May 31, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on the difficulties of making a difference,,2091220,00.html

"If you want to change the world, a blog may not be the place to start"

Seth Finkelstein: Getting ideas into the system can be more difficult than writing web pages and hoping somebody reads them.

Yeah, yeah, I know, obvious objection - It's a column, so it's self-refuting, right, huh, huh, huh? No. To a good approximation, there's an exponential curve of influence (per-topic), and you can draw an arrow labeled "You Are Here" pointing to your spot on it. The more you want to do, the higher up on the curve you have to be, and it's a very hard climb. Of course, if you don't want to do anything, you won't care where you are along it. But that's sort of a trivial answer.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on May 31, 2007 09:24 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (20)
May 30, 2007

Censorship, Politics vs Porn

Echo: Porn-Surfing By Proxy

Summary: If works for politics, it works for porn. And there's a whole lot more people interested in porn than in politics

Mr. X first visited and a few other media pages, but when Hunter checked his psiphonode [proxy] log again hours later, he discovered Mr. X had moved on to a search for nude pictures of Gwen Stefani and photos of a panty-less Britney Spears.

Then he spent five hours on hard-core sex sites.

This is the flip side of the values vs. implications argument. That censorware for {parent, child, sexual material } and {government, citizen, human rights} are the same technical issue. It does no use to repeat endlessly that one's one values are in favor of the former and not the latter. The implications are independent of the personal values.

Not that this reflects badly on the goals of Psiphon and other such projects. But it's a fact of life.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on May 30, 2007 05:27 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
May 27, 2007

Columnist asks readers if they've evaded censorware

Circumventing censorware seems to be going mainstream. "Network World" has a column: Getting around Web filtering:

So, what kind of filtering and for that matter logging does your company have in place and do you and or your co-workers use any of these free public proxies to circumvent them? If you are on the IT management side, do you attempt to block these proxies?

The tone of this column is interesting. It's not the standard kids/porn piece. Rather, it's about (high-status) employees escaping company controls, and is sympathetic to the workers.

There's also discussion that translation systems can act as proxies, and hence are blacklisted.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on May 27, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink)
May 24, 2007

Google and "She"/"He" Spelling "Corrections"

A Google algorithmic quirk which spelling "corrected" searches like e.g. [he invents] to [she invents] recently got some attention, and Google has apparently now rolled out a fix for this problem.

I didn't chase after it at the time, since it seemed obviously an issue of statistics difference, and plenty of informed people were explaining that result to those who saw it as deliberate sexism. So I didn't see the need for me to say it too. There can be a long discussion of structural sexism, and the effects of the default English pronoun being "he", etc, but I had no special expertise to weigh in on the matter.

But the fix that Google has made is interesting for what it reveals about how their algorithm actually functions. As Philipp Lenssen said in the above:

(Note: no matter what Google tells you, algorithms are always influenced by those who design, write & test them)

So Google seems to have changed the way "she" is handled in their spelling suggestions.

But it turns out, from seeing what behavior remains, that Google does not do the obvious sort of simple correction algorithm one might initially think. That is, a search for ["she inventt"] still gets a suggestion of
Did you mean: "he invent".

Why is this significant?

Because "she" is a common English word, "inveent" is not a common English word, and the naive correction of "inveent" to "invent" should yield a suggestion of "she invent". But it seems to be doing some sort of statistical best-match for the phrase as a whole.

I supposed this is not surprising, even expected, in retrospect. But it shows it's harder than it might appear to remove all aspects of structural bias (which is not to trivialize addressing an obvious case).

Semi-digression: Google seems to special-case swear-words. A search of ["fcck you"] does NOT return the obvious correction! One rule seems to be that if the swear-word doesn't appear in the original search, it won't be suggested.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on May 24, 2007 11:52 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
May 21, 2007

Walt Crawford (Cites & Insights) is "exploring new possibilities"

Walt Crawford, of Cites & Insights fame, is "seeking a mutually-beneficial situation":

Ever thought you or one of the groups you work for or with could use a Walt Crawford?

Here's your chance.

The RLG-OCLC transition will be complete in September. I've received a termination notice from OCLC, effective September 30, 2007.

I'm interested in exploring new possibilities. For now I'm trying not to narrow the options too much.


If you have acquaintances who are unlikely to see this blog, within groups that work for/with libraries, publishers, vendors, search-engine makers, consortia, what have you - where you think I might be a good fit, I'd be delighted if you told them about this.

[If this isn't on the top of some buzz-tracker, there is no justice in the world]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in misc | on May 21, 2007 06:17 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)

"The Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural Dimensions of Search Engines"

Echo: "The Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural Dimensions of Search Engines"

The newest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, JCMC 12(3), is a double issue. It features a special theme section on the social and cultural implications of search engines, guest edited by Eszter Hargittai, and a special theme section on CMC and religion from cross-cultural perspectives, guest edited by Charles Ess and colleagues in Japan. The 18 articles brought together on these two diverse themes have in common that they inform and enlighten.

Introduction's Abstract:

Search engines are some of the most popular destinations on the Web - understandably so, given the vast amounts of information available to users and the need for help in sifting through online content. While the results of significant technical achievements, search engines are also embedded in social processes and institutions that influence how they function and how they are used. ...

[Disclosure: A few of the papers cite me in the references]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on May 21, 2007 05:12 PM | (Infothought permalink)
May 18, 2007

OpenNet Initiative - Censorware All Over The World

ObPost: BBC: Global net censorship 'growing', covering the Open Net Initiative censorware report


"It's an alarming increase," said Ron Deibert, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, one of four universities participating in the yearlong study along with Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. "Once the tools are in place, authorities realize that the Internet can be controlled. There used to be a myth that the Internet was immune to regulation. Now governments are realizing it's actually the opposite."

What more is there for me to say, that I haven't said already, too many times? :-(

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on May 18, 2007 12:14 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
May 17, 2007

Won't be at ONI censorware conference - couldn't get travel documents

To anyone who saw my name on the attendees list on the ONI "Future of Free Expression on the Internet" conference in England, sadly, I couldn't get my travel documents in time, so I had to cancel out, regrets.

[If you want to read some ramblings of an "inside view of net-politics" regarding the problems of someone close enough to the elite to see inside, but far enough removed to still be an outsider, I've put it after the jump, so as not to bore people who don't care about such indulgences.]

I attend, as I sometimes describe it, between 0.3 to 0.5 conferences a year, and I've never traveled outside the country. It's just not a part of my life. When I happened to see that the OpenNet Initiative was having a "Global Internet Filtering Conference 2007", I signed-up, for many reasons (one being that maybe I should be there to defend myself ...). Then, later, when I went to book a flight, I realized, uh-oh, I don't have a passport. In an ideal world, I would have thought of this earlier. But again, having never been out of the US, the vital mental association of travel-to-conference-in-England == need complicated government document, was not made soon enough.

If I were part of the club, I'd have the necessary documents already, as a basic cost-of-doing-business. But I'm not. In fact, I'm looking at spending a day on a plane, then another day back, not to mention between airfare and hotel, this is likely to cost me around a thousand dollars, and that's by no means trivial (I did not get rich in the Big Bubble, and there's times I'm quite aware of it, though of course even being able to consider a trip to England puts me far above average).

So it ended up being another little lesson that I'm not really cut out to operate at the level I'd need to be, in order to make a difference. Sometimes it's little "cultural" things that trip you up.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on May 17, 2007 12:37 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
May 15, 2007

Cites & Insights November, June 2007 -Blogging "Code Of Conduct"

Walt Crawford's Cites & Insights publication issue 7:6 (June 2007) has extensive coverage of the Blogger Code-Of Conduct controversy, arising from the Kathy Sierra 'death threats" story (disclaimer: I'm mentioned, favorably).

[I keep saying it needs better marketing. While "Net Media Perspective: Civility and Codes: A Blogging Morality Play" is workable, wouldn't you be more likely to read something at least with a subtitle of Creating Passionate Users - With A Vengeance (pun intended there)]

My guess is that most readers missed most or all of this. That may be a good thing but there's stuff to think about here--almost all of it in Act II. That's one reason I'm spending a whole Perspective on this instead of the 400-word summary above. I'd also like to relate this morality play to the generally politer world of liblogs and offer some conclusions, mostly along the way. Finally, Cites & Insights sometimes serves as a "periodical of record"--and I believe it will be useful to revisit this in two or four or ten years to see what (if anything) was learned.

Nothing will be learned. It's not like people haven't been dealing with this since ancient days, even Internet ancient days like when USENET newsgroup hadn't ever had spam (yes, there really was a time when spam was unknown). And O'Reilly is no newbie.

The one innovation that's been learned over the past decade is that it's kinda sorta possible, in very restricted circumstances, to build a labor-intensive data-mining system that skims off the popular stuff and keeps down the spam. But that doesn't help against A-listers, who are a power unto themselves.

The whole thing is about trying to have the moral high ground in one form or another, which I think is why it's so hard to inject any sort of rationality into the pronouncements. By which I mean not that I'm patting myself on the back that I'm right, but that my first question about these is always who is going to enforce it and how that enforcement is going to be done. And I never get much of an answer. At least, not a good answer, as shown by the fact that the subject repeats itself so predictably.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on May 15, 2007 11:18 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (6)
May 14, 2007

Google vs Privacy


Michael Zimmer: Google's Unsatisfying Explanation for Retaining User Search Data

In sum, I applaud Google for trying to be more transparent about why it collects user data and what it does with it, but they still keep much in the dark.

[compare Why does Google retain data? Because nonexistent laws tell it to]

Google's official statement about logs

Note: "In developing this policy, we spoke with various privacy advocates, regulators and others about how long they think the period should be."

Observe the rhetorical set-up, of taking a middle ground between zero and infinity. Somebody is sure to say "never keep logs". Somebody is sure to say "keep logs forever, some investigation might find them useful". By doing whatever they felt like doing in the first place, they are compromising between the two "extremes".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on May 14, 2007 11:57 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
May 09, 2007

My AACS Encryption Key Controversy _Guardian_ column

AACS Encryption Key Controversy article:,,2075530,00.html

"What freedoms will we incinerate to protect a business model?"

I go through the history of these sorts of controversies, attempting to place this one in context from the strong-cryptography debate involving Pretty-Good-Privacy (PGP) and RSA encryption, to the predecessor DVD DeCSS lawsuit (as well as doing my small - very small - part to correct some myths which have grown up around them).

Then I try to convey the "paracopyright" problem, that copyright has spawned a kind of "Official Secrets Act" regarding access control systems,

I also attempt to explain what's going on in terms of the DMCA legal reasoning, but I'm not sure I'll make much headway there.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in dmca | on May 09, 2007 07:33 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)
May 07, 2007

Philipp Lenssen: A Chat with Aaron Swartz (about Google, China, etc)

Bandwagon: A Chat with Aaron Swartz, conducted by Philipp Lenssen, covers a lot of interesting ground on the topic of Google, censorship, tech culture, and so on (h/t Shelley).

I'll note one particular part of the exchange:

Philipp: It would be interesting to see where we'd be if some of these engineers, some of them the smartest in the world, would be working on anti-censorship technology today.

Aaron: Indeed. Google's hackers are a lot smarter than the Cisco people building the Great Firewall of China. Google's skills are in building clever technology, not persuading foreign governments to be nicer to their citizens. It's absurd to say that the best thing for the people of the China is to do the latter instead of the former.

This is the unending tech-vs-law argument. It's a big mistake to think that the only smart geeks are on the anti-censorship side. If nothing else, the pro-censorship side pays a lot better :-( ! And as we've seen, Google's brainpower can be co-opted, with their geeks put in the service of China's government censorship, by Google simply ordering their employees to help the censors.

Worse, one of the points I sometimes try to convey, is that the activist's biggest source of danger is generally not the government agent, but another activist or similar who has something to gain by turning him (or her) in.

The collaborationist dilemma is an old one, and I'm very much against it. But I've yet to find a way to make much progress with it.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on May 07, 2007 04:02 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
May 02, 2007

Meta-post on HD-DVD AACS Key, Digg, and the failure of blogging part N+3

I feel like I'm obligated to get in on today's pile-on regarding the topic of Digg and the HD-DVD AACS Key, but, wow, do I feel like a cricket at a rock concert. Key points - the number which is the AACS key is going to be argued to be "technology" within the meaning of the DMCA, we've been here before, with e.g. DeCSS, and being a data-miner of crowds (like Digg) sometimes means having to ride their madness. The rest is elaboration.

However, right now I look at the labor for that elaboration, and think: "Seth, you can spend unpaid hours writing a researched post on the issue, and then you get to spend even more unpaid hours trying TO BE HEARD over the noise-barrier, knowing that there's really a very small chance of getting much return (but you *could* win a prize for that attention lottery, it's *possible*) - isn't blogging great?" (and of course saying that is going to lose me readers, 'cause I'm a bad Z-lister ...)

So that's essentially all I have to say on the matter.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on May 02, 2007 12:42 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (19)