Mark Wilson

Plans to slap age ratings on online videos are completely and utterly pointless

Plans to slap age ratings on online videos are completely and utterly pointless

Head to the stores to look for real, physical DVDs and Blu-rays, and you'll probably find that there's an age rating on them. Now plans are afoot to bring the same idea to the web. As insane an idea as this may sound, this is actually happening, and it is completely pointless and unworkable. Initially starting off with the involvement of YouTube and Vevo, the scheme is the brainchild of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and will start as a pilot program in October. It's something that is likely to appeal to concerned parents, but the practicalities are a rather different matter.

Announcing the ratings plan, Cameron said: "We shouldn't cede the internet as some sort of lawless space where the normal rules of life shouldn't apply. So, in as far as it is possible, we should try to make sure that the rules that exist offline exist online. So if you want to go and buy a music video offline there are age restrictions on it. We should try and recreate that system on the internet".

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Satellite broadband finally opens up the internet to me

Satellite broadband finally opens up the internet to me

A few weeks ago I complained bitterly about my atrocious internet connection. The impact of a deathly slow and unnervingly unstable connection is hard to overstate. Tension and frustration chez Wilson reached boiling point. Nerves were frayed and tempers short. But as I sank into the bleak, hellish broadband abyss, a hand reached out to save me. The hand was extended by the suitably named Satellite Internet who took pity on me having read of my plight. A trial of satellite broadband was duly offered, and I don’t think I could have said "yes, please" faster. It's something I've considered before, but the startup costs had put me off.

Satellite Internet's service uses Astra satellites, the same ones used to deliver satellite TV to Europe. This means that a smaller dish than you might expect is needed. Forget the monster installations you may have seen in people's gardens in years gone by, these days the dishes have shrunk to something that's just about the same size as those used for TV broadcasts. Installation was delayed due to my trip to the Isle of Skye (which, incidentally, has blisteringly fast internet considering it's a tiny island connected to the mainland with a small bridge), but this morning two installation engineers arrived at 8:00, having travelled more than two hours to reach me.

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EarlyClaim reserves usernames so you don’t end up with a crappy handle

EarlyClaim reserves usernames so you don’t end up with a crappy handle

You never know when the next Twitter is going to crop up. When a new service like Pinterest, Vine, or Skype appears, if you're not quick off the mark there's a high chance you'll miss out on your preferred username. You want MarkWilsonWords? Sorry, that went ages ago… you'll have to settle for MarkWilsonWord09868. Getting stuck with a crappy username sucks, but it's very hard to monitor all of the new services that pop up so you can bag your ideal name as early as possible. This is something that EarlyClaim can help with.

It's a free service that seeks out new startups and reserves a username on your behalf -- you just say what handle you'd like, and EarlyClaim does the hard work for you. For businesses, it is important to have a brand identity that is the same across different social networks (who is going to take notice of Coca Cola 1897 on Facebook?) but it's also something that is valuable to individuals. How many times have you signed up for a site only to find that you're unable to secure the username of your choice and had to opt for something far inferior? Every time you use that service there is a constant reminder that you weren't fast enough at signing up.

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Constantly turned on -- the bleak reality of being permanently connected

Constantly turned on -- the bleak reality of being permanently connected

We expect, and are expected, to be contactable at any given moment -- and indeed we often expect the same of others. Send a text, and you expect a response. Pen an email, and you expect to receive one in return, and fast. Hit up someone on Google chat and an all-but-instant reply is all but expected. Maybe this doesn’t sound like you, but I can guarantee that you fit on the spectrum, and also that the people you are in contact with make the same demands of you. When did this change? It used to be that you'd call a landline number and if you didn’t get a reply you might just try again a few hours later. The fact that we now carry mobiles with us virtually 24/7 means that it is weird if someone doesn't answer the call.

They can’t be busy! Try again! Still no reply? Send a text. And an email. And an IM. If it was limited to office hours, it might be understandable -- and bearable -- to some extent, but there has been a massive slip in end-times. It is acceptable to send emails to someone at any time of day. You may have woken up at 3 in the morning and thought of something relating to work, or even just something that made you laugh, and felt the need to share it immediately. The recipient, in all likelihood, will be alerted to this email on a smartphone or tablet if they don’t happen to be sitting at their computer. At 3 in the morning, it might not wake them up, but at, say, 8pm how likely is it that the email will be ignored? The recipient's working day just got extended by several hours.

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Edward Snowden can stay in Russia for at least three more years

Edward Snowden can stay in Russia for three more years

The enfant terrible of the tech world, and the thorn in the side of the NSA, Edward Snowden has been granted permission to stay in Russia for a further three years. The former NSA analyst turned whistle-blower sought exile in the country a year ago and on August 1st he was granted an extension. The three-year residency permit was approved a week ago, but has only just been made public by Snowden's lawyer. Anatoly Kucherena explained that Snowden himself would hold a press conference as soon as possible, reported Russia Today.

The US has tried to force Russia to hand over Snowden so he can face charges in his home country, but for the time being, he will be able to stay where he is. If he feels inclined, the permits allows for him to travel abroad for up to three months, and he is free to travel wherever he wants within Russia. Although he has not expressed an interest in doing so, Snowden would be eligible to apply for permanent residence in Russia in five years' time.

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Google makes it easier to unsubscribe from email lists

Google makes it easier to unsubscribe from email lists

Gmail is undergoing another change, but this time it's a fairly minor tweak -- and one that is likely to be broadly welcomed. Unsubscribing from mailing lists is about to become simpler. Rather than having to hunt through the small print at the end of an email, or scouring the text for a hidden link, you'll soon find the unsubscribe option right at the top of emails. Announced via the official Gmail Google+ page, Google describes the change as "a win for everyone".

The new feature is not something that mailing list creators need to opt into, or indeed do anything about at all. Providing an email features an unsubscribe link somewhere in its text, Gmail will automatically add it to the top of a message next to the From field. Google explains that "when a sender includes an 'Unsubscribe' link in a Promotions, Social or Forums message, Gmail will surface it to the top", so it's not clear if the feature will work with every single mailing list.

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Google email scanning technology catches pedophile sharing abuse photos

Google email scanning technology catches paedophile sharing abuse photos

The scanning of personal emails is almost universally regarded as a terrible thing. Just like the activities of the NSA, when email providers start rifling through private information, it has a tendency to upset people. The justification for governmental mass surveillance has always been that it helps to combat crime -- and of course we never have to wait for long before the words "terrorists", "extremists", and "attack" are used. Google has just demonstrated how email scanning can be used to catch criminals. In this case, Google's image recognition software was used to identify images of child abuse sent via email by a Texan man.

A 41 year old man was arrested after the system detected suspicious material. The police were alerted and requested the user's details from Google after child protection services were automatically notified of the findings. The convicted sex offender's account triggered an alert after automatic, pro-active scans detected illegal pictures and Google then reported it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Google is understandably tight-lipped about how its technology works, but as the Telegraph points out, we do already know a little about the methods used.

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Dating site OkCupid freely admits lying to its customers

Dating site OkCupid freely admits lying to its customers

There was widespread condemnation of Facebook when it was revealed that the social network had been manipulating users' newsfeeds as part of a social experiment. Official complaints may have been made but it doesn’t seem to have served as a lesson for other websites. Now it transpires that OkCupid -- the dating website whose slogan is "We use math to get you dates" -- has been fiddling the figures in a series of experiments on its users. The weird thing is, the site is openly bragging about it.

In a blog post unashamedly titled "We Experiment On Human Beings!", founder Christian Rudder writes that "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing". Seems like something of an odd admission. The blog post details three experiments the dating site conducted on its subscribers. There must have been more because the post is prefaced with the words "Here are a few of the more interesting experiments OkCupid has run". Does "interesting" just mean "less controversial"? Who knows?

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Wilson's Weekend Whine: slow connections are dividing the web -- and making me mad

Wilson's Weekend Whine: slow connections are dividing the web -- and making me mad

The inspiration for this weekend's whine, along with the reason for its slight delay are one and the same thing. An appallingly slow (often non-existent) internet connection. Well, actually it's a combination of things, a slow internet connection being just one of them. Most people -- myself included in the past -- don't give a second thought to living online. Web pages are there ready be accessed on demand. Movies are just waiting to stream. Facebook and Twitter posts stream by. And so on. At least that's how it should be. If you live out in the sticks, it's a very different story -- and it stops me from banging about Edward Snowden and the NSA.

Look at the headlines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the "developed world" is working with a blisteringly fast connection. Forget cables, we just have our brains connected directly to the internet. But we don’t. Here in the UK, there is a very noticeable digital divide, and I know it's a similar story in many other parts of the world. I've been fairly lucky in the past. Moving house at the turn of the millennium happily coincided with the arrival of broadband in the area. Hooray! 4Mbps of downstream -- more than acceptable nearly 15 years ago. A house move later, and things jumped to 8Mbps.

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Forget.me now handles 'right to be forgotten' requests for Bing as well as Google

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Back in May, the EU Court of Justice ruled that people have a "right to be forgotten" from search results. Google fairly quickly set up an online form to allow complainants to put forward their case for censoring their appearance in results. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to follow suit, and Bing users were soon afforded the same option.

Forget.me was one service that offered to take care of Google removal requests for people, and at the time CEO Bertrand Girin promised that "if Bing and Yahoo get their Right to be Forgotten forms in order, we’ll be able to provide you with the possibility of submitting your URL to all three search engines at the same time." For Microsoft, that day has come.

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Do Not Track is bolstered by EFF's Privacy Badger extension

Do Not Track is bolstered by EFF's Privacy Badger extension

Online security and privacy are hotter topics than ever. Just this weekend, Edward Snowden made an appearance at the Hope X 2014 hacker event, and called for those in attendance to help make encryption tools easier to use. Another fierce advocate of online privacy is the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and today the group released a beta version of Privacy Badger, a beautifully named extension for Chrome and Firefox designed to stop a number of tracking techniques used online. The idea of tracking cookies is something that will be familiar to most, but tracking takes many forms, including advertising and social media. Privacy Badger aims to block this tracking.

Peter Eckersley, EFF Technology Projects Director, said: "Widgets that say 'Like this page on Facebook' or 'Tweet this' often allow those companies to see what webpages you are visiting, even if you never click the widget's button. The Privacy Badger alpha would detect that, and block those widgets outright. But now Privacy Badger's beta version has gotten smarter: it can block the tracking while still giving you the option to see and click on those buttons if you so choose".

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Wilson's Weekend Whine: Snowden's call for online encryption is sad but necessary

Wilson's Weekend Whine: Snowden's call for online encryption is sad but necessary

It was quite a coup for HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth). At the 2014 hacker event, Hope X, in New York City this weekend, Edward Snowden delivered a speech to those in attendance, advocating the use of encryption online. The former NSA analyst was not at the event himself -- he's still holed up in Moscow -- but he called on those present to help to protect privacy online. Speaking via a video link Snowden said: "You in this room, right now have both the means and the capability to improve the future by encoding our rights into programs and protocols by which we rely every day".

It was a great piece of work keeping the presentation a secret. There were, of course, fears that Snowden's appearance would somehow be thwarted: "We had to keep this bombshell quiet til the last minute since some of the most powerful people in the world would prefer that it never take place." There were certainly risks involved, but it was a risk worth taking. "[Snowden's] revelations of the massive NSA surveillance programs confirmed the suspicions of many and shocked those who haven’t been paying attention".

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New competition! Win a year's subscription to Office 365 Home

Win a year's subscription to Office 365 Home!

In the second of our (hopefully) regular competitions, we have quite a treat for you. You've read the headline so you should know what's up for grabs, but if you missed it, the prize is a year's subscription to Office 365 Home worth $99.99.

Microsoft has very kindly donated a full subscription for us to give away, but this is more than just one copy of the world-famous office suite -- you can install Office 365 Home on up to five PCs or Macs, as well as five tablets. Enough for all the family!

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Snowden: Facebook is allowing the government to see your messages

Snowden: Facebook is allowing the government to see your messages

In a lengthy interview with the Guardian, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden spoke with editor Alan Rusbridger about his extraordinary rise to infamy. Currently in exile in Russia, he talked about how he disseminated documents about the activities of the NSA to numerous countries: "Once you start splitting them over jurisdictions and things like that it becomes much more difficult to subvert their intentions. Nobody could stop it". He remains defiant. He may be an outlaw but "it’s been vindicating to see the reaction from lawmakers, judges, public bodies around the world, civil liberties activists who have said it’s true that we have a right to at least know the broad outlines of what our government’s doing in our name and what it’s doing against us".

He explains how during his time working as an NSA analyst, he learned about previous surveillance programs run under George W Bush. Programs that were deemed unconstitutional and, having been closed, forced the US government to assume new executive powers that were then used "against the citizenry of its own country".  For Snowden the power of the state is worrying:

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Bing offers complainers a right to be forgotten from search results

Bing offers complainers a right to be forgotten.

If you live in Europe and don't like the fact that Binging yourself throws up results you'd rather didn’t appear, Microsoft has created a form you can use to request removal of these links from searches. (Yeah, ok…Bing doesn't really work as a verb in the same way as Google. Lesson learned.) Not all that long ago, Google was forced to consider censoring search results that people considered to be out of date, incorrect or irrelevant -- it's a ruling that has been dubbed the right to be forgotten. A form was set up to make it easier for people with complaints to get in touch, and now Microsoft has followed suit and created a Request to Block Bing Search Results In Europe form.

Filling in the form is absolutely no guarantee that a search result will be removed -- and it is important to remember that this is only about removing links from search results, not removing actual content. Or, as Microsoft puts it in the form:

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