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Digital art swaggers down the cul-de-sac of obsolescence • The Register

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Argh, where did I put that old comic? Someone told me it’s a collector’s item! It has value!

You may be disappointed to learn that I am not hunting down an issue #1 heirloom featuring caped billionaire fascists or drug-pumped soldiers in patriotic catsuits. What I’m searching for has less of the crime bashing and more, er, kangaroo snogging.

Found it! Found them all, in fact: a complete set of Deadline, all 64 issues from launch to collapse. Given that my move to France a couple of years ago effectively turned my house upside-down, it made sense that everything that used to be stored in the attic would now be in the cellar – and that’s where they were.

I’m not looking to sell. I’m trying not to buy.

Maybe you’re the same, I dunno, but I have an annoying habit of buying the same thing over and over again. The process goes like this:

1. I notice a serialised comic strip that appeals to me in an anthology that I subscribe to.

2. Months afterwards, I purchase the whole series anew when they are collected and republished as a graphic novel.

3. A decade later, I have forgotten where I put the graphic novel and end up buying the repackaged reprint all over again.

4. After reading the reprint, I pop it onto a bookshelf, only to find I have inserted it right next to the edition that I couldn’t find.

Determined not to make all the same mistakes over and over again, on the cusp of ordering Shaky Kane’s Good News Bible I went hunting for Mr Kane’s originals in my copies of Deadline that I bought in late 1980s and early 1990s from my local newsagent. Hmm, I see the pages have yellowed a bit, especially after they switched to cheaper paper a year after the launch. Maybe I should buy the digital edition.

Ah, now. I forgot to mention step 5:

5. Despite owning the original print run and two alternative collected volumes of the comic strip series, I convince myself that buying a digital edition of the same graphic novel will ensure longevity.

Photo of early issues of Deadline magazine

So 1980s! Some Deadline magazines in Dabbsy’s cellar

Here’s where things get sticky, because this is often followed by a step 6:

6. The company that sold me the digital comic goes out of business and its app stops working. So I feel obliged to buy it all over again on another platform – as before, for reasons of “longevity”.

Anyone would think the media format wars for video and music just passed me by, unnoticed. Yet I know plenty of people who own the same albums in multiple formats: on original vinyl, then cassette, CD with copy protection, post-1990s reissued CD without copy protection, Minidisc, MP3, FLAC, streaming and, of course, vinyl again.

It’s a similar story for many dedicated movie fans, whose attics and cellars are piled high with multiple copies of their favourite films on VHS or Betamax (or both), laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray, only to buy or rent them over and over again via download and streaming because they can’t find a working VHS/Betamax/laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray player compatible with their 8K TV which is equipped with an Ethernet port, an optical port and nothing else.

Which brings us to media content wrapped up in NFT platforms. By the power of Greysk… er, Ethereum and various copycat blockwagons delivering smart contracts, clever digital media such as animated, interactive 3D art can be bought, sold and generally pumped up in fiat currency value without losing track of ownership – even shared ownership of the same content.

Cryptocurrency trading simulator Crypto Parrot calculates that the cumulative trading volume of the 10 leading NFT marketplaces reached $1.63bn earlier this week. So disruptive!

Yes, it’s all hype, but what isn’t? If the art-as-investment market appears to be gambling on NFT, well, gambling on short-term value is what art dealers do. And who can blame the artists making a quick buck on the craze? It’s not just the Banksys and Winklemen, either: London-based artist Andrew Brown recently put 40 of his works up for sale at $500 each and sold the lot almost immediately, earning him $20,000 in 20 seconds. Its value then increased by 25 per cent a week and the last time I looked the collection was worth in excess of $300,000. That’s why art investors are interested.

None of this bothers me. I’m not an art collector, even less so if I can’t hang it on a wall or balance it on a shelf. All that interactive digital wank is like art installations: they belong in a gallery, museum or pretentious loft space, not squeezed between the sofa and coffee table in my living room. And certainly not locked away inside the same bloody computer I’ve been sitting in front of all day, not to mention an arcane proprietary NFT platform and obligatory wonky VR headset.

But what’s this? Oh no! The NFT craze is threatening to infect the comics industry!

The hugely talented, award-winning and very popular comics artist Nick Percival will see his forthcoming graphic novel Bloodlines published later this month in Terra Virtua NFT-only format. Good luck to him and all that but, kuh-rist almighty, not another format, surely?

“From any device, collectors can use the app to delve into Nick’s different creative layers,” says Terra Virtua’s Jawad Ashraf. Judging from the Terra Virtua site, I suppose “any device” is NFT disruptor slang for “Windows and Android only”.

Nick himself says: “I became fascinated in the ways NFTs enable people to experience art in ways that aren’t possible in print.” Examples of this experience might include animated artwork, being able to peel back creative layers to reveal original concept sketches, and discover “Easter eggs”.

Yes, yes, I remember all this being said about animated books created in Macromedia Shockwave format around the turn of the century. And what happened to my investment in Dr Seuss’s finest moments on CD? Now used as coffee coasters, the lot of them. And Shockwave’s successor, Flash? Urgh. I’d have a better chance of getting Peter Gabriel’s XPLORA1 interactive game from 1993 to run on a Hypercard emulator.

Do what you like with your Non-Fungible Tokens, kids, but I’ve been down the digital format detour too many times already and it always leads to a cul-de-sac. One day you’ll discover – just as with my Shockwaves, AVE comics, Minidiscs, VHS tapes and all – that NFT ultimately stands for “Not Fucking There”.

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He acknowledges that he may be wrong about all this, especially about the main aspect of collecting art, which is the process of building the collection rather than the art itself. He also sincerely hopes the NFT hype will prove to be a genuine and not-at-all virtual source of income for beleaguered comic artists. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.



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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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