Saudi Arabian Threat To Ban VoIP Services Highlights Deeper Security Issues Within Skype

By Nick Davis

Skype has yet another security issue to handle. This time, it’s not a demand for more security, but less. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has threatened to ban the service and other Voiceover Internet Protocol (VoIP) applications, similar to the Blackberry Messenger (BBM) ban of 2010. Saudi Arabia hasn’t explicitly stated the reasoning behind it, but many Saudis and expatriates have insinuated that the Monarchy wishes to have more control to monitor communications between its citizens and their cohorts.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. While Saudi Arabia has typically been an ally to the United States and a respectful government to its people, they have a long track record of quashing civil liberties.  What is surprising is that Skype software allows third parties to find and control your IP address through a simple username search no matter what your privacy settings are, and Skype has known about this problem since 2010.  

Despite Microsoft overhauling Skype’s online security network from peer-to-peer machines to Linux boxes that are hardened to resist the most common type of attacks, Skype has yet to resolve the ‘digital identity stealing’ that has developed over the last few years.  Essentially, according to a Skype programmer, the problem revolves around a catch-22 of speed and security. “One challenge is that the maximum Round Trip Time (RTT) that VoIP users can tolerate is around 300 milliseconds (ms) whereas the propagation delay in a fiber optical cable spanning the circumference of the planet is approximately 200ms. It means that when a user in Germany calls another one in Australia, the proxy service must incur less than 100ms additional RTT.”

Additionally, an Israeli security researcher recently found another bug with Skype and Dropbox. The issue centered around the services’ lack of URL validation which then allowed any private information shared over theses services, like Facebook accounts and passwords, to be recovered by identity thieves. Nir Goldschlager, a founder of the security service Breaksec, responsibly reported the bug, which could have led to more bad publicity for the digital telephony service.

I think its interesting that there is plenty of publicity surrounding the government of Saudi Arabia potentially violating the privacy of its citizens when Skype itself perpetuates and allows hackers to steal private information. There aren’t many things that could dissuade users from discontinuing their usage of the application, but one of those is shaky security controls. Skype has a significant network effect to the extent that most people who use it have a contact base set up. However, with competitors like Google Voice, Apple’s Facetime,  and other VoIP services, Skype isn’t exactly running a monopoly.

The video service needs to take care of their security issues as soon as possible because it stands to lose over 31 million users worldwide. At the very least, the issue is preventing major corporations from putting their stamp of approval on the conferencing site due to the lack of security. Before we throw the Saudi government under the bus for violations of privacy, we should also ask Skype why it has taken so long to protect its users. They are just as guilty as the Arab country.

Votifi in 2012 - A year in review [INFOGRAPHIC]

After crunching numbers for the poll questions answered in 2012 we came up with this little summary of what Votifites think and do. Enjoy.  

Advocates and Opponents Of Gay Marriage Have More At Stake With Proposition 8 Than DOMA


By Nick Davis

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week with regards to the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8. It seems only fitting that the Court would take up both cases at the same time. The part in question with DOMA is simply whether or not same-sex couples deserve the same tax benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy. Proposition 8 actually deals with the question of whether or not individual states have the right to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

No matter which side the Supreme Court falls on, its inevitable that the cultural tide surrounding the acceptance of gays and lesbians will continue to grow. Just like in the 1960s and SCOTUS decisions before that, civil rights supporters were not deterred by legal setbacks, and its doubtful LGBT supporters will feel that sentiment either. Once we get past the usual comparisons to the civil rights era, it’s easy to see that the real meat of debate lies with Proposition 8 rather than DOMA.

This might be one of the few instances where money takes a backseat in any debate. Any culturally aware observer can see that the gay marriage debate is about equality and holding up societal constructs than it is about the tax breaks. The money is just the icing on the cake for LGBT supporters. That is why Proposition 8 is a much bigger deal to both sides. Proposition 8 deals with the fundamental question of whether homosexuals have the right to marry their partner. That principle applies to all 50 states, not just those which allow heterosexual and homosexual marriages.

So, since marriage contracts are currently left up to the states, what is the likelihood that it will stay that way? Excluding any unforeseen outcomes about standing issues, the Court will likely have to determine whether the 10th or 14th amendment takes control here. The former states that any power not given to the federal government stays with the states and the latter states that all people should be given equal treatment under the law. A majority opinion based on the 10th amendment would preserve the status quo while an argument based on the 14th amendment would deliver a landmark decision.

Not surprisingly, it seems that this may be another decision split along ideology. Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Scalia seem to be in favor of federalism or states’ rights while Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, and Breyer seem to be willing to decide based on equal protection. As always, that leaves Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote.

Throughout both days of arguments, the Justices and lawyers debated whether the state had a compelling interest in denying same-sex couples the right to marry. Two of the main points revolved around promoting procreation of new life as well as the effects of same-sex parenting. This second point is where Kennedy expressed some concern. “[The] sociological information is new. We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more. On the other hand, there is an immediate legal injury or what could be a legal injury, and that’s the voice of these children. There are some 40,000 children in California, according to the Red Brief, that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case don’t you think?”

I’m no law expert, but I would be surprised if the Court didn’t strike down Proposition 8 based on the equal protection argument. The American Academy of Pediatrics has answered Kennedy’s questions about the lack of evidence regarding the effects of same-sex parents on children. They endorsed gay marriage on March 21st stating that the AAP “supports pediatricians advocating for public policies that help all children and their parents, regardless of sexual orientation, build and maintain strong, stable, and healthy families that are able to meet the needs of their children.” 

Just like in Loving vs. Virginia, the case that struck down bans on interracial marriage, the Court decided that the 14th amendment superseded the 10th because the law had no compelling state interest other than to promote a cultural standard.

On Tuesday, we here at Votifi asked you whether you thought the Supreme Court has the power to influence culture, or whether culture influences the Supreme Court. Of all respondents, 67% said that culture influences the Court while 24% said that it influences culture. What’s interesting is that most of the 67% tended to lean left politically while the 24% happened to lean right. To me, this is not surprising at all. Conservatives have always referred to the Court as ‘activists,’ and here it would be no different. 

A New Business Model

I was working on a paper for a history class over spring break and the topic was anarchism. In sunny California there were distractions at every turn, and for somebody from Michigan if I went outside the paper would never get finished. So I tried procrastinating in a less distracting way. There was a Portal video game poster up on the wall of the friend who I was staying with and I’d heard great things about the game so I went to Steam (the best place online to buy videogames). Then just as I was about to download a game generally accepted as truly addicting, inspiration struck and I knew how to finish my paper.

If you’re not a gamer you might be wondering what do Internet videogames have to do with anarchism. My paper was on Joseph Proudhon who is widely regarded as the father of anarcho-syndicalism; and Valve, the company that created Steam, is operated on an anarcho-syndicalist model.

The founder of Valve, a man named Gabe Newell was a top programmer at Microsoft before he cashed in his shares and started a videogame company. He created a corporation while throwing out all the rules about how to structure a corporation. The organization would be completely flat. That is to say if you work at Valve you are your own boss, work on what you want, and are free to move from project to project as you please. Here’s more on what it’s like from a Michael Abrash who has observed Valve from the inside.

Valve is a cool company, but it is also fascinating from an economic and historical standpoint. They may be the most successful example of anarchy since the Paris commune, and that only lasted a few months. Valve is almost two decades old and growing steadily.  This company is successful because the employees are working on their passions, and their compensation is based almost exclusively on peer reviews. Abrash writes:

If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit to traditional hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making only incremental changes over time. What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation. Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation through the people at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that those people would be particularly creative about coming up with new products that are dramatically different from existing ones – quite the opposite, in fact. So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay. Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all. 

Now all this is interesting for my paper perhaps, but does the success of a company like Valve mean anything in the big picture. Will companies start to emulate them? Can they? The first question is easy, other software companies and tech start-ups are already copying Valve. For example Madison based Epic, a medical software company has adopted the flat structure and has become an industry leader, they employ mainly young people who work in small teams, with little corporate structure. And this isn’t some small start-up, Epic did $1.2 billion in 2011.

But the second part is tricky, can these models be realistically emulated? Because Valve has the luxury of being a billion dollar company, with around three hundred employees to share in the spoils, it’s easy to be an anarchist when that much money is on the table. The model would also break down in many other businesses, imagine an anarcho-syndicalist hospital? Disaster.

Employees can hide in this flat structure. It’s hard to fire people, and hard to tell if someone is slacking, but it simply doesn’t happen often at Valve where you get to work on exactly what you want to. Still employees at companies adopting the flat structure may not be as motivated as those at Valve, especially if the field isn’t as interesting as video games. Valve trusts that employees will care what their coworkers think about them, and without the traditional hierarchy mutual respect is easier to achieve among the staff. Some argue that maybe this is just the brilliance of Valve and can’t be copied.  

The work environment provided by Valve is something to be envied, they have a massage parlor, and what young person wouldn’t want to work somewhere like that. I do. People who work in an environment where the work place politic is anarcho-syndicalism are inevitably and perhaps subconsciously going to change their political beliefs in regards to government. That’s not to say companies with no rules and lots of amenities are locks to succeed. The opposite tends to be true, but the perks at a place like Valve or Google or Facebook mean employees tend to spend more time working productively.  

The Valve formula breeds creativity and hard work from employees, and amazing services for consumers. It is less costly to run because there are less managers and it’s inherently more efficient. Communication is better and everyone can make decisions so the occur more quickly, making the company nimble and able to pivot at any moment. I’d be surprised if more corporations don’t start trying to implement certain parts of the anarcho-syndicalism model into their business, in particular branches of those companies that must innovate to succeed. I’m not suggesting that all or even many companies adopt the Valve model, but its success is a sign that the traditional corporate model is not the only way.

1776: The Second Wave of the Internet Revolution

Great interview by Evan Burfield on Bloomberg TV this morning about the DC startup scene and how to harness Washington DCs unique characteristics to promote entrepreneurship. Watch and learn: 

If GOP Allows It, Rand Paul’s Meteoric Rise Could Save Them

By Nick Davis

With each passing presidential election, it seems the cycle starts a little bit earlier every year.  The upcoming cycle is no different despite being over three and half years away. Let’s call March of 2013 the unofficial start to the 2016 campaign season. Hillary Clinton came out on video with the Human Rights Campaign in support of gay marriage. And Rand Paul has made it no secret that he is exploring his options as they pertain to 2016. He has taken center stage this month, most notably with his 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director nomination, John Brennan.

The junior senator from Kentucky will be the GOP’s own gut check to see if they’re ready to take on the changes proposed by the Growth and Opportunity Project. It appears Mr. Paul is ready to take on that challenge. He recently outlined his immigration stance at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and called for the decriminalization of marijuana, among other things, at the annual CPAC conference. Additionally, his constitutional and federalist bent on gay marriage could appease both liberals and conservatives, allowing each state government to determine what is best for them (at least until the Supreme Court returns its verdict sometime in June).

So what are Paul’s realistic chances of getting elected in 2016? Oddsmakers have put Mr. Paul at anywhere from 12-1 to 28-1 odds that this stage in the process, not exactly a sure bet.  Nate Silver, the election prophet over at the New York Times, recently outlined Paul’s appeal within his own party and whom he could attract from independents and Democrats. In that blog, Silver describes the Olympic Rings of the Republican Party. Its clear that Paul would fall into the libertarian category, but I’ll make the claim that he’ll have no problem attracting strong support from other factions of the party.

He has made it clear that he’s ready to deal on immigration, something that will attract moderates and reformers of the GOP. He’ll attract the Tea Party conservatives through his staunch fiscal restraint and religious conservatives should look fondly on his sponsorship of the Right to Life Act being proposed in the Senate now. His libertarian core base loves his dedication to the Constitution and his isolationist foreign policy.

So, that leaves the establishment base of the party, those who toe the party line and seem to be the most electable according to the pundits. It is these very people who are the reason why the Growth and Opportunity Project report was commissioned in the first place. Rand Paul is the very definition of the type of message and branding that this report described. His shift into immigration has the potential to win over some of the Latino vote while his idealistic and impassioned stance on the use of drones and libertarian approach to marijuana and gay marriage have strong potential to draw the youth vote.

There is still strong support for fiscal conservatism today. Republicans would do well to reconsider their positions on foreign policy and social issues. While Rand Paul will have only held political office for six years when the election rolls around, Barack Obama has proven that years of experience aren’t critical to being elected. In fact, it could be an asset. Americans, especially Republicans, are looking for a fresh face and ideas, and Rand Paul could be the one to deliver them.

How the Supreme Court Might rule on Prop 8

If you’re confused about what is going on at the Supreme Court this week regarding California’s Prop 8, see this great infographic courtesy the New York Times. 


The Senate Social Network

Yahoo’s Chris Wilson has created a dynamic representation of voting in (arguably) the worlds greatest deliberative body. Wilson describes the exercise: 

“For every member, I calculated which other senators voted the same way at least 75 percent of the time. In effect, this organizes the Senate as a mini-Facebook of 100 users, in which any given pair of senators are friends if they meet this 75-percent threshold….Visualizations like this one work by treating the senators as particles that repel one another, and treating the connections between them as springs that hold them together. Because the Democrats vote so cohesively, with few defectors, they are held together by a large number of springs.”

Here is the output: 

What’s abundantly clear from this is that Republican and Democratic Senators are for the most part in two different universes. They almost never vote together on issues with a few exceptions. All that talk about gridlock in the Senate is pretty much true. 

CPAC and The Republican ‘Autopsy’ Highlight Why The GOP Just Doesn’t Get It


By Nick Davis

It’s no secret lately that the Republicans have a bit of an identity crisis on their hands. Ever since Barack Obama won a second term as President, the GOP has been doing some soul searching, and rightfully so. After losing five out of the last six popular votes, the Republican Party needs to figure out how to keep from becoming a permanent minority that represents the interests of affluent, older, white men.

Kudos to Reince Preibus and the rest of the RNC for acknowledging that there is a problem. After another GOP loss, Republicans are right to reevaluate their methods and brand. For the last 30 years or so, the general electoral trend has been eight years of one party in power followed by eight of the other with exceptions sprinkled in. If we extrapolate that into the future, that logic would tell us that a Republican would be elected in 2016. But, if there’s one thing I have learned working at Votifi is that correlation does not equal causation.

The GOP is correct in getting ahead of the curve with their Growth & Opportunity Project report. They realize the need to adapt their brand in order to account for a changing demographic, one that is becoming more diverse. Monday, they finally released that report. The 97-page document addresses a multitude of topics, covering everything from how to connect with Latinos and African Americans to bring them into the Party to campaign strategy and fundraising tactics.

In general, the report can be broken down into two broad topics: messaging and strategy.

The findings make some excellent suggestions regarding election strategy. Among those are to reduce the number of debates during the primary season, move up the date of the party convention, and overhaul fundraising practices to rival those of the Democratic Party. These are all good suggestions and probably necessary if the party wants to stay relevant. But strategy only gets you so far if your substance is lacking.  I’ve heard Republican strategist say that you take the Obama out of the Obama for America and no matter how good that campaign was run, he would still lose. I think that’s probably true.

Substance is where this report falls short. The Growth & Opportunity Project, cleverly shortened to GOP, offers absolutely nothing in terms of policy change or specific policy details. Instead, it merely states that the Party must recruit women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and LGBT people to leadership positions and hold outreach programs. The unanswered question remains why would these people want to join your cause if you’re party is constantly championing policies to ridicule and spite them? The fact is, Republicans realize the error of their ways when it comes to procedures, but not when it comes to actual message and policy.

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Will Texas turn Blue?

By Ian Rosoff

The state of Texas has a population of a little over 26 million, that’s good enough to garner the Friendship State 34 votes in the Electoral College. For the Republican Party Texas is their most important state. Two Senators and 24 Congressman roam the halls of the Capitol during the week and head back to the ranch on the weekends.

The governor of Texas is probably the best stepping stone to the Presidency for any Republican. Remember that before people realized Rick Perry didn’t know how to tie his shoes, let alone run a country, he was leading in the polls.

So what would happen to the political world if the impossible happened, Texas turned blue?

A million years ago Texas was blue. Lyndon B. Johnson was a Democratic President from Texas, but looking at the state’s political landscape over the last few decades the only way you could possible see a Democratic Texan taking the White House is if you watched the last season of The West Wing.

One of the reasons Dems have such a hard time in Texas is that the party runs laughably bad candidates in most Congressional districts. What Democrat in their right mind would volunteer to spend money and time running a race they are sure of losing? The result is that turnout on both sides becomes abysmal.

Gerrymandering certainly doesn’t help the situation. According to the NYT 2012 election map Texas had zero toss up districts and only the Texas 23rd was even close and it’s still leaning red. None of this is likely to change as long as the Republican Party controls the governorship and the statehouse, but the demographics of the state are changing in an interesting way.

Almost all of the Democratic districts in Texas are clustered together in the Deep South up against the border with Mexico. According to the last census 38% of Texans are of Hispanic decent. Electorally that translates to 4.2 million eligible Hispanic voters.

More importantly this is an extremely young constituency. According to Pew some 32% of eligible Hispanic voters are age 18 to 29 and the national average is 22%. That means Texas has a large, young, and growing minority population whose political allegiance is (if the fact that districts bordering Mexico are moving blue means anything) slightly left on non-abortion issues.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but Texas is going to get contentious. If Democrats want to compete they will have to start putting money into developing the party in a state that they have essentially abandoned.

Republicans must no longer take Texas for granted and begin to court the Latino vote in serious ways. Currently turnout in Texas is predictably low. When there is no competition that’s bound to happen, but competition is the lifeblood of our democracy. For example Rick Perry was able to win the Republican primary for governor with only 2% of the voting-age population. Beating the Democrat’s sacrificial lamb was a forgone conclusion so essentially less than half a million people in a state of 26 million decided the governorship.

I don’t think Texas will go blue in a Presidential race anytime soon, but the next race may see a Hillary or Biden or Cuomo at least make a stop in Austin. This is one argument for why more money in politics is potentially a positive. It gives the parties the chance to use precious resources in districts that seldom see any. The Electoral College places undue import on established swing states and both parties ignore opportunities to try and create new ones. Texas may be an opportunity.