September 30, 2006

"if he didn't speak fluent geek ..."

There's a fascinating wikimedia mailing-list comment on my Wikipedia piece:

FWIW, what strikes me ( well, lightly taps me ), about this whole thing with Seth here, is that if he didn't speak fluent geek (with a decided received high USENET tone), most of wikipedians wouldn't give him the time of day. ...

Jussi-Ville Heiskanen, AKA. Cimon Avaro

Candidate for Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation in the September 2006 elections.

I think he's right (even though it reminds me of the "Oh stewardess, I speak jive scene from the movie "Airplane!"). I do "speak the language" (more precisely, have the relevant cultural markers), that make me a club-member, despite being in disagreement here. So I'm being treated with a lot more respect than I would be if I weren't a "member of the club".

But the further implications are pretty troubling. It's not a good thing for your grievance to be taken seriously or not depending on whether or not you're a club-member. Of course it's common in practice. But it's very problematic.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on September 30, 2006 11:57 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (6)
September 28, 2006

"I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here",,1882027,00.html

"I'm on Wikipedia, get me out of here"

Seth Finkelstein
Thursday September 28, 2006
The Guardian

[Read the whole thing ... :-)]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in press , wikipedia | on September 28, 2006 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (14)
September 26, 2006

Pew survey - "Future of the Internet"

I'm late to the party regarding commenting on the Pew survey / "Future of the Internet". I am apparently one of the "Many top internet leaders, activists and commentators participated in the survey" (they said that, not me!). So I'm self-interested in pointing out that if one goes beyond the prefabricated punditry of the press release, and digs into the details, a lot of smart people can be found quoted in the report. Sure, there's the Usual Suspects who say we are about to enter a New Era where we'll go down a rabbit hole, err, I mean a black hole, and enter Wonderland, umm, the Singularity. But there's also another perspective to be found, such as the following:

Scenario Two: English displaces other languages

And Seth Finkelstein, anti-censorship activist and author of the Infothought blog, wrote that this scenario is "much too ambitious. There will still be plenty of people who will have no need for global communications in other languages, or who choose to communicate only within their local community."

Scenario Three: Autonomous technology is a danger

Programmer and anti-censorship activist Seth Finkelstein responded, "This is the AI bogeyman. It's always around 20 years away, whatever the year."

Scenario Four: Transparency builds a better world

"Between 'agree' and 'disagree' I'll pick 'agree,' but I think it's more accurate to say it could make the world a better place overall," wrote Seth Finkelstein, EFF Pioneer Award winner. "The difference between the Open Society and the Police State is political, not technological."

Think of it as the "balance" journalistic structure applied to futurism ("Are We Going To Live Forever? Opinions Differ.").

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on September 26, 2006 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
September 22, 2006

Spurious Search Count War On Gore

Geoff Nunberg posts at Language Log regarding how the Al Gore / Internet story history is being subjected to a misleading attempt to minimize its impact via a spuriously low search engine count:

Of course counts of media stories are only a rough indication of how widely diffused a story is, but even if we restrict ourselves to print, the contrast between [Alan] Abramowitz's 19 stories and the actual figure of several thousand is pretty striking. But then anybody who lived through this period knows without having to check that the story was all over the place. Which leads me to ask, How could Abramowitz possibly have believed the number his search returned?

Heck [alert - information you won't find elsewhere here!], let's go the source, from the story's inventor (my emphasis):

Next came the media feeding frenzy. On 11 March, Wired News was the first to report Gore's remarks. Hundreds of articles were quick to appear, many drawing the inevitable comparisons to Gore's other gaffes.

Sigh. Why do I bother?

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google , politics | on September 22, 2006 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
September 17, 2006

Adventures in Unpaid Freelancing, aka Citizen Journalism - Nonlethal Weapon Edition

[This post is dedicated to those people sincerely self-deluded or professionally delusional who think the bogosphere is democracy's (not demagoguery's) last best hope on Earth]

When I saw the Air Force / Non-lethal weapons testing story, on a mailing list, critical thought lead me to be immediately skeptical. So I started to dig around for material to write a reply (note the context is that I assume, or at least hope, members of the mailing-list will read the reply).

First problem, why blogging doesn't work: Blog references to the article are virtually all echoes or rants about it. In a hot story, there's piles and piles of these, making finding actual information difficult. I couldn't find any explanatory material. Just lots of arguing.

So I decided to do some actual work, and called the Air Force to ask them about what was really said. Note there's no incentive to do this. Just to argue.

It's really very easy. The media people just ask your name and affiliation.

Note from the field: I'd feel absolutely ludicrous replying to such a question by saying "I'm a citizen journalist". It sounds ridiculous. Worse than "I'm second-class", because even being second-class at least is in the rankings. More like "I'm a nobody pompously playing make-believe". Anyway, these days, one of the minor benefits of all the blog-hype is that saying "I'm a blogger" works well enough, not requiring involved explanations.

And I was promptly emailed a transcript. Which is sadly just the start of the effort required if I'm going to try to make much use of the material.

Now, if I want to be heard in the bogosphere, I have to pitch to gatekeepers. Which ones? Note you really have to know the "Writer's Market" here (the blog-evangelist's idea that, little Z-lister, you can make a hyperlink to the big boy's story, and some day, someone might actually search and follow it amidst all the spam and me-too and hell-in-a-handbasket, and read YOU-YES-YOU, doesn't that prospect just fill you with thrills at civic participation, come to the meConference and work for free - these people have nothing on "Let them eat cake").

The problem is that the left-wing side would not be interested in a debunking of the latest They're-Coming-To-Get-Us, and the right-wing side, well, that's a dangerous game. I suppose I could have asked some of the media A-listers for attention ("looky looky here, cit-i-zen jour-nal-ism"). But frankly, the thinker BigHeads don't send all that much traffic. Their specific power is more indirect, of nominating a person as worthy of being a junior club-member. And asking them for links also involves the backscratching relationships, where they may feel that criticism is disloyal (another aspect where personal nature tends to lead to cliquishness).

I settled for some comments, which drew a few dozen hits, and trying the Boingers (post accepted, ~ 1500 hits). All in all, it was a drop in the bucket, and arguably a lot of wasted time on my part. I know people are going to say it was worth it. But the problem there is that doesn't consider the cost to me, versus the lack of benefit to me.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , journo | on September 17, 2006 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (8)
September 13, 2006

TRANSCRIPT - Air Force Secretary On Nonlethal Weapons, Testing, US crowds

[In response to my query to the Air Force regarding the nonlethal weapons story and what was actually said by Secretary Michael Wynne, this was received directly by email from:

SECAF Strategic Communications Advisor
HAF/CX, 4E547
DSN 224-8065;


Context: Defense Writers Group, 12 Sep
Current line of questions concern F-35

15 minutes, 13 seconds into interview

Q. Why haven't you sold the capabilities, the non-lethal, the HPM, capabilities of this (the F-35) airplane? I went to talk with the Australians and that was one of the big things they wanted out of it, was the weapons and jamming capability and the communications capability and the radar. The Italians said the same thing, they said 'our parliament hates dropping bombs on people' they want a non-lethal weapon, but yet, nothing is said about those capabilities and your desire to push them. Do you want to push them? Is there resistance against it?

A. Non-lethal weapons are still being reviewed by the medical group. It's a kind of an interesting thing about non-lethal weapons. I will tell you that having seen the high-powered microwave that is a crowd disperser, the ADS system, used in a system and actually being invited to put your finger in the hole and by golly you'll see that your resistance is somewhat weakened when the beam hits you. Basically my point to them was (that) we need to start using that here in the United States on Americans. And if we start using that here in the United States on Americans and you start getting relief from people, because if the first people you use it on are your enemies, then unfortunately the first thing they will do is cry out that you have hurt them medically in a way that is pejorative.

Q. You mean like in police work?

A. Yes. So I think we should use it, if we're not willing to use it here, against our fellow citizens then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation. And I say that knowing the way the world works right now is that - the Indians as you remember in the early 1800s and mid-1800s thought you were stealing their soul when you hit them with a flash camera. You were actually covering them in soot, which may have been the same thing. But nowadays if I hit someone with a non-lethal weapon and they claim it injured them in a way that was non-intended, I think I'd be vilified in the world press.

Q. So we're not going to see funding to develop those non-lethal capabilities in the F-22 and F-35 then until?.

A. Until that is resolved.

Q. Ok, would that then put a horizon on the development of those kind of capabilities out 10-15 years?

A. I'd say that the platform as a platform contains enough power, which is derived from the engines. I think the power is there to support a high-powered non-lethal device, but right now the tech lags, and it lags primarily in size. Fighters are only so big. And the scope of usage. It's right now the stuff of great novels.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on September 13, 2006 08:39 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Followups

DEBUNKING Air Force Secretary Test Nonlethal Weapons On US crowds First Hype

Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs is causing much reaction, with many people making far more of it than seems justified (remember, popularity comes from hype, not from being accurate). I wrote the following for a mailing-list, reposting it. Transcript to follow.

I hate to sound like a Bush apologist, but fair is fair - it reads to me like a "GOTCHA!" by the reporter. Key aspects which should be red flags for some skepticism are that:

a) The most inflammatory aspects are the reporter's paraphrase
b) It's given a sensationalistic headline
c) Context is carefully elided as to what preceded the actual quote

I conjecture that what happened was something like the following (and if a transcript comes out, we'll know, though it'll be too late):

Reporter: Mr Secretary, there's been some work on nonlethal weapons. Although these aren't considered safe to use yet in the US, would the Air Force consider using them in Iraq battles?

Secretary: [article quote] "If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

[i.e. paraphrased - No, we should eat our own dog food. And if we use something in Iraq that we haven't used in the US, we'll get slammed as doing Dr. Strangelove type experiments on the Iraqis.]

[Reporter: GOTCHA! "Air Force chief: Test weapons on testy U.S. mobs"] [I suspect if the answer had been the opposite, the article would have been "Air Force will use Iraqis as guinea pigs to test science-fiction weapons"]

That answer is a perfectly reasonable, even slightly laudable, reply in context. Even if it's not exactly nice to talk about PR negatives from weapons use, so that part was a moral _faux pas_, pragmatically he did have a point.

The article's more about pressing people's fear buttons than anything else.

By the way, there aren't any truly non-lethal weapons. A little while ago in Boston, a bystander was killed by a pepper-gun pellet which went through her eye then into her brain.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in journo | on September 13, 2006 08:18 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
September 11, 2006

9/11 Self-Indulgent Memoirs Fragment

"And then came 9/11/2001, and nobody was interested in censorware."

In general, nothing I say about 9/11 is going to make any difference. And I don't want to add to the noise level by writing useless political rants that will be written many times over by others. Or even technical rants, also written many times over by others, far more influential than me, and also better.

But, relevant to "an inside view of net-politics" in my description line, and as I wind down blogging, 9/11 did change, well, not exactly everything, but many things in net-politics. So this is a tiny bit of memoir which is extremely self-indulgent compared to the wider world. But it's something relevant to the readership and not duplicative of everything else.

In early 2001, after winning the EFF Pioneer Award, I decided to take a vacation from programming, to be a civil-liberties DMCA fighter, and do all the censorware activism that my supposed newfound status would support. I'll skip over other relevant aspects. But after 9/11, that world changed. The PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, "national security", etc. - these were the topics which were rightly top priority. Civil liberties is by definition unpopular even in the best of times, and a terrorized population is the worst of times.

My planned six-months "sabbatical" to be a DMCA hero then turned into two years of grinding unemployment, relentless personal attacks, and marginalization (and later, lots of wasted time blogging). But that's a long story.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in memoirs | on September 11, 2006 08:36 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)
September 09, 2006

Suing Wikipedia Legal Issues

In earlier comments, Daniel Brandt wrote:

Regarding the Wikipedia legal situation, I'd like to alert your readers to comments published today from Brad Patrick, Wikipedia's interim executive director and general counsel. They are at

He misrepresents the true state of affairs at Wikipedia. I'm still looking for that notice on every page that editors are responsible for their own edits.

Which I take to be refering to:

Q: What is your liability for inaccurate information that's posted on the Web site?

A: Our belief is that since every post is attributed to an individual, is time-stamped and is retained in the database, the foundation itself is not publishing that content. We view individual editors as responsible and have prominently displayed on every edit page that individuals are responsible for their own contributions. We take the position that we are a service provider and are protected under § 230. We try to emphasize to everyone who posts that they, as publishers, have responsibility for what they add.

["§ 230" is immunity of "providers" from certain legal claims]

I'll just use this as an example to point out another way that blogging is somewhere between useless and downright harmful for me. My own views are much less Wikipedia-cheerleading than its Harvard and venture capital boosters (Wikipedia is a publisher with poor quality control that doesn't pay its contributors). But, frankly, my opinion has approximately zero importance, as well as practically near-zero reach. And expounding on it at length is likely just to get me another situation of being flamed by a "Big Head" and not being able to effectively reply. It's not worth it. So much for blogging as such a great "conversation".

Bonus link: Via Michael Zimmer, Social software and Web 2.0 - Seminar and workshop at Aalborg University on Friday October 6th, 2006:

The concepts have been eagerly adopted within seemingly contradictory areas: on the one hand, Web 2.0 and social software have been associated with re-democratisation, empowerment and open content. On the other hand, they are seen as a huge possibility for profit and market control from a corporate perspective.

That "seemingly contradictory" is key - if you grasp that the rhetoric of re-democratisation and empowerment is used for market control from a corporate perspective, it's perfectly consistent. And I'm not being the slightest bit original in that insight. Which is a very sad commentary again.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on September 09, 2006 01:28 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)
September 06, 2006

Linkdump: Google U California contract, suing Wikipedia, "Where are the women?"

Cleaning out various bogosocial obligations from the last week:

New sucker in the multi-level-marketing scheme for attention, err, I mean, blogger, Karen Coyle has an extensive post analyzing the contract for Google's University of California library digitizing (gatekeepering: Walt Crawford). Amusingly, one can see this post diffuse through the library domain, but not (yet) the search domain.

Daniel Brandt at Wikipedia Watch has a post discussing "Can you sue Wikipedia?". I don't agree with all the legal reasoning in it, but I don't like the way too much discussion is being driven by dysfunctional dynamics between Kool-Aid drinkers and Kool-Aid pushers.

Bandwagon: Vote Aaron Swartz for Wikipedia Board Member (if you have 400 edits, otherwise you can't vote).

A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.
A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.
Somebody who has not been invited to a hot party is a discoverer of the power of social connections.
Or "Welcome to Foo [Camp|Party|Networking Session], you lucky few". The A-listers said it, I didn't.

Which is a good segue to note Sour Duck's Where Are The Women Redux (h/t Shelley Powers), making a point that "Technology conferences, newspaper articles, and the Supreme Court workforce are the latest three areas where women are notably absent, prompting bloggers to once again ask, "Where are the women?". Another proof that blogging (if one wants to be read, rather than "connect with people") is not effectively very open at all.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , google , wikipedia | on September 06, 2006 01:01 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)
September 03, 2006

Google Giving Brazil Personal Data From Orkut - Misleading Explanation

In Google to Give Data To Brazilian Court (Washington Post), describing Google turning over identifying data to the government of Brazil, the following statements are made:

The difference, it says, is scale and purpose.

The Justice Department wanted Google's entire search index, billions of pages and two months' worth of queries, for a broad civil case Brazil, by contrast, is looking for information in specific cases involving Google's social networking site, Orkut.

"What they're asking for is not billions of pages," said Nicole Wong, Google associate general counsel. "In most cases, it's relatively discrete -- small and narrow."

There are some very wrong and misleading aspects in the above paragraphs.

1) The Justice Department went down to 50,000 URLs and 5,000 queries:

"First, the subpoena requested "[a]ll URL's that are available to be located to a query on your company's search engine as of July 31, 2005." [...] In negotiations with Google, this request was later narrowed to a "multi-stage random" sampling of one million URLs in Google's indexed database. As represented to the Court at oral argument, the Government now seeks only 50,000 URLs from Google's search index. Second, the government also initially sought "[a]ll queries that have been entered on your company's search engine between June 1, 2005 and July 31, 2005 inclusive." (Subpoena at 4.) Following further negotiations with Google, the Government narrowed this request to all queries that have been entered on the Google search engine during a one-week period. During the course of the present Miscellaneous Action, the Government further restricted the scope of its request, and now represents that it only requires 5,000 entries from Google's query log in order to meet its discovery needs. Despite these modifications in the scope of the subpoena, Google maintained its objection to the Government's requests."

2) The information was being sought for a statistical study, and the data would be under a protective order, and not intended to identify any particular person (even if some identification would in theory be possible, nobody was going to try to do it). In contrast, the information being sought here is to identify and hopefully convict specific people of criminal charges.

Of course, Google is in a tough position here, some of the crimes alleged are very serious. This IS the sort of problematic action that people projected onto the DOJ's relatively insignificant study. But it's quite an odious spin to trivialize it as "small and narrow"!

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on September 03, 2006 10:59 AM | (Infothought permalink)