Anonymous, PayPal and WikiLeaks: The Grudge That Keeps On Grudging
Anonymous has once again taken the fight to PayPal for the online payment system's continuing refusal to facilitate donations to WikiLeaks. This time, though, Anons have opted against launching a surgical hack maneuver or lobbing a DDoS stinkbomb. Instead, they're calling for a boycott. Meanwhile, Mozilla fires up a Gecko project, Google+ contemplates names, and Apple reportedly eyes Hulu.
07/30/11 5:00 AM PT
Remember WikiLeaks? It's still around, it's still somewhat leaky, and it's still very much loved by the amorphous hacker entity known as "Anonymous." Anons and WikiLeaks both generally enjoy breaking down barriers of secrecy and scattering what they find into the public view, though they may tend to work with different styles.
Besides exposing secrets, one thing Anonymous has been known to do is attack those who would attack or even opt to shun WikiLeaks. This was the case with online payment service PayPal. If you want to donate to WikiLeaks, you can't do it through PayPal, because the company will refuse the transaction. This is officially due to violations of PayPal's acceptable use policy, though at one point the company reportedly said it was under pressure from the U.S. State Department.
Whatever the reason, PayPal's refusal to pass donations on to WikiLeaks has angered Anonymous so much that it initially went after the company in its usual way: attacking its website. It happened, then it stopped happening, and months went by.
But the grudge lives on, and as law enforcement officials continue to arrest people on suspicion of involvement with Anonymous attacks, the group has decided to once again take a shot at PayPal, which it claims is encouraging and assisting police crackdowns.
This time, though, it seems Anonymous is being a little more civilly disobedient. Instead of warming up the Low Orbit Ion Cannon once again and nuking the site's servers, it's calling for a good old-fashioned boycott. Anons want all supporters and like-minded parties to cancel their PayPal accounts and stop using the service until the company allows donations to WikiLeaks to go through.
Hacktivists like the ones in Anonymous insist that the hacking they do is online political protest and shouldn't be punished in the same way as profit-motivated thievery. But law enforcement doesn't see it that way, so calling for a boycott gives Anons a chance to jab at PayPal without adding to the list of charges authorities want to slap them with.
Whether that boycott actually hurts PayPal is another matter. When we contacted the company shortly after the boycott began, it claimed it hadn't noticed so much as a blip on the radar.
Listen to the podcast (15:08 minutes).
The Mozilla Menagerie
I was going to start this one off by saying something sarcastic about how badly the world needs another mobile operating system, because iOS, Android, WinPho7, BlackBerry, Symbian, MeeGo and webOS just don't give me, the consumer, nearly the kind of variety I've come to expect in life.
But what developers are trying to do with Boot 2 Gecko -- what they look like they're trying to do, anyway -- is at least different and a little interesting.
The Boot 2 Gecko project, or B2G, is the latest endeavor over at Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox Web browser. It's in its very early stages right now, but what Mozilla envisions is for B2G to be a new mobile OS with its most basic foundations rooted in the Android kernel. So maybe it wouldn't be quite right to call it a new mobile OS at all -- it would just be a version of Android that's been more deeply modified than the nose job companies like HTC and Motorola typically give it before loading it into their phones.
Mozilla, of course, does not make phones; it makes software, and B2G will be an open source project. But instead of relying primarily on downloaded apps the way a lot of other mobile OSes do, it would be built from the ground up for Web apps, with most of the heavy lifting done on faraway servers, not the phone itself.
Mozilla says its goal is to build a complete, stand-alone operating system for the open Web. Comparisons have been made to Google's Chrome OS, an OS for laptops that more or less lives in the cloud. B2G would take a similar approach for mobile devices.
If B2G reaches maturity, it's unknown how Mozilla will attempt to bring it to market and make it something lots of people will really want to use. Will it try to buy its way into phones made by high-profile handset makers, or will users have to hack their own handsets to get it going?
Also, latching onto Android at this moment isn't exactly a risk-free proposition. The mobile OS is getting hammered from all sides by Google rivals that say various parts of Android infringe on their patents. Apple, Oracle and Microsoft all want a piece, and depending on where it goes with B2G and how much Android baggage it packs, Mozilla could get bitten.
Pick a Side
Apple's insistence on maintaining a smooth, user-friendly process when it comes to customers forking over their money has apparently painted certain iOS app vendors into a corner, and their only options are to either make their apps a little clunkier to use or give Apple a sizable chunk of their revenues. Guess which one they picked?
This has been a long time coming. Earlier in the year, Apple told makers of iOS apps that it was getting ready to clamp down on certain rules concerning in-app purchases -- transactions the user makes with the software creator by way of the app. Sometimes this will be subscriptions to content viewable through the app, or upgrades to a game or something along those lines. In-app purchases are very convenient for both buyer and seller, but since Apple acts as the middleman for the transactions, it insists on a 30 percent cut of the business.
That's a hefty toll, but considering how Apple runs its App Store, it does make a certain amount of sense. Since Day 1, Apple has taken a 30 percent cut of all app sales -- the money the buyer spends to acquire the app itself. That's proven to be an acceptable rate to many thousands of developers. But suppose Apple took a smaller cut, or no cut at all, on in-app purchases. Suddenly the more profit-minded app developers out there will make all their apps free, and Apple would get no money from those downloads. And what's the first thing you'd see when you start up these guys' software? Something like "This app must be upgraded before it can be used -- buy the upgrade now for $10 with an in-app purchase!" By taking the same cut for in-app purchases as it does for initial sales, Apple prevents pointless little run-arounds like that.
But that's a pretty black-and-white case, and when that toll is extended to vast libraries of content like books or movies or music, then the sensibility of paying 30 percent of your iPad income to Apple starts looking very gray.
Those who don't want to pay the 30 percent Apple toll but still want to give users a convenient way to buy content for the app will typically just build in a Safari redirect. Classic move. The app has a button that automatically cues up the Safari browser to a Web page where users can buy what they're looking for. It's not quite as slick as an in-app purchase, but it does not require the vendor to pay Apple a cut, and it guides the user clearly toward the Buy button.
An example of this would be Amazon's Kindle e-reader app. You can't buy books through it directly, but the app does have a button that flings you out into Safari and lets you buy the book online, so next time you start up the Kindle app, there it is on your reading list.
At least, that's how Kindle used to work. Apple has said the time has come to obey the rules, and those rules have forced Amazon and other app vendors that did business in similar ways into a choice: Either make that content available via a purely in-app purchase -- one in which Apple gets its cut -- or eliminate that feature that automatically sends the buyer over to a Web page to do business.
App makers like Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and The Wall Street Journal have opted for the latter. Users of those apps won't be led gently down the path to purchasing anymore; they'll have to visit various Web pages on their own, buy the content with no hand-holding, then cue up the app.
Not that big a deal if you know what you're doing. Just make a bookmark or something; it's not that hard. But honestly, not everyone who uses these apps is technically gifted in the least, and pockets of frustration will blossom. And among those who do know how to deal with it, only a tiny fraction will care why this is all happening; they'll just feel like they're being made to jump through hoops in order to give up their money.
Maybe Apple thinks app makers will crack after a few months of this. And perhaps app makers think they don't need iPad users so badly that they'd give up a third of their proceeds just to make things a little more convenient on their end.
After building Hulu from the ground up, its parental overlords at News Corp., Disney and NBC Universal want it off their hands. They're looking to sell, they want it to happen soon, and they're giving interested parties a look at the books. Yahoo's reportedly already made an offer, but unconfirmed reports hint that Apple is also taking a peek.
There's no telling how far along these two might be in negotiations, or if there even are any negotiations, but the possibility that Apple could take Hulu under its wing is an interesting idea.
Apple's already in the TV business, but it sells and rents TV shows a la carte through iTunes. Customers pay on a show-by-show basis. Hulu is a streaming service that makes its money on ads and subscriptions. Integrating Hulu into the Apple ecosystem would make Apple a complete online TV service.
Of course, buying Hulu is one thing; re-upping its various contracts in order to continue providing new content is another matter. Apple's had relationships with TV companies for years through iTunes, but they haven't always been smooth. If it bought Hulu, it would end up circling back to the companies that created it, possibly offering a deal that does even less for them than Hulu did when it was under their control. Then again, studios want subscribing, regularly paying customers -- that's why they invented Hulu in the first place. And Apple delivers customers.
The idea of a sale to Apple has its skeptics. For one thing, there's this theory that the real reason iTunes exists is to sell Apple hardware. It's an easy way to load up your mobile devices with movies and music and apps, but it only works if your gadget's name starts with a lowercase "i," so you have to buy into the Apple club to use it.
On the other hand, Hulu works with a broad variety of devices from all sorts of manufacturers, and servicing all these different kinds of platforms doesn't really align with Apple's philosophy -- unless you count the fact that iTunes works on Windows PCs. But since you need iTunes to make your iGadget work at all, not having iTunes for Windows would severely hamper iDevice sales. So that just brings us back to the big goal: moving hardware. If you can watch Hulu on anything, where's the big hardware cash-in?
Critics also say Hulu just has too much flavor for Apple. Apple has no shortage of cash, and it buys companies fairly often. But most of the time those companies are relatively small players that have especially good talent or good technology, rather than huge name recognition. Apple fully digests what it eats and makes it all about improving the Apple brand, not putting a little leash on a subsidiary and stamping "by Apple" underneath the logo. Hulu is a well-known and widely used Internet TV channel, and it could prove awkward for Apple to swallow whole.
That's Not My Name
Google's new Google+ network seems to be off to a powerful start. It's letting more invites go out now, and since it's linked to services a lot of people already use, like Gmail, it's managed to get a lot of people to wander in and check things out. ComScore says it racked up 20 million visitors in its first 21 days, and that includes a time when it was keeping itself under a tight invitation limit.
But it seems Google+ can be picky about the kind of people it'll allow inside. There are certain reasons Google+ might not like you very much. For instance, it might not like your name, or at least the name you're trying to use. Several users have complained that they've been booted from Google's network for not using a name that pleases Google's ears. Maybe they used an initial instead of a full last name, or a very uncommon nickname, or they just happen to have a legal name that's unusual in the part of the world in which they live. Whatever the reason, they say they've been denied access based on what they call themselves.
The company says it's all about maintaining a positive tone. Google VP Vic Gundotra spoke with blogger Robert Scoble on the topic of the names people use on Google+. Scoble relayed the conversation on his own Google+ profile, and while he didn't quote Gundotra verbatim, he reported the Google VP says it's not so much about people using their real names. Even though Google's official policy requires users to use the name they commonly go by in daily life, it's obviously very easy to set yourself up with a profile under an assumed name. And sometimes using an alias is necessary for someone with real concerns about their personal safety.
Apparently what Google really doesn't like are "uncommon" names -- Scoble's words, not necessarily Gundotra's. Google doesn't like it when people spell their names in weird ways with strange characters, or when they use obviously fake names, like "God."
I'll be nice and call it a case of good intentions getting mangled by unfortunate articulation somewhere along the lines of communication. Google wants people to honestly represent themselves, or at the very least avoid using offensive aliases. That's fine. But when you start banning users because you don't like their "uncommon" names, you're opening up a very messy can of worms.
Google's stance already appears to rule out former NBA player God Shammgod. What other kinds of names might result in Google+ eviction? That's very unclear. What's "weird" for a name? What's "uncommon," exactly? It seems they probably wouldn't like umlauts or Cyrillic characters, because someone might think those are strange. Q is a kind of strange character too -- probably the hardest one to use in a game of Scrabble, so best to avoid it.
Also, a name one person thinks is obviously fake might be not at all strange to someone else, depending on cultural background. The situation brings to mind incidents Facebook has had with members who have certain Native American names, like Kills the Enemy. That's a woman's real name, but for a while, Facebook insisted she was making it up.
The positive tone Google's going after is understandable. Given a certain degree of anonymity, some people let themselves get really nasty online, and that can turn entire communities into sewers of filth that nobody wants to visit. But when you make lots of official rules about what is and is not acceptable in terms of something so personal and diverse as people's names, you're just setting yourself up to look bad.
Later, another Google VP, Bradley Horowitz, posted a message stating Google is working on ways to accommodate a wider range of names and that the process of giving people the boot for naming violations has been softened up.