Friday, January 30, 2009

MSU Student cleared of "spam" on campus for broadcast email to faculty


A Michigan State University student has been cleared of all university charges for sending “spam” on Campus when she sent a broadcast email to 400 faculty members. MSU’s “acceptable use” policy allowed a maximum of about 30 recipients.

The student, Kara Spencer, got the support of free speech groups, including Electronic Frontier Foundation, and FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which wrote this letter on the matter Dec. 8, 2008, here.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has a Wordpress blog entry explaining MSU’s dropping of the administrative charges here.

The problem reminds one of the recent controversies when Facebook suspended or terminated some members for sending too much email in very short time periods. Some people were reinstated, however.

On that blog entry you’ll find a link to another entry (“Schools to Montior Online Activities of Students”) about the West Burlington Iowa School District’s decision to monitor student online activities even from home (particularly for problems like cyberbullying, libel against teachers, pornography, and the like). I’ll watch this story closely. It looks like the battle over “online reputation” continues.

I've been in East Lansing, MI (home of MSU) once, in 1984.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Can it be illegal to throw free CD's or DVD's away? Just wait!


Electronic Frontier Foundation has a story Jan 28, 2009 by Fred Van Lohmann, “MP3 Bloggers, Where are your Promo CD’s?”

If you can’t account for every promotional CD you’ve received or picked up at a digital conference or movie theater (AMC gives them away), you’ve broken copyright law. (Ah, yes, the CD’s are usually not in sleeves; they get cracked or broken and thrown away. Yup, that would be illegal!) That’s the argument of UMG, Universal Music Group, appealing its loss in litigation against Triy Augusto, an Ebay reseller.

This leads us into delicious circles. Imagine a book with a stamp that says it can’t be leant by a library, or referenced in a bibliography. (Actually, I have seen at least one technical programming manual like that, back in the 1990s at work; EFF says that you can’t do this, according to a 1908 Supreme Court ruling.) It reminds me of putting a posting on the web and saying you can’t link to it. We’ve covered that one, too.

The link for the story (oh, yeah) is here. Today, my post is just a “short story.”

Lee Tien has a recent AP story to the effect that some health clubs and shopping centers are webcam-videotaping people who watch their ads on big plasma screens. EPIC will love this one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

NYC: Landlord refuses to renew lease of tenant complaining on Internet (or was it other things?): setting an example? a new wrinkle on "reputation"?


Since about 2005, the media has reported problems with employers checking personal online activity of applicants (a few scattered incidents go back as far as 1999), but what about landlords? This problems seems to be contagious.

Anne Barnard has a story in the Monday (Jan. 26, 2009) New York Times, Business Section, “After Griping Online, a Tenant Is Made to Move,” and the online title is “Tenants Encouraged to Socialize, but Not Criticize,” link here.

The landlord is Rockrose Development Corporation, which reported has over 6000 rental units in New York City. A tenant (and his wife) in the “EastCoast” development in Queens, a luxury tower, was denied renewal of a lease. An employee reported to the press that one reason was comments critical of the landlord on the Internet. But this criticism was in a supposedly private group (comparable to a social networking group with privacy settings turned on) by invitation only, but, as so often, the digital content leaked out. Other spokespersons reported that the tenant was irritating in other ways and tended to downplay the Internet issue but apparently didn’t deny it completely.

The more obvious scenario would be a public blog (like this one) which the landlord finds. I’m not talking about defamation, just legitimate criticism. Likewise, as with employers, a landlord or any business could fear that any person who was “sharp-edged” on the Web without obvious accountability could have an inclination to report complaints at some unspecified time in the future (the old “propensity” issue that we know so well now). This is getting to sound like more a social values issue – the relative importance of free speech and free flow of information v. social, business and familial loyalties in a necessarily imperfect world. We’ve never had this level of this kind of tension in our social and business fabric before, affecting the “common person.”

As for lease renewal, it’s not uncommon for many apartments not to renew leases and allow tenants to remain month-to-month. This happened several times in my own life, and the legal right to raise rents was never abused.

The article says that tenants in rent-controlled apartments in New York City are protected from landlord retaliation for speech, but non-controlled landlords may do as they please, legally. An attorney called the landlord’s behavior here “obnoxious but legal.” Many other cities do not have significant rent control, and landlords would be free to do as they wish in most cases.

The “East Coast” property has a website and QueensWest community forum that actually mentions a filming of an episode of the CWTV show “Gossip Girl”. This is ironic.

I lived in the Cast Iron Building in New York City on 11st St (across the street from where the United Chess Federation had been housed until the late 1960s) from 1974 to early 1979. It is now a condo or coop (purchase), but at the time it was a rental, quite fancy after renovation, managed by Rockrose, quite convenient on foot to “both” Villages. It’s only fair to say (for the record, since I wrote this posting and have this “coincidence”) that I never experienced any problems with the company, and it allowed me to break the lease without penalty when I took a new job in Dallas in January 1979.

Picture: Cast Iron Building, Nov. 2004 (on a visit to NYC)

I checked today on the rebuilding of Freedom Tower and One World Trade Center, and the latest update seems to be here. I visited the 9/11 site in late October 2001 and again in 2004. I hope to get in another visit by Amtrak soon.

Wikipedia will tighten rules for updating, contributing?: what is a "reliable user"?


Wikipedia is reported to be considering tightening its system of letting anyone post. That is, only posts by approved and “trusted” members are viewable to the public immediately; posts by others must be reviewed first by “trusted” members. “Trusted” or “reliable” users would be able to see all revisions immediately.

Noam Cohen has a story (“Wikipedia May Restrict Public’s Ability to Change Entries”) in The New York Times ("Bits Blog") on the new policy, called “Flagged Revisions,” here. The German Wikipedia has used this system in Beta mode since May 2008. The policy seems to be coming about because of vandalism concerning Sen. Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd.

Last summer, I update one page, about “don’t ask don’t tell”, with the factual bibliographic material about the Rand Report, here.

Wikipedia has generated some controversy over the concept of “notability.” Generally, Wikipedia does not want people to create their own entries, or people in “mutual admiration societies” to create or update posts, although this seems to happen with advocacy groups and some corporations. The preferred posts come from individuals or parties with no business relationship and limited personal contact with the entity being described,

That would create a question about “notability” of “amateur” or “self-published” writers. Generally, the more material about a person that appears in search engines and that is written by others independently (and is substantial, not just links), the better. Generally, publication of a significant work by a third party makes someone notable.

I do not have a Wikipedia entry now, although my sites show up in footnotes of other articles. I would like to “earn” the notability for one, although that is a two-way street. A Wikipedia entry is often the first found (even above LinkedIn or Facebook) so it could have “online reputation” implications, favorable or not. (A lot of “bad people” in history are “notable” according to the site’s definition.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

A note about my own "self-publishing policy" now


Recently I have been asked about my interest in contributions to publications or websites of other groups, and there has been more than one such question with a range of different interests.

Sometimes there has been a suggestion that some particular slant on the subject matter should be avoided, and sometimes the idea has been floated that I should effectively abandon self-publishing and do all new publishing through one group, possibly to avoid distraction for the group. Because of the way my experience with issues evolved, I cover a wide range of material and “connect dots” in ways that others sometimes find unusual. But that is part of the value of what I do.

I have often written about business conflict of interest and self-publishing, as well as “online reputation” and self-publishing, particularly with respect to job seekers and employment. As I’ve noted (most recently in a posting on this blog on Sunday Jan. 11) it’s necessary in some jobs for speakers to accept close supervision of what they write and publish, possibly going through a third party in some specified way. Some companies, especially in the media, require employees to sign such agreements.

I cannot rule out that I could encounter this situation in the future, but I do not face it right now. To make my speech worthwhile, I need the freedom to control the content of what goes out under my name, and especially the range of subject matter that it can cover, myself. I can imagine some circumstances where that could change. For example, it I were to become involved in making a film, or join a media outlet myself, I would have to agree to their level of supervision. But I would make sure that my conduct, insofar as what I say in public after such a change, still comports with my own values, which place a high emphasis on objectivity and looking at all aspects of a problem, including unpleasant or even “existential” aspects. Any such change would have to be considered very carefully. I cannot normally easily assume that any one organization or group alone can represent my values to the public.

I do realize that my material is scattered among several sites, including “legacy material” from my books, and I do anticipate “restructuring” and simplifying and making my presence more coherent and “professional” in the future. But, in my current set of circumstances, and for the foreseeable future (even if my setup could change later) I must continue to "own" the way my own writings are likely to be found on the Web, and how others are likely to perceive me in relation to other people, organizations or groups. In a very broad sense, that is what "online reputation" means. Even so, I have to admit that in the future, "power structures" and external measures of credibility may carry more weight on the Web than they carry today.

The Internet has changed the playing field, by offering people with little capital a chance to be heard and sometimes gain political or social influence. Of course, there is also a question of how any speaker “walks his own walk” and is effective as a person as well as a speaker. There is always a duality of winning arguments and winning converts.

Republication:

I typically do give permission for reposting of a small number of articles. The reverse is also true. (I also repost my own letters to politicians or letters to editors of newspapers.) Keep in mind that search engine companies don’t like excessive exact duplication of content, mirroring, or, especially, “link farming”. But within reason, small amounts of duplication seem to be acceptable in my experience. Bear in mind that sometimes only one version of the article shows up on a search engine, and companies tend to follow certain preference orders in indexing.

In academic use (high school or college) papers on my sites should be attributed in a manner normally expected in academic use. There is no license granted for plagiarism or violation of normal standards of academic integrity. Different schools may have special rules in attribution or referencing of other works that must be followed exactly.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Morality Gap: It's like relativity's twin paradox


Last week, I reviewed a movie and a book with different sides of the arguments over the “morality” of gender nonconformity, particularly the treacherous areas of “choice” and “immutability.” (Check my profile for the movies and books blogs.)

The book – the title of which is so boorish that I won’t put it here for search engines – came up because the author (Joseph Nicolosi) had appeared recently on a “Dr. Phil” program as an expert on gender issues – in that case, transgenderism, although the book is about homosexuality.

The film, Lifetime’s “Prayers for Bobby” seems to restore some sanity and livability to the whole question. But I’m very concerned about the whole dependence on emotion, whether for tolerance, for religious faith, even for love – because there seems to be an area where the different worldviews come together.

One of the aspects of the current economic crisis is that it is indeed exacerbated by the gradual weakening of the family unit over decades. Given the enormous public burdens to dig the economy out of the ditch, there will be a natural urge to depend more on families to pick up the “slack.” But we have to look at what that “means.”

Some of it has to do with tax credits and breaks for families with children. The childless have to subsidize these, and we’ve debate that, however circuitously, before. But a more subtle issue is the psychological integrity of the “family unit”. It’s possible to imagine changes in the structure of “earned entitlements” that heed this concept much more closely, and affect otherwise unattached adults for lifetimes, not just until they’ve grown. It would also be possible to enforce "filial piety."

Over the past few decades, we have extended the idea of adult independence, to the point that we’ve celebrated complete emancipation of the individual. The expressive self fulfills itself with work, quite publicly, before it need be open to intimacy. Children became the strict responsibility of the parents who chose to have them – and we quickly saw that break down, with a large number of single mothers (often on welfare). Some of this is standard conservative stuff. In the meantime, other lifestyles developed, in what Clive Barker calls the “kesparates” – urban exiles that become almost like other planets (excuse me, dominions to be reconciled). These expansions of hyper-individualism were driven by technology and trusted institutional stability, which history has shown can always be undermined. They tended to import the idea of “market fundamentalism” to an Ayn Rand-like idea of personal responsibility and morality: absolute accountability for the self. Everyone had to be able to function as an “insel”.

The development of adult individualism led to smaller families and fewer children, especially among more affluent populations in the West (with immigrants and minorities having enough children in the US to keep the overall population stable). But this development clashed (almost in the sense of competing air masses in meteorology) with the older model of the family. It needs to be restated. Typically, many married couples believed that marital sexuality, with all its cultural trappings and monopoly, gave them “power” over their own domain, their family. Adult children became emancipated culturally (if already free legally) by marrying and giving their parents grandchildren, continuing the lineage. In many subcultures, unmarried adults were expected to see themselves as members of a family unit and loyal to the goals of that unit; they were not supposed to take on causes on their own that could undermine the family. Parents could expect unmarried adult children to continue to serve as role models and to be prepared to step in and become parents for siblings if necessary (there have been several movies about this). And parents were entitled to be not only care for but pampered by their children in old age.

The smaller families and longer life spans are creating a new culture shock and a demographic economic strain that surprisingly doesn’t get discussed enough outside the right wing, even in areas like social security. Childless adults find themselves confronted with caregiving that now can extend for years. There is some lack of gender parity, as women may live in frail condition much longer than men. Furthermore, changing social and economic conditions are presenting a steady flow of children in need of adoptive parents and, moreover, mentors. Childless adults are finding their sovereignty, or right to it, questioned by the needs of others.

If “unchosen mandates” exist for family responsibility, then there is a chicken-and-egg question. We used to think of family responsibility as generated by having children, making marriage first desirable. But maybe it exists anyway. Then that provides a whole new context for heterosexuality, the passions of falling in love (as in the movies) and the social supports and domain that keep the couple’s passions alive over years past when youthful notions of attraction would be enough.

Of course, and this gets closer to Nicolosi’s “arguments”, it’s possible to map this all to the “moral” concerns about what should be expected of those who, because of “difference” (immutable or not), don’t easily fit into this pattern of family responsibility. I’ve covered this before (like here Oct. 9, 2007). The essential moral problem has to do with everyone sharing uncertainty and risk, which is what family formation requires. Or, it is to eliminate the idea that one person enjoys hidden dependencies on the sacrifices of others of which he is unaware. Of course, the Far Left has made a lot of this (exploitation of cheap overseas labor), and no free society can ever be completely “just” in this sense; a community has to live with some inequality within it. The “family unit”, as we used to perceive it, took care of a lot of this: although a lot of group injustice resulted, it was never the prerogative or responsibility of the individual (except a family leader or patriarch) to address it publicly, and anyone who did could quickly make enemies.

In this regard, Nicolosi (and social conservatives in general) are right in that people, especially before they become independent adults, ought, whatever their personal temperament or difference, to become socially versatile and multiply skilled so they can support others when necessary, even if they don’t have their own kids. Some of that accounts for the pressure on boys to become competent and actually competitive in sports (or in “practical things” as in a father-son conversation early in the “Prayers for Bobby” movie). It’s just good “karma”. (Those of this from earlier generations perceive this issue in an environment of mandatory military service for men and controversy over deferments and who went to the front lines.) Parents often become obsessed with the formality of the way their kids learn to live: that they maintain a readiness (in appearances) to take responsibility for family even if they don’t have to immediately. Perhaps where Nicolosi goes wrong is that all of this is not nearly so tied to biological gender today as it was a half century ago. The parity and economic independence of women has become a mitigating influence, to say the least.

Yet, as I said in the book review, I have to admit to a certain existential trap. In my case, at least, homosexuality developed as “upward affiliation,” after inability to compete well in boy things as a kid – and that could have a biological explanation. (It’s hard to tell; we didn’t have that kind of medicine in the 50s; everything was put in moral terms, even outside of religion.) But, by being attracted to “stronger” men, I am reinforcing the value of “masculinity.” That almost sounds like a contradiction. When it becomes public, it raises unsettling questions of motive and purpose for what thirty years ago was being argued as a private matter. I can also add, that if I can be expected to protect and provide for someone, I really would need the experience of creating my own lineage and having the benefit of society’s socially supported institutions, the emotionalism of which sometimes repels me.

In the film, Bobby is the perfect young man, except for one fatal, tragic last act. He has harmed no one. When you take out all the religion, it seems like the question is, does he do his part? In some lines of thinking, he wouldn’t. But I didn’t either.

I grew up in a social climate where "morality" was presumed to have a lot to do with the idea that one needed to heed the unseen sacrifices made by others. Unfortunately, we often neglected this aspect of our moral thinking when going across social classes and races, and then decided, sometimes in the 1970s, that it was too difficult to consider as a serious part of our own individual moral aspects. That does need to change.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama White House tinkers with privacy protections for its own website; a "geek president"?


There is already some interesting discussion on Electronic Frontier Foundation about the Obama administrations’s new whitehouse website, referring to some CNET stories. The White House exempted YouTube from certain privacy rules, applied to federal government websites, that apply to embedded videos of content – specifically to protect users who don’t click play from receiving a possibly unwanted cookie. Chris Soghoian wrote the story on CNET (in the "Surveillance State" column) Jan. 22, here. There was even a question during the transition whether Obama’s transition team was bound by normal federal agency rules.

But today, Jan. 23, the White House had made a fix (apparently late Thursday) to limit YouTube cookie tracing, by using an “image” of the video player so that the user really would have to click to see the real player (pun intended). The CNET story is here.

It seems like IT folks in the White House, Secret Service, and various transition and support teams have real work to do, and can move quickly. Obama rightfully wants to be as hands on as possible, able to do his own surfing and reading, maybe even of these blogs. We understand he got to keep his Blackberry, with some proprietary security features added. The “Inaugural Fest” has an exhibit showing what the hardened laptops on Air Force One look like.

There is an important story today on my Trademarks blog about new litigation against a “news scraping” site, involving both copyright and trademark issues, link here. I debated whether it belonged there or here. As they say about exams, read it and weep!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Facebook in another controversy


Once again, Facebook is in the news with a little controversy. This time, it’s something out of John Grisham’s “The Firm”, perhaps. Supposedly, the latest controversy (after the breastfeeding flap that made Dr. Phil this week) is the presence of discussion groups about the Sicilian Mafia (and that’s not the Sicilian Defense, the chess opening). It’s not clear if they comprise Mafiosi, or are just about the Mafia. In this world of implicit content, it’s not always clear which. A few items of Mafia-related content were taken down because of TOS violations.

The news story is by Rachel Donaldo in the New York Times, Jan, 19, 2009, link here.

What’s interesting is that a hugely successful company started by techies who hadn’t even reached 21 has, in a few years, had to deal with the most sensitive public concerns. And it seems to behave almost like any major company.

There have been some concerns about user-generated applications and privacy settings, and surprises, and some retrenchments. But the biggest surprise is that, as with Myspace, the company’s founders probably didn’t see how employers, colleges, and other business interests would want to use it to “check up on people” (the online reputation problem). Other problems have included terminations for “overuse” within short time periods that seemed to imitate spam but that turned out to be legitimate.

Here's another wrinkle, by the way, in "reputation management" that I've never mentioned; you can use Google Alerts. It got mentioned on ABC's "The View" Jan. 23.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Not inauguration, but just self-instantiation (you do need Java)


The Inauguration today brought back to my own mind a red-letter day, July 11, 1997, the day after my 54th birthday, when I “inaugurated” myself, or, shall we say, instantiated myself with my own “constructor”, right at 4:28 PM in an Annandale, VA post office, when I mailed the first two official copies of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (look at Jan. 2, 2007 on this blog) to the Library of Congress, as well as some other copies to other parties, releasing the book “into the wild.” At least, that’s how I saw it. At that singular moment, I became “published.” There would be about 350 copies in the first printing, and then a print-on-demand version from iUniverse in 2000 (still available). However, later that afternoon I started the phone interviews to arrange my transfer to Minneapolis (to avoid a conflict), where I would spend six very interesting years. I would give lectures and appear on cable television and attract some attention, and mix in libertarian circles, meet Jesse Ventura, etc.

I also remember the birthday, July 10, flying back to Reagan National from Minneapolis, over an absolutely clear sky, seeing everything, including Milwaukee, Lake Michigan, Detroit, Lake Erie, Cleveland, the Allegheny Mountains, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Cumberland, the Potomac River, from 35000 feet. And I had taken the afternoon off July 11, to pick up the 300 copies from a book manufacturer at Gaithersburg MD airport; I remember driving a very loaded hatchback around the Beltway, lifting them into the apartment, and then leaving the apartment at 4:20 PM for my own private moment.

The book connects something that happened to me early in my civilian college years with the 1990s debate on the military gay ban, leading to “don’t ask don’t tell.” But it creates an existential problem: the arguments work only if you accept the idea that people come into adulthood with some “unfunded mandate” responsibilities toward others. Those who don’t compete well in certain areas (sometimes related to gender) don’t fulfill these responsibilities well. With all the optimism, talking about buttressing fundamental rights with Supreme Court opinions and amendments (and maybe a “Bill of Rights 2”) it would eventually create a personal neutron star for me. The arguments opposing DADT would lead me to continuously cover everything else online (“connect the dots” and map all the “stars”), and stretch the limits of my own privilege of candor. It would become difficult to walk my own walk. It was at least possible for me to become toxic, eventually. I would at least see why traditional social structures, irrational as some of the behavior they demand becomes, are responsible for what I have and how dangerous it is to criticize them without having a foothold in them first, which others sometimes would almost desperately try to get me to fill, if only to "pay my dues." I would be asked to show that I could become a traditional role model myself and feel that doing so would only become dishonest and play into the agendas of others.

It’s all uncertain, if not risky. Just stay tuned.

Monday, January 19, 2009

ACLU files suit on FBI, local police raid and computer seizure against activists in CA; Fourth Amendment?


The federal government is still sometimes seizing computers of organizations, businesses, or even individuals under what appear to be illegal or unconstitutional circumstances, with respect to the Fourth Amendment. On Aug. 27, 2008 a group in Berkley, CA called Long Haul and the East Bay Prisoner Support Group (EBPS), which publishes a newspaper caked Slingshot was raided by University of California Police, the Alameda County Sheriff's Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Electronic Frontier Foundation has a story on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the story dated Jan. 14, 2009, here. The Slingshot account is here.

There is an Earth First Journal account here. There is some suggestion of association with animal rights activists, and some suggestion that the government was maintaining that the group was promoting itself as aiding with illegal activity.

But the constitutional questions remain. When is “advocacy” speech illegal? Supposedly when there is the threat of eminent lawless action.

The story bears watching.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

When is does Internet speech constitute a "protected work"? Maybe this matters to employers


I’ve written several times before on the issue of employer “blogging policies” and the possibility that material self-published by employees under “free entry” mechanisms can cause unexpected disruptions in the workplace, as by driving away clients. I’ve also tracked the issue of “online reputation,” where employers have come to regard “free entry” as a two-way street, checking social networking profiles, blogs, and search engine references, sometimes sloppily (picking up the wrong person), often without notifying job applicants.

As I noted, I had written about this problem as far back as March 2000 on my old hppub site, sometimes getting reactions. I suggested a blogging policy that would maintain that employees in jobs with certain responsibilities (direct reports, speaking for the company in public, some agency situations, making underwriting or grading decisions about clients) should avoid free entry at all without close supervision. This suggestion in some ways was an endrun around possible censorship issues.

But around 2004 social networking sites began to take off, and employers began to look at public Internet activity as “conversational” and behavioral rather than as expressive work. Inventors of the social networking industry, themselves often college students or young entrepreneurs, probably did not realize that this would happen. They saw society as relatively open and filled with rather autonomous, educated individuals, and probably did not realize how sensitive social structures are for businesses in the “traditional” world.

So we have a situation where an employer would be tempted to say something like, “when you go online at home, please understand that anything you say is regarded as having been said in front of subordinates or clients at work. Please do not address controversy on your own. If you feel you need to take up a cause to oppose affirmative action or gay marriage, please send money to an organization that will speak for you. Do not speak for yourself on these issues. Clients will pick up on it.” I reported in August 2008 a policy like this in force at CNN. An employer will fear that clients might believe that a business professional entered the debate himself in order to seem divisive.

So that sounds like a shift from looking at the free entry issue (which is how I saw it, especially before the days of social networking sites) to not just censorship but monitoring the right to take up sensitive issues on one’s own at all, without catering to special interests, lobbying, and other outside political power structures. Put this way, I see that I have put a conservative (a la Washington Times) spin on this problem.

This is one of the most critical of our issues in democratic governance, the way citizens express themselves with respect to the issues of the day. Controversies in this area track all the way back to the American Revolution and the early years of the Union. But here, it has gotten comingled with other impressions, that political speech has gotten mixed up with self-promotion and aloofness from real participation in society’s structures (like by being interested in running for office).

The recent book by law professor James Boyle, “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind” (reviewed on my Books blog on Jan. 14) proposes the idea that properly structured, copyright can actually help the dissemination of ideas by individuals by encouraging content originators to allow their content to be reproduced under “good faith” public use licenses. The copyright concept is important here because copyright law assumes that once a piece of writing (even this blog entry) is fixed in form and “published” (technically, that means given to one other person who can understand it), it is protected, subject to the fair use doctrine, by copyright law. That could mean something else, that when it is found on the web, even by an employer, it, if done well enough, is entitled to be viewed as a “work” or opus and not simply as an item of conversation. In other words, a persons published attitude toward gay marriage should be imputed to predict his attitude toward potential gay clients. Or a work of fiction about a troubling incident in a public school should not be taken to mean that the individual is likely to entice such an incident in real life (the notorious “propensity” doctrine from the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” is related). As I post this, I bear in mind that our new president sees himself as a "writer" and content creator as well as a leader. The dichotomy is important.

In sum, employers need to be careful and forthright in how they draft off-job speech public policies. The environment has changed considerably in the past few years, and the new Administration is likely to fuel the issue further. One important factor is just what job you have: do customers know who you are, and do you make decisions about them? Not all jobs are the same. This is definitely an area fro HR “best practices” discussions.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

NBC Today: Youtube could offer revenue opportunities for entrepreneurs


Saturday Jan. 18, 2009 on the Today Show , Matt Lauer interviewed Internet business expert Shree Sreenaranashi on the possible business opportunities for amateur filmmakers on YouTube.

The service keeps track of which publishers generate “eyeballs” – lots of visitors watching, and will help the publishers with successful ads, he said. A few people have been commercially successful with a variety of practical videos, including recipes, home repairs, and some fun stuff, especially with pets. The show mentioned dog training, but I wonder about the video “Nora, the Piano Playing Cat”. (Yes, a cat really tries to imitate humans striking piano keys and really makes music, and can actually accompanu Bach.)

Videos on practical topics like cooking have an advantage over commercial broadcasts (like Martha Stewart Living) because visitors can rewind and replay specific steps.

The short report also mentioned “branding” yourself on Youtube.

What’s more interesting is to wonder if politically charged documentary (like about repealing “don’t ask don’t tell”) could generate enough audience to become commercially viable. If it did, investors might notice and it might generate more interest in a studio-made film.

Video posters must be punctilious about respecting copyright law, however.

Here is a story, "YouTube keeps eyeballs on ads:report" (Dec. 18, 2008) about ads and eyeballs on Digital Media, by Natalie Apostolou.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Methane on Mars: Close to proof of life? Time for "Childhood's End"?


Well, the media is brimming with excitement over the discovery of significant volumes of methane in some areas of the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003. On Earth, there are organisms that produce methane from carbon dioxide when living in reducing atmospheres. There are also some chemical processes that could produce the methane, but many scientists consider the likelihood that some kind of underground “extremophile” biological life accounts for the C-H4 to be likely.

If the methane comes from something alive, we don’t know whether it has DNA and RNA like terrestrial life. It’s likely that it somehow resembles primitive bacteria, perhaps without cell nuclei or mitochondria or other structures familiar in terrestrial cells. Although most earthly life gets its energy from the sun, some underground or deep sea life gets energy from volcanism or even radioactivity.

A typical story is on Discovery News, by Irene Klotz, “Forget the Water, Follow the Methane,” link here. The story has links to a Science channel story with FAQ’s, as well as another “ten top false alarms for the evidence of alien life,” like canals on Mars or even the “face” on Mars.

It’s possible that the under-ice ocean on Europa could get enough energy from Jupiter’s tidal pull to develop life. And possibly there could be tidal and tectonic sources of energy in frigid Titan that could encourage self-replicating organic chains to develop, in its heavily reducing atmosphere and surface liquids.

It’s entirely possible that very primitive life is very common on terrestrial-like bodies and moons throughout the Milky Way and other galaxies. The likelihood of finding many advanced civilizations, however, is guarded. There’s a lot of talk, as in the Universe series on the History Channel, of the Drake Equation.

My own hunch is that there are perhaps just a few civilizations comparable to ours in our galaxy. It really takes a lot. Any civilization that develops fiat money will have economic cycles (including business depressions) just like we do, and make all the same mistakes we do. That’s practically certain. There is a chance that there could exist at least one civilization that has mastered altering space-time. That would allow instantaneous communication (transcending the speed of light in the usual sense) and a new kind of “space Internet”. (Imagine what Google would do with that.) It may even be possible that individual beings can move quickly by altering space-time. The character Clark Kent does this in the “Smallvilles” series, and any such creature would seem “god-like.” But it’s unlikely that such a creature would look like an attractive young adult male by our standards, unless it was a “shapeshifter.” (Thankfully, Clark has a great moral sense, and that’s because he was raised by a human family.)

So, a few hundred light-years away there may exist a civilization in severe economic and political distress right now – but we can’t find out about it for those few hundred years. Or could we?

My own feeling is that a few of the supposed alien encounters are real (Oliver Stone really should make his own “Roswell”) and that there have been some government cover-ups. It’s likely that such aliens have somehow mastered “space-time”. One can imagine a sci-fi channel or Ion movie where an alien civilization blows up an EMP device in the upper mesosphere and forces us back into the stone age, very suddenly. On paper, it could happen. Or there could be some kind of “alien 9/11” which would probably be more like the 1980s film “V” than “Independence Day”. It would be interesting to wonder how the earth really would respond to a limited incident but one that could no longer be covered up. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” doesn’t quite cut it. I still think that Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” would make a great movie.

The religious idea of heaven makes some sense. It could be a specific “place” in another dimension or parallel universe, accessible through “branes” (managed by a civilization that has learned to master them). But, in terms of existential philosophy, it is still a “world” that exists “somewhere” and it does have a “geography.” So, we’d better watch out. Clive Barker explored some of these ideas, about different worlds coming together in a “reconciliation” in his epic fantasy novel “Imajica” (where Heaven is essentially “The First Dominion” beyond “the Erasure”) which would make a great movie, too.

So, I say to Warner Brothers, why not resurrect New Line and make “Childhood’s End” and “Imajica”. Or maybe somebody else (like Lionsgate) is already considering these projects. But it’s all speculation. Maybe a visitor knows. Trouble is, it would be a “trade secret” for any studio, given their “third party rule.” But we'd better get these movies made before the aliens get mad at us. They will expect or accept nothing less of us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Toward a nomenclature for "domestic status"


While the debate on gay marriage often focuses on narrow areas of specific responsibilities and benefits in narrow situations, the broader question around it seems to be not only the “family” as an institution, but the idea of recognizing in some systematic way the varying amounts of responsibility that people have for others who may depend on them in varying ways.

That reminds me of the early weeks of organic chemistry in college, where students struggle with the subject of “nomenclature” – giving the right names to compounds. Actually, that’s a system or almost like a foreign language with grammar, but maybe we need a little of that in the way we characterize different kinds of relationships people have.

Think of some of the terms we use to characterize familial or social relationships with varying measures of dependency or inter-dependency: marriage, civil union, domestic partnership, parent, guardian, foster parent, child, dependent adult.

Yes, this is normally a matter for states, and not federal government; but we need to start getting a common understanding of what all of these situations really mean.

The workplace, during the past decade, has changed as “individual contributor” jobs tend to go overseas and the market emphasizes people skills. I’ve seen some situations where employers seem particularly concerned as to whether someone can come across as a “role model” or “authority figure.” That’s true in teaching, but also in many agenting businesses where insurance or financial products or other professional services are offered at a personal level.

And, there is the issue of online presence and reputation. People do talk about their personal lives online, which may good or bad for the job, depending on the circumstances. But for jobs that are sensitive to “role modeling” it would be good if professionals had a universal vocabulary with which they could characterize (even in places like Linked In) their degree of responsibility for other people, if they aren’t in a conventional marriage with children alone. If they are involved in eldercare, do they take financial responsibility too, or just provide personal supervision and presence. All of these factors can influence how well a person can fit into some kinds of sensitive situations where others look to him or her for leadership. They are becoming “reputational” issues.

In September, 2008, I reviewed, on my books blog, a work by Nancy Polikoff in which the law professor advanced the idea that we need to recognize a wide variety of interdependency social relationships for what they are – sometimes necessary, outside of the control of choice.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

NY Times reports that 8200 Media and JPG Magazine shut down; had tried new web-print business model; victim of 2008 economic collapse


Brad Stone has a story on his New York Times “bits blog” from January 1, 2009, “8020 Media to Shut Down,” link here.

8020 Media was the parent entity for JPG Magazine, which had a circulation of about 50000. The company says it was trying to show that Internet publishing and print could complement each other in a low-cost and small-staffed but profitable operation. Apparently, on Tuesday Dec. 30 the company told its employees suddenly that it had to shut down because of lack of funding. The company’s memo mentions the catastrophic and sudden global economic collapse as if it could not have been anticipated.

The company says that this was not an example of “citizen journalism.” Nevertheless, the fact that a small grass roots operation could not continue such a promising concept (that would interest me, by the way) is discouraging.

Nevertheless, both websites for 8200 Media and JPG still work. The JPG home page has an interesting photo article on fractals and the Mandelbrot Set in mathematics.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Attack of the Schizoids


Back in the fall of 1962, when I was a patient in the “mental ward” at the National Institutes of Health after my college expulsion (I’ve given more details about that experience elsewhere), I saw some paperwork that offered a tentative diagnosis of “schizoid personality.”

No, it has little to do with schizophrenia. It’s a frightening and negative sounding word. But what it means is extreme focus on personal sovereignty and in controlling one’s level of emotional involvement and commitment to others, according to one’s own volition. It corresponds to the notion of “unbalanced personality” (feminine subjective or masculine objective) in the Polarity Theory.

Wikipedia’s entry is well worth reading but so is the referenced article by Allison J. Himelick, “Oppressed Group: Schizoid a Personality, not a Disorder” from December 1997, link here. Also look at the article in the New York Times ("Mental Health & Behavior" column), by Richard A, Friedman, MD, from Nov. 21, 2006, “Like a fish needs a bicycle: for some people, intimacy is toxic”, link here.

Schizoid personality may have some kind of clinical relationship to Asperger’s Syndrome, at least in milder forms. But what it really sounds like is a natural outgrowth of a culture that emphasizes globalization (“world citizenship” rather than family loyalty), technology, apparent self-sufficiency, and independence. We have a world where (like Phylos the Tibetan) people live part of their lives “on another planet” (cyberspace, not yet taken seriously by the History Channel’s “The Universe”). There’s a new paradigm for society, particularly popular in some parts of the male LGBT community (especially after HIV) that one must become one’s own person first – quite publicly, now – and then have an intimate relationship. And more and more people (men especially) find that this model really does work – for the individual.

The problem almost sounds moral, then. Because we grow up in societies that offer unconditional loyalty and intimacy – the family. (Sorry, not everyone does, not by a long shot; but that’s the idea.) We have a world where many people (not just children) actually need some kind of continuous social intimacy in order to survive. And with a culture that now encourages a certain aloofness, spending time alone to mature, more of the people who created us are left alone. The schizoid person does not need the intimacy himself, but others around him need it as payback. If the schizoid draws public attention to his own views and idiosyncrasies but remains aloof and indifferent or "harmless" with respect to the emotional demands of others, he is perceived as "aggressive" by default.

If we watch the social behaviors of “higher” animals – carnivores and primates – we find a lot of variation in sociability, even within species. All animals that use intelligence and problem-solving to feed and shelter themselves experiment with different levels of social interaction. (I think there is a book titled something like “All Cats Have Aspergers”.) It should be no surprise that among human beings, extreme ranges of sociability or clinically normal and occur frequently, and that human sociability could evolve (or “devolve”) over time.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Communities form their own notions of "public morality": when does it become really public?


A lot of times on these blog pages I’ve walked through what seem like “moral principles”, but is seems like we live in an open society where different peoples live under different “principle sets”. Typically, people who live by the mores of one culture are not aware of the values of other cultures that co-exist, or do not want to be aware of them.

Remember your Philosophy 101 – how do you know what is “right”? You have to know to ask the question.

On my movies blog, I’ve reviewed a couple films that demonstrate the moral values within other cultures – the Amish, and the Hmong. These stand in marked contrast to the intellectualized individualism that we have gotten used to. That set of values focuses on personal autonomy or sovereignty, fundamental rights, privacy, self-expression (including public), the right to control one’s intimate relations (along with a strong notion of “consent”), property rights and contracts, but, on the other side, perfectionism and accuracy in work and in conducting one’s affairs (including the responsibility to honor voluntary contracts). The values set depends on equality and impersonality in the application of the law, and sees values as expressed through a free market. “Harmlessness” and market fundamentalism seem like key concepts.

The growth of technology and the Internet supported and developed these values, especially in the 1990s; but the media, with its increased economic efficiency, has somewhat turned the tables, showing and accelerating the exposure of the weaknesses of “market fundamentalism” (the financial collapse), and the vulnerability of so many people in a culture that has more hidden interdependencies than we want to admit. “Sustainability” has suddenly become an important moral buzzword.

Yet, the more communal and sustainable value sets have always characterized many of our subcommunities, especially those based on faith. The Amish may provide an extreme example of psychological communalism (which is not the same as communism): an emphasis on the identification with the family and community (even discouraging too much “efficiency”) so that the individual does not have to compete to cover up his own personal (and “diverse”) weaknesses. The community also emphasizes real community self-sufficiency, so it isn’t vulnerable to disruptions from the outside world. (That can be deceiving; only a technological and global society could stop an asteroid.)

In these communities, there tend to exist a lot of prohibitionistic rules, especially about sex, confining it to marriage, and also protecting the value of life of every person in the community (unborn, elderly, disabled). The usual justification is scripture. The rules used to apply to society at large but have often been repealed. But if you want to be a member of the community, or perhaps even do business with the community or its individual members, you have to respect (or even follow) its much stricter rules. In some ways this comports with a “libertarian compromise” on issues of what we now look at, with some distance and askance, as “public morality.”

One point that strikes me is that one can propose “secular” rationalizations for these kinds of rules. They have to do with moral notions more removed from visible harm or “consequentialism”. They address issues of “justice” at a profound – and existential -- level, going way beyond what a market based on fiat money can reach into areas of “karma”, trying to force citizens to be aware of the hidden sacrifices of or risks taken by others. (I think that can lead to some pretty interesting sci-fi speculations about how political economies of civilizations on other planets are likely to work; the prospects are not pleasant.) Sometimes these moral systems focus on particular streams of rationalization: if you want full participation in the world on your own, you have to participate in taking on the “risk” and cost of procreation (within the family). Once you take -- "choose" -- the responsibility of family (within marriage), you have the power -- and necessity -- to allocate familyd duties to those who didn't take that dive. If you are disabled or at least not particularly competitive, you may have to accept your dependence and live for the sake of the group or family, which must take care of you – partly because everyone has problems to overcome, and we can’t make exceptions. Or, you may be able to justify having more than others if you are really “good” enough. Totalitarian systems (including both fascism and communism and to some extent radical Islam) implement variations of these ideas – which really stem from secular social motives – on whole countries and societies. But smaller communities, often religions, often taken on some combinations of these ideas. Often members of the communities are unaware that others think differently about these matters

The moral teachings of various subgroups in our society can affect our thinking as our new social problems, driven by demographics and by our difficulties in managing the risks or uncertainties in a totally laissez faire “open society”, as well by concerns about sustainability, become more apparent through the media. True, these subsocieties are often turf-oriented and fight among themselves, keeping injustices at group levels and under political control. At the heart of the new moral crisis seems to be a question of self-definition, incorporating self-expression. People want to be their own selves first, and express such. Yet they may find that they have to accept more interdependence with others – even at some emotional and intimate levels – than they could have conceived even ten years ago.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Obama: "Everybody will have some skin in this game": we're talking about sacrifice (starting with entitlements); means testing?


This morning, as I turned on the cable “idiot box”, I caught wind of the moral tone that Barack Obama says he wants to set up with the American people.

“Everyone is going to have some of his own skin in this game” he said.

I didn’t catch the interviewer’s identity, and he seemed to be speaking on CNN and was answering questions as to how we would pay for all to this economic stimulus package. On the surface, it sound like he was going to go after retirees with some assets – and propose cutting back on Social Security and Medicare benefits based on assets (almost like Medicaid).

Social security and Medicare have become a “third rail” but no more. Obama sounds like he is throwing the fuse. (Remember, folks, that you could cross the Long Island Railroad tracks on foot back in the 50s and had to know not to step on the rail?)

I covered this on the retirement blog last week, but the rumors seem to be intensifying. One thing we dislike about big government is making value judgments about who should get and who should “sacrifice”. It gets to be very politicized.

In fact, Harry Browne, a presidential candidate from the Libertarian Party, had written back in the 1990s that part of his vision was sacrificing some of social security entitlements and wiping the slate clean.

If you look at the Social Security website, you get a bit of a feel of a conservative spin form eight years of the Bush administration. The program is made to look like an annuity, with the FICA taxes collected over a lifetime more like annuity premiums. And, in fact, over the years (especially since Ronald Reagan’s presidency) it has become more like that.

And, to his credit, President Bush wanted to privatize social security so that it couldn’t become a target of political expropriation. One problem is the cost of paying for the “Ponzi” portion of it, for how it started. But the biggest problem seems to be the unreliability of Wall Street. Yet, a privatized program could have limited qualifying investments to much more stable and FDIC-insured or similar vehicles that protected the principal. It seems like we never looked hard enough at that approach.

Now, we are faced with the prospect of not only extending retirement ages and hiking wagebase and taxes for entitlements, but we could look at means and we could look at family circumstances, and place a lot more filial responsibility on adult children whom we deem capable of meeting it. Our whole idea of family responsibility could change back to more like what it was in the 50s, and it’s about a lot more than just raising the kids that you sire.

As things sound now during the mishmash of ideas, I wonder about my own stake, indeed. I made a big decision, to move into this kind of gonzo journalism, back in the 1990s, on the theory that with social security and pension I could go a long time without needing that much compensation for what I write. I could say what I thought was correct and not what others will pay me to say to advance their own interests. That seems to be put at risk.

I do resent the idea of “sacrifice” for “other people’s mistakes.” Why should something be taken from me to help someone who made a foolish decision and took out a mortgage they couldn’t afford? What happened to personal “moral hazard”? Of course, I know it isn’t that simple. For one thing, some people who took out these mortgages were forced to because they were forced out of rental units during condo conversions. They say, this isn’t about “justice”, it’s about “community.”

Of course, Obama will say, Bill, you need to get into “doing” and not just “saying.” (The Amish believe that, however.) One problem is that whatever I do is highly politicized.

I’ll be specific. Yes, I’ve felt a lot of pressure in the past few years to become more sociable an be willing to step up and function as an elder, senior “male role model.” I come back with this retort. How can I be looked up to as a role model or authority figure (say as a teacher, or as someone a family will trust to help them through financial instability as their insurance agent or financial planner) when federal law says that I am legally a second class citizen? I’m talking about the notorious “don’t ask don’t tell” law passed in 1993, apparently with the best intentions of “honorable compromise.” Not only am I declared less morally worthy to share the risk of fighting on the battlefield to defend freedom, most states say that any committed relationship I have is less morally worthy, and a few states have laws saying that someone like me is not morally fit to have custody of children.

If these laws weren’t on the books, maybe I would be a math teacher now (after career switching), and wouldn’t be drawing social security yet. (Oh, I forgot, we "won" on the Briggs Initiative matter in 1978 didn't we, as outlined in the film "Milk".) Or maybe after twelve years in information technology in life insurance, I would be willing to sell it now and act as an agent and protect the best interest of “real families.” But, I don’t see how I can expect anyone to look up to me that way, given the laws that are on the books. People whom I have worked for or interviewed in the past few years and stumble on this blog may concur with this statement.

Oh, and one other thing, if “don’t ask don’t tell” weren’t on the books, we might not even have experienced 9/11. We might have caught it in time.

Oh well, the computer models are pointing toward January 20 as the time for Washington to have another “Blizzard of 96”.

Obama is right about one thing. He reminds us of Perot's 1992 call for "shared sacrifice." Indeed, Sacrifice is going to come back as a moral virtue, almost replacing what we have called “personal responsibility.” But I think Obama could make repealing "don't ask don't tell" a much easier and less polarizing sell politically by combining it with the idea of shared sacrifice.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Remembrances of the Radical Left, 1972: what it wanted, what it taught me


Back in December of 1972, only a couple of months before I would “come out” for the second time, I spent a Saturday evening in a drafty, frigid tenement in Newark, NJ, spectating or eavesdropping on a meeting of the Peoples Party of New Jersey, the radical leftist group originally connected to Dr. Benjamin Spock. I remember the day well, having taken skiing lessons, Graduated Length Method, somewhere in the highlands of Northern New Jersey, which reach all of 1800 feet.

I had been drawn to the Party by a charismatic young man running for Congress, and I had met him all the way back at a meeting of the Sierra Club a couple months before. That was how my social life went at age 29.

He had a girl friend, and they were given to mini-rants like, “I don’t see why we need to have capitalism” – and yet they opened up a “Make Up Your Mind Bookstore” in Madison, NJ – the independent book store, now getting eaten up by the huge chains – was at central example then of entrepreneurial capitalism.

In the meeting, they railed about racism and sexism, and started making up platform suggestions. One idea was that no one would be allowed to earn more than $50000 a year. They took a poll as to how much everyone made. Did anybody make over $5000 a year? I made $14K as a systems rep for Sperry Univac then and remained silent. I realized that even as a middle class single man, I would be a pariah.

There was something about the Far Left that caught me at that cold, dark moment. It could be so moralistic. They talked about people in groups and categories – blacks, gays, women, etc. But come down to the individual, and no one was allowed to distinguish himself. The Left could become especially loud with its indignation about some bourgeoisie practices: for example, it wanted to eliminate (that is, confiscate and redistribute) all inherited wealth. I caught a glimpse of what the Left was so worried about at a personal level – that we depend upon sacrifices from others and never want to be come aware of these sacrifices. We could be made to share these sacrifices – but that’s what totalitarianism does. Chairman Mao, with his Cultural Revolution, managed to extract “absolute justice,” said some radical paperback floating around then. The young candidate for Congress thought that the Chinese had it right, not even the Soviets were serious.

The Left, however, had no solutions. Pretty soon, progressives extracted the “personal freedom” part of the message, and some of us would take a 180 degree twist—and eventually embrace libertarianism. The socially conservative part of the Right, as it would develop into the “Moral Majority” of the 1980s, wanted to make the nuclear and extended family the universe of equalizing “sacrifice” and make matters external to the family the business only of those who had set up their own families according to the “rules” (monogamous lifelong marriage). Marriage was to be given that kind of power. Of course, we know that this kind of system was so easy for “the powers that be” in a patriarchy to abuse. The extreme Left squashed individuality and initiative, and the libertarian “third point” of the triangle would let the less competitive drop off and still not take into account hidden sacrifices. It’s all interesting, and that’s somewhat the reason I came up with the notion of a “pay your dues” system of social morality.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Fox causes Progressive Illinois YouTube channel to shut down under DMCA: what about "fair use"?


The "Progressive Illinois" YouTube channel has been shut down after three copyright infringement complaints were sent to YouTube by Fox News, under DMCA. There were up to three videos (about Beavers, Blagojevich, and Axelrod) and embedding in a blog post, which many legal scholars indicate may have been fair use. If the visitor tries the channel, he or she will find it to be suspended.

Generally, many owners of video or film property have been very strict on the use of the material, often maintaining that no unauthorized clips are fair use, although that sounds legally questionable. Film studios rigidly control what they release in trailers or previews. It seems as though the Fair Use doctrine has probably been applied more liberally with respect to text than to video.

On the other hand, television networks often explicit permit bloggers to instream specific content from their shows, as NBC often does with specific clips from “Saturday Night Live”. As a practical matter, it would sound as though limited dissemination of video in blogs could increase the potential revenue generating audience for a show.

One wonders if this particular dispute about Fox is somewhat politically motivate. The Citizen Media Law Project has a story here, dated Jan. 6, 2009.

Theater chains and media companies have been vigorous in acting against illegal camcording in any amount, sometimes arresting and prosecuting people camcording only seconds of a film, as happened in Arlington VA in 2007.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

An older case of Internet fiction leading to a prosecution (US v. Jake Baker, 1995)


Today, in an ad-hoc conversation with an attorney about the political climate (not about any specific litigation), I learned about another case regarding “fiction” on the Internet when it leads to legal consequences.

The case is the United States v. Jake Baker, a criminal prosecution with would be dismissed in two steps. Jake Baker, at 20, was a student at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1994 when he posted a violent story on a Usenet group that made an identifiable student (whom we’ll refer to here as Jane Doe) a victim. The student was named, but there might have been a legal issue if the circumstances in the story had clearly identified her even if the name were changed. He also exchanged emails with “fantasy” involving violence with someone in Canada from his university computer. A teenage girl living in Moscow found the story, and told her father who happened to be a Michigan alumnus. The end result was the student’s suspension, and then his arrest by the FBI and prosecution, starting in Feb. 1995, for violating USC 875 (text here for transmitting a threat through interstate commerce, in multiple counts involving the story and emails.

However the charge regarding the fictitious story was quickly dropped in March, and the charges relating to the emails were dropped in June, when a federal judge ruled that they did not constitute a “threat” within a precise application of the law. Essentially, the communications don’t show real intention or likelihood of actually carrying out the activities described in the emails or threats. The June 1995 ruling is available on Harvard Law School’s library here.

Wikipedia’s summary of the case is here. But a particularly interesting summary is offered by the Timeline Theater Company toward the end of a PDF here. That document is a study guide for the play “Harmless” by Brett Neveu. Here is a review that discusses the play, (link) and it seems to be partially inspired by the “fiction” incident at the University of Michigan, although it is augmented by a subplot involving the Iraq war and post traumatic stress disorder. I will try to see if I can see the play or find a recording or DVD to review.

Cho Seung-Hui had written at least two violent screenplays before his attack at VPI in April 2007. But the screenplays don’t match the circumstances of the incident at all, but some professors were very disturbed about his writings. This was covered on this blog April 17, 2007.

A more interesting legal question could occur if the fiction story had been non-violent but had contained a character easily identifiable on campus (even with a different name) and then portrayed the person falsely as committing a criminal or undesirable act, or had invade the person’s privacy somehow. Then this might have created circumstances similar to the Bindrim v Miller case in California (1979) that I discussed on this blog on July 27, 2007, inviting a civil suit for libel or false light invasion of privacy.

The questions regarding “reading intention” into fiction or “thought experiments” in emails, or in blogs or social networking profiles, published novels, or even older Internet forums like Usenet are troubling, still. Successful prosecutions have occurred, such as in 1988 when Richmond VA police believed that a “snuff” film was about to be made. One underlying question, it seems to me, is existential. A speaker might be presumed to have some “purpose” in a public Internet posting that suggests the likelihood or some very harmful event. The law, in some states, might somehow invoke notions of rebuttable or conclusive presumption that the speaker, absent some concrete tangible gain as ordinarily understood, intended to carry out the acts or entice others to. Comparisons to “that” notorious Dateline series might be made (with regard to chat logs possibly purported by defense attorneys to be “fiction”). There is, to be sure, the notion of “eminent threat of lawless action” that might have to be satisfied for a prosecutor to counter First Amendment claims.

DMCA safe harbor provision somewhat strengthened by UMG v. Veoh ruling


Electronic Frontier Foundation is reporting a major development in strengthening the “protections” of the DMCA Safe Harbor provision. On December 29, 2008, Judge Howard Matz in California ruled in favor of Veoh Networks, a video hosting company, holding that it was protected by safe harbor for the activities of its customers, who allegedly infringed the copyrights of UMG Recordings, Inc.

The plaintiffs had claimed that the safe harbor provision applied to data, but not to specialized activities by customers such as transcoding files into Flash, consolidating smaller video files into larger ones, and allowing uploading by streaming.

The case could be important in major litigation between YouTube and Viacom, which wants YouTube to have to be able to pre-screen uploaded videos for copyright infringement. ISP’s and publishing services say they are not in a position to screen massive numbers of amateur content items. The intention of Viacom could be to eliminate competition from low-cost video and film makers—a turf protection issue.

The EFF story by Fred von Lohmann is called “UMG v. Veoh", another victory for Web 2.0”, with a link here. That link gives a sublink to the actual order in PDF format. Here is a different link to the order.

There is a blog “CopyFascism Watch: CopyFighting on the Side of Liberty” which further compares the Veoh case to the Youtube litigation, link here. It also quotes the EFF article.

Monday, January 05, 2009

IndyMedia case in 2005 brings out some issues with grassroots journalism


There is a complicated case that the Electronic Frontier Foundation still has a complicated story on, the IndyMedia (or Independent Media Center) server take down in 2005. IndyMedia (don’t confuse it with the IndyMac bank!) is a confederation of grassroots media sources outside of the normal corporate state – adding a lot of depth to what gets covered in the news outside of official channels that, for all their journalistic professionalism, still sometimes seem to walk partisan lines a bit. The main EFF story with its many sublinks is here. Much of the work was managed by a company called Rackspace in San Antonio, TX, and in the summer of 2005, a US Attorney in Texas subpoenaed the company over allegations of violations of the laws of Italy. There is also a posting on “Democratic Underground” ("Information Highway Robbery") from Oct. 2004 that maintains that the Indymedia seizure could be related to controversies involving Diebold election machines and software, here.

Rackspace arrangements are common with many smaller media companies and smaller ISP’s, which often rent rackspace from other companies, small to large, in the “server farm” management business. Over time, these sorts of companies have tended to become consolidated. I was served by an arrangement like this during my first four years on the web.

The problem is that in some cases a whole arrangement of servers can take down a whole range of small businesses if some allegation is made against one of the businesses, of if it has attracted hackers. It seemed in this case that many of the allegations were fabricated and related to desires of some governments to keep certain matters secret. It doesn’t matter here what the specifics were, just that this sort of grass roots operation faces this exposure of attacks, perhaps illegal, from larger interests with turf to defend. There are a lot of complicated issues here that can affect the outcome in both directions: Section 230, DMCA safe harbor, child pornography reporting laws, Internet gambling and money laundering laws, and the like.

This hits at the asymmetry of journalism now. Amateur or grassroots journalists may, in practice, be as likely or more likely to uncover enormous problems or threats that the mainstream media misses or doesn’t report. They may attract valuable tips that aren’t provided to more established reporters. They certainly increase the transparency of information and accountability of those in power. But one problem with grass roots journalism is inherent in its very nature: it is often based on idealism rather than on having concrete personal accountabilities to others, and may attract negative attention from those who feel that the amateurs are meddling in things beyond their own personal business.

I don’t see a lot about how the Indymedia matter was resolved, but it looks like most operations were restored relatively quickly. Other visitors may be able to supply details.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Facebook policy on images of breastfeeding provokes controversy


Well, if you want to view the official petition to Facebook, titled “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene”, here it is in multiple languages.

Ars Technica, one of my favorite sites on Internet law developments, has a detailed analysis by Jacqui Cheng, “Facebook breastfeeding drama nurses real world protest,” link here. Other stories accuse Facebook of “pulling a Myspace.”

Facebook says that it has a corporate policy of no “R rated” nudity in images on its site, and does not want to get into making social or cultural determinations of the value of the image, because that could backfire and turn out to become discriminatory. It’s interesting to me that I haven’t heard of web hosting services considering such images as against their “terms of service” or “acceptable use policies,” and I’m not aware of an issue with Blogger or Wordpress.

It’s also interesting to note that even had COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) been upheld, these images probably would not have been viewed as in violation because courts would normally have seen them as having intrinsic value, even for minors.

As a private company, Facebook certainly is free legally to have this policy if it wants. It’s beginning to seem a bit overreaching. Personally, I hope that the policy changes and that the photos are allowed.

Users say that Facebook is supposed to give them the ability to state “who they are” and for many mothers this is an important issue. There have been some other problems, where Facebook accounts have been disabled for apparent overuse that could not be distinguished from spam.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A New Year's Remark: Reassurance about my "policy" regarding identifying people or other parties in blog postings


Generally, persons or companies or other sensitive entities named in blog posts have already been named in the “establishment” public media. It is true that their re-mention here can cause additional search engine entries to become catalogued for them (possibly in new or unusual keyword combinations, which sometimes are just coincidental because the keywords occur in the same posting). Generally, however, there are already many entries for the individuals involved. It’s also true that search engine results can remain catalogued for an extremely long time, when in the past the passage of time could have caused the individuals to be “forgotten” by the public. This is part of the asymmetry of cyberspace.

I don’t use blogs for “gossip” (as in the notorious CWTV show “Gossip Girl”). I don’t use blogs or sites to vent grievances against specific individuals or companies or parties, unless it is well established that many other people have similar complaints against the same parties. Against larger companies or entities (like school districts), however, I’m not afraid to make “constructive criticism” or point our legal or ethical anomalies. Persons who do business with me in any way (including employment) should feel reassured by this statement. (And by the way, I don’t go to work for some group to spy on it. But I might discuss, constructively, but with proper respect for legal confidentialities or trade secrets, issues with an entity after leaving it.)

It’s clear that many employers and other business entities are very concerned about what individuals say about them or about other people connected to them (like other clients), since there has been so much “abuse” of “reputation” by many people, especially on social networking sites. These are legitimate concerns and have already been widely covered on this blog.

On the other hand, sometimes employers (and other interests like families) are concerned about people's postings even about themselves because of more collective concerns they have about socialization and about how “impressions” could affect their businesses or other people indirectly. They will naturally be concerned about existential matters: what clients or other stakeholders might infer about the speaker's attitudes about many subtle matters, especially about people in general. That’s particularly true with business models where, as part of the job, people have to get and keep specific clients. It’s also true in other situations where role modeling is involved (teachers) or where one has authority over others. With these sorts of issues, I realize that I have to be very careful about future positions that I may seek and how I behave publicly after starting them.