Sunday, December 26, 2010

Adhocratic Governance on Wikipedia...

"Governance", as any good dissertation adviser will tell you, is a term often misused, meaning different things to different people. My research defines it through a policymaking lens - Governance is the ability to both constrain and enable behavior by creating policies that produce intentional effects at a systemic level.

Along this line of thought, Piotr Konieczny recently published an article in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics where he argues that Wikipedia is ruled by "adhocratic governance".

"Adhocracy" is based on the idea of doing something "ad-hoc", meaning in an improvised, on-the-fly sort of way. For instance, some people believe that the internet is governed in an ad-hoc manner, simply dealing with problems as they arise. I, of course, argue that this is ridiculous and that there are unquestionably various institutions and policies in place that create a formal system of authority. Regardless, according to previous scholars like Mintzberg, "adhocracy" is a system superior to bureaucracy and one that will even eventually replace it. It is "any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results". The five features of adhocracies are...

  1. They operate in a complex and dynamic environment and are highly innovative.

  2. Innovations require highly trained and motivated experts.

  3. The experts may be formally allocated to different divisions but usually work in informal, multidisciplinary teams.

  4. Coordination and communication rely on semiformal structures, while more formalized structures and managerial practices are rare.

  5. Parts of the organization are highly decentralized.

Wikipedia certainly fits this description, but only to an extent - which is where I would take issue with some of Konieczny's claims.

Most people are aware that anybody can publish and edit posts on Wikipedia; in fact, that is its defining characteristic. However, what people are less aware of is the organizational structure behind the WikiMedia Foundation - the website's non-profit parent organization.

As the article highlights, even though the website uses an open-source model of knowledge creation, the organization's power structure is far less democratic. Jimmy Wales is the project's co-founder and, in his revered celebrity status, holds a certain level of "charismatic authority". There is also the Board of Trustees which holds the ultimate legal authority to make decisions and even amend the WikiMedia bylaws themselves. Some members of the Board are elected; some are appointed. Then there is the primary dispute resolution mechanism - the Arbitration Committee - a body that has the power to review editors' complaints against one another, ban editors from the site, and impose other restrictions. "Ordinary editors" of Wikipedia only function below the authority of these institutions in the structural hierarchy.

To put this clearly, and despite public perception, Jimmy Wales and the Board of Trustees are "not officially responsible to the community, and they can legally overrule and change community decision".

Furthermore, there is a two-tier class system among the editors themselves. There are "regular editors" who are respected and recognized above the level of an "ordinary editor". There are also thousands of "esteemed editors" who hold electable positions and are recognized with various titles, including "administrators". Such positions often grant access to special tools, such as the ability to delete a page or to protect it from editing by others, or to block other specific editors.

So what does all of this mean? In short, Konieczny is correct in asserting that "there is evident disparity of power between the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia's editors", and, for that matter, even more disparity of power among the editors themselves. This would seem to contradict the "adhocratic" characterization which values a flat hierarchy, decentralization, little managerial control, and ad-hoc creation of informal multidisciplinary teams. Konieczny attempts to defend it by saying that, although the Board of Trustees has, in theory, ultimate legal authority, it almost never exercises it. That's a true statement, but not sufficient enough of a defense to maintain an argument that adhocratic governance rules in this particular case. The legal distinctions definitely do matter, and more so than Konieczny wants to admit.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Re-Framing the Net Neutrality Debate...

Net Neutrality is the single most important issue affecting people's day-to-day lives that no one has ever heard of or understands. It is also a debate that is grossly misframed by the media.

Let's clear a few things up...

Net Neutrality is how the internet already is and has been since its creation. The internet is "neutral" because, when you're surfing, all websites are considered equal - meaning that you pay a monthly subscription fee to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) in order to surf the entire Web; you do not have to pay different fees in order to access different websites. Everything is accessible.

The political debate over Net Neutrality consists of one side - the ISPs and giant telecoms - who want to get rid of Net Neutrality so that they can charge fees for accessing different types of sites, or block them altogether. For example, ISPs like Cablevision or Verizon would charge a fee anytime people wanted to visit a website with video, which uses more bandwidth than plain text, while others like Comcast would totally block entire types of software, like Bittorrent, because of similar bandwidth concerns (which they have already tried to do in the past). These companies argue that it's their network, - they spent billions to actually build the wires and cables making up the infrastructure, so they own it and can manage it as they please, - so why not?

On the other side of the debate are small website owners who want to keep the internet neutral and a level playing field. They don't want to have to choose between paying a large fee in order to make their site accessible or else making their site text-only. That would put small business owners and new startup companies at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. The F.C.C. is actually on the pro- Net Neutrality side, arguing that the neutral internet has been such a great incubator for business startups and innovation that it should remain so.

The political issue is about whether or not the government should actually guarantee that the internet remain neutral through legislation.

First of all, despite what you might hear, this isn't a battle between The People versus The Man. It's between one group of companies versus another group of companies (giant telecoms vs. websites).

Second, it also isn't a battle between big-government regulators versus free-market capitalists. It's entirely a free-market capitalist question, and it's focused exclusively on the supply-side of the equation. What's at issue is simply which industry to favor over another (and a "no decision" to regulate is still a decision, favoring one industry over another). Either the government regulates the telecoms and creates a deregulated environment for startup websites, or the government deregulates the telecoms and creates a regulated environment for websites. It's a Catch-22. Regulations will result from either policy course.

Third, and as a result, it makes no sense for the issue to split along party lines of Republican versus Democrats. Any cable news pundits who try to frame it as such have no clue what the issue is actually about. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of politicians have no understanding whatsoever about the technical issues involved, and are simply taking their cues from the lobbyists of the giant telecoms (small website operators don't have the same organized lobbying clout). Take it from me as someone who's been researching the nuances of Net Neutrality for years - if politicians actually understood the issue, many Republicans would be all about creating a DEREGULATED environment for new website startups to innovate and flourish.

So here we are with the F.C.C. about to release its newest set of rules trying to protect Net Neutrality. They're on the right side of the debate, however, their suggested guidelines are seriously flawed. First of all, they want to guarantee neutrality on wired internet connections, but expressly want to let ISPs skirt around Net Neutrality through wireless connections. They need to get a little more consistent. Second, it's questionable whether their guidelines even strive for neutrality at all. They've included two gigantic loopholes that can easily be exploited: 1) they ban any "unreasonable discrimination" of websites, but "unreasonable" can be defined lots of different ways; 2) the rules do not explicitly forbid "paid prioritization," which would allow a company to pay for faster transmission of data. Isn't that what this entire debate is really about?

It seems to me that the F.C.C.'s latest Net Neutrality rules are just like others they've attempted in the past - hollow and merely symbolic. They're trying to establish which is the right side in the debate, but not actually generating a policy that will have much meaningful effect in reaching the larger objective.

Monday, December 13, 2010

When Hacktivists Become Anarchists...

The Wikileaks story just won't go away.

In case you haven't been paying attention, Phase I involved somebody leaking 250,000 classified U.S. State Department documents and posting them to the Wikileaks website.

Phase II was the U.S. government's response - attempting to shut down Wikileaks by launching a cyberattack against the site itself.

Phase III was the response of private American companies like Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal - making it impossible for people to contribute money to Wikileaks through their services.

Phase IV was where things really got interesting - groups of hackers began rallying to Wikileaks defense. Citing freedom of the press and the more nebulous cause of "internet freedom", these hackers retaliated by launching cyberattacks to shut down the websites of Mastercard, Visa, PayPal, etc.

Now we're experiencing Phase V - the public demonizing of all hacktivist groups.

It's extremely important that all of you readers keep a few ideas clear as you filter through all of the various news stories...

First, there is a crucial difference between A) the individual who actually leaked the classified documents versus B) the website where those documents were simply posted. The individual unquestionably committed an illegal act, however, the website - Wikileaks - was simply a forum. Technically, the website didn't even break the law, and many are wondering why it is, exactly, that the New York Times is able to publish the classified content on its front-page without anyone raising an eyebrow while Wikileaks is demonized for doing the same thing. The only fact everyone agrees on is that the individual who leaked the documents committed a crime. Everything else is argumentative.

Second, there is also a crucial distinction between Wikileaks and the group of hackers behind the recent cyberattacks. As the lawyer for Julian Assange - the website's founder - has said repeatedly, neither Wikileaks nor Assange have given any instruction, nor have any affiliation, with the group of hackers known as "Anonymous". What's now occurring in the media is "a deliberate attempt to conflate hacking organizations with WikiLeaks, which is not a hacking organization. It is a news organization and a publisher". Make whatever judgment you want about the Wikileaks website; just remember that the website and this group hackers are two different things.

Third, not all hacktivists are part of this one hacker-group named "Anonymous". Hacktivism, as explained in The Nerfherder on many occasions, is any form of political activism accomplished through computer hacking. Sometimes hacktivists are very noble in their intent like when they assist dissidents in Iran and China evade their authoritarian governments' internet censors. Other times they might simply try little hacking tricks to improve their favorite political candidate's Google ranking. There is nothing wrong, illegal, or immoral about hacktivism, in and of itself. On the contrary, it is often a force for good.

This is why all of you readers should be wary about demonizing all hacktivists because of the actions of this one particular group. "Anonymous" is most famous for its edit war with the Church of Scientology a few years ago. I took a look at how I had described "Anonymous" back then, nearly three years ago, to see how my judgment might have held up to scrutiny. What do you think?

"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.

That description still seems spot-on. Go Nerfherder.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Senate Panel Approves Website Shut-Down Bill (COICA)...

There is a new bill just passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). The main purpose of this bill is to "allow the government to seek court orders to shut down websites offering materials believed to infringe copyright".

Some details...

S. 3804, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) proposes to target websites that distribute infringing materials by having the Attorney General shut down their domain names (if their registrars or registries are US-based), or by telling US-based ISPs and other online providers not to connect users to accused websites that have foreign-based domain names.

The intent of this bill sounds reasonable enough. Copyright infringement is an obvious problem in cyberspace and the music and movie industries have been trying for years to clamp down on piracy.

However, upon closer examination, there are a number of serious problems with the way COICA tries to tackle online piracy. The advocacy group, Public Knowledge, outlines these points well...

First, blocking access to allegedly infringing sites and effectively requiring service providers to deny their customers true, accurate information about site locations, effectively authorizes prior restraints on speech, the most disfavored form of speech regulation under our Constitution.

Second, COICA defines a number of key terms broadly enough to potentially reach many legitimate and beneficial services. This leads inevitably to a situation where very valid and legal websites are inadvertently shut down for no reason whatsoever.

Third, by specifically making it possible to shut down websites "that link to infringing sites", COICA is opening a major can of worms. Technically, Google, Yahoo, and all of the major search engines link to infringing sites - not to mention newspapers, blogs, Facebook posts, etc. that provide commentary, - meaning that an unbelievable amount of mindless litigation would be a secondary consequence.

Fourth, COICA would lead to major technical problems for the Internet as a whole. It would create conflicts between DNS servers by requiring the operators of certain domain name servers to blacklist certain DNS requests, making the entire system unstable. If you want to totally geek out: "These conflicts could simply drive adoption of third-party DNS servers, shifting users away from large existing providers and to various services whose business practices may be less consumer-friendly, incorporating methods like unscrupulous redirects or typosquatting. Conflicts among different DNS providers could also fuel adoption of client-side systems, increasing traffic to and burden on root nameservers."

Bottom line, from the perspective of having an Internet that functions reliably, it would not be good.

Thus far, COICA has only been approved of by one Senate committee; it still has a very long way to go before the entire Senate and House would vote to pass it, let alone, then, obtain a Presidential signature. In truth, it has virtually no chance of passing into law anytime soon. Nevertheless, the fact that this Senate panel voted 19-0 in favor of the bill is simultaneously 1) quite frightening, and 2) little more than a symbolic gesture to the lobbying influence of the music and movie industries.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"I Just Need A Programmer"...

As the semester winds down and my programming students set forth to blaze a trail in the world of technology, there's one thing that they can definitely expect... It's inevitable that people will start coming to them excited with new business ideas claiming, "I just need a programmer".

Professor Eugene Wallingford wrote a terrific post about this phenomenon...

As head of the Department of Computer Science at my university, I often receive e-mail and phone calls from people with The Next Great Idea. The phone calls can be quite entertaining! The caller is an eager entrepreneur, drunk on their idea to revolutionize the web, to replace Google, to top Facebook, or to change the face of business as we know it. Sometimes the caller is a person out in the community; other times the caller is a university student in our entrepreneurship program, often a business major. The young callers project an enthusiasm that is almost infectious. They want to change the world, and they want me to help them!

They just need a programmer.

Someone has to take their idea and turn it into PHP, SQL, HTML, CSS, Java, and Javascript. The entrepreneur knows just what he or she needs. Would I please find a CS major or two to join the project and do that?

Most of these projects never find CS students to work on them. There are lots of reasons. Students are busy with classes and life. Most CS students have jobs they like. Those jobs pay hard cash, if not a lot of it, which is more attractive to most students than the promise of uncertain wealth in the future. The idea does not excite other people as much as the entrepreneur, who created the idea and is on fire with its possibilities.

It's so true. There has always been a disconnect between the "idea people" and the computer programmers. As a result, the expectations of both parties are often grossly unaligned. I've personally been hired for some projects where the client thought I'd need 6 months to finish, when it actually only took a few days; and conversely, I've also had other projects where the client thought something would be a small, simple task that would only take a few days, when in reality they needed an entire team of software enginners working full-time over many months to reverse-engineer all of Google.

Case in point... I get new ideas for iPod apps emailed to me by friends practically every week. "Come on", they say, "Here's a great idea for an app, and if you just program it, then we'll split the money".

My reaction is usually to cringe - even when the idea is a good one. The reason: Most likely I'm going to invest weeks and/or months of my life programming this thing, and be lucky to earn over $100. At that point my friend would likely throw their hands up and respond, "Well, at least we tried", never fully understanding how time-consuming the effort was on my part.

This isn't hypothetical. Based on past experiences, I typically don't even come close to earning the equivalent of minimum wage, when breaking down revenues by programming hours invested. And it's not because my friend is a sheister; it's because our expectations are out-of-whack. He thinks his idea is what's crucial to the endeavor; I think it's my programming that's drives the whole thing.

The truth is we're both right. And both wrong.

Professor Wallingford is right to argue that "the value of a product comes from the combination of having an idea and executing the idea". In other words, both are necessary, and people tend to overestimate their own worth based on whether they are the "idea guy" or the "execution guy" (a.k.a. - the computer programmer), but they do so at their own peril. The truly successful enterprises recognize the equal value of both elements.

It would be great if more "idea people" actually put in the effort to learn how to program and execute their ideas themselves. That would definitely show their seriousness and commitment to the project to whomever else they might later approach. If I could endow my students with one piece of advice, it would be to look for those folks.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Netflix's Survival Depends on Net Neutrality...

Netflix has been on fire lately, and a main reason why is its online streaming video service (which, in full disclosure, I absolutely love).

Thus, it came as quite a shock to many people earlier this week when the New York Times reported how Netflix was almost shut down. Comcast, one of the nation's largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs), decided to charge a new fee for companies that stream video at high bandwidth levels. This new fee puts online video companies like Netflix at a competitive disadvantage versus subscription-based Cable Television providers like Comcast.

To make this clear, the problem is that, since Comcast controls people's internet access and also makes the bulk of its money providing Cable TV service, it is in a position to limit how well online video is going to work, thereby privileging its own service at the expense of its rivals.

The F.C.C. is now investigating whether or not this is a fair business practice. Meanwhile, a petition has been circulating to "Stop Comcast from Blocking Netflix" that quickly was signed by over 100,000 people and will soon be submitted to the F.C.C. Chairman.

This story is why technologists have been screaming for years about the urgent need for Net Neutrality. ISPs like Comcast shouldn't have the power to determine which websites will work better than others, and which websites people will have access to at all. Let the marketplace decide! The cyberspace we all know and love has been defined from the beginning as a place where anybody could launch a website with almost no barriers to entry in the marketplace, and it would either succeed or fail depending on the merits of the site. That's Net Neutrality.

Comcast and other large ISPs have recently become more brazen in trying to shape our online experiences. They have tried to prohibit certain protocols, like BitTorrent, from being used by their customers - despite many such protocols having valid and legal uses. Now they want to charge an enormous fee to online video services like Netflix so that their core Cable TV business will be artificially cheaper. If they succeed, not only will the Netflix's of the world be crippled, but any wannabe new startup company will be run out of business by exorbitant fees before they ever launch. Google and Facebook never would have had a chance in their early days in such an environment.

Net Neutrality is the way things have been in the past, and that state of being has fostered tremendous innovation and free enterprise. Because companies like Comcast are trying to alter the playing field, erecting "internet toll-booths" to privilege some sites over others, there has arisen an actual need for legislation that guarantees Net Neutrality. That's a shame, but it's their own greed that's driving the F.C.C., hopefully, in that direction.