No Tax Forms for 2009?

Well, looks like New York State has decided to make the Internet it’s new cost-cutting strategy, because Channel 8 is reporting today that the state will no longer be sending out tax forms and instructions unless requested. That means they’re encouraging more people to use the Internet to fill out their taxes. I wonder when the Fed goes the same route.

Of course, all of this ignores the large number of people in this country for whom access to such technology is not taken for granted. Many rural poor do not have their own PCs and do not have access to a PC anywhere nearby. This once again raises the question about getting coverage of high-speed cable and other Internet solutions into these rural areas. We have probably left the era where computers are luxury items behind a few years ago. Internet access is now as much of a question of infrastructure and utility as the phone company and RG&E.

I really hope that stimulus package contains some money for network infrastructure.


The Internet / Economy Story to Watch This Holiday Season

Those of you who use FireFox are familiar with the fact that you can install add-on scripts to make the browser more useful to you in a variety of ways. For example, I use a plugin called FireBug which slices and dices the code on a page to help me track down problems with web design or make live changes to the code to see how it will effect the site before I commit it to actual data. I also use a plugin which allows me to post any video I see on the Internet to a service called VodPod, which I’ve discussed at length before.

Well, now there is another plugin which is causing quite a stir and could lead to some pretty interesting clones and spin-offs. . . as well as some interesting complaints and even possible lawsuits. Welcome to the new Pirates of the Amazon, a plugin that identifies the album you’re viewing on and then takes you to a link where you can download a free torrent of the same album. “Where,” you ask? Why,, where else?

I’ve been discussing this plugin at some length with a friend of this site, MC, all afternoon.

The thing is: try as they might, no one has been able to tie The Pirate Bay down to any kind of illegal activity. Strictly speaking, there really isn’t anything illegal about file sharing in the first place, but that’s splitting hairs, for the sake of this discussion. So the question is: who made this plugin? If they’re affiliated with TPB in any way, then there’s a possibility that we’re one step closer to a TPB conviction for something. If not, then I don’t see how either party is doing anything which can be considered illegal. They claim not to be affiliated with, but I suppose that’s still an open question for now.

And even if TPB is directly responsible for this new plugin’s creation, is there really anything more illegal or questionable about what they’ve created than what they’ve done in the past? My sense is that no, there isn’t anything really new here to prosecute, but I don’t doubt that there’s a prosecutor out there just itching to take this one on.

And forgetting the legal implications of this particular plugin aside, what other similar projects might loom just over the horizon? What about a button that sends you to Google Shopping Search to find the product you’re looking for, only cheaper elsewhere? Or an instant eBay link? Or even something sinister like a cheap online drug alternative to something you see at Rite-Aid? You could even create a plugin that disables all “Buy Now” buttons on pages where your shopaholic teenagers are always lurking.

And all of this happens on your own PC, presumably without the phishing or security implications. But there *is* a privacy concern: namely any attempt by Amazon or others to remove this sort of plugin from your system means they would be violating your privacy.

We’re only seeing the beginning of this, I can promise you that.


Look Alive: The Latest Holiday Email Scam

Those of you who read this blog know I try to post any suspicious emails I see online for the benefit of the community.  I’ve been recieving emails lately – which correspond quite well with actual purchases for the holidays – that purport to be from UPS.  The body of the email goes something like this:

Unfortunately we were not able to deliver postal package you sent on Oct the 28 in time because the recipient’s address is not correct. Please print out the invoice copy attached and collect the package at our office Your UPS

The sender’s domain name is, which is a legit domain name, but unlikely to be the sender’s real domain.

The “invoice” in question is, of course, a zip file.  People: never, never, never open a zip file from someone you didn’t know was going to be sending you one.  This includes friends and relatives.  You never know when one of these dastardly little bastards is a virus, and what you think is an email sent by a friend may actually be virus activity your friend knows nothing about.


Throwing Sheep at a Problem

BBC News has an interesting article about the future of “Web2.0” sites and development, interviewing the man who coined the term Web2.0.  Seems like, if he only knew the silliness about to be unleashed on the Internet, he might have named it something different or avoided it altogether.

But much though he may sourpuss at the irrelevance of some Web2.0 applications, the fact is that we are by and large fairly frivolous people with fairly frivolous interests.  It doesn’t diminish the Web2.0 brand to see that silly little social applications have been built, it reinforces the relevance that the Web2.0 evolution has had in that powerful concepts have invaded the simplest of communication.  To be sure, loading down browsers with a ton of irrelevant JavaScript crap is not what the originators had in mind.  They had it in mind that we would “harness collective intelligence.”

Weep for the lost opportunity if you must.  But what they didn’t have in mind – indeed, what the visionaries of our society so rarely ever have in mind – is the sheer volume of our collective intelligence occupied at all moments with the research and development of fart jokes.



A major stimulus packages for the nation’s ailing economy begins to seem like an inevitability and all arguments against it will be quickly brushed aside.  That seems about right, as I’ve pointed out in the past, because government spending is the only long-term form of capital that has ever sustained us in our greatest financial crisises in the past.  Robert Reich does a great job of explaining the reasons for a sustained stimulus package that includes more than the clumsy rebate checks of the Bush Years.

I don’t know what the Obama team has in mind, but the word on everyone’s lips is “infrastructure.”  Since building roads and bridges (or repairing the ones we have) helps make commerce happen more efficiently in addition to creating jobs, this does seem like the best place to start.

But if I may, those of us in New York need to remind ourselves of a big infrastructure initiative in our recent past that deserves a second look: Wire New York.  Between our ill-fated Governor Spitzer and the economic troubles we have, this one kind of got brushed under the rug.  Obviously, with New York’s huge debt problems, this isn’t an initiative that can be picked up again all by our lonesomes.  But it is something that should be taken to the Obama team and presented as a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure – as important as roads and bridges in our modern economy.

It could mean the difference between rural workers without jobs and rural workers answering phones for Gateway.  It may not be the best job, but it pays the bills.  It paid mine at one time.


Meanwhile, They’re Quietly Snooping Your Files. . .

There were any number of issues I’d wanted to get to yesterday and didn’t.  But this was one of the big ones:

MSNBC is reporting that the days of corporate police are getting closer all the time, at least on the Internet.  A new law quietly but unanimously passed through the Congress, which goes into effect at the first of the year, begins the process of compelling your ISP to snoop through every file passed back and forth from your computer to the Internet in search of kiddie porn:

But such monitoring just became easier with a law approved unanimously by the Congress and signed on Monday by President Bush. A section of that law written by Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gives Internet service providers access to lists of child porn files, which previously had been closely held by law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Although the law says it doesn’t require any monitoring, it doesn’t forbid it either. And the law ratchets up the pressure, making it a felony for ISPs to fail to report any “actual knowledge” of child pornography.

And we all hate the idea of kids being used by letchers of the world for profit and malice, so this is the kind of provision that gets passed into law without a second thought by a lot of Congress critters.  But let’s you and I give it that second though, shall we?

First above all, since when is a corporation required to snoop on it’s customers by the government?  And where does it stop?  If your ISP or Google is forced to reveal private data of it’s customers, we should be worried that FedEx, Kinko’s or the Wegmans One Hour Photo Lab will be the next corporate entities pressed into the service of corporate policing of citizens.  Call me old fashioned, but I’d always thought of the local police department or the FBI as the sort of agencies that were better off as public services, rather than private enterprises.

Secondly, to bring the discussion back to the Internet, let us consider who is going to be affected by this law: everybody.  Well, no.  Not quite everybody.  Those of possessed of a relatively nominal level of computer sophistication will have no problem at all getting around anonymously on the Internet.  Even if that means driving around looking for unprotected WiFi hotspots to get their porn from.  Criminals, in other words, will always find a way around the system.

So that leaves everybody else.  All the people not going out of their way to hide their identities on the Internet.  All the people who are – in the end – doing nothing wrong.  They’re the ones who are left completely open to having every single email, every single Christmas purchase, every single lookup of herpes, alcoholism, battered women’s shelters, or gambling problems filtered and categorized for the benefit of. . . well, anyone with access to that data, do you suppose?

And at what point does some of the other information not related to kiddie porn also become fair game?  When does the government decide that – as long as we’ve got all this data lying around – it would be a good idea to look into possible drug use or illegal downloads or simply saying things in an IM session that someone determines is “dangerous?”

You’ve heard all these arguments about privacy and free speech in the past.  The question is: when is someong going to do something about it?


Recession a Boon for Open Source?

Recently a friend of this website observed that the economic downturn, however down it turns, will probably mean the end of all those free goodies we’ve come to expect on the Internet.  But Jim Whitehurst of Red Hat thinks different.  Since the downturn will force companies to spend less on new technology infrastructure, innovation and improvement may well come through Open Source (which basically means “free”) solutions, which if not always free, are dramatically less expensive than Microsoft and other profit-driven, proprietary models.

Its an interesting and probably sensible theory.  Since Open Source developers are working largely for their own personal intellectual satisfaction rather than to create copyrighted software, OS development will probably not be significantly impacted by the economic downturn.  Conversely, since profit-driven companies will need both companies willing to shell out cash and R&D projects which rely on that cash, they’re likely to take a big hit.  Internet innovation is likely to continue unabated, whereas the next generation Microsoft Operating System will be significantly slowed down.

On the other hand, gaming this notion a bit further, its just as likely that the loss of revenues in the IT market will spring new fights over copyright and new litigation warfare from Microsoft.  Even when hurting, Microsoft can afford the lawyers to keep winning in court, but Open Source projects would need to divert valuable resources to such a fight.

Time will tell, but things are going to get interesting in the IT world.


Never! trust! Yahoo! security!

Sorry, headline of this article is an old tech geek joke. . . .

Sarah Palin’s email account was hacked into.  You know, the one she used to communicate official business whilst skirting document retention laws?  Yeah, that one.  And here’s the really funny bit.  Check out the McHacked-Failin ’08 campaign’s reaction:

“This is a shocking invasion of the Governor’s privacy and a violation of law,” GOP presidential campaign manager Rick Davis said Wednesday in a written statement. “The matter has been turned over to the appropriate authorities and we hope that anyone in possession of these emails will destroy them.”

OIC. . .  So, cracking Sarah Palin’s clandestine gubinatorial email account was a violation of law because it’s a violation of privacy.  Except that there’s really no privacy with government communications, which is why she’s not supposed to be using that email account in the first place.  Right?

Now, I’m not suggsting that you should go rooting through what’s there, but I will say that if you did want to look, you’d better do it quick.


Google Gaudi

Google has revealed it’s latest offering in its information indexing services, Google Gaudi.  Gaudi’s purpose is to utilize voice recognition software and search for words and phrases inside of Google Video and YouTube videos just like Google ordinarily would search HTML text.

This is actually a smaller piece of a larger technology, as anyone who has ever released a video with copyrighted music in it probably knows by now.  YouTube (owned, remember, by Google) scans it’s video library with audio recognition software to find audio that indicates the video might be in violation of copyright law and alerts copyright holders of the issue.  I know this because back when I was still doing video blogs (which I miss), I did a blog that was partially in tribute to James Brown shortly after his death.  I was informed last week that my video, which included a few clips of James, was potentially in violation of copyright.  Happily, the copyright holder had no interest in persuing the removal of my content.

So, those of us interested in SEO (Search Engine Optimization, basically making your webpage as friendly to search engines as possible) have been hearing rumors forever that Google would eventually be developing sound and video search capabilities.  It appears we are seeing the dawn of that new era of search capability.  It wil be interesting going forward to see what this new technologies bring to light, from advanced new uses and benefits for end users to brand new “Black Hat” attacks.


Justice May Sue Google for “Being Evil”

Actually, it looks like it might just be anti-trust.  No big whoop: the Bush Justice Department probably just wants to look like it’s doing something.

Google recently announced a deal with Yahoo! to provide advertisement on Yahoo!’s network, sharing the profits with the portal company.  This deal, should it be put into action, would make Google the soul source of 80% of all Internet advertising revenue.  That’s a fairly staggering figure that does make you wonder about the potential monopoly.

But what is genuinely amusing about all this is having Microsoft lawyers tsk-tsking over Google’s dominance in search and advertisement:

Microsoft also has objected to the deal, saying it would unfairly foreclose competition on the Web. In Senate hearings in July, Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, testified that “if search is the gateway to the Internet, and most people believe that it is, this deal will put Google in position to own that gateway and the information that flows through it.”

Well, now. Ain’t that rich?  Basically, Microsoft objects to Google’s dominance primarily because they want to be the dominant company.  If anybody should be sued for anti-trust, it should be Microsoft.


Google Chrome, Net Neutrality and Internet Privacy

If you haven’t had time to do so already, you should really check out Google Chrome, which promises to be the most significant new development in computer software in about ten years.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of adapting new technology right away, prefering instead to watch others scrape their knees while the kinks are worked out of the new system.  In this case, however, I’m inclined to maybe take the leap, just because this seems a genuinely new and different technology of which I’d like to be well-familiar by the time it reaches saturation.

What Google is not saying about this new app – but everybody else who knows a thing or two about computers is saying – is that Chrome is not really a browser at all: it’s a web-based application Operating System.  Chrome allows you to launch web apps directly from the desktop – like anything from Flickr’s photo managing to your WordPress blog.  It handles file downloads on its own, has an integrated search/url/bookmarks toolbar that seems at least as impressive as FireFox’s “Awesome Bar,” which I love.  In short, this application seems built around the idea that you can virtually bypass your current Operating System and file system to store and work with everything online, making Windows optional and Linux systems at least as viable.

All of this is fascinating, but think for a moment about the consequences.  Your ISP is looking to cap your downloads, which means even accessing your own stuff could cost extra money.  Telco giants – not just your local ISP – want extra money for all that surfing you do.  Meanwhile, Google itself has left privacy advocates steaming over it’s dealings with China, and the pressure to release sensitive information in the United States and elsewhere will become more and more difficult to resist as we continue to do more things online.

I don’t particularly have any perscriptions for any of this.  All I’m saying is that we need to pay much, much more attention to the Internet as a vital resource than our current political environment allows.  We need to forget that much of the traffic on the Internet is concerned with porn or Miley Cyrus and take this seriously.


Frontier Internet Users Beware! Your Connection is Capped!

OK, so the local news media really needs to get up to speed on this one. The Consumerist is reporting that Frontier Internet is capping its users’ downloads at 5Gb per month. After that, they now say they reserve the right to either cancel the account or charge a whopping $10.80 a gigabyte in overage charges!  Best of all, they’re calling the first five gigabytes their “Free 5GB of internet usage.”  Really?  I thought you had to pay for it.  Check their Acceptable Use Policy for more details on the new, quietly introduced, policy.

You might want to consider this before downloading your next movie from, eh?  And lest we forget, Frontier also charges you $4 for the modem even if you use your own and locks you into a multi-year contract.  I’m not saying TW is any bed of roses, but damn, people.