Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost Sunday: Equality, Karma, and unseen sacrifice


At the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA today, Rev. Bernie Nord (from Arizona and Ohio) gave a Pentecost Sunday sermon “The Field-Leveling Spirit”. It was fairly brief, but fairy early made some comparisons: “A is not better than B”. He mentioned the Middle East problem, and sees it the same way Jimmy Carter does (that is, people from Israel do not have the right to expropriate the land or resources of people from Palestine), but he suggested many other domestic comparisons, some more “obvious” than others, given our history. He mentioned that “Young” is not better than “Old”, for example. I think he would have said that Straight is not better than Gay.

Of course, the obvious connation is social justice. Equality, the way an organization like the Human Rights Campaign would put it, is obviously an important goal in his thinking.

In practice, human society and history is so complex than abstract equality gradually becomes meaningless. We value “freedom” but in a real world, much of what we have depends on sacrifices of others (sometimes of our parents or ancestors, sometimes of contemporaries) that we never become aware of, much less appreciate. New Age religions express their concern with this idea by using the word “karma.” In the past, totalitarian regimes have tried to enforce “equality” with draconian methods, such as when Red China’s Chairman Mao instituted the Cultural Revolution and put intellectuals into the countryside along peasants. We ran into the same idea in the 1960s with the Vietnam era military draft and student deferments.

In the 1990s particularly, we moved into a cultural that placed considerable emphasis on the ideas of “fundamental rights”, and especially the right to choose a consenting adult significant other. As a corollary, we assumed that there is a right of consent, and a right to refuse unwanted intimacy—a concept that American and western law nearly always ratifies (particularly after the 14th Amendment). In a media and information saturated age, such a structure for individual rights favors the development of individual autonomy or separateness, and the ability to discern what one really wants before committing to a permanent relationship (like marriage, and maybe having children). In a society like ours, it often works well for some people (you never need to be jealous if you are free). Yet, our “individual sovereignty” is more fragile than we think, more easily undermined by outside forces stemming from indignation over the sacrifices that it took to get us here. No wonder there are some “conservative” religious groups (the Amish, the Mormons) that emphasize family and group solidarity and appreciating the value of “people as people”, beyond the capacity for choice.

Freedom seems to be incompatible with perfect justice and perfect equality. We can only approach these aims as a limit, like in calculus.

Attribution link for Pentecost icon from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

From "online reputation" to "conflict of interest": we need to get beyond the "sniff test" and develop some "best practices"


This week Dr. Phil re-aired his “busted online” show (reviewed in the TV blog September 2008) and I caught some more of the disturbing meaning of what has been going on with “online reputation.” As most readers know by now, that has to do, on the surface, with employers checking job applicants online (the “two way traffic” issue) and the so-called “sniff factor” (as “Reputation Defender” CEO Michael Fertik calls it) where employers make snap judgments on first impressions online just as they would with conventional resumes and interviews, and don’t bother (or have the time) to look at context.

Starting as early as the mid 1980s, we offered “ordinary people” the ability to communicate with the whole world with very little “entry barrier”, and, not surprisingly in hindsight, have run into a “sandpile” of perils at one time thought “unthinkable.”

In a general way, the hazards fall into three overlapping areas: security, business conflict of interest, and “reputation defense.” And, also in a general way, the self-broadcasting behavior that has led to a number of these problems has three overlapping purposes: making money (sometimes “too easy” money), self-publication, and (more recently) social networking.

In the 1980s, some dialup user networks started to appear (with few legal problems at first), and by the early 1990s, after the National Science Foundation gave its blessing to turning on the Net, a number of protocols started to shift down to a few basics: email and http. Companies like AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy offered proprietary content and email, and quickly found that they needed to implement “terms of service” and “rules of the road” and then explain these rules in baby language for those not “law literate.” By the mid 1990s, self-publication online became practical, and by the late 1990s search engines were enabling people to be found worldwide at essentially no cost and with little special effort (you really didn’t have to code Metatags on static html files; robots would find you).

I came into contact with these issues from a different direction: desktop publishing, when I wrote my first book and had to learn intellectual property law quickly (and meet with a few lawyers first). I had a special problem: I was going to write a book dealing with “don’t ask don’t tell” because of a traumatic earlier life experience, yet I was working for an insurance company that specialized in selling to military personnel. I dealt with this potential “conflict of interest” with a corporate transfer when the company got bought (for once, a “Wall Street” merger was a good thing for me, but not for everybody). Later, I put a lot of the material online, and found that I had an audience of probably several hundred thousand people worldwide.

I began to see how the “unlimited” self-publication online could present business risks for people already employed at a place. The most obvious risks would be breach of confidentiality or trade secrets. But others were more subtle. If a person who made underwriting decisions about stakeholders or who had direct reports presented herself as “sharp-edged” on “moral” issues online, she find her credibility and effectiveness in the workplace undermined. This was an extension of the “conflict of interest” problem I had already vetted with lawyers over my own peculiar relationship to “don’t ask don’t tell” and employment. (I won’t elaborate further here, but that’s another reason to repeal it.)

Starting around 1999, the media occasionally reported stories of people being fired for off-the-job online activity. This could include nurses or teachers fired for being found engaging in pornography, or for other people setting up sites to trade their employer’s stocks illegally. Then sometimes people did get fired for violating confidentiality with what they published online (even from home), or for creating conflicts, with the most famous incident being the “doocing” of Heather Armstrong (and “dooce” is a real verb now). Around 2001 or so, people started talking about the idea that companies ought to have “blogging policies”, although the idea didn’t catch hold quickly. Typically, these policies included provisions that, besides protecting confidentiality, employees clearly state that they are speaking for themselves.

The next little flap that seemed to provide an existential threat to blogging and self-publication was campaign finance reform. However, in 2005, the FEC was able to promulgate rules that exempted most “ordinary” issue-oriented blogging from being viewed as an “indirect contribution”.

But the media started jumping on the problem of online presence and reputation around the end of 2005, after social networking sites had been around for somewhat over a year. The attention shifted from job holders to job applicants, and the media started reporting that people were being excluded from consideration from jobs when employers (and even grad schools) found unflattering behaviors online, especially from high school and college students. The “two way street” seemed to lack streetlights and double lines; employers could be careless on whether they even identified the right person. Teens or young adults found that others could post undesirable photos or comments about them (especially on Myspace and Facebook), leaving permanent digital records that could haunt them forever. Even just going to a wild party could be dangerous; you never knew who had a camera, and whether bong hits were around. Entrepreneurs like Michael Fertik formed companies to help clients clean up online reputations (there are several of these firms now). As a correlated problem, kids were often giving out quasi-personal information that could sometimes jeopardize their families’ security or their parents’ jobs.

All the sudden, a communications mechanism that had been intended to promote freedom of expression can be used as a test for social conformity. That’s the “sniff test” problem that Fertik talks about. Many jobs are predicated on “getting business” and employers feel that, even if they don’t “care” personally about off-job behavior, they’re afraid that clients will. In the midst of all this, there are some special problems: sexual orientation (especially for someone in the military).

It is certainly true that many jobs require one to represent an employer’s views to the public, not just one’s own. That may be OK for a college graduate who wants to work as a political operative and is already psychologically committed to a particular party’s or interest group’s objectives, or it may be all right for someone who wants to specialize in some area (like intellectual property rights or the DMCA) where it’s pretty clear cut how he should behave online. (Consider how a trial lawyer or prosecutor should behave online.) But for someone with a much longer list of life experiences (me), being tied to representing someone else’s interests is an unwelcome proposition.

It’s also true that some jobs, especially in journalism or the “established media” require public objectivity (and require signing of a public morals clause). That might make my own style of “gonzo journalism” off limits – or it might not, depending on how I played things.

Where does all of this leave us? It’s not easy to parse all this into any consistent outline of what the future portends.

I can, for example, think of some very negative developments that could happen:

For example, require all bloggers to have insurance, to cover the “systemic risk” that they create. (That would considerably raise the “barrier to entry”). Or, require bloggers to demonstrate financial results (but that encourages people to develop scams). With proposals like these, one is trying to force bloggers (under “free entry”) to cover the unpredictable “systemic risk” that their "almost famous" goals subsume with some legitimate capital (rather like the banks!). Or, require bloggers to write only about areas that actually pay their mortgages (but then they really would have to be cleared by their employers anyway, taking us all the way back to the world of professionalism and eliminating “amateurs” from the debate, dumbing debate down and confirming established "power structures"). There may be calls to weaken the downstream liability limitations of Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The “free entry” system certainly enriches our communications and democratizes our political debate. It certainly provides a valuable counterweight to lobbyists and special interests (something all conservatives want to see). It also comes with a lot of systemic risks – yes, Joshua Cooper Ramo and his “unthinkable” sandpile. There is no simple answer to these problems, but leadership in a number of areas would help.

First: Provide intellectual property education in public schools. Kids need to learn about copyright, privacy, reputation, libel, and all of these concepts. (I think a lot of teachers and administrators need to learn them, too.) And schools need to take on cyberbullying (and all bullying) with zero tolerance – even when from home. Major Internet-oriented corporations must step in and help schools do this. . Many educators feel that excessive media exposure reduces the ability of kids to relate to and particularly empathize with “real people” but they have been saying this since television came into general use in the 1950s. (Note: June 3: EFF has an article by Tim Jones, "Taking Copyright Education Seriously", here.)

Second: The human resources world must help employers develop “best practices” and inform job applicants (and sometimes current associates) just how online “reputations” will be checked. Measures must be taken to ensure that people are properly identified. The corporate world has learned to deal with diversity and discrimination issues in other areas, and Internet expression is a “quasi-private” area (despite the fact that it is public) that deserves the same consideration, for the public good. The Obama administration should jawbone the corporate world and HR world on this. Corporate America can learn to do this fairly. If voluntary measures don’t work, Congress could consider measures later. The “best practices” idea might need to extend into other areas, like housing and zoning.

Third: We do need a system for lenders to use to perform due diligence in identifying consumers properly. I’ve developed this on another of my blogs.

Fourth: The Obama administration has taken some steps in centralizing the control of “existential” threats to our cybersecurity.

Fifth: Bloggers and “small” webmasters need to develop comprehensive “business privacy policies” as I discussed May 25. And individuals will probably eventually be expected to have “coherent” presence on the web, rather than multiple “separate lives” (which I have done since I was always an “individual contributor” at work), although anonymity will always be fought for as a right.

Sixth: Understand this paradox: the Internet, by bringing us so much awareness of the systemic problems people face, has, while developed to promote freedom, may make us come to view “personal responsibility” and accountability to others, beyond the usual parameters of “choice” – with a lot more subtlety.

Last – repeal “don’t ask don’t tell”!

And note -- I don't think the photo here can hurt anyone's "reputation."

Understand: it may “say more” to throw a temper tantrum and have no web presence at all, than be coerced into crafting one’s own personal expression and “reputation” to meet the ends determined by others.

Related post (6/9/2009) about "personal branding on my trademark blog is here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Brad" tells us how to make "fair use" fair when you make a parody video: getting past the DMCA


A blog called “Brad Ideas” describes just how difficult a “fair use parody” can be, if you have to get around anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA in making your parody. In this case, the artist is adapting a Hitler rant from the well known indie German film “Downfall”.

You can watch the parody and read the technical details (the “analogue hole” as EFF calls it) here.

Brad explains an important concept upon which fair use builds on: if you want to criticize a work, you probably won’t get permission to use the work from the creator (common sense), but so the Fair Use doctrine lets you use the work to make a parody. Yes but… -- as kids argue.

He also offers a parody “Hitler is looking for a parking spot.”

I saw the movie back in 2004 at a Landmark Theater and the blogger is right, it is effective—even if the blogger wanted to parody it. He wanted to criticize the work because it’s good. The scene where the children are put to sleep is one of the most chilling ever.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why make an issue: "personal responsibility" and "performance"?


In many cultures, particularly outside the “West”, family members will drop everything they are doing to take care of each other. Not just children, and even parents, but siblings and more distant relatives also. People sometimes see this not so much a matter as “right and wrong” as something “you just do.” You belong to a family, you belong to a community, even if you didn’t create it; but that makes it come first. Traditional marriage not only sets up a home to raise children; the permanence of marriage used to be based on expectations of blood loyalty, not just of the spouse and children, but on the family member relationships that the marriage would generate.

That’s much less true in much of modern culture, where, with good reason (given US and world history), we have shifted much more toward individualism, even hyper-individualism, with separated and expressive “great expectations” enabled by (possible vulnerable) technology that changes and makes asymmetric the topology of our movements and especially communications. We have set up a competitive meritocracy, partially but not completely measured by financial success, and we “like” people who seem legitimately successful. The media promotes that notion. Who doesn’t “admire” Clark Kent? So we have to deal with an inherent contradiction, if we look at the “logic” demand it be followed (like a proof in plane geometry); we have to find a way to value everyone – but that was supposed to the “family”, right? Curiously, individualism has depended on another paradox: while it espouses libertarian principles, it uses public programs and taxpayer-financed safety nets or pseudo-annuities (all of them controversial and subject to eventual “Ponzi-like” failure) to take care of many of those in need and relieve the demands for loyalty. For people who don’t have their own children (and often for gays and lesbians) individualism has been a very important and freeing development.

The development of individualism has led to a lot of contemplation and discussion that sometimes seems narcissistic: about ‘self-concept” or “self-worth” (with plenty of hotel seminars on these), about worthiness or deservedness. Against this goes a faith-based counterpoint that finds salvation for those who will surrender to a higher calling. Still, the modern notion of “personal autonomy” or “individual sovereignty” has evolved after some painful social struggles that put individuals into competition with one another, for “worthiness”, sometimes to survive. Remember how student deferments from the draft worked in the 1960s? Remember the “moral outrage” that followed?

I do talk about these concepts a lot on my blogs, not out of any personal “vendetta,” but to show how they explain how many of today’s issues evolved. Terrible things are done to people, as they were to me in the early 1960s. I analyze and account for them, not out of any desire to “get even” but to teach and try to get people to look deeper into all of our issues today, to help them see where they need to draw their own personal moral lines. Forgiveness, I think, requires cognitive understanding as well as simple faith. Some of these “moral” issues still don’t get enough attention, for example filial responsibility. Others gain moderate traction, such as national service, and the “demographic winter” problem (and the evolving concepts of “sustainability” and “generativity”). Ironically, the Internet and its free-entry system, born of libertarian motives, has forced us to become much more aware of “collective” or “village-like” problems than we were even fifteen years ago.

I find that, in my own life, I need to know where I draw the line in some areas, such as expectations from others for certain kinds of intimacy. There are certain no-no’s today that indeed relate to the way I developed as a boy in relation to others in a peer group; these ideas have simply become postulates now, and provide a ruleset. I also need to maintain a certain amount (actually, a lot) of adult individual sovereignty in order to be open or generous with others at all. I simply cannot be “recruited” for the causes of others, for which I have no “ownership”, without the integrity that comes with real autonomy (and some separation from “the group” and even “the family”). Perhaps these concerns take on an “existential” nature (how often do we encounter “that word” these days – Rudy Giuliani and Fareed Zakaria both like to use it). Some “outcomes” are just not acceptable. I do understand the importance of sharing some of the social “common elements” (uncertainties and risks) and not counting on "outsourcing" these. But I also understand the shame that can result from expropriation, and the idea that one cannot always manage one’s own destiny. Indeed Rick Warren says “It’s not about you…” but sometimes is really is. I haven’t heard Warren’s interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, but I can imagine it. The more ability one has and the harder one works (works (that is, as the more “talent” one has, as Malcolm Gladwell says in his “Outliers” book [see book review blog Nov. 28, 2008]), the more likely one is going to be able to do what others need him or her to do for them and still achieve his or her own goals; that’s just plain logic.

There is a danger inherent in using the Web to explore the “meritocratic” interpretation of some issues. Call it the “John Stossel Problem” if you like (as so many people got mad at his recent “You Can’t Talk About It” broadcast on ABC 20/20). Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary wrote about the credit card issue, something like “we have a selfish system,” in characterizing how “capitalism works” (Trump style). We can talk about “personal responsibility” and run it into the ground, or into bad places. When found on the Internet, it may seem to a casual reader that a posting dealing with these matters was intended to offend, no matter how carefully worded But it is not. Many of our issues relate back to how people set their own boundaries and standards, for themselves, outside of immediate family influence. Any person is entitled to decide what to expect from herself or himself and to decide what others may expect from her or him. That takes some analytical thought about these matters as to how we perform and “compete”.

Web postings by “amateurs” do run into two particular problems. One is that passage taken out of context may be perceived as offensive to some people or groups. When the passage (even a whole page) occurs in a book and the book is read sequentially, the context is clear and the offense goes away. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many books are searchable on the Web now (the Book Project, and Amazon’s search) so that an author’s expectation, if the author has only a sales website and does not offer free content, of full reading is not met. (In my case, I posted my text for free browsing on the Web one year after publication, in mid 1998). This “problem” came up in the COPA trial. Dr. Phil has pointed out that others with hostile intentions can intentionally group things one has published to leave a misleading impression (see the TV review blog Sept. 8, 2008).

The other problem is that an amateur’s factually true post that deals with a controversial topic may be interpreted as “evidentiary” about the speaker’s intentions, whereas the same post from the established press would be taken as just (fact-checked and editorially supervised) journalism. This is the “Implicit Content Problem”. Employers are concerned about these problems (and, as we know, have taken to vetting applicants’ public web activity, which some employers feel could drive away clients, especially in businesses dependent on “socialization”). But even “established” journalists have found that they can draw ire if they are too candid about some sensitive aspects of their own perspectives – and overseas this can get downright dangerous.

The value of individual amateur blogging? It's tremendous. It covers things that the established press and well funded advocacy organizations and lobbyists won't touch.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Twitter: the ultimate "self-broadcast" tool?


Jon Swartz has a cover story today Tuesday in USA Today Money Section, “A World that’s all a-Twitter: Instant public communications service has millions tweeting,” with this link. The article pictures founders Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone, and discusses Evan Williams’s history as co-founding Blogger. All three men are college drop-outs – and I recall discussions back from an Ayn Rand oriented roommate back in the 1960s at KU of the virtues of scrapping in the engineering business world “without a degree”.

Twitter does have to produce more revenue, and almost any business model proposed to increase revenue could reduce the number of subscribers. It’s power would be universal acceptance as a global instant communications and microblogging tool, something that works for people who move around and can really attract followers to their micro “soap boxes”. Ashton Kutcher is perhaps the best known celebrity to champion it.

Twitter could be an effective micro-journalism tool, for people who really can attract followings “as people” as delivers of “what you need to know right now” about some area of life. Perhaps many people will see it as the height of attention getting and "creative narcissism."

Or it could be seen as a customer service tool (for cable companies) and even a sales tool (for financial planners and brokers).

Would it work for a blogger as platform for continuing a stream of breaking news? Maybe. I’ll look into it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Business Privacy Policy": I've posted mine, and all bloggers should consider having them


Recently, legal experts and service providers have been suggesting that all web operators and bloggers post a “privacy policy” to indicate what measures they take to protect visitors as they interact with their websites. An example is at the bottom of this page.

In addition, it seems to me that the “omnipresence” of the Web implies that people who express themselves on the Web ought to provide statements providing mutual reassurance of privacy for other people or parties that they do business with.

Since the mid 1990s, the Web has given people with very little capital and no real editorial supervision (as with the “professional” press) to post opinions or facts on the Web where they can be found by anyone on this planet (and who knows, maybe other planets in the future!) We have referred to this capability as the “free entry” system (or “low barrier to entry” system).

Around 2004, social networking sites came along, and the public came to perceive the Web as a portal for networking as well as publishing. And, since the late 1990s, P2P has provided additional “controversial” modes of communication.

Any innovation that changes the topology of our communication can have unintended “sandpile related” and “unthinkable” consequences (to follow the language of the recent book by Joshua Cooper Ramo). Napster and sites like Myspace and Facebook provide examples of radical innovation launched by single individuals. My own contribution, from the late 1990s, has been to show how a single person’s “gonzo journalism” can have a disproportionate effect on social or political affairs by making people much more conscious of how they perceive themselves and how others perceive themselves.

The open and unbounded nature of web communication implies that any time a party does business with another party (in employment, contracting, personal service, even renting property) there is a possibility of privacy compromise or harm from unsupervised postings on the Web. These problems vary from older issues like conflict of interest and trade secret compromise to newer ideas like “online reputation defense.” Over time, I’ve made a number of postings about these issues, and I find that they form an evolving issue. One subtle aspect of the issue has to do with the fact that different cultures have different notions of “privacy” and “self concept” and that accidental compromise can easily occur, to the unpleasant surprise of both parties.

I’ve posted my own “Business Privacy Policy” here on my main site (doaskdotell). Note that it is linked to my Web Content Privacy Policy (as at the bottom of this page).

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Wired" and the "free content" problem


James Ledbetter has an interesting perspective on “free content” in the Washington Post Business Section today (Sunday, May 24). The article is “Call It Free, But it Will Cost You”, here.

He discusses Chris Anderson, editor of Wired (often quoted on these blogs) and author of “The Long Tail”, which maintains that giving things away free is the “radical” business model for the future. He goes on to explain how Conde Nast manages the ad space in his magazine so as to attract the select group of readers, and discourage the “shoplifters”. He also talks about the free stores of the 60s,. Diggers and Yippies, which are long gone.

Giving content away free for a long time could pay off if the content attracts investors for a bigger project, say a movie.

The Internet could drive us back to a less "narcissistic" idea of "self-concept"


As a boy, one of my favorite black and white situation comedies (complete with the Scott tissue ads) was “My Little Margie”, and I remember a particular episode where “Freddie” applied for some kind of job, but only married men were accepted. I thought that was odd, even then: to require someone to be “performing” in life this way before he was “worthy” of a job. Some time back, I rented the 1955 movie “Marty”, that seemed to win so many critical accolades, and grimaced at the pressure on the central character to get married to qualify for adult life,

I remember also, in those days at NIH in 1962 (covered on other blogs), that the therapists seemed so concerned about my interest in living in a world of “fantasy” rather than learning to relate intimately to “real people” (of the opposite sex). I didn’t “see people as people” they said. There was a gap to jump, from seeing oneself as a competitor to willingness to accept some kind of inner change resulting from pampering someone of opposite polarity, and then taking the dive of having a family, and being willing to put one’s descendents above one’s own personal purposes in setting priorities. In short, it was essential to be accountable for the welfare of other human beings before choosing and executing one’s own priorities. That was seen as mandatory. The loose term for this kind of thinking as “aesthetic realism.”

In time, after the civil rights movements and the rise of individualism, things changed. It was considered healthful to be oneself first before attempting a relationship. That idea may have started in the gay male community and also with the women’s movement, but it gradually took over with the Yuppie movement. Some saw it as narcissistic. Yet there were advantages: the need to cling to other people or become jealous was circumvented, and real psychological growth was possible.

The need for freedom and psychological growth does explain why some men and women remain childless. So do a number of other factors covered before in the blogs. These include a perception that one cannot “compete” the way society expects (particularly in a gender-related way), or a resistance to learn to “feel differently” about the needs of people after being exposed to the “paradoxes” of a competitive culture.

A free market society that offers what we call “democratic capitalism” (what the Islamic world resists trying) has to live with certain paradoxes in the way we see people and see ourselves (call it the “Meritocracy Paradox”, worthy of discussion by ABC’s John Stossel). We admire talent and success (after hard work), and we admire people who are successful with legitimate activity. Logically we would think “less” of people who are less successful individually (and who depend on family and various social institutions to give them meaning), but generally we say we prefer to think nothing (at all) about this. (I remember a particular discussion about this with a friend the summer after I graduated from high school, in 1961). But society generally offers a way around this: personal commitment, usually traditional marriage, which offers a lot of perks for the emotional change including influence over the lives of those who have not made the jump (in the past, this meant a moral monopoly over sexuality). As far as I’m concerned, gay marriage is a perfectly “logical” way to extend this commitment to those who are wired to respond “differently” with respect to gender.

It’s true that we started becoming “preoccupied with ourselves” after the sexual revolution, and could “hide” behind the notion of privacy. After the Internet came along, the privacy paradigm was blown to smithereens, and was replaced with a kind free-entry-driven self-promotion and self-broadcast. But that’s the rub. Given the asymmetry and “sandpile effect”, the world can become unstable, and “unfair” in ways never perceived before. Freedom, of course, has always required tolerating the idea that human “justice: will always be far from perfect, even if we try to apply the “laws of karma” the way the New Age folks teach it. (This has been a particularly bitter lesson for the far Left during the past century.) But the idea of “expecting” everyone to become committed so someone else’s needs before self-promotion starts to make sense as way to resolve the “Meritocracy Paradox” and reign in on the dangerous behavior (including cyberbullying) we see all the time today, especially on the Internet.

That idea flies in the face of the increasing investment in education and the perfection of self – where medical school, for example, can go on to age 30. It questions the idea that someone should become a billionaire by hitting the Enter key in a dorm room before having known “family responsibility” and having some grasp of the downstream social consequences of an innovation. It even makes me remember a dictum or question back in a (pre Betty Friedan) women’s magazine around 1957 or so – “who do you want to have a degree --- you, or your husband.” It reminds me of some recent articles from the Phillip Longman crowd imploring people to become parents sooner.

Individualism has come a long way. It proved to be an effective answer to the gross injustices (even 19th century slavery) that could be hidden by “family values.” Certainly, “religious righteousness” as we know from other countries (as with radical Islam and the Taliban) leads to horrific behavior too, in its effort to be “right.” Perhaps that’s because those at the top didn’t have to share the sacrifices or make the commitments of everyone else.

It’s easy to imagine a lot of policy changes that can result in a culture of encouraging commitments and making sacrifices more transparent. National service is a good start. But so is a shift in attitude: a recognition that in a community none of us can afford to pretend that we will never need to depend on others.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Terms of Service" violations do not make for criminal offenses; look at EFF's Coders' Rights Project


Matt Zimmerman of Electronic Frontier Foundation is reporting that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has thrown out a warrant claiming “probable cause” for Riccardo Calixte’s alleged “criminal” “hacking” activity merely for violating the “terms of service: for Boston College.

While the defendant’s conduct may be objectionable (and perhaps very “politically incorrect” according to today’s norms), that alone does not mean that he can be pursued for a crime, according to a careful reading of the law. The link for the story is here.

The case has some psychological importance to the “Myspace case” where a Missouri woman (Lori Drew) will (or may) be sentenced in California for “defrauding Myspace” in what seems like a “creative” reading of the law to prosecute for behavior that seems morally reprehensible but that may not be illegal.

Visitors will also want to visit EFF’s “Coders’ Rights Project” There are FAQ lists for Reverse Engineering, Vulnerability Reporting, and the “Grey Hat Problem” where a coder accidentally breaks a rule and discovers a weakness. The link is here. These are detailed and require careful study and may be discussed more later.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Does "ex parte" blogging by attorneys need to be regulated? (Supreme Court's action on Louisiana case raises the issue)


Media Bloggers Association has posted a link to “Legal Blog Watch” on typepad about “ex parte blogging” by attorneys in a case. The question is “Do we need ethics rules for ex parte blogging?” The link is here. The Latin phrase "ex parte" means "from one side" and is explained in Wikipedia here.

The piece refers to a Stanford Law Review article by Rachel C. Lee, “Ex Parte Blogging: The Legal Ethics of Supreme Court Advocacy in the Internet Era.” Pdf link here. As an aside, I want to mention that Stanford Law School is well known for its comprehensive digital library on the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military (link).

There is a lot of discussion of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana (link), decided June 25, 2008, modified Oct. 1, 2008.

Apparently legal blogger Dwight Sullivan wrote some material about the death penalty and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which did not change the end result, but which caused the Court to amend its reasoning to correct a factual error.

Should courts refrain from reading blogs (or for that matter newspaper articles) on cases while they are considering them? I doubt that justices would comment on the issue, but there are “conflict of interest” rules that would normally prevent attorneys assigned to a particular case from blogging about the case. The blogwatch article writes “Current ethics rules prohibit lawyers from trying to influence the judicial process so lawyers should not be blogging about ongoing cases for that reason.”. I wonder about this, however. Consider the COPA trial, for which I was a “subplaintiff” and which went on for months or years with many back-and-forth reviews between various levels of appeal. The ACLU and justice department both wrote many briefs and arguments that were available on the Internet. I linked to many of them or provided copies on my own websites (they were in public domain). I even showed them at one school where I substitute taught. Furthermore, the ACLU, EFF, and various other parties wrote articles about the constitutional arguments during this long period. Theoretically, the judges should not have read them, although from having attended some of the 2006 trial I am convinced that the judge was well aware of the many different arguments people (including me) were making, and of the many detailed facts (about technological capability) that were being reported.

Judges are supposed to limit their decisions to the evidence introduced in a trial record, and that flows up through appeals. Unfortunately, in cases about technology, the applicable facts, as a practical matter, can change during the time that this process takes, making an expectation that they will not be influenced by external media or blogs unrealistic. This issue does need attention.

We’ve heard a lot about blogging and “online reputation” in the past few years, especially since social networking sites came into the fore, but we also have always had a potential deeper issue with “conflict of interest” which I have written about before and which was a big issue for me in the 1990s. I’ll go into this with some revised “combinatorial thinking” again soon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Law students make dossier on Justice Scalia to demonstrate problems with privacy in the Internet age


The “link by link” column by Noam Cohen in the Business Section of the Monday May 18, 2009 New York Times describes a law school experiment (at Fordham University) to build a dossier on conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, after he blew back concerns about Internet privacy at a conference. That was “The Right to Privacy and Individual Liberties from Ancient Times to the Cyberspace Age” at the Institute of American and Talmudic Law (link).

The title of the article is “Law Students Teach Scalia about Privacy and the Web”, with link here. The students built quite a dossier, and would have had the legal right to disseminate it because it was not related to a job application.

George Washington University Law Professor Daniel Solove (author of “Understanding Privacy”, reviewed here) explained how privacy is compromised by a large aggregation of facts (such as shopping habits) about a person, when each individual fact is innocuous. For example, credit card companies are now basing interest rates on what kinds of merchants consumers visit. Another aspect of privacy compromise is permanence and efficiency of aggregated information (which can be posted by amateurs and not fact-checked), which in the past would have been hard in practice to accumulate in just a bricks and mortar world. The law has not yet come to terms with the “efficiency” or “permanence” or “leveraging” factors.

Justice Scalia dissented in the 2003 opinion Lawrence v. Texas, overturning laws against homosexual sodomy, where in the past arguments regarding “fundamental rights” to adult sexual privacy had been made (as with Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986), but in the age of open communications, privacy as we argued it in the 1970s and 1980s (with HIV and now all health care information) is less of an issue now than the right to be open about one’s identity (even in the military) – “don’t ask don’t tell” turns to “do ask do tell”.

Where research on "Newburyport" leads: calling all those from Massachusetts


While research my post Saturday about the “media perils” flap over “Newburyport” (described by MBA, as in my May 16 post), I found another entry called “Newburyport Report” on the January 8, 2008 entry of this blog by Ari Herzog, called “AriWriter”.

That particular entry doesn’t seem to go anywhere now and doesn’t seem to have any relation to the incident reported Saturday (there are several other unrelated “Newburyport Report” posts on various sites that show up in search engines and have nothing to do with this – it shows how people use the same terminology for unrelated material). Now his focus seems to be Navasota, TX. Except that when I go to his profile page on VisualCV for his own business, I see Newburyport MA come back. It seems that Massachusetts is a groovy place to come from – Matt Damon, Ben and Casey Affleck [Ben actually was born in CA], Marky Mark Wahlberg, Sebastian Junger, indie actor Mark Parrish, Shawn Fanning (Napster), even Barney Frank, and, well, Mitt Romney. (When I started working in New Jersey in 1970, everybody said Mass. was a much “better state”, when we almost moved there.)

But Ari's personal blog itself, with its very recent entries, now was very interesting, and I thought I would pass the url along (above). On May 14 he has a post about social media and what he calls “Government 2.0” – something that seems to be inspired by our new president’s aggressive use of blogging and web tools – and our president’s desire to do his own web postings hands on, like real (young) people. We finally have an administration that is more comfortable with how Generation Y communicates today – even to the point of marveling at Ashton Kutcher’s tweats.

May 16 Ari offers his own perspectives on how to use Twitter, with a process of creative destruction, first untwittering some thousands of people in a kind of Twitter “layoff”, then restructuring.

The physical organization of his blog is interesting, as is his disclaimer, where he talks about Creative Commons, which Electronic Frontier Foundation has advocated.

His blog, as a whole, covers some of the same territory that I do, but what’s interesting is that a much younger person has to present an integrated concept of himself or herself on the web – very much in line with modern ideas about “online reputation,” which started developing quickly around 2004 as social networking sites took hold. My own participation on the web goes back to 1996, with much older tools (AOL Personal Publisher and flat HTML sites) when I led a double life – one as an author tackling a particular political controversy (starting, for me, with gays in the military and "don't ask don't tell"), another as an individual contributor in information technology. There were no secrets – my writings and web postings were totally public (and showing up in search engines by 1998), and I even went on to Minneapolis cable television to discuss my books; but my concept of web behavior in the late 1990s was one of avoiding “conflict of interest”. How things change so quickly and move from one generation to the next!

The attribution link for Wikimedia Commons picture of Fenway Park and its Green Monster is here.
Boston nearly always has had a great baseball team. (I visited Fenway myself once, in 1975.) Not so for Washington, which just got swept at home this weekend by the Phillies. In major league baseball, it’s the quality of management that determines everything.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Juicy Campus" sites raise questions in how they are reported in the media and by bloggers


Sunday morning, there were two apparently unrelated threads in the media news that come together for me in discussing blogger journalism.

One was an interview (I think on NBC, I didn’t pay attention) to an executive from Variety who talked about “blogdom” as driving celebrities back into their gated communities. I wondered, then, why is Ashton Kutcher so open in his Myspace and Facebook pages and with Twitter, and I thought, it’s been fairy easy for me to meet some younger celebrities with my books. (He also said that studios conspire to make bad movies, just to sell buttered popcorn.) But then, he got serious about journalism and said that his own publication fact-checks, just like “professional” newspapers, something he complained bloggers don’t have to do.

Then there was the business about the website “Peoples Dirt” (and, indirectly, the extinct "Juicy Campus") that I wrote about on my TV blog Friday May 15. And I wondered something else. If I write about it as an “amateur,” am I just inviting other kids to misuse it, indirectly? What people can say is, Bill, you don’t have kids. You don’t have a stake. Why do you burden us by giving people ideas? And please, understand, if you find this post, I write in subjunctive mood (easier to establish in French than English). I am making a point, not encouraging anyone to do anything wrong. But that is exactly what the “implicit content” problem is all about. The identity of the source may matter. The knowledge that a particular problem was brought up by an “amateur” rather than reported by the conventional press could itself be provocative to some people. (The First Amendment lists freedom of speech and freedom of the press separately. I add that there is a judicially established First Amendment protection here: legally, enticement doesn’t happen until there is an immediate threat of lawless action – ethically, it gets murky indeed. The law does not expect you to be your brother’s keeper the way the New Testament does.)

Search engines are neutral. They index things regardless of source, and sometimes personal sites are simpler and faster to load that “professional” journalistic sites, so the probability that an immature person will find something that is legally acceptable in the general sense (and even acceptable according to most notions of “terms of service”) but harmful to someone who is immature, is increased.

Blogger journalism may, in many individual cases, be as good as establishment journalism. Blogging has “democratized” debate by giving every individual a global voice. Not everyone has the same “stake” or “standing” regarding the risks, uncertainties and responsibilities he or she has chosen to engage (or perhaps had thrust on involuntarily) in life. Okay, life is not “fair”. But we’re beginning to see the horns of a new dilemma, another “mashup” that Joshua Cooper Ramo wrote about in his book “The Age of the Unthinkable.” It’s only now beginning to unstring.

Today, Fareed Zakaria, on his CNN Global Public Square, said that the media (professional or amateur) is concerned about the worst possible implications of a problem. As Ramo says, we may not be able to even anticipate them. But the media cannot anticipate the human response. That’s part of the implicit content issue.



Update: May 18, 2009: Plagiarism within the "journalistic establishment"

Check out Darold Knowles and his "Paradigms Lost" column about the apparent plagiarism of Pulitzer Prize holder Maureen Dowd. It seems like "establishment" journalism has to be oh, so careful. The link is here. The Dowd column appears to be from May 17 in The New York Times, "Cheney, Master of Pain", link here. Jesse Ventura discussed Cheney today on "The View" (see my TV blog today).

What kind of example does this set for the kids doing term papers? Maybe newspapers need to use "turnitin.com" too.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"On the Media" discusses bullying of bloggers by local business interests


The Media Blogger’s Association has linked to a posting from October 3, 2008 at a site called “On the Media,” with a transcript of a discussion called “The Calculated Risk of Blogging.” The discussion is between Bob Garfield and Robert Cox, founder of the Media Bloggers Association. The link is here.

Cox reports about a woman in Newburyport Massachusetts who created a blog about her town including discussion of real estate. He published information for public records about a particular piece of property. She received a cease and desist letter from an attorney representing a real estate developer. According to the tone of the transcript, the threat had no legal basis, since the information was accurate and came from a public domain source. Nevertheless, she took the entire blog down. “I didn’t get into it for this.”

Cox says that this is happening a lot. It’s partly a social and business culture problem. Some areas of business – and real estate is one of them – are particularly sensitive to social relationships and structures (sometimes these include familial relations) being honored, and could be disrupted by digital media where someone with no capital can “leverage” information that stays out forever. This is partly what has led to the SLAPP problem (and it tends to happen with local issues over property, developers, zoning, taxes, certain politicians, and often over arcane matters). There is a “bully” effect: “we’re bigger than you are and we can make you do what we say.” This is how it is in some areas of our society, although the Internet has certainly challenged things working this way.

The transcript goes on to discuss the bloggers’ insurance program, which this blog discussed in September 2008.

There is, perhaps, in this transcript a hint of an existential problem with blogging and other forms of Internet self-publication (outside of social networking sites as we now know them). That is, when a blogger publishes a piece of news about a controversial or disturbing matter in order to participate in debate and debate journalistic information presentation skills, people may wonder what the blogger’s “standing” or “stake” is (and assume there is some motive that there is not) and then feel that there is some kind of enticement to react. That is a social problem, sort of a subtle “mashup” that the legal system would have a hard time recognizing. I ran into this with one of my screenplays (this blog, July 27, 2007).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Not everyone online is a "true friend": beware the grievances, and don't make your sandpile too high


Michelle Singletary has a sobering column in the Washington Post May 14, 2009 that continues yesterdays examination of the lingering effects of digital records on online reputation. The column, in a series called “The Color of Money”, has the title “Be Careful Online: Not Everybody Is a True ‘Friend’”, and the link is here.

Twitter is the latest fad to create potential home security and maybe identify theft problems – it isn’t hard to imagine the danger of announcing your vacation plans, at least if you have no security at home or no one watching your home. Singletary says she keeps her tweats related to professionally relevant information. It's easier for a popular celebrity like Ashton Kutcher manage these sorts of potential issues, which can come with publicity, than it is for an "average Joe" with free Internet access. Yup, life's not completely fair, is it.

It’s reassuring that insurance companies (at least Chubb) say that they haven’t noticed an increase in property or personal crimes due to social networking sites – mostly the problems have been limited to phishing, scams, and identity issues. But it’s something that is logical to wonder about, and wonder if things will get worse in this area in the future, and become a concern for landlords and property management companies. And here's another "unfair" fact of life: a "moderately" well known person may be harder for an identity thief to impersonate (and not get caught) than a "Chemistry 201" unknown.

She also recommends never posting your birthdate online – something impractical for me because my books are already available on line. It’s true, birthdates are too easy to target – but many companies have increased the range of their optional security questions to include items that are not likely to be disclosed online in a social networking environment. That’s a good thing.

She warns about trashing neighbors or coworkers online – defamation – but the real risk here is more likely that one’s kids will do it, because they won’t be able to grasp the potential downstream consequences.

And be careful about trashing a previous employer, because your next employer may see your tendency to do so – back to the online reputation problem. The other problem that I can imagine would be that people may inadvertently give away trade secrets about former employers – so a prospective employer may be concerned that the applicant has loose lips. Welcome to the days of World War II. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was dooced for being too talkative in her columns.

We like the easy limelight, and we may well believe we are doing good with it, and often we are. In the age of hyper-individualism, which is running into its own natural red-shifted boundaries, we have be promoting our own idea of justice. But there is a lot of indignation and grievance out there. It is all to easy to attract it. All of this reminds me of the “sandpile” and “mashup” theories of Joshua Cooper Ramo’s new book “The Age of the Unthinkable” – which came to our new president’s mind in a press conference recently.

Great column yesterday, Michelle.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

College newspapers face requests from alumni to suppress material, as alumni fear employers will find the "unfavorable" material in search engines


Now we have a story by Sam Guzik on “Politics Daily”, “Alumni Look to Erase Search Results from College Papers”, link here.

College newspapers are being asked to remove contributions or stories that might place students in a bad light for job searches. And this is putting them in an ethical dilemma, from a journalism perspective. “You can’t just rewrite history.”

The problem has to do with employer and sometimes graduate school “background checks” of students with search engines, which obviously can go beyond social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace and look at conventional web articles and stories.

I’ve three people contact me over ten years over small matters on my sites, but in each case the specific circumstances were unusual and probably warranted removal of a small piece of text or of a name.

For example, people go to certain political meetings, and don’t want their names reported on the Internet as having attended, and do not realize that they could be. This was more common a few years ago before people understood how permanent digital records are and how easy it is for minor information to get “leveraged.” The development of social networking sites around 2004 probably called attention to the problem.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the problem “Alumni Try to Rewrite History on College-Newspaper Web Sites,” by Steve Kolowich, link here. Apparently a paper by a former student in the Daily Collegian at Penn State on “hook up culture on campus” was used later by a white supremacist group to attack her standing as a journalist when she worked for the York Daily Record (York is a small city south of Harrisburg). Another story concerned a lawyer who had been charged with burglary at Cornell and then cleared. But that sort of situation has occurred in the public era concerning individuals suspected and named (even by the FBI) as “persons of interest” in connection with major crimes or terrorist incidents and later clear. The digital record of the accusations remains forever, because the historical fact is that the accusation was made.

A more bizarre story concerned a Marine who was afraid that his contributions in The Emory Wheel could cause him problems if found by fellow soldiers in the military. And this was just over opinion pieces. People have been pilloried when others learn that they hold “political incorrect” views (along the lines of John Stossel and “you can’t talk about that”), especially in some communities with strong “speech codes.” (Indeed, that’s the case with the York reporter, in reverse.) But it can get worse. Imagine what would happen if someone joined the military and then a piece in which he or she stated homosexual orientation and published long before joining surface on a search engine while in the military (the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy). Remember, finding the combination of the word "gay" and a person's name in a search result doesn't mean that the person is gay or claimed to be; you have to read what the file really says.

Newspapers, especially college papers, do have a dilemma. They will fix factual errors, but to remove material that is factually accurate and that had been made public would violate the standards of journalism. It is much more difficult to change the content of a newspaper in these circumstances than to change a social network profile or personal blog.

Some schools, such as the University of Kansas (The Daily Kansan) – where I attended graduate school myself – have taken to “darkening” pages – changing robot-related metatags so that they do not get or stay indexed by search engines.

Another ethical dilemma may exist for material published in the mid 1990s, before students could reasonably have understood that material could stay out there forever and remain indexed forever, and be published by anyone under “free entry”, to be indexed (I coined the term “leveraging” for this problem). Search engines didn’t really start to get noticed until about 1998 (when COPA was passed, to be struck down as we have covered), and people really didn’t understand the idea of a “forever index” until social networking sites became popular around 2005.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Wolfram Alpha" may become the ultimate instant knowledge tool!


There’s a new “knowledge tool” coming soon (and I don’t mean to the neighborhood theaters!), called “Wolfram Alpha”. The website is here and it invites you to leave your email and name and a message. I simply said something like “interested knowledge tools and knowledge management.” It does not respond automatically immediately, and suggests that not all of the site will be public to everyone.

I certainly recommend watching the “Screencasthere. I suspect that, with websites, the facility will act as a sophisticated “WHOIS”.

The most interesting demonstrations are probably mathematics (integration of various functions), engineering and particularly medicine (pieces of the human genome). There will be some probability facilities that certainly will interest insurance companies.

The underlying technique seems to be searching from a huge relational database with very sophisticated SQL queries (hopefully, no correlated subqueries – they’re slow!), familiar to database programmers.

The company is located in Massachusetts. The founder is Stephen Wolfram (no relation to the name of the heavy metal on the Periodic Table). It says that it will accumulate all the knowledge of our civilization and make it instantly computable. The tone of the presentation suggests he thinks we will make an impression in alien visitors.

It’s natural to wonder how this would mesh with Wikipedia, and whether the companies or foundations will join forces, and obviously, how they would work with Google, MSN, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple and other major Internet players.

The service reminds me of the earlier search tool "Ask Jeeves" (site), which was much earlier in generation of this technology.

I also wonder how it would play out in academia. Teachers will insist that students be able to solve problems themselves. (What comes to my mind immediately is integration by partial fractions!) The availability of the tool raises questions on how to manage academic integrity issues. Sometimes you have to prove you can do it yourself. (Especially when you’re “on call” at work.)

The Wired Epicenter story by Steven Levy is here and it links to earlier stories about the new company.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Wall Street Journal to try a microcharge system


The Financial Times and Wired report that the Wall Street Journal will soon modify its online subscription model by charging customers only for what they read, with credit card “micro payments”, rather like those collected from a Kinkos kiosk.

The story (in Wired’s “Epicenter”) is here.

Right now, the WSJ online is one of the few newspapers that charge for content, even though some of that content is available free on some wireless devices. Many newspapers have charged for stories (about $4.95 or so per story) once they gets archived (after two to four weeks), but in recent years many newspapers have stopped intercepting archived stories to bill customers. Some papers only charge for more specialized stories.

Some newspaper sites run AP, UPI or Reuters stories but have to remove them after two weeks because of permissions agreements. Many AP stories do not remain available indefinitely. A micro-charge for older stories would, to me, sound like a good idea for news services like AP.

Micro charges could mean that some stories linked even from these blogs will bring up a panel to pay a microcharge, if the story is archived, or after seeing an abstract. Papers are likely to offer bundled deals of volume discounts and subscriptions as usual again.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is Facebook censoring users? Are people getting fired for "private" Myspace page content?


Nicholas Thompson of Wired appears on a video on CNN this morning, “Is Facebook censoring you?”



Nicholas said that he tried to send content from Mark Twain’s novel “Tom Sawyer”, which is in public domain, through Pirate Bay on Facebook, and it was apparently blocked. Facebook is apparently blocking some emails that use some services that have been in legal trouble for supposed copyright infringement, even when the particular use is legal.

Nicholas also said that Facebook was started by “twenty-year-old’s” is now run by forty-year-old lawyers who say, well, you should have these kinds of “terms of service.” Remember, the 40-year-olds were teens during the Reagan years, not so long ago. He says that, while Facebook needs a good reputation with its advertisers, it may drive away users, and run into loss of popularity, which he says has already started with Myspace. He also said that the recent flap over its terms of service (and its claim of “ownership”) led to its changing some of its behavior and a willingness to listen to users.

I couldn’t find Nick’s article for this story on Wired, but I found another interesting story “Why the Law and Tech Aren’t Friends on Myspace,” dated May 6, link here.

There was a case where a bartender and a waitress were fired by a New Jersey restaurant for comments made in a supposedly “private” Myspace forum. In other words, management apparently didn’t learn about the negative comments from search engine trolling, but from rumor, or possibly activity related to what the article calls “wiretapping.” The electronic communications were made from home and intended to have a restricted audience, which might give the speakers some protection under privacy law. This would be a good case for Lawrence Lessig or Daniel Solove (law professor at George Washington University) to look at.

Remember, though, as Dr. Phil has warned teenagers, that a "private" Myspace profile page and be extracted (perhaps illegally) and sent around like cellphone images -- and we know why those are in the news now (particularly with ambitious prosecutors).

Again, technology moves faster than the law can. Stock it up to Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “sandpiles,” which even our new president remembers about at news conferences.

Picture: "Christmas lights" on a patron at the DC Metro Center, although they weren't flashing much as my camera clicked.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Perez Hilton on wrong side of DMCA dispute; EFF has DMCA guide for content owners


Mario Armando Lavandeira, better known as Perez Hilton, and generally considered a positive in the gay rights area, himself got dinged for a possible improper DMCA takedown notice for a parody of some of his celebrity blog by the National Organization for Marriage. But this time, when NOM pointed out that their use was fair and non-infringing, YouTube agreed to restore the content quickly. Note the eye appeal of NOM's site: it seems like there is a bit of the Song of Solomon in their presentation.

All of that is reported in a story yesterday by Tim Jones on EFF, here. Visitors should note that Electronic Frontier Foundation has guidelines for content owners on a link called “fair and non-infringing” in the middle of Jones’s article. They bear some review, because protection of the benefits of free speech requires cooperation of content owners and providers, as that article explains.

And, in the free speech area, the political battles can produce “odd couple” bedfellows; sometimes the “conservatives” are on the right side of a free speech case. Perez Hilton may have been right in pinning Miss California down on gay marriage, but he has to play by the same rules as everyone else in using the instruments of the law. So does NOM, however, which, while on the good side this time, has issued wrongful takedown notices of its own in the past.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Moral paradoxes: do we define ourselves alone, or with interpendence on others: the "schizoid" to "narcisissm" problem


Deep within the Internet, if one searches for it on bar or disco computers (I wouldn’t want to bring up some of these sites at home for security reasons), one can find chats or forums where young men make very graphic comments about their desires to be “relieved” from the “responsibilities” that society places on them, however erratically. One need not be too explicit.

Looking back, I, like many other gay men, remember the frustration of being force to “compete” by other people’s rules, when I wanted to be left alone to pursue what I thought was my own calling (music). But it wasn’t always “competition”. Sometimes it had to do with performing manual labor chores in a prescribed way. And sometimes there seemed to be no “practical” purpose for the chore other than a disciplinary exercise for me in fitting in and meeting the needs of others. Otherwise, I would become “spoiled” or “get out of things.”

I can draw on some wisdom, and remember the point of these exercises. The world is an inherently unsafe and dangerous and unpredictable place, even if the immediate suburban surroundings seem secure enough. Others have much less than “you” and are indignant and angry enough to yank it away. You have to defend yourself and particularly, those in your family. Okay, I grew up just after “The Greatest Generation” had demonstrated that. No one can guarantee that you will always have what you want, or even earn it in a conventional way, or even follow what you think is your path in life. Before you get to make and execute your own choices, you have to meet the needs of others. You have to accept complementarity. (The Vatican loves that word, doesn’t it.) You are a man. Men need to do certain things for women and children. Women do certain things for me. (We come to that.) Children obey their parents. But life is first about family and community. Not everyone gets to excel in a public manner. But everyone gets to mean something in the family (even the elderly and sometimes disabled adults). But if that’s going to work, everybody has to do his own adaptive job with some complementarity.

There’s something tricky about this – getting the emerging teen or young adult to learn to balance expression of his or her individuality with interdependence with others. Sometimes “you” have to let others depend on you in circumstances beyond your control. And sometimes – even as a consequence of the first – you have to accept some dependence on others that you would not cause. Yet we think of this as negative, as leading to clinging and jealousy, to monopolizing others – and sometimes in a community it becomes unavoidable and necessary. Even so, future generations may relearn that limiting emotional intimacy to terms of one’s own choosing is not always a “fundamental right.”

Once that’s done, they would say, once you meet your pre-existing obligation to family, you can think about your own freedom. You may distinguish yourself publicly and become a star, but that’s not guaranteed. Things can go wrong. You can still be called back to make sacrifices for others, even if that means changing what you decided to do with your life. The best way to have standing is to get married, have children, and discipline your psyche, the deepest part of your personality, to feel attraction (giving up your youthful aesthetic judgmentalism – we all know about “body fascism”) for one person as you age together, come whatever may (and one can imagine a lot that can come). And think about it, if everyone really could enforce their own judgments all the time, well it would "mean something" and have a political impact, not necessarily good for sustainable freedom.

Call all this hype “anti-narcissism.” On Tuesday, May 5, Cheryl Wetzstein wrote a column on p A16 of The Washington Times, “Falling for narcissism” with analysis of the work of Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young, link here. The term narcissistic personality typically refers to disregard for others even in the sense of honoring the “harm principle” (sociopathy), and some of what is talked about here sounds more like a discussion of the “schizoid personality” which sounds like a withdrawal from the intimacy and connectivity to others that society demands – yet generally in a “harmless” manner. Yet, in today’s world of public global asymmetry, unthinkable “mashups” and slippery sandpiles, “harmless” is harder to pin down. In fact, Dr. Pinsky starts out by saying “Narcissism, in and of itself, shouldn’t be thought of some bad, per se, but there are liabilities that come with it.”

They develop the interesting point that society provides a lot of distractions from “Vatican” complementary commitment in terms of media images. Sunday, in another column (see my COPA blog), Wetzstein had discussed the way pornography detracts men (and sometimes women) from the necessary

So far, in this discussion, community trumps. But we all know that, since the 60s especially (and really going back to the time of Marxism a century earlier) societies have focused on “fairness” more in relation to how the individual is measured. Or call it “justice” which, in a free society, can never be completely reconciled with “community.” The whole line of thought (I called it “Vatican complementarity”) sounds like an excuse for tribalism and patriarchal structures, and, yes, that does happen. Racism (as prolonged by segregation and discrimination) and now economic “classism” are bad effects (contributing to the current fiscal mess, as it had in the 1930s). Over time, “social justice” came to be thought of in terms of individuals rather than groups, and this worked well with the evolving libertarian idea of “harmlessness”. We learned to treasure diversity and focus on carving out a sacrosanct area of fundamental rights for the individual. Still, we have developed a concern that, particularly in a sustainable world, we need to require everyone to adhere to something like “pay your dues.” Calls for national service or even reinstating the draft come to mind. We are aware that not everyone starts out the same place in line, and that people live off the unseen sacrifices of others. But we develop a tendency to “measure people” – both in terms of accomplishment and in terms of proving they can provide for others.

That brings back a generalization of Wetzstein’s concern over pornography, and expressed in the recent piece Tuesday. The media saturates us with heroes, with people who are “good”. It’s easy to be generous if you have all the gifts of Clark Kent. I can think of plenty of other “role model” characters in entertainment, more or less (like Supernatural’s Sam Winchester, Numbers’s Charlie Epps), and I won’t get into the female heroines to attract heterosexual men. This can translate into what we expect of people we would make commitments to, or particularly what we would expect lifelong of spouses. This sounds like the footprint of narcissism – expecting in the other partner what we don’t have ourselves – starting with complementarity (which has more to do with what one “does”), going through legitimate polarity and winding up as nothing more than unfulfilled fantasy. Yet, it has little to do with pornography.

It also sounds like something we would associate with male homosexuality – upward affiliation – and sometimes it is (to the point that in the early 1970s some authorities recommended exposure to heterosexual pornography as “treatment” for homosexuality). Yet, there are committed male gay couples for a half-century, and this sort of “narcissism” is common in the heterosexual world. In fact, the point could make an argument for, rather than against, gay marriage. It’s get people into “real” relationships and out of their fantasies, please. And get them into raising the next generation and, now, given demographics, taking care of the previous one(s).

What is driving all the concern with this is, of course, sustainability, and the awareness of where demographics has put us. We have enabled people to live longer, but often in a situation where they will need to depend on adult children who themselves never made the “choice” to marry and raise families. This can create new social tensions and moral paradoxes that we are not yet prepared for.

In some ways, we can now understand that the “public morality” more of a half century ago, to let heterosexual marriage officially monopolize all expression of sexuality (“sex is for married people” – “Seventh Heaven”), tended to enforce “local” fairness and “justice”. It meant that, for practical purposes, everyone would have to take some of the “risk” of not just raising or caring for other generations but accepting the emotional uncertainty that comes with any commitment that must in time expose someone to having to feel or care about persons with “problems” previously thought unacceptable by the personality. (In that sense, schizoid, it not necessarily narcissistic, behavior could be viewed as “cowardly”). Now, in this era of Lawrence v. Texas, we know that the modern public, as a whole, in western democracies (the Islamic world is another matter) does not want to revert to using such an essentially dishonest ruse to protect the commitment of the psyche. But it should at least understand the scope of the social problems that face us now, because of sustainability and demographics.

There are particular contradictions in the era of “personal responsibility”. As people live much longer with modern (Medicare-subsidized) medicine and some of them frail, there will be people who somewhat rightfully expect to be pampered by their children and younger generations as elders, even as they “fail” by modern hyper-individualistic notions of “personal responsibility” familiar in the libertarian political (and particularly, corporate and employment) world. While elders impart a lot of collectively-oriented wisdom from generations ago, this kind of experience can impose new “goals” on active adults that previously would have been thought morally unacceptable. The economic changes, toward decentralization, may mean that single people will be more expected to serve as role models for other people’s children (the Phillip Longman argument. New schemes to rationalize outcomes in new moral terms may evolve. Perhaps people will have to prove that they can provide for others and have a generative stake in the future before they go public. But all of this seems to track back to the family values of “the Greatest Generation” which understood that community matters and some outcomes are beyond individual choice and control.

Family responsibility certainly spans a lot more than just what follows from the “choice” to have children. But the media doesn’t seem ready to face that debate honestly yet. I have to applaud Wetzstein and others who write “conservative” columns for challenging us to face this debate. The Biblical “Parable of the Talents” takes on some double meaning indeed. If something really unpreventable happens to us all (as per History Channel’s “Mega Disasters” and hypothetical “purifications”, for instance), family, chosen or not, is all any of us would have. And we would suddenly be grateful for it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

New site urges one to "take a contract out on oneself", or else support an "anti-charity": why "free entry" is so important, after all


Yesterday (May 4) one of the local television stations ran a story about “Stickk.com”, a site that encourages you to “put a contract out on yourself.” You define a goal for yourself (weight loss is common, or perhaps living green according to certain metrics). You put up some kind of collateral (we’ll get to that in a minute) and “hire” a referee, and then if you don’t make it you forfeit the money. You gain if you make the goal, from some common pot. The “referee” reminds me of a trustee enforcing a “dead hand” clause in a will. The ultimate anti-libertarian put down is to be forced to support (at least through conventional lobbying or petition campaigns, however constitutionally protected) OPC, other people’s causes.

One of the penalties could be that the collateral goes to an “anti-charity”. Stickk has a list of twenty-plus organizations that are unpopular with some people, including the NRA, and possibly organizations that support gay marriage.

Now, that reminds me of another aspect of my life that led to my writing my books and getting into blogging. By joining a group (or a union), people often have to support “causes” (that is, “sub causes”) that they personally don’t approve of. That’s particular a sensitive issue with libertarians, who don’t like to see people diced up and classified into “suspect groups” of “victims” (even Dr. Phil is willing to say that some people are victims).

The “free entry” opportunity for Internet self-publishing fits well into this concept (and it did so starting around 1997 or so, well before social networking sites came along). Merely by making a subtle point where it is likely that many people will find it because of search engines (and this could be done with flat sites, even before blogging as we know it today became popular), a single individual can make it difficult for “special interests” to over-simplify some issues and misrepresent them to get their way. I made this point in the affidavit that I submitted as part of the COPA litigation in 1999.

In fact, point 38 on that affidavit is well worth repeating here:

“I believe that the High Productivity Publishing site [the original name back in 1997], along with other small sites containing political speech, is very important. With desktop publishing and the World Wide Web, a single person such as myself can compete with well-established and well-funded organizations and make an impact upon public debate of important and timely issues. My site is valuable because there is no outside supervision and I owe no loyalty to large organizations to support other groups' issues so they will support mine. In my case, there is no point in operating a site that does not have some moderately adult content that is conveniently accessed and searched by researchers.”

There are many points that I can make that many other parties find too difficult to get into, such as the connections between the military gay ban and the effect that it has or had on civilians, or the connections between birthrates, uncertainty-sharing and sustainability.

There is a rub to this, that has always concerned me. Call it the “George Mason Problem” if you like (as in my posting Sunday May 3). People take talkativeness and an excessive preoccupation with “objectivity,” an indication that one has no responsibility for others. (George Mason disproved that.) “Free entry” speech, if it is not accountable to some standard (such as contributing in some measurable way to profitability, or demonstrating earnings on its own) can lead to unspecified but possibly systemic risk, so the theory goes. So far the legal climate has been somewhat protective, such as with the Section 230 law and the favorable rulings in COPA and somewhat related cases.

I am aware of these things and think about them a lot, but I also look at the alternatives. Yup, that means throwing support at “anti-charities” (as I see them), way beyond those on Stickk’s list. That also means being limited to sending form letters and emails to politicians, and acting in a generally hysterical matter about one’s own sense of victimization. I do remember how it was over all these decades. I certainly remember the demonstrations (and attend or journal enough of them on the Mall in Washington). I can remember silly demos like the “lettuce boycott” of the People’s Party of New Jersey all the way back in 1972.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Should the U.S. cut ties with ICANN?


K. C. Jones has a story in “Information Week” about ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers”. The story is titled “Eurocrat Wants U.S. Out Of ICANN: EU information society commissioner calls for G12-style Internet governance,” with this direct link.

The statement came from EU Information Society Commissioner Vivian Redding. She maintains that it is inconsistent for a previous U.S. administration, the Clinton administration, to encourage “privatizing” ICANN and then still have the U.S. Department of Commerce as the only major government agency with oversight over the body.

Personally, it resonates for me. My first age paying job was as a GS-4 at the National Bureau of Standards back in 1963, when it was at the campus of what would become the University of the District of Columbia, and NBS, now the National Institute for Standards and Technology, is part of the Commerce Department.

From all appearances, ICANN still works with NIST. In 2008, NIST developed a tool to help ICANN manage the assignment of new TLD’s (top level domain names) for appropriateness and resistance to misuse. The story had been posted May 16, 2008 in "E! Science News", here. One aspect of the whole TLD issue is that “.com” (dot-com) got greatly and misleadingly overused once it was made available to the public in the early 90s. One could have suggested, for example, that non-commercial individuals use something like a “.name”. That may account for some of the controversy over domain names and trademarks (see my trademark blog for examples).

By the way, another wrinkle is that US trademark law is thought to be somewhat less favorable to the rights of a trademark holder in a domain case (even with the prospective dilution provisions) than some of ICANN’s Uniform Dispute Resolution policies might be. Here is the link for that policy.

Picture: At the University of the District of Columbia; the sculpture looks like it came right out of Clive Barker's "Imajica".