Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A "Curious Life" (mine, maybe): is there one guilding "principle"? We've forgotten how things used to be


Over the span of my “curious life”, the most prominent moral value that stands out is this: We need to share not just sacrifices but also risks and uncertainties more equitably. And those uncertainties have as much to do with emotional bonds as financial support. Everyone should put out the emotional effort that it took or would have taken to make him or her and adult. (That gets into the messy trichotomy of feelings, actions and the capacity for actions in reserve.) A quick corollary would be that everyone should be accountable to someone else and be able to support someone else, particularly before being heard from. Can I live up to that? Well, no. But it does seem that if all of us could or did, the “open society” and freedom we want would be much more sustainable. Closed societies, like the Amish (check my movie review page Dec. 28) achieve sustainability by regulating individual ego (and protecting from too much awareness of individualized karma) and forcing it to remain identified with the group, often claiming the authority of scriptures. Some of these societies are more successful than we would think. And even in our “open” society, sometimes introverted people with “artistic” temperaments who develop their own private access to emotion are expected to become involved with others on terms defined by others as part of their “debt” to the world that brought them up.

This was how people understood the balance between personal morals and freedom a half century or more ago, and people did not expect “justice” or equality as we perceive these ideas today to be anything close to perfect. Indeed, there were horrible group injustices (most notably, race). People tended to view the authority structures generated within political, social and especially familial bonds as important to the welfare of everyone as important as the knowledge base or truth available to society; people did not always welcome candor with truth (especially if it hinted of a little psychological sadism). One feature of moral teaching – marital fidelity – was actually a subset of notions of family responsibility that really applied to everyone, regardless of choice. Prohibitionistic attitudes (and even laws) toward non-martial sex (and the prestige afforded procreative sex within marriage) really were designed to make “committed” and permanent marriage worthwhile, and to goad everyone into sharing intergenerational responsibility. Young men, especially, were expected to share the risk of defending their society, and our ideas of morality started getting warped: you could be tempted to cheat on a test in order to keep a deferment, when society looked at us as “unqualified” for exemption from the risks that others had to take. We developed a moral soup.

Over the decades, we’ve changed our minds on all this somewhat, sometimes a lot, but not always consistently. Largely because of communications and other technology advances (which can be undermined), as well for the need for brainpower to survive wars and crises, we now value the autonomy of the individual more than in the past, and we are not always conscious of whether, in the deepest sense, the person “paid his dues.” That results in new problems, where individual parents and family members who, to tell the truth, “sacrificed” even if they entered into their relationships by conscious choice, can get left behind. There’s some kind of balance and there is no way to make it perfect. Usually, today, moral discussions assume that the individuals involved chose the commitments (especially marriages) that they are in, but usually things are not that simple.

I stumbled across an old print issue of The Weekly Standard from Dec. 24, 2007, well before the economic collapse, and noted an article by Jeffrey Bell, “Alive and Kicking: Reports on the demise of social conservatism are greatly exaggerated” (p. 32), in which Bell maintains that social conservatism and “culture war” is relatively new and specifically American. The historical reasons may go back to a particular issue with the American Revolution, where the colonists wanted to throw off the European idea that people were “better” because of their lineage, but then stalled out in how far they were willing to take the idea, instead investing in the actual structure of republican governance than in the idea of social justice within a large population. That would not come for almost 200 years. The same issue as a complementary article by Kenneth Anderson on p. 18, “Mormons, Muslims and Multiculturalism” – to the effect that there are enormous differences even among cultures that enforce extreme amounts of family-style socialization on all their citizens.

Indeed, pluralism and diversity have expanded (rather like an expanding universe) with the opportunities offered by the Internet. We are forced to deal with “inequality” and see bad fortune on a very individualized and very public level, the social – and moral -- effects of which were just barely beginning to be seen as recently as ten years ago. In the “online reputation defense” issue, we are forced to confront that self-concept (and therefore “reputation”) varies so much among different people according to how they have become socialized within and then outside their families, and a lot of socialization tracks back to getting people to share common stakes and risks, even at deep levels. We may only be beginning to see the potential economic and legal effects now.

I’m still left with a particular conviction, however. No one can really own my own karma but me. Immutability has nothing to do with it. But it has to be the same for everyone else. That’s the ultimate concept of justice.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Health 2.0", "Medicine 2.0", and "Patient Centered Medical Home": major new concepts?


There is a new grass roots movement to “democratize” the delivery of health care information with Web 2.0 tools. The movement has become known informally as “Health 2.0”, and a good summary of what it comprises is this wiki. Associated with this concept is “Medicine 2.0”.

So the range of possible applications and services could range from simple diagnosis menus to collaborations, to services by nurses or doctors online.

This can only scratch the surface of the issues that will come up: liability, to start with, and the medical necessity for personal examination and followup tests. It seems to me that the bigger issue, as I noted on my IT blog Friday, is the automation of health care records and the ability of multiple providers to manage and coordinate care with secure, HIPAA-compliant Internet-like applications.

Visitors may want information about the next Health 2.0 conference, in Boston in April 2009, here, on a page called “Health 2.0: User-generated healthcare.”

Then, there is “The Health Care Blog” with an article on Dec. 22 by David Kibbe and Joe Kvedar, “The Connected Medical Home: Health 2.0 says “Hello” to the Medical Home Model,” link here, incorporating the “patient-centered medical home” (PCMH), link here, a concept that grows as the number of patients with chronic illnesses constantly grows with demographics.

All of this needs to fit in to the 2009 health care reform debate.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Choice", community, and freedom of expression: not all responsibility is "chosen"


I recall browsing some newspaper ads in the lounge in McCollum Hall at the University of Kansas back around 1967, when I was still safely tucked away safely in graduate school, reading something like “Choice, not Chance in today’s action Army.”

That refers to the era of the Vietnam draft, of course (and the controversial deferments). If you got drafted (for two years), typically you got infantry (a 95% chance, according to recruiters). If you signed up for three years or more, you got a “choice” of MOS. It didn’t always work that way, and I actually technically “enlisted” for two years (I remember my service number “RA11937256”, eventually replaced [ironically now] by social security numbers) and was sheltered away in a non-combat MOS.

The word “choice” sticks in my mind. 90% of the Dr. Phil shows somehow relate to someone’s not following through on his “choices” (often to have children and/or get married). We think of morality today in terms of answering for the consequences of one’s “chosen” actions. We even think that the concept of “moral hazard” works that way, until we stop and realize many people have risk-creating circumstances that they did not “choose.”

But, many of the great moral difficulties have to do with taking responsibility in circumstances that we do not choose. As noted earlier in this column, if we’re going to have sustainable freedom, we can never guarantee “absolute justice” or “fairness” in terms of social rationalizations of “deservedness” that have so occupied political thought for the last three centuries or so. Christianity, as a whole, does a pretty good job of addressing this. (Remember how Rick Warren preached “it’s not (just) about you.”) We understand that we live in a “hierarchy” of “communities” and that some things have to be done and shared. It’s inevitable that this (especially “family responsibility”) will affect people who have made different “choices” regarding family life in a somewhat disparate manner.

But naturally we want to sift this down to what we should expect of ourselves as individuals. We want our own measurements or our own bottom limes. More and more, it seems like we are heading again toward a society where everyone understands that or she might have to provide for someone besides the self, even without deliberately having children, and everyone will, at times, be accountable to others, not completely within the scope of “choice.” But it will be somewhat unpredictable and sporadic. It won’t go on all the time, and many people will be “free” for decades while others won’t, and then some will face comeuppance. It won’t always be “fair”. What can be consistent is the expectation of the “capability” for serving in this manner. Generally, no one will “get out of things” forever.

Pastors sometimes say that everyone must be accountable to “someone”. One does the best one can with this, and lives within one’s psychic and relational limits. The idea seems to invoke a moral imperative to establish emotional openness to others even against one's own system of values. But such a call could undermine the passion of love and marriage, even as marriage, paradoxically, seems to need some control of things (including the family loyalty of the unmarried) to prosper. That’s the real “fairness” problem underneath the gay marriage (and now gay parenting) debate.

Ironically, the explosion of personal expression on the Internet (social networking sites and blogs) as well as proliferation of media outlets, many of them free or requiring little capital (and some of them stirring up controversies like copyright and digital rights management), has ironically brought us to the “red shift limit” of radical individualism, and made us (surprisingly and somewhat suddenly) more conscious of social connections and “reputation.” Employers and universities have trolled social networking sites and blogs for social suitability in manners never envisioned by the creators of these services. And that brings us back to an essential problem: “reputation” is not just “in the eye of the beholder”, as I’ve noted before; it is very connected to the social and family responsibility (and sometimes community responsibility) that one has taken on, not always as voluntarily (by “choice”) as we think. Other’s can be affected and sometimes imperiled by one’s “reputation” as others see the concept. Just think a moment how loaded the term “role model” is in the public school teaching world.

All of this makes the current unsettled environment of litigation over downstream responsibility in areas like reputation, trademark and copyright so scary. You can go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation front page at any time and see some legal articles about current cases and legislative proposals, bury yourself in the technical and legal issues, and miss the forest for the trees. If you look at a lot of them together you wonder where we are headed, given the current world climate and calls for more regulation and “risk reduction”. There is increasing social and political pressure for a more “communal” paradigm for “personal responsibility” and taking responsibility for others, and this could well undermine the “free entry” that we have gotten used to and that has so enriched our ability to debate public issues and get away from the control of special interests. But free speech – correction “free entry” and self-distribution – could face a rocky ride as the new political climate emerges.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

We need to guard individual public speech, even in the limelight


My own biggest goal in “retirement” is to help the public connect and understand the more subtle aspects of the multiple problems that affect freedom for all of us. To accomplish this, I write about a lot of different topics, and link them up, rather than about just a narrow range of subject matter.

I still stand by a conviction that “amateur” bloggers and writers can add a lot to the public’s awareness of what is going on. The “established” media must stay within certain accepted journalistic practices when reporting, and what we do is an interesting, low cost and low capital supplement that can make a huge difference in how issues are perceived. No, amateurs didn’t quite disrobe the “credit default swap” problem, but we may have been getting warm.

Until about a dozen years ago, the best that ordinary people had was “collective” action, which is what most of the First Amendment text talks about explicitly. Some of it seems intellectually na├»ve at best, mailing or emailing form letters to politicians, joining demonstrations and physical boycotts. Collective action is important and collective bargaining is certainly a legally protected right, but we need more than that. A full democracy needs citizen speech and citizen awareness. While we have the right to collective representation (just go back to the concepts of the founding fathers and the American Revolution), we need to be aware of the individual responsibility each one of us has for what goes on in totality. The individualized speech forces us to remain aware of that. And some of the concerns that I have raised in recent posts demonstrate ways that that spontaneous speech could be seriously curtailed.

What disturbs some people about the public speech (and event “limelight” seeking) of someone like me is an apparent lack of personal emotional commitment and empathy, at least as many other families experience these. Events in my own life, occurring in a very unusual sequence and combination over several decades (I am now 65) give me some motivation to want to play the role that I do. As I noted before, people don’t like to be reminded everyday, even in abstraction, of their personal “moral hazard” even when the comments are true. And some people probably want to see someone like me fit into a social hierarchy and accept some formal responsibility for someone (whether out of completely voluntary "choice" or not) before my perspectives are seen as having any meaningful standing-- which would force me back into some kind of familial or social (if not political) partisanship. But we need our objectivity. We do need to be aware of what we should do to remain responsible for ourselves. In fact, we must additionally often be our brother’s keeper, even out of practical self-interest. (Just think about how foreclosures and property values work). We have every reason to look at some more aggressive solutions to problems in the financial markets, as well as health care and now elder care. I think on Christmas day, we’re reminded that self-interest sometimes is something we can never protect completely, and we do need each other. We see more evidence of that in the media every day.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Web Buyer's Guide offers brief paper on social networking and "reputation" in the workplace


The Web Buyer’s Guide (from Ziff Davis), which first, like many companies, requests detailed registration information from “business people”, offers a brief 4-page PDF on social networking sites at work, from “Message Labs”, which is part of Symantec (associated with Norton anti-virus). The main link for acquiring the paper is here.

The paper is relatively high level, and warns about security risks (viruses or malware in applications) as well as “online reputation” risks from the use of social networking sites. The wording of the guide seems to emphasize the use of social networking sites as work, as it mentions the possibility of lost productivity. It does warn that social networking site information can remain accessible to search engines essentially forever.

In fact, some companies, in some business environments, now expect their agents or associates to use social networking sites for corporate rather than strictly personal purposes, to “get business” and build referral lists. The Pew Internet group had reported this finding some time back. This eventual expectation of more traditional businesses probably was not clear to college students and young entrepreneurs from an individualistic geek culture when they invented these sites.

This particular paper does not hit “reputation defense” as hard as do many others.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Major Florida criminal case indirectly demonstrates "online reputation" issue


On the NBC Today show on Dec. 22, 2008, Matt Lauer interviewed Jesse Grund, accompanied by his attorney. The video link for the interview is this. The early part of that link has a report by Kerry Sanders about the progress of the Caylee Antony case (with her mother Casey Anthony).

I’m leaving the details of the criminal investigation in Florida to established media sources, as the “true facts” will change constantly anyway, but one feature of Grund’s appearance was important. Grund was reportedly an ex-fiancee or ex-boygriend of Casey. The NBC video report emphasized that Grund has been cleared by police of an involvement in the case. (Remember, we’ve seen this sort of situation before with criminal investigations, such as with Fort Dietrick and Olympic Park in Atlanta, where persons of interest or suspects were named by the FBI prematurely.) However Grund stated in the interview with Matt Lauer that his history with Casey will follow him around on the Internet through search engines forever, and he said explicitly fears it will affect him getting a job.

Internet searches on him (along with “Casey Anthony” in joint searches) reveal many fragmentary references to the case that actually give little information about him. Some appear to be from questionable sites (at least according to McAfee).

That’s an aspect of “reputation defense” that is overlooked. Since the Internet stores information essentially permanently and information is so easily created, impressions or associations of people to events that normally are “memories” and sometimes get forgotten with time remain. This seems to be a different problem from defamation or libel in the usual sense. This is more a case where true facts that are already public in nature remain visible and are easily misinterpreted.

Statements are not always important just because of the literal facts contained, but also because of the contextual meaning people give them. In Grund’s case, the online publicity comes from the fact of a normal adult relationship that he had. This could happen to anyone in the aftermath of a relationship, straight or gay. Reputational effects of statements, that grow into “Gossip” (as on the show “Gossip Girl”) were always an issue, even long before the Internet made publishing of both facts and rumors so easy. My expulsion from William and Mary in 1961 (see Nov. 28, 2006 on this blog) occurred because of a statement made to the Dean of Men by me that was factually true but literally harmless, and I made that statement because of the history of verbal rumors spreading on a closed campus during the social climate of the McCarthy era and Cold War. The effect of rumor in such an environment (or in a typical high school) can, in a meaningful way, be as important as Internet rumors are today. Nevertheless, the challenge that my statement (to the Dean) made to people’s sense of ease with me (as the College viewed it prospectively) in a crowded dormitory environment made my continued presence unacceptable. (The United States military has to deal with the same problem today, which is part of the argument of my book.) I’ve chosen myself to perpetuate the story on the Internet as well as books in order to participate in a political debate, but it has been hard on me (look at what happened when I was a substitute teacher a few years back) and others. Reputation is a complicated and ambiguous topic and it only gets murkier everyday.

Matt Lauer should have invited Michael Fertik to participate in the NBC interview.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

It won't be so bad, or will it?


Barack Obama will indeed take office in a dangerous world. Perhaps the world was just as dangerous on Jan. 20, 2001, but then we didn’t quite know it; we merely suspected.

Let’s run through the really big points.

(1) The single biggest threat is a terrorist attack, in the United States or somewhere in the West (or in an oil-producing country) with nuclear or radiological weapons. The highest priority for the administration must be securing all radiological materials around the world, particularly the former Soviet Union, and in unstable countries (mainly Pakistan), as well as lassoing North Korea and Iran. Personally, I think an incident with radiation dispersion is much more likely than an actual nuclear blast, but an electromagnetic pulse incident could become a grave threat; some conservative commentators have said that EMP is the one way the United States could actually be “defeated.” Fortunately, radioactive materials (outside of certain materials in hospitals) are (appropriately) hard to get (although there are numerous accounts of clandestine activities like those of A. Q. Khan), and nuclear devices are actually difficult to build without the resources of a government, and existing (stolen) devices would be very difficult to actually use. Everyone concerned about this problem should watch the film “The Last Best Chance” from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

(2) The next biggest problem is a pandemic, whether manmade (as the small anthrax outbreak in 2001) or (more likely) naturally occurring as with avian influenza, or perhaps some yet undiscovered retrovirus. The “mad scientist” paradigm from the movies (or from 2001) exists, but fortunately is very rare. The greatest threat could come from out-of-work scientists disgruntled by economic depression (as in Russia or Muslim countries), and conceivably some of these would work for groups like Al Qaeda. (This was the biggest concern of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism that predicted a better than 50-50 chance of a major “incident” by 2013.) The best protection for the public is vaccine development. The greatest hindrance to successful vaccine trials is the regulatory structure and liability concerns. The next president and Congress must overcome these hurdles and get vaccine work going again. I think a vaccine for HIV is possible, and HIV is made much of Africa politically unstable.

(3) A number of natural “mega-disasters” as in the History Channel series are conceivable. The most likely is probably the earthquake (the “Big One”, which can occur in the Midwest as well as the West Coast, or even the East Coast), or future super hurricanes. We probably are getting close to having a good handle on how to intercept incoming asteroids or comets. Some of the other hazards are exotic (like methane eruptions). The possibility of a huge East Coast tsunami from a Cumbre Vieja earthquake and landslide in the Canary Islands exists and could call for engineering studies on a way to prevent such an event.

(4) The next big problem is a compound one: Climate change and peak oil. The debate goes on about these (as covered in these blogs) but in my own mind there is little doubt that they are “real”. We should not be fooled by the temporarily depressed price of crude oil; it will explode again. That leads to questions about “sustainability” and even social structures, as well as the effectiveness of normal free markets. While punitive measures like gasoline taxes or rationing or “personal carbon footprint accounts” come to mind, the optimistic strategy is to regard this problem as part of the next one, infrastructure.

(5) I don’t know how we will pay for bridges, roads, rail, etc. with Weimar money, but it seems like we have no choice. But along the way we ought to develop Thomas Friedman’s “energy Internet” and develop a transportation infrastructure that allows the use of hybrid vehicles even in low population areas. There’s a natural synergy between the Energy Internet and Obama’s ideas about extending broadband everywhere as a basic utility.

(6) The demographic strains of an aging population, along with all of the funding problems for social security and Medicare, will eventually (and sooner, rather than later) present another financial crisis. There will be enormous pressure to enforce the concept of “filial responsibility” or “filial piety”. A society that has grown used to the narrow definition of personal responsibility that goes with hyper-individualism will have to rethink the whole concept of “responsibility for others” and family responsibility will involve a lot more than the obligations one “chooses” by having children. Perhaps we need to define filial responsibility more formally, but give adult children exposed to it more authority to carry out their responsibilities.

(7) For more than a decade, we’ve gotten used to Internet “free entry” and self-promotion, without accounting for the legal risks and whether the advertising business model is sustainable, given all the new economic and audience pressures. Internet companies will have to be forthcoming about their business models. But more important is to carefully consider all the components of minimizing the risks (including “reputation defense”) of the way people use the technology. Most of all we need tort reform, and we need to be very careful with how we maintain calls for increasing “downstream liability” (the old Section 230 and DMCA safe harbor issues). And we need to provide students with much better education on proper use of the Internet (at least comparable to driving a car), and yet school systems are poorly equipped to impart this information now. I can tell that from personal experience.

(8) We have basic concerns about how people define themselves, in terms of the world they live in. There is a chicken-egg problem with whether self concept should depend on oneself, or depend on ties to other people first. That ties into debates about service, community, and "shared sacrifice" as moral issues the way we saw them going into the 1960s. Gay issues (like marriage, parentage and military service) can be cast in terms of intrinsic obligations to others.

We'll have to get our act together to stave off "the Purification."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

RIAA drops most home P2P lawsuits, gets with ISP's for "free market" "three strikes"rule


The music industry, particularly the RIAA, has finally listened to “the people” (or “das Volk”) and is abandoning those sudden telephone lawsuits (pardon me, settlement demands) that strike unsuspecting parents or spouses in the middle of housecleaning chores.

Instead, the RIAA has worked out agreements with ISP’s, which will send customers warning emails. It’s like to be a “three strikes” policy (sort of like the notorious three “do not sends” for substitute teachers that I’ve gone into before here). After a second warning, a subscriber might get slower speed, and finally complete shutoff.

Lawsuits will not go away completely, for extremely heavy abusers, but they should decline.

There is a story in the Wall Street Journal by Sarah McBride, Ethan Smith, and Arnal Sharma, “Music Industry to Abandon Mass Suits,” link here.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a web article by Fred von Lohmann, points out that this scenario still bypasses reasonable due process. A user could be “blacklisted” from using the Internet at all, in a way comparable to conditions of probation or parole after a criminal conviction through normal legal due process. The process is already in use in Europe and has been called the “digital guillotine” (rather like the “digital national razor”). The EFF news story is here.

Von Lohmann has a paper (PDF), “A Better Way Forward: Voluntary Collective Licensing of Music File Sharing,” link here. The music industry would for collective licensing groups that would offer subscription for file-sharers and share revenues with artists.

Update: Dec. 23, 2008

Wired has an important blog entry by David Kravets about RIAA lawsuits still in the pipeline, "RIAA Qualifies Statement on No New Copyright Lawsuits," link here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Meta-talk on reporting about "moral hazard"


Recently (on Monday Dec. 15) I reviewed an ABC television report on the cast selection and rehearsal for a high school musical (not the same as the “Disney” one). The 20/20 report mentioned (with conversations from kids and parents) some edgy and perhaps “negative” aspects about the appearance of a few of the cast tryouts and finalists. I covered that in my review, partly in the context of the degree of “perfection” that the media expects from “professional” actors on stage, and in television and movies, some of are only slightly older than these kids. I wondered afterwards was it mean-spirited for a blogger to go into this? (I didn’t mention kids’ names for search engines; I did give some details about the school because, by happenstance, I had actually taught there once).

Well, after all, ABC 20/20 lit the kindling by covering this matter first. Perhaps if someone like me (whom the kids could know about) covers it, it could seem out of place, or a bit boorish to compare them to professionals. But, I review many major films and major television events on my blogs, and I treat the television events like this one as equivalent to “films”. So, if I’m going to give complete coverage as a journalist, I’ll mention it. And, as things stand now, amateur bloggers have the right to become and function as journalists, even if that idea stirs controversy.

I’ve covered my “philosophy” before of “connecting the dots” – as including the need to first show all the dots to connect! Then you get a balanced picture of the issues.

I can understand how this can come across, however. Postings “ad nauseum” deal with troubling news events that, when put together, suggest not only that the sky is falling, but that a lot of us are getting just what we deserve. Most of my articles are abstract or newsy or at least about issues; they don’t attack specific people. But they do question the idea that people should play victim. They do invoke ideas about “moral hazard.” Personally, I welcome any steps that can stabilize the economy, but I don’t think we can get away from the fact that we have been living beyond our means, and some of that is related, as in the previous post, to varying levels of family responsibility, not all of it voluntary.

But I can see that it would be problematic for many employers to find that someone they hired does this (collecting a record of all of our society’s presumptive “sins”) on the web. It isn’t a matter of “reputation defense” in the sense usually reported these days. It’s more about “sociability.” You wouldn’t want somebody selling loans at the suddenly reduced mortgage rates to be lecturing under his own name about the “immorality” of families living beyond their means. You’d want to find personal empathy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Justice, community, equality: they don't always mesh


As I noted on my GLBT blog Saturday, I recently looked again at Elinor Burkett’s 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless” about whether single and/or childless people are picking up an unfair “burden” from families with children, or whether they (or “we”) should in fact share more of some kind of community responsibility. I tend to see this whole issue, one which I covered in the fifth chapter of my first “do ask do tell” book in 1997, as an apparent challenge to the whole precept of individualism and “personal sovereignty”, particularly in light of sustainability concerns – but with a twist. I would also mention another related book, Philip Longman's "The Empty Cradle:How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What We Can Do About It".

We’ve gotten used to the idea that falling in love and getting married (whether that has to be limited to the opposite sex now or not) as a voluntary “choice”, and that having children is also the result of a voluntary act. And, particularly toward the end of the last century, we came to take for granted the idea that most “responsibility” for other people is a result of one’s own acts: most of all, one must take responsibility for the children one brings into the world. But it is a choice. This is the “Sovereign Form of Personal Responsibility”.

But wait a moment. Things are changing, or we think they are changing because of what we see in the media (especially now the Internet). People can be kept alive longer, but often in a state of dependency on others, because of the way we practice medicine now. It’s easier (from the viewpoint of medical technology) to prolong life than vigor and independence. That means adult children have to care for their parents more than in the past, and states, given strapped budgets, are likely to start enforcing filial responsibility laws on adult children in ways never seen before. We also can do a lot more with transplants, but that requires the generosity or even sacrifice of other family members or other people. Dr. Phil, who usually shows usually present what I would call “The Sovereign Form of Personal Responsibility” (where existing marriages fail because one or both partners fail to take responsibility for their own acts) recently aired the moral dilemma of a teenager who would have to give up a baseball career to give a kidney to an ailing and less than responsible brother.

We could see is that we’re seeing a return to older, more nebulous ideas of shared responsibility. We can say, in a “Socialized Form of Personal Responsibility” is that to be fully independent and worthy of being heard from, everyone should demonstrate the ability to take care of others beside the self. "You can't go through life getting out of things."

Wait a minute. We thought we wanted people to be responsible for their own acts. Isn’t there a contradiction? Sure. But there are some things that are just beyond any reasonable idea of personal control. This gets into all of the discussions of “It’s not about you” and “The Purpose-Driven Life” familiar from Rick Warren. It gets into the very socialized moral teachings of the Gospels. It is important not to have children until reasonably prepared to enter adult life and raise them, but it is also morally important to be open to having them, or to participate in the raising of other people’s children. That sort of gets back to Vatican teachings about “openness” to “transmission of life.”

But then, it seems, marriage is not just about love and monogamy, faithfulness, and raising the children one has had. If others have to share the responsibility for one’s children (in the “it takes a village” concept), then why make so much of marriage?

The Burkett book, quoting nouveau feminist Michelle Gaboury, poses the idea that the desired end is not simply “justice” but “living in a community.” Marriage becomes an intermediate governing institution that admittedly has the power to influence and mediate the lives of the unmarried and childless adults because it does need their support in a communal concept. Sometimes it can demand real sacrifice of other people, and that’s OK because those people should view themselves as belonging to their “families” or origin. Adults become fully equal only when they form families of their own, including dependents (usually children and often the elderly). One could say, "marriage" confers some benefits (which unmarried people "subsidize") because marriage (even before children) presumes an emotional commitment (and "opportunity cost") that not everyone is willing to make (but everyone may still have uncommitted access to some kind of sexuality, even if only in "schizoid" fantasy). In that sense, gay marriage becomes important, as does reforming family law in a number of areas. An extreme, perhaps hyperbolic example of this kind of "morality" occurs in the 1998 film "One True Thing" when the father figure George (played by William Hurt) hijacks the life of his grown daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger) to get her (as a "family slave") to take care of the cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep), to the point that Ellen says at one point that she has been forced to "live her mother's life." The "community" concept is supposed to encapsulate the personal "sacrifice" so that the notion of "second class citizen" becomes pleonastic.

It isn’t hard to see that many men look at marriage "this" way (particularly in soap opera plots -- “Days of our Lives” with the Stefano patriarch and the failed and ruined geek character Nick is the worst offender). They crave the power that institutionalized sexual intercourse gives them. (Think of poor Sami in the same DOOL.) It’s easy to see that this explains a lot of jealousy (even a lot of Hitchcock plots). From a moral point of view, we start to wonder about relationships maintained not for their own creative value but for the social supports and approbation. Modern sacrosanct values get twisted back. Refusal of unwanted intimacy is not always a “fundamental right.”

Gaboury (and for that matter Hillary Clinton) are right, however, in pointing out the value of “community.” (The word occurs in the subtitle of my first book, and I had indeed thought about it this way back in 1997). A related concept is "socialization", and it accounts for the pressure on kids to confirm to external social norms outside of what is obviously "rational" and necessary to develop one's own talents. It’s easy to get carried away with abstractions about “justice” and “equality,” and history provides some warnings about the dangers of this. “Personal fundamentalism”, so to speak, can eventually invite authoritarianism (perhaps of the Singapore variety) or downright totalitarianism, of the communist, fascist, or religious (including radical Islam) variety. After all, all of these systems have rationalizations that justify the outcomes for individual people according to some kind of “moral” measuring stick. Mao’s “cultural revolution” is one of the clearest examples of egalitarianism run amok. As for fascism, ancient Sparta may provide a clearer example of the danger of excessive “meritocracy” than did Nazi Germany. When people talk about “community” this way, they are referring to a sense of belonging that transcends an excessive preoccupation with one’s own “performance” or even achieving one’s own chosen ends.

We can look at everything in terms of individual moral “karma” if we like (or argue that families actually share karma, rather an LDS belief) but we realize that some things have to “give.” We all depend on the unseen sacrifices and subsidies of others (a major point in secular communist moral ideology as well as almost all religious faith). Furthermore, some kind of communally based “sacrifice” gets to be necessary to preserve the value of human life for its own sake. That’s becoming especially apparent as the eldercare issue evolves.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More on financial planners, agents and brokers: when is there a "conflict of interest"?


The Washington Post today, Dec. 14, in the Business Section, p F5, in a syndicated feature called “Your Money Help Desk” has an article by Nancy Trejos, “Finding the Right Person to Provide Advice,” link here. She talks about someone having a “broker” for a number of years, and then needing a financial planner. In this person’s case, the broker had become a certified financial planner and the person was considering using the individual in both capacities.

There can be inherent conflict of interest for financial planners now, especially if their compensation is “fee-based” or if they are effectively brokers employed by financial institutions. This article on “Tough Money Love” (link) recommends hiring a “fee-only” broker.

It’s important to look at the terms “broker” and “agent”, starting with the Wikipedia entry for “broker”, as simply “a party that mediates between a buyer and a seller.” The whole topic of regulations regarding the employment of brokers, agents and financial planners is confusing. Agents have to have SEC licenses to sell various securities, and there are certifications. However in many areas, according to the Tough Money article, regulation is lax, a serious matter in today’s financial crisis. However, when I interviewed the possibility of becoming a life insurance agent in 2005, I was told that agents, in some circumstances, could have no other income according to Sarbanes-Oxley (text of law). That 2002 laws is here, and Section 604 indeed gives “qualifications of associated persons of brokers and dealers”, with confusing language that refers to earlier laws. In some cases, it seems, one may not act as a broker and independent agent at the same time because of the conflict of interest. That is, some, but not all cases. The picture is quite confusing and may be another factor in the lack of transparency in financial markets leading to the current crisis.


AARP Magazine
mentions (in the December 2008 issue, p 28) that New Jersey has passed a "Predatory Annuities Prevention Act" that prohibits agents selling annuities from pretending to be "senior financial advisers" or some similar title.

I’d rather be an analyst who researches things and publishes them for everybody, rather than the point man to handle another person’s finances or insurance as “professional” paid on commission.

This morning NBC “Meet the Press” has been discussing a distantly related problem, “pay to play”, more relevant to political campaign finance reform (which has affected bloggers before, as I’ve covered) but also very pertinent to “conflict of interest.”

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Major brands find it hard to attract social network site users; not like the TV world


Brand advertising on social networking sites is not necessarily working out naturally or easily the way it did for broadcast television in previous generations. At least that’s what a story by Randall Stross in the New York Times Business Section, Dec. 14, “Digital Domain,” “Advertisers face hurdles on social networking sites” says (link here). The print version (on p 4 of "Sunday Business") of the article has the title "Do You Want to 'Friend' a Detergent?" with a picture of label from a Tide box (from Procter & Gamble, of Cincinnati).

People go to social networking sites to socialize or promote themselves, not to shop (or to be reminded of their laundry machines). On the other hand, when people search for items with engines, they are more likely to be in a “buying mood” and respond to ads, whether branded or not. With social networking sites, companies (especially major brands) often have to engineer promotion campaigns to attract enough attention. So the investment in promotional campaigns that used to be common business practice is hard to justify in the social networking world. And some major companies don’t like to place their ad space on “amateur” pages or on pages whose content may be controversial in unpredictable ways, very different from the world of television and printed newspapers. In view of these observations, it may be surprising that social networking sites have made their owners so much money, although Facebook’s revenues and profits are not readily available since Facebook is a privately held company.

Companies have tried placing ads on “friends’” pages (a practice called “social advertising”) and not gotten a particularly favorable response.

Companies are also going the companies like Nielsen to research Internet surfing behavior, in a manner to the way they monitor television viewing (I actually had some contact with that system in the 1970s when I worked for NBC), but it is probably much harder to build meaningful databases indicating what visitors really want.

Advertising, and an expectation that some consumers will buy things, is an important cornerstone to the whole idea of “free” content on the Internet and the opportunity for “free entry” for new publishers. This may go against the temperament of many Internet users who want the entertainment and informational value of the web “for free”, and within the penumbra of some privacy expectations. So, strategically, an interest from consumers in “buying more” (to mention the electronics store in “Chuck”) is also important to the “democratiziation” of political argument and to grass roots journalism, the spontaneous reporting that competes with major media and forces them to do a better job. None of this is easy as the economy gets more difficult. Will the “free content” model on the Internet work indefinitely? Nobody imagined this when the public Internet and World Wide Web were first launched.

Along these lines, Andy Warhol made artworks of commonly branded products, such as Brillo soap pads. Some examples of his work based on brands are at this link, and some can be seen at his museum in downtown Pittsburgh.

A related story by Duncan Riley on how this business really works behind the secnes can be found here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Too many careers require social posturing: Have the Power before being heard from?


Back in the spring of 2005, while I was still substitute teaching, I was approached by a recruiter from New York Life to become an agent. Apparently my twelve years in life insurance in information technology as an individual contributor attracted the recruiter, because I would be able to hit the ground running with the business knowledge.

I also received a similar inquiry from Humana. Getting a license to sell life insurance normally requires a quick online course and a multiple choice test.

But the New York Life situation could lead to becoming a financial planner. That requires an SEC license and much more training, although NYL would have provided it. Although an agent receives his or her income from commissions (including renewal commissions), the company said that it offers new agents a “training bonus,” but with a supposedly legally required proviso that the agent have no other outside income.

There were a couple of other approaches. In 2003, while I was still in Minneapolis, PrimeVest approached me about an operation involving converting people from whole life to term.

In another direction, HR Block approached me about taking the tax preparer course and then working the 2009 season as a new tax preparer, but it would start at about $8 an hour for part of a year. It would take multiple years of commitment to get to the point of much income from it.

These opportunities by and large do sound legitimate. I also received other calls about obviously less legitimate opportunities, at least one of which involved selling subprime mortgages, even well into the bursting of the housing bubble.

I’ve had the experience from the other end. I get calls from financial planners wanting accounts. I’m not usually eager to receive unsolicited calls for services, or be approached door-to-door, or even in public. Yet, I know that times are different now than they were a couple generations ago, when social contact and approaches were more valued for their own sakes. Telemarketing used to be much more socially acceptable than it is now.

Most of these jobs require building up of “lead lists” and the ability to bring in business through social manipulation of others.

This concept needs to be parsed. A professional should always be able to communicate his or her work to others, and that would be true in financial services or sales. But the social posturing is about something more. First, it now involves a public presentation of the self, which would involve online presence to promote the purpose of someone else. But it also has to do with participation in a community that places a great deal of social value of familial relationships in which, in my case, I have not personally participated. I do not believe in my circumstances that I can present myself as someone who “takes care” of other “families” in this social context. (It’s interesting, however hollow, that the NYL application did mention sexual orientation as an area in which it does not discriminate. Perhaps this is self-discrimination or self-exclusion.)

Temperamentally, I am much more interested in getting the facts about issues and presenting them, and letting the audience find me. That often works in the Internet world, but I understand that some people object to this model, and believe that someone should “pay his dues” by achieving some kind of social, political or familial status before earning “the privilege of being listened to.” It can turn into an existential argument with unpleasant endpoints. This idea could eventually affect the business models of Internet companies or even have legal effect. It seems like a profound ethical and spiritual matter. But it seems that various parties have picked up on this, and are trying to get me to play their game instead of mine. If I did, I could no longer have my own public voice.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Attempt to censor a Wikipedia article backfires; MPAA may want "three strikes" rule on P2P users


Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to find more bizarre attempts of censorship or “turf protection” that backfire. Today Peter Eckersley has an article “Internet censors must be accountable for the things they break,” here. There was a case where the UK-based Internet Watch Foundation tried to suppress a Wikipedia article (an article about an album by a German heavy metal band) with a shattered-glass image of a girl considered indecent or illegal. But when IWF tried to censor the article with a bizarre proxy server technology, the end result was more wiki “vandalism” and more people seeing the undesirable image as an indirect mathematical result.

And, in turf-protection mode, the MPAA is preparing to ask the new Obama administration for more surveillance power over copyright infringement. The article by Tim Jones is here. One of the most frightening proposals would be a “three-strike” rule requiring an ISP to terminate the service of any customer who has accumulated three accusations of copyright infringement (as with P2P), with no judicial review.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

At one time, I thought my "writer's activism" would actually help with teaching


Early during my mini-career as a substitute teacher, say around 2004, I thought that my background with “personal activism” and self-publishing would actually help sell me as an educator.

In the early months it went well. I showed some of my Hamline speech online to a film teacher at a career center, and gave him some independent film links (as for the film “Jerome’s Razor”). Later, during the “planning period” I gave some government and history teachers at a high school an informal briefing on the CDA (Communications Decency Act) and COPA (Child Online Protection Act), and my visits to the Supreme Court. One student actually asked a question about the military ban and “don’t ask don’t tell” based on a Washington Post news story.

What went wrong? With weaker classes I did have discipline problems, in a manner that seemed highly politicized. I started sliding (not skateboarding) down a slippery slope. Social networking sites caught attention and all the sudden some principals worried about the “social reputations” of teachers, even subs, particularly as role models. Even with the low pay, you were supposed to behave as one. Then public attention became focused on “at risk” teachers because of the sensational NBC Dateline series that started in 2005 about Internet stings. A few schools, even locally, had real “incidents” involving police. Suddenly, speech that was objectively acceptable and maybe even valuable in raising issues became suspect as to the speaker’s motives, in an existential manner. Why would I be the person saying this? Why not let someone else?

In Internet speech issues, perceptions and attitudes can change quickly, and not always in a manner envisioned by innovators of new Web technologies.

One other factor combined with all this: the investment required of me in time and money, given the circumstances, to make the career switch to teaching. Given the political climate and the material that I have covered elsewhere, could not "remain silent" and just pretend I could "pay my dues" in life this way.

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Real News Network" offers a "people's" business model for journalism


I got an email today from “Real News Network” which requests donations of $10 a month as a source of funding. It says that if offers a non-profit media business model which does not depend on advertising sponsors or ratings, so it would offer a more democratic alternative than CNN or BBC, which it says tends to monopolize the 24 hour news services. Perhaps it is a bit like PBS. Unlike AP, for example, it is not owned or subsidized by conventional news organizations.

The organization offers a 7-minute video here,called "The Promise", from Independent World Television (IWT) and it is pretty interesting. It mentions segments called “Skewer”, “Fave-off” and “Politics of Faith”.

Another “peoples” news network with a lot of progressive content is Alternet.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Online reputational problems allow little recourse


On the NBC Today show Sunday morning (Dec. 7), there was further advise about “online reputation” and employers. The basic point is, “it’s public information” and
“since it’s digital, it’s permanent” and because of these factors people need to manage their online reputation just as they do (or did) in the real world. We’ve heard a steady stream of this for three years now. (I can't find a link for the story yet.)

One of the most troubling aspects of the “online reputation” issue is that, when something “happens” there’s no recourse, there’s no chance to face an "accuser." Employers don’t tell applicants or employees that they “check” online. One may even be confused with another person and never know about the job opportunities lost. There is the opportunity to offset negative reputational elements by creating your own profile that search engines will put on top (like Liked In), and employers are starting to realize that this is what you want them to see, first at least. But, compared to problems in the physical world, the lack of ability to know the “charges” is particularly troubling.

Or is it? My whole college expulsion problem in 1961 started with real world “rumors” and reputational issues that I simply never contained. (My father says, “we have to worry about what everyone thinks.”) In 1968, while in a posh assignment in the Pentagon as my first permanent party duty station in the Army after the draft, I was “mysteriously” transferred without resource.

On the other hand, after the online “fiction” 2005 incident when I was substitute teaching (as I described on the July 27, 2007 entry here), I eventually had to stop teaching without any real airing of the facts even though I know from the gumshoe evidence that legal sources within the school board itself agreed with me as being within legitimate First Amendment rights. The debate on the problem that needed to happen stopped, and discussion of it within the school system simply "froze up" as did any plans on my part to become a teacher. (I never was fired; I just didn't continue.) We simply do not have the ability to resolve novel, ambiguous problems like this outside of expensive and time consuming and risky formal litigation.

The advice this morning (with Matt Lauer asking) went into the fact that some of the problems are really tricky. For example, videos of photos from parties can be tagged, and some people draw conclusions about “you” from the people you accept as Myspace or Facebook “friends.” I’ve heard that before: you are known by the company you keep. Am I supposed to worry because, in Facebook, there are a lot of middle Eastern names attached to me because of the screenwriting group that I joined? I think that this kind of observation, if real, is going too far.

The other major fact in all of this is that “reputation” is so dependent on the belief system or the beholder, not just the speaker. Many reputational issues have less to do with objective wrongdoing than with “soap opera” issues: family reputation, or the idea that a power structure within a family or business has been breached. It’s difficult for many people, especially from earlier generations or from certain religious cultures, to separate this perception from narrower meaning of right and wrong that have become more accepted in the age of modern individualism. Online, for businesses sensitive to client attitudes, this can become a big problem.

The Internet has given “ordinary people” the opportunity to become “visible” and “famous,” a value that can be as enticing to some people as money. But “fame” alone doesn’t pay the bills (until it “pays its dues”). Some people don’t like the idea that one can draw public attention before one has learned to be responsible for others (as with marrying and having one’s own children, or taking over dependents in some other fashion), and fear that reputational issues with someone online can reflect on others are draw danger to others. (That’s closer to the soap opera world. I took this up on my original site in a 2005 essay “The Privilege of Being Listened To", here, and have gotten some response.) Possibly, in time, this sort of observation will become more important to the business models of companies that offer profiling and publishing services, especially as we come out of economic downturn. One can imagine even that some day landlords would become concerned that a person’s online content shows evidence that as a tenant the person could attract dangerous parties to the property and endanger other residents. (LGBT people worried about this forty years ago.) The same observation could become relevant in property and casualty insurance. What seems so disturbing here is “novel uncertainty.” Compared to a few years ago (when personal Internet activity really was still seen as just “harmless amateurism” , the business community may now become apprehensive about a new “risk” (actually “uncertainty”, a different concept) that is has no idea at all as to how to anticipate or calculate. We’ve mentioned this before with respect to blogger media perils insurance. These may be just red herrings and hot air, or they may be more serious. The advent of social networking and the national media sensitivity to a few sensational incidents has changed perceptions. In a nation of 300 million people and a global world with such sensitive religious and political problems, I guess such a hype propagation is inevitable.

There’s more on top of this. People invent themselves publicly on the Internet partly because they mistrust employers, who dump them “at will”, and people don’t like the favoritism of union or other collective activity as just “special interests.” Now, employers, with all their gall, act like they want to turn the Net into a tool for social conformity. Employers do, on the surface, seem to have the upper hand in a weak market and seem to be urging us to play defense with personal materials on the Internet (that is, keep personal Internet presence strictly "professional"), but seem in some ways to be responsible for the current mess with weak, deceptive business models. Look at the behavior or the car manufacturers, and of the investment banks. But, after all, they are made up of us.

Reputational issues are bigger than the narrower ideas like trade secrets and conflict of interest that the legal system does know how to deal with. As I said before, it’s important for the Human Resources world to get its act together and come up with best practices. Employers need to design new places to “draw the line.”

Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Fair use" exceptions to DMCA circumvention rules sought


Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that it has filed petitions with the United States Copyright Office to allow otherwise legal practices that are indirectly prohibited by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, especially those provisions prohibiting circumvention of copy protection technology.

One of these practices is called remixes from “ripped” DVD’s. Artists, especially filmmakers and YouTube content providers, want to engage in this normally “fair use” practice to engage in political parody.

Other practices involve tinkering with cell phones: “unlocking” them to use on other networks, and “jailbreaking” to use applications of their own choosing. Some of the innovation in this area has come from teenagers, as reported in 2007, such as George Hotz in New Jersey (earlier report here)./

The EFF story is called “Remixers, Unlockers, Jailbreakers, Oh My!” by Fred Von Lohmann, link here.

The United States Copyright Office has a website “Exemption to Prohibition on Circumvention of Copyright Protection Systems for Access Control Technologies: Comments in this rulemaking were due December 2, 2008. The Office has received 19 comments, which are posted below. Paper copies of the comments are also now available in the Copyright Office for inspection and limited borrowing,” link here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

From search engines to social networking: how people become "known"


Yesterday, as I documented on my “IT job market blog”, I set up a “Linked In” profile, and it leads me to some observations about changes in the fundamental ways that people promote themselves on the Web.

In the late 1990s, say 1997-1999, right after publishing my first book, I found that people would discover my content readily with search engines, even if I did not try to register with the engines. Because my content was static HTML, it loaded quickly and sometimes was found more readily than similar material on corporate sites, obscured by scripts and database repositories.

Since I was living downtown in a socially and politically progressive city (Minneapolis), I easily made the social contacts that I needed to help promote the book and sites, functioning mainly in the “real world.” These contacts included some political activism sources (the Libertarian Party of Minnesota), creative arts (a writers group and a screenwriting workshop, and the local independent film project), the LGBT community (like Pride Alive from the Minnesota AIDS Project), and nearby campuses, where I spoke three times, the first appearance being videotaped and played on a local cable channel.

Circumstances changed when I came back to the DC area in 2003, partly because of family issues. But there was also a major change in the Web as to how content and personal presence were perceived.

Starting around 2004, social networking sites were introduced, and by 2006 people were using them as a major supplement, and often replacement, to physical world social networking. Professional “social networking” sites like Linked In and Ziggs were developed. Employers began to expect that employees and job applicants would have a coherent presence on the web. That ran counter to anonymous activity on the web, or the idea that people would assume multiple identities. In my case, I had a legal name “John W.” but wrote with the nickname “Bill” based on my middle name (“William”). Since I worked as an individual contributor in information technology and wrote about political matters as a “second life”, I could make this work.

Now, it seems different. As noted before, employers are often concerned about “reputation” and professionals in anything are encouraged to manage their online presence carefully. (Yup, there is an application and online workd called “Second Life” nevertheless.) One of the interesting things about Linked In is that it allows relatively little space for content, but encourages not just links but personal contacts and notation of publicly cited awards as well. It communicates the idea that content is encapsulated with the identity or reputation of the content originator.

That suggests a new paradigm for how people become known. Rather than being just found by search engines (and how many pages of links they generate) they are found from an online social network in a hierarchal fashion. This, in the minds of many people, brings back old fashioned ideas of professionalism to the online world.

This sort of style of presentation emphasizes focused expertise and an ability to get clients or generate business. While this is logical in general in the employment world, in recent years (even more so now with the downturn) job markets have become over specialized, with skills that become obsolete. And this current recession is not one we can get out of by selling to each other or manipulating each other. We have to solve real problems.

There’s another irony here, as far as I am concerned. I got into the whole area of web publishing because of my involvement with the “gays in the military” (or “don’t ask don’t tell”) issue back in the 1990s. Yet the whole rationale behind that policy was based on ambiguous concepts like “propensity” and “presumption” rather than fact, rather like our idea of online “reputation” now. In fact, any policy to lift “don’t ask don’t tell” will have to consider online behavior, even “off duty”, as relevant to “reputation” and functioning in a structure demanding unit cohesion and respect for rank and command.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Besides the "content", the audience and the speaker's identity become "part of the speech"


The ACLU has an interesting blog entry, dated Nov. 13, 2008, “Court Silences Political Speech, for Now,” link here. In this case, in 2005 Leslie Wiese and Alex Young were ejected from attending one of President Bush’s speeches when they showed up in a car with a bumper sticker that read “no blood for oil.”

This case is disturbing enough. It’s pretty crass to regulate political banners on car bumper stickers, although schools and companies have been known to do that with employee cars parked on their lots. Arguments have even been made that bumpers stickers can make one a target, or the property where it is parked become marked. It seems that Wiese and Young were using their First Amendment rights in the broadest, group-centric sense, freedom of assembly and petition. This wasn’t about blogging or social networking or even “reputation.” Nevertheless, the administration seemed to think that the composition of the audience was part of the speech, and incredibly a court agreed with them.

That makes me think of a distant legal or political analogy. Content posted on the Internet, as in a blog or profile or flat site, can be objectionable not because of the content on its face value, but because of the identity of the speaker. That is, the perceived public identity of the speaker, especially his or her position relative to others in a family or employment hierarchy (or a school “authority figure”) can be viewed as part of the speech. This is “The Existential Problem”. Instead of looking at the speech for its face value, the visitor questions why the speaker posted it, and attributes motives or purposes that could become legally significant, if they could be viewed as enticement. This problem has become more common in practice since social networking sites came into vogue around 2005, and employers started to feel that clients or customers would feel this way about their “professional” contractors or employees, who, after all, may be viewed as in positions of “trust”. And, as we are learning the hard way, power can matter as much as truth.

(See also July 27, 2007 on this blog.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Criminal libel charges filed in Colorado for Craigslist posting



The AP is reporting that man in Fort Collins, CO has been charged with “criminal libel” for posts he made on a board on Craigslist. The link is here. The story was reproduced on AOL today, and AOL members strongly disapproved of the idea of prosecution in an informal survey. AOL's headline characterized the Craigslist posting as an "insult."

Usually, libel is a civil issue only. In the United States, truth is an absolute defense for libel. (It’s not so clear in Britain.) Some states have criminal statutes, and Colorado’s statute would seem to even including libeling the dead. In theory, such a story suggests that residents in these states who make defamatory comments on social networking sites could be prosecuted. Possibly a law like this would be used until specific cyberbullying legislation was passed.

The AP has another story today by Robert Barr about a case filed by a mother in Britain against her daughter for a book. (Search for “libel” at Ap.org). Again, here’s a story of a perhaps bizarre circumstance with possible implications for others as a precedent. It’s likely that the result would have been the same in the US, because generally British libel law is more favorable to plaintiffs than US law, resulting in the problem if “libel tourism.”

It’s unusual for libel suits to be filed among family members in the US or Britain as a whole, but the problem could become more common because of social networking sites and because of changing perceptions about family values. Another possible situation in a family setting could be invasion of privacy. The law hasn’t dealt with this idea in the family much (in either US or Britain) but a situation could exist where other family members feel “invaded” when an aggrieved person tells his story, either on the web or in more conventional established media (even the movies). Even “dead hand” clauses in wills could become a factor.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Facebook Connect will allow users to track friends on other sites


Facebook will launch a facility called “Connect” that will allow its members to log on to other sites to see what its friends do on other sites. The story appeared today, Dec. 2. One account is by James Quinn, Wall Street Correspondent, in the London Telegraph, story here.

The tool is likely to be controversial, but will be rolled out in connection with consenting and coorperating websites and companies. Some of the sites would include Discovery, Digg, Hulu and Geni. The other sites may tend to be more specialized and narrower in focus.

Yahoo! and Myspace are thought to be developing similar facilities.

Users of cooperating sites would have the ability to opt-out of such “tracking” but there will surely be some debates as to how proactive users need to be in maintaining their level of privacy or exposure to the public which, for some people, might include clients or employers.

The facility seems to provide another example of how technology is blurring and merging such socially desired “fundamental rights” of both privacy and personal expression, as recently dissected in law professor Daniel Solove’s book “Privacy Explained.”

I think there is still another subtle area in play here. People want the right to be seen and heard without the constriction imposed on them by hierarchal (and sometimes competitive) social and family structures of the past, yet they still need the popularity and social visibility. This almost sounds like an inherent psychological contradiction.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Internet gambling, while largely illegal in the U.S., is a big controversy now


This week the Washington Post has run a series on Internet gambling, starting Sunday, but the most controversial story is probably the item that appeared on the front page Monday Dec. 1, by Gilbert Gaul, “Inside Bet: Should Internet Gambling Be Legal? Prohibition vs. Regulation Debated as U.S. Bettors Use Foreign Sites,” main link here. Gaul has a link there for a discussion of "participatory journalism" and his rejection of it (that would mean gambling to report on it -- a kind of undercover activity, rather like going to work covertly for a questionable employer in order to report on it).

The centerpiece of the article is the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (Cornell law school link here). which is part of the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006. Essentially the law prohibits transfer of funds from any American financial institution to an Internet gambling set, but there are politically driven exceptions having to do with horse racing, online lotteries (sponsored by states) and fantasy sports. Recently, even in the midst of the financial crisis strapping banks, the Bush administration Treasury Department implemented new rules prohibiting banks from negotiating various kinds of financial transactions. It appears that, as a result of the law, almost all Internet gambling sites are hosted and operated overseas.

The prohibition is quite anti-libertarian, but the political motives are complicated. Much of it has to do with “protecting” legal casinos operated by Indian tribes in many states, and particularly the gaming business in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Professional sports, such as the National Football League (NFL) have been heavy proponents of the bill, which they may see as necessary to prevent "fixing" of games. Some of the rationalization has to do with the federalist principle that states should be able to regulate gambling within their own boundaries. The mechanics of the law go back to the 1961 Interstate Wire Act passed during the Kennedy administration (link), which was conceived more as a way to control organized crime as it was at the time.

People say that the laws are necessary to protect adults who would be gambling addicts and to protect minors. Imagine, however, using such logic with adult content. (That’s what the litigation involving COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, was all about.)

Relatively few states go after actual individual home users of gambling sites (which has been reported to happen in Washington state). This is different from legal practice with other problems, like child pornography.

Although I created doaskdotell.com in 1999 (the domain named after my book), I originally kept most of my content on hppub.com (an acronym for High Productivity Publishing) after publishing my first book in 1997. In 2005, I moved all the content to doaskdotell and gave up hppub. Shortly thereafter, I found it was used by an international gaming site. I had to clean up all dangling links to it to prevent people from linking to it accidentally, but probably the name was used because of its previous association (through me) with “libertarian” ideas. In 2007 or early 2008, it seemed, the site disappeared. Curiously, it seems to be used now by an international clone of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of which I am a member.