Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Juicy Campus" stirs controversy at Georgetown University; underscores that "reputation" is in the eye of the beholder; where does this lead?


Georgetown University students are asking “JuicyCampus” founded Matt Ivester if he can do more to protect their reputations, according to a Washington Post story Oct. 30 by Susan Kinzie. The story is titled “The Juice, the Whole Juice, and Nothing But the Juice,” link here.

"JuicyCampus" says that its contents are not indexed by search engines, so the risk to students is much less. But some students point out that at a school like Georgetown, many students will go on to sensitive careers like foreign service. Background investigators might check the site directly not find some material funny. Or others might repost derogatory material there in other places that are searchable.

Ivester says the site removes spam and personal information like home addresses, and outright libel. The problem is more subtle. Some people are much more “reputation sensitive” than others. There are a variety of reasons having to do with the jobs they have or apply for, family circumstances, and religion. For example, someone in the military could get into trouble if he or she was outed as gay (although in theory the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is not supposed to consider rumor—but in practice if often does). A single person in a job or planning a career with little public sensitivity may not care much about a lot of comments. A teacher, on the other hand, might. People in sales or who are paid to speak for others are sensitive to this problem; computer programmers might not be. Some people, as noted before in this blog (as in the Pew Study discussed Oct. 15), are expected to use the Internet to promote themselves for the benefit of their jobs, not to promote their own personal views,

Reputation is an example of what George Soros calls ‘reflexivity”. It can be affected by exogenous and coincidental events that change how simple facts are perceived.

Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington University, says that current law gives protecting free speech a lot more weight than protecting privacy, except in situations where the privacy concerns are objective and clear, and even here there are issues (as with websites and data brokers like Intellius that offer the ability to locate people for a small report fee). Add to that the practical reality that reputation is “in the eye of the beholder” and is a nebulous concept, which is why libel lawyers make a good living. But U.S. law gives considerable immunity to free speech, more in the United States than in Britain or in Europe (where libel is easier to prove, as with the British “libel tourism” problem). I have a review of Solove’s book "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet" on Jan. 12, 2008 here.

One problem is that relatively trivial or insignificant details about someone can stay online at no cost for years or now decades, and could affect the person’s opportunities if he or she lives or works in a reputation-sensitive area.

The concern is that political pressure from people in sensitive areas of society could gut the third part immunity provisions (like Section 230), making it much riskier for companies to offer social networking sites or publishing services, ending the “free entry’ system for speech that we have come to count on today (and probably ruining a lot of Internet companies). People will propose or demand measures like bond postings or mandatory insurance (as with autos) to cover the “risk”, and that would shut most amateur speech down quickly. Imagine the consternation that a single state initiative or referendum trying to require something like this could cause.

Another concern is that the Human Resources world has not established “best practices” in doing “Internet” or “search engine background checks” ethically. Internet services were never set up to encourage this practice, but that has become a practical result.

As noted before, companies like Michael Fertik’s “Reputation Defender” have been set up to handle some of these problems.

The Post has an earlier article on September 2 “JuicyCampus Expands Its Libelous Gossip Machine”. (Check for “JuicyCampus” [one word] in the Washington Post’s search box; a number of stories and items come up that should be reviewed.)

"Dr. Phil" has covered, with some degree of ratings-driven sensationalism, the online gossip problem recently several times (check my TV reviews blog, Oct. 28, which dealt with cyberbullying, as well as postings Sept. 8 and Jan 15 on “Internet mistakes” or “busted on the Internet”). The online reputation problem drives some of the plot lines of the popular CW show “Gossip Girl.”

How do we get a grip on all this?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Oregon "ballot-ician" becomes famous by filing "serial" ballot initiatives


A former Oregon businessman and carpet broker named Bill Sizemore has an unusual calling and second career, comparable to super-blogging. He is a “ballot-ician”. At the behest of other conservative businessmen and interests in Oregon, he writes and files ballot "serial" ballot initiatives for elections. He has filed over one hundred in fourteen years.

This election he has initiatives to lower state taxes, give merit pay to teachers, give homeowners more freedom to do renovations without building permits, and prohibit the use of public resources for political purposes.

The ABC News story is by Dan Harris, and is called “The Most Controversial Man in Oregon,” link here. I guess that makes work as an election judge even more interesting.

Sizemore’s website is named simply enough, with this URL. The website includes some cartoons, a discussion of his philosophy (taxpayer relief – libertarian sounding), and a news feed.

Bill Sizemore was also in a domain name dispute regarding another domain intended to oppose him. The UDRP Dispute resolution appears here. It makes interesting reading as to how ICANN interprets the concept of “bad faith” in registering a domain name.

Sizemore certainly has an interesting paradigm for a "team of one" political activism. A guess a serial "ballot-ician" is like a serial entrepreneur.

Book Search program reaches major settlement over copyright concerns, ability to pay authors (with Authors Guild, AAP)


The legal (copyright related) questions underneath book scanning to make millions of books easy to scan and print (partially) from online remain incompletely resolved, but Google has agreed to pay about $125 million to groups of authors and publishers.

The out-of-court agreement means setting up a book “registry.” Authors will use the registry to receive payment for book sales and use of excerpts by individuals and libraries in appropriate circumstances. Book searches typically show three or four lines of text but could expand to larger sections, but authors and publishers would have the ability to require payment for larger quotes in some circumstances.

The original suit had been brought by the Authors Guild (link here, with its own version of the story today and the Association of American Publishers (statement here).

The litigation reflects the tension in the online world that has developed in the past dozen years or so, as the whole paradigm for book publishing and reading changes, with much more emphasis on self-publishing and cooperative publishing and more responsibility for authors, which tends to strain older models for making a living from writing. For example, Authors Guild will not use self-published books to qualify for membership and normally requires prospective members to be able to command and advance royalty for future works. On the other hand, iUniverse (a major cooperative and self-publishing service) has teamed up with Authors Guild to republish many out-of-print books

The New York Times story by Miguel Helft just appeared online, here.

Bloomberg has a similar story by Erik Larson, here (with one update already).

The Book Search Program could mean that more material about individuals, as buried in books (particularly older books), often obscure and perhaps selling slowly in hardcopy but easily searched online, shows up in search engine queries and contributes to perceived “online reputation” problems. It is not possible to remove or change a small amount of text in a for-print book the way it is with a blog entry or social networking profile.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Search engine caches are protected by "implied license" from Internet content publishers


A case called Parker v. Yahoo maintains that the search engine “cache” function is protected by an “implied license.” The news story appeared Oct. 16, 2008 on Eric Goldman’s Technology & Marketing Law blog, here. It is also linked by Electronic Frontier Foundation. A copy of the Opinion (Sept 25, 2008) is here. The case was tried in the United States District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, the same court that tried COPA. The opinion was authored by Mary A. McLaughlin.

Earlier cases, such as Field, had expressed the concept that those who post on public websites visited by search engines when they know search engines display cached content give implicit rights to engines to cache their content. That is, such caching amounts to fair use under the circumstances. It is possible for a poster to override caching with an explicit restriction, and search engine companies do provide procedures to remove specific caches.

The plaintiff in that case even suggested that individual users who download cache copies are copyright infringers. That would be like saying that someone who downloads an AP story and keeps it on his own computer but does not repost it online or republish it anywhere else is still an infringer. The reason someone might to do this is that the original posting might be deleted. That hardly sounds like a reasonable contention.

J. K. Rowling vs. RDR Books case and fair use.

In another important recent case, the Harry Potter Lexicon, marketed by RDR and associated with Steven Vander Ark, was deemed not protected by the fair use doctrine of copyright law. The Stanford cyberlaw reference is here. EFF made recent note of this case in its deeplinks blog. The HP-Lexicon site has this URL. The case may give some useful guidance with the issue of "derivative works."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

More career counselors say that online "self promotion" just for your job is necessary!


Vicki Elmer puts a new spin on the “online reputation” issue today in the Jobs section (K) of the Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2008, “Aiming for New York? Think Like an Advertiser”, link here.

She somewhat turns the “reputation defense” around and makes it a “reputation offense” or at least a “special team.” She suggests that people should create a presence on Facebook or LinkedIn that supports the job they want, and follow the same idea through with a personal blog. As the Pew Internet Group noted (as I mentioned in a blog entry Oct. 14), a significant portion of home Internet users have jobs that require them to promote themselves online. Still, this is very "job dependent"; the idea that the "average" job seeker must simply look at his or her Facebook or blogger profile as part of or an appendix to a "resume" is a bit "over-revolutionary" and maybe even dangerous.

One problem is that many people perceive themselves as living in more that one “dominion” (to use Clive Barker’s paradigm) at a time, and create a different world for themselves online compared to the mundane physical world that supports them. I’ve done that for more than a decade. I was an “individual contributor” in information technology, and wanted to build up a “second life” based on a progression of political arguments that started with the military gay ban (and that was based on a traumatic even that had occurred to me in college). In information technology, compared to other fields, the workplace culture has long supported the “separate private lives” concept, although in the Internet era lives are no longer so “private” and consulting companies have to wonder how their professional placements would be perceived by clients who find them on line.

Furthermore, I was active on the web in the late 90s using an older paradigm: static sites with flat files that used search engines to build a presence and spread ideas through a kind of “passive marketing.” That was effective in 1998; it may not be so effective today where social networking sites have so changed the paradigm.
There is also an integrity question in “wearing several hats” in public. But, again, a retired person with multiple “parallel lives” in different “dominions” may well look at this very differently that an college student looking for his or her first professional job (especially in a stressed job market). I do realize that, when it comes to the time of selling my ideas in a more focused manner, I will have to streamline my presence and make it structured much more logically. What is changing all this is, as George Soros says, "reflexivity," testing whether I can "walk the walk." There is, certainly in my own speech, a great deal of "irony" and some people will say that this is a difficult, decentralizing and deleveraging time where social cohesion counts and when we can no longer afford the "luxury" of public personal irony or equivocation.

Elmer’s article should be compared to a much more defensive piece by Mary Ellen Slayter in the Washington Post more than two years ago, Feb. 12, 2006, on “Career Track,” “Maintaining an Online Profile -- and Your Professionalism,” link here. That piece had been written just after the media was learning of the “reputation” problems appearing with social networking sites. Soon we would learn about companies like “Reputation Defender.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Internet entrepreneurs should answer some tough conceptual questions, given this economy


As I noted on my TV blog, Oprah Winfrey has introduced a number of young entrepreneurs on her show, even in the face of this global financial meltdown and recession. The questions comes up, how well will technology hold up in the climate we have now? Technology companies, despite their high PE’s, seem, in many cases, to be weathering this financial storm better than a lot of other industries.

I think this would be a good question to pose to some of the “serial entrepreneurs” on a show like Larry King Live. A few of them have developed a series of Internet businesses, operated them for a year or so, and sold them to larger companies (for “economies of scale”) for huge profits. A logical question is whether any of the businesses are “sustainable.”

So, here we get to the pouring cold water part, or the hangover, maybe. There are a number of clouds passing over, visible at least to the naysayers.

For example, the most obvious question is, will advertisers spend less in a recession with Internet sites? But a deeper question is whether technologies will encourage web surfers to bypass ads altogether. As a principle, this is a serious question for the entire “free content” offering of the Web, and the ability of companies to make essentially free entry possible for newbies. Websites that don’t advertise benefit indirectly from the revenue provided by those that do. There is some unsettling litigation in the works about the way trademark law and domain names and even search engine works operate together.

ISP’s and web-hosting companies seem to have become more generous with bandwidth and disk space in recent years as it got cheaper, and it’s not immediately clear if financial turmoil would affect that (or the “network neutrality’ debate, for that matter). Some companies seem to be more interested in dedicated web hosting, with shared hosting a sideshow. But dedicated hosting depends on the idea that e-commerce and various other medium-sized business ventures make sense. The enormous number of problems with consumer data security in recent years argues against the idea that hosting for this sort of business would be that profitable. Instead, more small businesses would outsource their retail to really large companies.

We’ve talked a lot here about “amateur” self-publishing (with essentially “free entry”) and social networking, which are related but not synonymous activities. Related to that are sites for video and photo posting. These can come under legal pressure if current firewalls against downstream liability to service providers (like safe harbor in the DMCA – however controversial – or section 230 in the CDA of 1996) come down because of litigation (like Viacom) or future legislation driven by social or personal tragedies. Speaker or publisher liability could be affected by some ongoing controversies regarding fair use (such as Viacom and AP issues) and even problems like determining exactly what is academic plagiarism. The idea of mandatory education and perhaps mandatory insurance for bloggers and amateur speakers could grow and become controversial (if potentially unworkable); this concerns comes out of comparison to other areas (auto insurance, perhaps health care, and now financial markets) where the tort system is not enough to protect the public against sudden unquantifiable perils, and more "regulation" (such as mandatory insurance) becomes a required.

Or consider the potential legal exposures related to hackers, spam, viruses, and various forms of illegal content. Industry has done a lot about these problems (with anti-virus products and Microsoft’s improving security), but there is more that it could do, such as introducing microcharges for email or blog postings to counter spam.

But the most controversial area may be “online reputation.” Both the broadcast media and the industry that supports self-publishing and social networking have been caught by surprise by the severity of this problem and the suddenness with which it started getting reported in the media, despite the fact that some of it could have been anticipated in the late 1990s when search engines became so efficient. Legally, the problem is obscure and it invokes the murky area of “implicit content” where the circumstances (and imputed motives) of the speaker become as important as the objective content entity in question. (The Oct. 27, 2008 issue of Newsweek carries a story on p. 51, "When Words Kill", by B. J. Lee, about reputation slamming in South Korea, link here.) A related issue is just how employers should view their responsibilities as they ponder checking job applicants or employees with search engines. For most of the past ten years, the media had been focused on censorship (the CDA and COPA cases) as if it depended on content alone, and now we have to deal with the fact that surrounding external circumstances can magnify the significance of some kinds of content.

All of these issues can intersect in various ways. They are problems to be addressed and solved, with some intellectual integrity. Entrepreneurs play a role (such as companies that offer reputation defense) but we have to step back and talk about these problems from a policy level, too.

Update: Oct. 27, 2008

Check out the article on p B1 of Business Day, The New York Times today, by Brad Stone and Claire Cain Miller, "To Survive, Net Start-Ups Slow Their Metabolism," linl here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Debt: connecting borrowers to "justice"


On Wednesday, Oct. 29, Margaret Atwood wrote a summary column “A Matter of Life and Debt” on p. A29 of The New York Times. (Link). She correctly pointed out our loss of focus on paying back debt as a measure of traceable personal responsibility, and as a subset of our general notion of social justice. In the financial crisis, the securitization of mortgages isolated the lenders from contact with borrowers and created the illusion of a pyramid of free rides. This is a total reversal from the treatment of debt in past generations, which generated horrific happenings in many 19th Century novels. (Remember, high school kids do need to study literature for a reason!)

In broader terms, the acceptability for many people to live beyond their means, and the social acceptability of debt, certainly builds up negative karma, but it also undermines a sense of social justice and stability. With some people, it will tend to create the impression that no private property ownership is really meaningful any more, and invite more crime. She writes with hope that there will be some restoration of morality, of a personal sense that others are harmed by excessive consumption, and that something like a common good matters. Otherwise, she warns, “we could have social unrest on a scale we haven’t seen for years.

But debt, in the broadest sense, involves a lot more than fiat money. As she points out, the bigger concept is some underlying sense of faith in justice.

Since the 1960s, we’ve tended to emphasize a group approach to justice and civil rights, with good reason. We’ve made a lot of progress in overcoming the disadvantages that we would burden one recognizable group of people with relative to others.

But when I was growing up in the 1950s, the “individual” responsibility for “fairness” and justice was the core moral value. Today we talk about accepting responsibility for one’s chosen actions (consumption, having babies, consuming substances). But in the 1950s there was an underlying assumption that everyone owed something back, beyond the scope of one’s choice, for the privilege or living well relative to many people who could be worse off. That seemed to be the heart of morality, even if then there was not as much conscious awareness of hidden interdependencies (although the New Testament feeds us with examples everywhere).

The most obvious example of this mindset might come from the military draft of the era, along with the issue of deferments, and the growing awareness that the risks and sacrifices inherent in defending freedom in uniform (or perhaps even at home in services like police, fire, and dangerous jobs) were not shared equitably. There was a then unchallenged assumption that you owed loyalty to your family and for caring for other family members. Yes, if you had a baby you were responsible for it, but having children (within marriage) was also a way to carry out responsibility that existed already. And you didn’t count on following your own path in life unless you proved you could take care of other people, when needed, even if you didn’t have your own children.

We changed our minds about this, although not as completely as everyone thinks, with the civil rights and then gay rights movements born in the 1960s. There were a couple of reasons. One was that the patriarchal “family system” did invite and maintain conflicts among groups (whether religions, races, or countries). Another is that we needed to nurture individual talent (especially brain power – the geek ) to win World War II and prevail in the Cold War. We learned that we needed to allow more self-indulgence and obsessiveness to survive as a culture. A side effect of this freedom was unawareness of the hidden unwilling subsidies from others, and a tendency, even within families, to let the less able or competitive individual people drop on the floor. That left plenty of new ways to generate resentment.

Still, we now find that hyper-individualism, extreme capitalism, and market fundamentalism, all of these things, tend to isolate the individual from any genuine sense of interdependence, that anyone needs to really lay claim on what is really his. As I have found myself, “reflexivity” (previous post) involves others calling one’s bluff, forcing one to face how one will, at some point, respond to others in a real, immediate sense. When no one is willing to do this, then a sense of despair and lawlessness really can take over. If everything that is mine is absolutely mine, then nothing is.

When persons have access to wealth that they cannot justify with their own ability or with productive interactions with others in an immediate (including familial) setting, they may be gaining at the unseen expense of others, possibly deferred into the future until some kind of reckoning. That’s why we have with bubble problem, and why basic assumptions about rules or confidence and even social justice can change suddenly. Societies actually have to accept individuals to share some of the uncertainty that goes with productivity and increasing standard of living. Societies do get concerned with morality as seen in terms of individual “karma”, and sometimes societies invite totalitarian ideologies that have rationalized the end results as “moral” (sometimes in religious terms). Or sometimes the market itself responds. Issues like equal rights and responsibilities for gays (the military, marriage, parenting) and to the modern opportunities for self-expression with free entry. Indeed, the free market itself could impose a “cultural revolution.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Reflexivity" (George Soros) helps explains all markets and interactions; it relates to "The Polarities"


George Soros, in his recent explanations of the current global financial and credit crisis, has introduced a term called “reflexivity” to explain how markets behave in a real world. In a general way, it means that market actors behave on the basis of perceptions, not transparent information, and their actions influence the perceptions of others. He uses this observation to counter an ideology called “market fundamentalism.” I discussed that further in my review of his latest book yesterday.

But that same sort of ideological problem occurs in the way we look at or “measure” people, particularly with respect to a concept called “moral hazard.” It’s true, on an ideological level, that we (especially in the “libertarian” world) criticize individuals for taking on risky mortgages; it’s only when we look at the bigger picture and use ideas like “reflexivity” that a lot of us come to see that this is not an adequate or reasonable way to look at fixing the current crisis.

Soros believes that reflexivity occurs in most human interactions; it’s as necessary to human interactions and to markets as is friction or gravity to Newtonian physics.

Unfortunately, reflexivity, in a real world, can make an apparently neutral attitude towards others having certain issues (that is, the libertarian idea of “harmlessness”) to take on the appearance of hostility. That’s because of karma. No one can become a self-sufficient person without the “indulgence” of others at some point in his or her life (starting with parents), so a moral question, in individualistic terms, would be, doesn’t the person owe the same emotional indulgence back to others? If, in some familial or perhaps workplace situation, someone asks you to indulge their needs in some unexpected way and you refuse, you suddenly are perceived as being hostile to them rather than neutral. The “manipulation” (in Soros’s words) is the set-up of a situation in which you are expected to act in some pro-active way in someone else’s behalf under conditions decided by others; the “content” then becomes the hostile attitude or lower apparent status of the person needing intervention. In the real world, people are manipulated this way all the time. In writing about family values, author Jennifer Roback Morse introduces a corresponding concept called "The Prisoner's Dilemma". Many of the teachings in the New Testament and especially the Gospels, that seem to challenge immediate self-interest (in passages like the Beatitudes, the Rich Young Ruler, and the Parable of the Talents, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Vineyard) are based on "reflexivity." Even the concept of the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy (for gays, however poorly it actually works) is based on "social reflexivity". Soros’s concepts of “manipulation” and “knowledge” more or less correspond to the “polarities”: power v. love, right v. truth. The tension between these poles always causes reflexivity.

Soros's most recent book is "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets", reviewed in my book blog Oct. 21. Soon I'll look at Benoit Mandelbrot's "The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal Review of Risk, Ruin & Reward". I wonder if "fractality" will become another buzzword for this problem to accompany "reflexivity."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Auto insurance by the mile: a green option?


Auto insurance companies are starting to consider auto insurance by mile. This may save consumers who drive less (like fewer than 10000 miles a year) money. It may help retirees, or those who telecommute.

One such company is MileMeter in Dallas. Insurance is purchased on an honor system for a certain number of miles. When the car’s odometer exceeds the limit, the customer must renew. The story appears on Pegasgus News here.

The company site is here and claims it just takes five minutes to purchase and print insurance cards. It’s not immediately clear if this coverage is available in all states. The quote form asks age and gender (which affect risk) but not marital status. It was not immediately clear how the coverage is regulated and capitalized. Other issues could include expanding liability coverage limits, comprehensive, deductibles, and perhaps even access to umbrella insurance.

The National Organization for Women had proposed a “Per Mile Auto Insurance Option Act” for Texas back in 1998, link here.

It is common for auto insurance companies to ask if you drive to work, and how many miles a year you drive, and offer discounts or lower quotes for fewer miles or non use in work. Sometimes insurance companies ask if you own your own home.

The possibility that more driving would increase premiums for workers who purchase this kind of coverage could become a new HR issue in the workplace.

It would sound as though this concept of auto insurance coverage could grow more popular. And it certainly comports with sustainability and with "going green."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tracking Internet visit statistics becomes a major industry, even during a recession


Advertisers, in both broadcast and Internet media, are obviously concerned about their budgets and the effectiveness of their product during a recession, and the pendulum for them can definitely swing both ways. The Washington Post today (Oct. 20) has a major story (Business, Section D) about the industry of measuring the surfing and web visit habits of the public: visits to different sites, and visits to different kinds of advertisements, in a wide variety of circumstances, including paid search engine placement. The story, about website “Visitor Data” as a “Mainstay” is by Kim Hart and with the link here.

The focus of the story is a company in Reston VA (near Dulles Airport) called ComScore. The company offers an enormous array of visitor tracking services to advertisers.

Recently (on June 25, 2008) I covered the concerns that eventually products like Adblock could undermine the business models based on Internet advertising; but even in a recession or downturn, there seems to be little evidence that this is having much effect now.

Recently, I was invited to join a similar survey by Nielsen. I received $15 for completing an online survey, and then was giving a tracking key for downloading the tracking package from their site (Nielsen also mailed me a CD). I was supposed to be compensated more later. The software did create an icon on my tray and did create HKLM registry entries on Windows XP. When I would open a browser (Mozilla, Internet Explorer, or Google Chrome) it would have the irritating habit of feeding the download screen, which I had to exit. After two weeks, I got an email from Nielsen saying they weren’t getting any data and I had to start again. I haven’t yet. McCafee virus scan flags the registry key as a “potentially unwanted program” since it could be viewed as spyware if the computer owner didn’t authorize it and know the company.

When I worked for NBC as a mainframe programmer in the mid 1970s, an office mate actually worked on maintaining NBC’s interface with the Nielsen rating systems as it was at that time (also during a recession, during the Ford administration).

When I worked for Chilton Credit Reporting in Dallas in the 1980s on the billing systems, it seemed that more revenue came from promotions (based on the consumer data base) than actual credit checks. When TRW bought Chilton in 1989, some displaced employees actually found work with TRW Target Marketing.

Individual webmaster often use Urchin and similar products to analyze which files receive visits and which search arguments find their data. Visitor search data has been important in some legal cases, such as the litigation for COPA (the Child Online Protection Act), now struck down.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Meta-speech: Transparency in reporting issues will require personal candor


One of the most important contributions that individual bloggers make to the political debate is to encourage transparency. By availing oneself of the freedom to go against the grain of established interests and play devil’s advocate, individual speakers, in sum, pressure major media outlets to report more completely on troubling and dangerous developments that can take a whole society by storm. This is a very important value to me.

The word “transparency” here has a second meaning (compared to the last post). It means that information about major items of public concern is presented coherently enough that many individuals can discern what is going on without necessarily hiring “professionals” or salespeople or agents to serve or “protect” them. I would use the term “issue transparency” for this concept and “personal transparency” for the concept of the previous post.

A good example of issue transparency comes from the recent financial crisis. Practically everyone was aware of the foreclosure problem, and could often see the effects in person in blighted neighborhoods. But few people understood that credit default swaps (based on bad mortgages) could (perhaps when combined with abusive and targeted short selling) trigger a viral collapse of the entire financial and credit system. Even major media “experts” on the various networks never said this. Occasionally individual financial bloggers warned about this, as did a couple of television series. Nevertheless, it should be possible for individuals to track the effect of swaps on their portfolios. Regulators could increase reporting requirements, and systems could be developed to display them by sites like Yahoo!, CNBC or Bloomberg. One feature of the markets is that volatility is driven by extremely short-term thinking, which tends to weed players out (and sometimes people in the real world); whereas, this time, a recovery is going to require fundamental changes in the way people live, or at least major green innovations and associated infrastructure (requiring capital, scare now) to maintain the same standard of living.

Another area where issue transparency matters is in national security, both in the security threats themselves and in the secondary effects on civil liberties. Few people, whether major media companies or individual writers, fully grasped what Al Qaeda was all about until 9/11. But all of us should have understood even then the danger of depending on that part of the world for oil (remember the 70s). Since then, major media outlets have become lax on reporting on the asymmetric nuclear threat, where as individual bloggers and small think tanks warn repeatedly about the dangers of loose radiological materials. Major media have become even lazier about reporting threats like electromagnetic pulse (EMP), leaving a problem like this to strident conservative groups and bloggers, leaving them to appear marginalized. This is dangerous. It’s only by recognizing all the existential threats that proper defensive and recovery policies and measures will be developed.

The “democratization” of critical policy information, connected so closely to the financial and physical welfare of most people, challenges the customary practice in society of going to “professionals” and “experts” for information, particularly in financial areas and particularly outside of health care. That development has an effect on employment culture. Many sales jobs are predicated on developing leads with social contacts, meeting quotas, and closing deals. Success in the practice is seen as reflective of an agent’s “effectiveness” or (for men, at least), “masculinity” but in the culture we have today it seems to encourage superficial thought and cutting corners (hence, “the cheating culture”). Our modern world has indeed grown a clash between personality types: between introversion and extroversion, between circumspection and free-wheeling, between individualism and socialization, in ways that are quite complex. Yet, the ability to present and "sell" complex abstractions (such as financial instruments) to "ordinary people" used to be perceived as one of the "justifications" for a higher and somewhat insular standard of living for those who will wear gray flannel suits.

On the social issues, I have played devil’s advocate with the na├»ve and complacent beliefs that many people took on regarding their individual rights (and a highly localized notion of “personal responsibility”) in the late 1990s. Changes in demographics, including an older population that is not always able to work, are also related to the economic crisis. To report these changes effectively, I have indeed related some personal narratives, especially from earlier portions in my life, that some people find unsettling and distracting. Yes, I do want to get into the media on a more “professional” basis, whether by web, television or movies (or all of them). While I wouldn’t expect to sell a movie just on the William and Mary incident alone, I may need to use it to make bigger points clear in some larger media effort, because the incident teaches some difficult lessons.

I have two really big concerns. One is that the “free entry” speech model that has so democratized debate may not remain in place forever as advertising gets weaker and as concerns of hidden legal liability shocks emerge (as from the Viacom litigation, for example). It would be a shame if we were forced to run to special interests again to protect us. (Another example that comes to mind is an upcoming case about using fees from non-union members to support union causes.)

The other concern lives underneath the first: we have talked about responsibility as if it were controlled entirely by own our personal choices (particularly, whether or not to procreate) and in a real world it is not. Earlier generations, at least until the 60s and 70s, understood this, and some more conservative religious groups (like LDS and evangelicals) still do. The social pendulum that a few years ago so valued “self-sufficiency” is starting to view that as a mirage. We all are subsidized by others, and we all owe debts to others that reach beyond our ability to choose opportunities. Indeed, while we castigate people for taking on big mortgages and credit card debts, often these are working people with heavy family responsibilities, not always elective, and “home ownership favored” government and market manipulations in the past often forced them out of affordable apartment housing into financially unwise or "irresponsible" condo or home purchases. There is definitely a “pay your dues” mentality coming. There will be increased emphasis on national service, and single people will find they are expected to do the lions share of eldercare and to serve as alternate parents for other people’s children. It’s very dangerous when others expect you to act as their role model or protector, and you didn’t first “consent.” But it’s happening. That’s why issues like lifting “don’t ask don’t tell” (for gays in the military) and gay marriage and parenting equality are important; otherwise glbt people and unmarried adults as a whole slip back into second class status, some of their most fundamental choices affected by the privileged status of married couples with families to have their needs met first (and to be taken care of in old age). This is not necessarily a good time for introverts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Pew Internet Project notes that many jobs require online self-promotion and reputation management; watch the use of nicknames and real names


The Career News has another story about employers and search engine background checks, here. Apparently the story comes from columnist Anita Bruzzese, who has a blog and book called “the 45 Things You Do that Drive Your Boss Crazy.” Anita has another essay “Protecting Your Online Reputation”, here.

In this case, a former manager found unfavorable comments made about him by other subordinates or coworkers, and that caused him not to be able to get another job because employers found the comments. In this case, because the company or circumstances in mentioned in web references matched the person, the prospective employer probably could be reasonably sure of finding the right person.

The solution was for the person to use his legal name on his resume and cover letters. Then employers did not find that way in the searches. Of course, if they were clever they could try dropping his middle name.

In my case, back in 2005, I got into trouble with one school where I substitute caught because of what I had posted under my nick name (even though my employment records were under my full legal name). Students actually figured that out, and thought that a fictitious screenplay by me was a poor reflection on me because I was too much like the character who got into trouble. “It’s only a movie” I say, like “Kite Runner.” Yet, school officials feared that even students’ finding the item and knowing it had been authored by someone who worked there as a sub could tempt students into making false allegations against teachers and duplicating circumstances in the fictitious screenplay! There were positive things in the play, however; in one scene, a student saves a sub’s life with a defibrillator. Since this incident, school systems in the county have started installing defibrillators and actually training staff to use them.

It may be legally important, when giving attribution to someone in a news story, to spell their name the same way the source uses it in public.

Bruzzese talks about "The Pew Internet & American Life Project”, which studies Internet use and society, especially with respect to families, children and employment. The organization has a PDF white paper called “Digital Footprints: Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency”, link here, by Mary Madden, Susannah Fox, Aaron Smith and Jessica Vitak.

The white paper makes some very interesting points, such as that one in ten Internet users have a job that actually requires them to “promote” themselves online, including the values and ideas of the companies or organizations that they work for (not necessarily their own). That would tend to include many executives and managers, teachers (sometimes), and particularly agents who need leads to get business. Imagine the “moral” effect of this on the integrity of financial markets, given what has happened!

The paper also discusses “transparency”, which is its word for the concept that a person’s profile or content is available and searchable worldwide, or, as an alternative, whitelisted and restricted. The paper notes that many people use the Internet (instead of phone book) to locate other people who otherwise would not be regarded as celebrities. They note that they use search engines to find out about people that they may date or even hire. Most individuals are not particularly concerned about the impression others may have of them (which are often colored by the cultural beliefs of others as well as the speaker).

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Amish: the individual, the family, and "asymmetry"


Since moving back to the East Coast in 2003, I’ve visited the Amish country in southern Pennsylvania a few times (once after the 2006 tragedy) and again the significance of that group’s values is striking to me. Wikipedia discusses their family structure in detail, noting that every adult regards himself or herself as a member of a family rather than as an individual. Such an arrangement gives a marriage couple with children great social "power" over other adults within the family until they in turn marry and have children -- indeed a "perk" of marriage in that kind of culture. Furthermore, the group’s shunning of most technology and cultural isolation would seem to protect it from most of the uncertainties of the outside world (although not all of them, sadly).

Other conservative religious groups hold similar views of the family. For example, the Mormons (the LDS church) similarly tries to socialize all people deeply within the family and provide a “complete” life. Other religions, such as the Catholic Church and many evangelical denominations, preach “family values” (with a lot of simplistic prohibitionism about sex to nudge people into family responsibility) but often don’t practice them consistently. In other parts of the world, including much of Islam, “family values” turns into outright tribalism and a rigid patriarchal society.

From a moral point of view, they do have a point. I was an individual who experienced certain difficulties doing what was expected of “young men.” I went through a very traumatic period in my college years, as I have explained on the blogs. I got out from under this because society “changed” and started to welcome more diversity. It changed in part because it had to, in the 1960s particularly.

In the 1970s, a new view of personal virtue emerged in much of the LGBT community and would come to be accepted as part of modern liberalism and sometimes libertarianism. That is, the individual should make his own way in the world first, and develop personal relationships only after being sure of his own place. Such a view, for example, avoids the problems of gratuitous emotional pampering and "soap opera style" jealousy. But it also leaves a lot of people behind, people who depend on social connectivity and to whom we owe great moral debts.

The problem with this, as underscored by all the crises of the past few years (starting with 9/11, the natural disasters, and now the financial crisis) is that “having a place in the world” itself means depending on a stability that can break down. We can never take it completely for granted. That’s one reason why ability to serve (especially in the military, as I noted in my involvement with “don’t ask don’t tell”) takes on moral overtones.

There is another moral problem. Others made emotional commitments to me. I find myself, as an adult, preoccupied with might own “rights” to my own “choices” resulting in shunning people, as I might have been shunned before. “Get a job….” We have taken “personal responsibility” and taken it to ideological extremes, along with market fundamentalism, exposing all of us to the possibility of catastrophic breakdowns if we don’t accept more connectivity with others. Refusal of unwanted intimacy is taken to be a “fundamental right.” But we take this further. We take pleas from others as a demand to change our own goals and sense of identity to stop and orient our purposes toward their needs. We feel asked to “change”. And the ultimate problem is that external instability can force us to change, to stay alive at all. This connects to other religious concepts, such as the Christian idea of forgiveness. Whatever we think of their theology and the apparently stifling (from our point of view) of the individual by their social customs and restrictions, conservative and insular religious groups like the Amish have a lot to teach us.

That’s the rub, isn’t it. We like the idea of self-fulfillment, and the public recognition that the asymmetry of the modern, global world offers us. But that same asymmetry is dangerous, and can lead to unsustainable situations. We think we are free and sovereign, but we are all dependent on institutions that we can’t control, because we don’t like the decentralized interdependence within our own blood families and communities. It is, perhaps, a question of karma. Unconditional “intimacy” was given to me at one time, and I got through some things. Do I in turn owe it to others, even when it goes beyond my capacity of choice? One problem is that, with bad "karma", you ride in the rafts of others whether you like it or not, and if you still lose out because of the "irresponsibility" or "dishonesty" of others, you still wait in line like everybody else, so you have to become more open. The irony is that the “free market” could some day force this upon me. The "rule of law" does not guarantee a fundamental right to global stability.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Section 230, and "safe harbor": could these be "regulated away"?


Bloggers have benefited, more of less, from two major laws which more or less (though maybe not completely) shield ISP’s and publishing services from downstream liability for the content that they post.

One of these instruments is Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act (Cornell Law School reference) which, with some reservations, generally protects ISPs from the content of bloggers (libel) and generally protects bloggers from problems posed by comments posted by others. The concept is a bit soft and there are unresolved issues (such as what happens if the blogger edits the posted comment). Electronic Frontier Foundation has an FAQ page on the topic which should be used as a reference, here. But the underlying concept is that an ISP is viewed as like a “phone company” and not as a “publisher”; similarly, the blogger or message board administrator who allows others to post comments is viewed as a communications facilitator and not a blogger.

The other major item is the “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA, or OCILLA, link here. This provision protects ISP’s from downstream liability for copyright infringement if they follow safe-harbor takedown procedures. These have been controversial, and there have been many complaints that ISP’s have little incentive to give individual speakers a fair shake.

However, there are voices out there that say that protections like “Section 230” and “Safe Harbor” are misused, abused, or claimed in situations where they don’t apply. That’s one of the potential points of contention in the prolonged litigation between Viacom and Youtube. Neither concept is perfect or without flaws, but both came out of Congressional desire to balance the benefits of open Internet speech from newbies without capital, and the need to contain some unquantifiable risk to others. The Youtube case could put all this at risk.

What’s the underlying issue? One of them is the claim that “undertrained” speakers do not have the educational background to know the risks they are taking by broadcasting online, nor do they have the capital or deep pockets to cover the potential liability. As noted a couple weeks ago, the concept of insurance for bloggers has reemerged. We have wondered if this or some sort of bonding could eventually become mandatory, or at least a business necessity for publishing services at some point in the future as the advertising and legal climates change, possibly in connection with the fiscal crisis.

In the fiscal crisis, we’ve noted a need to regulate and reinsure various financial instruments in a way to make them more visible to the public. In the Internet, there seems to be a “risk to the public” in a couple of areas, such as “online reputations” of others mentioned in blogs or social networking sites, and the possibility of dependable income loss from copyright owners. Now, these speculative claims can be made in the context of sudden explosions of liability in litigation, possibly causing another major “unforeseeable” economic ripple or crisis through certain kinds of Internet companies. Both of these claims are controversial, to say the least. In the former, the “online reputation” issue seems related to the sloppy way employers use the Internet and search engines to do “background checks” on job applicants without even being sure they have identified the people properly. In the latter, the income of artists and media “professionals” is at real risk more because of the failure of the media industry to react quickly to consumer needs and change its business model than to the activity of amateurs, even to the “illegal” downloading of songs and movies in P2P networks or sometimes on the web.

Friday, October 10, 2008

American capitalism, new opportunities, re-regulation


Back in the 1980s, with Reagan’s policies tending toward extreme capitalism, we saw (with “supply side economics”) a rapid trend in business toward hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts, with older conglomerates often broken into pieces, and recombined with new core businesses. The end result was fewer companies in one area (like credit reporting in my case) and potentially fewer data centers.

In the 1990s the trend continued as I worked in life insurance, although the business models were so complicated that it was not so simple to merge applications, so new application layers were created. And then there was Y2K adding to job demand. Nevertheless, eventually the trend toward super-consolidation continued, and after the financial pressures (including 9/11) there was more destruction of old-fashioned individual contributor (and often middle management) jobs.

I thought of this as good. The same forces making business more efficient encouraged the development of the Internet (although the 1992 National Science Foundation action was critical). That encouraged business structures, often advertising driven, that made personal self-publishing and recognition a valid business model as a secondary benefit. The individual publishers did not have to be profitable if the ISP’s and services could be. One came to look at one’s career differently, and realize that fundamental business changes could create new opportunities as they destroyed old ones.

Now, we see some retrenchment from “American capitalism” because of the credit crisis. Financiers like George Soros say that this is necessary, to accept more regulation, and that we cannot consume more than we produce. I hope we don’t regulate away the benefits of individual initiative, especially in the speech area.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Messenger matters more than the Message (particularly from The Fed)


Well, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke gave us a lesson Tuesday about free speech. When he warned that the economy would be weak for a long time to come, as he prepped the world for the international rate cut to come within 24 hours, the stock market indices tanked immediately. The Dow swooned down by 500 more points. That had happened before when Greenspan didn’t keep his mouth shut.

Of course, what he said was technically correct, and a reasonably frank description of what lay ahead (or perhaps beneath, to paraphrase a Dreamworks film a few years ago). I thought, I had written pretty much the same things on my Issues blog for days. Now when I publish, Next Blog might get me some hits for the same material (so would syndication), but it won’t tank the stock market. I don’t have Donavan’s Brain, but maybe Bernanke does. They say the same thing about Hank Paulson. When he speaks, the markets tank.

From a free speech point of view, it’s a matter of who the speaker is as well as what is said and published. Of course, I know, it was Bernanke’s job to say that.

Compare this to another situation. The big boys say something, and it causes minimal disruption. A small fry like me says it, and it’s a “big problem.” I’m talking about a Lifetime Television film “Student Seduction” broadcast in 2004, ironically the day after I started substitute teaching. It tells the story of a female chemistry teacher falsely accused of improper activity with a minor after a male student approaches her. Lifetime is a major media corporation connected to Walt Disney, Hearst, and sometimes Lionsgate.

So, back in early 2005 I post a script on my own website that is a variation of this story with a gay setting (called “The Sub”). Some months later, at a school where I substituted, I get in trouble because of this. I give all the details (they’re complicated) on the July 27, 2007 entry on this blog. But the point, is, even though I am a paean, it’s seen as a big “threat”. Students, remembering my name from class, who find it through search engines might get the idea that it’s cool to falsely accuse teachers, among other things. Of course, the idea has already been explored in commercial film, but somehow remained obscure in the area of cable TV. I had even mentioned the film on my own website as a comparison to my own. All the sudden, it’s a big deal.

That gets to another area. At $13 an hour with intermittent work, I am supposed to be a public role model (like the Fed chairman); and that may be OK except that my perception of role model is not necessarily the same as a school system’s or as that of a parent living deeply within emotive “family culture.”

One of the biggest problems with free speech, especially in a world of universal self-publishing, is the “purpose” of the speech. The “why” becomes as important as the “what” and leads to existential challenges to the speaker that could become quite dangerous to himself and others. This is becoming the heart of the "online reputation defense" problem.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Internet companies want stronger Orphan Works provision in copyright law


Internet companies have lobbied for changes in copyright law to make it easier for them to publish works whose copyright owners cannot be located. The bill is S. 2913 “Shawn Bentley Orphan Works of 2008”, link here on Govtrack It passed the Senate and has been sent to the House Judiciary Committee. It probably will not pass during the lame duck session.

However Lawrence Lessig, a well known authority on the Internet and the law, has criticized the bill as having too many vague requirements and still likely to deny legitimate authors compensation. The story is on Marketwatch, by John Letzing, is called “Web firms’ cry for copyright clarity left hanging; Lessig calls legislation a ‘mess’; individual authors cry foul”, link here. The bill would require that a web publisher make only a “reasonably diligent” search to find the author in question.

Friday, October 03, 2008

EFF gives updated perspectives on RIAA, MPAA litigation: DMCA issues matter more that we think


Electronic Frontier Foundation has noted that the deluge of RIAA lawsuits against consumers started about five years ago, in 2003, and is running out of steam. The editorial is “RIAA Lawsuit Campaign Losing Credibility: EFF Releases Comprehensive Report on Five Years of File-Sharing Litigation,” link here. The editorial contains a secondary link to the detailed report, “RIAA v. The People: Five Years Later”.

The story suggests a desperate, out-of-control attempt to protect copyrights with many “innocent” victims. In a number of cases, people have been sued for activities of other household members. In some cases, people already owned legal copies of the CD’s. People typically get sudden phone calls (as if from bill collectors) demanding settlements. They are tracked down by IP address from their ISP’s through legal mechanisms supposedly authorized by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It’s possible for errors to occur, and for ordinary users to have to pay to defend themselves when they actually did nothing. EFF is urging that attorneys and judges insist that RIAA actually prove in every individual case. This whole episode does sound like an argument for tort reform.

EFF has urged that the industry adopt a voluntary collective license program.

EFF also discusses the litigation by the MPAA against RealDVD software, “Why MPAA Should Lose Against Real DVD,” link here.

Once again, we get to the issue of people making copies of DVD’s and CD’s “for their own use.” In fact, every DVD you rent from Netflix or Blockbuster contains an FBI copyright warning. If you wanted a permanent copy, then you have to pay a purchase price rather than a rental price, although for used DVD’s from Netflix the purchase price is not much more. I can remember back in the early 1960s making analog open reel tape copies of records (from direct jack links to the amplifier) with a friend, and we justified it “morally” by the fact that we each bought lots of classical records. There are some arcane arguments in this case as to whether the motion picture industry is entitled to the “presumption of irreparable harm” and as to whether RealDVD illegally circumvents the DMCA.

Most of us have seen the warnings against camcorder or cell photo photographing of movie images in theaters. A few people have actually been arrested and prosecuted. Now, a theater, according to its property rights, may prevent customers from bringing such instruments onto its property. But it all sounds silly. Thirty seconds of “Transformers” does not threaten the market for the film and in more ordinary copyright context might be “fair use”. Because I hope to make a movie of my own material myself some day, I can see both sides. It seems, however, that copyright law is consistently much tougher with images and video than text -- or is it: maybe that’s partly what the YouTube litigation is about. Potentially, there is a lot at stake for ordinary speakers and bloggers in the long run.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

AOL will cancel its "hometown" publishing and FTP services


AOL has notified its subscribers that it will terminate its “Hometown AOL” self-publishing and blogging service, along with its FTP utility, on Oct. 31, 2008, at least within the United States. It provides some advice on how to back up content but leaves customers on their own to find regular hosting.

Search engines have long indexed content under “members.aol.com” or “hometown.aol.com” interchangeably. Even if content is copied to a regularly hosted domain, it will have a new domain name and have to be reindexed. AOL should have provided more assistance or arrangements for new hosting. The announcement is dated Aug 4 here on the “People Connection Blog”, link here.

Hometown AOL was, as I recall, launched in 1996. At first it published only images and text entered by hand. By October 1996 it was possible to save regular text files (like chapters of a book) and publish them on the Web. By sometime in 1997 or 1998, they were getting indexed by search engines.

It is not clear whether hometown AOL requires the subscription fee, inasmuch as AOL has offered email services free and gone to an advertising model. The reason for the action is not totally clear, but hometown AOL may be an outmoded concept in the days of high-end blogging services and social networking sites. Perhaps Facebook or Myspace will step in and help Hometown publishers, although the emphasis on Hometown as a publishing space may not be the best fit.

The FTP facility could also connect and publish to outside domains.

Since that time, many other products have become more popular for FTP. The best known is perhaps Ipswitch WS-FTP. Microsoft Front Page came into being around 1997 and has always been a big clumsly; now Microsoft is replacing that with Expression Web.

When I launched “hppub.com” to support my book in the summer of 1997, I kept mirror copies of the book content on hometown AOL. In early days, hometown AOL was often more stable than other hosted sites. However, it provided no reports or statistics as to visits. Nevertheless, many people built fancy sites on hometown AOL during the 1997-1998 period.

I stopped the practice of mirroring around the year 2000. Search engine companies say that they prefer people not to do this. Eventually, I replaced the index pages with links to my main site, doaskdotell.com. (Try hometown.aol.com/jboushka.) My intention, of course, had been to make sure a version of my work was always available online, since service in those days was not always as stable. Actually, it turned out that the “one-person” ISP that I had in those days (virtualnetspace, hosted on rack space by a Maryland businessman) was quite stable for four years, before the rack space was driven out by competition from larger companies with more economies of scale.

Update: Oct. 28

Blogger has a migration tool for AOL Journals. The Blogger Buzz link is here. There is more discussion of the relationship between Hometown AOL and AOL Journals (historically) at "Technology Commentary" here. Presumably Hometown users would have converted to Journals first, then to Blogger. I've seen lots of conversions in my 35 years of I.T.!