January 31, 2004

Howard Dean and the banality of "Social Software"

An inevitable reaction to the failure of the Great Internet God, is view it as the Great Internet Satan. But perhaps social software, blogging, etc. was neither Deity nor Devil, but merely banal.

There's a good quote in Andrew Orlowski's article Howard Dean's Net architect blasts 'emergent' punditocracy:

"Campaigns have always been decentralized and disorganized. There's always authorization and endorsement behind the scenes. In 2000, McCain's campaign was totally disorganized outside the main little bubble that they had. We were simply able to have more disorganized people!"

Presidential campaigns are big, geographically widespread, rambling organizations. A moment's thought will show they can't be too centralized by their very nature. Let's turn it around. Let's assume the Dean campaign was not extraordinary in any way we can. That is, nothing will be accounted extraordinary if it can be explained conventionally (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - not press-hype).

Yes, Dean has dedicated volunteers. But Kerry has campaigners who give the impression they'd literally take a bullet for him (which, one has to admit, would be much more impressive that writing on a blog, or even letters/canvassing). Yes, Dean raised much money, - but there was nothing unique about him which raised that money (rather than being an earlier-adopter of Internet fund-raising).

However, there's also downsides which didn't get discussed much in the hype. Dean is a rookie. His campaign managers (past and present) may have been experienced - but he was not. Experience counts in campaigning. While money talks, his opponents also had growls of their own, sometimes against him. Even if you raise more money than everyone else, if several of them gang up on you with attack-ads, you go down.

And again, if you campaign as Mr. Anti-War, and ride high when the war is more in the news, it's not surprising to fade as the war fades.

So maybe the all the Internet chatter was just ... chatter. Didn't help much, didn't hurt much. Or at least not nearly as much as would make The Internet Revolutionize Politics.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , politics | on January 31, 2004 11:56 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 29, 2004

Howard Dean, Joe Trippi, and Bubble Valuation

Continuing the theme of Howard Dean campaign and a bubble have been confirmed by his New Hampshire loss.

In a piece by Clay Shirky, Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?, he writes:

I'm getting the same cognitive dissonance listening to political handicappers explain Dean's dismal showing in Iowa that I used to get listening to financial analysts try to explain dot com mania with things like P/E ratios and EBITDA. A stock's value is not set by those things; it is set by buyer and seller agreeing on price. In ordinary markets, buyers and sellers use financial details to get to that price, but sometimes, as with dot com stocks, the way prices get agreed on has nothing to do with finance.

This sums up much which goes wrong in bubble-blowing. It's absolutely true that a stock's value is "set by buyer and seller agreeing on price". But it's a trivial definition of the word value. "What is this stock worth?" "What you paid for it". Right, but that's a joke, since it's re-interpreting the question in a semi-humorous way ("Call me a taxi","OK, you taxi!"). What people tend to mean by a stock's "value", is the complicated string of words "What is the return on investment for the level of risk, and is this greater or lesser than other investments for the same cost?". That's value - not price.

Now, this is a very complicated estimate - there's much mathematics, and superstition, associated with it. But that doesn't make it meaningless. When estimates of these factors (return, risk) depart from rational parameters, we enter bubble-land - and people get hurt (Enron!)

The comparable metric for a politician is roughly, metaphorically, "What is the worth of these policies, given that he/she has to get elected?" (return on investment == worth of these policies, get elected == risk)

The Dean Campaign was a classic bubble-stock. He was "thinly traded" (no real votes for a very long time). He was hyped by self-interested promoters, having found a new, naive, constituency which could be fleeced (net-heads). He had a gimmick (BLOGS / SOCIAL SOFTWARE, feel the *B*U*Z*Z*!), which was made even stronger for having a kernel of truth (fundraising being more efficient). He tapped into strong emotions (the war). And there was a ready supply of castle-in-the-air builders to tell us all about the New Era (of Regurgitant Pundocracy). All very standard.

And also classic is the way a rational assessment would show these to be blown way out of proportion. Howard Dean is a good guy, But he's not God. He's not even JFK. He has nothing so overwhelmingly favorable so as to make him even certain of victory. Yes, a big war chest is nice. But it wasn't 10 times, 100 times, more than his nearest competitors. Moreover, campaigning as an anti-war candidate automatically shut him off from the substantial number of pro-war voters (even Democratic voters). And was further vulnerable to being weakened by candidates who were somewhat anti-war, but less objectionable to those leaning pro-war. And his primary "market" (anti-war), weakened substantially due to world events. Plus he apparently blew the cash in some ill-advised ways.

Narrow market, over-hyped, lost share to more established players, crashed and burned (though to be fair, not to absolute zero) - where have we heard that story before?

When I read the following part of the New Republic article on Joe Trippi, my eyebrows raised up (emphasis mine):

Beyond its size, two things stood out about the Wave community. The first was the emotional investment the shareholders were making thanks to their interaction with each other and the company's management--an investment that produced incredible loyalty. "I think that the individual retail investor, no doubt about it, kept Wave afloat," says Barkeloo. "The loyal following kept the stock price up. The company should have gone away [when the tech bubble burst], but it didn't because of the retail base." The second thing was the way the investment community expanded. "It was word of mouth, grassroots," Sprague explains. "A buddy calls you up and says, 'Ah, I have a great stock.' You say, 'Where can I learn more?' He says, 'Join the chat board.'"

NO! Run away! You don't learn more on a chat board. A chat board is a nest of ranters, schemers, pump-and-dump scammers, manipulators, dreamers, and generally the worst place to learn anything except the many ways people can get things wrong (and their various reasons for doing so).

If presidential candidates were previously being sold as detergent, the new approach here was to sell them like a bubble stock IPO. That's indeed an innovation. But not necessarily a good one.

And I would have been flamed raw if I had said this while the bubble was being blown, before it had blown-up. At least nobody lost their retirement funds.

See also a NY Post column

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , politics | on January 29, 2004 11:54 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4) | Followups
January 28, 2004

Seth Schoen - The History of the DeCSS Haiku

Highly recommended:

The History of the DeCSS Haiku

I wrote the poem known as the "DeCSS Haiku" three years ago, in 2001.
Impressed by other people's contributions to the rapidly-growing gallery, I decided I had to make some kind of effort of my own.

Some quick observations:

An observer might be shocked to compare the Bernstein and Corley cases. She would perceive that the courts have concluded that it's wrong to censor software in the name of preventing terrorism, but it's all right when what's at stake is the ability to copy movies.

Well, yes. Because terrorism is about politics, but copying movies is about money. Just like it's 100.0% First Amendment protected to advocate bona-fide Nazi-ism (I mean real bring-back-the-Third-Reich, not hyperbole), but if you give your friends copies of a few some favorite songs, that can literally be a criminal offense.

Meanwhile, serious problems with the DMCA go unaddressed, and the traditional legal status of reverse engineering is under attack. Public opinion is not rising to defend it; since I wrote the DeCSS Haiku, property rhetoric has continued to its success in making people "brand / tinkerers as thieves". We are not communicating effectively, even though so many of our best cultural traditions are on our side.

Right on. Tell me about it. We aren't communicating effectively in part because too many people (present company excepted!) think talking among themselves is the epitome of political activism, and someone else will do the hard work. But I hardly have a solution.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight , cyberblather , legal | on January 28, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 27, 2004

"Howard Dean's 'smart ID' plan", and Declan McCullagh's "journalism"

Declan McCullagh's "journalism" sometimes resembles this old Bloom County cartoon:

[Scene: Declan McCullagh, err Milo Bloom, at reporter's desk in newsroom, on telephone]

Milo: Senator? This is Milo Bloom at the BEACON. Will you confirm that you sunk Jimmy Hoffa in your backyard pond?

Bedfellow: What? Of course not!
Milo: Fine. I'll go with "Sen. Bedfellow denies that pond is where he sunk Hoffa."

Bedfellow: That's NOT TRUE!
Milo: Okay. "Bedfellow DID sink Hoffa in pond".

Bedfellow: I DON'T KNOW where Hoffa is!!
Milo: "'I lost the body' says Bedfellow."

So, we have an article on how Senator Bedfellow sunk Jimmy Hoffa in the backyard pond, I mean, err:

Howard Dean's 'smart ID' plan

Let me just collect some resources:

Howard Dean's actual old speech
(no quotes, just read it to be informed - and interestingly, Declan does not give a link to it)

Andrew Orlowski - Who told Dean to scream for lock-down, TCPA computing?
"So it's worth parsing what Dean really said, and on what basis McCullagh formed his stentorian, five cigar conclusion, before we can judge either party."

Ed Felten / Freedom To Tinker: Dean's Smart-Card Speech
"At bottom, what we have here is a mistake by Dean, in deciding to give a speech recommending specific technical steps whose consequences he didn't fully understand. That's not good. But on the scale of campaign gaffes, this one seems pretty minor."

Dana Blankenhorn - Wrong Time For A Cheap Shot
"Declan McCullagh picked the wrong time -- the day before an important primary -- to deliver a cheap shot at Howard Dean."

Etc. Everyone can run around playing catch-up. But the damage is done. Not (yet?) at the Al Gore "invented the Internet" level, but instructive all the same.

Personal note: Perhaps, from this if nothing else, some people will understand why I worry about a journalistic hatch-job on me for any legally-risky free-speech work I might do.

Update: Wow (he said it, I didn't!):

Dana Blankenhorn - Orlowski Nails McCullagh's Butt To The Flagpole
"I hereby call out Declan McCullagh. You are no longer a journalist, sir. You are a lying troll."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , security | on January 27, 2004 11:40 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2) | Followups
January 26, 2004

Cites & Insights - February 2004

Walt Crawford's library 'zine (not blog) "Cites & Insights" has come out with the February 2004 issue, just a short time after the extensive Midwinter 2004 edition (which I mentioned earlier). It's an amazing amount of writing, covering a wide range of material: Early vs. late adopter psychology, equipment reviews and PC benchmarks, articles about Google and portals, copyright and compulsory licensing, and more. Part of the "more" is reactions to the previous issue, and I figure in there (links mine, and my emphasis added to the last statement below):

Seth Finkelstein, January 7

Finkelstein also makes me nervous by calling the Glossary Special a "handbook/reference/scorecard for the players and controversies in these topics." His direct note covered more ground:

COPA isn't really a predecessor to CIPA; it has a very different history and is a criminal law rather than a funding-based mandate. COPA is a direct successor to CDA, the Communications Decency Act. He's right, of course: I was thinking of it as a predecessor in Congress' ongoing attempts to censor the Internet.

"Harmful to children" in one definition was simply wrong--"harmful to minors" is the right phrase, and as I've noted at some length, 16-year-olds are not "children" in any meaningful sense. As Finkelstein notes, "Under CIPA, a 16-year-old might be prevented from researching sexual material to the sex he's already having!"

Finkelstein is dubious about my assertion that the Supreme Court "gutted [CIPA] for adults." "Whatever the justices expect in theory tends to be a world away from practice." That's true, and an important nuance.

Finkelstein would have liked a stronger statement about the problems in censorware research. I failed to say that the Censorware Project website was hijacked by another participant, but I don't doubt Finkelstein's historical record (readily available at his website). He's right: "Hijacking the Censorware Project website is wrong. It's utterly reprehensible." To the extent that I trivialized that, my apologies. Sometimes I'm too nonconfrontational for my own good, or for the good of those who do important work.

Thank you.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , copyblight , legal | on January 26, 2004 11:48 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1) | Followups
January 24, 2004

Hijacking of the Censorware Project domain renewed again

Michael Sims, the Slashdot "editor", who hijacked the Censorware Project domain, recently renewed it again, continuing the hijacking he had done. The WHOIS data currently reads:

Created On:25-Feb-1998 05:00:00 UTC
Expiration Date:24-Feb-2005 05:00:00 UTC
[changed: 2004-01-19]

I did not write this. It is a public statement by Censorware Project:

Why were we down? Another former member, Michael Sims, jellicle@inch.com, angry at a perceived slight from one of us, shut down www.censorware.org. ... Mike, now that the site is back up, we are renewing our request that you transfer us the censorware.org domain. You're not using it for anything, and it will continue to confuse people and divert traffic away from this, the rightful Censorware Project site.

I did not write this. Censorware Project Attorney Jonathan Wallace did:

But all the hundreds or thousands of links Censorware Project had build-up over the years still pointed to the old site. In some cases, it was impossible to fix them, since they were from mailing-list archives, old web news pages, in print, or webmasters didn't want to be to be bothered with edits. And anyone who tried to get in touch with us by sending mail to the previous contact address would have their message trashed by Sims. ...

In short, this is a colossal and continuing act of malice by our former webmaster, Michael Sims.

I did not write this. Bennett Haselton (of Peacefire.org) did:

If the EFF webmaster put the eff.org domain in his own name and then hi-jacked it from the organization, he'd be branded a traitor and a pariah in the Internet community for the rest of his life, and nobody would ever forget what he did. ...

... nothing [Michael Sims] does [at Slashdot] will ever come close to canceling out the harm he did by shutting down the one-time Censorware Project website.

The only legitimacy that Michael has is through his position as a Slashdot writer; he has just enough writing skills to make his writings sound seductively intelligent to anybody who doesn't know the real story. ... Do you think they're going to let him put the Slashdot.org domain in his name? :)

I have written many things. But they have no influence, so I won't repeat them now.

It's not a trivial flame-war. The implications are profound. Particularly:

If I could not win when opposing the "colossal and continuing act of malice" of the hijacking, when Michael Sims is so deeply wrong to have stolen the Censorware Project site, and Slashdot should be ashamed for _de facto_ supporting him - then what the hell am I doing thinking I can prevail against a lawsuit from a censorware company? It is not a matter of values, but of implications. I don't want people to preach to me that their values are that the hijacking of the Censorware Project domain shouldn't have been opposed, yet I should have been willing to pauperize myself over years of censorware company litigation. Rather, the objective reality of it, is that if I couldn't win this battle against such a clear-cut immoral action, I have no chance against an even more powerful opponent in censorware companies.

Moving on meant quitting my censorware decryption work. The above is one reason why I had to do so.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 24, 2004 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1) | Followups
January 23, 2004

"Miserable Failure" and Google

The "Miserable Failure" Google-bomb, of linking the keywords "Miserable Failure" to the White House page "Biography of President George W. Bush", was recently covered in the New York Times. It's now becoming a tactic in political campaigns.

Google-bombing, as I think of it, demonstrates the conflict between *popularity* and *authority* for search engines. As the article notes: about searching "miserable failure":

The more high-traffic sites that link a Web page to a particular phrase, the more Google tends to associate that page with the phrase - even if, as in the case of the president's official biography, the term does not occur on the destination site.

It's an illustration of many people repeating something (popularity) for purposes of having it accepted as meaningful (authority). This leads to obvious concerns as to just how much neutral authority can be corrupted by partisan popularity (note this assumes for the sake of discussion that course there's a neutral authority in the first place - a very arguable assumption). To wit (the link below is my own, for humor):

Google plays down the significance of Google bombing, saying the search results merely reflect what is actually happening on the Web.

"We're only seeing it with obscure queries where there's really not that much action on the Web about them," said Craig Silverstein, Google's director of technology. "I don't think it's possible to do this sort of thing on queries with well-defined results like I.B.M.' So given that it only affects one query out of the more than 200 million a day we handle, it's hard to see it becoming much of a problem."

I'm actually a little puzzled by that statement. What does he mean by "well-defined results"? Maybe "results which have many links already". Then it looks like he's basically right. You can't capture a term which already has a strong meaning. But even so, there's a still a lot of search-space in which to play.

[Update September 15 2005 - This has led to a "failure" Google bomb]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on January 23, 2004 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
January 22, 2004

DVD DeCSS trade-secret case withdrawn

Today's big tech civil-liberties news is that the Bunner DVD trade-secret case, that is, about whether posting DeCSS violated trade-secret law, has been dropped at the request of the industry. After four years of litigation. See, for example, the EFF report.

This is a good thing. Victories are few and far between, and this was one. However ... it's also important to realize it's only one of many legal grounds, and there are many others. Way down, in the ZDNET report is the critical analysis:

The ruling in the Corley [DMCA] case ultimately made the California case redundant, since the code was already illegal to distribute, attorneys said. If it had pursued its case further, the DVD CCA would have also risked prompting a ruling against it, since the California Supreme Court had expressed skepticism in its last ruling that there were any trade secrets to protect.

In its statement Thursday, the DVD CCA said it will pursue other avenues in protecting its code, including possibly filing patent infringement suits. It also said several outstanding Hollywood cases against commercial publishers that offer DVD-copying software will help protect its rights.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight , legal | on January 22, 2004 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2) | Followups
January 21, 2004

Howard Dean Is (Was) a Bubble IPO

At times during the past few months, I thought about writing a critical essay about the Dean campaign. Yes, they used the Internet in interesting ways, socially, very interesting ways. But some of those uses were by no means as warm and fuzzy as one would like. In fact, they bore a very disturbing similarity to Net-Bubble IPO's.

I never wrote the essay, though. I thought to myself: Don't get-into-it. There's no benefit. I can't win. There's no point in being contrarian about The Dean Machine. It's not my job. The result will only be that the Dean-iacs attack, and that'll just be one more reputation-negative, for nothing. Overall, the only people who would defend me after being slammed for such an analysis, are right-wingers, and they aren't my base.

I even wondered if I could get some political cover from Dave Winer. But that didn't change the high risk/reward equation.

Now, not only the blogosphere, but the medialump in general, is thick with Dean demolition. Pack journalism is a very ugly thing to behold.

I've seen relevant articles on e.g. PressThink and Ed Cone, I won't attempt to write a post-mortem of my own. Instead, the press process intrigues me. It's strangely "emergent" - it feeds on itself, and feeds on its feeding of itself. The worm ouroboros, made media.

The Internet will revolutionize politics - chatter, *buzz*, HYPE! AND HYPE HYPE HYPE again for good measure.

Oops - The Internet DID NOT revolutionize politics - what went wrong??? - repeat, chatter, *buzz*, HYPE!.

And, just like a bubble IPO, it's the (bottom?) feeders who end up coming out ahead.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , politics | on January 21, 2004 01:25 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (14) | Followups
January 20, 2004

Categorizing blog "power-law" discussion themes

[I wrote this as a comment, as part of a blog discussion about the popularity of the A-list, "fairness", power-laws, and what people want from their writing. It works as a stand-alone excerpt, and an interesting companion to the previous readership analysis ]

In general, much of the discussion about the types of blogs and writing seems to revolve around a few ideas:

1) Some People Write Just For Themselves

Indeed they do. But they don't care about power laws, so anyone who is interested in fairness or ranking is automatically excluded from that category.

2) Fame Is Fickle

Well, yes, at the margins, someone can hit it big, or fade from view, it happens. And celebrity requires some care and maintenance. This is pretty mundane stuff. It doesn't automatically somehow mean that fame/celebrity is therefore "fair".

3) You Can Be A Big Fish In A Small Pond

Sometimes people want the respect of few peers, a professional circle, more than a global audience. For example, they'd rather impress the New York Times Review Of Books, than Oprah's Book Club. This tends to be argued as if it were a rebuttal to the limits of having a global audience. It isn't. It's both a different goal, and within its own terms, it has the exact same problem of only a few slots (we can't all have a million readers, and we can't all win the Nobel Prize For Literature either).

4) Don't Worry, Be Happy

Cultivate your garden. Merrily pour time, energy, effort into your work, and if it reaches just one reader, consider it a job well done. It is very easy for a "have" to say this to a "have-not".

I could say more, but this is long enough (and I worry about being a blog-ant among blog-elephants).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 20, 2004 10:14 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5) | Followups
January 17, 2004

Readership Analysis

I finally ran some numbers to analyze the impact of Lawrence Lessig's mention of me last month in his post "Seth blog".

The number work out, for unique IP addresses referers:

Dec 16 - 258
Dec 17 - 130, plus 14 from a mirror
Dec 18 - 84, plus 40 from a mirror
Dec 19 - 64, plus 15 from a mirror
Dec 20 - 14, plus 3 from a mirror
Dec 21 - 29, plus 6 from a mirror
Dec 22 - 74, plus 6 from a mirror
Dec 23 - 33, plus 8 from a mirror
[That bump was probably because there was an influx of people to Lessig's site from the Declan McCullagh post, note a few of the referers are from my posting comments there]
Dec 24 - 18, plus 2 from a mirror
Dec 25 - 11 (nothing from mirror)
Dec 26 - 12
Dec 27 - 31 (people back from Christmas? influx from new postings?)
Dec 28 - 33
Dec 29 - 44
Dec 30 - 23

I was getting hits for two to three weeks afterwards, and it didn't stop until the post fell off the Lessig blog page. The Power Of The A-List!

All in all, I received roughly 1000 hits from that mention. Remember, my total readership is around 100.

In contrast, I only received around 177 hits over the same time from the whole Seth Finkelstein Greplaw Interview. Perhaps that's not the best comparison, but sobering all the same. Note the interview didn't get a story in Slashdot, even though such interviews customarily do, for *cough* *cough* obvious reasons ...

Shifting to that interview, it wasn't exactly a major source of readers. By far, most people were interested in reading about how Libertarianism Makes You Stupid, for 62 readers. Then a few dozen people were intrigued about the old, Fena version EFF (not to be confused with the new, Steele version EFF), that had 33 readers. Bennett Haselton on Michael Sims support from his (Sims) journalism job at Slashdot, 29 readers. But the history of touting censorware, 6 - count 'em, you need just a little more than one hand, six, readers.

Related, It's a very scary thought that so much of the awareness regarding Michael Sims domain-hijacking Censorware Project is owed to Slashdot Trolls (I joke, it's like a classical syllogism - all Slashdot Trolls are critical of Michael Sims, but not all who are critical of Michael Sims are Slashdot Trolls).

All of this didn't seem to get me much in the way of new readers. Perhaps a dozen or so. I did notice that a few more people had added me to their aggregator. But we're talking 5 or 6, not 500 or 600.

I remain a blog-peasant.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in statistics | on January 17, 2004 04:03 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 15, 2004

Nitke v. Ashcroft (Internet obscenity law)Expert Witness Reports Submitted


[ One notable expert witness report:

"5. Geo-Location and the Internet ...
+ Seth Finkelstein - anti-censorship activist and programmer, recently hailed by the Library of Congress's Copyright Office


National Coalition for Sexual Freedom


Contact: Susan Wright (917-848-6544)

Expert Witness Reports Submitted in Nitke v. Ashcroft

New York, December 18, 2003 - The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has submitted expert witness reports for their landmark Communications Decency Act lawsuit, Nitke v. Ashcroft (Case No. 01 Civ. 11476). John Wirenius, attorney for plaintiffs NCSF and photographer Barbara Nitke, provided 31 expert witness reports and witnesses who will testify before the three-judge panel for the Southern District of New York.

The expert witness reports support the plaintiffs' contention that "local community standards" cannot be accurately applied to the Internet and, therefore, cannot be used to determine what is obscene. If the most restrictive communities can control what is placed on the Internet, then everyone will be restricted to that standard. The Internet is a world-wide phenomenon, therefore websites should not be held to standards specific to geo-location because community standards vary significantly from region to region and community to community.

Expert witness reports were submitted that establish self-censoring by artists because of the vagueness of this law. The importance of anonymity because of the frequent persecution of sexual minorities was also established as well as the social importance of sexually explicit speech in both art and education.

"This phase of the trial is critical because the evidence is on the table," said John Wirenius, First Amendment attorney and author of First Amendment, First Principles: Verbal Acts and Freedom of Speech. "The plaintiffs are providing the scientific grounds for our contention that visitors to the Internet cannot be tracked, and therefore limiting content on the Internet will limit free speech. The government is obligated to show, if they can, why our experts are incorrect."

[snipped very long list of expert witness reports]

National Coalition for Sexual Freedom
822 Guilford Avenue, Box 127
Baltimore, MD 21202-3707
e-mail: ncsfreedom[at-sign]ncsfreedom.org
phone: 410-539-4824
fax: 410-385-2827
2003 NCSF
Last update: 1/13/04; 9:41:50 PM

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on January 15, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 14, 2004

Opinions vs. Reporting

Deep down in the comments of a note on Buzzmachine blog, is a very interesting statement by the CEO of the Google-News-like site Topix.Net. He's responding to a query as to why the site doesn't have much blog content (emphasis mine below):

Topix does include a handful of blogs. We will probably add the bulk of them back into the main crawl at some point, but one of the problems is that, despite our affinity for blog content, there's not as much hard news being reported in them as we'd hope. Given the scanning-for-hard-news nature of our system, not very much actually came out of the blogosphere when we pointed our system at it.

It's easy to put out yet-another-opinion on the Iraq war, but it's actual work to attend the city council meeting and produce a write-up, or interview the owner of the local mall about why they're not doing so well. Journalists definitely earn their money. I'll cite your own hyperlocal blog for Bernards, NJ as an example of the difficultly of reliably blogging local news...

He said it, I didn't. And his views matter far more than mine :-).

Sounding-off is easy. Work isn't. Too many people confuse the two, and then compound the error by further overestimating the value of sounding-off. And even worse, confuse pontificating with change.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 14, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 13, 2004

CDT's Library Censorware Wish List ("Principles")

The Center For Democracy And Technology has released proposed library censorware principles related to the CIPA library censorware law:

CDT Releases Proposed Guidelines for Libraries Installing Filtering under Federal Law

At the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting, CDT released Version 1.0 of its "Principles for CIPA-Mandated Filtering in Public Libraries." The principles are intended to help libraries that are required to install Internet filtering software under the Children's Internet Protection Act do so in a manner that promotes free speech and robust access to information. CDT invites public comment on the principles.

I don't want to be too hard on it, since as far as I know the people doing it mean well. But it's mostly a long series of wishful thinking and unrealistic assertions.

For example, first proposed principle:

Blocking should be limited to the categories of adult content specifically set out in the CIPA statute.

Well, I should be granted a million dollars, an A-list blog, and a professorship. IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. The categories set out in the CIPA law are legal categories such as e.g. obscenity. No censorware company creates such a minimal blacklist, because these are complex legal determinations.

Another gem:

Information about the ongoing blocking of content by filters required by CIPA should be made available to library users and communities. Users and communities should have access to information about categories of blocked content, lists of blocked sites, the extent to which filters can be adjusted and fine-tuned and the manner in which filters block content. ...

I see this one a lot. It's what I call the "marketing brochure" principle. That is, the one which is answered by the censorware company saying "Let us give you our marketing brochure, which describes how our blacklists are lovingly crafted by little elves at the North Pole, the same ones who work for Santa Claus in making up lists of "naughty" and "nice", which are exactly the categories we use. That's our story, and we're sticking to it."

Oh hell, why bother, my audience of dozens has heard it before, and CDT sure doesn't care what I think.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on January 13, 2004 11:09 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 12, 2004

Mathematics of ordinary-blog non-influence

I've come up with a simple way to explain what's wrong with the idea of "One blogger is worth ten votes". Now, the sense of this idea is clearly that it's worthwhile to recruit recruiters. But the unintended consequence is that recruiting each other yields only a net waste of time. That is, consider the following scenario:

Eleven people of like mind talk to each other. They had the same views before, they end up with the same views after. But every single one of those eleven people says "I convinced 10 other people". Then the blog-boosterism runs "Aha, we have 11 people who each convinced 10 other people, so that's *110* more votes from BLOGGING! Feel the power OF THE BLOG!"

In reality, nothing changed. The choir preached to itself. But everyone got to think that they were an influencer, a kingmaker, even if just for a tiny kingdom. That's a seductive feeling.

There is, however, a notable effect. The organization which is passing around a collection-plate during these events, is raking in money. That's real. But it doesn't quite mean what the flock thinks it means.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 12, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 11, 2004

Outsourcing != Democracy

Whenever someone preaches that an industrial change is going to lead to a major revolution, I find it that it's useful to consider whether there will be a revolution, but in the opposite direction entirely. So it is with many democracy-of-the-media discussions I've seen recently. All of these seem to have the same path:

The Media Revolution Is At Hand:

Production is much cheaper. Employees are easier to replace. The occupation is becoming less the province of skilled workers, and more of amateur labor which works nearly free. Advances in mechanization, err, communication, allow for cutting staff drastically, and one laborer can now do what previously required several people. If you don't take advantage of these trends, your competitors will, so get with it.

This is democracy?



No wonder so many of the media pundits are so rude about blogs - they're defending their conception of themselves as hard-to-replace highly skilled labor.

But on the other hand, why am I supposed to be so excited that many skilled jobs are turning into unskilled jobs or cheap-labor jobs? Well, there is of course the populist joy in seeing an arrogant profession brought low. But putting aside heart-warming Schadenfreude at their humbling, the end result here seems to be the exact opposite of what's preached. That is, overall, there will be more power for management, not labor.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , infothought | on January 11, 2004 11:26 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7) | Followups
January 08, 2004

Anti-Spam Law Needs Spammer's Heads On Pikes

I wrote the following to Dave Farber about a comment he made:

From: Seth Finkelstein
Subject: Re: [IP] So much for anti-spam laws

On Wed, Jan 07, 2004 at 05:05:33PM -0500, Dave Farber wrote:
> In 24 hours I have gotten 686 spam messages . That is up from pre 2004.

There won't be any change until some spammer's heads (or other organs) are nailed to the wall (metaphorically, under this law, I mean, I think ...).

Same as with the RIAA lawsuits, actually. A few high-profile high-penalty prosecutions, which hurt people, might cause a change. But the law has to be shown to be a real threat for that to happen.

"Send a spam, go to jail" needs to be the slogan.

I often say spammers have to be considered as gangs of thieves. That sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it. Would people say "So much for anti-theft laws - we PASSED A LAW, and the theft didn't stop!". I predict there's going to be quite a few of these sorts of complaints in the next few weeks (no offense to Dave). And endless Libertarian posturing: "Spam didn't stop! CAN-SPAM is useless! See, government doesn't work!"

Think of organized crime. Organized crime doesn't stop because there's a law passed against them. They stop when there are enough prosecutions so the leaders worry they will be next in line for a jail cell. Spammers won't stop until they see some criminal prosecutions come down, and have a strong worry they will be next.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in spam | on January 08, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 07, 2004

Cites & Insights Midwinter 2004

Walt Crawford's library 'zine (not blog) "Cites & Insights" has a very special issue in the Midwinter 2004 edition. It's a veritable guide for the perplexed, defining frequent references which appear in the publication. Well worth saving, as a handbook/reference/scorecard for the players and controversies in these topics. I even have an entry to myself:

Finkelstein, Seth
A consulting programmer and censorware activist and researcher; you'll find lots more at sethf.com, including Finkelstein's own weblog. Cites & Insights uses "censorware" rather than "filters" after reading and considering Finkelstein's arguments. He has provided valuable research results on how censorware actually works. He's also gotten into trouble in various ways, including interpersonal issues with other people in the censorware-research field (I wasn't there, I don't know the whole story) and various threats of legal action from censorware companies. Finkelstein was primarily responsible for the renewed DMCA exemption for decrypting censorware banned-site lists--but, given a lack of institutional backing and the constant threat of legal action, he's apparently dropping out of active research in that field. (Also one of the most active Cites & Insights correspondents, whose acute analysis frequently exposes my sloppy thinking and writing.)

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , copyblight , dmca | on January 07, 2004 07:09 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1) | Followups
January 06, 2004

Blog audience, or lack thereof

Lis Riba just wrote a noteworthy post on blog audience which makes for an interesting parallel to what I've written recently:

I like to think that cream will float to the top and good material will get me noticed, but sigh... It feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy that those in power have better means to stay in power. Even if they're not doing anything consciously, they've still got a certain mindshare that persists with readers and perpetuates itself.

I really do want to increase my readership in 2004. And I'm really wondering what I should do about this: ...

Is it just a popularity contest related to whom you know in [real life]? ...

I sympathize :-(

It's the "Matthew Effect"

"For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath"

There's only so many slots at the top of the pyramid.

Basically, as far as I've analyzed it, there's usually a reason for being A-list. Some people get there because of their celebrity status from some other domain. A few were in the right place and the right time and managed to capitalize on it (not without skill, but not entirely skill either). Quite a few are intense, relentless, promoter/impresarios (and there's nothing wrong with that, I'm merely being descriptive).

Critically, almost none of the above is acquirable if one doesn't have it to start. That is, you can't just become a celebrity elsewhere, or decide to be in a favorable place and time, or even do the necessary huge amounts of self-PR (the exception to this last being professional talkers). Being someone's protege is possible, but again highly limited to a very few slots.

So contrary to myth, good material will not automatically get someone noticed.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 06, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (6)
January 05, 2004

USA Today, blogs, and journalism irony

I was tempted to write something about the recent USA Today blog article: "Freewheeling 'bloggers' are rewriting rules of journalism", which has much bubble bibble in it:

But the biggest raves come from bloggers who have found a voice they never had before. Tom Bevan, a former advertising executive, turned to full-time blogging after a Web site he helped found, RealClearPolitics.com, took off. Bevan, 34, has no experience in politics or journalism. But he says he knows from the feedback that "a lot of influential opinion-makers" are benefiting from his views.

"That's one of the fantastic things about the blogosphere and the Internet," Bevan says. "If you have something to say that's interesting, you will eventually be heard."

[Ouch. "But the biggest praise of the lottery come from winners who have found wealth they never had before ... if you work hard, you will eventually succeed"]

But why bother? Fortunately, I stumbled across Anil Dash (Vice President of Business Development for a big blogging company) rebutting with great authority (emphasis mine):

It may just be that we're all more jaded overall. The other day, there was a story on the cover of USA Today regarding weblogs, and it even had a quote from Ben. I suspect that a year ago, I'd have been jumping up and down with excitement, thinking about what great recognition that sort of press coverage represents. But I barely skimmed the article yesterday, noted a bunch of annoying inaccuracies, and bookmarked it for the future. I know that the grand theory of weblogs is that I could have Fact-Checked Their Asses ™ but who cares? USA Today readers aren't going to stumble across my site and find the true facts, the newspaper isn't going to run a correction based on my blog post, and my readers already know the details of how weblogs work.

[Oh, the irony]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , journo | on January 05, 2004 12:52 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 04, 2004

Separated At Birth, and blog power illusions

"Separated At Birth" is the expression where two famous people are juxtaposed for their resemblance. More broadly, it's two very odd things which amusingly look the same.

A few days ago, Dave Winer had an essay where he said (emphasis mine)

Dean acts like a high flying Silicon Valley startup, which is crap. Even if they succeed, get all the way to the White House, they are still working for you and me. We seem to have lost sight of that. None of us use our power. But just the illusion of power is enough to excite some of us? Is that what the trip with Dean is?

Now compare the above sentiment to the following Andrew Orlowski essay a little earlier: "One blogger is worth ten votes - Harvard man" (again, emphasis mine)

This is a characteristic of the giddy kind of people who define themselves through computer-mediated relationships. They get terribly excited about people just like themselves using the same software, when all that bounces back from these dead phosphorous LCD screens is something that approximates their own reflection, and isolation. Bits and bytes are useful - but they're not where real power is exercised. And fantasies are popular here - "blog shares" mirrored Wall Street, in a harmless way, and "Emergent Democracy" mirrors real power in an equally harmless way too. Somehow, we suspect, Karl Rove (dubya's Peter Mandelson) isn't losing sleep over these capers.

The similarity of sentiment, converging from different directions, was amazing.

Dave Winer and Andrew Orlowski ... Separated At Birth?

[Disclaimer: I know both of them - no offense intended to either one, just surprising observation]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 04, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 01, 2004

New Year's Resolutions, past and present

So this is Xmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one begun

HAPPY XMAS (War Is Over) by Yoko Ono and John Lennon

Let's see how I did regarding my New Year's Resolutions 2003, and then on to New Year's Resolutions 2004.

"Work on my website more"

Not really. I did blog almost every day, though since I'm not a talker, it seems it's really not for me.

"Don't argue with people about the battle-cry of You-Can't-Censor-The-Net".

Check. I had so many more arguments to have ...

"No censorware reports with any legal risk"

Check. In fact, sadly, I was finally driven again (as when the DMCA first passed) to completely throw in the towel, and quit censorware decryption. A very painful decision, writing off a lot of research. There's just not the necessary support for it.

"Pursue more opportunities."

Didn't have too many pundit/policy opportunities to pursue. Arguably I fell short here. I don't have the personality for it, and much of the effort is disheartening.

"Put getting paid before activism - because getting paid will get me through times of no activism far better than activism will get me through times of not getting paid."

Well, I won a DMCA exemption ("The Register's recommendation in favor of this exemption is based primarily on the evidence introduced in the comments and testimony by one person, Seth Finkelstein, a non-lawyer participating on his own behalf."). That was an achievement. But, impolitic as it is to say so, it was costly, in many senses. More so than absolute numbers would indicate. Not so much the hundreds of dollars in travel expenses out of my own pocket - but while unemployed, and also being told at the same time nothing much could/would be done against the ongoing vicious attacks, said attacks which actually ended-up being used in DMCA opposition argument against me.

[Digression - Y'know, as I write this, again it's a whole lot more pleasant being in the camp of Tiggers, vs Eeyores. Doing something is much, much, harder than being a preacher to the choir, and also fantastically less rewarded. Maybe, like liberals who become conservatives, I should convert in my middle age? It's a New Age of Effluence: Regurgitant Bubblocracy! or, Emetic Engineering In The Bogosphere (Maybe I could make that fly, but a good salesman has to either believe it themselves, or be pathologically shameless, which isn't me)]

So, for 2004:

More Google reports. There's just no comparison. Google doesn't sue.

Memoirs? There's not much interest in censorware history and as many readers as I'll probably ever get in my life, read the Greplaw interview, so I'm not sure that's worthwhile.

Other work on my website? I should do some.

Probably the best thing I should do is again resolve to make sure I pursue things which get me paid.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 01, 2004 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups