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Posts Tagged ‘internet’

An interesting debate about anonymous speech on the internet, CDA 230, and the related issues of privacy, information flow and libelous harm. My position on the issue is expressed in my two comments on the thread.

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  •  While GM and Chrysler are in their last throes, Ford is trudging on. Obama may have fired GM’s CEO and told Chrysler exactly what to do but he has had no such luck controlling Ford. The company has refused offers of taxpayer life support and believes it can not only survive this recession but in fact prosper. It’s CEO, Mullaly does not hide his admiration for Toyota and believes that in a few years Ford will be viewed on par with the Japanese giant. “I would love people in the future to say, ‘There’s Toyota and Honda and Ford,’ ” says Ford’s North American chief Mark Fields. “We have the goods to do it.”
  • It may be the strangest worm to ever hit the internet. The unknown creators of the Conficker worm have earned praise for their breathtaking sophistication even from the supranational security forces that are currently trying to track them down. So far the worm has done nothing except morph into more sophisticated variants but estimates for the number of infected — and thus controllable — computers range from five to fifteen million. Microsoft has announced a $250,000 bounty for information leading to the identity of the hacker who created it. Everyone only agrees on two things: it is the most complex and brilliant piece of malware written in years and no one knows what it can really do if it’s controller decides to wake it up.
  • Today, the federal excise tax on every pack of cigarettes will jump from 39 cents to $1.01, the single largest federal tobacco tax increase ever. Future plans in the works include outlawing risky sports, putting a 1000% tax on cheeseburgers, and having fines for too little exercise; eventually anything that places a ‘needless burden on society’ will be either banned or taxed to such an extent that everyone will be forced to conduct themeselves in an exemplary manner. Ok, I made up the last sentence. But you get the idea. You see, it is for the sake of the children.
  • Brooke Oberwetter has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Parks Police officer who arrested her last year. She was arrested while — and apparently because — she was quietly dancing to her iPod during a planned celebration at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Celebrities are getting strange fantasies involving President Obama and have no qualms about admitting it. “I’ll collect paper cups off the ground to make [Obama’s] pathway clear,” Halle Berry recently told the Philadelphia Daily News, “I’ll do whatever he says.” And in February, author Judith Warner used her New York Times blog to confess that “The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs.”
  • A beautiful piece by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper on drug legalization.

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A new Georgia law requires anyone convicted of a sex offence in the past to hand over all their user-names and passwords to the government.

Mind you, this law isn’t aimed only at child rapists and suchlike. It will cover everyone who has ever been convicted of a sex related offence. In essence, what this law says is, if you err sexually once — however minor your crime is — you lose all  privacy rights for the rest of your life. Oh — and did I mention that past laws have already made it impossible for these people to find a home or get a job long after they have finished serving their sentences?

Actually, I think these are great laws. For they further a very important principle: offenders must never ever be allowed to reintegrate into society.

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Even in the context of American style conservative nanny-statism, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is an extraordinary law. A direct offspring of the  “American Values Agenda”, this law, passed in 2006, in combination with the Wire Act effectively prohibits any kind of internet gambling operation in America. The law outlaws games of pure chance like online slot-machines, any kind of wager on the outcome of sporting or election events as well as games of skill like online poker. In April 2007, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank introduced a bill to overturn the Act, saying “The existing legislation is an inappropriate interference on the personal freedom of Americans and this interference should be undone.” On June 7, 2007, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) introduced HR 2610, the Skill Game Protection Act. This act would legalize Internet poker, bridge, chess, and other games of skill. On September 26, 2008, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S.3616, the Internet Skill Game Licensing and Control Act. This bill would amend title 31, United States Code, to provide for the licensing of Internet skill game facilities, and for other purposes. None of these bills have passed as yet.

It is worth noting that the law only targets the gambling website or a financial institution used for the transaction. The act of gambling itself is legal, or at least quasi-legal in so far that the Feds have never prosecuted an individual for gambling online. Nonetheless, the presence of the UIGEA means that it extremely difficult to find a website that will accept a customer living in the USA.

There are many laws that take away individual freedom in order to protect a person from his own choices. However, there are two features that make the UIGEA particularly egregious.

First of all, the Act is blatantly discriminatory because physical gambling is already legal in much of the USA. One can go to a Vegas casino and legally play all the games that the UIGEA bans. So an important consequence of the Act is that it helps boost the business of influential Las Vegas hotels. Corporatism and special interests have always played their part in the Bush administration and this law is another example where a policy that favors large business houses is cloaked in the garb of public interest.

Secondly, the American government has decided that the UIGEA not only applies to companies based in the US but also any internet company situated anywhere in the world that accepts a bet from an American. Most of these companies have been forced to shut down their US business after the passage of this act. Those that were less careful paid harshly. On July 16, 2006 David Carruthers, the CEO of BetOnSports, an UK based online gambling website, was arrested at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in Texas while changing planes on his way from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica. He is still under 24 hours house detention in a hotel in St. Louis awaiting trial. Shortly later, Gary Kaplan, the founder of the same company, was arrested in the Dominican Republic. He was extradited into U.S. custody with the help of the Interpol and currently faces up to 83 years of imprisonment. The Canadian founders of Neteller, strong opponents of the UIGEA, were similarly detained while on a visit to the US.

All this despite the fact that operating a gambling website is fully legal in all the countries that these individuals were based in.

Notwithstanding the Kaplan episode, the actual probability of the US extraditing the operator of an online gambling company from another country is low. This is primarily for diplomatic reasons, as outlined in this excellent paper. However, if such a person ever accidentally sets foot on US soil, woe befall.

The real damage of the UIGEA, however, is to millions of American customers whose basic freedom to spend their money in the way they want is curtailed. This point of view was eloquently presented by Radley Balko, senior Reason editor and popular blogger, in a courageous testimony to the US Congress:

Online poker is merely a new evolution of the game, similar to the way Civil War poker games introduced the straight, and gave us variations like draw and stud poker. The Internet merely removes the geographic barrier preventing those who love the game from finding opponents of similar skill who are willing to wager similar amounts of money.

No one is hurt when two or more consenting adults sit down for a game of poker, be it online or in person. Why any of this should be of concern to the federal government is rather perplexing. I respect the fact that many Americans—and many members of Congress—may have moral objections to gambling, online or otherwise. To them, I’d say, simply, “don’t gamble, then.”

But in a nation where Las Vegas is one of our fastest growing cities and most popular tourist destinations, where Indian casinos are commonplace, where horse racing is a national past time, and where nearly every state in the union derives public funds from state lotteries, singling out Internet gambling for prohibition seems arbitrary and, frankly, hypocritical.

Yes, it’s possible a parent could bet away their family’s savings, or their child’s education fund in an online poker game. They could also fritter that money away on eBay. Or on booze. Or fancy cars and exotic travel.

These are all personal decisions, of course. And if a free society means anything, it means we should have the freedom to make bad choices, in addition to good ones. The ban on Internet gambling punishes the millions of Americans who were wagering online responsibly due to anecdotal evidence of a few who may do so irresponsibly. It’s an affront to personal responsibility, and symptomatic of a Nanny Statist government that treats its citizens like children. A government based on the principle of liberty doesn’t police the personal lives of its citizens for bad habits, at any level, much less at the federal level.

The UIGEA also happens to be one of those nanny-state laws that has personally affected me.

I wrote earlier how betting on political futures is a smart investment for the politically savvy citizen. However, when I actually wanted to place a bet on the election results, I found that most websites refused to accept my credit card. Finally I found one, Sportsbook, that did. After doing some research and satisfying myself that Sportsbook is one of the most reputable and reliable companies in the online gambling business, I placed a significant bet on Obama winning the election and a smaller bet on his winning Florida. This was at a time when my calculated probability of his winning these two was significantly higher than the perception of the typical American adult, as a result of which I got excellent odds.

I ended up making an eighty percent profit and put in a withdrawal request. However it was taking some time for my money to reach me, so after two weeks I asked them what the matter was. To my surprise, I got an immediate and friendly reply. They explained in detail exactly what the problem was. They stated unambiguously that they had never missed a payment and they will ensure I get my money. However, the UIGEA forced them to resort to long-winded payment procedures to circumvent the law. They send me a link to this post that explained exactly how they do it

From then on, they sent me a weekly update about the status of my withdrawal request. And when they finally said the cheque was on its way, I received it in a couple of days.

So here’s my recommendation. If you want to place an online bet, use Sportsbook. Their exemplary customer service was the one shining light in this whole sordid episode.

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A PIL has been filed in India asking to get Google Earth banned. Apparently the terrorists used Google images to plot their attacks.

Considering that the terrorists also used buses, trains, cellphones and a fishing boat, perhaps we should ban those as well.

And while we are at it, we should make sure that there are no loopholes. After all, most of the data supplied by Google is provided by other parties. Even if Google Earth is no longer accessible from India, one would be able to get the information from other sources. So let us block those sites as well, indeed ban all data obtained by satellites or cameras, and ensure that such data cannot be sent into India from outside the country. Regulating the internet would be a good start.

But here’s a prediction: after all this is done, a resourceful individual will still be able to get any information he wants. For information is a rebellious bird, it can never, ever be caged. The same however, is not true of the government.

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Daniel Drezner, in a superb article, counters the view — fashionable of late — that the internet and the blogging phenomenon has led to a decline in the quality of public intellectualism.

The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that “the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ‘gotcha’ commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible.” David Frum complains that “the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are … absorbing.” David Brooks laments, “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

These comments, Drezner says, miss the point.

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

Drezner is right. The free market of ideas created by the internet does contain a great deal of low-quality noise; however, the very best blogs, quite often, provide both more variety and better analysis than the mainstream media and its salaried pundits. Furthermore, as Drezner points out, blogs play an important role in demystifying their subject. They provide thoughtful, quick critiques of mainstream works and are a powerful agent of quality control. In a sense, blogging and more conventional methods of intellectual discourse (such as books or papers) are complementary; each performs better in the presence of the other.

Above all, the low barrier of entry means that intellectualism in the internet age is no longer the sole province of those with a degree, but can be successfuly partaken by anyone with the knowledge, capability and intelligence. That’s a good thing.

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From this report:

China could become the first country to classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder amid growing concern over compulsive Web use by millions of Chinese, state media said on Monday.

The health ministry is likely to adopt a new manual on Internet addiction next year drawn up by Chinese psychologists that recognises it as a condition similar to compulsive gambling or alcohol addiction, the China Dail reported.

Nothing wrong with mere classification. The trouble starts when that morphs into coercion. Citing mental illness is one of the favourite tools of governments worldwide to take away people’s rights. This law is just going to be one more way China can lock it’s citizens up.

Just so that my position is clear, I am not against psychiatry per se, nor do I think that mental illness is a myth. I think science can and should be used to cure people of their mental troubles; however any such step must be voluntary just as it is in the case of physical illness. As a moral principle, I am in all circumstances opposed to any form of forced treatment, involuntary commitment or involuntary conservatorship for any adult who retains the faculty to express his or her wishes and is not an imminent danger to other people.

(Hat Tip: Reason Hit and Run)

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