August 29, 2007

"Are web filters just a waste of everyone's time and money?"

Not my column, but mentioned here for the obvious reason:

Are web filters just a waste of everyone's time and money?

Charles Arthur
The Guardian Thursday August 30 2007

As our regular columnist Seth Finkelstein would tell you, the only people who truly benefit from web filters are the people who make them - such as those who laboured on those provided under the Australian government's NetAlert filter scheme ( at a total cost of A$84m

I should note that the 84 million dollars (Australian) represents a pure subsidy to censorware companies, for something like a country-wide site-license, not development cost done by the Australian government (people typically don't get it when I talk about the money, and the part it played my giving up).

Value add: another journalist writes: How to crack the Aussie $84m porn filter in five clicks

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on August 29, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)
August 28, 2007

Kraus Celebre

Allen Kraus, a focus of the NY Times' Google-power article, already has a web page, as pointed out by Jon Garfunkel in his piece:

Search Engine Obfuscation.

Jack Shafer of Slate (Page Rank 6/10) tells Mr. Kraus to get a web page. But the man has a web page (which I linked to as my random act of charity for the day). It's just that nobody else linked to it [Ed. note: the back links feature of Google and Yahoo is well-known to be highly inexact, er, wrong, with Yahoo being slightly better, so the link is there for dramatic effect]. And as such, his page, and his company (ImplexHealth), have a PageRank of 0/10. ...

["My readers know more than I do" :-)]

So here's another link for it.

I suppose the web propagandists, I mean, evangelists, could object that they said to start begging A-listers for links, I mean, blogging - not just have a web page. But I think the above point is powerful evidence about the scamminess of that idea, if any more was needed.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 28, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
August 27, 2007

"When Bad News Follows You" - NY Times and Google's power

"When Bad News Follows You" is today's must-pundit article for SEO (Search Engine Optimization), about the power of top Google results to affect people's lives, even if it's misinformation (h/t RoughType).

Rather than rehash what everyone else is saying, I'll try to provide some value-adds:

I like Oliver Widder's cartoon:

Welcome to our SEO seminar - "The Truth Is On The First Page"

I normally don't like to talk about Bennett Haselton's writings due to conflict of interest issues, but this seems far enough away from any potential contention so I'll note his amusing site detailing his dispute over a New York Times article about him:

The New York Times Web site has been hosting an article since May 2000 claiming that I was fired from Microsoft in January of that year. I complained several times that this was wrong -- I wasn't fired, I quit in good standing (and, for the record, voluntarily, not some "quit now or you'll be fired" deal) -- and I showed the NYT editors a copy of my personnel file from Microsoft which has "Term. type: Voluntary" and "Term reason: Resignation" printed on it, but the paper has still not corrected the article. ...

... I also told them that recently one of my employers found the article by Googling my name and thought I had lied about my employment history, and I only dodged that bullet because my employer looked up my Microsoft reference and determined that I was telling the truth.

And sadly, I've seen many marketers pushing the response "Start a blog!". I have the impulse to tell(off) these hucksters, that ordinary people do not want to get on the blog-evangelism gatekeeper-begging attention-mongering digital-sharecropping rat-race. They have lives instead, and want to live them without (free) laboring endlessly to be manipulated and sold for the benefit of pyramid-schemers. But my saying that wouldn't be heard, so it wouldn't do any good :-(.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 27, 2007 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (5)
August 24, 2007

Wikipedia: The so-called "encyclopedia" that any axe-grinder can edit-war


This is Ted Frank
Frank Defended Merck in Cases Concerning Vioxx The American Enterprise Institute is a Right Wing think tank

Ted Frank (a.k.a. THF) Has Altered the 'SiCKO' Wikipedia Page 94 96 Times

CLiCK Here to Edit Ted Frank's Wikipedia Page
CLiCK Here to Edit the 'SiCKO' Wikipedia Page

UPDATE: Frank altered the 'SiCKO' page twice today since this post. The pages have now been protected.

UPDATE 2: Ted Frank Doesn't Like the Attention Wiki administrators question his conflict of interests

Shouldn't Ted Frank be at work?

[This was from a cached version - the current item is toned-down a bit, without the "click here" links]

Now, it's misleading to give just the raw number of edits - some edits were unobjectionable vandalism-fighting. And it's almost certain that Ted Frank wasn't acting in any official capacity. So it's just another day on Wikipedia, where ideological factions battle each other for the prize of getting their spin in a high Google ranking position.

Except that item set off yet another edit-war, a "meta"-issue fight, having to do with a Wikipedia administrative faction deeming an "attack site". Which would make it liable to the penalty of having all its links purged from Wikipedia, as a kind of banishment. And that's scary.

It's hard to convey to the acolytes within the cult of Wikipedia how petty and in fact, downright creepy, it can appear to outsiders. At this point more sane Wikipedia administrators will pop up and say it's just a few bad apples, the other admins will keep them in check. And my reply there is that still reveals a pretty disturbing sociological aspect of Wikipedia. Especially one that might give pause to the impulse to proclaim lots of experts should work for free to increase its power and respectability (and notably also increasing the capability of small cliques of Wikipedia admins to engage in political vendettas).

[Update: full-blown Wikipedia-DRAMA, as pro- and anti- "Michael Moore" factions battle it out.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on August 24, 2007 07:33 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
August 22, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on new TLD's and "Keep The Core Neutral" campaign

What's in a name? Tell that to those arguing the toss over .xxx

"The domain name system is full of speculators, squatters and scammers."

ICANN is asking for public comment about the process for approving new "top-level domains". And the .XXX domain may be making a stealth return. I argue against having a neutral stance on monopolistic rent-seeking.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in domains | on August 22, 2007 08:24 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
August 20, 2007

Death Of SEO As A Business Model - Technorati,, Mahalo ...

Rick Skrenta - "Some thoughts on Mahalo"

At this point though I'm thinking SEO has gotta be dead as a startup business model. It was kind of unknown stuff in 2003 but now the cat's out of the bag. It seems like the last attempt of web 2.0 sites that aren't able to get social adoption is to start flooding the Google index with tag landing page spam or a crappy template page for every restaurant in the country.

That parallels some of my own thoughts, e.g. in observing the downward-spiral of blog-search site Technorati (it's a cautionary tale - all that sucking-up to A-listers and feeding the egos of the BigHeads, yet Google just rolls in and grabs the niche of searching blogs).

The SEO business model is a huge crapshoot. Wikipedia's success in fact relies heavily on its having hit the Google algorithm jackpot, which is a very under-remarked aspect (yes, it's obvious it ranks at the top, but the various implications don't get out into the policy world of high-status pundits writing about how wonderful it is to have all the little people working for free, and how we can build a new society on the backs of "volunteerism"). SEOishly, It's not really an encyclopedia so much as a link/traffic-factory.

But as with all lotteries, there can only be a few winners, and everyone else loses - e.g. recently, getting Google-demoted. First you have to win, then keep the prize!

It's all definitely not something worth chasing, at least if you don't have a lot of VC money to burn.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in AOTechnorati100 | on August 20, 2007 11:16 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
August 18, 2007

Wikia Search - "volunteerism" will pay for the web-crawling

Wikia CEO on lunacy, air miles and being profitless (my emphasis below)

Penchina: People say to me, "That's crazy, this is something you spend a million dollars putting together and probably a half a million dollars a year updating, and you're just going to give it away for free?"

Actually, we might spend a quarter million dollars this year on the whole search project, on the engineers we pay, the search we run. ... But by having users help out with this, the cost of crawling the Web is close to zero. There are some storage and bandwidth costs, but some partners are providing storage and bandwidth for free. [He declines to name them, citing nondisclosure agreements]

Between the crawl being free, plus the bandwidth and storage, it's pretty cheap. Plus, by offering it out to the community, anyone else developing their own search engine will feed back software, patches, etc., which will strengthen the overall project. This is a mission our users believe in.

The philosophical tenets are so in tune with what we were doing anyway -- volunteerism, free information, free software, making the world slightly better in some way -- that we sort of had to do it.

In other words, you volunteer to make the Wikia investors rich. Because it's "community".

The project has some very unpleasant overtones of a businessman's fantasy of what Open Source means - all the user-gnomes work for nothing in the coding mines, grubbing out gold for the King. Because golly, it's fun.

But I'm not on any crusade to Save The Programmers. It's not necessary. For example:

Search is about turning hard data into information that people can use. Forgive me if this sounds a bit cynical but it has been a long day. Right now, I think that the Wikia people might have been hitting the koolaid a bit too hard. From the whole "user" angle to this happy-clappy nonsense, it doesn't seem like Wikia has much of a plan.

We in the real world of search deal in data and distilling it into information that people can use. We can't afford your vaporware hopes and dreams because we haven't venture capital to rely upon. So while Wikia might be able to flit around giving soundbites to gullible journalists, we have to build search engines and deal with reality. Please don't waste our time with pious platitudes - provide some answers or at least contribute.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 18, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
August 15, 2007

Regulating Search Engines paper - detailed notes

I made some notes as I went through the "Federal Search Commission?" paper, and since I've already given an overview of my thoughts, I decided to post these for whatever value they have in terms of the specifics of the argument, and where I believe it doesn't work. Again, basically, I sympathize with the examination of the concentration of media power. But the claims as to why it's not like other media power simply don't seem to me to be valid.

The first dimension involves an important preliminary question: what exactly is the relevant speech in relation to which search engines assert first amendment rights?

This: "If you're looking for pages about "widgets", the most relevant page is this, the second most relevant page is that, the third, etc".

When, however, the frame of reference is the supposed speech embodied in rankings the claim that regulation of search results violates the first amendment becomes highly precarious. It is highly questionable that search results constitute the kind of speech recognized to be within the ambit of the first amendment by either existing doctrine or any of the common normative theories in the field. While having an undeniable expressive element, the prevailing character of such speech is performative rather than propositional.

Regrets, I don't buy it. I don't see a way you can claim "Vote for X" is "propositional" while "The most relevant page for X is Y" is "performative". This part in the reasoning seems flawed: "To use the terminology of Robert Post, the speech of search engines as embodied in rankings is not a form of social interaction that realizes first amendment values."

That claim is problematic in a very deep sense, because if search engines rankings embody social values, then they're a form of social interaction in the relevant sense. The argument can't have it both ways, that they're expressions of the algorithm-writer's bias and prejudice for the sake of criticizing them, but not social interaction when it comes to regulation.

After all, one could say everything from tabloid newspapers to book publishing is not social interaction, in that they're monologue or pontification, not a town hall meeting.

In short, extending the compelled speech rule to cover the mere observations on relevance implied in search engine rankings seems to take the doctrine to domains where it was never meant to go.

But the problem here is taking that view in the opposite direction, to wit:

The evaluation of the value of bonds which was found to be an "opinion" in that case, while not the strongest case of an expression subject to a dialogical relationship, still has some potentially-dialogical features. Listeners can agree or disagree with the evaluation, criticize or support it, and make arguments for or against it. Search engine rankings, by contrast, are not perceived by users as an expression with which they can interact in ways characteristic of what we usually refer to as an "opinion."

Again, this just doesn't seems correct to me. Generally we have as little ability to dialog with a statement like "Standard and Poors rated this bond as junk" as "Google blacklisted this site as spam". In both cases, the mechanism used to determine the result is proprietary, and the institution offers it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

As in the case of the compelled-speech rule, recognizing the incidental and limited form of "opinions" implicit in search results -- i.e. opinions about relevance to users -- might cause the doctrine to spin out of control.

Right, right, got it. This idea is seen (in the reverse) in a lot in net-ranting. You can't convert every statement into protected speech by the magic of prepending "It's my opinion that ...", and so it's an opinion, which is protected speech, ha-ha-ha gotcha. Calling every statement an opinion isn't a get-out-of-regulation-free card. Understood. However, trying to turn it around in the other direction is just as bad, in that there's a problem playing off the many senses of the word "opinion". A search engine result is more like a judicial "opinion", which doesn't map exactly to the most common use of the word either.

The Google does not need me to save it, and I certainly know how its results can be gamed. But I also don't think it can be so readily categorized as somehow apart from standard journalism.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google , legal | on August 15, 2007 01:34 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 13, 2007

Regulation Of Search Engines discussion - "Federal Search Commission?"

There's an interesting legal discussion concerning the paper "Federal Search Commission? Access, Fairness and Accountability in the Law of Search" by Frank Pasquale and Oren Bracha.

I find myself torn, as I'm very politically sympathetic to the issues raised by the authors. As they recognize, this is really about mass media and information gatekeeping in a democratic society. There's a whole genre of these types of paper. But they usually boil down to saying roughly the same basic things in a very elaborate way:

-1. An informed populace is important for a democratic society

0. The First Amendment forbids government regulation of political speech

1. These mass media institutions concentrate enormous political power in a few corporations, giving these businesses huge megaphones, without any effective reply by the citizenry

2. But the courts have ruled that under the First Amendment, at least for newspapers, that's just fine (e.g. the "Tornillo" case).

3. This institution is not like newspapers, because [fill in the blank].

The magic is in item #3, and sadly, I've yet to see one of these papers where I found the reasoning convincing there. The writer's problem (generically, not this paper in specific) is that they can't make it a general media analysis, since then they would be both on the wrong side of existing law, and would immediately lay themselves open to intense attack as censors. So they're forced to try to find some hairsplit, some key feature that they can claim gets them out from under that trap (myself, I think the intellectually consistent liberal solution is saying that corporations aren't persons, but that's a whole different topic).

Now, the above task isn't entirely impossible. For TV and radio, it's "spectrum scarcity" and "pervasiveness". Which supported the Fairness Doctrine, to counteract practical monopolization. However, that regulation has been gone for a long time, and any proposal to restore it brings instant oppositional targeting by professional propagandists. The only relevant TV/radio material regulation still in force - and even increased in some ways in modern times! - is prohibitions on sex and cursing (which tells you something ...).

But the authors' specific attempts to find a hairsplit for search engines (my paraphrase here) - secret algorithms, or overblown marketing claims, or Google-is-God perceptions, or defining it as not discussion among citizens - just seem to me to be playing to the discomfort that some liberal-arts types have with anything involving technology. If computer programs are covered by copyright (something that was not so evident years ago), then search engine ranking are "opinions". Arguments otherwise are easy to shoot down.

I'd suggest putting the advocacy energy into some sort of "Right Of Reply" argument - that might even be possible, though it's still very much bucking the trend.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 13, 2007 08:04 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
August 12, 2007

Copiepresse v. Google documents on Groklaw, from Sean Daly

Sean Daly sent me a notice about his Groklaw posting Update on Copiepresse v. Google. This is the case where Google News in Belgium was sued by newspapers over copyright violations. Along with analysis

... here's the official English translation of the ruling in Copiepresse vs. Google. I have linked to cited jurisprudence and essays where possible (the Belgian documents are in French, the European documents are in English and other languages).

I don't agree with many of positions taken by the person who introduces the article, but it's definitely yeoman's service to acquire and post the original sources.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 12, 2007 11:58 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 10, 2007

Australia's government censorware initiative - slippery slope in action

In the news about Australia's censorware initiative, which encompasses various subsidies and hotlines, one aspect has gone unremarked (h/t Ian Burrows):

Other changes include an extension of the ACMA Blacklist, which includes pornography denied classification by the regulator, to cover malware and terror sites.

Note the slippery slope is no conjecture. Here it began with porn. Once the blacklist system was in place, then it encompassed "terror" sites. But who could be in favor of "terror"?

It's just too easy to have mission creep like this. With secrecy and lack of accountability and outside review, there's an incentive to ban more rather than less.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on August 10, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
August 08, 2007

Obligatory Google News "Comments" Post - Google is creating original reporting

So Google News has comments (for small values of comments), and it is incumbents upon everyone to comment.

Of course, this gives Google a huge amount of power in picking and choosing who will be allowed to comment. They state:

We'll be trying out a mechanism for publishing comments from a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question

Essentially, they're taking their function as an automatic aggregator, and adding some human ORIGINAL REPORTING in follow-up. Very minimal original reporting, but they are in effect generating their own follow-up reaction articles from the original aggregated articles.

And wow, does this create some perverse incentives that can lead to unintended consequences. I can think of one obvious result off the top of my head:

1) Get mentioned in a popular article for doing something outrageous

Then either

2) Google gives you a platform to say whatever you want

Or then

2) Scream GOOGLE IS CENSORING!!! as loud as you can, and watch the fireworks.

I'm sure there's plenty of devious schemes hatching in the minds of flacks. This is going to draw a huge amount of attention. And that draws people to manipulate it.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 08, 2007 11:22 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (4)
August 07, 2007

Lauren Weinstein: "Call For Search Engine Issues, Complaints, Concerns"


Greetings. As part of my continuing research and an upcoming white paper focusing on policy and related technical issues associated with search engines and their impacts, I'd very much appreciate any examples of relevant specific situations, concerns, and any other positive or negative experiences with search engine operations and support personnel, with a particular emphasis on (but not limited to) the following categories: [read the post above]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on August 07, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 05, 2007

Wikia Search Skepticism

John McCormac has an extensive mailing list post of Wikia Search skepticism:

"So far there has been nothing real about this project beyond what is effectively just another wiki about the idea of a search engine"


"Most search engine developers are too busy trying to survive without having to subscribe to some happy-clappy ethos that could very well put them out of business."

It's interesting to compare the vapid gushing about the project from the news media and the big blogs echoing them, versus the decidedly more critical evaluation of various search experts. You can find this stuff in a few search blogs, and in obscure corners if you look really, really, hard. But it doesn't reach more than a very tiny fraction of the audience.

I should hasten to add I'm not in complete agreement with him, from my somewhat cynical perspective. Earlier I got into some trouble for I think pointing out, for example, to:

"... keep in mind that there's a whole network of digital-sharecropping electronic plantations, excuse me, I mean Wikia "community sites", which can be used *both ways* to eventually support Wikia Search - as recruiting material for free workers and data to build the high-quality index, and as a partner market for users of the search engine."

Think of it this way way: Consider that what Wikipedia is to Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikia Search can be to Google. Much less accurate, but far more popular with certain users. And if you don't have to pay people and don't need to spend money for quality control, it's all pure profit.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on August 05, 2007 11:00 PM | (Infothought permalink)
August 03, 2007

"Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007" ("V-chip 2.0")

The "Child Safe Viewing Act of 2007" was recently passed:

The bill requires the FCC to review, within one year of enactment, technology that can help parents manage the vast volume of video and other content on television or the Internet.

For whatever good it does, and that's somewhere between not much at all, and none, I'll point out that we have been here before, with the FCC / CIPA (library censorware) order, where the FCC had to determine basic acceptable censorware regulations for libraries. It wasn't a big deal. They basically went through the motions and ducked the difficult questions.

I expect a similar result this time around. The real negatives are that the censorware companies will be able use the proceeding as a marketing-fest (not that the FCC will suddenly censor the Internet). Since of course no real evaluation will be done, the PR flacks can claim anything.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on August 03, 2007 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
August 01, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on the CNN/YouTube Debate

New media is just another way to pull the same old tricks

"We should never mistake a change in media style for any advance in citizens' power in politics."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on August 01, 2007 07:14 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (9)