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November 2005

Open Rights Group

To London, to the inaugural meeting of the ORG, the Open Rights Group at 01Zero-One (Hopkins Street, Soho). The theme? 'Digital Rights in the UK: Your Rights, Your Issues'.

The evening was introduced by Suw Charman, Executive Director of ORG, who asked Jonathan Zittrain, Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation, Oxford University (Co-Founder, Berkman Center for Internet & Society) to say some words. He was impressive and I look forward to meeting him again tomorrow morning at the OII. He spoke about how the launch of ORG was 'not a moment too soon', the future of the net being so uncertain. After Suw had spoken about ORG, Lloyd Davies (some of us had already seen more of him than we'd bargained for) took over and ran the evening, centred around a number of "conversations": eg, how we should/could engage lawyers; how we engage MPs and MEPs; how we make the ORG an organisation that does for Britain and British law what the EFF does for the US; tackling the challenge of copyright law (including working for the abolition of Crown Copyright) … The ORG has much to do to establish and define itself, but is already being heard. It has my £5 a month and I hope to hear a lot more from it as it works with like-minded organisations (such as The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure) in the area of digital rights.

The need for the ORG is in part summed up (via email) by Danny O'Brien: 'The emergence of new communications technologies has radically changed the civil rights landscape in our society. Privacy, intellectual property, and access to knowledge are just some of the areas where digital rights are being eroded by government and big business.'

As of today, the Wikipedia entry for ORG runs:

The Open Rights Group (Org) is a UK-based organisation that hopes to preserve digital rights and freedoms by serving as a hub for other cyber-rights groups campaigning on similar digital rights issues. Like the EFF, it will campaign against the entertainment industry's attempts to limit what people can do with digital media, as well as highlighting a variety of privacy related issues. It will also provide information to the media and co-ordinate grassroots campaigns.

The organisation was started by Danny O'Brien, after speaking with people at UKUUG and the BBC's Open Tech 2005 and seeing the interest in a UK-based digital rights organisation.

O'Brien first publicised the organisation, and attempted to secure funding for it, with a pledge on PledgeBank, placed on July 24, 2005, with a deadline of December 25, 2005: "I will create a standing order of 5 pounds per month to support an organisation that will campaign for digital rights in the UK but only if 1,000 other people will too." The pledge reached 1000 people on 29 November 2005.

Just as the pledge reached maturity the organisation launched at a "sell-out" meeting in London's district of Soho. The same day controversial plans to surveil British road users as part of a new road taxation scheme were featured on the front page of The Times.

Goals

  • to raise awareness in the media of digital rights abuses
  • to provide a media clearinghouse, connecting journalists with experts and activists
  • to preserve and extend traditional civil liberties in the digital world
  • to collaborate with other digital rights and related organisations
  • to nurture a community of campaigning volunteers, from grassroots activists to technical and legal experts

It was a pleasure to catch up with Thomas again and with a number of acquaintances from previous conferences and meetings (notably, Suw, Stefan Magdalinski, Paula Le Dieu, Julian Bond, David Weinberger and, most unexpectedly, Jimmy Wales), and to meet for the first time others whose work I'd heard of. Central to the evening, though very modest, was Tom Steinberg, founder of My Society — see, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou — and associated with the Young Foundation (itself associated with the Skoll Centre, Saïd Business School). He explains PledgeBank here. He is a Demos author and there's a relevant BBC piece here.

I very much enjoyed talking to David Isenberg: there's a webcast available of his OII seminar (given yesterday), 'Who will run the internet?'. More about this soon.


The head says …

I guess these are points Evan Williams made last week at the Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, Saïd Business School event I blogged about here. They should be read in full — evhead: Ten Rules for Web Startups. These are highlights only:

Be Narrow
Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too. Focusing on a small niche has so many advantages … If you get to be #1 in your category, but your category is too small, then you can broaden your scope—and you can do so with leverage.

Be Different
Ideas are in the air. There are lots of people thinking about—and probably working on—the same thing you are.

Be Casual
We're moving into what I call the era of the "Casual Web" (and
casual content creation). This is much bigger than the hobbyist web or the professional web. Why? Because people have lives. And now, people with lives also have broadband. If you want to hit the really big home runs, create services that fit in with—and, indeed, help—people's everyday lives without requiring lots of commitment or identity change.

Be Picky
Startups are often too eager to accept people or ideas into their world. You can almost always afford to wait if something doesn't feel just right, and false negatives are usually better than false positives.

Be User-Centric
User experience is everything. … Always focus on the user and all will be well.

Be Self-Centered
Create something you want to exist in the world. Be a user of your own product. Hire people who are users of your product. … (But don't trick yourself into thinking you are your user, when it comes to usability.)

Be Greedy
design something to charge for into your product and start taking money within 6 months (and do it with PayPal). Done right, charging money can actually accelerate growth, not impede it, because then you have something to fuel marketing costs with. … The
TypePad approach—taking the high-end position in the market—makes for a great business model in the right market. Less support. Less scalability concerns. Less abuse. And much higher margins.

Be Tiny
It's standard web startup wisdom …

Be Agile
Pyra was started to build a project-management app, not Blogger. Flickr's company was building a game. Ebay was going to sell auction software. Initial assumptions are almost always wrong.

Be Balanced
Yes, high levels of commitment are crucial. And yes, crunch times come and sometimes require an inordinate, painful, apologies-to-the-SO amount of work. But it can't be all the time. Nature requires balance for health …

(bonus!): Be Wary
Overgeneralized lists of business "rules" are not to be taken too literally. There are exceptions to everything.

Update (29.11.2005): Russell Beattie writes

Number 12 on his list should be "Make it Mobile". Actually, I think it should be #1, but that’s just me be fanatical. Mobility is where the most opportunities lie for startups over the next few years. The next big success will be mobile, but also a lot of the next little successes will be mobile as well. There’s just so many possibilities right now - around the world and even in the U.S. with mobile penetration rates climbing over 80%. This is the market to focus on.


Rupert Murdoch: the end of an era

Emily Bell in today's Media Guardian (free registration required):

… what we once took from Murdoch, as an industry and as media journalists, was his ability to provide a shockingly radical lead: he was the disruptive technology which now is itself being disrupted. … the next wave of thinking will inevitably come from elsewhere. … these next thinkers will be unpopular already - their ideas may well have been laughed at or rejected within successful organisations. They may be social misfits who are not comfortable in organisations and societies which regard their thinking as unworkable and eccentric. In other words they will be classic entrepreneurs who can remake businesses far quicker than a Microsoft or a News Corp can.

Who are these people? Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google now have a more profound daily impact on how the world communicates and what it consumes than either Murdoch or Gates. Their search engine software is forcing the mainstream media to rethink what they do with their content and threatens revenue streams we once regarded as untouchable. Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, who was in Britain last Monday to talk at an Oxford seminar, received far fewer column inches than Murdoch; yet his scruffy startup, offering free classified listings, has brought the local newspaper market in North America to its knees and threatens to do the same - or at least inspire the same - here. Meanwhile Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who were behind the powerful Kazaa file-sharing site, are now threatening the world's big telecoms companies with Skype, the internet telephony service bought by eBay.

The rise of this new generation of accidental entrepreneurs has been breathtaking in its speed, and the world they created through programming code is astonishing. Where will these developments lead us? Hard to say, but it is certain that the fog of the future will lift on a changed landscape, and in many ways it is sad but exciting that the old certainties - such as the value of Murdoch's instincts to the wider industry - have become outdated.


From virtual to real … and some Technorati magic

Very good to catch up late this afternoon with Thomas (Vander Wal), over here in Oxford, and to talk for two caffeine-fuelled hours in the King's Arms about folksonomy, the threat posed by Googlistan (and here), the future of online publishing, Microformats, the importance of attention, the Model of Attraction, Personal InfoCloud, DLAs, Design Engaged

If it was again a curious experience to meet up for "real" with someone you've been talking to over the web for some time, it was also, as it was at Reboot and Open Tech, an experience that more than lived up to hopes and leaves me looking forward to further opportunities to continue our non-digital conversation. This may be as soon as Tuesday evening at the inaugural meeting of ORG, the Open Rights Group.

Meanwhile, I have Thomas' Design Engaged presentation, Clouds, Space & Black Boxes (pdf) to ponder.

Oh, and there's this: I was bemoaning that Technorati was failing to respond to pings and was insisting (as of earlier today) that I hadn't updated my blog for the last 20+ days. I'd emailed their technical help (twice) and things persisted as before. I know, I said, I should email Dave Sifry. So tonight I did and within four minutes I'd had a reply and the problem had been fixed. How's that!


Bloggers as editors

With the coming of cheap, mass publication and consumption of "information" (blogging), the reading patterns of many must be changing quite radically, if they haven't done so already. For some time now, I've been using a large-ish number of blogs, and a smaller number of del.icio.us users, as, in effect, an editorial team. (I do get to see the Guardian, but can't catch up with it daily: it accumulates and then there's a helluva backlog to get through.) I have 206 feeds (gulp) in my aggregator and 51 in my del.icio.us inbox. As with other habits, I keep intending to cut down …

Numbers of feeds apart, I was taken with this post from Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail:

    Aside from a few purely information feeds, such as new Netflix releases, most of what I read online is blogs. (You can see my current subscriptions here.) I don't visit any mainstream media sites directly (and in print, I only read the Sunday New York Times and a load of magazines). If there's something relevant to my interests in the Wall Street Journal, the daily NYT or some other news site, I assume one of the blogs I read will point me to it.

    This is not to say that I don't value mainstream media; I do. It's just that I'd rather choose my own editor to select the articles of highest importance to me (including those the mainstream media choose not to cover at all, or just not well). In this case that "editor" is a network of bloggers, not whomever decides what makes it to the front page of the newspaper. This works so well that I suspect I'm actually reading more articles from mainstream media, and from a broader range of it, than ever before. It's just all via blogs, which microchunk and remix the information in ways that make it more useful to me. …

    What all these blogs that have earned their way to my feed list are doing is adding value to commodity information. The ones I'm reading do this in at least one of three main ways:

  1. Add value with a unique perspective or analysis.
  2. Add value with unique information.
  3. Add value by providing a unique filter/lens on content available elsewhere.

    This is not just a smart strategy for blogs; it's a smart strategy for any content creator in an era where the tools of production and distribution are fully democratized and the marketplace is flooded with commodity competition.


Fair Trade

BBC News:

Tony Blair has warned it will be a disaster if World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong next month fail to reach a deal on fair trade.

He has acknowledged it will not be easy to secure an agreement to open markets to producers from the developing world. Mr Blair was speaking at the Commonwealth summit in Malta, where talks are focusing on trade reform. Pakistan has called for richer nations, such as the US and EU states, to set a timetable to phase out farm subsidies.

For once in recent months (well, months and months and months), I think he's absolutely right on something. See here, too.


Social Flickr

Back in June, after Reboot 7, when I posted my photos of Copenhagen (the out-of-doors ones rather grimly lit on the whole: beautiful weather, but such strong light made for difficult conditions — for this novice, at any rate) I asked if any passing, friendly Dane could amend or improve upon some of my descriptions. My thanks to Jan (Lausen) for stopping by and doing just this for the ones in question, urban buildings and scenes we weren't quite sure about or just got wrong.

I think this is still my favourite shot from the set:

The Round Tower: 'the spiral walk is unique in European architecture. The 209 m long spiral ramp winds itself 7.5 times round the hollow core of the tower, forming the only connection between the individual parts of the building complex'.

By the by: it would be very good if Flickr would support strikethrough HTML coding. Meanwhile, Flickr should update (as noted here) its FAQ advice: 'em' tags are said to be supported, but in fact only 'i' endure.


Fogged beauty

Wonderful shot of Didcot power station (which I pass regularly) in the fog, from the BBC News webpages (link via gilest):

Not the usual view, verbal or visual. I could live with them like this. (Years ago, I remember a friend arguing in defence of the station: 'it adds depth to the plain' …)

I found the Didcot image on the BBC (here) via a link to http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/. For a moment there I thought I'd found a whole new raft of BBC News images, but the url seems to point to the same pages as the links we're all used to, the ones beginning http://news.bbc.co.uk/. Browsing around to check this out, I came across this stunning AP image, captioned 'China's security services provide a rare glimpse of preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics':

Not being a lawyer, I'm not entirely clear of the copyright position on either image ('own personal non-commercial use' seems to be OK, which is what this is), so these may have to be taken down, but the link to the original BBC page with the image from China is here.

All in all, I prefer the image of Didcot power station in the fog. Less colourful, but much more calming. What is it with security services and Darth Vader?


Satisfaction not (yet) guaranteed

Dave Winer:

Jeremy Zawodny had a bad experience with iTunes yesterday too. You know, reading his story actually makes me feel better. The bad part about it is that I was looking forward to watching a movie on this little hand-held marvel. Watching a movie on the subway in NY and seeing what people think. Apple is very seductive. But also flaky. The joy of it will wear off, for sure. And when the initial experience is so disappointing, you gotta wonder if the whole thing is worth the trouble. The same thing happened with the Apple laptop and the desktop I bought. But then it also happened with the Sony Vaio. But it didn't happen with my new Toyota earlier this year, or my Lexus, which I bought in 1999. Both worked flawlessly. It seems the computer industry hasn't gotten to the stage yet where it can really deliver delight to users.

Jeremy Zawodny's post caught my eye earlier today:

In summary, do not upgrade from iTunes 4.9 to iTunes 6.0 if you value your time, music, and sanity.

Steve Jobs, you owe me an apology.

For a company that's built a reputation on stuff that "just works", this is unbelievable. You're lucky I can't use anyone else's software to put music on my iPod. I don't look forward to spending the next 3-4 weeks re-importing 500 CDs into your buggy software.


Silicon Valley comes to Oxford

To the Saïd Business School last night, to catch the evening panel discussion of this year's Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, the fourth in the Saïd's annual series. These events bring together entrepreneurs, VCs and others involved in Silicon Valley, and this year the theme was 'Networks in the 21st Century'. Line-up: Allen Morgan (Keynote; MD, Mayfield), Charlie Leadbeater (Chair), Reid Hoffman (CEO and Founder, LinkedIn; on the Board of SixApart, investor in Last.fm), Craig Newmark (Chairman and Founder, Craigslist), Christopher Sacca (Principal, New Business Development, Google), Maria Sendra (Partner, Baker & McKenzie), Evan Williams (Co-creator of Blogger and Co-founder and CEO of Odeo), Robert Young (Co-founder and formerly CEO & Chairman of Red Hat; Founder and CEO Lulu).

Inspiring evening, not least because of Charlie Leadbeater's (CL) clever, skillful chairing and incisive remarks. Some rough notes follow.

CL began by rehearsing the history of Wikipedia: in just 4½ years it has established a web presence whose daily net traffic now exceeds that of the NYT, yet it has just one employee, hired in January of this year. This will be familiar to many, but the impact on the audience of businessmen last night struck me — "Hey! A new business model!". The leveraging of the power of the many, of the enthusiastic, in a shared enterprise with a marked social and intellectual idealism. (Allen Morgan had already mentioned, amongst others, del.icio.us and Flickr; Reid Hoffman praised Last.fm.)

The 1½ hours of panel discussion sustained a very high level of enthusiasm for what is happening through collaborative activities on the web (of which Wikipedia is an extraordinary example, of course). Craig Newmark wasn't less idealistic for expressing himself in homelier ways: social networking is 'just getting people together to improve their lives'; coffee houses are often the new (old! — Ben Hammersley's talk at Reboot 7) centres for such collaboration. Bob Young didn't see collaborative, social networking as a new phase in the history of capitalism: it's something that has always been present but obscured historically by an emphasis on private property rights. CL: surely Open Source is something new, the emergence of a new kind of collaboratively driven culture of innovation?

Chris Sacca: Google operates with no business plan but with ideals — ideals are resilient, much less likely to lead to rigidity than plans and likelier to resist going out of date; go to Wikipedia and look at the number of inspiring Open Source-derived Manifestos. Evan Williams spoke warmly of the social idealism that the democratisation of networks, media (etc) is bringing about.

From the audience: Mike Butcher asked if more value isn't being destroyed than created through disintermediation. (He also points out the really surprising lack of WiFi at the Saïd — something John Naughton mocked back in September:

When I arrived, I asked the pleasant young woman at the desk how to log onto the wireless network. She gave me a nice-but-puzzled look. Her voice said that there wasn’t such a thing; her look said “This is a business school, dumbo, not some technology college”. So I launched MacStumbler and — Lo! — it was So! The University of Oxford’s Business School doesn’t have a single wireless network.)

Chris Sacca (to no-one's surprise): Google is enabling many more new markets than it's "helping" to close. Long Tail and all that. Others on the panel spoke up for this.

CL's message was loud and clear — the times are changing. Examples and predictions: BT now has 20,000 engineers who are self-scheduling as they are better at organising their own time than is any centralised service; after the first London July bombing of this year, within 24 hours the BBC had received 20,000 emails with news, 360 still photos and 4 pieces of video (I think I caught these stats correctly); education will change fundamentally in this kind of new world.

CL: what's happening on and through the web doesn't match the standard models. It's not pyramidal, it's not valley chain … A 'bird's nest' is the best image/model for something like Wikipedia.

And, in a reference to the idea a number of the panel had supported, that online social networking is "just" there to assist in and feed back into offline social networking, CL made it clear that he thinks some things are now happening online that simply could not happen before: for example, what's achievable through ease of online scaling. (I would add: and what happens when digital and real worlds converge and become one?)

Footnote: as the panel session closed, I realised what question I'd have liked to have asked. It's what Anil Dash raised recently and Caterina Fake and others have taken up (Matthew Gertner, Thomas Hawk, Jason, Robert, Mike; BusinessWeek): if the end-users are doing the leveraging, and adding much/most of the value, will there come a point where it's perceived that the most interesting/committed/best contributing end-users should get paid for what they're doing? Or is love enough? My take: I hope the idealism continues, along with the normal stuff of human social life which requires no monetary incentive — or shouldn't do. The attention (keyword!) that good photos on Flickr (etc) receive should be "payment" enough.