest of the world. Next August, thousands of people from all over the world will be coming to Beijing for the Olympics, and events like this one could erode the Chinese people's acceptance of government censorship. Furthermore, the USBF will be going back to China for the World Bridge Olympiad, and the sanctions proposed involve barring these players from that event.

I think that the USBF is motivated by the desire to maintain good relations with Beijing so that everything goes smoothly next year. While I consider it unlikely that they are responding to direct requests from the Chinese, I do think that they are trying to be good guests in a way that the Chinese understand. It's certainly clear to me which side of this debate is supportive of freedom and American values, and which side is working for the interests of government censorship worldwide. The article mentions a hearing to be held in San Francisco at the Fall North American Bridge Championships. The world will be watching to see just how free Americans really are. The USBF can do what is good for freedom, for America and even (by extension) George Bush, or they can do what's good for China and others all over the world who find freedom to be a dangerous idea.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Musharraf and Bush; terror and democracy

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Google and the future of cell phones

It was interesting to read two related technology articles in Thursday's paper. In the Times, David Pogue reviewed the new T-Mobile Shadow smartphone ("Reaching for Apple, Falling Short"). He loves the phone, but finds it completely ruined by terrible software. "Frankly, Windows Mobile 6 is a mess. Common features require an infinitude of taps and clicks, and the ones you need most are buried in menus. Apparently the Windows Mobile 6 team learned absolutely nothing from Windows Mobile 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5." He then goes on to illustrate just how bad it is by giving advice such as "When you’re finished looking at a text message, you should not have to open a menu to find the Delete command." This goes on for a while, and it's actually a bit funny.

Google to the rescue! Rob Pegoraro, wrote "Google and Cellphones: Let Freedom Ring" for the Post on the same day. He talks about the three freedoms promised by android, Google's new operating system: the freedom to use the web as you want, the freedom to add the programs you want and the freedom to change your phone's underlying software to add new capabilities, change unwanted behaviors or fix flaws. The two articles work together very nicely.

Whether an alliance of Google, cell phone users and cell phone manufacturers will have the clout required to get the wireless carriers to get out of the way remains to be seen. The problem is that a small number of carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile ) have most of the cell phone networks, and only they can provide good service. So it's good news that T-Mobile, a carrier, designed the Shadow. They have an incentive to adopt android: better software will help them to sell their phones (and service).

In the meantime, I have only a simple no-nonsense phone and I use Verizon because it provides good coverage in my area. When I can get a phone that has Pegoraro's three freedoms, then I will be ready to go high-tech.