Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hacktivism and Facebook's Ultimatum Application...

The basic dilemma with organizing social protests and collective action has always been figuring out how to fight the perception that one person can't make a difference. Well, a new Facebook application seeks to address exactly that.

A third-party known as The Point has created a new piece of software that allows Facebook users to not only support a cause in the abstract, but to also set a more practical arbitrary "tipping point" and track group members' commitment to their common goal. Once a critical mass of people has pledged support, a predetermined action is taken. As this Wired article describes, the software, named "Ultimatum", is designed to be a straightforward [application] designed to transform a vibrant online community into a vehicle for specific social change".

Again, the story here is that Ultimatum is focusing on setting practical and achievable goals in pursuit of social change. Other well-intentioned software applications have existed on Facebook and other sites for some time, such as the popular one simply named "Causes", but they are often abstract ideas like "Make Poverty History".

Ultimatum, by contrast, uses "online petitions created by users that requires a tipping point of participants to induce action. Participants are committed to act only when enough other individuals agree to the same, so support for each cause is bound by the group commitment."

"For example, one group calls for Wal-Mart to provide health care benefits for its employees. If a million users sign up, all million pledge to boycott the company if the demand isn't met."

A few years ago, I published a paper on hacktivism, in which I argued that, in a digital world, computer programmers and software developers have a disproportionate amount of power in social politics. One good programmer can create a piece of hacktivist software that will have more of an effect than a million individuals mobilized towards a collective action. Perhaps Ultimatum will serve as evidence in support of that argument, and perhaps not - only time will tell. However, it seems increasingly clear that, at the very least, the Web's viral network architecture alone will not bring about effective social activism. If that will happen at all, it will only happen through better designed software tools.
  

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Politics of the Algorithm...

How's this for an ironic story? Yesterday, a hysterical blog post about how frustratingly difficult it is to make the Digg/Popular page... made it to the Digg/Popular page. The author's rant is definitely entertaining (and relate-able), but both it and the comments Digg users posted on its page underscore a more serious point: the increasing power of the algorithm in Digital Media.

Think of some of the more popular websites on the internet. Whether its Google, Wikipedia, Digg, Technorati, or something else, how these companies determine what content is being displayed on its front page has tremendously powerful consequences. For example, let's say someone did a Google search for the term, "office supplies". Research has demonstrated that unless a link is displayed on the first page of Google search results, the chances of people clicking on it (or ever even finding it) are practically nil. So Google's search algorithm (the formula it uses to determine its results) basically has the power to make or break office supply companies' business prospects. In fact, an entire new industry known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, has even sprung up to capitalize on this, promising to increase your Google ranking in exchange for a modest fee of several thousand dollars.

The same is true of trying to reach the Digg/Popular page, the Technorati front page, and many others. And I can attest to this from personal experience. Several months ago, one particular Nerfherder blog post made it to the Digg/Popular page - and as a result, it generated a 1200% increase in web traffic to the site and relative bucket loads more in advertising money from click-throughs.

So how do these websites determine what makes their popular or front pages? The answer is that they all use different proprietary algorithms, which of course are trade secrets, and therefore are more the subject of speculation than knowledge.

What's more, these algorithms are somewhat controversial. Yesterday's tirade aside, Digg users have revolted before over what they see as unfair preferential treatment afforded to Digg "power users". Other websites like Wikipedia use an algorithm based on random selection, to the chagrin of traditional power elites and companies who would like to get listed more prominently and more often. Google has been criticized because its algorithm which relies on external hyperlinks rather than page views, in effect giving already-established websites an even more entrenched power position.

In the end, the issue is one of media gatekeeping. The rise of voting-based mechanisms on Web 2.0 sites has been a very promising development, though, without doubt, they too have shown their flaws. I'm sure that, like myself, most web content creators can relate to Rebecca Kelley's tirade and too-often feel overwhelmed with frustration, making us want to rip the heads off those evil mathematicians who devised grossly unfair algorithmic formulas that make us feel like we "have as much persuasive power as a gay Democrat in Alabama".

But I'll still take a mathematical formula that can be tweaked rather than a traditional gatekeeping media elite, sporting their own personal or institutional agendas, who make decisions on our behalf.
  

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Should IP Addresses Be Considered Personal Information?

Sun Microsystem's CEO, Scott McNealy, famously declared several years ago, "You have no privacy, get over it". Not all of us are too comfortable with that. As the internet becomes further integrated into our daily life experiences, our personal information is constantly being collected and passed around on an unprecedented scale.

Consumer groups and privacy advocates have sought legal recourse, and governments have been debating the extent to which digital privacy policies ought to have reach. The political battle becomes particularly clear when comparing the United States, which frames the issue in terms of protecting "personally identifiable information", with the European Union, which refers to it as "personal data". This distinction may seem trivial, but it gets at a fundamental question: Do we only have privacy rights over our social security number, credit report, and other traditional tools of identity management, or can we claim those same rights over our digital identity - such as IP addresses, Facebook profiles, and email messages - as well?

IP addresses are particularly controversial, and much of the legal debate over digital privacy focuses on them. Google's Public Policy Blog offers a solid layman's explanation:

An Internet Protocol (IP) address is an address for a computer on the Internet, which exists to allow data to be delivered to that computer. When you enter a website's name - like http://www.google.com - that is actually a handy shortcut for the website's IP address - right now, one of Google's is http://72.14.207.99/. So when a website needs to send your computer something (for instance, your Google search results), it needs your IP address to send it to the right computer.

The situation gets a bit more complex, though, because the IP addresses that people use can change frequently. For instance, your Internet service provider (ISP) may have a block of 20,000 IP addresses and 40,000 customers. Since not everyone is connected at the same time, the ISP assigns a different IP address to each computer that connects, and reassigns it when they disconnect (the actual system is a bit more complex, but this is representative of how it works). Most ISPs and businesses use a variation of this "dynamic" type of assigning IP addresses, for the simple reason that it allows them to optimize their resources.

Because of this, the IP address assigned to your computer one day may get assigned to several other computers before a week has passed. If you, like me, have a laptop that you use at work, at home, and at your corner café, you are changing IP addresses constantly. And if you share your computer or even just your connection to your ISP with your family, then multiple people are sharing one IP address.


Europe has already passed policies which treat IP addresses as personal data that are legally protected as private information. The U.S. has thus far failed to do so, but efforts are underway at both the state and federal levels.

Companies like Google have lobbied hard to prevent IP addresses from being protected, arguing that since IP addresses on their own cannot reliably personally identify individuals, government intervention would only serve as an unnecessary burden on business. They tout how they've self-regulated by making their logs anonymous and by shortening the length of their cookies stored on people's computers. However, these statements are grossly misleading. Their logs remain anonymous only until a government subpoena requests more details (as was the case with Yahoo, MSN, and AOL), and the shortened cookie length is still numbered in terms of years.

In the meantime, these companies have only become more aggressive in creating digital profiles on us, scanning the content of our email messages and IM conversations, keeping records of all of our Google searches and websites we've visited, tracking our online purchases, and data mining all of our surfing habits. The is typically done in the name of more efficient marketing, which is likewise the reason why our information also is bought, sold, and traded between different companies on a regular basis. As of right now, legally we cannot see the information collected on ourselves, but third-party vendors can.

Without question, better privacy protections are vitally necessary and ought to be implemented - not only by allegedly self-regulating corporations, but also by governmental institutions. IP addresses are a good place to start.
  

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hacktivists vs Scientology (Again)...

Hacktivists have targeted Scientology, and Amazon.com is caught in the crossfire.

In case you haven't been paying attention, here's what you've missed. About two weeks ago, a group of Reddit users collectively decided to write reviews of L. Ron Hubbard's book, "Dianetics" - the foundation for the Scientology movement - on its Amazon website. Most of the reviews or comments were decidedly negative and offered one-star ratings. Many of them did not even address the book, but rather criticized the Scientology movement in general.

As these negative comments filled the "Dianetics" web page, Amazon apparently decided to delete all of the new comments. There were approximately 98 such comments at the time, but the mass deletion inflamed Redditors and led to a fierce debate on its own website about the merits of Amazon's actions.

Naturally, the anger also led to exponentially more negative comments posted on the Amazon page.

Thus the destructive cycle of Amazon deleting comments and Redditors posting ever-more inflammatory ones continued over and over again. However, one Redditor going by the screen name, "Riven08", writes today that:

I've been watching this reviews page for the past week, and after reading the comments left by a certain dianetics/scientology supporter it became clear to me that it's not exactly amazon that is deleting these reviews. This particular dianetics 'fan' noted that he thought it was his duty to report these 1-star reviews to amazon because he was sure that they didn't read the book. I then realized that he was the one that was simply clicking the 'report this' link on every 1-star review.

So long story short any review that you report, by clicking the 'report this' link, seems to disappear after 12-24 hours. Yes, I tried this with several obviously fake 5-star reviews and they vanished the next day. I can only assume that amazon's system is automated, or just staffed by lazy humans that don't actually review any content before removing it.


What can we learn from this little edit war (which, by the way, is still ensuing)? First of all, an early public statement from Amazon might have potentially avoided the situation entirely. As any P.R. guru can tell you, it's usually better to diffuse a situational conflict early by describing what's going on, what's being done about it, and why. Keeping silent only emboldens the conspiracy-theorists and raises more suspicion. Just ask Richard Nixon.

Second, as has been noted time and time again, censoring or removing commentary in cyber spaces is usually counter-productive, bringing even more public attention to the material being taken down. Information protectionists need to grasp even a mild understanding of this basic principle if they want to have any chance at realistic and fair comment moderation.

Finally, hacktivists are becoming both more emboldened as well as more adept at bringing that public attention to their causes (or, more accurately, to their sources of outrage). They are mastering their techniques and using the internet, and Web 2.0 sites specifically, far more effectively than are political cyberactivists. Advocates of control ought to watch out.

If we were to try and see the Big Picture - the forest through the trees - it would look like this: Hacktivism is an embryonic movement with great potential. It can use its powers for good - such as generating lively and vibrant debates on important issues - or for advancing a juvenile agenda based on insults and the fostering of a mob-like mentality and methodology.

This case is only the latest example, and, rest assured, many more are yet to come. Let's see if they can live up to their positive potential as a counterbalance to traditional institutional powers, or if they only serve to justify the existence of the very things they set out to destroy.
  

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Misguided Ruling to Censor WikiLeaks...

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a federal judge has ordered the website WikiLeaks.org to be shut down for posting internal documents that exposed corruption in a bank from the Cayman Islands. Now a fierce free speech debate is ensuing over the censorship of the website.

WikiLeaks is a website dedicated to exposing corruption by providing a public forum for whistle-blowing. Because it relies on wiki-based software, anyone with internet access can post material on the site. The site claims to have posted 1.2 million leaked government and corporate documents that it says expose unethical behavior.

What makes this case stick out is that the federal judge didn't simply order the removal of the disputed materials, but the shutting down of the entire WikiLeaks website. "This is akin to seizing all the copies of the New York Times, locking the doors and ordering the landlords not to let anyone back in the building," said Julie Turner, a Palo Alto Internet attorney.

The controversy is really about the constitutional principle known as "prior restraint". Material has been ordered taken down from websites before if it was deemed harmful, defamatory, or in violation of local laws. So nobody is arguing that all possible material on the internet is protected by free speech. The problem is that by ordering the shutting down of the entire website, the government has effectively ordered the censorship of the entire forum. In legal circles, this is prior restraint - the censoring of future publications before they're created - and, at least in the United States, it is illegal.

The judge was deeply misguided in issuing the shut-down order, and the ruling is likely to be overturned in an appeals court. As was also the case with the Doom9 - Encryption Key episode, what this judge and others fail to understand is that not only is censorship online virtually impossible, it is also often completely counter-productive. The Global Integrity Commons correctly notes that "WikiLeaks.org went offline, but WikiLeaks mirror sites hosted overseas hold the same content, and the original site is still up and running from Sweden (http://88.80.13.160) without its easier-to-type URL". Now, in reaction to the censorship ruling, the blogosphere is abuzz with this news headline, and thus is bringing enormous attention to the case (not to mention re-publishing its wannabe-censored details all over the internet). "As it turns out, shutting down WikiLeaks-the-website has focused our attention on WikiLeaks-the-idea, which is spreading at the speed of light."
  

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Crowdsourcing the Superdelegates...

The night of the Potomac Presidential Primaries, in which Barack Obama handily defeated Hillary Clinton, one comment made by MSNBC political director Chuck Todd resonated as prophetic. Todd argued that with neither Democratic candidate likely to get the 2,025 delegates necessary for the party nomination, internet activists would soon play a major role in influencing the superdelegates who would make the final decision.

And this has officially begun in earnest.

Now, as Sarah Lai Stirland from Wired explains, "thanks to the internet and wiki software, voters can see exactly what those superdelegates are up to, and can even try to apply a little pressure of their own. Party activists fearful of a Hillary Clinton superdelegate coup have created several new websites that use collaborative software to focus attention on the superdelegates, in the hope that once under a microscope, they'll resist lures like financial contributions and political quid pro quos offered by the competing campaigns."

The 795 Democratic superdelegates are either elected members of Congress or elite "party leaders" whose identities are often hard to peg down. Blogger and cyberactivist coalitions have begun using Wiki software to deduce the identities of all of the superdelegates from press releases and statements in news articles, and to organize online mobilization efforts to influence their votes.

Examples include the Superdelegate Transparency Project and Superdelegates.org. Such sites not only aim to identify the superdelegates, but also provide data on how their local constituents voted and who received campaign contributions from which presidential campaign.

These are extremely promising developments for American politics, regardless of which party you affiliate yourself with. The superdelegate system for selecting presidential candidates is jaw-droppingly undemocratic - whatever happened to the basic principle of "one-person, one-vote"? - and efforts are already underway by the likes of Democratic Party leader Donna Brazile to change the system. However, until that happens, it is hard to argue that, in the interests of a healthy democracy, there shouldn't at least be transparency in the process.

Whether we call them cyberactivists, citizen journalists, or some other New Media moniker, the bottom line is that if these people use crowdsourcing to find and share information about the superdelegates and bring transparency to the process, thereby avoiding political deals struck in smoke-filled backrooms, we will all be better off for it.
  

Monday, February 18, 2008

How Did Blu-Ray Win the Format War?

The war over what will become the next-generation format for high definition DVDs is over, and Blu-Ray has won it.

As I've explained before, for the past few years Sony has pushed its Blu-Ray standard while Toshiba has sought support for its HD-DVD standard. Both sides claimed about half of the emerging consumer market, and as a result most pundits advised people to avoid buying either until this battle was sorted out and a clear victor was determined. Well, that time has arrived.

The question is how did Blu-Ray emerge victorious in the format war?

The recent timeline ought to be somewhat instructive. In early January, Warner Brothers made the sudden decision to adopt Blu-Ray exclusively, and this was the focusing event from which a snowball effect was created and then gained steam, as, before you knew it, every few days more media and consumer electronics companies like BestBuy and NetFlix were announcing their support for Blu-Ray as well in the weeks that followed. The death knell came on Friday as Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, announced it would only sell Blu-Ray DVDs. Reuters has since reported that Toshiba "is planning to stop production of equipment compatible with the HD DVD format for high-definition video, allowing the competing Blu-Ray camp a free run".

That may be the timeline, but what about causality? In other words, how or why did Warner Brothers get the ball rolling last month in favor of Blu-Ray, and why was everyone else so quick to follow suit? Such questions need to be asked because battles over formats and technical standards have immense consequences on shaping how we experience culture in the Digital Age. This issue not only applies to DVDs, but also radio, television, and the internet.

For those of us who study the politics of technical standards, it would be wonderful to gain some insight into what was the catalyst behind these recent events, particularly Warner Brother's sudden decision to adopt Blu-Ray last month. Was there some deal struck in a smoke-filled backroom? Was it purely a financial, profit-driven motive, or were there alternative factors as well? Does the way in which everyone else quickly followed suit provide evidence of the "rough consensus principle" in action? If so, why didn't previous statements of supporting one format garner the same result?

While we continue to seek answers to these pressing questions in order to save the internet from corporate control, at least we can finally get that long-awaited high-definition copy of Star Wars on DVD.
  

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another Attempt at Net Neutrality...

Yesterday, a new bill was introduced in Congress by Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) called the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" (HR 5353). The purpose of the bill is to guarantee Net Neutrality - known in many circles as "the First Amendment of the Internet" - and should be actively supported.

Groups such as SaveTheInternet.com have already begun engaging in mass email campaigns and are recruiting support for the bill in cyberspace.

As I've explained Net Neutrality before:
Right now, the way the Internet works is that information is broken down into packets and sent over phone and cable lines (and increasingly, through the airwaves via wireless technology). As this information is sent around the Internet, no judgements are made on the content of that information. All data is viewed as equal, and therefore, no data is treated as more priveleged than any other data. This is what is meant by "net neutrality".

What is at issue: Should broadband providers be legally required to treat all content equally.

Here's the political debate. The pro-neutrality crowd argues that all information must be treated equally in order for the Internet to remain an open marketplace of ideas and innovation. They claim Net Neutrality to be "the First Amendment of the Internet". Without it, they argue, large corporations would be at such a structural advantage that entrepreneurs, small businesses, and individuals, would all be treated as second-class citizens. A non-neutral Internet would mean that telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T would create a "toll lane" on the web, charging extra money for the delivery of audio and video web content, and effectively have a "tiered Internet" where some are far more advantaged than others. They see the Internet as a "level playing-field" which rewards the best ideas rather than the most well-funded ideas and believe that net neutrality guidelines are necessary to maintain this dynamic.

Meanwhile, the anti-neutrality crowd argues that the government should avoid regulating the Internet and the telecom broadband providers. These corporations, they say, will not be blocking access to websites, they will only be making access faster or slower to websites depending on which ones would be willing to pay premium fees. Their second argument is that telecoms invest billions of dollars into laying down the nation's data infrastructure, therefore they should be able to make a return on that investment. According to net neutrality, it is not the telecoms investing in the infrastructure, but rather content providers like Google and Yahoo which reap the financial benefits, and this is inherently unfair...

My opinion is this: I have my own personal web page, as well as a website I maintain for my students in an institution of higher education. It is currently hosted on my own server, outside from the university. Net neutrality would guarantee that my website could continue to be accessed at the same speed as any other. Without it, it would take minutes to load my website, but only seconds to load corporate commercial sites, such as Yahoo's, unless I was willing to pay a premium fee (which I probably could not afford). It seems to me that there are inherent social benefits for having an equal and neutral World Wide Web which in this case trump those of the small handful of corporate telecoms.

The true value of the Internet, in my humble opinion, lies both in the availability and diversity of its content. Net neutrality is a means for preserving both of these elements, and the loss of net neutrality would place them in great danger.
  

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

E-Nouncements...

The Nerfherder had some big personal news last night. In fact, it's somewhat amazing that I'm functional enough to be able to write at all today. But I am. Lucky you.

When the news was made, myself and the Nerfherder Gal began spreading the word. The process went exactly like this: text messages, Facebook posting, IMs, picture messages, emails, Twitter update, and finally, of course, a blog post.

Maybe even more amazing - this all seemed completely natural.

Social networks we create in real life are amplified tremendously online. Just in the past year, I learned about a brother's new girlfriend because he updated his MySpace profile to say "In a Relationship". I check in on friends' and family's babies by checking their pictures on Facebook. I follow a friend's travels on a boat sailing around the world by reading his blog.

Some people lament all this as symptomatic of the end of civilization. Admittedly, even I'm a little frightened. But when big events occur in our lives, those social networks we maintain online transform themselves from being an occasional nuisance filled with trivial information... to being essential.

And that's quite a revelation to those of us with more hermit-like tendencies ;-)
  

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Comparing the User-Generated News Websites: Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot

When most of us start our day in front of our computers, we usually each have a small handful of websites that we visit. Maybe the New York Times, definitely one or two email accounts, Facebook, a fantasy football website, or whatever. Personally, my daily addiction has become user-generated news websites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot.

The idea behind these websites is that, contrary to traditional news organizations like the NY Times or CNN, ordinary people submit news stories which they've read somewhere on the internet and found interesting enough to share. In order to help others sift through the muck, people then vote on which stories they like best, and the stories with the most votes get listed on the front page. Call it media democracy.

The results have proven fascinating. Often, while the main headline in the NY Times is yet another article on the politics of Iraq, the front page headline on the user-generated news site might be a new research study on climate change (which was buried on page 18 of the Times, but people voted it among the top news stories of the day).

However, differences among these user-generated news sites certainly do exist, and they are substantial - both in terms of their end-results as well as their overriding philosophies. To summarize:

  • Digg - people "digg" a story by casting a vote for it. One person, one vote - nice and simple on the surface. But just like in American politics and reminiscent of our newfound buzzword of the year, "superdelegates", not all votes are ultimately treated equally. Digg has been criticized by its users because the algorithm it uses to determine which stories are put on the front page doesn't only look at the number of votes, but also whether certain "power users" have submitted them. The bottom line, though, is it reliably generates some pretty terrific lists of interesting news stories.

  • Reddit - based on the same principles as Digg, only with a cleaner interface and one functional difference: "Redditors" not only can vote up for stories they like, but they can also vote down for stories that they don't. This seemingly small and inconsequential characteristic actually produces very big differences in the types of stories that get the most points on Reddit. Front page stories tend to favor viewpoints that are more outlandish (which can be entertaining) and politically extreme. It's made me wonder just how different the presidential election would look like if people had the choice of either voting up a candidate or voting down another. My guess is Obama would be destroying Hillary. Additionally, the vote-down capability makes it much harder to acquire points for your story submission because the net total (up-votes minus down-votes) is what counts. Sometimes it's tough just to stay in positive number territory.

  • Slashdot - completely different philosophically from the other two. While Slashdot also relies on user-generated submissions, people do not get to vote on which stories become displayed. Rather, traditional editors make the decisions. This might be more in line with the CNNs and other elite news organizations of the world than it is with the Web 2.0 ethos, however their stories usually are more "newsworthy", in the traditional sense.

Out of the three, if I had to pick one then I would unquestionably go with Digg. But in reality, I still subscribe to all three using my RSS reader (Netvibes) so that I can read the daily headlines of what ordinary people find the most interesting news stories of the day. Plus, submitting stories to these sites is a terrific way of generating additional web traffic.
  

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Lesson of the Internet Collapse...

In case you were unaware, the major ongoing drama last week was that the internet collapsed for large parts of the world. Four undersea cables that connect Europe to the Middle East and Asia were ruptured almost simultaneously, cutting those regions off from the rest of the digital world. Although service has since been largely restored, this story highlights the fact that cyberspatial activities are still entirely dependent on real-world infrastructure, and thus on the telecommunications industry and the national governments who maintain it.

To see how the internet collapsed, it's necessary to understand how the Internet is structured. In very simple terms, if you want your computer to talk to another computer, you connect them with a cable. Connect a third computer and you have a network. What gets interesting is when you want to connect one computer in New York with one in San Francisco. The way you do this is essentially the same, except that the "cable" that you'll need to connect the two machines is owned by a telecommunications company like Verizon or AT&T. This is why the telecommunications industry is so central to maintaining the day-to-day operation of the internet, and, it must be mentioned, that since the U.S. and other national governments have been regulating the telecom industry since the 1920s, governments play a pretty big role as well.

Now, to understand what happened last week, imagine if that "cable" connecting the computers in New York and San Francisco, was suddenly cut with a chainsaw. Everyone's computers still work (there's no virus or other software problem in play); it's just that there's no longer a PHYSICAL connection between the machines.

Believe it or not, despite the internet being constantly touted as a "decentralized" system, there are still a few "chokepoints" which exist in the physical world and dictate the types and amounts of internet traffic that can proceed to the rest of the Web - such as the undersea cables that connect Europe to Egypt, and thus the rest of the Middle East all the way to India.

As MIT's Technology Review reports, when four of these undersea cables were cut last week, it resulted in Egypt losing 70% of its connection to the outside internet, and nearly 60% of India's connectivity was "similarly lost on the westbound route critical to the nation's burgeoning outsourcing industry".

The cause of the rupture is still not known. Initially, experts "said that ships' anchors, dragged by stormy weather across the sea floor, were the most likely culprit, but Egyptian authorities have said that no ships were in the region".

Meanwhile, the fact that four cables were cut almost simultaneously has grabbed the eye of omnipresent conspiracy-theorists. If you want to be entertained (or mildly frightened) read the comments of this Digg entry, and see the wheels in motion - blame gets placed on everyone from the U.S. government, Iran, Russia, Scientologists, all the way to "Disgruntled gulf frogmen".

The bottom line is that the cables are already being repaired, so a digital apocalypse seems to have been prevented. However, for students of political power, what has been clearly demonstrated is that the notion of cyberspace being "ungovernable" is nonsense. Because the physical infrastructure dictates the Web's very existence, the lesson to be learned is that whoever controls the "chokepoints" holds the true power.
  

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Should Wikipedia Remove Pictures of Muhammad?

As the International Herald Tribune has reported, Muslims around the world are protesting against a Wikipedia article on Muhammad for depicting pictures of the Prophet - which is prohibited among most Muslim communities. So which is the overriding principle: the Web 2.0 ethic that people should be able to create content without needing editors' approval, or the socio-political need to be respectful of cultural sensitivities?

Despite an online petition with over 80,000 "signatures", Wikipedia has decided emphatically NOT to remove the images. It offers its explanation, stating:

"Wikipedia recognizes that there are cultural traditions among some Muslim groups that prohibit depictions of Muhammad and other prophets and that some Muslims are offended when those traditions are violated. However, the prohibitions are not universal among Muslim communities, particularly with the Shi'a who, while prohibiting the images, are less strict about it. Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with the goal of representing all topics from a neutral point of view, Wikipedia is not censored for the benefit of any particular group...

The traditional reason given for the Islamic prohibitions on images of prophets is to prevent the images from becoming objects of worship as a form of idolatry, where the image becomes more important than the subject it represents. However, Wikipedia uses the images of Muhammad as examples of how Muhammad has been depicted by various Islamic sects through history and not in a religious context. Therefore, there are no concerns that the presence of the images on the articles will result in the practice of idolatry among Muslims."


Furthermore, Wikipedia has a content disclaimer in which it makes clear that for all of its entries, "no content or images will be removed from Wikipedia because people find them objectionable or offensive".

Think about that for a second.

And yet, while Wikipedia is obviously demonstrating some thoughtfulness on the subject, one can't help but cringe and feel at least mildly uncomfortable with the precedent this sets. Will the same reasoning be used next time when a Neo-Nazi article is submitted in which it freely professes its anti-semitic beliefs? Perhaps one from the Ku Klux Klan showing images of lynchings?

The whole idea behind Web 2.0 is to take power away from elite media editors and put it into the hands of ordinary people who can make decisions over content for themselves. This is truly a noble idea, however as this case demonstrates, such websites are still private spaces, and the buck still ultimately stops at an elite level. Wikipedia unquestionably has the power to decide whether or not to allow culturally insensitive materials on its website - and it has made its decision, sticking by it even in the face of a strong public backlash.

The question is whether it made the right one.
  

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Coming to Grips with the Ron Paul Legacy...

There are many conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from yesterday's Super Tuesday presidential primaries and caucuses - John McCain's likely nomination, Mike Huckabee's spoiler effect on Mitt Romney's campaign, Hillary and Obama's impending battle of attrition that will bring the importance of "superdelegates" into the mainstream public's consciousness.

But what shouldn't be lost among these top-tier headlines is the legacy of Ron Paul. I think by now, after yesterday's results, we can finally pronounce the Ron Paul campaign effectively over, right? Before bloggers flame me (again) for such blasphemy, let's take a final look at some of these figures depicting the "Ron Paul Phenomenon"...

Digg Friends:

Ron Paul
Mike Huckabee
Mitt Romney
John McCain

18,625
1,327
921
826

Facebook Supporters:

Ron Paul
John McCain
Mitt Romney
Mike Huckabee

82,464
44,822
42,552
(No Official Facebook Supporters Page)

MySpace Friends:

Ron Paul
John McCain
Mitt Romney
Mike Huckabee

126,866
44,897
37,086
35,126

Technorati Blog Posts:

Ron Paul
Mitt Romney
John McCain
Mike Huckabee

212,925
175,354
156,332
133,839

Now compare these astonishing online metrics with the actual voting results, where Ron Paul finished with under 10% of the popular vote in most states (see state-by-state breakdown for all the candidates). Furthermore, Real Clear Politics estimates that the total number of those all-important delegates won thus far looks like this:

John McCain
Mitt Romney
Mike Huckabee
Ron Paul

604
244
187
14

For months now, this story has been truly amazing to follow, but ultimately what will be the legacy of the Ron Paul campaign? It sure won't be an electoral victory. However, years from now, people will remember this as 1) the defining moment where the Internet generation formalized its libertarian ideology, and as 2) further evidence that an extremely vocal, passionate, and highly mobilized base of supporters does not necessarily lead to a shift change in electoral outcomes.

The Ron Paul candidacy was indeed a resounding success in terms of generating an unprecedented level of grassroots support, organized almost exclusively in cyberspace and with almost no direct affiliation with the official campaign itself. For its supporters, perhaps they can take solace in that fact. Meanwhile, bloggers have just lost the topic most guaranteed to generate Diggs and page views.
  

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The New Domain Name Industry: Opportunity or Abuse?

Though it's often overlooked, perhaps the biggest reason why the Internet has been so transformative to our culture in such a short amount of time is that it has virtually eliminated that age-old economic problem of scarcity. In cyberspace, resources are unlimited and there are no zero-sum games. If you want to build a new website, you don't have to worry about the Internet running out of available real estate. In fact, there is no such thing as "unavailable".

Except, that is, for domain names. Only one person or entity can own the rights to a domain name, and as a result, an entire industry has popped up looking to capitalize on owning one of the only scarce commodities on the Web. Read this fascinating article in the New York Times and you'll start understanding the gold rush that is already well-underway.

To give you a sense of scale, several months ago I was brought in to consult for a guy who owned the domain name "Mom.com". He had purchased the rights to the domain name years ago for the standard price (about $9/year), had never developed a website, but had received an offer of about $20,000 for it. (An interesting sidenote: it was from a porn site). In 1997, I personally bought the rights to "Hannukahgifts.com", wound up doing nothing with it, so just let those rights expire without renewing them. Thinking about it in retrospect, it's like a punch to the gut.

Now, I have a dream. It's relatively humble - I want to someday own the rights to "domanski.com". I've got big plans for it. Create personal websites for my family members like "Rob.Domanski.com" and "Lisa.Domanski.com", content-sharing pages like "Photos.Domanski.com", and email addresses like "Edie@Domanski.com". You get the point. As a computer programmer and web developer, I've got big eyes, big plans. Like a grandmother who just bought a fancy new oven.

The problem is that some company has already purchased the rights to the "Domanski.com" domain name. I recently contacted this company to sell the domain name to me, however, despite them not even creating a website or doing anything with it, they decided to hold the domain name hostage with a ransom of $5000!

To deal with scenarios like this, there is a non-profit organization charged with controlling the worldwide domain name system, and through this charge, ICANN is often considered one of the most powerful players in Internet Governance. They are supposed to resolve conflicts over domain name ownership taking into account legitimacy and intellectual property. These principles are why a similar organization, WIPO, ruled, for instance, that "TomCruise.com" should be transferred over to the celebrity actor, and taken away from a cybersquatter who just wanted to redirect visitors to his own website.

The fact that an entire industry has developed, buying and selling domain name ownership as if it were its own stock exchange, completely undermines the purpose of ICANN and WIPO, as well as any sense of fairness built into the system itself. Don't get me wrong: capitalism is great, and I can already picture many Nerfherder readers seeing dollar signs after reading the Times article above. But they'll be missing the point... because domain names are the only scarce commodity on the Web, and so central to its functioning, it is in desperate need of a strong mechanism for conflict resolution.

My dream might not be Martin Luther King's, but it's fairness that I seek nonetheless.
  

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Shame of the "Anonymous" Protests...

When my friend Andre brought up this topic yesterday during the Super Bowl, it seemed a clear indication of just how amazingly far this story has spread.

Last week, a group calling itself "Anonymous" announced that it would stage international protests against the Church of Scientology on February 10th. You might remember a few weeks ago that a promotional video of Tom Cruise was leaked to the public in which he espouses his Scientology beliefs in a jargon-loaded manner that was the immediate subject of popular ridicule. Well since then, the Church of Scientology has filed lawsuits against YouTube, Gawker.com, and other video-sharing sites for (what else?) copyright infringement.

"Anonymous" views these lawsuits as a violation of free speech on the Internet, arguing that it is not copyright infringement if the video is newsworthy - a well-recognized "Fair Use" exception in the law. As a result, "Anonymous" has not only put out a call to action for massive international shows of protest on Feb. 10th, but it has also already led denial-of-service attacks on Scientology websites, gotten participants to make prank calls to Church of Scientology centers, and has carried out real-world protests or raids outside Scientology buildings. Some people have even taken so much pride in their disruptive activities that they have posted their exploits on YouTube.

What observations can we draw from this series of events?

First, "Anonymous" is using despicable tactics that only label themselves to the rest of the world as anarchic cowards. Protests in support of a cause are one thing, but committing illicit acts that can only be characterized as juvenile in nature give observers the impression that these are not political activists fighting for free speech, but rather a group of maniacs who are using their computer hacking skills to disruptive ends while they sit back in the comfort of their homes ANONYMOUSLY to ensure there will be no repercussions, probably laughing at the havoc they're wreaking.

What these wannabe hacktivists need to understand is that such tactics are completely counter-productive. By undermining their credibility, they do more to harm their cause than to help it. Also, there is this little problem of hypocrisy with a group that claims to be fighting for free speech by taking down websites that profess a different point of view from their own.

Second, and this is what's most ironic, the cause itself is actually a just one. Lawsuits claiming copyright infringement - most often under the guise of ominously intimidating "cease and desist" letters - have become the de facto tool of media regulators in cyberspace. The Church of Scientology's lawsuit, as well as YouTube's appeasement, is shameful, and only supports the case for badly needed legislative copyright reform.

It's just a pity that it's the maniacs in the movement who've most prominently taken up the banner of the cause.