July 30, 2006

"DOPA" - HR 5319, Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006

The "Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006" (DOPA) act was recently passed. To quote Library Journal for a summary:

"This unnecessary and overly broad legislation will hinder students' ability to engage in distance learning and block library computer users from accessing a wide array of essential Internet applications including instant messaging, email, wikis and blogs," said ALA president Leslie Burger. "Under DOPA, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the Internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the web's most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications. As libraries are already required to block content that is "harmful to minors" under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), DOPA is redundant and unnecessary legislation." DOPA would extend CIPA by tying receipt of E-rate funds to blocking social networking and other sites. The legislation now will go to the Senate, which ALA said may or may not have time to vote before their session ends for the year.

I was going to sit this one out because of preaching-to-the-choir, but Kent Newsome asked my thoughts (disclosure: he's said nice things about me), so here's a rundown, and an attempt to say a few thing not everyone else has said.

1) We've been here, this is called "moral panic"

Set the WayBack machine for ten years ago, and you'd see similar articles about AOL. Here's a good one, from *1995*


AOL wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants a family system that appeals to kids. It also wants to keep making money off the hotchat crowd. And it's terrified that the Microsoft Network is going to eat its lunch, so it's selling harder than ever.

Unfortunately, in the process it's built a system that makes it easy for predators to operate, and has then turned around and aggressively marketed it to prey. AOL had better figure something out. As it stands, this is not going to end well for it.

2) Observe the slippery slope in action

I don't know how many times the point has been made that once censorware was woven into the fabric of school and library Internet access, racheting up the blacklists would be very easy. The next moral panic, the next political campaign to pander to social conservatives, the next time a demagogue needs a hot button to push, it's just the flip of a switch. Here's another proof.

3) However, this particular law matters less than one might think

Broad application of censorware blacklists is already in place

* Federal law requires Internet blocking only of sites with certain visual depictions -- such as "obscenity" -- yet, some libraries have gone beyond this obligation, choosing to censor other types of material as well, including such ill-defined categories as "gambling" and "illegal" sites.

* The minimum blocking level that the software system for the state's public libraries has adopted for all computers exceeds what federal law requires, so that even libraries opposed to unnecessary filtering are forced to deny patrons access to protected material.

* Many libraries in the state [of Rhode Island] have done little to make patrons aware of their legal right to gain access to information blocked by the deeply flawed "filtering" software now in use.

People just don't hear much about it, since the civil-libertarians generally have no money to publicize the issue. Which brings us to:

4) Politically, Republicans fighting _Fox News_ is a sign of desperation

I suspect this bill is part of the Republican election strategy, of pandering to the right-wing base. Flag burning, gay marriage, the recent "Teen Endangerment and Grandmother Incarceration Act", it's all red meat for the campaign. However, MySpace (social networking site) is owned by the same enormous corporation which owns Fox News, and they can fight back. If anyone is able to exploit this potential wedge between the theocrat and plutocrat wings of the Republican party, the result could be interesting indeed.

5) Singing "What's The Matter With Kids Today?" never goes out of style

Just on general principles, there tend to be few arguments more futile than lecturing about what youth *should* do. And the youth are usually not around to defend themselves. But "DOPA" is dramatically beyond legislating morality - it's legislating against interactivity.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on July 30, 2006 02:20 AM | (Infothought permalink)
July 26, 2006

Quoted About Deleting Wikipedia biography

I'm quoted in The Register: School sues over Wikipedia posts (by Andrew Orlowski) - thanks:

Wikipedia's problems with vandalism have percolated to the top of the hierarchy within the organization. One of the most prominent evangelists for the site, Angela Beesley, recently resigned from the board of the non-profit that runs Wikipedia, the WikiMedia Foundation, in the hope of having her own entry removed from Wikipedia. "I'm sick of this article being trolled. It's full of lies and nonsense," she wrote recently. "Given that this was previously kept on the grounds I was on that Board, there is no longer any reason for this page to be kept. This has already been deleted on the French and German Wikipedias."

(With co-founder Jimmy Wales, Beesley remains on the board of the for-profit corporation Wikia, which recently received $4m in venture capital)

Seth Finkelstein, who recently tried to have his own entry from Wikipedia removed recently, described it as "a pretty stunning vote of no-confidence. Even at least some high-ups can't eat the dog food."

I should note, to explain again my reasoning, that in certain cases I consider Wikipedia biographies to be a kind of "attractive nuisance":

What is an "Attractive Nuisance"?

A widely-known legal principle is that landowners have no duty to keep their land in a safe condition to protect trespassers. The "attractive nuisance" doctrine, which most states have adopted, is considered an exception to this rule.

An "attractive nuisance" is a potentially harmful object on or condition of the land that, by its features, tends to lure children. Children, because of their age, do not appreciate the danger and can be at risk. "Attractive nuisances: are typically not natural land conditions found on the land, such as a pond, but rather are conditions created by someone. Over the years, a classic example has been a swimming pool.

Very apropos, especially - "by its features, tends to lure children ... conditions created by someone".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press , wikipedia | on July 26, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 25, 2006

Google Germany Censored Sites vs. Germany's Voluntary Self-Monitoring Blacklist

Philipp Lenssen asks Why Is Stormfront.org Missing in Google Germany?, discussing Google censorship:

How does Google know which sites they need to censor? One thing Google and others in Germany do is to access blacklist data on a server by the Association for the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers, FSM("Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Multimedia-Diensteanbieter eV") ... Stormfront.org, however, is not on this BPjM blacklist module, according to the BPjM.

My comment on this was that he hasn't found a bug in Google's censorship, he's found a bug in the "BPjM blacklist" :-).

The response he got from Google was unhelpful as usual.

One of the reasons I've opposed censorware is that secret blacklists preclude judicial review. This may be a commonplace now, but it's acquiring new resonance with, let's say very prominent cases involving claims of secrecy and national security:

pp.39-40, "If the government's public disclosures have been truthful, revealing whether AT&T has received a certification to assist in monitoring communication content should not reveal any new information that would assist a terrorist and adversely affect national security. And if the government has not been truthful, the state secrets privilege should not serve as a shield for its false public statements. In short, the government has opened the door for judicial inquiry by publicly confirming and denying material information about its monitoring of communication content."

But then, we're back to the same problem - I'm preaching to choir here, and marginalized to anyone else :-(.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware , google | on July 25, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 22, 2006

Google News problem parsing "Techdirt" site


Google News changed something on July 6th, so that all of our stories appearing in Google News now show up with the headline "Permalink to this story." We hadn't made any changes to our site, and Google News had always performed flawlessly in the past. ... What followed was a series of emails from Google staff (much of it sounding like boilerplate "canned" responses) that in almost every case blamed us for their own glitch. That's what we get for trying to point out a glitch to them.

This might be an interesting case study of algorithmic quirks. I assume Google isn't doing this deliberately. But I suspect there's a long list of trade-offs in Google News' ad-hoc parsing which is leading to a poor result for Techdirt. And that Google doesn't want to devote the time of a programmer skilled in debugging in order to diagnose the issue.

I sent Techdirt a suggestion: Put a class="permalink" attribute on your permalinks (<a class="permalink" href="...">). That *may* fix it.

If they try my idea, and I'm right, I'll write more about it.

[Update: I guess not. Google works in mysterious ways.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 22, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
July 20, 2006

Google News and Infoworld not appearing

Jon Udell - News about Google News (about the site Infoworld.com not appearing, though its weblog subdomain is appearing):

According to Google News product manager Nathan Stoll, the omission is a technical problem rather than an editorial one. The Google News crawler, he says, is a very different beast from the regular Google crawler. And while the regular crawler happily includes our stuff, the news crawler -- for reasons as yet undetermined -- doesn't.

I was surprised to learn this because I've only ever been aware of three user-agent strings (i.e., crawler signatures) broadcast by Google bots:

1. GoogleBot (for the main index)

2. GoogleBot-Image (for images)

3. Feedfetcher-Google (for RSS feeds)

There's no separate signature for the news crawler. It identifies itself as GoogleBot too. Given that the main crawler and the news crawler use different algorithms for site traversal and page analysis, according to Stoll, I'd expect them to identify themselves differently. But perhaps for historical reasons, they don't.

Despite a tendency for snarky sites to play "Gotcha" with that explanation, it does seem to be true.

According to an older mailing list report,

Leaving out the version numbers, Google News user agent is "Mozilla (Googlebot)" whereas regular Google is just Googlebot.

I suspect that's slightly incorrect now, i.e. Google News has the "Mozilla (Googlebot)" signature, though not all instances of that signature are Google News (though it may have true at the time it was written, given various lag times in use of different code).

Given that Google News does include "www.infoworld.nl", my guess is that someone made a typo in the sources file somewhere for "www.infoworld.com", and the Google News crawler is mistakenly looking at a cybersquatted site (hence it wouldn't be reporting a can't-find-site error, but it wouldn't find any useful news content either).

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 20, 2006 03:57 PM | (Infothought permalink)
July 19, 2006

India ISP Blog Censorship Update

Kingsley Joseph wrote an update in the comments of the previous post:

Seth, you're bang on. The government wanted about 20 sites blocked, not for terrorist activities, but for hate-speech reasons. The stupid ISPs, too lazy to put in sub-domain blocks, blocked IP addresses instead.

It's been resolved, and we should be back to almost normal in a day or two.

There's another article in the Indian Express. It's very strange, some of the sites don't make sense as targets for censorship.

I spent some time (probably too much time ...) trying to find a pattern, with a lead or two, but nothing obvious. Even if I did find anything, I'd then have to devote time to writing it up, and then further running around trying to get some credit, probably unsuccessfully. Not worth it. That's unpleasant to write, but it's the reality of unpaid freelancing, err, "citizen journalism".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on July 19, 2006 08:23 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
July 17, 2006

India ISP Blogspot Blocking - Conjecture

I've read a bit on the story of ISP's in India blocking certain blog services. Many people have confirmed that it's happening, so it's apparently true. But it doesn't make sense. India is a democracy, so one wouldn't expect the sort of extreme censorship found in e.g. China.

I briefly considered it might be a case of bans of a few particular blogs accidentally leading to widespread overblocking by cutting off entire servers, since many blogs are hosted on a single server (i.e. banning meant to be by-name was instead implemented by-IP address). But that can't be right, since while one ISP might make that mistake, several ISP's wouldn't *all* make that mistake, especially after complaints started coming in.

It sure can't be a terrible fear of the Voice Of The People, since only some services are being censored. If the government was afraid of self-agonizing emergent intarwebizens, all such services would be blocked. So that explanation is nonsense.

I wonder if we'll find out that somebody said that terrorists were using *blogs* to communicate, so in a panic, prompted by the recent terrorist bombings in Mumbai, some government official issued a hasty "national security" directive to block certain blog services. That would fit the observed pattern, because those sort of panic directives are both overbroad, and people won't want to talk about them. It also implies that this should clear up in few days, as sanity prevails. We'll see.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on July 17, 2006 11:33 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 16, 2006

The Return Of Shelley Powers (with special appearance by Frank Paynter)

Shelley Powers is back, firing from a second blog "The Bb Gun":

How to Rollout a Web 2.0 Product, in sum:

When you have infrastructure problems, no need to hire an experienced tech when you can hire an evangelist instead.

And elsewhere points to The Chocolate Wars, where Frank Paynter details Corporate Community and Ethical Blindness:

Nestle seems to be on the offensive regarding their reputation on the web. This discussion page from Wikipedia illustrates a balanced and reasonable approach by corporate PR to keeping their public image clean.

[Wikipedia! Isn't it amazing how all these small pieces are loosely joined?]

The gist of it is that Nestle has PR flacks working Wikipedia and blogs. This is then praised by blog flacks as "conversation". That should tell you all you need to know about the prospects for blogs as any sort of democratic change. But saying this does no good (or at least, does me no good) sad face

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on July 16, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 14, 2006

Kinderstart vs Google lawsuit dismissed, and ranking on ranking

The Kinderstart vs Google search ranking lawsuit was dismissed, with a complete victory for Google. See Eric Goldman for legal commentary, Danny Sullivan at SearchEngineWatch.com.

This has set off another round of pedantic parsing and nitpicking over the marketing PR that Google issues about its algorithms. My take on it all is much shorter. Meaning no disrespect to anyone in particular, but attempting to convey the issue succinctly from my point of view:

Marketing PR does not fully explain algorithms - GET OVER IT!

If Google gave a halfway detailed overview of what it does, all non-geeks eyes would glaze over immediately. Yes, people don't understand it. Yes, Google's statements aren't that informative. Yes, explaining it is good. But Kinderstart's basic charge about unfair ranking in this case reminds me of nothing so much as the trivial argument: "The US Constitution's First Amendment says I have freedom of speech, and it doesn't say anything about except for libel or death threats or copyright infringement, so THE CONSTITUTION IS BEING VIOLATED".

And conversely, lawyers and free-speech activists spend a lot of time arguing about this, so why should Google's search results be any easier to explain to a non-specialist? How many people think copyright "fair use" means "I can copy it all and distribute it all as long as I don't charge for it"?

Right, Google's PR doesn't say that it penalizes the results for sites it considers web-spam gamers. Yeah, in theory, it should. But I really can't get worked up that it doesn't, especially when web-spam gamers are the ones doing the complaining.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 14, 2006 05:12 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 13, 2006

Wikipedia Irony Overload

"I'm sick of this article being trolled. It's full of lies and nonsense. My justification for making a third nomination is that my circumstances have changed significantly since the last AfDs - I have resigned from the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. Given that this was previously kept on the grounds I was on that Board, there is no longer any reason for this page to be kept. This has already been deleted on the French and German Wikipedias." Angela [Beesley]. 02:41, 12 July 2006 (UTC)"

Wow. Talk about self-referential irony!

That's a pretty stunning vote of no-confidence. Even at least some high-ups can't eat the dog food.

And apparently I've become somewhat infamous in certain circles due to having expressed my desire to opt-out of Wikipedia. Which is a bit scary in itself.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on July 13, 2006 11:00 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
July 10, 2006

"CleanFlicks", copyright infringement, and DMCA

The "CleanFlicks" case concerning bowlderization versus copyright is prompting much tech/law discussion, see e.g. Joe Gratz and Ed Felten

Brief Summary:

Side 1: Companies, e.g. "CleanFlicks", which take existing movies and make version with offense parts cut out.
Side 2: Movie studios, etc.
Legal Issue: Is a bowlderization service a violation of copyright, even if the company buys an unaltered copy first, and is doing it For The Childen?

Court's answer, so far: Yes (note this is different from the "Family Movie Act", which addressed making on-the-fly alterations, not permanent copies).

In terms of having something original to add to the commentary pile, I'd just like disagree with my pundit brethren regarding the speculation that the reason the movie studios didn't bring a DMCA claim against the bowlderizers was that the studios did not want to inflame social conservatives against the DMCA. That doesn't make sense, as social conservatives have more than enough to be outraged in the lawsuit itself (and now, the unfavorable decision). Such fine distinctions as the exact nature of the legal claims are very much inside baseball, details. No, I believe the reason a DMCA claim was not made has much more to do with not presenting a court with the fabled sympathetic DMCA circumvention defendant, one charged with circumvention but making fair use in a socially approved cause (and you can't get more sympathetic than For The Children, that's better than even prestigious academic researchers!)

Think it through: If the studios win on the copyright claim, there's no need for a DMCA claim. If the studios lose on the copyright claim, they could then bring a DMCA claim. So they have nothing to gain from starting with a DMCA claim, and risk enormous loss in having a court possibly scale back the extent of the DMCA (especially given the temptation to be swayed by the perceived virtues of the defendant). Thus, it's strategically obvious what to do based simply on risk/reward ratio.

Anyway, politics makes strange bedfellows, err, parlorguests.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in dmca , legal | on July 10, 2006 03:11 PM | (Infothought permalink)
July 09, 2006

Wikipedia Biography, I'm Not Worthy

In the past week, in the reverse of vanity, I've been arguing strenuously that I'm not notable for Wikipedia. That is, while some people may think it's cool, I don't *want* to have an entry devoted to me in Wikipedia. It's not a honor, it's a burden:

... Wikipedia biographies can be an "attractive nuisance". It says to every troll, flamer, and grudge-holder, "Here's a page about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear, and it won't be a marginal comment with the social status of an inconsequential rant, but rather will be made prominent about the person and reputation-laundered with the institutional status of an encyclopedia.".

To the frequently asserted quarrel that one can't control what a newspaper or print encyclopedia writes about oneself, I've said:

Neither a newspaper nor a printed encyclopedia allows random flamers to anonymously insert libel/defamation/smears into its articles, at any moment. That aspect puts Wikipedia in a class by itself. Appeals to the norms governing articles which have a process of accountability and responsibility are inappropriate for a context where that very lack of accountability and responsibility is the problem at issue.

This has led to some amusing exchanges where participants in the discussion compliment me, and I keep saying aw, shucks, that's nothing. More significantly, there's a troublesome "cost-shifting" aspect, where a large potential personal negative is imposed on me, for the very small positive benefit to Wikipedia.

I didn't want to write about this until the discussion was over, as that's sometimes viewed as bad faith. Though I did sway a few people to my view, I appear not to have prevailed completely: "The result of the discussion was No consensus."

[Update: See "Death By Wikipedia" for a small example of the problem (this particular article doesn't matter too much, since the person was both notorious and dead, but the issue is real): "But here's the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers."]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on July 09, 2006 05:38 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (8)
July 06, 2006

Jerry Pournelle Censorware'd From Otis Air Base By SmartFilter

Jerry Pournelle is well-known science fiction writer and computing/space-tech pundit. He has some material now on his site being blocked, starting from a reader report:

Dr. Pournelle,

You might be interested to know that at Osan [Air Base], your website domain is explicitly blocked under the category "entertainment, online sales".

First reaction:

I have no knowledge of this. I sell nothing. Well, I suppose I "sell" copies of Strategy of Technology through Paypal and I push my wife's reading program, but that's hardly online sales. I do hope to be entertaining. I really don't know why any Air Base would think me a danger to the troops.

It seems the censorware program involved is SmartFilter. He further describes his experience with its website procedures:

I went to that URl and perhaps it is because my head aches, but I could make no sense of it or of what to do. I suppose it has been explained to how "services" like this "Secure Computing" work, and why anyone would allow them to dictate who is allowed access to whom, but the explanation didn't take. Are these outfits owned by private individuals? Corporate stock holders? "Western Enterprises" (a one-time front name for a CIA overseas corporation)? A religious group? Are they fronts, money makers, or just what? Because they do seem to have considerable power to determine what will be seen by at least some of our citizens.

Does that need discussion?

All journalists want to be entertaining, because no one will read their works if they are not, but I certainly would not call this site primarily an entertainment, and while once in a while I offer things for sale that is hardly my primary purpose. Do they ban all sites that accept Google ads? How does this work? And who decides whether or not to follow the advice of this group?

It's very interesting what happens when writers get "filtered" by censorware.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on July 06, 2006 11:53 PM | (Infothought permalink)
July 05, 2006

Courts Citing Wikipedia

[In response to my post on Apple v. Does (O'Grady v. Superior Court) and Wikipedia, James S. Tyre sent me the following, which (with his permission), I'll make into a guest post.]

Without suggesting that citing to wikipedia is now fully accepted, O'Grady wasn't close to the first. The first that I know of (I've not researched it thoroughly) is:

We also reject the notion that the Department of Homeland Security's threat advisory level somehow justifies these searches. Although the threat level was "elevated" at the time of the protest, "[t]o date, the threat level has stood at yellow (elevated) for the majority of its time in existence. It has been raised to orange (high) six times." Wikipedia, Homeland Security Advisory System, available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Department_of_Homeland_Security_Advisory_System (last referenced Aug. 16, 2004). Given that we have been on "yellow alert" for over two and a half years now, we cannot consider this a particularly exceptional condition that warrants curtailment of constitutional rights. We cannot simply suspend or restrict civil liberties until the War on Terror is over, because the War on Terror is unlikely ever to be truly over. September 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country.

-- Bourgeois v. Peters, a 2004 decision from the (very conservative) Federal 11th Circ Court of Appeals.

I've seen at least 3 or 4 others as well.

James S. Tyre

[Sent later]

Bourgeois v. Peters, 387 F.3d 1303, 1312 (11th Cir. 2004)

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on July 05, 2006 11:57 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
July 03, 2006

Kinderstart.com v. Google

The Kinderstart.com v. Google search-ranking court case progressed recently:

The search giant is being sued in California by a parenting website which claims it lost most of its traffic when its ranking dropped to zero. The site, Kinderstart.com, claims that it was downgraded because it is a competitor to Google. A motion by Google to dismiss the case was heard in California last Friday, where Kinderstart argued that it competed with Google because it also offers a search facility on its site.

Now, it is, err, my opinion, that Kinderstart.com was downgraded because the site looks like a spam-type directory, not because "it is a competitor to Google" (if it's a competitor, Google has nothing to worry about ...). But Kinderstart.com is riding the wave of Googlenoia, so it's getting a lot of coverage.

When Google defended its right to rank sites as an "opinion", in legal terms, it used the word "subjective", which is causing some discussion over the subjective meaning of "subjective". In English, though, the key part was that they're saying that if they think you're playing web-spam games, it's their right to throw you out of the search rankings with no notice or explanation, notwithstanding whatever else may be in their ranking algorithm. While that's not exactly a nice thing to do, it does seem to be a pretty solid legal right.

See also Eric Goldman for some primary sources

Update: More source documents from Eric Goldman

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on July 03, 2006 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)