January 31, 2006

Lazy punditry: Seeking cheap irony in Google's US vs China actions

[I wrote this as a reply to a mailing-list message about Google "hypocrisy"]

The Boston Globe points out that Google achieves the height of hypocrisy in simultaneously fighting the COPA subpoena while caving in to China's censorship.

While the cheap irony seems irresistible to pundits, it's hardly a reasonable comparison:

1) Say what you will about its sorry state these days, the US government is far more amenable to legal challenges than the government of China.

2) The COPA subpoena is about one part (an expert's report) which is one part of an overall case, where Google is not a party. China apparently made censorship a condition of Google doing business in the country.

The Globe article also gets it wrong, repeating the mistake about "US Justice Department's investigation of online child pornography." The COPA case has nothing to do with an investigation of child pornography. It's basically about a certain type of sexual material legal for adults but not minors and the burdens of restricting access to it with regard to minors.

People have read all sorts of deep political significance into the COPA subpoena, that simply isn't there. In fact, from a business standpoint, Google's actions are far more consistent than hypocritical. That is, they'll make a fuss if it's good PR and relatively costless, but not make any real sacrifice. What incentive is there for any publicly-traded company to act differently?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on January 31, 2006 02:15 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
January 29, 2006

Weekend stats-blogging and results

Some statistical reality checks (unique IP referers):

One offhand link (thanks, Andrew!) from The Register: 3407

A postscript mention in a long post at searchenginewatch.com: 246

Various punditry I did at various Googly blogs (e.g. Google Blogscoped): several dozen each

tech.memeorandum.com: 37

New readers: A handful? Doesn't seem to be many, 10 would be optimistic.

One can almost see an exponential distribution in the results. It may not be precisely a power-law, but the order-of-magnitude differences seem obvious.

The results of the straw poll on whether to do more Google material weren't overwhelming. Of course it's popular. But it looks like there's going to be much competition from everyone else with the same overall idea.

Related, at the moment, I'm sitting out ChinaCenGoo investigations. There's already lots of pluckers of low-hanging fruit. No point in my chasing the pack. And that way lies temptation to do decryption, which would likely be very bad for me.

Bonus link: Dave Rogers: "Competing Messages: Technorati and the Post-Cluetrain(TM) World"

The existence of this ranking mechanism is to promote the interests of Technorati, not individual bloggers. It is a cynical attention-seeking mechanism that exploits the weakness of the human ego to direct attention to Technorati, and, for some people, it is a source of some suffering. Not serious suffering, not agony, in most cases, but it is a source of some concern. Certainly, the existence of the Top 100 and the entire ranking mechanism seems incompatible with the notion that, "we shouldn't be evaluating blogs and bloggers by how many people read them."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in statistics | on January 29, 2006 11:52 PM | (Infothought permalink)
January 26, 2006

My articles on Google and privacy, elsewhere

I've got an article The Google Search Subpoena in Perspective as a guest-post on Google Blogscoped (a widely-read blog about Google). It's a longer version of the points I've made earlier.

I also seem to have done some good in the world, as comments I made about the issue at the popular liberal blog Hullabaloo ("Digby") were graciously incorporated into a post.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google , press | on January 26, 2006 09:06 PM | (Infothought permalink)
January 24, 2006

Poll - Do A New (Google-ish) Site?

Given the recent Googlevents, I'm again thinking about whether it would be a good idea for me to set-up a more "professional" site, focused currently on publishing Google investigations (though I wouldn't want to lock it into Google/search as a topic exclusively, that's definitely where the action is these days).

Pro - People ask me for Google stuff. Google doesn't sue (compare censorware legal risk). Some A-list Google bloggers like me, and none of them hate me. It occasionally even pays!!!

Con - I'm reasonably employed at the moment, so I don't need to drum-up consulting business. It's still work. A lot of people are in the field already, it's downright crowded. There remains a potential downside of getting flamed for contradicting the ranty net.catechism (repeat after me : It's An Outrage. They're Coming For You. The Feds Are Gonna Get You.)

Question: Did I get any new readers from the past week's Google-punditry? Specifically for Google material?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 24, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (11)
January 21, 2006

Google Search Subpoena Origins

Further note on the basis for the subpoena for search queries. I suspect it's coming out of the following aspects of the previous COPA law legal briefs (COPA = Child Online Protection Act, the law at issue):

[Note I don't quote this passage as truth, but rather to illustrate the sort of argument that the government was making, and why they're doing a search query survey]

The House Report accompanying COPA further documents the serious problem that Congress sought to address. By 1998, the number of minors using the Internet had grown to 16 million. H.R. Rep. No. 775, supra, at 9. At the same time, the number of pornography Web sites had grown to 28,000. Id. at 7. Those sites offer "teasers"-free pornographic images designed to entice users to pay a fee to explore the whole site. Id. at 10. Because Web software is easy to use, "minors who can read and type are capable of conducting Web searches as easily as operating a television remote." Id. at 9-10. As a result, pornographic material on the Internet is "widely accessible" to minors. Id. at 9. While many minors deliberately search for pornographic Web sites, others accidentally stumble upon them. Id. at 10. Many pornographic sites use "copycat" Web addresses to take advantage of innocent mistakes. For example minors would find hard-core pornography by mistyping www.whitehouse.com rather than www.whitehouse.gov. Ibid. Searches using common terms such as toys, girls, boys, bambi, and doggy all lead to pornographic sites. Ibid. Most pornographic Web sites either provide no warning that their sites contain pornography or provide a warning on the very same Web page that displays pornographic teasers. Ibid.

Sigh. I give up. The fever-swampers win. Government bad! They're coming to get you!

It just takes too much time to research this stuff, for too little return.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on January 21, 2006 07:49 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 20, 2006

Google, Subpoena, and Privacy

[I wrote this as a contribution to the discussion on Dave Farber's mailing list, but I might as well shout to the wind here, as it may not make the moderation cut. The best documentation I've seen is Gary Price's summary at Blog.SearchEngineWatch.com, and their coverage]

Let's take a deep breath and step back for a minute, and recall that this all started from a statistics professor's bright idea of how to design a survey of search engines and measuring how many porn sites are in the average results. It's not Big Brother, NSA Echelon, Total Information Awareness, or any sort of attempt to snoop on individuals. The government narrowed the request down to a sample of one million URLs [DEL]and "a random sampling of one million search queries submitted to www.google.com on a given day" (page 14, McElvain Declaration file). That's it.[DEL] [CORRECTION UPDATE - it was brought to my attention that this was part of the negotiations, but seems to have been dropped - CORRECTION UPDATE]. And it's hedged with protective orders and presumably whatever non-disclosure agreements are necessary.

If I were to be utterly cynical, I'd conjecture that Google decided to make a big noise over this relatively trivial request as a PR strategy to counter the increasing criticism of its omnivorous database collection practices. Remember, there's fever-swamping wolf-criers who will hype an error in government website cookie settings into attacks on privacy laws, or a minor change in obscure harassment provisions to be the end of anonymous blog comment posting. So marketing a storyline of "Google Stands Up To THE FEDS To Protect YOUR PRIVACY" will be quite appealing to a certain mentality, even if the effects are insignificant in practice. Essentially, Google can't lose here. If the subpoena is quashed, it's a big hero for beating back Government Snooping. If not, Google gets to loudly divert attention to the terrible, terrible injustice of being forced by men with guns to produce some search strings for a survey. This will probably inoculate Google against much critical examination in the press, since it will point to how it Stood Up For Freedom.

Now, there's a way in which this could be consciousness-raising, regarding the privacy implications of the huge amount of personal data collected by search engines. But such examination would require journalists going beyond the PR-chow they'll be fed. And sadly, I doubt that will happen.

[CORRECTION UPDATE - it was brought to my attention that the narrowing to "a random sampling of one million search queries submitted to www.google.com on a given day" was part of the negotiations, but seems to have been dropped - CORRECTION UPDATE].

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on January 20, 2006 09:12 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)

Two More Weeks To Make DMCA Reply Comments (February 2, 2006 deadline)

EFF: http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/004329.php

The U.S. Copyright Office received 74 comments proposing exemptions to the DMCA's anti-circumvention provision as part of its triennial DMCA rulemaking proceeding. In this and subsequent posts, we will summarize the key exemption proposals made in this first round of comments. If you can offer specific factual or legal arguments in support of these proposals, we urge you to file a reply with the Copyright Office before the February 2, 2006 deadline. For a helpful guide to filing replies, see Seth Finkelstein's Winning (DMCA) Exemptions, The Next Round. ....

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in dmca | on January 20, 2006 12:41 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 19, 2006

Google searches and government investigation of pornography sites

It's the return of Free porn, Google, spam, Internet censorship, and the Supreme Court! (really)

Bush Lawyers Ask Judge To Make Google Hand Over Data; Google Promises A Fight:

The Bush administration on Wednesday asked a federal judge to order Google Inc. to turn over a broad range of material from its closely guarded databases.

The move is part of a government effort to revive an Internet child protection law struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content accessible to minors. The government contends it needs the Google data to determine how often pornography shows up in online searches.


As a result, government lawyers said in court papers they are developing a defense of the 1998 law based on the argument that it is far more effective than software filters in protecting children from porn. To back that claim, the government has subpoenaed search engines to develop a factual record of how often Web users encounter online porn and how Web searches turn up material they say is ``harmful to minors.''

[via John Battelle's Searchblog]

I hope this doesn't lead to another round of touting censorware.

On the other hand, maybe I'll finally be hired as an expert-witness for a fat consulting fee :-).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , google | on January 19, 2006 05:55 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 17, 2006

British National Party (BNP) and Google News

Isn't it very old news that Google News includes the far-right British National Party (BNP)?


BNP gets top news listing on Google

Julia Day
Monday January 16, 2006

Google has defended the integrity of its news service after it emerged that reports filed by the British National party are being listed as sources on its website. ...

With, more than a year ago:


Tide of migrant BNP PR menaces Google News

News picks a bit illiberal?

By John Lettice

Published Sunday 7th November 2004 11:36 GMT

Google News, which last year accepted that press releases counted as news, now apparently thinks press releases from the far-right British National Party count too. ...

[Update: See also


Google inflames critics

Posted: 8 November 2004 By: Jemima Kiss

Email: jemima[at]journalism.co.uk
The credibility of Google's news tool has come under fire again following its use of press releases from far-right UK political group the British National Party.


I guess the news is what the reporters or A-listers say is news :-)

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on January 17, 2006 03:54 PM | (Infothought permalink)
January 16, 2006


I reiterate what I've already posted on Martin Luther King and Affirmative Action.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in politics | on January 16, 2006 11:51 PM | (Infothought permalink)
January 15, 2006

Traffic From Some Article Mentions

There's a popular article "One-stop site for blogs offered" about yet another startup trying to make a business of freelance writers, I mean, blogs ("Gather.com"). Happily, there's also skeptical takes. However, rather than repeat myself shouting to the wind, the relevant data for this post is that right in the middle of that webpage is a link for Boston.com's page on Greater Boston blogs and podcasts. Where this blog is listed on the page's "Computers and technology" section. All such links gratefully accepted, thanks. However, given all the attention that Gather.com article has received, it's interesting the Boston.com blog page (i.e. a click from the main article), has sent me a burst of total traffic of *SIX* (6) referers. Six. Those are the numbers.

Related Lis Riba was included in a NYTimes "Blogger Roundup" on the Alito hearings, and it produced "only one hit referred ... in the over eighteen hours since it was posted." (n.b. I believe the explanation in that post isn't correct - I suspect that inclusion had more to do with linking to a law A-list'er, not Technorati keyword search).

Bottom line: There's a tiny set of sources of significant attention, with all this implies (business who want to be that set, shifts in that set, sources favored by that set, etc.).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in statistics | on January 15, 2006 04:48 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
January 14, 2006

"Citizen Media" Skeptical Questions

Dan Gillmor is speaking about "Citizen Media" at Harvard Tuesday (1/17). I did something perhaps not in my best interests, but fuelded by my frustrations, and posted a "Skeptical Questions" comment:

[Dan, you're a nice guy, so I can get away with this - which is kind of a mini-point in itself :-(]

1. The journalism business is changing - GOT IT! HEARD IT! UNDERSTOOD! Now, why should anyone who is *not* a pundit (professional or wannabe), or interested in creating a business (i.e. 99% of the population), care that media people, both talent and finance, are fighting over the changes?

2. What's so superultrafantastic about being an unpaid freelancer? I grasp that there are many promoters who are very excited about the possibilities of data-mining and vanity-press business models (*cough* *cough* venture capital funds ...). Shouldn't everyone else be wary of being the chum to dream-sellers?

3. Doesn't the power-law show that ordinary citizens really have no way to effectively make their voices heard? (appealing to gatekeepers, whether they are called "reporters" or "A-listers", doesn't count). As I put it: THERE IS RE-INTERMEDIATION!

4. Given that the top-ranked blogs are full of slavering partisan hacks, outrage-mongers, and marketing hypesters, doesn't this demonstrate that, bit-for-bit, the bogosphere is hardly better than the mainstream media, and arguably *worse*?

5. Moreover, it's occasionally sometimes discussed that the politics and media top blogs are overwhelmingly well-off white males. So arguably the bogosphere is highly non-meritocratic. Again, isn't this evidence that contrary to idealism, for *effective* diversity, it's no better, and quite possibly worse? (i.e, the diversity wars are being refought, from further behind).

But good luck anyway.

[End comment - note for non-native English speakers, that phrase "being the chum to dream-sellers" is a play on words. In English, the word "chum" means both "friend" and "fish-bait", depending on context]

Again, Dan Gillmor isn't the sort to throw a temper-tantrum over insufficient sycophancy, so I'm probably not going to suffer for a little bit of being a gadfly. But I sure wouldn't want to be saying this stuff in front of guys who want to make more than $100 million. It's perilous for a skeptic to be around large amounts of money (n.b. it's often not the big moneybags themselves who are abusive, but secondary people who want to ingratiate themselves with the big moneybags).

Comic relief: Jon Garfunkel -The New Worders ("A guide to the various Worders in the New Media landscape. It's no longer just Writers and Readers. But one term doesn't fit all.")

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 14, 2006 11:56 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
January 11, 2006

The Self-Deluding Bogosphere

Memo to sociologists: Events like the Declan McCullagh E-annoyance are pure fodder for analytic papers. Note there's a single source, almost like a radioactive tracer, and you can track how the misconceptions propagate.

Some possible questions (not phrased in a neutral manner!):

How much skepticism is shown?

How willing are blog A-listers to update posts to reflect possibly being taken?

Is it futile to make corrections in comments, since virtually nobody reads them?

Does a journalist or A-lister need to be concerned about dishonest hype, if he or she appeals to the core red-meat audience?


[I think the way the "polarization" argument is framed does a great disservice - many people know the opposing arguments, they just don't care :-(]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 11, 2006 10:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
January 10, 2006

Declan McCullagh E-annoyance

aka, Declan McCullagh Is At It Again.

Some assorted debunking, from various lawyers:


[Orin Kerr, January 10, 2006 at 1:12am]
A Skeptical Look at "Create an E-annoyance, Go to Jail":

Declan McCullagh has penned a column that is custom-designed to race around the blogosphere. It begins:

"Annoying someone via the Internet is now a federal crime. It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity. ... [ed: snip]"

This is just the perfect blogosphere story, isn't it? It combines threats to bloggers with government incompetence and Big Brother, all wrapped up and tied togther with a little bow. Unsurprisingly, a lot of bloggers are taking the bait.

Skeptical readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the truth is quite different. ...

[I can't help but think that when Orin Kerr at "Volokh Conspiracy" writes a post like the above, you know Declan has been utterly egregious.]


Daniel Solove

Declan's article is misleading. The provision extends a telephone harassment law to apply to email. Declan describes the provision as applying whenever a person "annoys" another: "A new federal law states that when you annoy someone on the Internet, you must disclose your identity."

But that's not what the law says. Instead it provides:

"Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."

Note that "annoy" is part of the intent element of the statute -- it requires the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass. Far from an anti-anonymity provision that applies whenever a person annoys another, it is merely a prohibition on harassment. Declan writes: "In other words, it's OK to flame someone on a mailing list or in a blog as long as you do it under your real name." I don't see any basis for the law to apply in this instance.

[Addition 1/12: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/siva/archives/002638.html

Ann Bartow

"I may be missing something, but I don't think either e-mail or web logs would be considered "telecommunications devices" that would be subject to the stated prohibitions (which, in fairness, are awfully vague)."


There's a legislative summary here: http://www.gop.gov/Committeecentral/bills/hr3402.asp

To strengthen stalking prosecution tools, this section expands the definition of a telecommunications device to include any device or software that uses the Internet and possible Internet technologies such as voice over internet services. This amendment will allow federal prosecutors more discretion in charging stalking cases that occur entirely over the internet.

[Sigh .. Why should I bother? What good does it do? It'll be the exact same credulity all around the next time Declan McCullagh makes up a story]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on January 10, 2006 06:41 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
January 09, 2006

Quoted about Howard Stern

I'm quoted today, in a Houston Chronicle article about Howard Stern:

Jan. 9, 2006, 12:16AM

Let the fight begin

Will the FCC let the shock jock speak his mind?


Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The print ad for Howard Stern's new show on satellite radio is illustrated with the clenched fist of a revolution. It declares, unabashedly, in black and white: Stern uncensored only on Sirius.


Seth Finkelstein, a programmer serving as an expert witness on a federal case involving the definition of "community standards" in the digital age, said that for decades now, courts have been concerned more with images of sex than with hard-core verbal depictions of it.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it's utterly impossible (to prosecute Stern for obscenity). But if such a thing happened, it would be purely for the harassment and PR value of the case," Finkelstein wrote in an e-mail.

[An accurate quote. For those interested, the case is Nitke v. Gonzales]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press | on January 09, 2006 09:55 AM | (Infothought permalink)
January 06, 2006

Hyperlinks Subvert Hierarchy Meets The Internet Oracle

The Internet Oracle has pondered your question deeply. Your question was:

I guess we should just govern out lives by whatever marketing slogan makes us feel good about ourselves.

Markets are conversations. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. And Technorati is the authority on what's going on in the world of weblogs. (But please don't rely on that authority, because they accept no responsibility for it. It's just a marketing claim. Your mileage may vary. Sold by weight, not by volume. Results not typical. Closed course, professional driver. Do not attempt.)

I'm so frustrated because I'm not irritated by hierarchy. Yes, it can be pernicious, but so are ants and we need both. I am irritated by slogans accepted as common wisdom that illuminate nothing.

But that's what the world becomes when most of what we read and hear is "just marketing."

Because "markets are conversations."

I give up.

I for one welcome our new hyperlinked overlords. I await the delivery of technological nirvana from their wise and skilled hands. I will be pleased when all my sins are washed away once I accept the World Live Web into my heart as my personal savior. Um, is that going to be Web 2.1, or is nirvana a feature planned for 3.x? Just asking. And will that be a free upgrade, or we will have to pay for it? Because, you know, I can just wait for 3.x too.

And in response, thus spake the Oracle:

Nirvana will always be in The Next Release. It'll be implemented Real Soon Now.

Ponder these Koans 2.0 :

If a hyperlink leads to a web site, but nobody follows it, does it exist?

What is the sound of one BigHead "conversing"?

If we're writing ourselves into existence, what is your original face before you were written?

A Zlister heard an Alister speak of the riches and power and influence of bloggers. The Zlister pleaded: "MasterHeader, I have bought an account, and commented much, and linked to many. Yet I remain poor and marginal and unrespected.". The Alister was angered and unleashed flames: "Arrogant one, is not writing your diary sufficient? Off with you. I must meet with my accountant about a BigCo buyout for blog services, and prepare for my BigConference panel on how blogs subvert hierarchy, and be interviewed by BigMedia as to why blogging will destroy them.". At that moment, the Zlister was enlightened.

[You owe the Internet Oracle an Emergent Cloudy Semantic Tag Folksonomy, and a copy of an A-lister's next book]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on January 06, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
January 04, 2006

DMCA 1201 Anti-circumvention rulemaking reply comments open

[I've updated to 2006 my reply comment "round 2" DMCA guide:

The U.S. Copyright Office - Anticircumvention Rulemaking (for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) is now accepting REPLY Comments on Anticircumvention Exemptions:

The Copyright Office is conducting a rulemaking proceeding mandated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provides that the Librarian of Congress may exempt certain classes of works from the prohibition against circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works. The purpose of this rulemaking proceeding is to determine whether there are particular classes of works as to which users are, or are likely to be, adversely affected in their ability to make noninfringing uses due to the prohibition on circumvention of measures that protect access.

Before considering submission of a reply comment, please read about the scope of this rulemaking.

As a part of the rulemaking, interested parties were invited to submit comments in November 2005. These comments are available for viewing from our comments page.

Reply Comment Period

The Copyright Office will be accepting reply comments from January 4, 2006, until 5:00 P.M. EST on February 2, 2006. Persons who oppose or support any exemptions proposed in the initial comments now have the opportunity to respond to the proposals made in the initial comments and to provide factual information and/or legal argument addressing whether a proposed exemption should be adopted. ...

Sigh ...

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in dmca | on January 04, 2006 11:57 PM | (Infothought permalink)
January 03, 2006

"Cool Tools for Tyrants" - Governments Applying Censorware

The article "Cool Tools for Tyrants", by Derek Bambauer, is a fascinating examination of dictatorial government's use of censorware:

[my emphasis added below]

"Despite China's five million bloggers, the Communist Party remains firmly in control of the nation and, for the most part, the Internet within its borders. Iran's blogging community is perhaps the country's liveliest political arena, yet the authoritarian Iranian government is stronger than ever, especially after a resounding victory in February 2004 elections. Contrary to the utopian view that the Internet evades local control, governments are proving adept at controlling the information that their citizens receive and share. Market freedom does not necessarily lead to personal freedom. We must at times limit the first to safeguard the second; the right to sell must sometimes yield to protect the right to speak."

This is the sort of stance that, politically, I'd be poorly positioned to advocate. Too many experiences of being flamed by Libertarians, combined with bad memories of all the times I was accused of being against technology. In a way, it's heartwarming to see it becoming so respectable (though sadly, not all that helpful to me personally :-().

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on January 03, 2006 12:32 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
January 01, 2006


1. Blog less. smiley image

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in misc | on January 01, 2006 01:40 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)