Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Let's Play Cyber-Oddball...

In tribute to Keith Olbermann, here are three unusual, amazing, unique, and fantastic stories that just had to be recorded for posterity:

  

A Repudiation of Bandwidth Cartels...

Columbia University Professor Tim Wu writes in the New York Times today that cyberspace is on a fast-track to being dominated by a small handful of "bandwidth cartels". Just as OPEC dominates the world's oil industry through tightly controlling supply, telecommunications companies like AT&T and Comcast do the same with bandwidth, he argues, - and again, it is the consumers who ultimately suffer.

But this is a false analogy. Bandwidth cartels are not the same as OPEC. AT&T and Comcast don't meet with each other every few months and explicitly agree on how much bandwidth to provide to each home, and they certainly don't do so with telecom firms outside the country as well.

Wu's main point is to call for the development of alternative sources of bandwidth. This is a truly worthy goal, as I've written about before. But you can justify that argument without resporting to demonizing the bandwidth owners.

Drawing yet another false analogy, Wu likens the bandwidth dilemma to that of the current energy crisis. But the last time I checked, my Internet Service Provider (ISP) hadn't raised prices in three years, which is a far cry from the recent exponentially rising prices of gasoline.

To be clear, this is not to say that the AT&Ts and Comcasts of the world are innocent victims. Comcast, in particular, was recently found guilty by the FCC of blocking certain file transfers by its own customers, unfairly discriminating against heavy internet users by essentially capping the amount of bandwidth they could use (despite those customers having paid for the right to do so). So there are certainly no angels here.

Yes, there needs to be alternative sources of bandwidth, whether through public Wi-Fi networks, municipality-owned infrastructure, or co-op style sharing agreements. And yes, in the bandwidth supply industry, there may indeed be a concentration of ownership. However, that's not the same thing as a cartel which, by definition, is openly guilty of collusion.
  

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Rise of Cyber-Nationalism and E-Hatred...

The internet is a forum for free expression and the sharing of ideas. We tend to think of this as a good thing, but what happens when the ideas people express are filled with hate and prejudice?

The Economist recently chronicled a list of cases where racism, bigotry, and nationalist jingoism have been fueled by individuals online - notably, bloggers and users of social-networking sites.

Of course, as anyone would expect, governments use their official websites to boast about their achievements and to argue their corner—usually rather clunkily—in disputes about territory, symbols or historical rights and wrongs.

What is much more disturbing is the way in which skilled young surfers — the very people whom the internet might have liberated from the shackles of state-sponsored ideologies — are using the wonders of electronics to stoke hatred between countries, races or religions. Sometimes these cyber-zealots seem to be acting at their governments’ behest — but often they are working on their own, determined to outdo their political masters in propagating dislike of some unspeakable foe.


The article goes on to cite online conflicts that have already occurred between the Americans and Chinese, Israelis and Palestinians, and ethnic Russians versus those from the Caucasus, to name only a few. Other instances of hatred being stoked online are likewise attributed to white supremacy social-networks, jihadist vs. anti-terrorist online games, as well as anti-illegal-immigrant blogs.

Of course, it's quite disturbing that these "ideas" are the ones that people are choosing to express. Not only do they often drown out the more moderate and constructive voices in cyberspace, but they also appeal to the worst parts of humanity. However, just as in real-space, if we are to maintain an internet that values free speech, such ideas still must be tolerated, even protected, so long as they are not defamatory or injurious in any way.

Unfortunate as all this may be, two important points are worth remembering: 1) these hateful online messages are only reflections of what's out there in the world we live in, and is by no means just an internet phenomenon, and 2) that if people disapprove of the hateful messages being spread, they can (and should) equally express their disapproval. After all, the more that we non-zealots speak up, the more likely we are to drown out the nutjobs.
  

Friday, July 25, 2008

What If You Could Own Your Internet Connection?

When it comes to figuring out who was power over the internet, the question inevitably boils down to the issue of ownership. For example, who can censor your writings, photos, or videos? The company that owns the servers. Who sets the rules for behavior? The company that owns the website. Who can cut off your internet access? Your Internet Service Provider (ISP) who controls the connection between your home and the rest of cyberspace.

Essentially, the current internet is one where private companies own most of the cyber infrastructure, and the rest of us mortal humans simply rent the use of their property - paying for it one way or another, whether through a monthly subscription fee or through subjecting ourselves to a neverending barrage of ceaseless advertising.

But Google's Public Policy Blog asks: What if you could own your own internet connection?

It may sound strange, and it's certainly not what we're used to. Today we have a "carrier-centered" model; phone and cable companies spend billions to build, operate, and own the "last-mile" connection -- the copper, cable, or fiber wires that come into your house. Individual consumers then pay for particular services, like phone service or Internet access.

In turn, we tend to think about broadband deployment in carrier-centric ways. If we want to see super-fast fiber connections rolled out to consumers, the main question appears to be whether carriers have appropriate incentives to invest.

But there's no law of nature that says this is the only possible model. Many businesses, governments, universities, and other entities already own their own fiber connections, rather than leasing access to lines. It may also be possible to find ways for consumers to purchase their own last-mile strands of fiber...

This may all sound rather abstract, but a trial experiment in Ottawa, Canada is trying out the consumer-owned model for a downtown neighborhood of about 400 homes. A specialized construction company is already rolling out fiber to every home, and it will recoup its investment from individual homeowners who will pay to own fiber strands outright, as well as to maintain the fiber over time. The fiber terminates at a service provider neutral facility, meaning that any ISP can pay a fee to put its networking equipment there and offer to provide users with Internet access. Notably, the project is entirely privately funded. (Although some schools and government departments are lined up to buy their own strands of fiber, just like homeowners.)


Now before you get all excited and fantasize about dragging some fiber optic cables across your front lawn to tie it around the nearest telephone pole, consider that the cost of doing so is still prohibitive. Google estimates it to run between $1100 to $2700 per household. Plus, it's pretty tough to imagine the phone or cable companies just simply allowing you to connect to their lines. Inevitably, we're going to have to pay for that privilege as well.

Nevertheless, as far as power politics go, any macro shift in infrastructure ownership is truly a shift in the political structure of the internet itself. As this space has argued before, shifting ownership of the network from a few elite corporations to the masses would do well to serve both democracy and capitalism. Close your eyes and just imagine how differently the internet would evolve if individuals ran their own websites on open source Apache servers from their home PCs, formed co-ops to negotiate internet service agreements (essentially becoming their own ISPs), and developed free WiFi hotspots rather than used the cable and DSL networks, because, after all, the public owns the airwaves. People would be able to create their own rules, rather than having them imposed from an outside authority.

Come to think of it, maybe I will get ready to drag some fiber optic cables across my front lawn, after all.
  

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Introducing Blogathons...

Yesterday, after reading a Boing Boing article about a women who was holding a blogathon to raise money for a rape crisis center, I became immersed in this question... What is a blogathon?

Michael Isenberg provided the best definition I could find:

Have you heard of charity walk-a-thons, where people get sponsored to walk a certain distance for charity? Or remember in elementary school, those stupid "Math-A-Thons" where you had to raise money by doing a certain number of math problems? Well Blogathon is like those. Except instead of getting outside or working your brain, Blogathon involves not being more than 30-minutes away from a computer at all times so you can babble on the internet all day. The event lasts for 24 hours (9AM Saturday to 9AM Sunday), and each participant must update their blog at least every half hour, for a minimum of 48 posts. Sponsors can pledge for each hour blogged (ie, 24) or simply donate a flat amount. After the event, sponsors will be contacted with directions for sending their pledges to the charities. The money goes straight to the chairty, passing through neither the blogger's, nor the Blogathon organizers' hands.


Apparently, holding a blogathon isn't even that new or rare of an event. Last July, some activists held a web event called "Blogathon 2007", which included dozens of participating bloggers who recruited hundreds of sponsors and raised thousands of dollars for charity. This year, a new event named "Day of Blogs" is taking its place.

A quick Google search for the term "blogathon" yielded 218,000 results.

This a a fascinating development, and since blogathons are for charity, they're awfully tough to criticize. As to who wants to sit in front of their computer for 24 straight hours flooding cyberspace with an even more incessant barrage of content spam, well, that's another question entirely.

Hats-off to all the blogathonners of the world!
  

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Autonomo.us Fights for Network Freedom...

A new activist group called Autonomo.us has launched an online presence to focus on issues of software freedom in network services, and is worthy of everyone's support.

What does it mean to focus on "software freedom in network services", and why should non-computer geeks really care?

First of all, Autonomo.us is an offshoot of the Free Software Foundation, and as such, promotes the spread of free software. This does not mean that they're a bunch of communists. Free software is defined as "free" as in "free speech", not as in "free beer". In other words, it's about developing technologies that give users more capabilities, not about giving away products at no cost.

This is a very worthy objective. In an age where more aspects of our lives and social identities are controlled by web servers owned by private corporations who claim property rights over your content, photos, videos, and other information, free software challenges that corporate institutionalization. As Autonomo.us states on its website...

Information technology plays an increasingly important role in the way we create, communicate, and collaborate. As this happens, our autonomy is increasingly affected by the degree and nature of our control over these technologies. Over the past thirty years, the free software movement has successfully worked to protect this autonomy.

However, the last decade has witnessed a rise in the role of computing as a service, a massive increase in the use of web applications, the migration of personal computing tasks to data-centers, and the creation of new classes of service-based applications. Through this process, some of the thinking, licenses, tools, and strategies of the free and open source software movements have become poorly suited to the challenges posed by these network services.

Autonomo.us is an independent group of hackers and activists. Many of us create network services. All of us are concerned about their effects on user freedom and autonomy. Autonomo.us is designed as a forum to explore the problems and issues raised by network technologies.

What does freedom mean for the users and developers of web services? What is at risk? What should the free and open source software community do to ensure that software, and its users, stay free in this new technological environment?


For a more full understanding of what Autonomo.us stands for, check out their recently published, "Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services". They have also started a blog and a wiki to address many of these issues. Again, this is a group worthy of everyone's support.
  

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Is Internet Radio on Its Last Legs?

At a time when the music industry is blaming digital piracy for the destruction of their business, you would think that internet radio - which promotes albums while simultaneously rendering piracy almost technically impossible - would be the one format that they'd be supporting. But alas, in keeping with their decade-long pattern of misguided futility, the music industry has instead been trying to run internet radio out of business.

The question is, are they succeeding?

As this Mashable article describes, "Internet radio captures 33 million listeners per week... and nearly 15% of 18 to 49 year olds tune in to Internet radio on a weekly basis. Internet radio companies, such as Pandora, Last.fm and Slacker offer a personalized radio experience which gives its listeners access to a greater variety of music and enhanced control over the music being delivered to them."

Internet radio is also entering new markets, as stations are increasingly being offered portably, as demonstrated by Slacker’s offering a for-sale portable player and Pandora delivering an iPhone application.

But in retaliation against this nascent industry's success, the music industry has been lobbying heavily to force internet radio stations to pay royalty rates that exceed their total revenues, which, if enforced, would drive nearly all of them out of business.

Compare this to how traditional radio stations don't pay a dime in royalty rates because they are considered "promotional".

Can someone please explain to me the difference? How is traditional radio more "promotional" then internet radio? Fear of piracy can't be the rationale since it's far easier to record a traditional radio program then to break the strong encryption on internet radio. So what gives?

If the music industry would be brave enough to shed their paranoid hysteria against anything new, they might actually see a technology that both promotes their product as well as protects it from piracy as a terrific business opportunity. Fearing change to the point of assuming a knee-jerk defensive posture and seeing everything as a threat that must be destroyed is hardly a recipe for future success.
  

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Rapid Evolution of Social Search...

When many of us think of social-networking sites and Web 2.0, our Pavlovian response is to immediately think of MySpace and Facebook. But there's been a rapid evolution of Web 2.0 services in the last year, and just posting a few pictures and changing your status message on Facebook is no longer adequate if you want to stay up to speed in the modern cyberworld.

The whole idea of Web 2.0 is to create a social network between you and your friends so that you can share content with each other. Facebook is, by far, the most entrenched and established of these sites, but it is quickly seeming like yesterday's news as the microblogging phenomenon known as Twitter has completely taken off - as demonstrated by Twitter's recent $80 million valuation.

Microblogging represents the next-wave of Web 2.0 technologies, and its heavy usage threatens supplanting older stalwarts like Digg and Reddit for sharing news stories, and Del.icio.us for sharing bookmarked websites among one's "friends" as well.

But the latest and most significant recent trend in the Web 2.0 world has been the evolution of social-search and aggregation services. In plain English, social-aggregators like FriendFeed bring together all of the activity from your other assorted social-networking sites, and publish updates from one centralized place.

Social search also has been making headlines with Twitter's recent purchase of Summize, an exclusively Twitter-based search engine. You may think that Summize isn't going to rival Google anytime soon, but test it out for yourself and you'll find that searching people's Twitter feeds, rather than the entire internet, is often better at discovering relevant links because it's based on what people are talking about right now. Because of the nature of microblogging, what Summize's engine is really doing is searching the content of current discussions, and that's potentially a very powerful tool.

Now the next step in social-search is already on the horizon. Services like Delver are being rolled out to search through your social-networks on all of your Facebook-type sites in generating your list of search results. For example, if some of your friends bookmarked a website on Del.cio.us, it will be ranked higher for you; if some of your friends tagged a picture on Flickr or Myspace, it'll be more likely to be found; likewise if they review a book on Amazon, or a movie on Netflix, or a video on YouTube... and so on.

In short, we are moving beyond the point of simply having online social-networks, to actually making them useful.

At least, that's the "holy grail" these services aspire towards. But there is, of course, a trade-off to all of this. In the wake of a recent agreement where Viacom agreed not to force YouTube to disclose the names of its users under the guise of copyright infringement, Danbri raises a terrific point...

Given such a trend towards increased cross-site profile linkage, it is unfortunate to read that YouTube identifiers are being presented as essentially anonymous IDs: this is clearly not the case. If you know my YouTube ID ‘modanbri’ you can quite easily find out a lot more about me, and certainly enough to find out with strong probability my real world identity. As I say, this is my conscious choice as a YouTube user; had I wanted to be (more) anonymous, I would have behaved differently. To understand YouTube IDs as being anonymous accounts is to radically misunderstand the nature of the modern Web.


Apparently, as Web 2.0 has evolved, so too has the inherent contradiction between wanting privacy online, yet simultaneously giving it away voluntarily through social-networking sites. Perhaps, as social-search services become more prominent, this threshold over determining appropriate limits to public information-sharing will finally be crossed.
  

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Nerfherder Gal Strikes Back...

Because Rob is working the MLB All-Star Game this week, the following post has been graciously submitted by contributing author, The Nerfherder Gal...

Nerfherder Gal back again after much pushing from the Nerfherder. As most of you have probably heard by now, the Nerfherder and I are tying the knot this fall, so I thought I’d use this article as a chance to look at the "Cyber-Bride".

A Nerfherder Gal Pal of mine just got married this past May, and I found her to be the most interesting specimen. She was constantly on the bride forums and message boards getting advice and tips from other brides. Low and behold, thousands of women cruise these sites and post advice, suggestions, questions, and more every day. They ask about what colors the others are using, how to take care of a pushy mother-in-law, what to do about seating charts, and on and on. It is amazing to me how these brides even seem to become friends through these message boards, returning even after their weddings to post pictures and keep in touch with the other brides-to-be. My Gal Pal would even cite other brides from her message boards when I asked her questions for myself.

After checking this out for myself, I was amazed, even appalled, and of course a little bit addicted. I had decided to check a bunch of message boards to see how other brides have fared when doing their own flowers, so I browsed the message board on www.theknot.com (I am completely addicted to The Knot!) and found tons of helpful advice; so much helpful advice, in fact, that it encouraged me to browse other topics, until I realized that I was half asleep, it was 2:00 am, and I was still looking at wedding stuff online instead of being in bed!

The internet is a useful tool for many things, and wedding planning is no different. The resources are so endless that your whole life can become consumed by it. It’s on the verge of bride overload! I am constantly searching for ideas for my wedding, even on Google images! My question is: Has the internet taken over for what Bridal Magazine used to provide? Why do we take so much comfort in the advice of other people we have never even met? And is this an internet phenomenon, or are all brides just nuts?!!!

XO,
Nerfherder Gal


Previous posts by the Nerfherder Gal:

Life As a Computer Geek's Girlfriend - Part 1
Life As a Computer Geek's Girlfriend - Part 2
The Nerfherder Gal Returns!
  

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fighting the Institutionalization of the Blogosphere...

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article describing how bloggers were boycotting the Associated Press because of the AP's stringent claim that they consider it copyright infringement to link to their stories without permission.

Well, after experiencing a massive backlash in cyberspace, the AP has since retreated. It recently set up a meeting with Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, "as part of an effort to create standards for online use of AP stories by bloggers that would protect AP content without discouraging bloggers from legitimately quoting from it".

This might sound great except for one thing... WHO THE HECK IS THE MEDIA BLOGGERS ASSOCIATION?!

How has this organization, which virtually no one in the blogosphere has ever heard of, suddenly and miraculously come to represent all of us without our consent? It sure doesn't represent me.

According to its website, the Media Bloggers Association is "a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting, protecting and educating its members; supporting the development of 'blogging' or 'citizen journalism' as a distinct form of media; and helping to extend the power of the press, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, to every citizen."

Basically, once you get through the fluff, they intend to provide legal assistance to their members and to accomplish other PR-related goals like acquiring press credentials at major events. However, one rather significant flaw with these intentions is that they have stopped accepting members.

This is a case of power politics, pure and simple, and you have to give the AP credit for understanding that if you can choose your own opposition, then you frame the whole debate in your favor from the outset. The Media Bloggers Association may be a legitimate organization, but it in no way represents the millions of individual voices who were originally outraged. What the AP has done by setting up this meeting has been to attempt a formal institutionalization of what is, in reality, an extremely diverse and malleable foe.

Let's be clear - the Media Bloggers Association in no way whatsoever represents me or any other blogger out there; and it absolutely has no authority to negotiate legal arrangements that would be binding on us all. Regardless of how much the AP desperately wants to institutionalize the many disparate blogging voices, ultimately Michael Arrington of Techcrunch is still right - the AP "doesn't get to make its own rules about how its content is used, if those rules are stricter than the law allows."
  

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Reddit and the Tyranny of Algorithms in Mass Media...

Social-media websites like Digg, Mixx, and Reddit have extremely devoted followings, and it's pretty easy to see why. We all occasionally get overwhelmed with information-overload when we're online, and thus we seem to love having all the Web's news presented before us in an easy-to-digest way. Social-media sites are fantastic at this, but there are also some trade-offs to the voting-based systems these sites use in determining what news stories to display, and it's those negative aspects that are generating an ever-increasing collective groan from users.

As this RWW article explains, people are growing frustrated with 1) "a single, all-important front page" that is too limited and unsatisfying once the community becomes larger and more diverse, and 2) that older content expires or is deemed irrelevant only hours after it is published.

As a result, things are suddenly astir in the world of social-media, as there has recently been a wave of new innovations. While each of the major websites still uses some type of voting-based system, Digg has built a recommendation engine, Mixx has released communities and an API for third-party developers, and Reddit has just gone open source.

Regardless, the core problems persist. RWW suggests that to improve this situation, social-media sites ought to take a lesson from StumbleUpon and start personalizing the news. Essentially, their proposal is to have the websites' front-pages only display "recommended" news stories that are based on what their algorithms "think" its users will like.

The future of content consumption on the social web is entirely based in personalized recommendations, and this re-conceptualization of [websites like] Reddit creates a better environment for fighting information cascades and blind voting, and ensures that you will see the content most relevant to you regardless of votes or time-stamps.


For those who have devoted large chunks of their higher education to media studies, such a proposal is extremely problematic, and even frightening.

Of course, everyone wants to only read the type of news that they're most interested in. If some people only want to read the Sports Section, that's fine, it's their choice. But if social-media sites start personalizing the news based on what their algorithms predict the user would enjoy, it would be like letting a computer decide for you which magazine subscriptions you want mailed to your house each month. But wouldn't you rather make the choice yourself?

The counter-argument is, naturally, that it's not as if information is being censored. There's certainly no shortage of other websites that people can get their information from in cyberspace, so what's the problem with tailor-suiting the news to fit people's individual preferences?

Here's the problem. A society where people only see the news they want to see is dysfunctional. Sure, people might read the same story and interpret it to fit their worldview anyway, but that's a matter of psychology. This is a matter of governance by algorithm. If Reddit's algorithm for "recommending" news stories were implemented, how many relevant and important stories would get buried and never even appear in front of the reader? What if the algorithm got someone's personal preferences wrong?

The bottom line is that individuals ought to have the choice of which stories they want to read, rather than being subservient to a mathematical formula that automatically makes those decisions for them. As social-media sites are increasingly used as a primary source of consuming information, this becomes more and more an issue of defining the public interest.
  

Monday, July 07, 2008

How to Build a New Media Campaign Strategy...

Another NY Times article is highlighting, once again, the over-hyped importance of internet (a.k.a. - "New Media") strategies in political campaigns. The article describes the Obama campaign's use of its official websites like My.BarackObama.com, along with private social-networking sites like Facebook, in creating a grassroots army that it attributes to Obama's success.

So with all the talk of New Media strategies this campaign season, what does it take to actually build a New Media strategy?

First of all, as the article correctly points out, you absolutely must cultivate a strong presence on the social-networking websites. Both Obama and McCain have online profiles on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and the rest of the usual suspects.

But the real question is why are these social-networking sites so important? The answer is that, different from an ordinary website that simply publishes information about the candidate (like the official campaign sites), the Facebooks and Myspaces of the world make it easy for people to show their support for their favorite candidate by "friending" them. For example, when I login to my Facebook account, I might see that my sister just "friended" John McCain, and maybe even left a supportive message on his "wall", or perhaps created an "event" where she's trying to get her friends together at a bar next week to talk about McCain and raise a few dollars for his campaign.

With that scenario in mind, now consider how influential would it become if, when I logged into Facebook, I then noticed that a whole bunch of my "friends" were similarly showing their support?

The main point is that social-networking sites make it far more likely for a candidacy to go viral. By having a simple profile, candidates make it easy for supporters to organize themselves using a grassroots, bottom-up approach. And there have been thousands of these "events" organized by supporters on these websites where Obama has been able to, completely indirectly, raise hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors.

Second, and an equally crucial component of a New Media campaign strategy, is to harness the power of the so-called "social media" websites like Digg, StumbleUpon, and Reddit. Even if you've never heard of these sites, their impact on the campaign is a lot larger than you might think. Social media websites essentially list stories that are in the news today, and then let the public vote on which stories they like the best or find most important. The front page headlines on Digg, for instance, display the headlines for which the public voted, rather than those selected by an editorial board.

This might simply seem like a novelty, but the model helps strongly influence people's information consumption and consequent opinions in the same way that the front page and op-ed sections of the New York Times similarly help shape people's opinions. Since the news stories people read will invariably influence their political perceptions, a campaign's ability to promote positive stories about their candidate on such social media sites (as well as negative stories about their opponent) will have a significant effect on the political narrative being told.

Third, and still largely under-utilized by the major campaigns, are the social-bookmarking and microblogging tools like Del.icio.us, Friendfeed, and Twitter. Again, the point of creating a strong digital presence with such services is to promote stories and messages that shed positive light on your candidate, and to then easily communicate and enable the sharing of those messages among your supporters - often via text messages to cell phones - making it more likely that certain stories will go viral. Blogging communities can generate quite a buzz too, and, in fact, some blogs written by campaign staffers often get more mainstream media attention than the official campaign website itself.

Of course, there are still the remnants of Web 1.0 strategies which, while not as sexy, shouldn't be neglected. Primarily, every candidate absolutely must have an informative website that solicits donations and builds a mailing list, and maintaining a YouTube channel as well as a website specifically designed to counter attacks against your candidate are increasingly must-haves.

Thus, all of these elements - social-networking websites, social-media websites, social-bookmarking and microblogging tools, as well as traditional Web 1.0 sites - constitute the components by which a complete New Media political campaign strategy can be built.

There remains, of course, the question about how much all of this New Media campaigning ultimately matters on electoral outcomes, and on this point, I, for one, remain a skeptic. It may certainly help, but cultivating a strong digital presence with all of the aforementioned strategies still doesn't automatically translate into winning elections.

Just ask Ron Paul.
  

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Blaming Craigslist for Child Prostitution...

When most of us think of Craigslist we think of job postings and free furniture. But there is a population out there that has a completely different association with the site... prostitution.

I've been to Craigslist a million times, yet it wasn't until this afternoon when I read this Mashable article that I ventured over to the "Erotic Services" section. If you take a look yourself, you might agree that Craigslist seems to have implemented just about every measure to protect people from the "Erotic Services" section as possible - including warnings, disclaimers, and methods for flagging as "prohibited" anything illegal or exploitative.

That is, they've done everything possible except actually removing the section itself. And that's where the current debate is being waged.

CNN recently ran a news report on the role Craigslist plays in facilitating prostitution, and child prostitution specifically. In defending the website, CEO Jim Buckmaster offered the following tepid response:

It would be a bigger problem if we removed that category and had those ads spread throughout the site... If the 'erotic services' section remains in place, it makes it all the more easy to track illicit activity; if it’s all centralized, you can spot the illegal stuff more easily.


He did also re-assert that Craigslist "voluntarily works with authorities in tracking sexual crimes that have connection to the usage of their system".

So the question, then, is whether you believe that keeping the "Erotic Services" section up-and-running does more good (by enabling stronger law enforcement) than bad (by providing a forum for child pornographers)?

I, for one, cannot see the logic of keeping the forum up-and-running, and find Buckmaster's weak excuse exactly that. It's like saying that we should purposely leave ways for terrorists to blow up our national landmarks in order to (hopefully) catch a few of them beforehand. But wouldn't it be better to protect our landmarks and make life as difficult as humanly possible for the terrorists to carry out their plans in the first place?

Of course, it's delusional to think that eliminating erotic services from Craigslist would have any real impact on ending the online sex trade, and Mashable is right to point out that "there is nothing to prevent that same culture from migrating over to MySpace, Facebook, or any other number of very popular social networks that have dark corners that are difficult to police". It is indeed a game of whack-a-mole, but that still doesn't justify Craigslist enabling that culture any further.

For that reason, so long as the "Erotic Services" section continues to exist, Craigslist ought to be considered at least partially to blame for those illegal activities, including child prostitution, which it is (inadvertently) helping to facilitate.