Friday, May 30, 2008

Who Owns Your Comments?

A fascinating discussion is taking place in cyberspace today on who owns the copyrights to comments left on blogs. This is an issue that's more complicated than it may appear at first glance, and strikes directly at the heart of defining "ownership" in the digital world.

Hank Williams' blog explains some recent events. An individual named Robert Scoble posted comments on a blog by Rob La Gesse. Posting such comments happens all the time, however...

"The problem is that Scoble commented using Friendfeed instead of the standard blog comments. La Gesse and Scoble had a discussion where Scoble wanted him to move the discussion to Friendfeed. La Gesse did not want to do that, and at some point deleted his feeds from Friendfeed. This prevented the discussions about his blog from happening on Friendfeed. Unfortunately, as Mathew Ingram explains, this had the effect of deleting from public view Scoble's comments on LaGesse's blog. Scoble was upset that his comments had been deleted because he feels like he owns his comments."


So the question is, when you leave comments on a blog (or Craigslist, Amazon, or any website, for that matter) who owns the copyrights to your comments?

There's a natural inclination to assume that when you make a post onto someone else's website that you are forgoing any rights to your post. After all, you are contributing to someone else's site. Website owners certainly retain the right to remove or moderate any comments left on their pages.

But does that mean they also have the right to, say, re-publish your comment wherever they want, however many times they want?

This issue is further complicated by new syndication services, like Friendfeed and Disqus, which catalog and re-publish all of the comments that you post around the entire internet.

In other words, when someone like Robert Scoble leaves a comment, a copyright claim can legitimately be made 1) by Rob La Gesse's blog on which the comment is posted, 2) by Friendfeed, which publishes all of Scoble's internet comments, and 3) by Scoble himself, in his capacity as the actual author of the comment.

This may seem overly legalistic, however the way in which it gets resolved will have tremendous consequences. Read the comments left on this ReadWriteWeb page and it becomes clear how the discussion (in the form of comments) is often more valuable than the blog post itself. That being the case, an open and participatory internet cannot be maintained if each online discussion has dozens of rightful copyright owners.
  

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Growing Gender Gap in Social Media...

This might not come as a shock to those who know the habits of The Nerfherder and The Nerfherder Gal, but apparently a new study described today in BusinessWeek confirms that women are far more active on social-networking websites than men.

When it comes to Facebook, MySpace and their ilk, "among twentysomethings, women and men are just as likely to be members of social networks... But we found that young women are much more active on these sites than young men. And men above 30 — especially married men — aren't even joining social networks... Married women, however, are joining social networks in droves. In fact, women between ages 35 and 50 are the fastest-growing segment, especially on MySpace."

So what gives?

First of all, the article correctly points out that men tend to be early adopters of the new social media websites, but women, who tend to be more social creatures both online and off, then spend more time actually engaging with other people on those sites. Of course this is something of a gross over-generalization, yet the statistics bear it out in the aggregate.

Second, the article attributes the cause of this gender gap to, of all things, video games? That seems to be quite a stretch. While it's true that there's intense competition for men's attention online (perhaps more so than women's), the notion that men are spending all of their time on World of Warcraft so that they don't have any time for Facebook is absurd. I have equally as much time in front of a computer screen as does the Nerfherder Gal, yet you don't see me cyberstalking my "friends'" pictures for hours on end. Men just aren't as interested.

Third, the fact that the gender gap is most obvious in men-over-30 seems to suggest that single men are more likely to network those who are married. But it's not as if married men crawl into a cave! Contrary to what The Nerfherder Gal may tell you, married men still like to maintain some form of minimal social existence, and the article's claim that they are not hanging out on social networks at all clearly overlooks the fact that the over-30-crowd's non-use of those sites is more generational than it is gender-based.

In the end, the differences between how the sexes use online social media is only a reflection of the same gender gap that exists between the sexes more generally in life. Women may be more social creatures, but I, for one, like to believe that I have more important things to do than cyberstalk mild acquaintances on Facebook.

Now please excuse me while I spend the next few hours analyzing statistics on my fantasy baseball site.
  

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Comparing McCain vs. Obama on Internet Issues...

For netizens, several policy issues will strongly influence their presidential vote this November. Net neutrality, copyright reform, public/municipal wi-fi, bandwidth caps, protecting children from sexual predators, and online privacy are all prominent on the agenda. So where do the candidates stand?

Barack Obama makes clear his stances on the issues, going so far as to write a "white paper" devoted entirely to technology proposals. In it, he states his unequivocal support for net neutrality and the preservation of an "open" internet. Additionally, he calls for more diversity in media ownership and, on the issue of protecting children from sexual predators, he does not view regulation as the solution, but rather giving parents the tools and skills needed to control what their children see and what online activities they engage in, also proposing to strengthen enforcement and penalties for violators. He similarly takes an enforcement-focused position when it comes to online privacy, wanting to hold government and businesses more accountable and stepping up the FCC's budget for enforcement. Finally, Obama seeks to enhance E-government services, opening up government by promoting citizen participation in decision-making.

Overall, Obama's central themes are openness and transparency - two core Internet ideologies.

John McCain, on the other hand, emphasizes a libertarian approach towards minimal governmental regulation - which certainly embodies another core Internet ideology. As summed up on Ars Technica, McCain calls for promoting investment and innovation in technology, including boosting funding for research and development (R & D) programs. He also supports measures that would create a highly skilled workforce through a combination of education, tax, and immigration policies. Finally, "employing a light regulatory touch and respecting open markets" is cited as the guiding policy principle, following the logic that misregulation can impede innovation.

What makes this race interesting from the netizen's perspective is that both Obama and McCain have embraced different (and often competing) Internet values - minimal governmental interference on the one hand; openness and transparency on the other.

As we get closer to the November election, The Nerfherder will post its first ever endorsement of a political candidate, based primarily on this Internet-centric point-of-view. In the meantime, let's see how much McCain and Obama pay lip service to these issues and allow their ideas to evolve. Stay tuned.
  

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's the Networks, Stupid... Really?

It's not the economy... It's the networks, stupid.

At least that's how Roger Cohen of the New York Times is analyzing this year's presidential election campaign. He says that it's Barack Obama's grasp of online social-networking, "more than any other factor", that has propelled his campaign to the brink of the Democratic nomination.

Really? It's indisputable that Obama's huge fundraising advantage can be largely attributed to online contributions from small donors, but to claim that MySpace and Facebook are more responsible for his success than, say, his policy positions or his treatment in the mainstream media, seems a bit of reach, to say the least.

Cohen makes some terrific points about the cultural and generational shifts presently occurring in American politics, such as how the Cold War mentality of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has been replaced with Mutually Assured Connectivity (MAC), and how with global connectivity "our commerce, culture, ideas, manners — are increasingly shared, coordinated by newly global conversations in these domains, but in which our politics remains inescapably national".

These are very valid points and it's a conversation certainly worthy of engagement, but it's a far stretch from his additional assertion that, "in the globalized world of MySpace, LinkedIn and the rest, sociability is a force as strong as sovereignty."

I'd love to agree that online social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are now a more powerful force in politics than are nation-states... because it would mean I'd have some pretty good job prospects. But come on.

The problem with Roger Cohen's argument is one of causality. Just because something happens before another doesn't mean that the first thing CAUSED the second, and likewise, just because Obama has a strong online presence, and then wins the nomination, does not necessarily mean that what happened online was the primary cause of his victory.

You could just as easily (and possibly more accurately) attribute his success over Hillary Clinton to not having to defend a vote for the Iraq War.

Nation-state sovereignty is not whithering away, and it's not yet, at least in politics, all about the networks. To claim that MySpace and Facebook are so powerful is like a baseball player saying that wearing a garter belt leads to better hitting - since that's what made the difference and worked for him so obviously yesterday.

But we all know that overlooks a lot of other factors... like keeping your eyes on the ball.
  

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fake News Punishable by Google-Death?

On May 9th, a story was posted at Money.co.uk (which sounds reputable enough) in which it explains how "Ralph Hardy, a 13 year old from Newark, Texas confessed to ordering an extra credit card from his father’s existing credit card company," taking his friends on a $30,000 spending spree "culminating in playing ’Halo’ on an Xbox with a couple of hookers in a Texas motel."

The story got a lot of attention, both online and on television, but there was only one problem... the story was a complete hoax. Apparently, the authors were simply trying to manipulate Google's search algorithm, figuring that a fake attention-grabbing headline would generate a ton of inbound hyperlinks (which, in turn, boosts the entire website's search ranking).

Since the hoax was unmasked there have been a storm of varying opinions circulating the blogosphere. Was it a fair way of gaming the system? Or did it violate the spirit and letter of Google's search policy? Some observers, including several Google employees, are now contemplating what should be the proper role of Google itself in policing these types of activities. In other words, should the company hold itself responsible for removing such content from its listings, or perhaps even change its algorithm to mitigate effects?

These are some big questions that address the proper role of search engines as arbiters of internet content. Blogoscope sums it up nicely:

I wonder if it should be any of Google’s business when a page games humans – and whether it should only be of their concern when a page games Google. Otherwise, Google risks becoming an editor for the web, additional to their existing strong traffic channeling power. In that role, they would have to decide what is correct reporting and what is not. In that role, Google would need to answer a lot of new questions, and they may not always be the most qualified to answer them.


One can envision a pro-active Google de-listing certain websites and stories from its search results, essentially relegating those sites to the internet's dark corners.

Thankfully, the company is sending out signals that this is not to be the case, and that "Google-deaths" are far from becoming a reality. That said, it still goes to show the immense vulnerability all websites face as they remain unquestionably at the mercy of the search engine giant's whims.
  

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Data Portability and the Walled Gardens of the Web...

Imagine if the Internet as we know it didn't exist. Imagine if, in its place, there were thousands of smaller networks, each with its own rules and users, and no one was able to communicate or search across them.

That scenario isn't referring to a hypothetical past, but a potential future. Technologists have been fretting over several events this past week which they believe might lead to the fragmentation of the current Internet into many internets that won't work together.

How valid are their fears?

Part 1 - The Issue

Data portability is the idea that your information should be, well, portable. People shouldn't have to be "locked in" to one social-networking site forever; they should be able to carry their profile information and friends-list across websites if they choose to do so. Companies have made their users' data portable in the past - for instance, you can use software like Pidgin to access your AIM, Yahoo, or MSN instant messenger friends all from one place. The Internet itself is built on this idea that data should be publicly accessible from anywhere (if the publisher chooses to make it so).

Which brings us to this week's battle currently underway between Google, MySpace, and Facebook over the control of people's profile information on the social-networking sites. Many users of these sites share the experience of having to re-find their friends and re-enter their profile information repeatedly on both sites (and even several others as well), and that's not an accident... it's by design. MySpace and Facebook have closed off people's data from the outside world. Sometimes this is a good thing (with regards to privacy rights), but others times, like when somebody actually wishes to share their information publicly, the websites don't let them do so.

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch vents his frustration this way, "The fact is, this isn’t Facebook’s data. It’s my data. And if I give Google permission to do stuff with it, I’m damned well within my rights to do so. By blocking Google, Facebook has blocked ME. And that, frankly, kind of frustrates me."

"Let me put this another way. How dare Facebook tell ME that I cannot give Google access to this data!"

Because of Google's recent foray into the social-networking field with its FriendConnect service (which takes a far more open approach), MySpace and Facebook are now scrambling to put out their own alternatives - MySpace has created a service called "Data Availability" and Facebook has launched "Facebook Connect". Each realizes that "to keep users happy, and to stop them from entering in all that friend data into other sites, they need to make their data at least somewhat portable. Not too portable, mind you. That means they’d lose control. But just portable enough. That’s why they are launching their products".

Part 2 - The Problem

Think of the current Internet as a gigantic public park or common area, open and accessible to all. The problem with a lack of data portability is that suddenly you have "walled gardens" appearing within this park - private, closed-off, more tightly controlled areas where you have to be a member in order to use it.

Walled gardens fragment the Internet into separate zones and, ultimately, make its public area far less useful. Thus, the big story this week that Microsoft is trying yet again to buy Yahoo Search is getting an inordinate amount of attention. The Scobleizer blog reports, "Microsoft will buy Yahoo’s search and then buy Facebook for $15 to $20 billion... That just changed the whole argument of Facebook vs. Google to one of Microsoft vs. the Web."

To demonstrate this point further:

Loic Le Meur did a little test with me a couple of weeks ago. He listed his Le Web conference on both Facebook and Upcoming.org. Here’s the Facebook listing. Here’s the Upcoming.org one.

The Facebook one can’t be seen if you don’t have a Facebook account. It’s NOT open to the public Web. Google’s spiders CAN NOT REACH IT.

He put both listings up at exactly the same time and did no invites, nothing. Just let people find these listings on their own.

The Facebook one is NOT available to the Web. It has 467 people who’ve accepted it. The Upcoming.org one IS available to Google and the Web. It has 101 people on it.

This is a fight for the Web. We all just crawled inside a box that locks Google out.

Don’t believe me?

Go to Google and do a search for "Le Web 08".

Do you see a Facebook entry there? Nope. Google is locked out of the Web that soon will be owned by Microsoft. We will never get an open Web back if these two deals happen...

Now Microsoft/Yahoo search will have access to HUGE SWATHS of Internet info that Google will NOT have access to.


Make no mistake about it. Dividing the Internet up into separate walled gardens would completely transform the Internet as we know it, and repudiate its founding principle of sharing information in an open public space accessible to all.

Part 3 - The Solution

How to tear down the walled gardens of the Web? That's simple... keep the Internet open. A burgeoning software field is quickly developing that promotes data portability and is engineering software to make use of it.

OpenID is a single sign-on solution that allows people to sign into different services with the same login credentials. Its been gaining widespread acceptance over the past year, and has already been put to use by Google, numerous blogs, and many other forward-thinking sites. Similarly, Pidgin is an instant messenger client that also allows you to login to many IM accounts at once.

Again, the big picture is keeping the Internet exactly that... one Internet, rather than numerous private intranets. Too often we take for granted that Google can search the entire Web, and that we even have a "commons" in the first place. But if the walled-gardens-companies would have their way, there wouldn't be any search engines that scoured the entire Web. There would be dozens of search engines, none of which could search the Web, but only the sections of it to which they were a part. Think of it as privatization run amok.

Is that the Internet you want to imagine?
  

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Net Neutrality Gets a Boost...

Few issues rouse the passions of internet activists the way that Net Neutrality does. Some of us remember when net neutrality first made it onto the public agenda several years ago - back when it was seen as a fringe political issue advocated by a few computer geeks with nothing else to do. However, yesterday the New York Times published an editorial on the topic, which culminates the issue's voyage onto the mainstream political agenda, and on which both presidential candidates will now be forced to take a stand.

Users of the Internet take for granted their ability to access all Web sites on an equal basis. That could change, however, if Internet service providers started discriminating among content, to make more money or to suppress ideas they do not like. A new “net neutrality” bill has been introduced in the House, which would prohibit this sort of content discrimination. Congress has delayed on this important issue too long and should pass net neutrality legislation now.

The Internet, at least in this country, is a remarkably unfettered medium. If you type in the domain name of a large corporation or a small blog, a government Web site or a radical political party, the pages are sent to your computer with equal speed. Like a telephone line, an Internet connection does not play favorites — it simply transmits the words and images.

I.S.P.’s, the companies that connect users to the Internet, want to change this. They have realized that they could make a lot of money by charging some Web sites a premium to have their content delivered faster than that of other sites. Web sites relegated to Internet “slow lanes” would have trouble competing.

This sort of discrimination would interfere with innovation. Many major Web sites, like eBay or YouTube, might never have gotten past the start-up stage if their creators had been forced to pay to get their content through. Content discrimination would also allow I.S.P.’s to censor speech they do not like — something that has already begun. Last year, Verizon Wireless refused to allow Naral Pro-Choice America to send text messages over its network, reversing itself only after bad publicity.

There are several good net neutrality bills in Congress. One in the House, sponsored by Edward Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Charles Pickering, Republican of Mississippi, would give the job of preserving net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission. A Senate bill sponsored by Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, and Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, takes a similar approach. This month, John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, introduced a bill that would allow the Justice Department to bring antitrust actions against I.S.P.’s that violate net neutrality.

Using the F.C.C. is the more direct approach, since an agency could step in quickly to correct violations. An antitrust suit is a much more elaborate step for the government to take, but also adding net neutrality to the antitrust law would give the I.S.P.’s a strong incentive to respect the democracy of the Internet.

Cable and telecommunications companies are fighting net neutrality with lobbyists and campaign contributions, but these special interests should not be allowed to set Internet policy. It is the job of Congress to protect the Internet’s democratic form.
  

Monday, May 19, 2008

McCain Courts the Liberal Blogs...

Political pundits are scratching their heads once again. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has announced his intention to hold conference call briefings with both left-wing and issue-based bloggers.

What does it say about our supposedly hyper-partisan politics when McCain is courting the liberal blogs, while Barack Obama is angering them?

Let's divide up this new strategy into its two constituent parts - that is, appealing to left-wing blogs on the one hand, and issue-based blogs on the other.

First, as to McCain's appealing to left-wing blogs, there is some serious political calculus at play. Perhaps the move is intended to reinforce his "maverick" status; or perhaps it's meant to appeal to independents by showing his willingness to cross the party aisle; or maybe it's a simple step towards distancing himself from a Bush Administration notorious for its controlled media approach and lack of transparency.

Regardless of which of these happen to be his true motive, it's still highly questionable whether the approach will have any effect at all. One might recall President Bush's brief appeal several years ago to America's black community (overwhelmingly Democratic) to vote Republican - an eyebrow-raising move that, in the end, mattered very little on electoral outcomes.

Second, as to McCain's inclusion of issue-based blogs, the jury is still out on whether this is more a matter of politics or policy. Blogs that focus on health care and the environment have already been approached. It's possible that McCain is pandering to these issue-advocates in an effort to simply obtain good publicity, but that seems unlikely. After all, he's including them in his briefings without any guarantees that his ideas will be covered in a positive light. In fact, he must assume the exact opposite to be true in many cases. It's the very act of sitting them at the table that is significant.

And along that stream of thinking, it may be a good move. As John Edwards' blog outreach coordinator points out about the issue-based blogs, "They're not necessarily partisan all the time. They may have a progressive or conservative take, but they're not in the tank for the party, and if someone like McCain has a good energy idea they'll blog about it."

In other words, John McCain might be courting the left-wing blogs for political reasons, but it may be possible that he's encouraging a dialogue with the issue-based blogs in a practical attempt to brainstorm some intelligent, workable policy solutions. For that, he should be applauded. Politics is, after all, a war of ideas, and if we are to have the "free marketplace of ideas" that democracy requires, then encouraging more open access to that marketplace might just help win that battle.
  

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oh, Those Angry Bloggers...

A major fight has been ensuing this week between two blogging heavyweights - Wired Blogs vs. Techcrunch.

It started last Thursday when Techcrunch announced its new partnership agreement (essentially, a syndication deal) with the Washington Post. This sounded innocent enough, until Betsy Schiffman of Wired then blasted Techcrunch for having a serious conflict of interest, and accused the Washington Post with "publishing content written by a dude who invests in the companies he writes about".

Naturally, this didn't go over too well. Michael Arrington, the god of Techcrunch, saw the Schiffman article and publicly responded with this searing post "after a night of heavy drinking". He also engaged in several other (ahem) activities. Aside from Arrington's "Turrets-like" Twitter message, he also called for a "Wired burning party".

Not to be outdone in the battle of childish antics, Wired staff members responded by tagging every post about Techcrunch with the tag, "Buttmunch".

How much fun is this?!

Outside of the personal fight between the actors involved, this story has no relevancy whatsoever. Its a case of hurt feelings and temper-tantrums among some of the most popular and influential bloggers in existence - and for that reason, it makes for some terrific cyber-tabloid material.

If these blogging giants would show some semblance of maturity and stop their playground fistfight, they might begin to understand that, because of the prominent positions they're in, this very public battle undermines the legitimacy of the blogosphere at large, and only re-enforces the mainstream media's prejudice against bloggers as immature, non-professionals.

If these are our standard-bearers, what chance do we have?
  

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Wikipedia Battle Between Israelis and Palestinians...

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a new battlefront... Wikipedia.

The online encyclopedia, characterized by allowing anyone to edit and create entries, has become the latest forum for the conflict. As this Telegraph article describes, "the pro-Israel group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has called for volunteers to edit entries that display notable bias on the site. In response, a Palestinian aggregator called the Electronic Intifada has exposed the initiative, and states that "the bad news is this allows anti-Israel 'editors' to introduce all kinds of bias and error into the many Israel-related articles. The good news is, individual volunteers can work as 'editors' to ensure that these articles are free of bias and error."

Edit wars, where opposing groups continually edit and re-edit entries in order to frame an issue in their preferred terms, are not uncommon on Wikipedia. In fact, there was a prominent case in February over the Wikipedia entry on the prophet Muhammad, where the display of pictures of the prophet were in dispute.

The conflict raging this week involves several entries relating to Israel's founding as a nation (celebrating its 60th anniversary this week). For instance, check out the Wikipedia page for "Israel". It appears reasonable and the casual observer would have no idea the edit war is even taking place. However, then take a look at that page's edit history, and you can clearly see the high levels of activity that have been occurring in the past few days. The same pattern can be found on other Wikipedia pages related to Israel's founding, such as the "1948 Arab-Israeli War" entry, where at least one edit was reverted due to "possible vandalism".

All of which indicates two things. First, edit wars are far more subtle than the term might imply. Wikipedia warriors are indeed subtle by intention, seeking to carry out their goals under the radar in an unnoticeable fashion. The casual observer reading an entry might have no idea of the underlying conflict over content, which only underscores the prudent need to maintain scrutinizing eyes when consuming information on any Web 2.0 site based on user-driven content.

Second, as was also the case with the dispute over the "Prophet Muhammad" entry, the fact is that the only way to resolve such edit wars and other online conflicts is through the website operator stepping in to assert their authority. In other words, the edit war will rage on until someone at the Wikimedia Foundation decides to let it go no further, at which point they will "freeze" future edits and, in effect, resolve the issue by favoring one side over the other.

In the end, what this illustrates is how, in cyberspace, individuals may indeed have tremendous disruptive power, however, when push comes to shove, they have yet to translate that power into governing authority.
  

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Return of Ron Paul Mania...

What outlet can the Ron Paul diehards find for their zealous political devotion? The presidential candidate with a cult following has long since been defeated in the nomination battle to John McCain, however his base of supporters remains defiant in throwing in the towel.

As this L.A. Times blog describes, Ron Paul supporters "hope to demonstrate their disagreements with McCain vocally at the convention through platform fights and an attempt to get Paul a prominent speaking slot". Since the nomination itself is no longer attainable, their new stated goal is to "take control of local committees, boost their delegate totals and influence platform debates".

I continue to maintain that, even with the prolonged Hillary-Obama nomination battle, the self-destruction of the Guiliani campaign, and about a dozen other novel and fascinating political developments in the past few months, the most significant story that historians will examine from this year's presidential campaign is that of the astonishing Ron Paul candidacy. By almost every internet metric, Paul has crushed every other candidate from both parties, has mobilized a grassroots base of online supporters in unprecedented fashion, and, as a result, has broken numerous fundraising records.

He also never came remotely close to winning anything.

It's extremely positive to see Ron Paul's supporters continue to engage so whole-heartedly in the political process even after their candidate's defeat. Despite my being flamed in this blog space for questioning Paul's chances of electoral success, and despite the way in which Paul's followers are often perceived as delusional, it is nevertheless great to see that these people's devotion and level of civic engagement will not flame out too easily.

Who knows, by adopting their more pragmatic strategy of influencing the party platform and enhancing their control over local committees, the "Ron Paul Revolution" may indeed leave a legacy that stretches far beyond this year's presidential campaign. And perhaps far beyond Ron Paul himself.
  

Monday, May 12, 2008

Understanding the Great Firewall of China...

When the Beijing Olympics get underway this summer will journalists have full unfettered internet access while they are in China?

The short answer is yes they will. China will be providing specific hotels and other locations expected to be frequented by foreigners with full access so journalists will not write home about their totalitarian censorship practices. But what's interesting is how they've figured out how to do this while still keeping the Great Firewall in place for the rest of the country.

James Fallows has a great article in The Atlantic on the so-called Great Firewall of China. After months of studying the firewall firsthand, he explains the underlying censorship technologies being deployed. When a user tries to reach a website, four things can be made to go wrong:

The first and bluntest is the “DNS block.” The DNS, or Domain Name System, is in effect the telephone directory of Internet sites. Each time you enter a Web address, or URL—www.yahoo.com, let’s say—the DNS looks up the IP address where the site can be found. IP addresses are numbers separated by dots—for example, TheAtlantic.com’s is 38.118.42.200. If the DNS is instructed to give back no address, or a bad address, the user can’t reach the site in question—as a phone user could not make a call if given a bad number...

Next is the perilous “connect” phase. If the DNS has looked up and provided the right IP address, your computer sends a signal requesting a connection with that remote site. While your signal is going out, and as the other system is sending a reply, the surveillance computers within China are looking over your request, which has been mirrored to them. They quickly check a list of forbidden IP sites. If you’re trying to reach one on that blacklist, the Chinese international-gateway servers will interrupt the transmission by sending an Internet “Reset” command both to your computer and to the one you’re trying to reach...

The third barrier comes with what Lih calls “URL keyword block.” The numerical Internet address you are trying to reach might not be on the blacklist. But if the words in its URL include forbidden terms, the connection will also be reset. (The Uniform Resource Locator is a site’s address in plain English—say, www.microsoft.com—rather than its all-numeric IP address.) The site FalunGong .com appears to have no active content, but even if it did, Internet users in China would not be able to see it. The forbidden list contains words in English, Chinese, and other languages, and is frequently revised—“like, with the name of the latest town with a coal mine disaster”...

The final step involves the newest and most sophisticated part of the GFW: scanning the actual contents of each page—which stories The New York Times is featuring, what a China-related blog carries in its latest update—to judge its page-by-page acceptability. This again is done with mirrors...


These techniques are more highly sophisticated than these simple explanations may imply. When I was in China for several weeks doing my own analysis of the Great Firewall, its most striking aspect was its subtlety. In fact, you hardly even knew a firewall was in effect. You had access to nearly every site you tried to visit, and for those that were blocked, you were never really told that was the case. Typically the page would just take too long to load, so you would go somewhere else out of impatience - just like you would here in the States, or anywhere else for that matter.

Ultimately, it will be through understanding exactly how the Chinese government is implementing is censoring technologies that will lead the rest of the world to figure out exactly how to undermine it.
  

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Psychology of Facebook: A College Course...

The greatest reason why the Ivy League colleges are the Ivy League colleges is their bureaucratic flexibility and rapid-response to creating courses that are extremely current.

Check out the syllabus for this new course being offered at Stanford University: The Psychology of Facebook.

For ten weeks we will focus on persuasion psychology in Facebook. In other words, we will examine Facebook as a system that can foster attitude and behavior change. This generally has two facets: First, Facebook, Inc., has persuasive goals. For example, Facebook seeks to persuade users to upload profile pictures. Second, the users themselves have persuasive goals. For example, when a person uploads a profile picture, what persuasive goals drive the photo selected?


The list of weekly topics include:
  • Psychology of Profile Pictures
  • Psychology of Status Updates
  • Psychology of Poking
  • Psychology of High Trust Context
  • Psychology of Commenting
  • Psychology of Posting & Sharing
  • Psychology of News Feeds
  • Psychology of Profile Pages
  • Psychology of App (Application) Adoption
  • Psychology of Facebook as Ritual


Kind of makes you want to go back to school again, doesn't it?

From experience, having created a course on Internet Politics at City College, I can say that institutional resistance to creating cutting-edge course topics is actually quite minimal. What is needed is simply more instructors with the expertise and the willingness to teach them.

Stanford's initiative ought to be praised, and their lead followed.