M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Archive for the ‘Tech’ Category

Can you even copyright porn in the first place?

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Over at msnbc.com’s Open Channel blog, I have a follow-up to a story I did last year explaining how law firms threaten to sue people who allegedly illegally download porn — and out them as porn fans in court documents — unless they settle for a few thousand bucks.

One of those people has a new counter-strategy: She argues in a suit filed this week that porn is obscenity, and obscenity is ineligible for copyright. Therefore, porn can’t be copyrighted, so even if she did download it without paying — which she denies — it’s not “piracy” in the first place:

Open Channel: Internet piracy suit asks: Can you even copyright porn?

Do you think that’s a legitimate argument? Read the full piece and let me know in the comments.

Written by Alex

February 3, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Reporting: For some churches, the Internet clicks; for others it doesn’t

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Over at msnbc.com, I have a long piece examining how religious institutions regard the Internet and especially social media:

[T]he Catholic Church has a long history of being an early adopter of new forms of media, going back to the 1920s, when Catholic priests pioneered radio evangelism, Campbell said.

At the same time, other religious institutions, especially traditional U.S. Protestant denominations, are still sorting through the challenges as well as the opportunities posed by the Internet, and particularly social media, according to church leaders and administrators.

“I think there’s a lot of groups trying to figure it out,” said John Davidson, a fundraising and ministry consultant for churchextension.org, which supports the ministry of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.

I talked to the Rev. Bobby Gruenewald, the “innovation leader” at LifeChurch.tv, a very sophisticated worldwide online ministry. He pinpoints the divide this way:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alex

November 23, 2011 at 9:21 am

U.S. bars the public from seeing its data on doctors

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Cross-posted from msnbc.com’s Open Channel investigative blog.

The Obama administration has closed public access to its database of disciplinary action against doctors and other medical professionals, basically because reporters were getting too good at using it.

The Department of Health and Human Services compiles a National Practitioner Data Bank to centralize reports on malpractice cases and licensing board actions against individual doctors and health care companies. The idea is to make it harder for practitioners who’ve been hit with disciplinary actions or malpractice judgments to move to other states and get new licenses.

Four times a year, HHS has published a version of the database to the public. Because the database is supposed to be confidential, it’s scrubbed of names, addresses and other information that patients, lawyers and reporters could use to identify who’s in it. Still, because it provides a wealth of aggregate information, the NPDB quarterly summary has been a regular source of medical stories for a quarter-century. (As recently as June, the database was generating stories like this one, reporting that half of U.S. malpractice payments involve patients seen outside a hospital.)

Or at least it did until this month, when HHS’ Health Resources and Services Administration added this sentence to the databank’s Web page:

The NPDB Public Use Data File is not available until further notice.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alex

September 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Reporting: Porn piracy wars get personal

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Cross-posted from msnbc.com’s Technolog blog, where it originally appeared. To read it in context, with all information boxes and art, click here.


Ron Jeremy is one of more than a dozen adult video stars who talked about the damage piracy can cause in public service announcements published last year by the Free Speech Coalition, the industry’s trade association.

It’s not fun, but all things considered, John Steele is OK with being a villain.

In recent months, Steele’s Chicago law firm has filed almost 100 federal lawsuits seeking to identify thousands of “John Does” who downloaded pornographic videos in violation of their producers’ copyright. Federal court records indicate that none of Steele’s cases — in fact, no case of this type ever — has ended with a verdict at trial.

Sometimes, the cases run into roadblocks from skeptical judges over jurisdiction or whether the defendants have been appropriately identified. Others end in settlements for a few thousand dollars from defendants who are relieved that they get to remain anonymous.

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Human editors matter

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Google News picks up a grisly story from Reuters and gets bitten by its computerized presentation:

Here’s the headline:
Body of missing Brooklyn boy found in freezer, trash

Here’s the caption Google News automatically generated, because Reuters includes a picture-of-the-day feature on its story pages:
A host of new surveys don’t paint a pretty picture for many small businesses. Uncertainty about the economy, slow retail sales and high commodity prices have small business owners in the dumps this summer.

There’s no one to blame for this, really. But it does illustrate, tastelessly and uncomfortably, that it will be a long time — perhaps not in my lifetime — before human editors are totally dispensable.

Agree or disagree? Will computers some day be able to completely replace us? Let me know in the comments.

Written by Alex

July 13, 2011 at 10:25 am

E911: Needle, meet haystack

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Exactly two years ago tomorrow, I wrote an msnbc.com piece about the accuracy of 911 calls from wireless phones. The takeaway was:

[T]he accuracy of location data generally drops in rural areas, where older, less-advanced cell towers can be farther apart, the Congressional Research Service found in a background report for lawmakers late last year. And it can drop in densely populated cities, where a phone might show up as being at 1 Main St., with no indication of whether it’s on the seventh or the 77th floor.

Depending on the technology a carrier is using — GPS or tower triangulation — FCC regulations allow a margin of error of up to 300 meters for some E911-capable phones. That’s longer than three football fields.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission published proposed E911 regulations that wouldn’t allow carriers to rely on tower triangulation — that is, measuring a phone’s distances from its three closest towers, which is the measure that yields the 300-meter margin of error. Instead, carriers would have to use location services on the device itself (GPS, for example), which is supposed to be accurate within 50 to 150 meters.

It would take Usain Bolt almost 15 seconds to sprint 150 meters — assuming stairs weren’t involved. Not all GPS services measure or report altitude, so they can’t indicate which floor you’re on if you’re in a high-rise building.

The technology to make wireless E911 work is incredibly difficult, but the new regulations mean that even under optimum conditions,  you could still be waiting a good amount of time for emergency crews to find you.

That’s the first caution. The second is that the new regulations wouldn’t take effect until after an eight-year sunset period; the current three-football-field allowance would be OK until 2019.

What do you think? Is that close enough? Do you expect better technology to be created in the near future? And if it is, what would the implications be for individual privacy?

Written by Alex

July 12, 2011 at 3:43 pm

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Foreign computer tech comes pre-infected for your convenience

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Over at Technolog, I’ve posted a followup on amazing comments at yesterday’s House cybersecurity hearing, during which a top official of the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that computer hardware and software is already being imported to the United States preloaded with spyware and security-sabotaging components.

U.S. official says pre-infected computer tech entering country (Alex Johnson/Technolog)

Written by Alex

July 8, 2011 at 11:58 am