May 29, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Cisco and China Censorship as Market Opportunity

"The difference between politics and pornography is a social one"

The tools companies use to control workers serve equally well for governments to combat "evil religion"

Also titled "Weapons of mass censorship" on the front page of the site. I didn't submit either title, though they're OK. My suggested title was "What if censorship is in the router?"

The main point here is in terms of they-said-it-not-me. Part of Cisco's defense is in fact the technological (not moral) equivalence, "The tools built into our products that enable site filtering are the same the world over, whether sold to governments, companies or network operators."

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein |]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on May 29, 2008 02:49 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
May 28, 2008

Anti-Kool-Aid Roundup

The latest readings for the Wonderful Web World (or, why I've just wasted my time again, and need to stop doing it):

Failing Web 2.0 stars pray for copyright abolition (Andrew Orlowski)

Exhibit One is a deadpan report in the Financial Times, bylined to Chris Nuttall and Richard Waters. It's titled, "Web 2.0 fails to produce cash".

This could be the least-surprising headline of this (or any) year. Dog Bites Man rarely makes the news. As we predicted years ago, Web 2.0 was only ever a rhetorical bubble, designed to boost a clutch of no-hope investments into the arms of an acquirer. For a handful of others - mostly pundits - it was a lifeline from a dead-end media job into gurudom. It didn't take a genius to work that out.

Perhaps You Should Examine Your Colon! (Jeneane Sessum)

Okay. Look. I can't take it anymore.

How many times in the last 7 years have we been through the women-free TOP LISTS OF BLOGGING. Or the penis-only MOST IMPORTANT CONFERENCE IN TECHNOLOGY events?

How small stories become big news (John F. Harris)

As leaders of a new publication, Politico's senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. ... There are probably a dozen websites with a heavy political emphasis whose links are sought by all for the traffic those links drive.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on May 28, 2008 11:56 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
May 27, 2008

Trader: Wikia "commercialize the hell out" of Wikipedia success for Jimmy Wales

"The Jimmy Wales Experience" was just published in a financial press organ called "Trader Monthly Magazine". I find these sorts of articles very interesting, since they have a perspective vastly different from the Kool-Aid doled out for the consumption of the rubes. And note if I said the exact same things as appear here, I'd probably get intensely personally attacked as a negative person. The article requires site registration, so I'll share the best parts. Like this gem:

In 2004, he launched another Web site, this one called Wikia Inc. (See "Wikipedia 2.0.") The company, Wales readily admits, is his effort to take the success -- and, indeed, the underlying philosophy -- of Wikipedia, and commercialize the hell out of it. "Look, I'm not against making money," he says.

[But remember folks, it's all about sharing. It's about the community.]

He decided that there was no reason he couldn't become the Internet's Michael Dell. In his spare time, he experimented with a handful of Web ventures, like a kid in a young entrepreneurs' club. He started something called Loop Lunch, a site where office workers in downtown Chicago could order food online from local eateries. It flopped.

In 1998, at the height of the dot-com gold rush, Wales resolved to go for broke. He quit the firm, took his savings and left for California to take part in the boom.

[But he's always been about bringing knowledge to the people.]

Wales, meanwhile, has gone on to fame, if not exactly the enormous fortune one typically associates with Internet moguls. But it's not as if he's opposed to rectifying that situation. Early in Wikipedia's life, Wales and his partners considered selling ads on the encyclopedia's pages. The site was showing signs of explosive growth, and they certainly could have used the extra money. Though ultimately they nixed the proposal (Internet ad rates had fallen off anyway, of course), they didn't exactly do so for idealistic reasons. "We've never said, 'Absolutely not, we don't want to sell ads,'" Wales says, explaining that the decision had more to do with preserving the Wikipedia brand.

And with the advent of his for-profit venture, Wikia Inc., it appears Wales is finally ready to monetize.

[They said it, not me!]

"Wikipedia 2.0.":

The company's business plan maintains that the bulk of its revenue will be generated by...drumroll, please...advertising.

"The monetizing is pretty straightforward," Wales says. "We don't have any clever, innovative ideas around that."

But even after three years of operation, the site has refrained from selling ad space, content to build critical mass before it goes full-tilt with its sales effort. For now, it's about brand building.

Wales's ambitions for Wikia don't stop with online community-building. At the end of 2007, his company launched an alpha version of Wikia Search, with which Wales aims to do battle with Google. ... Instead of search results produced solely by computer programs, the Wikia engine will use its wiki-based communities -- and the actual human beings who participate in them -- to refine its results. The hope is that these people -- the open market -- will edit out the spam and other extraneous junk, producing a series of links that Wales believes will be more relevant to people than what Google generates.

[Saying "the open market" sounds so much better than "the unpaid masses" (at least Mahalo pays the piece-workers something). But isn't it fun to buy Jimmy Wales a jet?]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search , wikipedia | on May 27, 2008 04:21 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
May 21, 2008

Censorware Roundup: Column, Australia NoCleanFeed, Cisco China

Shameless self-promotion: The Australian newspaper "Sydney Morning Herald" reprinted my Guardian column discussing the OpenNet Initiative's "Access Denied" world censorware report and implications for government censorship

Seth Finkelstein looks at the insidious control that governments and corporations want over your internet use.

(and somebody actually read it!)

Electronic Frontiers Australia (not related to the US EFF) has a campaign "No CleanFeed" against mandatory ISP censorware, No Internet Censorship for Australia:

The [Australian] Federal Government is pushing forward with a plan to force ISPs to filter out all material "inappropriate" for children from Australian homes.

Echo: "Cisco File Raises Censorship Concerns"

In its PowerPoint presentation, Cisco referred to the Chinese government's project to control the Internet, including its use by groups such as Falun Gong. After a slide referencing the crackdown on Falun Gong, the next slide proclaims: "Cisco Opportunity: High start-point planning, High standard construction, Technical training, Security and operation maintenance."

Sigh. WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? Repressive governments make for great censorware customers. China's a big market. No surprise here.
(note on the politics civil-libertarian funding: I'm aware someone is likely to get a grant out of this. It's not something for me. You have to be "connected" to get that sort of money, and I'm not a "club-member").

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on May 21, 2008 11:52 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
May 16, 2008

Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for 2007 posted

The Wikimedia Foundation Form 990 for fiscal year 2007 is available now. for people who don't know, the "form 990" is an IRS disclosure form required for charities. And it's often full of interesting financial information. Definitely worth a look if you're interesting in the internal workings of an organization.

Fun facts (money, money, money):

The compensation of general counsel and interim executive director: $118,500

The compensation of chief operating officer: $45,914

Directors, Secretary, Treasurer, Vice-Chair, Chair, positions are uncompensated

There's $6,000 from Wikia, the commercial start-up company formed by several high-level people involved in Wikipedia (such as Jimmy Wales), but which is not in any way formally or legally a part of the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation charity (but has plenty of informal associations which are an ongoing topic of interest, though I should hasten to add those connections seem to be completely within the letter of the tax laws and do not constitute a "self-dealing" violation of IRS regulations). I believe this $6,000 is financial insignificant, and harping on it per se is "thinking small". That's not where the big money is to be found.

Kudos to the WMF for posting a FAQ addressing some of the obvious issues that arise when reading the form, e.g:

On page 8, the question is asked "Are any officers related to each other through family or business relationships?" Given that several individuals who were on the Board during 06-07 (Jimmy, Angela, and Michael Davis) were also involved with Wikia, how can this answer be no?

At first glance, it does seem like this question should be answered "yes." However, the IRS provides non-profits with detailed guidelines regarding what it considers a "business relationship."

Whether or not there is a business relationship hinges upon the amount of direct compensation (salary) a person receives, as well as the amount of stock they own. In the case of Jimmy, Angela and Michael, none of them received sufficient compensation, nor owned sufficient stock, to qualify as having a business relationship under the IRS guidelines. Therefore, the question is properly answered no. We have reviewed this issue in detail with Wikia and with our audit firm, and we are satisfied that the question is answered accurately.

I've never considered whether or not that box was checked to be as important as some critics have made it. It's not as if the associations are difficult to find. But in the past, addressing the issue has been far more tedious than it needs to be, perhaps due to a "bunker mentality".

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on May 16, 2008 08:55 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (3)
May 15, 2008

Replies On Wikia Search, and "taking on Google"

Regarding the list of questions on Wikia Search, Jimmy Wales wrote a reply. I'll refrain from summarizing his responses, as whatever I said could be attacked as biased and unfair. Anyone interested can read the whole thing.

I'll highlight this part of the exchange, without further comment:

Paul Vixie: "[T]he noncredibility of the early claims about "taking on google" is the biggest weakness wikia search has got."

Jimmy Wales : "And this meme (which comes mostly from the media that loves a David and Goliath story) is also probably the biggest strength we have got right now. It's a monster either way. :)"

Paul Vixie: "[T]he truth is stronger. i recommend running with it and abandoning the meme."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on May 15, 2008 11:32 PM | (Infothought permalink)
May 14, 2008

Tough Questions On Wikia Search

Paul Vixie, who runs Internet Systems Consortium (ISC), recently posted a list of questions regarding Wikia Search (the Wikipedia-model search engine). Excerpted below:

1. why is ISC's the only backend?

2. why is Wikia's the only frontend?

3. who is driving the syndication model?

4. what else is [the project lead] working on?

5. who else is working on this, outside of wikia?

6. where are the mini-articles stored?

7. ... where are the white papers, journal articles, and outreach glossies explaining what the new world of internet search could look like ...

8. has anybody reached out to yahoo and microsoft ...

He said these, not me :-).

Jimmy Wales wrote back that he'd respond, so we'll see.

[Update: Jimmy Wales replies ]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on May 14, 2008 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)
May 11, 2008

Wikia Search Infrastructure And Organization Discussion

The Wikia Search project (Wikipedia-model search engine) mailing list has had a thread discussing the status of updates and the social organization of the project, and which sort of arrangement would be best for the goals of having an open search project. There's been some confusion between who owns what part of the current technical infrastructure. Paul Vixie, who runs the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) clarified (comment reformatted for readability):

The servers were donated to ISC, not Wikia. The bandwidth they use is provided by ISC. Wikia has donated a 15-ton air conditioner, a smattering of network switches and front end servers, and a heaping lot of [Wikia search lead]'s time and other Wikia staff time. Wikia has agreed in principal to underwrite the power costs of the ISC physical plant used by the crawlers and indexers. But as for a [different organization] there already is one (see, ugly though it is) and i think it's odd that anybody is still worried about that part. ISC is a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit] whose mission is public benefit. If anybody here thinks we're either incompetent or untrustworthy with regard to owning and operating a search engine backend, I'd thank you very much to call me on the phone and explain your concerns to me realtime.

My view is that the problem is not ISC's bona-fides. Rather, it's more the issue of Wikia's incentives as a VC-backed startup, versus the optimum structure of an open-source search project. Focusing on Paul Vixie or ISC shifts towards what I call the "positive" ad-hominem argument (roughly: "I'm a good person. Therefore, what I do must be good. If you say it's bad, you're saying I'm bad person. Because only a bad person does bad things. But I'm a good person, and you are then a bad person for saying otherwise. Therefore, you must be wrong. Because I'm a good person").

I'm a strong supporter of the ideas of Free Software and Open Source. But Wikia seems to be doing the worst implementation of this kind of project. Which is the arrangement where supposedly programmers do unpaid labor because they just luvvvv programming, and businesses make money off the honey from the little worker-bees.

Semi-related, there's an amusing graph of the Wikia Search Hype Cycle

Are you going to help take it to the next level?

Hmmm ...that's "you", as in you-Yes-YOU? No. I don't think so. I'm very wary of the way Wikia is positioned to "brand" everyone's work as its own (after all, that's happening right now with ISC's servers), and to commercialize itself anything of value from independent developers.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on May 11, 2008 04:41 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (7)
May 07, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikia Search 0.2

"When you have a Wikipedia, everything looks like an edit"

Building an editable encyclopedia is nothing compared with the challenge of building a search engine that can take on Google

Note the front of the Guardian site has it as "Wikia Search is doomed to fail", which wouldn't be my preferred title or summary (I didn't write either of them), though they're not wrong either. I know it's conceivable that Wikia Search might not "fail" in terms of producing something that Wikia can sell (perhaps to Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo), or even turn a profit - especially given how many expenses they've shifted off to others. I'm sure they'd count that as a "success" (and it's all due to you-Yes-YOU!). But I don't see any prospect for it having a deep effect on the field of search (the field of getting people to work for free is a different matter).

The idea I'd like people to take away though, which I did write, is this:

"But the idea that these simple systems can be applied to deep value-laden social problems, of politics, or even relevant search results, is like trying to use a hammer to turn screws on the basis that it works so well to hit nails."

[For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein |]

[Post updated since the front site title is different from the article title]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikia-search | on May 07, 2008 07:50 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)