Monthly Archives: November 2010

Links for week ending 26 November 2010

US Senate Committee approves internet censorship bill
The EFF report that the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). The draft law proposes giving the government power to use the Domain Name System to boot copyright-infringing websites off the net, and has attracted expert and bi-partisan criticism. Debate on the bill will now move to the Senate at large.

India finalises policy on open standards
The Centre for Internet and Society report that after three years of intense lobbying and debate, India has finalised its policy on Open Standards for e-Governance. The policy represents an important victory for the open source software community, as it excludes patented software that requires royalty payments from being considered an open standard.

Google charges US authorities $25 a head for user surveillance
The results of a Freedom of Information request to the US Drug Enforcement Administration have turned up information about how much different internet companies charge to wiretap their customers. While Microsoft does not charge authorities who make authorised requests for wiretaps, Google charges $25 and Yahoo! $29 per customer wiretapped. The Register report that in 2010 the DEA paid ISPs, telcos, and other communication providers $6.5 million for wiretaps.

Syrian bloggers brace for fresh blow to Middle East press freedom
Media analysts say that parliamentary approval for a draft law in Syria that would require bloggers to register as journalist union members is likely to come soon. The Christian Science Monitor reports: “Online journalists and bloggers in Syria, already subject to harassment and imprisonment, are concerned that the law is designed to crack down on their activities and restrict freedom of expression.”

WIPO to work on library and archive copyright exceptions
EIFL report that the new workplan for WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), agreed earlier this month, not only includes proposals to take forward a treaty to guarantee access to reading materials for the visually impaired, but also allocates time for “text-based work on appropriate exceptions and limitations for libraries and archives”. EIFL, who have been working with the SCCR to reach this point for six years, call it an “unprecedented opportunity for libraries and archives”.

Long live the web: a call for continued open standards and neutrality
Tim Berners-Lee makes the case for why the web will flourish in the future only if we protect the medium’s basic principles, in this long essay for Scientific American.

Information technologies & international development
This special collection of essays includes contributions from Amartya Sen, Ethan Zuckerman, Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Liang.

Cyber Con
This long essay by James Harkin for the London Review of Books uses the publication of three new books on technology and geopolitics to launch a critique of the US State Department’s “internet freedom” agenda in the Middle East.

Russia’s Cyrillic cybernauts
This Financial Times feature on the Russian internet examines patterns of ownership among major Russian technology and media companies, their links to the Kremlin and the potential ramifications for privacy and free expression those links might have.

Global science
This Economist feature sums up the findings of a recent UNESCO report into the current status of science around the world. It finds that although emerging economies are increasing the amount of money they spend on R&D, citations originating from these countries remain low.

Blog: Don’t trade our lives away
The Delhi Network of Positive People (DNP+) and Medecin Sans Frontiers have set up a new blog – Don’t Trade Our Lives Away – to share documents, pictures and news on the draft India-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA). NGOs in India are campaigning against the FTA, and against related international trade arrangements such as ACTA – citing their catastrophic effects on access to medicines.

Social bibliographies and collaborative reading: you’re doing it wrong

Recently, I have been playing around with the various tools and services available to people who want to store and share their bibliographies and research materials online. Such services are currently blossoming, and for a quick overview of what’s out there, I’d suggest starting with this review written by Eugene Barsky at the University of British Columbia.

My aim in all of this was to explore the options for creating a hub where people interested in emerging technologies and their implications for society could share and discuss scholarly materials – books, book chapters, academic papers, lecture videos etc. I think that what I had in mind was a bit like PLoS Hubs. As PLoS write in their blog post introducing the PLoS hubs biodiversity project:

“The vision behind the creation of PLoS Hubs is to show how open-access literature can be reused and reorganized, filtered, and assessed to enable the exchange of research, opinion, and data between community members.”

So, were any of the existing tools and services powerful enough to mirror the functionality offered by PLoS Hubs? I looked at Mendeley, Zotero, Wizfolio, Scribd and Connotea. The answer I’ve come to so far is… not quite.

That’s not surprising. Note that PLoS Hubs works exclusively with open access literature, which means they can import whole journal articles to their platform without violating copyright. By contrast, a lot of the material I want to highlight on my hub is protected by copyright. So although I can easily collate links to materials, visitors to my hub are going to have to go back out to the web to read some of the material I’m highlighting, and that might leave them less inclined to return back to start a conversation about it. That’s without even going into the tricky subject of whether they benefit from access to the same institutional subscriptions I do: I could be pointing to materials that, for them, are locked behind a subscription paywall they have no credentials to vault.

Of course, I could always break copyright law: most of the platforms I tested (with the exception of Connotea) have facilities to upload and share files direct from the platform, with some element of free storage. The platforms are wise to this, and employ various strategies to dissuade their customers from breaking copyright terms, from showing prim pop-up windows (that I presume they hope have the effect of transferring the liability for the infringement from them to you) when you upload a file (Zotero, Scribd) or opt to share it (Wizfolio) to only allowing you to upload files through a convoluted process involving a desktop client (Mendeley).

Setting the problem of copyright aside for now, I discounted two of the services right off the starter blocks: Scribd because I really dislike their reading pane and because it was fully public, with no option to share references among a private group; and Connotea because it had no option to upload files even if they were files you were permitted to upload. I then set about testing the remaining three products – Wizfolio, Mendeley and Zotero. One of the ways I used to test them was in collating a bibliography from Gabriella Coleman’s fantastic contribution to the Atlantic syllabus series “The Anthropology of Hackers“.


Why did I end up starting with Wizfolio? I think it’s because it has the fastest and cleanest interface. Perhaps I was exposed to too many FileMaker Pro-based database tools at an impressionable age, but the forms Wizfolio uses just felt right. I might not have thought that had I not had AdBlock running on Chrome – the service is ad supported, and if you look at it without AdBlock on, it’s a totally different experience.

Wizfolio’s web button “WizAdd” also performed best out of the three products, picking up that I wanted to save a journal article and automatically fetching all the right details when I visited a web page like this which listed it, where the other two products’ web buttons thought I wanted to save a web page.

Wizfolio’s auto-complete for bibliographic detail was also the most efficient, even though it kept trying to locate the titles of the papers I was saving in PubMed. Adding books to the bibliography was a pleasure, it took less than a second after I’d inputted the ISBN number before Wizfolio had found it through Google Book search and could auto-complete the rest of the details for me, as well as supply a jacket picture and link to a preview on Google Books. Sweet.

Unlike Mendeley, Wizfolio is totally web based. This is good in one sense: the time Mendeley spends syncing your desktop library with your web library is probably best spent on other things. But it’s bad in another sense: any collection you build up of actual files could be gone the moment Wizfolio decides to withdraw its service from you, so you ideally need to be maintaining a desktop mirror in parallel – easy if it’s just you, less easy if you’re building up a library collaboratively.

Finally, there is very little that’s social about Wizfolio. Yes, you can share your bibliographies with colleagues, and you can even make them public. But I’m not sure what public means in this context: Wizfolio didn’t generate a url for the collection, so I’m forced to provide only an image of the final result:

Screenshot from Wizfolio

Notifications about the activities of your colleagues online were delivered in Windows Messenger-style floating pop ups, and no record of social activity was maintained. Colleagues were unable to leave notes on papers you had shared with them to start a conversation about the text. So although Wizfolio scored highly on user experience making and maintaining bibliographies, it was all a bit 1.0. It was clear I was going to have to look elsewhere to scratch the social itch. Luckily, Wizfolio let me export the references I’d inputted as a .RIS file, which I could then input to the other two services I was testing.


I’ve alluded already to a lot of what I didn’t like about Mendeley – the baggy desktop client, the poor web import button. Although I’ve said I didn’t rate the auto-complete functionality for bibliographic details, that’s more about usability than it is about performance – the interface is just unpleasant. I simply don’t think I could get used to the separation of powers between the desktop client and the web instance of my library. But I’m not going to give up. I’m attending this talk from the Mendeley people on Friday, so maybe I’ll get a better feel for how to use the product there.

What I initially loved about Mendeley, though, was how social it felt. I spent a good bit of time filling in my profile details – a sure sign I thought I was going to make some friends. The interface is very Facebook. And I admit it, the Ajax felt good after an hour-or-so’s form-filling at Wizfolio.

After I’d imported the .RIS file from Wizfolio to the Mendeley desktop client, I added the items in it to a new public group library called “The Anthropology of Hackers”. I then synced the desktop client with the web client, went off and made myself a cup of tea, and came back to see how things were going. The result is this (click the picture to go through to the library and have a look around):

Screenshot from Mendeley

You can see that the references haven’t come through all that cleanly, but that’s probably my fault as much as Mendeley’s – I wasn’t all too thorough when I inputted them into Wizfolio. What’s really annoying, however, is the weakness of the discussion facility. Each paper has its own page with a url, but there’s no comment facility so you can’t start talking about what’s in there. You can comment on the status update displayed on the Overview page (pictured), where it shows you I’ve uploaded some references, but for me that’s not the best place to be starting a conversation, especially as the upload messages are presented in batches. What do I want? I’m not sure. A forum? Comments under the papers? Paper fan pages? I don’t know what it is but I know I want something more from a site that looks this social.


I looked at Zotero last because it’s Firefox-only, and Firefox is no longer my browser of choice thanks to how baggy it’s got over the past few years. Like Mendeley (and, by the way, unlike Connotea) it also had no trouble reading the .RIS file from Wizfolio. It also had a number of other features I liked. For a start, unlike Mendeley, it let me create sub-folders in my shared collections, and didn’t restrict the number of people with whom I could share a private collection (with Mendeley, the limit is 10).

Zotero also allowed me to export my bibliographies in a wide variety of formats. Whereas Mendeley would only offer me a Word plugin or a BibTeX export, and Wizfolio restricted itself to exporting a .RIS file, Zotero would let me get at my data in .RDF, MODS, BibTeX, BibIX, .RIS – even as a Wikipedia citation template. This is exactly the kind of good practice you would expect from a FLOSS project, which is what Zotero is. Zotero will also produce straight text bibliographies that conform to a range of bibliographic conventions, to cut and paste wherever you fancy.

As far as social features are concerned, Zotero does have some good ones, although they were hard to find initially. As well as providing a permanent url for your various collections which is publicly accessible, you can create groups with whom you can share your collections, and you can even start discussion threads on the group pages (horray!). Here’s a publicly accessible (but closed membership) group I created as a test, with the Anthropology of Hackers bibliography listed as a collection (again, click the picture to go through to the library and have a look around):

Screenshot of Zotero

Although it’s not as pretty as Mendeley, then, Zotero does appear to have more smarts. And of the three tools I looked at I think it comes out (so far) as the favourite contender for creating my hub.

Social bibliographies and collaborative reading: I’m doing it wrong

If you’ve played a part in writing any of the tools I’ve talked about in this post, or if you’re a protective power-user, please don’t feel aggrieved if I’ve got it wrong, and please feel free to leave guidance in the comments.

Although I’ve now spent quite a while in the company of these three tools, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I certainly am not ready to call a winner. For one thing, it feels like most of these tools are still in development. I can imagine Mendeley will be working up some more engaging social features to live up to its compelling feel in the near future. I suspect Wizfolio will continue to integrate with professional journals to take its auto-complete functionality further towards the seamless end of the spectrum.

Until I’m clear what I want to achieve with this hub (who knows, I might turn out to be looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist) I’m going to keep experimenting with all three of these tools and whatever else comes my way. And I’ll try and keep this blog updated with what I find.

ORG is 5!

ORG is 5 logo

Happy birthday to the Open Rights Group, which turns five today.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world without ORG, and not just because I had the pleasure of running it for two years. In the five years since it was founded by 1,000 concerned citizens, ORG has been a crucial voice in debates as far-ranging as whether we should trust computers to tabulate and count votes for us in elections (we shouldn’t) to whether we should let internet service providers snoop on our browsing activity in order to sell us advertising (we shouldn’t do that either). And of course, ORG has played centre stage in national, European and global campaigns to make the intellectual property framework work for citizens and consumers. I’ve been an ORG supporter for five years and I know better than anyone how crucial my monthly £5 is to ORG’s continued success.

It’s more than just the money. Having a predictable future income helps ORG plan campaigns in the long term – vital if they are to match the considerable lobbying clout of the incumbent rightsholders and new internet giants that flood Westminster and Brussels with legislative and regulatory proposals that are not always in the public interest. Having a sustainable core financial base is a great selling point to grant funders who tend only to want to make project-based grants. And being able to tell legislators that the reason you are here in front of them is because over 1,500 citizens have decided you need to be and put their hands in their pockets to make it happen is a very powerful message indeed. If you haven’t joined the Open Rights Group yet, there are three good reasons to do so today. Go on. Do it.

And now for something a little more whimsical. Here’s the piece I wrote for openDemocracy five years ago to celebrate the founding of ORG. Enjoy:

Tonight, I am following in the footsteps of a Grateful Dead lyricist, Sun Microsystems’ fifth employee and the inventor of the spreadsheet. Like John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, who together founded the United States-based organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, I am starting my own campaigning group for online rights. Well, I can’t take all the credit. Together with over 1,000 other people I have pledged that I will pay £5 (approximately $8) each month for the sake of a voice in an arena where our future online civil rights are at this very moment being put to paper.

It’s an innovative way to start a campaigning organisation. Not until a critical mass of 1,000 people had been reached (with a last-minute call from cult blog BoingBoing for the final thirty-three signatories) could the Open Rights Group (Org) come into being. Using, a site designed by British civic participation hackers MySociety, the co-founder of British netzine Need to Know Danny O’Brien (himself an EFF émigré) started the process off. He pledged that if 1,000 people would join him, he would commit to funding a modest advocacy group that would give a voice to young technologists in the press and at the drafting table to the tune of £60 a year.

This bottom-up approach is testament to the organisation and the values it represents. But the thrill of being involved has not allowed the Org project to pass by without criticism – in fact, the openness of the group has exposed it to heartfelt involvement from many sides. But the project has already met with its first success. In speaking out against content owners’ desire to be treated as equal to security services in terms of access to electronic personal data – a piece of draft law currently being fast tracked through the European Union – Org has finally added the crucial alternative voice in the modern dialogue of online rights.

Campaigning for digital rights is a very wide mandate. Not only is access to the internet increasingly, and rightly, being seen as a basic right, but the traditional concerns of civil rights are magnified in the virtual world. With more personal data swimming around in the ether than ever before, and with security services more enthusiastic than ever to get their hands on it, privacy is top of the agenda, and hopelessly skewed. Likewise freedom of speech. The recent sentencing of Chinese journalist Shi Tao on the strength of evidence provided by a third party global corporate entity should prove that the impossibility of global governance of the net also has its downsides.

Links for week ending 19 November 2010

Final ACTA text officially released
IP Watch report that the US Trade Representative (USTR) have released what they say is the final text of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, subject to a legal review that will take place in Sydney, Australia in early December. The text will then go to national governments to “undertake relevant domestic processes”, USTR said.

Number of mobile subscribers in Africa hits 500 million
The African continent is now home to over half a billion mobile subscribers, according to a new poll by Informa Telecoms and Media. The milestone coincides with the 25th anniversary of mobile telephony in Africa.

China Telecom rejects claims it hijacked US web traffic
China Telecom has rejected claims it hijacked a proportion of internet traffic in April 2009. The accusations surfaced in a report published this week by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The report claimed China Telecom rerouted sensitive US web traffic to China, including traffic destined for the websites of the US Senate, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, NASA and the Commerce Department.

Police put pressure on ISP to close down website in UK
Police in the UK have forced the suspension of a website, FITwatch, that has been engaged in sousveillance of police “Forward Intelligence Teams”, teams of police officers who gather intelligence about political activists at demonstrations and protests through overt surveillance. The suspension follows recent violent protests against rises in student tuition fees, and was initiated via the website’s hosting provider,

Illegal communications surveillance uncovered in Trinidad and Tobago
Police have raided a “secret snooping agency” within the National Security Ministry of Trinidad and Tobago, bringing to light an extensive list of people whose phone calls, text messages and emails have been monitored over five years. The list includes Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Investigations are ongoing.

WIPO Copyright Committee agrees to extra time on visually impaired access
Following negotiations that stretched past midnight on the last day of meetings of WIPO’s Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR/21), delegates have agreed on a work programme to aid access to reading materials for the visually impaired. The programme stipulates three extra working days to be dedicated to discussions on limitations and exceptions to copyright law. Knowledge Ecology International and the World Blind Union have been the key advocates during negotiations.

Can technology end poverty?
This Boston Review special forum presents contrasting perspectives on the contribution of ICT to development. It includes contributions from Nicholas Negroponte, Evgeny Morozov, Archon Fung and Kentaro Toyama.

Tim Wu: The Master Switch
The New York Times talks to Tim Wu about his new book, “The Master Switch: The rise and fall of information empires”, in which he explores the way the open internet might gradually become enclosed by a few dominant US corporations. “My book is a history of information empires in America and the rise and fall of companies like ABC, NBC, AT&T, and eventually Facebook and Google. It’s largely a story of the American affection for information monopolists and the consequences of that fondness.”

Citizen media and digital activism in Kosovo
This feature includes an interview with the editor of Kosovo 2.0, Besa Luci, about the state of online citizen media in Kosovo in the run up to the republic’s first general elections since it declared independence in 2008.

Video: Machine Learning: A Love Story
Hilary Mason, lead scientist at, presents the history of machine learning, covering some of the most significant developments that have taken place the last two decades.

Interview with Robert Cook-Deegan of the Center for Genomics at Duke
This short interview conducted by Creative Commons with the Director of Duke University’s Center for Genomics, Robert Cook-Deegan, highlights some of the information-handling challenges that lie ahead for the study of human genomics. While individuals are rightly worried about issues of privacy and abuse of private data, “most research institutions and private firms are more concerned with mining what’s under their control already, rather than sharing and creating value collectively”.

Video: A perfect dystopian storm
This short presentation by Tom Scott at recent conference Ignite London 2 imagines the story of a flashmob gone wrong.

Links for week ending 12 November 2010

European Commission announces review of data protection and copyright frameworks
The European Commission officially announced its much-anticipated review of the EU data protection framework this week. The review will be led by justice commissioner Viviane Reding. Also last week, former competition commissioner and now European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes announced the commission’s desire to review the copyright framework, stating “our fragmented copyright system is ill-adapted to the real essence of art”.
Data Protection | Copyright

Attack severs Burmese internet
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks targeting Burma’s main internet service provider effectively took Burma offline last week. Security specialists Arbor Networks report: “While the motivation for the attack is unknown, Twitter and Blogs have been awash in speculation ranging from blaming the Burma/Myanmar government (preemptively disrupting internet connectivity ahead of the November 7 general elections), to external attackers with still mysterious motives”

New challenges imposed by misguided cybercrime draft bill
A2K Brazil report that a draft Cybercrime Bill, dismissed following public outcry in 2009, has been snuck back onto the legislative agenda in Brazil. The Center for Technology and Society at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro have launched several criticisms of the draft proposals, focussed on the fact that they criminalise ordinary consumer behaviour and threaten citizens’ privacy.

LiveJournal suspends accounts of opposition bloggers in Russia and Kazakhstan
Global Voices report two separate instances of blogging platform LiveJournal suspending the accounts of opposition bloggers last week, in Russia and Kazakhstan. LiveJournal is Russia’s most popular blogging platform and was bought by Russian media company SUP in 2007.
Kazakhstan | Russia

Turkey unblocks, then reblocks YouTube
Turkey has reportedly lifted and then reinstated its blocking of YouTube. According to campaign group European Digital Rights (EDRI), the site was originally blocked because it hosted videos considered insulting to Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. That block was lifted at the beginning of November, once the videos in question had been removed by a user. Now the block is back in place because, according to the Open Net Initiative (ONI), YouTube is hosting a potentially compromising video of former opposition leader Deniz Baykal. The Turkish government’s blocking of YouTube is being challenged in court by Istanbul Bilgi University.
Unblocked | Blocked

Focus: Open textbooks
These two articles detail the progress and potential of open textbooks in the United States education system. The first reports on initiatives to drive down the cost of textbooks using openly-licensed solutions, led in Washington State by Cable Green, Director of eLearning and Open Education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The second is an interview with Eric Frank, the founder of the for-profit open textbook publisher, Flat World Knowledge.
Report | Interview

Book: SMS Uprising – Mobile activism in Africa
Released at the beginning of 2010, this collection of essays examines the use of mobile devices by activists in Africa. It is published by Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press, and edited by Sokari Ekine.

Book: Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property
This new collection of essays from MIT Press charts the rise of the access to knowledge movement, mapping the terrain of legal, cultural and technical issues that activists in the movement negotiate every day. The book includes contributions from Yochai Benkler, Peter Drahos, Lawrence Liang and Senior Information Program Manager Vera Franz. It is available for free download.

Opinion: Facing up to the generational privacy divide
Michael Geist uses the recent annual conference of the world’s privacy and data protection regulators as a springboard into a discussion of our shifting attitudes to privacy online. “Bringing offline social activities to the online environment raise a host of issues”, he writes, highlighting the contexts in which we share information about ourselves as the defining aspect of our subsequent expectations of privacy.

Links for week ending 5 November, 2010

Vietnam detains bloggers on eve of visit from US Secretary of State
The Washington Post reports that Vietnamese authorities arrested two bloggers and refused to release a third in the run-up to an official visit from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last weekend. In response, the US Embassy in Hanoi issued a “statement of concern”.

Tribal rights charity targeted by DDoS assault
The Register report that development charities including Survival International who hosted footage of Indonesian soldiers torturing native Papuans have been subjected to denial of service attacks on their websites. In a statement, Survival’s Director Stephen Corry said, “This isn’t a couple of geeks in a shed, it’s an expensive and sophisticated attack amounting to cyberterrorism”.

US says genes should not be eligible for patenting
The New York Times report that the US federal government has issued a statement indicating that human and other genes should not be eligible for patenting, potentially reversing a longstanding policy of the US Patents and Trademark Office. The statement was made in a amicus brief filed by the US Department of Justice in the appeal case of ACLU vs Myriad.

Major new technology-for-transparency initiative launched for Africa
The Omidyar Network and Hivos have announced the creation of the Africa Transparency and Technology Initiative, “the first fund in Africa to support the incubation of technology-driven initiatives that give citizens the tools to hold their governments to account”. The Omidyar Network will invest $2million in the initiative in its first two years.

Indian High Level Committee recommends three-strikes policy to curb online infringement
A high profile committee set up last December by the Indian Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to look into ways to reduce illicit copyright infringement of video and audio works have submitted their report. Their recommendations include a potentially draconian “three strikes” policy against alleged online copyright infringers that is similar to measures enacted in France, Korea and the UK.

Specialist data analysis plays role in historic Guatemalan human rights case
This account of the ongoing trial in Guatemala of two policemen accused of abducting labour activist Edgar Fernando García in 1984 highlights the role of data sourced from the Historical Archive of the National Police in the prosecution’s case: “[The Human Rights Data Analysis Group at Benetech] helped define the universe of police records consulted in the investigation into the crime and offered supporting evidence of the involvement of senior police and military structures in the planning, design, orders and oversight of the operation that resulted in García’s abduction.”

How digital technology gets the news out of North Korea
Excellent feature detailing the work of Asia News in getting uncensored reporting out of North Korea and into the wider world: “The material they produce is often startling and documents a side of the country the government doesn’t want the world to see.”

A history of HTML5
A rich and accessible history of the development of the new web standard HTML5, and of its implications for the web: “The central goal of HTML5 is to give websites the chance to expand beyond pages and into programs”.

Internet Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Latin America
David Sasaki concludes a broad and informative three-part series on internet regulation in Latin America.

Webcast: The battle for the internet economy
John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly discuss “points of control” and rent-seeking in digital business.