March 23, 2012

Pew Research Center: The Future of Apps and Web

Backscratch: The Future of Apps and Web

A Pew Internet/Elon University survey reveals that experts expect apps and the Web to converge in the cloud; but many worry that simplicity for users will come at a price.

Again, I was one of the "experts" who took part in the survey, and have been quoted.

The apps approach to accessing information on the Internet is perceived as "closed," while the traditional Web paradigm is seen as "open." "I wish it weren't true, but the history of enclosure, centralization, and consolidation makes me very pessimistic about the open Web winning over the closed apps," observed Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award winner Seth Finkelstein. "There will always be a Web, but it may end up like the imagery of a person standing on a soapbox, referred to more for its romantic symbolism than mattering in reality."

And that was indeed what I said in total.

The choose-one question started:

In 2020, the World Wide Web is stronger than ever in users' lives. The open Web continues to thrive and grow as a vibrant place where most people do most of their work, play, communication, and content creation. ....

In 2020, most people will prefer to use specific applications (apps) accessible by Internet connection to accomplish most online work, play, communication, and content creation. ...

I know that the first reaction would be to say it's not either/or. But I think it'll eventually end up as dominant/trivial. Consider someone asking "By 1950, most transportation involves internal combustion engines, versus riding horses" (for simplicity, let's skip bicycles). Now, there's still places in the US where people ride horses. And vacation areas where one can go horse-riding for recreation. But there was a shift from primarily using horses to cars, even if horses didn't vanish 100%.

Or maybe a better analogy is like farming vs big agriculture. For almost all of the US, food comes from the supermarket. Yes, there's niche home gardening. Or even a fad for raising backyard chickens. But that's a hobby. It's not quite illegal to consume raw milk from a cow. But it's considered kind of primitive, and perhaps dangerously unsanitary. I sadly suspect the open Web is going to have that sort of feel to it in the future.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:56 PM
February 29, 2012

Pew Research Center: Future Of The Internet - Millennials, Hyperconnected Lives

Backscratch: Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives

A Pew Internet/Elon University survey reveals experts' hopes and fears about the hyperconnected generation, from their ability to juggle many tasks to their thirst for instant gratification and lack of patience.

I was one of the "experts" who responded to this survey, and was quoted. The overview begins:

Teens and young adults brought up from childhood with a continuous connection to each other and to information will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who count on the Internet as their external brain and who approach problems in a different way from their elders, according to a new survey of technology experts.

The choose-one questions they asked started:

In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. ....
In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. ...

I'm quoted here:

Some analysts framed their arguments in more general terms and argued that there will not be significant cognitive change. This is the way Seth Finkelstein, a prominent tech analyst and programmer, put it: "I really wish there was an option for: `In 2020 the brains of teens and young adults are not `wired' differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields essentially identical results. They learn roughly the same amount, as for most people the speed of information access is not the limiting factor. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young aren't significantly affected.'"

My full reply though, went on to elaborate:

It's a tradition for grumpy old men and women to sing verses of "What's The Matter With Kids Today?". And on the other side there's always technohype. But I'd say that in 2020 the critical factor for the learning of the young (at least in the United States) is going to be whether they can afford to go to college at all. And further, whether public education is gutted as part of austerity pain economics. I'd rate those social changes as having far more of an overall effect on the general population than today's version of whether the telephone is socially good because it's easier to connect people or bad because phone calls sometimes replace personal visits (and those kids are chatting on the phone all the time, what will become of them, how will it change their brains ...).

I suppose I went off-topic. But then, I have little patience these days for both those who project of social ills onto technology, and technohucksters.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:09 PM | Comments (2)
July 08, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on David Rohde kidnapping, and Wikipedia suppression

"The moral quandary of involving Wikipedia in online 'censorship'"

"The suppression of news about a reporter's disappearance saw the New York Times and Wikipedia work together but raises issues about control of information"

Note this title was written by an editor. I didn't suggest a title of my own. It's not really wrong, but as a title, I'd say it doesn't quite sum up what I was trying to examine in that column. I was attempting to consider a broad moral question, and then use Wikipedia as a worked example because the issues are so visible there (due to all the public arguing which goes on it, and how much internal deliberations tend to get leaked). Not that Wikipedia has any special status - in fact, I was writing against any idea of Wikipedia exceptionalism.

As I think of it, the column is trying to look at two topics:

1) Why did this hiding of information succeed overall, and what are the implications? (remember, we're constantly told it can't happen - but obviously, gatekeepers remain)

2) Who gets to keep out information, and why?

Of course, there's only so much of this that can be covered in the space available. But that was my attempt at saying something which would be worth reading, amidst all the other punditry on this topic.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:02 PM | Comments (2)
June 17, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on debunking "USB-powered microwave"

"Far too often, new media serves up popularity without accuracy"

"Check your serving of online news for factual accuracy before you give it a taste"

I sadly suspect I'm going to get grief for that title, it was done by an editor. It'll likely set off people's bloggers-versus-journalists reflex. In my column, I specifically wrote "This isn't about bloggers v journalists". But ironically, knee-jerking about that is what's going to bring in the page-views.

What I was trying to illuminate in this column was how the idea of "self-correcting bogosphere" was utter bunk. And, critically, the hucksters who peddle it should have no credibility by now. I'm hardly the first to say that, but there's some value here in a simple case study (that's also not a political firestorm).

It doesn't mean professional journalists were always right (I can see the Attack Of The Strawmen coming on). We knew that already. It means these issues are serious matters that shouldn't be waved away with technomarketingbabble.

On the bright side, I finally got to use a joke I've been wanting to tell for a while.

Blog bonus, here's part of my email to the inventor, talking about the energy issues. He indicates he couldn't discuss the technology in detail, due to various

I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation for the energy involved:

1 calorie = raise 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius
1 calorie = 4.184 joules
Snap Pots = 200g of water, as an approximation

200g water * raise 50 C = 10000 calories = 10^4 calories = 4.184 x 10^4 joules
1 watt-hour = 3.6 x 10^3 joules
So 4.184 x 10^4 joules =~ 11.6 watt-hours

Laptop batteries are around 60 watt-hours or so. So while this doesn't break the laws of physics, discharging 11.6 watt-hours from a laptop-type battery in 60 seconds seems problematic. I'd *joke* the microwave part may not work, rather it's in fact the heat from shorting the battery, making this a battery-powered electric oven.

Assuming the battery is in the base, there does seem to be an energy capacity problem.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:32 PM | Comments (1)
May 27, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on "Wikipedia Art" and trademark vs fair use

"Do commercial pressures outweigh artistic ideals at Wikipedia?"

"When do commercial pressures affect ideals? Testing that proposition was an unexpected result of the 'Wikipedia Art' project"

I didn't suggest a title for this one, and the title they used is fine by me. Someone might be pedantic and note it really should be "at the Wikimedia Foundation" rather than "at Wikipedia", but I'd say that's acceptable shorthand for a headline.

I emailed Jimmy Wales a long set of queries, in part asking him how he could reconcile his statement and accusations with the legal nastygrams sent by the Wikimedia Foundation lawyer. But he never replied to me.

Note to any Wikipedia-defenders: I know the "Wikipedia Art" page wasn't acceptable according to Wikipedia rules. My column is about the subsequent trademark-based threat, which had nothing to do with whether that Wikipedia Art page should have been kept or deleted.

Note to net-lawyers: I also know "fair use" is a phrase most frequently associated with copyright law. However, there really is trademark "fair use", similarly named, which applies in trademark law. That's what was being argued here - it's "fair use" to use a trademark to refer to the thing itself as a reference.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:21 PM | Comments (2)
May 06, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on *TWITTER*

"Twitter: sucker's game that boosts elite"

"People aren't being connected by the 'real-time messaging service', they're being bundled up and sold"

My working title was "Twitter Bitter, or Why I Am Not A Happy Twit". But frankly, the one they used is better.

I suspect some people are going to miss the point of this column, and tell me that, golly gee, I can chat with friends. I know that. Really. I'm well into a third decade of being on the Net (I went to MIT, I was on the Net more way before it reached the general population), and I know all about text chat. I don't want to use Twitter to chat.

I also don't want to broadcast or narrowcast my life's trivia. Encouraging exhibitionism is part of what I meant by "pathologies of celebrity". I made a deliberate, strategic choice to put "personal voice" into my blog, and in retrospect that was, overall, a pretty bad decision.

What's left is the rat race of trying to get followers for one's micropunditry and links. No. Not again. Not another grind of a few BigHeads on top all group-grooming each other, while everyone else is practically unheard. Not again, not so I can be monetized by another social/data-mining start-up.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:09 PM | Comments (13)
March 26, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on Google's "interest-based advertising"

Google's surveillance is taking us further down the road to hell

Google recently took another step along the path of surveillance as a service, launching what it called "interest-based advertising", and which everyone else calls "behavioural targeting".

I had suggested a title of "Google's interest-based advertising and surveillance as a service", as I was aimed for the keywords "interest-based advertising", and I wanted to emphasize the phrase "surveillance as a service" (that plays off "software as a service"). But the title they used is fine by me. It's definitely more attention-grabbing.

Althought there's certainly a lot of punditry on the topic, I hope I managed to say something that wasn't a rehash of the same points, by concentrating on some of the politics and public-relations issues. I particularly like my line about Google's tech gimmicks meaning that "Too many supposed watchdogs end up distracted by the equivalent of a chew toy."

And I've already seen that "chew toy" argument being made. I look forward to many, many, iterations over this, as Google sends out the flacks and apologists to preach how its massive monitoring network is no trouble at all, compared to the horrible ISP deep-packet-inspection (i.e. "Look over there - a monster!").

[Pre-emptive note: From checking comments elsewhere, please don't "explain" to me how according to your elaborate ideological theory of moral responsibility, Google is a saint while ISPs are devils. I've heard it. In fact, I will hear it from experts who spend their whole professional lives in the service of trying to make people believe corporate agendas are the essence of being human, and they're good at what they do. I'm a geek. I know all about the differences between cookie-based tracking and packet analysis. The whole point of my column is arguing that sort of thinking is the wrong way to approach these issues, because it's very flawed in practice.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:09 AM | Comments (8)
March 04, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia Inclusionism vs. Deletionism (vs. Wikia)

"In the end, it's actually about money"

"One of the perennial debates about Wikipedia is 'inclusionism' v 'deletionism', which revolves around what topics should be covered."

The title isn't mine, but it does capture the ideas. I do hope people grasp that the "money" part is meant to be a multilayered observation, connecting the two concepts explored - an examination of the costs that every article creates, and the pressures of commercialization. Not something silly, like a potential strawman of deletionism being a plot to enrich Wikia's digital-sharecropping gains.

I quote with attribution and permission two very active Wikipedia editors being critical of Jimmy Wales. So it'll be interesting to see how that affects the article's perception in Wikipedia cabals, err, circles. I've been derided as a "media troll", but I've sourced some of the criticism here to "insiders", so maybe that'll matter (or not ...).

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:18 PM | Comments (2)
February 11, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on "wikianswers" conflict

"What's in a name? Everything, when you're talking wiki value"

"A question of confusion has no simple answer, as shown by an argument over the names of wiki-based sites dedicated to providing answers to questions"

I didn't pick the title, but it's OK. I didn't even make a suggestion. I would have tried for something clever like "Wikianswers sites raise questions", but maybe that would be too cute.

The column is about how both and Wikia (the start-up company which is not the commercial arm of Wikipedia, understand, it's an entirely separate entity which is just trying to "commercialize the hell out of it" conceptually) now both have sites with a capitalization variant of "wikianswers".

Money quote:

In my opinion, Wikia's relaunch of its site using the name Wikianswers is sleazy and unethical in the face of the far more well-known and successful [site].

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:48 PM | Comments (9)
January 21, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on Real Sex And The Google Search

"Google should learn the difference between real sex and spam"

"If humans argue so much about distinguishing between erotica and pornography, imagine the difficulty search algorithms have"

I can live with the title, but I suggested per above "Real Sex And The Google Search" - the idea was to make a pun on the search [real sex] discussed in the article, and real sex in reference to the sex-bloggers rather than commercial material aimed at purely prurient interest.

Amusingly (and self-referentially), right now the article is ranking at position #4 for a Google search for [real sex].

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:36 PM | Comments (3)
December 17, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia, Sex, Scandal, and problematic material

Sting in the Scorpions tale is the exposure of Wiki's weakness

"Anyone who needs to use an old album cover to make a Wikipedia sexual controversy is not trying very hard"

[I didn't pick the title, though I like it for the wordplay - I would have been more pragmatic myself and gone for more SEO-friendly phrasing]

I didn't do the IWF-is-absurd article, as that's been done extensively. (there was one recently by Cory D., and I certainly don't have anywhere near the platform he has). Instead, I used this event as an opportunity to write about the reality of Wikipedia's very real problem with "determining the boundary between provocative and profane."

This column will not further endear me to the Wikimedia Foundation.
But they know the material is true.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:15 PM | Comments (2)
December 14, 2008

Pew Research Center: "Future of the Internet III: How the Experts See It"

The Pew Research Center has released Future of the Internet III: How Experts See It

A survey of internet leaders, activists and analysts shows they expect major technology advances as the phone becomes a primary device for online access, voice-recognition improves, artificial and virtual reality become more embedded in everyday life, and the architecture of the internet itself improves.

They disagree about whether this will lead to more social tolerance, more forgiving human relations, or better home lives.

I was one of the people contacted, and gave my perspective. The press release quotes me for my bubble-popping views on Second Life and its ilk:

The evolution of augmented and virtual reality: ...

"For some reason I've never been able to comprehend, certain pundits can seriously propose that the wave of the future is chatting using electronic hand-puppets. Flight Simulator is not an aircraft, and typing at a screen is not an augmentation of the real world."
- Seth Finkelstein, author of the Infothought blog, writer and programmer

The "electronic hand-puppets" phrase sums it up for me. At the height of the hype, when Second Life was being marketed to various A-listers, I wished I had had the opportunity to attend one of those presentations and bring a ventriloquist's dummy, communicating only by using the dummy (i.e. raise the dummy's hand instead of mine, put it in front of me and move the mouth when I spoke, etc). I'd say the dummy was my "avatar", and I was in Projection Reality. The point would be to illustrate how ridiculous it all is, but I suspect the audience wouldn't get the joke (plus I don't have the status to pull off something like that).

Anyway, I'm quoted a few more times, but the only other really good line I have is "One Laptop Per Child is a classic "Ugly American"-style project."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:00 PM
November 26, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Google Flu Trends

Why you should be concerned about Google Flu Trends

The search engine has unwittingly hung a big sign on itself advertising services for government surveillance

The title's fine, though when I submitted it I proposed "Google Flu And Monitoring Health". I was aiming for a deliberate ambiguity in the phrase "monitoring health" between the literal sense of seeing where is sickness and more metaphorical sense of good safeguards against misuse of private data. Maybe I was being too clever.

I know many people have written on this topic, but I really tried to capture the double-edged nature here. That is, the conflict between "That's so cool" for technical achievement, and "That's so scary" in terms of potential for abuse. As I think of it: Technology-positive social criticism.

I'm hoping to popularize a phrase I've used here: "surveillance engines"

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (2)
November 21, 2008

"The big business of net censorship"

Echo: The big business of net censorship - "Clamping down on free speech on the internet has been a lucrative enterprise for software manufacturers" - Jo Glanville

We know as much as we do because of the great research of organisations such as the OpenNet Initiative and because of the brave detective work done by researchers such as Seth Finkelstein and Ben Edelman. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, no one can legitimately examine the lists of blocked sites or ask for a review.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
November 06, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Google Book Search Settlement

Google's copyright war will have open access advocates up in arms

.. on the copyright issues surrounding Google's digitising of books

There's some value in enemy-of-my-enemy opposition, where the interests of an advertising near-monopoly are a counterweight to a content cartel. But battles between behemoth businesses should not be mistaken for friendship to libraries, authors or public interest.

[Update: I didn't pick the title, but I don't find it a problem]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:23 AM | Comments (3)
October 15, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on truth, Tim Berners-Lee, World Wide Web Foundation

Please, Sir Tim Berners Lee: try investigating how corporations rule the net

"Seth Finkelstein on Tim Berners-Lee who raises the issue of separating truth from fiction on the internet"

[Note: I didn't pick that title - my own suggested title was 'Tim Berners-Lee takes on "The Net of a Million Lies"']

Here I discuss the ever-popular topic of finding truth among the lies. But I hope I acknowledged some of the cliches about the subject, and got beyond them a little.

Long-time net civil-liberties people might enjoy the references to the old "PICS" ("Platform for Internet Content Selection") proposals, which I sardonically note were derided as "Platform for Internet Censorship System".

I also weave in the effect of Google, from the uncommon angle that it's algorithmic technology wasn't very successful until the company turned into a advertising-selling platform. There's a profound lesson there.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:20 PM | Comments (2)
September 24, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia, advertising, Jimmy Wales's proselytizing

Wikipedia isn't about human potential, whatever Jimmy Wales says

It's informative to observe how long Wales has been selling advertising around other people's work

This is my attempt to debunk some of the mythologizing of the development of Wikipedia, pointing out its initial consideration of being advertising-supported site (i.e. commercial), and examining the very extensive history of Jimmy Wales wanting to commercialize other people's work for private profit.

It's not any sort of secret. Business articles discuss it. But this is my attempt to provide sort of antidote to the web hype around the cult of Wikipedia.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:56 PM | Comments (2)
August 27, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Security by Obscurity = Ignorance is Strength

security by obscurity = ignorance is strength

Is research that uncovers flaws in transportation fare payment systems so dangerous as to justify censorship?

This is my reaction to the MBTA v. Anderson case, where three MIT students and MIT have been sued over their research showing security weaknesses in the MBTA subway fare system. I'm hoping my comparison of "security by obscurity" to the Orwellian slogan of "Ignorance is Strength" catches on. Happily, that comparison managed to make it into the title.

Blog bonus: My original draft had a paragraph "Some naive commentators have a ludicrous idea that there's teams of civil-libertarian lawyers on alert who scan the skies for the EFF-signal and then leap into the EFF-mobile to do battle. The reality may be heroic in its own way, but resembles battlefield triage far more than a bloodless inevitable triumph of good over evil."

But that either got cut for space or because the Batman references were too obscure.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:55 PM
July 31, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikia's Revolt Of The Digital Sharecroppers

What happens when digital sharecroppers are not happy on the electronic plantations?

Jimmy Wales is not going to like this one! I examine the tensions between so-called "community" and commerce, actually breaking (nominally) a story about how some of Wikia's digital sharecroppers are very unhappy with how that company has been treating them. Wikipedia is part of a non-profit foundation, but Wikia is a corporate start-up with $14 million dollars invested in it. And venture capitalists want a return on their investment.

As others have noted, it's no secret that their overall strategy is to "commercialize the hell out" of free labor, via aggressive advertising. And groups like the fans of Transformers are pushing back.

And it's not at all clear how it'll all turn out.

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

[Update: My article seems to have inspired Wikinews to do a story: "Potential Wikia mass exodus" (they said it, not me!)]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 03:13 PM | Comments (2)
July 09, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Internet Group Polarization Argument

"Don't just blame the internet for polarised viewpoints"

Networked communications are too easily indicted as potential causes of factionalisation

Also titled "The net is not always to blame" on the front page. I didn't pick these titles, but they're reasonable.

Interestingly, the editing cut out some of what I thought were my best phrases, e.g. describing a certain chattering-class viewpoint as "Since words are their living, they tend to assume others live by words."

Note part of writing professionally is that sometimes you can't write about what everyone else is writing about. Which is why the column is not about GoogleViacomYoutube. Anyway, here I show my technology-positive side, and argue strongly against the idea of the Internet tearing society asunder. Which means in terms of policy factions, that I'm again refusing to put myself on the side of the reactionaries, even though I abhor the hypesters.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:51 PM | Comments (8)
June 18, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Internet Privacy Norms Argument

"Judge fell through the web's open doors"

New technologies bring new ways for people to embarrass themselves - just ask the prominent and colourful judge Alex Kozinski

[I didn't pick the title, but it's OK]

I put the issue in the context of competing concepts of "everything not explicitly prohibited is permitted", versus "everything not explicitly permitted is prohibited".

By the way, I did some statistics regarding the readership on my investigation post:

Total IP's - about 1,500. Referers: - 411
unknown - 312
google web searches - 224
other posts - 188 comments - 117 comment - 114 comment - 35 comment - 19
google blog searches - 16 comment - 14 comment - 13

Granted, it had a somewhat greater impact than the raw numbers would indicate. But it's still rather pitiful compared to the daily reach of an A-lister's blog. Yet another proof that being right is no substitute for being popular, and blogging is a wasteful bad habit for me :-(.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:54 PM | Comments (5)
April 16, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on "Access Denied" World Censorware Book

"If you block online porn, you'll surely block dissent in China"

"The issue of whether the internet can be censored, and how governments are trying to do it, continues to be fought around the world"

[Sigh ... remember, I don't get to write the titles ...]

This column is about the OpenNet Initiative's book "Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering", and what it might portend.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:03 PM
March 26, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia / Jimmy Wales scandals

"Wikipedia's school for scandal has plenty more secrets to reveal"

"In reality, Wikipedia is a poorly-run bureaucracy with the group dynamics of a cult"

Readers of my blog may find this column well-trod ground. Keep in mind that the goal was to put some recent scandals in context for a general reader, not those who have already heard me at length. In particular, Rachel Marsden got significant coverage in the British tabloid press, so there are likely now many newspaper readers who think of Wikipedia as the so-called encyclopedia that can be used to publicize a break-up (some of that tabloid stuff was pretty funny: "Jimmy would continually be on this website called Twitter where you write one-sentence updates on what you are doing at that moment, even small things like "I'm making a sandwich". I couldn't understand it.").

Bonus link: Wikipedia contributor "Durova" made a hilarious "Nymphs and Satyr" parody (nudity, but artistic). She meant it as a jab at the gossip blog Valleywag's writing of Wikipedia, but art sometimes carries a message different from the intent of the artist.

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

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:53 PM | Comments (16)
March 05, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on lessons from the "Draft Lessig" campaign

"In politics, being determined counts more than being online"

"The role of intellectuals in politics is an age-old issue"

More relevantly, "a healthy respect for all previous failure is sometimes a prerequisite for any success".

For all columns, see the page Seth Finkelstein |

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
February 14, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Internet and political campaign counter-examples
Great internet campaigns don't guarantee success in politics

Internet evangelism shares a marketing technique with sellers of quack medicine, in that the promoters are eager to emphasise any successes and ignore any failures.

Internet President Howard Dean, meet Internet President John Edwards (not to mention Internet President RuPaul).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 04:15 PM | Comments (3)
January 24, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on Wikia Search and Google-FUD
Even search engines have an axe to grind

"Wikia Search tries to draw on the fear and doubt stemming from the dominance of Google"

I've tried to pack a lot into this column, everything from the $50K price for the "Grub" crawler" to pointing out how the politics of search can be used for free labor. I also bent over backwards not to even seem to be using the column to retaliate against Jimmy Wales's conduct, and he ends up only being mentioned in specific for identification (sadly, as far as I've ever seen, it's never done me any good to be morally better my attackers in terms of not abusing power, but I think I read too many comics books as a kid with Good triumphing over Evil - it doesn't work that way in real life).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:00 AM | Comments (1)
January 03, 2008

My _Guardian_ column on the Writers Guild strike, and the Net
The writers, not the internet, will decide who wins their strike

"If anyone thought there's no money to be made from internet content, the Writers Guild of America strike refutes that idea once and for all"

The title's not too bad, but again, not quite what I was saying. The point was more that social and legal support for unions matters much more than "The Internet", and no outcome is predestined.

I've attempted to pack a lot of technology-positive social criticism into this column, basically trying to advocate against the view that the natural order of things is a multiple prisoner's dilemma game where corporations set all the rules. I'm struck by how little support there is for the strike on some A-list blogs, and I think there's an obvious business reason at work.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:21 AM
December 05, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on Wikipedia Scandal As Dysfunctional Cult
Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop

"Wikipedia is frequently touted as a model of selfless human collaboration but it may be more instructive as a hotbed of social pathologies"

I didn't pick the title, but I like this one a lot :-).

I feel like it's anticlimactic now, that my take will get lost as an also-ran. It's really quite a different perspective, and worth reading even if you're tired of all the discussion about cabal and secret mailing list.

I didn't even mention the mailing list, and tried to avoid personalizing it to the administrator "Durova". To my mind, this is not an individual "bad apple" story, but an example of a systemic failing that underlies that drives Wikipedia.

In the past few days I've noticed a backlash, roughly that Wikipedia is run by people, so what did you expect? The problem is that Wikipedia is extensively marketed as some sort of harbinger of novel social organization that produces collective good. The reality is it's just a very old sort of social organization, one that gets people to work for free in part by pandering to their group impulses. And that's the point which I'm trying to get across. Maybe that's too complicated to get to Slashdot or Digg (or ironic).

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:44 PM | Comments (18)
November 14, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on Yahoo / China / journalist Shi Tao / network data
Do you know who's using your data?

"As search engines and social networks collect more and more user data for business purposes, governments will find that data more and more useful for their investigatory purposes"

I didn't have a good title in mind myself, so this time I'm fine with the one they created :-)

I rather like this phrase I coined for the column:

"The price of total personalization is total surveillance."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:30 PM | Comments (12)
October 24, 2007

My _Guardian_ column - a letter to Lessig on "corruption"

"A modern version of snake-oil hucksterism is invoking 'the internet' as a cheap simplistic remedy for political malaise."

This time around, I can live with the title they gave it - "We have nothing to fear, except those who have something to sell". Though the column is really more about my own fear that Lawrence Lessig's corruption studying would fall victim to the siren song of net evangelism.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:30 PM | Comments (5)
October 15, 2007

"When US-made 'censorware' ends up in iron fists"

Excellent article: When US-made 'censorware' ends up in iron fists, not the least because I'm quoted

"Some people say [censorware] is ineffective because dissidents can get around it," says Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and anticensorship activist. "I say political control doesn't have to be 100 percent to be effective. Controlling the ability of the vast majority of the population to see outside information is still very effective for the goals of the totalitarian regime."

And it's an accurate quote. In the course of conversation, I gave a version with parallelism "Some people say censorware is ineffective because dissidents can get around it, some people say censorware is effective because only dissidents will get around it". But the version used is just fine.

It's good to see that the connections between censorware companies and repressive governments is continuing to make news.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 12:06 PM | Comments (4)
October 03, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on Dan Rather "Killian Memos" CBS lawsuit

"In war, truth is the first casualty. And that's being proven many times over in ongoing controversies about George W. Bush's Vietnam-era military record."

I think I made some reasonably original points. Unfortunately, this is another case where the title they gave it ("Is it easier to believe the bloggers now rather than the journalists?") was askew from the point I was actually trying to make in the column. It's about the issue of finding truth (not the nature of truth). And an attempt to dig into what really happened with the CBS scandal, rather than echo bloggers-vs-journalists.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
April 26, 2007

Free Press: "WiFi filters raise worries of city censorship"

Free Press: "WiFi filters raise worries of city censorship"

Banned site result of glitch, Boston official says

By: David Brand

As the city advances its plans to expand wireless Internet service to all of Boston, some website operators and civil liberties advocates say the city-sponsored network is censoring some sites -- but city officials have attributed this to glitches on the network's filter.

Lots of quotes in this piece, including me (accurately):

Anti-censorship activist and server programmer Seth Finkelstein, who maintains a website that provides information about censorship cases, said the site was blocked as the result of an arbitrary "dumb computer program," adding it is likely many less popular sites also get caught in Boston's network filter.

"We only heard about this since BoingBoing is very popular," he said. "What else was banned [but] didn't have the ability to publicize it?"

That point is key - Boing Boing is one of the absolute top blogs, and they have the power to make a media fuss when they're affected. But it's like cockroaches, if you see one of these, it's virtually certain there's many more which are hidden.

There's also been some discussion about the legality of Boston Wireless censorware. I'm not sure anything will come of it all, but it does seem that there's ways to make a good argument against it.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (5)
March 28, 2007

My _Guardian_ column on COPA and the censorware effectiveness argument,,2044595,00.html

"Would you be surprised to hear US civil liberties groups arguing that Internet censorship is cheap, easy, relatively effective and difficult to circumvent? While in reaction, the US government claimed that such efforts had an unacceptable amount of collateral damage?"

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:19 PM
January 25, 2007

My _Guardian_ column against the .XXX domain

I have a column in The Guardian, opposing the .XXX domain.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:57 AM | Comments (4)
November 14, 2006

Quoted in Mercury News about COPA Censorware Report

Study: About 1 percent of Web pages have sexually explicit material

Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and civil-liberties activist, said Google's stance was "horribly self-serving."

"There were no privacy implications in the sense that the data was restricted to a very small set of researcher who were under various sets of protective orders," Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein said Stark's findings about the prevalence of pornography on the Internet are similar to other academic studies.

"What we are learning about the Internet is that it reflects life and that the Internet is not -- contrary to what some people might think -- more sexual than people are in general."

The quotes are accurate, though of course it was a small part of a much longer conversation.

I'm climbing the pundit-ladder! :-)

[h/t: Catherine Crump]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 05:49 AM | 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 ... :-)]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (14)
August 11, 2006

"Race to the Bottom" - Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship

Human Rights Watch has released a new report "Race to the Bottom" - Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship

It's a thorough examination of the topic. I won't attempt to extensively summarize, since that'll be done by many others.

I'm mentioned (with regard to Google censorship) at the bottom of page 61, in very good company:

For more on this issue see Bill Thompson, "The billblog: Google censoring web content," BBC News, October 25, 2002 [online],; Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, "Localized Google search result exclusions," October 26, 2002 [online],; Seth Finkelstein, "Google Censorship - How It Works,", March 10, 2003,; and Philipp Lenssen, "Sites Google Censors," Google Blogscoped, January 25, 2005, (all retrieved July 12, 2006).

[Hat tip: Philipp Lenssen

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:36 PM | Comments (2)
August 03, 2006

Quoted on "DOPA"

National Journal's section Technology Daily August 1 roundup had a small quote from me (regrettably behind a subscriber wall)

Blog Bits

Bloggers Blast Lawmakers Over Various Tech Bills


Another pending measure, one the House passed last week, also sparked blog criticism. The bill would require schools and libraries to block student access to online social networks. Seth Finkelstein at Infothought argued that the measure "[legislates] against interactivity."

That's an accurate quote, as far as it goes. Though the excerpt didn't fully convey that I playing off the expression "legislating morality". The full sentence was: "But "DOPA" is dramatically beyond legislating morality - it's legislating against interactivity."

Not that I'm complaining, merely elaborating. All (positive) mentions gratefully accepted. Though I received perhaps two referer hits from National Journal, so my tech pundit status remains down in the Z-list.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM
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".

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)
May 26, 2006

"Extraordinary delusions and the Wisdom of Chimps"

I'm quoted in The Register article on Wikipedia, "Junk science - the oil of the new web", by Andrew Orlowski:

But even when this appears to work, so what? Seth Finkelstein notes that in some situations, throwing darts at a dartboard produces excellent results. Citing the Wall Street Journal Dartboard Contest, he writes,

"People are fascinated by ways in which data-mining seems to represent some sort of over-mind. But sometimes there's no deep meaning at all. Dartboards are competitive with individual money managers - but nobody talks about the 'wisdom of darts'"

And later:

Seth Finkelstein points out an immediate consequence which is already taking place. Wisdom... gained such traction on the net, because of its cultural distrust of expertise. This stops where the net stops, however - it's hard to envisage even the most militant Wikipedia fan choosing to be operated upon by amateur heart surgeon. But it's accelerated the process of deskilling, and the new flood of cheap (but wise!) amateur labor promises to depress wages even further.


Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:53 PM | Comments (3)
March 05, 2006

Welcome "Daily Rotation" Readers

Daily Rotation

"Daily Rotation" ("Quick Loading Headlines From 300+ Tech Sites") has added InfoThought to its list of tech headlines ("we think highly of Infothought"). Thanks!

[Disclaimer/disclosure: One of the people who runs the site is a net-friend from way back, but he never said anything about it to me before, and I never heard of it before, or asked anything related.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:43 PM | Comments (1)
February 24, 2006

"The Chris Pirillo Show" appearance

Last Thursday, the "The Chris Pirillo Show" graciously had me as a guest for a half hour segment, discussing China and the Internet:

To get a better handle on the situation, we talked with Danny O'Brien of Electronic Frontier Foundation about their proposed Code of Conduct for Internet Companies in Authoritarian Regimes. We also talked with censorware expert Seth Finkelstein about censorship online, how it works, how it doesn't work and why blogs are a lousy tool for online activism.

Hear EFF and Seth Finkelstein in MP3 Format

Hear EFF and Seth Finkelstein in Windows Media Format

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:56 AM
January 26, 2006

My articles on Google and privacy, elsewhere

I've got an article The Google Search Subpoena in Perspective as a guest-post on Google Blogscoped (a widely-read blog about Google). It's a longer version of the points I've made earlier.

I also seem to have done some good in the world, as comments I made about the issue at the popular liberal blog Hullabaloo ("Digby") were graciously incorporated into a post.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:06 PM
January 09, 2006

Quoted about Howard Stern

I'm quoted today, in a Houston Chronicle article about Howard Stern:

Jan. 9, 2006, 12:16AM

Let the fight begin

Will the FCC let the shock jock speak his mind?


Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The print ad for Howard Stern's new show on satellite radio is illustrated with the clenched fist of a revolution. It declares, unabashedly, in black and white: Stern uncensored only on Sirius.


Seth Finkelstein, a programmer serving as an expert witness on a federal case involving the definition of "community standards" in the digital age, said that for decades now, courts have been concerned more with images of sex than with hard-core verbal depictions of it.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it's utterly impossible (to prosecute Stern for obscenity). But if such a thing happened, it would be purely for the harassment and PR value of the case," Finkelstein wrote in an e-mail.

[An accurate quote. For those interested, the case is Nitke v. Gonzales]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:55 AM
September 16, 2005


Don't Let the GENI Out of the Bottle,1895,1855037,00.asp
By Sean Carton September 1, 2005

"Opinion: A new initiative, dubbed Global Environment for Networking Investigations, wants to build censorware into the Internet."

But what if the Internet changes? What if it becomes possible to control access to content at the infrastructure level? "What if," as Seth Finkelstein said in a retort to Gilmore's aphorism, "the censorship is in the router?" Up until now that really hasn't been the case. GAIN might change that and, by extension, might change the freedoms and anonymity that most know and love, even if sometimes while cringing at the consequences.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 02:07 PM | Comments (4)
June 30, 2005

"Who -- and Where -- are the New Media Gatekeepers?" - IEEE DSO

Greg Goth, "Who -- and Where -- are the New Media Gatekeepers?"
IEEE Distributed Systems Online, vol. 6, no. 7, 2005. pageID=dso_level1_article&TheCat=&path=dsonline/0507&file=o7003.xml

The questions surrounding who will ensure that online information remains accessible and authoritative have received much attention in recent months. Concerns range from European unease that a new book digitization partnership might result in an American-skewed repository of digital books, to apprehension over the Chinese government's near-ubiquitous control of search engines and Web sites. This debate over ensuring freedom of access and accuracy of information -- and who will assume the role of gatekeeper -- has raised old problems in new technological contexts.

I'm quoted:

How effective the unofficial bloggers' efforts will be in maintaining a window into China is a matter of debate among Western China-watchers. Longtime blogger and anticensorship activist Seth Finkelstein doubts that blogs alone will significantly alter the Chinese power structure.

"There are always people who win some victories under the present system, but I'm very much against technological determinism -- the idea that blogs are going to overthrow the government of China, -- Finkelstein says. "The idea that suddenly technological change will give a huge advantage to one side is [an] extremely dubious proposition."

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 01:00 AM | Comments (3)
June 17, 2005

"Neat New Stuff" (Marylaine Block)

"Neat New Stuff" by Marylaine Block is a weekly collection where:

The sites I include are usually free sites of substantial reference value, authoritative, browsable, searchable, and packed with information, whether educational or aimed at answering everday questions. I'll also include one or two sites that are just fun

My blog has been graced by a mention in this week's edition. Thank you.

[Numbers: The mention seems to have sent maybe 200 readers my way, of which perhaps 5 or 6 subscribed. But all contributions gratefully accepted]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:58 PM | Comments (3)
June 11, 2005

AP Article on XXX domain

I'm quoted:

Will a virtual red-light district help parents curb online porn?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

By ANICK JESDANUN AP Internet Writer

NEW YORK -- A red-light district tentatively cleared for construction on the Internet -- the ".xxx" domain -- is being billed by backers as giving the $12 billion online porn industry a great opportunity to clean up its act.


But given the limited effectiveness of a voluntary ".xxx" for filtering, Internet filtering expert Seth Finkelstein calls ".xxx" no more than a mechanism "to extract fees from bona fide pornographers and domain name speculators." (ICANN also gets an unspecified cut of each registration fee.)

Quite an extensive collection of sources in that article. I'm in interesting company.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:17 AM | Comments (0)
June 04, 2005

Online Journalism Review - "Companies subvert search results to squelch criticism"

Companies subvert search results to squelch criticism

"It's not illegal, but it's SEO gone bad. Companies such as Quixtar are using Google-bombing, link farms and Web spam pages to place positive sites in the top search results -- which pushes the negative ones down."

Echoed for the following:

CNN has denied any wrongdoing. "There is absolutely no truth to any speculation that CNN was involved in blog spam," CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson told me via e-mail. Programmer/blogger Seth Finkelstein theorizes that the person spamming the blogs was more likely trying to help get noticed by search engines by doing amateurish keyword stuffing, rather than an elaborate anti-optimization attack.

"The Net is filled with people who go around and spam blogs to get their message heard, with various degrees of skill at it," Finkelstein wrote on his Infothought blog. "So by the saying 'When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses before zebras,' when you see weird spam, think marginal people before elaborate PR campaigns. It's a much better fit."

[Which quoting, note, did not "just happen", but was due to the grace of an A-lister to whom I flacked my post, and found it worthy, so I was approved by a gatekeeper]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:13 PM
June 01, 2005

"The Net Effect" - On The Great Firewall Of China

The Net Effect

"As China's Internet gets a much-needed makeover, will the new network promote freedom or curtail it? - By Steven Cherry [IEEE Spectrum Online]

Highly recommended. But I'm biased:

How will censorship work with four different companies' products? According to Seth Finkelstein, a Cambridge, Mass., network programmer and an expert on Internet censorship, router-based censorship can and does take place at any point in the network. Each of the routers in the CN2 contract - in all three rings - can be expected to access a database of banned names and words, either within the router itself or in a subsidiary server connected to the router. ...

And in conclusion:

"The Internet is fairly centralized in the United States, too," notes Finkelstein, the Cambridge, Mass., programmer. "Not for political reasons but for economic ones." It turns out that the largest Internet providers push all their packets of data through large regional routers connected to proxy servers that already examine packets for evidence of quality-of-service or other problems.

"Our political system is vastly different from China's," Finkelstein says, "but if we had a national panic, if we felt we had to censor the Internet, it's scary how easily it could be done. There's a famous saying, 'The Internet considers censorship to be damage, and routes around it.' I say, what if censorship is in the router?"

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 08:02 AM
January 17, 2005

Mentioned in New York Times: CBS News Draws Ire of Bloggers

CBS News Draws Ire of Bloggers By TOM ZELLER JR.
Published: January 17, 2005

"I'd written a couple of pieces on the document earlier in the week," said Ernest Miller, a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School who writes a popular blog on Internet law ( "Then I noticed that I couldn't copy and paste from the report as I did in days past."

With the help of Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and fellow blogger (, Mr. Miller found that the document's encryption settings had been changed and, as a result, the text could not be copied. Anyone who downloaded the panel's report from either the CBS News servers or those of the law firm would have to retype any passages they wished to include in, say, an e-mail message or a blog post.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 07:23 PM | Followups