January 30, 2005

Andrew Orlowski comment on BloJoCred

Andrew Orlowski graced my blog with a comment about the the WebCred Harvard conference, which I thought deserved rescue from obscurity (I hope he'll forgive me :-)):

I suggest that we can regard this as a kind of litmus test. When a discourse has such little regard for the truth, we immediately know that it's of little value to us. Once the circus has moved on, a more honest and truthful discourse should eventually emerge.

(This can take a very long time indeed in tech debates, where the gnostic belief that more knowledge == truth seems to be axiomatic.)

This isn't to say that what Schafer writes about is entirely without merit. There may be some therapeutic value in blog conferences for the participants, but such events really have more in common with a torchlit rally than rational discourse. There are plenty of examples of this in the irc transcript.

I think Schafer's written a landmark piece. He's pointed out that people care very deeply about the _quality_ of news, much more than how it's delivered. Which is simply a process issue ;-)

Technologists get very hung up on this. If you have good, clean processes (or if the process has magical properties), then what comes out must be good, too, OK?

(There's also a fascinating parallel with how modern marketing uses process as a mark of authenticity, much as the weblog-evangelists do. In England last year I noticed almost every packaged item of food now uses this technique: the chicken chips are "applewood roasted", the salt is "air-dried". And this paragraph was soaked in blog goodness, before being delivered to you. Remind you of anyone?)

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in webcred | on January 30, 2005 11:56 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 28, 2005

What the little people said, about BloJoCred

Jon Garfunkel has an extensive post at Civilities.net collecting and summarizing what several "smallwigs" thought about the WebCred Harvard conference.

Inclusiveness at the Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility conference

There have been a few summaries about the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference, co-sponsored by the Berkman Center and Shorenstein Center at Harvard, along with the American Library Association. Most of them focused on what the insiders have said -- Jay Rosen even titled his summary "Big Wigs Confer." I thought I'd take a separate angle, and look at what some of the little people said. This includes the little voices around the big table; the voices of the observers in the room, and even people on the Internet-- bloggers and others who care about the future of ideas -- who felt excluded from the conversation in the first place. And I thought I'd do this using the framework of inclusiveness.

I'm quoted a few times, e.g. for my earlier "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" post:

"I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility." -- Seth Finkelstein


Some had the credentials of blogging. Some had the credentials of academics. Having credentials confers an automatic credibility. ...
If you're a diligent blogger who wants to gain a reputation as a stringer, you have a real struggle ahead of you, as Finkelstein points out.

Of course, we're all squeaking down in the long tail, compared to the favored few.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in webcred | on January 28, 2005 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
January 27, 2005

Bloggers vs. Journalists Has Just Begun

Jay Rosen is unhappy about a Slate editor's anti-blog-triumphalism reaction to the Harvard WebCred conference:

Besides being lazy, Jack Shafer's suggestion that the conference theme was blogs will triumph over the traditional news media... and you guys are toast! (I paraphrase) is intellectually dishonest. That's a few doors up from lying, but the same general neighborhood.

I started to write something about the various specific claims, then I thought better of it, and gave up. Instead, I offer the following:

Nobody cares about the truth.

This is both a cliche and an insight. It's a cliche, as it's an old observation. But it's an insight as to why blogging is much closer to mainstream media than is often thought.

Is the dispute above being settled - or at least profoundly affected - by continued reference to primary sources such as transcript? That is, will anyone not already convinced and using parts to reinforce their belief, examine what was said? (If so, how many?) Has the presence of a transcript causes the discussion to approach a truth at all?

More relevantly, what might happen to me, a puny Z-listish (barely read) blogger, if I went to the trouble of writing up an evaluation based on reference to the transcript, and my conclusions displeased an A-list blogger (i.e. one with a much larger audience)? I'd get to be told by blog evangelists how wonderful it is that I can write a diary to a small circle of friends regarding how I was smeared to a huge number of people. The implications here are in fact profound.

If there is no difference between what is true and what you believe, then we are only talking about minor variations in an overall genre of writing.

[Update: link to Jay's comments fixed]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in webcred | on January 27, 2005 11:44 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 26, 2005

Utah Censorware Network Deliberately Bans Google Translate

Further regarding persistent censorware problems, let me echo the material below, since it's an official admission of a topic I've been emphasizing for years. In order for censorware to achieve its control, even sites such as language translation are problematic, because they're a "LOOPHOLE". I exposed this myself many years ago, but unfortunately my decryption-based research was very poorly publicized and had minimal impact, due to various grudges. Emphasis added below.

From the EDTECH mailing list, post available at

EDTECH Editor-Beil Nov 14 2004, 12:12 pm

From: Guy Durrant

Filtering in Utah is done by a statewide subscription to N2H2/Bess. We are not required to use N2H2, but I suspect most districts use this as it is available to them at no additional cost. The state picks up the tab.

The state filters the "Translate this page" option which comes up with some search results. The reason for this is that students could search for sites which the N2H2 filter will block, click on Translate this page, and if the original page was in English, it was "translated" and displayed, filter notwithstanding. It is unfortunate, because the translation feature was quite a boon to ESL and foreign language teachers. The images part of Google http://images.google.com is not blocked in Utah, but many of the sites it presents are.

Guy Durrant
Technology Director
Daggett SD

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on January 26, 2005 11:57 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2) | Followups
January 25, 2005

N2H2 censorware blacklists Oregon libraries network as Pornography

According to the the Oregon libraries network's staff information blog, the censorware company N2H2 has blacklisted the entire Oregon libraries network as "Pornography": screenshot.

I sent this over to LISnews. I usually don't even bother with this stuff anymore, and there's a bunch more sites similarly blacklisted, but I thought they'd richly enjoy that example. Remember, I have a huge amount of censored censorware research that was destroyed or I can't publish - either nobody will hear it and/or I 'll be sued.

[Update 1/26 - N2H2 finally fixed it - as I put it,"Alacrity varies with publicity"]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on January 25, 2005 12:59 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 24, 2005

MGM v. Grokster pessimism

I'm going to emerge for a post on copyfighting, putting on my Eeyore suit: eeyorepic

"Write down your worries. And then depress your companions by reading them out loud."

Regarding the upcoming MGM v. Grokster case concerning the legal liability standards for Peer-To-Peer technology, I think the technology/freedom side is going to lose the case, and this is why:

The current law, the "Sony" standard concerning the copyright defense for product-makers of having substantial non-infringing use, was made under too many factors that I don't think auger well for the current outcome:

1) The original "Sony" Betamax decision was a 5-4 split. It doesn't get any closer.

2) The VCR didn't, in practice, threaten the business model of broadcasters. Commercials were viewed no matter what time program was seen.

3) It was a case of one established big corporation vs. another established big corporation. So the plaintiffs were socially equal to defendants.

In legalese, I suspect the geek phrase "disruptive technology" translates into "a basis for distinguishing the current situation from the existing precedent".

The sad thing is, I don't think the P2P freedom battle is intrinsically unwinnable. Only I can't see an ultraconservative Supreme Court ruling against "all the money in the world" and in favor of only a potential. If that potential were developed, maybe five years in the future, the scales might be different. But right now ... there's no (respectable) there there. It could be made, but it hasn't yet.

Oh well, nothing I can do ... "We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it.".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in copyblight | on January 24, 2005 10:29 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)
January 23, 2005

Stealth Positive Result of (metaphorical) Conference Cuddle Party

I spent much more time than was good for me, listening to the "Webcred" Harvard conference. Anyway, as an item which seems under-reported, in fairness let it be noted that amidst all the A-list mutual reputation enhancement, at almost stealth level there does appear to have been a useful practical result. High-ranking people seem to have a greater acceptance and understanding of the value, both social and business, of releasing newspaper story archives from the current setup of having such archives under a pay-per-articles system. That is, currently, when many newspaper articles are archived, they are unlinkable, unsearchable, and can only be viewed by paying a fee. This barrier is often regarded as a bad thing in many ways.

Of course, anyone can proclaim "They shouldn't do this! They shouldn't! I say so!". But that doesn't change anything. It's just a nethead ranting off in a corner. However, when people who can make the change happen, hear it from other people who are deemed to have, err, "cred", that may accomplish something. From the transcript (my emphasis):

I came in[to journalism] with the view that archives were the primary source of revenue for these firms...
at least that was true of a few major companies.
but the more I hear about the social discussion here, for instance the desire for advertisers to lock in ad space on old pages for high-traffic news stories...
I think if there were some way to recognize this traffic, we could change this before it becomes so difficult
I think old stories would have a huge appeal if they didn't have to be paid for, and they would then pay for themselves in advertising...
and i think it would have a huge impact, then everyone would do it it would do things that papers desperately want; it would bring people!
I know they make a little money with this archive business, but if they could draw people to their site... that would be a tremendous value to them, an increase in their authority...
In our case, we *do* have enlightened management about this; we're just stuck on technologies...
we're moving an old telegraph model to a database model... links between all that stuff. will it all be free, and cost nothing? no.
but will it be free and open? yes, and it will be that way within... two years.

So, it must be recognized that there can be benefits to having a (metaphorical) cuddle party. Even if it's almost an unintended consequence. smiley image

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in webcred | on January 23, 2005 10:07 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 21, 2005

"WebCred" Conference comments, or Love For The Linklorn

As the "Webcred" "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" Harvard conference begins, let me make the the probably futile effort of attempting to draw attention to some valuable perspectives. Here are some gems buried in the comments:

If this conference were a news article, I think it would be fair game to point out that it's full of sources and quotes talking about a third party, without including any quotes from that third party. In that situation, I think we'd be within our rights to question that news article's credibility. Given that this conference is about blogging, journalism, and (yes) credibility, I'd like to think the organizers might find that troubling.

("The One True b!X", who actually does unpaid, I mean "citizen's", journalism, at the underattentioned Portland Communique)

How come everybody talks about bloggers in pajamas when all I keep finding are corporate lawyers with ties to Republican Administrations and big, fat corporate clients?

What's going on here?

(Richard Succer, regarding that many A-list right-wing bloggers are not exactly proletarian)

: The ethic of pomposity: We believe in speaking for persons other than ourselves.

: The ethic of narcissism: We love to hear ourselves speak. We can't get enough of ourselves.

: The ethic of humanity: We repeat ourselves, endlessly.

: The ethic of the wank: We believe in linking to people who kiss our ass. Everyone else can kiss our ass.

: The ethic of correction: We believe it is vital to correct errors when we can't weasel out of it. And then we bitch about everyone who mentions our error, and pout.

: The ethic of idiocy: We accuse others of placing peoples' lives in danger by mentioning things we mentioned long ago. We have no shame.

("Jar Jar Vinks", parodying a certain A-lister)

the problem here is that "news" (at least the credible kind) and "business" are mutually exclusive. We can turn news into a "conversation", make it transparent, etc...but we won't unless the delivery of news is separated from the profit motive.

And that ain't happening.

In reality, the changes in the "business model" for news delivery will result not in a conversation with the news consumer, but will be a mirror of the consumer's own prejudices. [...]

This "tailored news" will be the model, because it will provide the business of "news" with an enormous amount of information that the "business" can use to sell advertising that is just as personalized and directed as your news feed.

That's why this conference (and your questions) are really just a bad joke. The war is already over, even if the combatants don't know it yet.... and "democratic government based on an informed citizenry" lost to "corporate profits"

(Paul Lukasiak, GLCQ)

See also:

Shelley Powers' post Give Unto Harvard that which is Harvard's

Paul Lukasiak: Open Letter to WebCred Conference


Frank Paynter's compilation Web Cred Conference Player Scorecard

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , webcred | on January 21, 2005 09:59 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 20, 2005

"WebCred" Conference, and why it matters

The issues surrounding the "Webcred" Harvard conference continue to ferment (see also my earlier "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" post, and to be fair, a conference FAQ).

One of my enduring frustrations in dealing with many people at the Berkman Center. is that they operate within an extremely insular bubble of enormous privilege, protection, and power. They just don't seem to take into account the damage the "H-bomb" (Harvard) can do to civilians, and how people can get hurt by their actions. Even if it wasn't malicious, even if it was just careless, or alternately do-what-you-have-to-do, that's small comfort to those on the receiving end of maltreatment. (disclosure/disclaimer: See the story of the Mike Godwin / Greplaw attacks for reasons I speak from experience here).

I've seen an amazing amount of cluelessness, including wonder that anyone could worry about negative aspects, as well as not do backflips that there's boy-oh-boy an IRC channel and a webcast (aren't you super-excited right there? You can follow along with the performers, and they might even acknowledge questions from the audience, if it's something they find worthy, wow wow, are we interactive yet?).

Consider: This is how Zephyr Teachout starts her infamous blog post discussing the Howard Dean campaign's arrangement with consultants who also had blogs (my emphasis):

"[Note: this post was written in anticipation of a conference next week on ethics, blogging, and journalism]"

That post created a significant political story. And the Webcred conference's publicity for it was the source of the eventual mass-media smears, per Ed Cone (my emphasis):

And over at Kos, they're wondering how the WSJ found out about this story in the first place, and they manage to trace it to my link to Zephyr and links from Instapundit and Jarvis. But they miss the first step: I read it on the Harvard conference blog.

Jerome Armstrong really got smeared by this whole thing, and he's pissed. I should have been clearer on his role in my original link to Zephyr's post, and I apologize for not doing it right.

Note, to forestall a distraction, the effect does not necessarily require saying "This is true". Rather, it's in an implication "This is worthwhile, this is important, this should be given your attention, etc.". However, in context, that's very, very close to "This is true", (though not absolutely identical) and the differences are much smaller than the overall connection. The issue is the power to focus attention on a statement, to give it a platform where it will be widely echoed and heard.

After the role the Harvard conference just played in getting those activists very widely and publicly smeared, the "little people" shouldn't have to explain over and over why it matters. It's a testament to the strength of the bubble that this point will not be grasped.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , webcred | on January 20, 2005 09:19 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 18, 2005

findthemessage.com puzzle solution

Regarding the General Motors billboard puzzle http://www.findthemessage.com/ ("Find The Message"), Dave Winer writes:

Interesting puzzle from GM. More or less approximates the route I took from west to east. I even saw one of the billboards, but I don't remember where or what the word was. I thought it was weird enough to remember it. Anyway, this is the kind of thing the blogosphere should be able to solve in short order.

You don't need the blogosphere. Just an expert.

Solution in extended entry below, for those interested.


"This is the last time you will ever have to feel alone on our nation's roadways ."

The data's in the publicly-available binary which runs the animation. http://www.findthemessage.com/map.swf

The full information is:

This | Bayshore Freeway north of Haven | San Francisco, CA
is | San Berdo Freeway east of Evergreen | Los Angeles, CA
the | I-10 Squaw Peak Hwy. north of Harrison | Phoenix, AZ
last | I-10 east of Geronimo Drive | El Paso, TX
time | 2601 S. Danville | Abilene, TX
you | I-30 east of Commerce | Arlington, TX
will | I-20 west of Industrial Loop | Shreveport, LA
ever | I-55 north of Old Pearl River Bed | Jackson, MS
have | Atlanta Hwy. (I-85) at Mt. Meigs | Montgomery, AL
to | I-20W east of McDaniel Street | Atlanta, GA
feel | I-20 1st west of Wheeler Road | Augusta, GA
alone | I-20 east of Broad River | Columbia, SC
on | 1811 S. Saunders St. at Junction I-440 | Raleigh, NC
our | I-95 1st south of Boulevard | Richmond, VA
nation's | New York Avenue west of Florida Avenue | Washington, DC
roadways | I-95 north of SR 72 | Wilmington, DE
. | 1535 Broadway @ 46th Street | New York (Times Square)

No encryptions were broken in the making of this post.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in security | on January 18, 2005 08:22 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 17, 2005

Mentioned in New York Times: CBS News Draws Ire of Bloggers

CBS News Draws Ire of Bloggers http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/17/business/media/17rather.html?ex=1106629200&en=f5a80779730e2e61&ei=5040&partner=MOREOVERNEWS By TOM ZELLER JR.
Published: January 17, 2005

"I'd written a couple of pieces on the document earlier in the week," said Ernest Miller, a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School who writes a popular blog on Internet law (www.corante.com/importance). "Then I noticed that I couldn't copy and paste from the report as I did in days past."

With the help of Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and fellow blogger (sethf.com/infothought/blog/), Mr. Miller found that the document's encryption settings had been changed and, as a result, the text could not be copied. Anyone who downloaded the panel's report from either the CBS News servers or those of the law firm would have to retype any passages they wished to include in, say, an e-mail message or a blog post.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press | on January 17, 2005 07:23 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 14, 2005

Making Fair Use of cut-and-paste restricted PDF files

PDF files with usage restrictions often pose a problem regarding how to exercise one's fair-use right to quote excerpts. Back last March, I wrote about how to do "permission arbitrage", in a post "Making Fair Use of the Report on "Big Media" Meets The "Bloggers"" (there's a certain amount of irony there ...).

It seems as relevant now as it was then, so I'll repost it today.


Dowbrigade has sad comments on difficulty in making fair use of the Shorenstein Center report "Big Media" Meets the "Bloggers": (link credit Dave Winer)

The weird thing is the extent to which the authors have gone to make sure this milestone article in the academic history of the Blogosphere is unbloggable. Excerpts or selections of the text cannot be saved, or copied and pasted. The document cannot be converted to another format or saved as anything else. ... The selection below were typed out by the Dowbrigade, letter by letter.

It takes a very twisted view for a court to believe things like this do not impinge fair use rights ...

The encryption used here is well-known, and trivially within my technical ability to decrypt. But given what happened to the last guy who programmed about PDF files and decryption (the name Dmitry Sklyarov might ring a bell), I'll let someone else take the risk of an unquestioned DMCA 1201(a)(2) violation.

Instead, I'll note a very simple way to get usable text from the restricted file. Observe that printing is allowed. Now, one does not have to get fancy with OCR or images. Simply do a version of the "analog hole". The document can be printed. The printing process has the ability to print to a file. Use that option. That is, print the document to a file instead of directly to a printer. This produces a file in a different format.

There's a "Do not remove this tag under penalty of (DMCA) law" bit of code in that file, which handles the security for usage restrictions. HOWEVER, the text of the document itself is in the clear here! All that's needed is to make it more usable. So extract the whole text chunk from any line in the file where the line starts with a left parenthesis or ends with a right parenthesis (no text chunk has a segment with more than two lines)

That is, cough, I meant to say,

perl -n -e 'print $1 if (/^\(([^)]+)/ || /([^)]+)\)$/);' < shorenstein.ps

[I think I'm allowed to write the English statement, but in peril with the Perl statement, at least under current court precedents]

All done. You now have a file of text which, though not all that pretty in formatting, is quite amenable to cut-and-paste.

Does even this post violate the DMCA? Is it trafficking in "technology" that "is marketed by that person ... for use in circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title."?

You guys at Harvard will defend me, right? Right? Right? ...

Disclaimer: No encryptions were broken in the making of this post.

[UPDATE (from March 2004): I found a simpler, better, procedure (all the following are standard Linux programs)

Use the program xpdf to generate the postscript print file. This program obeys the usage restrictions itself, but does NOT insert the usage restriction code in the generated print output.

Then use pstopdf13 to generate a PDF file from the print file (the default 1.2 version didn't work well, 1.3 works better).

This new PDF file is not usage restricted!

Then run pdftotext over this new file ... and presto, a pretty text version!

I'm really worried now ...

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in dmca , security | on January 14, 2005 09:32 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5) | Followups
January 13, 2005

CBS Report file has been modifed! Cut and Paste now prohibited!

Ernest Miller noticed that he could no longer cut-and-paste from the CBS report, and asked me to investigate. He's right. The report PDF file has been modified since its release. This can be verifed by any tool which will display the internal information of a PDF file.


HTTP information (emphasis added below):

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Server: Apache
Last-Modified: Wed, 12 Jan 2005 21:24:24 GMT
ETag: "b8626f-abd1c-6cea7200"
Accept-Ranges: bytes
Content-Length: 703772
Content-Type: application/pdf
Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2005 19:25:27 GMT

Current CBS Report file, PDF internal information (from the Linux tool "pdfinfo")

Title:          Microsoft Word - DC-685241-v10-Final_CBS_Report__sent_to_Lou_12_20_.DOC
Author:         demartpe
Creator:        PScript5.dll Version 5.2.2
Producer:       Acrobat Distiller 5.0.5 (Windows)
CreationDate:   Wed Jan  5 23:29:52 2005
ModDate:        Wed Jan 12 16:00:24 2005
Tagged:         no
Pages:          234
Encrypted:      yes (print:yes copy:no change:no addNotes:no)
Page size:      612 x 792 pts (letter)
File size:      703772 bytes
Optimized:      yes
PDF version:    1.4

Earlier CBS Report file, PDF internal information (from the Linux tool "pdfinfo")

Title:          Microsoft Word - DC-685241-v10-Final_CBS_Report__sent_to_Lou_12_20_.DOC
Author:         demartpe
Creator:        PScript5.dll Version 5.2.2
Producer:       Acrobat Distiller 5.0.5 (Windows)
CreationDate:   Wed Jan  5 23:29:52 2005
ModDate:        Fri Jan  7 19:17:44 2005
Tagged:         no
Pages:          234
Encrypted:      no
Page size:      612 x 792 pts (letter)
File size:      703330 bytes
Optimized:      yes
PDF version:    1.4

Note the difference in the "Encrypted:" field!

However, the text itself does not seem to have been altered.

Update 4:15 pm EST: Ernest Miller sends that the version of the report on the CBS law firm site has also been modified, confirmed (though the text again does not seem to have been altered).


HTTP information (emphasis added below):

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Length: 690313
Content-Type: application/pdf
Last-Modified: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 20:16:48 GMT
Accept-Ranges: bytes
ETag: "8564b67a1af8c41:e1b"
Server: Microsoft-IIS/6.0
X-Powered-By: ASP.NET
Date: Thu, 13 Jan 2005 21:19:25 GMT

PDF internal information (from the Linux tool "pdfinfo")

Creator:        PScript5.dll Version 5.2.2
Producer:       Acrobat Distiller 5.0.5 (Windows)
CreationDate:   Wed Jan  5 23:29:52 2005
ModDate:        Tue Jan 11 15:14:40 2005
Tagged:         no
Pages:          234
Encrypted:      yes (print:yes copy:no change:no addNotes:no)
Page size:      612 x 792 pts (letter)
File size:      690313 bytes
Optimized:      yes
PDF version:    1.5

Update Fri Jan 14 14:45 EST 2005
Sisyphean Musings has CBS's explanation:

To allow copying of text to applications such as Word would allow anyone to create a modified or falsified report, which we cannot allow. The law firm hired by the Independent Panel insists that the report not be available in a format that can be altered, and we agree with that decision.

This speaks for itself.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in infothought | on January 13, 2005 02:53 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (9) | Followups

Berkman Center's newsletter mentions me in Internet "community standards" case

The current edition of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society newsletter, "The Filter" No. 7.01 01.04.05, has an item on the Nitke case, and mentions my expert testimony. Thanks!

* Defining "Community Standards" for the Internet

Sections of the Communications Decency Act have concerned advocates for online freedoms since passage of the law in 1996. While many of the CDA's provisions about internet "indecency" were overturned in Reno v. ACLU in 1997, other provisions, such as limitations on ISP liability and restrictions about online "obscenity," remain intact. Plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit, Nitke v. Ashcroft, are now challenging these obscenity standards. New York artist Barbara Nitke, whose photography depicts sexual and controversial scenes, filed for declaratory judgment to protect online displays of her work in 2001, and written arguments in the case were finally submitted last month. One of the core issues raised in Nitke v. Ashcroft is the difficulty of determining "obscenity" on the internet, since its definition depends on measuring "contemporary community standards." Which community standards apply to the global Internet? Technology experts and internet activists have sided against the law based on this concern and as well as concerns about First Amendment freedoms and online anonymity. The case now falls to the Southern District of New York for a decision.

Plaintiff's Overview (John Wirenius): <http://www.wireniusreport.net/overview.html>
Original Media Coverage (CNN): <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/TECH/industry/12/20/obscenity.suit.idg/>
Expert Testimony about Challenges to Geolocation (Seth Finkelstein): <http://sethf.com/nitke/ashcroft.php

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal , nitke-v-ashcroft | on January 13, 2005 09:17 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 10, 2005

CBS Memos Report

The CBS Memos Report is now available in all its glory. Let the games begin!

The wingnuts are amusingly disappointed that the investigative panel does not rant "Liberal! Liberal! Liberal!" on every page, which is the framework by which they judge all things.

For myself, I'm fascinated by the report as it's a documentary in itself about the seamy underbelly of journalism. Too many such examinations are partisan hatchet-jobs. Rarely do we get a public investigation which has such a combination of thoroughness, detail, and not filled with political noise. Pure signal.

A rare look into the sausages:

[page 163] ... The point would be to shift the conversation from CBS did something wrong, to something wrong was done to us and we're mad as hell.

West rejected Howard's suggestion via a return e-mail at 8:39 a.m.:

I think we need to defend ourselves specifically [and] not even concede that we think it could be a hoax.


[page 189] The Panel believes that such a detailed criticism was yet another occasion that should have resulted in an immediate and careful review of all the reporting behind the September 8 Segment. Instead of reviewing the reporting, however, CBS News simply continued to defend staunchly the September 8 Segment. ...

Such drama.

Ernest Miller has more along similar lines.

Anyway, I'm not going to write too much about it. The "Gatekeepers of the Media vs. Blog Triumphalism" post I did a while back, languished basically unread (and I have to be careful what I wish for, because I don't think I'd like what would have had to happen for it to be read). In any event, all the Usual Suspects are out in force.

But to me, the issue isn't "liberalism". It's "journalism".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on January 10, 2005 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 09, 2005

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility"

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility" is a conference, well, I'll quote:

... an invitation-only conference to be held on January 21st and 22nd, 2005 entitled "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground." The conference, which will bring together a select group of thoughtful bloggers and journalists, is being organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, the American Library Association's Office of Information Technology and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


To both journalism and blogging, credibility is essential. What are the areas of common ground shared by these very different approaches to handling news and information? Can journalists who also blog do their work without conflicting standards? Might bloggers adopt standards and a transparency that will elevate their credibility? Our purpose is to bring together a small group of smart and thoughtful people to ponder these and other related issues, which will result in a published report and - we hope - will mark the beginning of an on-going and very important dialogue.

The subject matter of the conference has been, err, "controversial", given the issues of "credibility", and the background of the participants. I summarized the problem in the following well-received comment:

It was all about cats
and their habitats
But they only invited
the dogs and the rats

[Not original with me, I read it somewhere]

I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility. All names which I recognize are well-ensconced "club members", the sort of people who already have institutional validation as academics and/or journalists. They *are already considered* "credible", in a professional sense. This doesn't mean their reflections on the topic are wrong, but it might make the collective exploration somewhat limited, as a factual matter.

If the purpose is to puff the participants resumes, well, *shrug*, I suppose that's not a bad thing in itself, and there's not a whole lot for anyone else to say beyond pointing it out.

[Disclosure/disclaimer - although the suggestion that I should have an affiliation with the Berkman Center is sometimes raised by uninformed or well-intentioned people, realistically the chance of that happening these days is zero.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo , webcred | on January 09, 2005 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 06, 2005

"Finkelstein's Law"

"Finkelstein's Law" is what Andrew Orlowski graciously terms my echo chamber observations of Mathematics of ordinary-blog non-influence, in an article in the The Register:

62pc of netizens unaware of Pajamahadeen militants

After two years of militant bluster, and in the US at least, widespread media coverage, the new research comes as a surprise. It shouldn't. Finkelstein's Law, coined in the aftermath of the collapse of the blog-powered Howard Dean campaign, illustrates why sound doesn't always travel. It all depends on who's listening.

"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, if just for a tiny kingdom" observed Seth Finkelstein [our emphasis].

Which characterizes the phenomenon quite nicely. The observation that the internet is at least as likely to entrench social divisions and reinforce people's existing prejudices has been noted for some time. But weblogs are becoming increasingly emblematic of internet discourse because they take a bad problem - one that we all knew about - and make it worse.

Thanks much!

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 06, 2005 07:51 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups
January 04, 2005

Blog power law and big fish / small ponds

When the power law for blogs is examined, and it's seen that the exponential distribution mathematics leads to a "conversation" consisting of a small A-list with big megaphones, and everyone else squeaking down at the bottom, many blog evangelists find this troubling. They believe in a theoretical equality (though it's belied in practice). One objection is to claim that the overall power law result is meaningless, since some people might care only about specific topics, not general interest news or politics.

The curve for politics or news is just a particular example. The idea is to show the enormous differences (several orders of magnitude), the huge concentrations of power in the hands of a tiny few, and that it all follows a mathematical law. Of course it can then be refined to higher-level approximations. But, per-topic, for any topic (roughly) it's the same power law.

Consider the simple concept "everyone can't be above average" (the "Lake Wobegon effect"). A Lake Wobegon evangelist might object, along similar lines: "There's not just one average in the universe! There's various averages, e.g. for money, strength, skills, etc. So the idea that everyone can't be above average is oversimplified, because there's so many different types of quantities".

However, once a quantity is defined, with an average (under reasonable circumstances), everyone cannot be above that average. And some quantities can't be blithely ignored. For example, that everyone can't be an above-average stock market investor (and a significant portion will be far below average) has some very profound implications for plans to privatize Social Security involving stock market investment accounts.

So if the exponential nature of the power law applied to blogs means that, for any given topic, under reasonable circumstances, debate will be dominated by a tiny few - that's in effect an oligarchy. It's not much of a comfort to say the oligarchies differ between topics, or that a person could try to find a topic where he or she might have a higher chance to become one of the favored few. The critical aspects is that it is an oligarchy, that there's room only for a few at the top.

More concretely, if it's all big fish in small ponds, that still matters in your pond, and being told "Go find another pond" dodges the problem.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 04, 2005 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3) | Followups
January 01, 2005

New Year's Resolutions 2005

What a drag it is getting old.

[Notice: This is not a cheery post sad face image]

Happy New Year. Let me do a personal post looking back and forward.

To recap some recent turning points, in 2003 I was driven to quit censorware decryption research and then abandon major net freedom-fighting efforts (update: despite almost single-handledly winning a DMCA exemption) . I have a huge amount of censored censorware research which was destroyed or I can't publish - either nobody will hear it and/or I'll be sued. I still did some writing. But I think in 2004 I got yet another message that politics just isn't for me. I enjoyed attending the Berkman Center iLaw event, but ultimately it didn't change anything. Much worse, the Mike Godwin / Greplaw attack was another major turning point (I still should do an aftermath follow-up post on it all). My law/policy prospects never were all that great. But despite wishful thinking to the contrary, it matters to be targetted by a mean lawyer (who teamed-up with a domain hijacker).

Blogging doesn't work for me. The irony there this year, was when it was evident that I'd get far more reputation-points, far more easily, by inveighing against the Blizzard v. Bnetd court decision, than I personally could gain by actually co-writing a friend-of-the-court ("amicus") brief supporting reverse-engineering rights. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right thing, on a personal level, that I did not do that bit of fighting for net freedom, in terms of what would have been the cost to me. But I look back on it as a very sad commentary overall as to what gets rewarded. Drink the blog Kool-Aid, and you get attention and echoes and links. Don't, and you'll be talking to the crickets (but perhaps you like talking to the crickets, perhaps they make a pleasant sound, and anyway, who is to say that the crickets are not a worthy audience ...).

It was laudable that I was an expert witness in the Internet censorship / "community standards" case of Nitke v. Ashcroft (which was a pre-existing activism commitment). But, in terms of it being a reputation-builder for me, the lack of publicity was disappointing. Eventually there was an EFF newsletter mention, thanks, but that was the maximum (e.g. no Slashdot). I rate this, again for me, as another example of "I tried it that way, and it didn't work".

Overall in 2004 I passed another milestone in terms of giving up fighting to keep the net free. As a programmer, nobody is trying to tear me down (much less succeeding!), and it's an occupation both profitable and sustainable.

So for 2005, I resolve to maximize paid work, maybe more Google investigation again (Google doesn't sue!), and work on further avoiding the horrible negative that free speech activism has been for my life.

[PS: Of course, there's always people worse off than me, e.g. who need Tsunami Aid]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 01, 2005 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2) | Followups