Jun 132014

Imagine the car steering wheel had been patented at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and that it was only top end vehicles or French cars that were steered that way?

That’s the situation we’re currently facing in the tech world as almost every conceivable idea, however silly, has a patent slapped on it in the hope it can help the business either defensively or as a revenue generator.

Yesterday’s announcement by Tesla Motors’ CEO Elon Musk that the electric car company would be opening it’s patents for ‘in good faith’ uses is a welcome change.

For Tesla it encourages the growth of the electric car industry making the sector deeper and more attractive to consumers who are tightly suspicious about being locked into proprietary technologies.

It’s interesting too that the motivation for taking up so many patents was to prevent the established motor companies grabbing Tesla’s inventions. As it turns out, that wasn’t necessary.

At Tesla, however, we felt compelled to create patents out of concern that the big car companies would copy our technology and then use their massive manufacturing, sales and marketing power to overwhelm Tesla. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The unfortunate reality is the opposite: electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to non-existent, constituting an average of far less than 1% of their total vehicle sales.

So opening up the patent portfolio means Tesla might see more companies enter the space which in turn may create economies of scale.

No end to the patent wars

Although Tesla’s move doesn’t mean all patents wars are over; Musk’s statement that technologies used in ‘good faith’ will be immune from legal action leaves plenty of potential for disputes.

There’s also the problem of cross-licenses with many of Tesla’s invention being subject to agreements with other companies, not to mention technologies bought in from outside.

As Sun Microsystems showed during a previous round of the patent wars, it’s still possible for innocent users to be sued in the event of a dispute.

IBM and open patents

In the wake of that debacle, which fatally damaged Sun’s reputation, IBM made 500 of their patents available to the open source community in 2005 showing Musk’s move isn’t the first time this has happened.

History will tell us if Musk’s announcement helps build the electric car market, if it does it may be an indicator for the future of patents.

Apr 202014

Could liking a brand’s Facebook page cost you your right to sue?

The New York Times has a story on how corporations are subtly changing the wordings on websites and social media pages in an effort to make it harder for customers to challenge the business in court.

It’s quite cheeky attempting to strip people who ‘like’ a Facebook page of their rights to take action against a company, it even strikes at the heart of building an online community around a brand.

The whole point of accumulating real life followers behind a brand’s social media presence is to create a band of fans; by creating suspicion, business destroy the goodwill behind that exercise and possibly render it useless.

It will be interesting to see how Facebook react to this behaviour as intimidating users and discouraging them from liking brands is a direct threat to their business model, it’s hard to see them not changing their own terms to make this corporate behaviour a breach of their own terms of service.

For consumers though it’s a reminder that corporations, at least those who operate on twentieth-century mass market principles, aren’t really their friends.

Update: Since posting this piece, General Mills has backed down on its policy but the point still remains that unfair and over legalistic terms and conditions threaten social media platforms.

Dec 312013
understanding data with computers

As society and business drown in big data we’re relying on algorithms and computer programs to helps us wade through a flood of information, could that reliance be a weakness?

British Archeology site Digital Digging discusses how Google displays Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs in the results search for Cnut, the ancient king of Denmark better known in the English speaking world as King Canute.

Apparently Giggs appears in the search results for Canute because of the footballer’s futile attempt to hold back a tide of information about his love life.

While Google’s algorithm seems to have made a mistake, it’s only doing what it’s been programmed to do. A lot of trusted websites have used the term ‘Canute’ or ‘Cnut’ in relation to Giggs so the machine presents his picture as being relevant to the search.

Confusing Ryan Giggs and King Canute is mildly amusing until we consider how critical algorithms like Google Search have become to decision making, there are no shortage of stories about people being wrongly billed, detained or even gaoled on the basis of bad information from computers.

The stakes in making mistakes based on bad information are being raised all the time as processes become more automated, a chilling technology roadmap for the US military in Vice Magazine describes the future of ‘autonomous warfare’.

By the end 2021, just eight years away, the Pentagon sees “autonomous missions worldwide” as being one of their objectives.

Autonomous missions means local commanders and drones being able to make decisions to kill people or attack communities based on the what their computers tell them. The consequences of a bad result from a computer algorithm suddenly become very stark indeed.

While most decisions based on algorithms may not have the life or death consequences that a computer ordered drone strike on a family picnic might have, mistakes could cost businesses money and individuals much inconvenience.

So it’s worthwhile considering how we build the cultural and technological checks and balances into how we use big data and the algorithms necessary to analyze it so that we minimise mistakes.

Contrary to legend, King Canute didn’t try to order the tide not to come in. He was trying to demonstrate to obsequious court that he was fallible and a subject to the laws of nature and god as any other man.

Like the court of King Canute, we should be aware of the foibles and weaknesses of the technologies that increasingly guides us. The computer isn’t always right.

Nov 242013
The law applies online to social media and other web services

One of the long running scandals of modern journalism is how media organisations have misused social media.

Haitian photographer Daniel Moran’s victory over Agence France Press and Getty Images is a reminder to journalists and media organisations that when something is posted to social media it doesn’t mean it’s free to use.

Since the rise of social media sites it’s become common for journalists to grab images or videos from them to illustrate stories. At best, the media organisations have credited the sites they’ve stolen the content to allay copyright concerns.

The problem is media companies and journalists don’t have the right to do that; users don’t give away their rights when they post to Twitter or Facebook — they grant a license to the company to use those that content as they wish.

If a photographer, writer, computer programmer or musician wants to give away their work for free then there’s a range of ways they can do it and many are happy to make their efforts available to the community without charge. It just happens posting to a social media site isn’t one of those ways.

Hopefully journalists and media organisations will learn a lesson from Daniel Moran’s case, social media doesn’t mean open slather.

Jul 042013

Early this week I attended the media launch of Data Sovereignty and the Cloud – a white paper from the University of New South Wales’ Cyberspace Law and Policy centre.

The event was refreshingly free of a lot of the hype or hysteria that cloud computing events usually lead to. I’ve covered some of the panel session’s discussion for Business Spectator.

One thing that stood out in the presentation was the Ten Commandments of Cloud Computing which are a good guide to what businesses owners, directors and executives need to consider when looking at online services.

ten-commandments-of-cloud-security copy

Another refreshing aspect of the UNSW launch was the mature attitude towards risk – the overwhelming view of the panel, which included insurers, lawyers and academics, was that all technologies have an element of business risk and it’s a matter of identifying and managing those hazards.

Hopefully, we’ve moved on from the 1980s management view that risk is something to be eliminated at all costs. The result of that philosophy was just to shift risks into other, unforeseen areas.

The UNSW report on cloud risks is a weighty read, but it’s worthwhile if you want to get a realistic handle on exactly what the hazards are in moving to the cloud.

After all, if you don’t know what the risks are then you can’t identify, understand or manage them.

May 132013
The law applies online to social media and other web services

“The biggest risk for Australian business journalists is being sued into oblivion” said Paddy Manning at a Walkley Media Talks Panel in Sydney last Thursday.

Joining Paddy on the panel was The Australian’s Anthony Klan, the ABC’s Tikki Fullerton and moderator Peter Ryan who looked at the challenges facing business journalists seeking to separate truth from business PR spin.

Business superinjunctions

The problem facing Australian business journalists is a legal system that favours those who want to suppress facts – it’s a game only the wealthy can play and rich fraudsters use it well as we’ve seen over the years in corporate Australia.

Manning described one occasion where he obtained information on a prominent businessman’s affairs and, within hours of asking the gentleman for comment, found he and the Fairfax had been hit with a court injunction with such vague wording it may have any of his employer’s outlets from mentioning the man at all.

These injunctions were the rule, not the exception. Manning went on to tell how Sydney Morning Herald business writer Michael West spends one day a week on legal matters while his colleague Adele Ferguson was even preventing from writing about documents that were on the public record.

Klan trumped that with the seventy injunctions he’s received over stories on the mortgage debenture scandals, an ongoing sore on Australia’s investment industry which threatens to steal many retirees’ savings.

The problem of pre-emptive injunctions stemmed from the ethical requirement of giving a ‘fair opportunity for reply.’ In seeking comment from those engaged in shoddy – or downright – illegal practices, it gives those with something to hide the opportunity to run to the courts who are all to willing to issue wide ranging orders.

An advantage for bloggers?

Interestingly, Justice Leveson of the UK inquiry into press conduct made an observation about the disadvantage mainstream media has before the law during his visit to Australia earlier this year.

online bloggers or tweeters are not subject to the financial incentives which affect the print media, and which would persuade the press not to overstep society’s values and ethical standards.

While Leveson had it wrong about financial incentives, it’s actually the media’s ethical standards which are the restraining influence. Professional journalists quite rightly don’t like breaching their trade’s code of conduct.

As Leveson opined, bloggers don’t necessary hold themselves to the same standards so they are more likely to publish and be damned.

Where Leveson was utterly and totally wrong is bloggers’ immunity to the law.

Bloggers rejoice in placing their servers outside the jurisdiction where different laws apply. the writ of the law is said not to run. It is believed therefore that the shadow of the law is unable to play the same role it has played with the established media.

That’s nonsense and it’s a matter of time before a blogger goes to gaol for disobeying a court. When that does happen it will be interesting to see how the established media reacts to this.

From the panel discussion it was quite clear that professional business journalists have no intention of breaking the law or their code of ethics, although all are united in their determination to protect sources if they were order to divulge by a court.

The cost of suppressing news

What really stood out from the panel was how the law is being used to stifle examination of Australian business behaviour. In the audience Q&A, veteran reporter Colin Chapman pointed out Australia sits at 26th on the World Press Freedom Index.

The lack of a truly free press could just be seen as journalistic hand wringing, but there’s a real world effect of this – those retirees who will be ripped off by crooked financial advisers and mortgage funds would have a better chance of protecting themselves were they able to see Anthony Khan’s articles on the topic.

Just as crooks have been able to prosper in the absence of press scrutiny, so too have supine, incompetent and lazy regulators.

All too often agencies – such as the ACCC, ASIC, ASX or ATO – have only been woken from their slumbers when prodded by a media scandal, lack of scrutiny has allowed government regulators to get away with not doing their jobs.

This poor enforcement is reflected in international comparisons. The World Bank ranked Australia as 70th in the world for protecting investors, way below Colombia, Thailand or Kazakhstan.Australian business reporters find themselves in a difficult position being caught between the tightening economics of the media industry and a legal system that is more focused on protecting knaves rather allowing society to be informed.That problem facing journalists is a problem for every Australian who’s being kept in the dark about their investments.