Weekend news roundup

19 Sep 2011

A trawl through some of the technology news coverage in the weekend’s newspapers, including the hacking of Miriam O’Callaghan’s Twitter account, remembering the founder of Project Gutenberg and the growing pains the internet will experience.

War of words over Late Late Show

A war of words – literally – has broken out over how RTÉ current affairs broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan’s Twitter account was hijacked and used to described the Late Late Show on Friday night as “complete and utter rubbish.”

O’Callaghan is insisting she never sent the tweet and that her account has been hacked.

According to the Sunday Independent, she said: “The first I knew about it was when someone called me and told me about this bizarre re-tweet – I immediately went onto my Twitter account to obviously say it wasn’t me. Anyone who knows me would have known that anyway. Someone hacked my account clearly and re-tweeted it so I also immediately changed my password there and then.”

O’Callaghan says she has left the tweet on her Twitter profile purposely so security experts can track down the person who hacked her account.

The mother of all knowledge?

You know the way the whole world gets their knickers in a twist whenever they hear of devices or internet giants recording their location information? Well, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, suggested Robert Shrimsley, writing in the Financial Times magazine at the weekend.

He wrote: “Google would like to use my locational data. It wants to know where I am, and to help me organise all my personal information. Google is always thinking of new things it can do for me. Google is my mother.

“This thought occurred as I batted away yet another request from the search giant to allow it to use my location data so that it could improve the services it offered me. It’s well meant and it’s handy knowing where the nearest station or coffee shop is. If I mention in passing in a Gmail that I’m feeling under the weather, Google will instantly recommend some vitamins or offer me the details of the Wellman clinic. Only a mother thinks about this kind of thing. There’s more. Why did it create Google+ to rival Facebook? Because, obviously, it worries about some of the people I’ve been hanging out with. Naturally it gets upset if I don’t want to share the information. I can sense it thinking: “Is it too much to ask that you let me know where you are once in a while, so that I know you are safe and within a 200-metre radius of a Carluccio’s?”

“For a while, this degree of intrusion was disconcerting, but then I realised … Google was just worried about me.”

Online billing drama resurfaces

The Sunday Independent reported that Vodafone is switching some of its customers to online billing, threatening to re-open a row over the way paper bills are being phased out.

The mobile phone operator has informed its customers on the Perfect Friend tariff — most of whom are company employees — that they will be receiving their monthly bill online rather than by post.

Those who want to continue receiving paper bills will have to log onto the company’s website to opt out. Although only a small number of Vodafone customers are affected, the move conflicts with the Communication Regulator’s (ComReg) view that customers should give their agreement before they are moved to online bills.

It follows the row last year when Vodafone’s rival, O2, attempted to switch customers to an online billing system. Consumer groups claimed it would impact on those without internet access, particularly the poor and the elderly. ComReg intervened to warn O2 that it was in breach of its licence by changing people’s billing conditions. ComReg subsequently produced a preliminary consultation paper in which it “suggested” that phone companies secure the agreement of their customers before switching their billing systems.

The ascent of the internet

The internet will go through rites of passage just as its users progress through the seven ages of man, wrote Aleks Krotoski in The Guardian.

“Twenty-one years ago, the world wide web was brought into this world by Tim Berners-Lee. It had a long gestation period – almost 30 years – and started out with a cache of just one page, one hyperlink and fewer than 100 potential users.

“Developmental psychologists study the features that characterise our lives through successive stages of life, from pre-birth to old age. Progress through these stages happens when certain requirements of the current stage have been met, from acquiring motor skills and language to developing a sense of responsibility and personal identity. To move forward, we must tackle the big questions, such as: ‘Who am I?’ or: ‘Am I good or bad?’

“This is an oversimplified scaffolding upon which to hang a theory about an inanimate, insentient entity such as a computer network. The web has both a physiological (its technology) and social (its users) profile and it has a human psychology because we pour ourselves into it.

“In other words, the web was born with a personality. As Kranzberg’s first law of technology says: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

Remembering the founder of Project Gutenberg

Every time you read an e-book on your Kindle, your iPad, iPhone or PC, spare a thought for the late Michael Hart. The founder of Project Gutenberg devoted his life to creating a vast archive of free, public-domain e-books.

Writing in The Observer, John Naughton wrote that “way back in 1971 he had a great idea: that computers could make great literature freely available to anyone. He founded Project Gutenberg, the world’s greatest archive of free, public-domain e-books, and he devoted his life and most of his energies to that one great project.

“The idea came to him when he was a student at the University of Illinois in 1971. Computers were then huge, fabulously expensive mainframes and Michael had access to one of them. On Independence Day 1971, inspired by receiving a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, he typed the text of the declaration into a computer file and sent it to other users of the machine. He followed it up by typing the text of the Bill of Rights, and then, in 1973, the full text of the US constitution.

“Most people would have stopped at this point, but not Hart. If computers could store and endlessly distribute great texts, he reasoned, why stop at the constitution? Why not create the digital equivalent of the lost Library of Alexandria? Why not every book in the world – or at least every significant text that was out of copyright and in the public domain? Thus was Project Gutenberg born.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years