Thursday, December 31, 2009

Netflix contest said to compromise subscriber privacy; sexual orientation disclosure said to be implicit in LGBT film list use

In a bizarre lawsuit, Doe v. Netflix, a woman (and “closeted lesbian”) claims that Netflix has compromised her privacy when the company gave contestants data on movie ratings, from which, she claims, it is possible to identify particular contestants and their sexual orientation, partly by matching their reviews to what they have written on imdb. The suit wants to stop a second contest in which user zip codes and gender would be given out.

JP Mangalandin has a story in Switched “Could your Netflix Queue reveal sexual orientation?” , with a provocative embrace picture from the movie “Brokeback Mountain”, which leads to a “Threat Level” Wired article by Ryan Singel, “Netflix spilled your ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Secret” lawsuit claims (the article has another, less explicit Brokeback image). That article gives a PDF of the lawsuit complaint (filed in San Jose CA) here .

The plaintiff claims that harm could come to her or her family if her sexual orientation were disclosed.

One obvious concern with this suit would be, what happens if the data for a member of the US Military is disclosed? Probably it would not mean that the servicemember has violated “don’t ask don’t tell” but it could certainly invite a witch-hunt from a biased commander.

A more general concern is that over anonymity, and the right to anonymity when speaking publicly. Anonymous postings on a number of sites as comments could leave enough of a trail for "data miners" to identify the posters.

Still another concern is more nebulous, just as we have seen with the debate over privacy settings on Facebook. When people are in positions to make decisions about others (particularly in the workplace), their own postings or “online reputations”, as viewed by others, can have a real effect on their effectiveness, whether “right” or not. The Web was, after all, created by individualists who may personally believe in “live and let live”, but many people who use it have to function in a world of complex social connections and sensitive interdependencies, not always created by one’s own choices.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Facebook, other Silicon Valley companies lobby on Capitol Hill: they all have a lot at stake if there is more regulation of individual users

The Style Section of the Dec. 30 Washington Post has a story by Ian Shapira, “Lawmakers find a friend in the power of Facebook: Site lobbyist, 25, updates clients in Congress on how to leverage their accounts,” p. C1 in print, link here. The story discusses Adam Conner, Facebook’s first “DC Staffer”, an discusses the micro-staff that Facebook has hired in Washington. So, Silicon Valley meets Capitol Hill. Or maybe it’s “San Francisco at Washington”. The home team doesn’t always win (especially at Nationals Park -- by the way, the real estate development near the Stadium has to look inviting to companies planning to sell in DC for office space, with baseball as a bonus, it the Nats get better in 2010).

There are complicated rules regarding election law and conflict of interest that affect what Congress members can do on social networking sites, or what their staffs can do. The article goes into that.

Yes, Facebook has clearly pulled out way in front of Myspace as appropriate for professional networking, along with Linked In. Facebook is also pushing the idea that social networking and publication are distinct activities, for reasons discussed earlier here, but that is affecting the way Facebook handles privacy settings and its presentation of the “everyone” concept.

It’s good to see Silicon Valley companies working with lawmakers, because now there is a lot at stake. Many issues have the attention of lawmakers, including privacy and all kinds of abuse (including ideological recruiting by “enemies”). Since the health care debate has ignited the question of “mandatory insurance” to cover unbounded risks, the question is bound to come up with Internet use and self-publishing. Silicon Valley lobbyists may be able to keep the question quiet, but there is indeed a big stake. One factor in the insurance of individual bloggers (especially in umbrella policies) is whether they have any commercial activity including advertising. Insurers seem not to like to see amateurs involved in this. But advertising, not only on major media sites but on small business and individual sites, is a major part of the business model for ISPs and all kinds of Internet services below what is offered by large telecommunications providers. It’s possible to imagine Internet liability reform that includes , after tweaking Section 230, enabling and requiring some kinds of insurance, but also at the same time implementing tort reform (the connection to the health care debate again) and national SLAPP laws (and elimination of international “libel tourism”). You could say it’s a carrot and stick combination approach. But lawmakers would have to tread carefully indeed, since the business models for Internet-service companies seem so sensitive to policy and to the expectations of user and advertiser freedom.

Oh, by the way, when talking about “The Valley”, don’t mix up silicon (a Periodic Table chemical element that gives us the semiconductor industry) with silicones (we know what they are used for).
Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Oracle Headquarters, south of San Francisco on Highway 100. I remember staying in a motel near there in November 1995.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some newspaper publishers consider "search engine fences" as well as charging for more content online

Richard Perez Pena and Tim Arango have an important story in the New York Times today, “Adding Fees and Fences on Media Sites”, link here. The Wall Street Journal already charges online subscriptions for much of its content (just as many financial planning analysis companies do for detailed financial reports on specific companies) and the story says that the New York Times is considering doing the same. Many newspapers, including The Washington Post, charge for some archival material but not for other material.

However Rupert Murdoch is considering having a major search engine company (not specified) pay for the right to index his material, rather than have it indexed freely by “major” engines (we know who). Of course, this could bring revenue in the short run for the WSJ and his other publications, but it’s hard to see how this could be effective in the long run. The WSJ has many articles of more general interest (even, for example, on gay marriage or on financial planning for same-sex couples, as well as, on the other hand, anti-terrorism and anti-money-laundering policies) it to shut these out from major engines would seem to reduce the opportunity for sales. It seems to make more sense to charge for more of the articles, particularly as they archive.

I’ve noticed that even on embeddable videos at major sites, most of them remain available for free for a long time, months to even years.

A few companies with “free content” models are now removing some content after a time. For example, Logo, which offers LGBT movies and videos, now removes some free content after some number of months, with the expectation that customers seriously interested in seeing the material will rent from Netflix or buy DVD’s from distributors. “Free content” can’t last forever; actors and filmmakers have to get paid some day.

These blogs often contain links to newspaper site stories, but at any time any of these stories could become archived or available only under subscription or per-item purchase (usually under $5), when clicked. A blogger has no way of knowing what a newspaper will do with a story at some point in the future.

Blogs, however, could defeat the purpose of a “search engine fence.” A blog (even mine!) could become known as a major source of links to, say, the WSJ after such a measure went into effect. Linking has, since a 2000 or so decision, been viewed as a “fair use” activity, comparable to a footnote or bibliographic reference in a college term paper. (As a "best practice", I try to give the section and page in the printed version when I have it, just as I did in 1950s high school junior English!) Could this legal precedent change?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Redux: Family values, and family responsibility for the childless

Here we go again. “I hear you”, pro-family crowd, when you say that, all other things being equal (they never are), a child is better off with a legally married mother and father, of opposite biological genders. I even accept that as meaningful, if not absolutely “true”.

And I think there is an epistemological issue with the “family”. Okay, the family is indeed a “natural” social unit, as described in books by Jennifer Roback Morse and Allan Carlson, among others (perhaps Phillip Longman, at least indirectly). But the institution of marriage is still created by man (by “society”) and maintained by the legal system; it doesn’t exist in nature without man’s creating it.

But we also have a “cultural” component of life, or a “creative” one if you want to call it that. Men can decide their own purposes while on this planet (and maybe others in the future), individually designed pursuits that don’t depend on the permission or approval of others. The right to find and live out one’s own destiny seems to comprise the heart of liberty. Yet, that often depends on the unseen sacrifices of other family members.

When I hear all the statements about the family, what I want to know, is how is this supposed to affect adults who did not marry and have their own children? Social conservatives are very reluctant to admit that, to support families, they need to impose upon or infringe on those adults who did not have them. And social liberals (including the LGBT community) avoid a confrontational debate on the issue, out of fear that it would not turn out well.

Fifteen years ago the “baby boon” problem (as Elinor Burkett called it in her 2000 book) often showed up in the workplace, with single or childless people expected to take the less desirable shifts or (in salaried situations) work more unpaid overtime. But it’s the explosion of needs in eldercare, along with a smaller working population of adult children, that grows the problem now. Medicine, for the past couple of decades, has advanced in such a way that it can prolong life in many cases but only by asking for sacrifices from other relatives, adding to the argument of some like Carlson that the “family” rather than the individual has to become the granular unit where rights are balanced by the political system (with then the family the values become communized). And Hollywood is definitely on to one family issue: that childless adults often wind up with custody of siblings’ children after family tragedies, and in many parts of the world teenagers wind up raising their siblings when their parents die. Family responsibility comes about in many other ways, most of them involuntary, besides sexual intercourse. And the demographic changes are happening so quickly that legal consequences, some of the shocking, could ambush people very quickly. The modern "libertarian" right to have adult intimacy and affection under one's own chosen terms comes into question.

The pro-marriage crowd probably understates one point: “Marriage” and the usually consequential parenthood provides power as well as responsibilities. If marriage can monopolize sexuality, then married parents have the “right” as well as “responsibility” to channel the emotional lives of their offspring, even as adults, into loyalty to one’s own blood and openness to a certain kind of intimacy with family that transcends the usual meaning of “choice” and “consequences of choice.” It’s that part of family life that we started changing our minds about, “for better or worse”, probably as early as the late 50s (even before McCarthyism had waned – Betty Friedan was an important symbol), before the civil rights movement and “sexual revolution” of the 60s, leading to the modern notions of individualism and personal sovereignty. But we could be challenged with real questions, based on sustainability, about the expectations of blood loyalty, and that everyone will be prepared to take responsibility for others, having children or not, before pursuing one’s own personally chosen purposes. On the other hand, it seems as though some people are intimating that they could not create and keep families together and support them unless they also had the "power" to indenture their kids into "loyalty". "Patriarchs" can point out that many of their (adult) kids would have a hard time indeed if really fending for themselves according to their own karma, and certain religious doctrine demands submission from some people, claiming that they "need God" more than others. It’s a scary scene.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Looking into 2010: the strategic threats

Looking into 2010 and the “next decade”, it’s apparent that there’s a few subtle pressures that could come down the pike that we need to watch in preserving our freedom, not just of speech in the abstract sense, but of free and open debate online as we have come to count on it.

One is that political pressure to weaken Section 230 protections for companies that host bloggers and for bloggers or webmasters that host forums could come in to play. This was discussed here Aug. 28, with a comment from an attorney authoring major book on the problem of indirect unbounded risks to the public from the supposed lack of accountability for amateurs on the Web. Curiously that attorney wanted to have a takedown and safe harbor procedure for libel similar to what the DMCA specifies for copyright infringement. Yet, the concept of “safe harbor” is essential to the Internet as we know it now.

Since some time in 2007, the incidence of lawsuits against amateur bloggers has risen. Many of them have occurred after reckless behavior of na├»ve speakers, and many of them deal with arcane local situations where the plaintiffs believe they must enforce some sort of “zero tolerance” policy for negative publicity. Some bloggers have insurance under umbrella auto or homeowner’s policies, but these are not valid if the blogs have any commercial component at all (including accepting ads), and the insurance industry is going to find that pricing media liability for “amateurs” is indeed almost impossible to do with normal actuarial concepts. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine political arguments to require bloggers to carry insurance, just as with the arguments made recently in the health care debate.

Another closely related problem is “implicit content”, a concept that encapsulates the apparent motives of the speaker as part of the speech. If an amateur does not seem to have a valid self-interest or purpose for the speech and seems to want to “step on toes”, it’s possible that his speech in some situations could be regarded as enticement or as an expression of hostility. This could be a problem when the speaker has employees or direct reports, or even with any sort of family responsibility, voluntary (because of having children) or not. One could invent the term “gratuitous speech”. Yet, it comes from a different mindset of how a social contract should work: that everyone should be responsible for other people and have family responsibility before entering the public world at all. It’s disturbing how this notion seems to be catching on, ironically as a result of all the openness enabled by technology.

Of course, "gratuitous speech" could simply form a strategy of a "free content" business model, becoming known by offering a lot of material free, and then trying to package and sell it to specific media operations and interests. Or it could be genuine political rebellion, to "f__k the establishment" of lobbyists, special interests, and over socialization.

Along these lines, the recent controversy over the “everyone” concept in Facebook and social networking sites is critical. Companies running these services may believe that “friends lists” or social contacts are not the same thing as “publication” and more essential, not subject to notions of “gratuitousness” that would call for privacy settings or mandatory insurance some day. But the distinctions are vague indeed. And the reality of the modern world is that almost everyone needs to be “global” now. Reputation becomes seamless and integrated, like it or not.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009: The logical paradox of Grace

So it is Christmas Day once again, this year, for me at least, a quiet day. I remember the boyhood Christmases, the excitement of Christmas Eve, the 6-foot tree in the dining area with the star on top (at one time there had been only a spire), the 1940s era lights that, although they burned out a lot, imparted an old time quaintness that reminded me, even as a boy, of the perils our world had just come through less than two decades before.

One year, when I was in sixth grade, I think, I got all books. One of the presents was “Tales of the Rails”. Back in the 1950s, hardcover books often sold for less than $5, but long playing classical records (stereo was just getting introduced) listed at $4.98. I liked trains and then had a Mars HO train downstairs, with a layout to resemble some place, and with Kleenex pieces as a substitute for snow.

I remember the other family homes, that some people would have all blue lights, and I would wonder why.

Yesterday, I did attend a Christmas Eve service. The new pastor gave a long homily. But I’m struck with the idea that the very concept of Christianity, of salvation through Grace, forces us to confront what seems like a logical paradox, something that Al Gore had to deal with in his book “The Assault on Reason” just as he was ramping up to confront the public on climate change. That paradox is that we probably cannot develop personal responsibility and accountability in ourselves – a concept so central to liberty (as well as political libertarianism) – without Grace at the same time. No other faith is quite willing to acknowledge this.

Likewise, human beings are unique (among mammals) in that they are both individualists and social creatures. They must behave as lions and tigers at the same time (yes, I seem to like to compare cats to people). We value private choice and (adult) private intimacy and defend it vigorously as a fundamental Constitutional right, yet must come to terms with the fact that intimacy expresses values and that expression has public meaning and consequences.

The most difficult moral problems are not in the area of taking immediate responsibility for personal choices; they are in the fitting one’s own talents to meeting real needs in one’s families and communities. They difficulties come from the fact that we must become social creatures and share uncertainties, and sometimes step back and allow others to carry on, in order to produce work that has any lasting value at all. Call it “family values” if you like. We have to face the idea that diversity in the kind of commitments people enter into may be much better for the world than no commitment at all. Hint: accept, even endorse gay marriage, but strenghten intra-family commitments too.

So, politically, we must fight for equality even as “logically” absolute equality is impossible and complementarity is essential to any community or civilization. We defend free expression even though the existential end point of some expression could be discriminatory and destructive. We fight for justice even though we know that over-preoccupation with “justice” at the individual level could invite tyranny back in to the home. Without connection to the community and family, the inevitable sacrifices that must come become just that, losses.

So then, the freedom to plot out one's own course in life presents its own paradoxes. Our own sense of pride demands justice brought down to the level of accountability of every individual, but the Gospels repeatedly say, it doesn't work that way.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Authors need to write new books to keep selling!

Yesterday (Dec. 23) I got a call from my cooperative print-on-demand book publisher (iUniverse) about interest in any marketing campaigns. I said that my two books are old and both are non-fiction (the first dates to 1997 with the print-on-demand starting in 2000; the second dates to 2002); old books generally don’t sell well at original price, inasmuch as there are always residuals at resellers. Fiction does better. But generally, the only kinds of books that remain best sellers over time are classics (the kind that get assigned in high school English class), a few how-to’s, and a few blockbuster novels and series (like Harry Potter, or a few notorious best sellers like Atlas Shrugged). Even fiction gets out of date. One of my favorite thrillers as a young man was Irving Wallace’s “The Plot” (following “The Prize”); but of course the political circumstances that make that book work are totally changed now. That’s another problem with political thrillers; they will become obsolete. Back in the 1980s I worked up a manuscript called “Tribunal and Rapture” – sounds like a catchy title for a movie, doesn’t it (maybe from somebody like Screen Gems or Dimension), but the Cold War premise has totally changed now.

I do have an inventory of all my books, and do get requests; I do encourage people to use Amazon and B&N, however.

Okay, I may be venturing into areas that belong in a books blog. I do have a manuscript for a novel, which I purported to call “Brothers” – as two young men form a tag team that is a bit like Sam and Dean in “Supernatural” – and then Lionsgate came out with its post-9/11 drama by that name (my movies blog Dec. 7). (actually based on a story and subsequent film by Danish writer Susanne Bier) . So I may call it something else. Some of it has been looked at by a New York literary agent already.

There are many characters and the story line spans three decades, but I finally decided to concentrate on the relationship between a thirty-something CIA agent with a conventional 3 kids family, and an ROTC college student whom he befriends, a young man who has beaten back “don’t ask don’t tell” despite the candor of his Facebook page. Well, that’s one thing: the novel has to allow for the fact that the policy is likely to be repealed soon. Now the CIA agent was ex-military himself, having served in military intelligence after his own ROTC scholarship 15 years back; then he became a history teacher, but got called back. Due to the nature of SCI information, he is on to something that even the bosses at Langley and the president don’t hear: a bizarre new pandemic, seeming to strike people who live at high altitudes. The disease seems to be related to a virus that can process a bizarre radioactive toxin. Did it come from terrorists, aliens, or from a supernatural or metaphysical source?

There is a twist: Randy craves a certain amount of intimacy that does not come from his marriage, and is curious about the charismatic, peripatetic college student Sal, who seems to him to be on a personal mission to manipulate older men for unknown reasons. Gradually, as Sal draws him toward a mysterious “Academy” with its rituals, he begins to unravel Sal’s connection (perhaps supernatural) to the source of the coming epidemic and its meaning for “all of us.”

There are various backstories that go back to the 1960s and Cold War days, and work through the 9/11 period. For example, there is another retired FBI agent, whose physician wife has learned of the epidemic, and who feels compelled to try to reunite with her at that time, sending him on a journey that will intersect Sal and Randy, through the “Academy”. But it seems much more inviting to tell the front story through relatively young, “appealing” characters – a “Smallville” effect.

But the novel itself is not dependent on the specific circumstances of today’s world politics (Iraq, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, etc.) although sudden environmental change (climate) figures in. Al Gore should enjoy it some day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stay-at-home moms can become "brands" as they drive around town (Today show report)

This morning the NBC Today show introduced a company “Driven Media” which offers people the opportunity to advertise their products by wrapping their autos and going about their normal business. The concept is similar to advertising on transit busses.

The website seems to be here. The “Today Show” presented the concept as particularly appealing to stay-at-home moms, who can earn about $500 a month from the deal. I suppose it could present an issue for people at work if employers objected to a car with a potential competitor’s advertising sitting in their employee lots.

There’s a curious statement on the website: “As a client of DRIVENMEDIA your brand becomes our brand - which is carried through to the Brand Influencers moving your message.”. That raises an existential question about public reputation, even “online reputation”, even if this activity happens in the “bricks and mortar world”.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I do wonder how the “pro traditional marriage crowd” will react to this news story.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Facebook privacy policies stir up debate, to say the least

Recently, more criticisms of Facebook’s new gambit in its privacy settings has attracted “existential” criticism.

Check out the “Light Blue Touchpaper,” from Security Research, the University of Cambridge, by Joseph Bonneau, “Facebook tosses graph privacy into the bin,” Dec., 11, 2009, almost as if to refer back to the Jake Gyllenhaal’s funny line about pie charts in the hit movie “Rendition.” The link is here. Yup, most people learn by experience and conditioning and don’t bother to read directions or “terms and conditions” very carefully.

The term “graph privacy” refers to the term “social graph” that Dan Farber discussed on May 24, 2007 on Zdnet – the article, with a photo of CEO Zuckerberg addressing his stakeholders in blue jeans (to the disapproval of the old “Dress for Success” crowd of the 70s – remember EDS?) appears here).

There’s a lot of talk about “professional data aggregators” or the activities of data mining companies that will troll the lists of “for everyone” friends’ lists – supposedly for innocuous purposes (financial services companies and insurance agents call call it “cross selling” – it feeds the commission trough for “Babe” all right -- remember sales people have to find leads all the time, it’s their business). But people living in hostile environments, like dissidents in Iran, will probably have to wipe out their Facebook pages altogether (and uncache them) to keep away the modern Gestapo; and even people in “conventional marketing careers” in western countries (most of all the U.S.) will have to deal with the fact that friends’ lists are very Janus-faced in their effects on some careers. It’s “online reputation” all over again. What a conumdrum! Here’s an anonymous ZDnet article on the Facebook privacy issue, link.

Even my own Wall is fine for the “progressive world” that I try to live in, but what happens if I have to keep a low profile because of some kind of job I take in the future. What if I have to worry about how things look. Well, I shouldn’t take that kind of job now, right. I suppose so. I’ve debated this with myself for a dozen years. (When I was tossed out of William and Mary in 1961 for admitting being gay, my father said, “now we have to worry about what everyone thinks! -- what does Facebook privacy mean for members of the military under “don’t ask don’t tell”? It blows away DADT. Maybe that’s a good thing. That’s one thing about “don’t ask don’t tell” – the Kids blew it away for good, with innovation.)

Of course, I wonder how the deepest privacy settings fare in the "Deep Internet," as Bright Planet ("Pioneers in Harvesting the Deep Web") (link) presents it.

Perhaps Facebook regards a "friends list" as less gratuitous than a "publication" (like a blog post); nevertheless, if social networking sites are to become "utilities" they need to follow the model of the "unlisted number" in the phone world (although companies like Intellius get past that, too).

Have fun with this.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Okay, I wasn’t there, but I found a pretty good video of the snowball fight Saturday afternoon at 14th and U Streets NW this afternoon as the heart of Washington DC deals with 16 inches of snow, sticking on the streets.

The Washington City Paper already has a story on it, here.

I notice the twitterer restricts access to those who request the right to follow. I haven’t used Twitter enough to do this (here), but it leads to the discussion of privacy settings already presented here.

I’ve had very good luck over the years with avoiding flight cancellations. But when I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas, I was delayed two days by the Blizzard of 66. I remember the 1993 blizzard, as the most violent ever as it exited the DC area. In 1996, there were actually three blizzards. The January 6 blizzard was the most notorious, but in early February a similar storm tracked about 70 miles further south, burying southern Maryland with 30 inches of show, leaving DC with about 10 inches (in thundersnow).

Friday, December 18, 2009

Morality takes on many "normal forms"

Back in the mid 1990s, as I worked on my first book, I often heard Oliver North say on his conservative talk radio program, “Life” (and, consequently, morality) “is mostly about meeting obligations to others, with occasional moderate self-indulgence.”

One of the early formulations of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book was going to have a chapter “Morality’s Third Normal Form”. It’s available online with URL here, and the “normal form” was based on a definition of personal honor from former midshipman Joseph Steffan’s statement that “personal honor is an absolute” in his 1992 book “Honor Bound” about his being booted from the Naval Academy just before graduation in 1987 for revealing that he is gay.

In recent times, we’ve gotten pretty used to an individualistic formulation of “moral thinking”: in a nutshell, “personal responsibility”: following through with the consequences of one’s cho, ices, honoring one’s promises and contracts, along with “do no harm”. That’s pretty much the libertarian formulation. For some people it fits in with the New Age (and Rosicrucian) idea of karma, where salvation is not based just on Grace but on the idea that the Cross gave individuals the opportunity to work off their moral debts.

The “personal responsibility” moral paradigm goes along with political and social equality (before the law) as a moral absolute – especially with respect to gender (including sexual orientation and gender identity). However, the “outcome” of one’s life, given political equality, become’s one’s own absolute responsibility, whatever external challenges may come.

A particularly common example of the “personal responsibility” paradigm (especially on Dr. Phil) is the importance of avoiding teenage pregnancy (and STD’s) and avoiding having the responsibility for a baby before one is “ready” economically and in terms of self-development.

But those of us who came of age in the 50s, 60s and 70s are painfully aware of what used to be perceived somewhat publicly as the shortcomings of this style of thinking. The short version of the shortcoming is, “we don’t start at the same place in line.” Another formulation is that we aren’t exposed to the same level of risk or uncertainty, and may well benefit from the unseen “sacrifices” of others. Usually this gets expressed in political debates about the needs of competing groups of people, but sometimes the moral tone filters down to the individual. A consumer who purchases cheap imported clothes is seen as personally “exploiting” workers overseas. Internationally, various forms is this problem (such as the West Bank settlements) cause certain elements ( terrorists) to want to punish individual Americans, Israelis, or European or other westerners. An element of this problem is the feeling of shame in being unable to stop expropriation by others. An extreme example of radicalism, intending to make everyone experience the same level of absolute justice, is Maoism (the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution of the 60s). On the other hand, fascism is obsessed with the idea of personal “worthiness.” Ideological systems that attempt to impose moral justice outside what the free market normally provides tend to appeal to and attract totalitarian leaders.

Nevertheless, when I was growing up, personal responsibility for one’s conscious “choices” was such a given that it wasn’t even controversial. Morality seemed to have, at one level, to making sure that we all “paid our dues” and took our chances. It also meant that, even before contemplating a “choice” about sex or moving into the public world in any way, we proved we are capable of taking care of others, usually in a manner commensurate with biological gender. But it was usually put in religious and collective terms: loyalty to the family created by one’s parents and ancestors, and a willingness to accept the fact that not everyone can excel in public life and that it was more important to promote the welfare of the family as a whole rather than yourself as an individual. Because this demanded accepting direction and circumstances from beyond one’s scope of control even as an adult, it was perceived as controversial, and just as attempts to force “absolute justice” in terms of equality or worthiness could appeal to psychologically unstable tyrants, a family-centered society was very subject to the whims and exploitation of entrenched interests (preserved with inherited and generational wealth). But family-centered societies, while often exhibiting gross inequalities, tend to be stable, have little crime, and make some attempt within the family unit to “take care of everybody.”

But it’s true, there are a lot of pressures, related to sustainability, that forces us back toward a more collective idea of morality (away from Steffan’s “normalization” in terms of honor). Trends in medicine, especially eldercare, prolong life but also prolong disability, often challenging other family members who never made the “choice” to have children and take on dependents.

This sort of moral system is based on a lot of coercion. The willingness of parents to commit themselves in marriage and taking the responsibilities (and risks) that follow seem to be partly predicated that everyone must “play” in the system and compete for similar responsibility before public recognition. Allowing marriage to monopolize sexuality (and penalizing homosexuality) seems like a coercive tool to force everyone to share the emotional life of the family. The existential moral problems that ensue go away when coercion is removed and personal freedom is allowed again. This sort of coercion is disturbing to introverted people (those with mild Aspergers or "schizoid personality") as well as gays; this mindset maintains that modern society allows people to become too self-absorbed to keep an interest in reproduction or in the family relationships that set them up in the world.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bloggers and Tweeters beware: From Libel to Twibel

Reason has a comprehensive posting on blogger and now “Tweeter” exposure to libel or “Twibel” lawsuits, with lots of cross references therein, making the piece from April 2009 a kind of annotated bibliography (like what freshman English professors like to assign) on the whole problem. It’s good fodder for a college or AP English term paper, and I hope some kids will take this topic up. The master piece by Jeff Winkler is called “Blogger Beware” (April 13) and, well, that backs up to another Winkler offering April 9 in Reason, “Getting Sued for Twibel or Tweet Once & Destroy”, link here.

Most of the Twitter crowd has heard about Courtney Love’s litigation about a tweet now. But more relevant may be that the number of lawsuits involving ordinary blog posts increased rapidly in 2008. Amateur bloggers often have no idea that they can be held responsible for defamation, or that they might have to expend considerable resources defending themselves even when what they posted was absolutely true. Umbrella policies seem to cover blogs only when completely non-commercial (with no display ads). And the liability insurance industry, as noted before, has little (or essentially no) experience in how to underwrite the “amateur” risk so the problem is troubling. Remember, until the Internet age, practically everything in the book or periodical or newspaper publishing business that went out was supposed to be supervised and fact-checked and go through what amounts to third party due diligence. That whole expectation simply got forgotten, and then probably hid further underneath Section 230 and the DMCA Safe Harbor (however inadequate from the average speaker’s perspective). Add to this, of course, video blogging and YouTube. I chuckle as I thing about the “attitude” of the mystery mobile blogger in CWTV’s “Gossip Girl” – as a lot of us became “gossipers”. Yup, Serena of whatever he name is, sets an example “for the kids”.

More troubling, still, is the “rumor” that the FTC will hold bloggers responsible not only for failing to disclose paid “endorsements” of products but also for false statements about products. I suppose that’s only if the blogger was paid to endorse something. Otherwise an offhand remark about whether an anti-virus product catches a particular online worm could get a blogger in trouble with the fibbies (and maybe the goons, too).

The Reason piece links to some cases about sites set up to complain about a particular company, product or service (doctors’ rating sites come to mind). Yes, this gets attention, this restores the balance of power. Yes, the established bureaucratic system doesn’t work. But ever wonder about the person who sets up the complaint site? Would future employers worry that the person is dangerous to work with, that he or she will badmouth them too if they misstep even slightly? True, even if you exercise your rights and use the system and “sue” the world could look at you as “litigious”.

I “committed myself” to citizen journalism and free content some years ago. What an answer to the offshoring of the old fashioned stable workplace. Oh, you don’t need to be professional, you don’t need to get paid, you don’t need benefits, you don’t need anything… Conservatives love this.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Important anonymous speech case in SF; when is speech criticism, when is it financial manipulation?

The right to anonymous but public speech has come up again, in a case where Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking a federal judge in San Francisco to deny a subpoena of the identity of a Yahoo! speaker who criticized USA Technologies.

The company claims that the statements violated federal securities regulations because they were disguised attempts at trading tactics. The speaker (stokklerk) maintains that he is disclosing management performance in a publicly traded company.

There will be a hearing Friday.

There have been cases in the past where employees of companies have set up websites for the purposes of manipulating a small employer's share or sale price, such as an case in North Carolina in early 1999.

People who work in financial planning or who agent financial products must be very careful how they behave online with respect to the products they work with. There are some conflicts of interest covered by Sarbannes-Oxley.

Anonymous speech cuts both ways. I have always felt that speech is more effective when I am “willing” to be publicly known for the speech. But I realize that this view could be seen as limelight-seeking behavior. The recent controversy over privacy settings and social networking sites brings to question the whole notion of reputation and how that affects the credibility of one’s public speech.

The EFF link, dated Dec. 15, is here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Futurist supports the "for free" business paradigm

The January-February 2010 issue of The Futurist, always pretty conspicuous at Barnes & Noble, has a paradoxical article on p 34, “The Post Scarcity World of 2050-2075”, by Stephen Aguillar-Millan, Anne Feeney, Amy Oberg and Elizabeth Rudd.

The most provocative portion is their exposition of the free-content business model (“The Post Scarcity Company”, p 36). It’s a little hard to see how this sustains itself in their logic – like offering premium versions for charge (imdb does that). Well, ironically, The Futurist does this: to see this article online, you have to purchase the PDF at its main link and that link may not easily find it forever. A lot of the “for free” paradigm comes from the reproducible nature of digital media, providing a great challenge to old line media businesses that want to encapsulate the media with a veneer of both “professionalism” and finiteness. The RIAA is losing its fight over its old fashioned view of copyright, the authors believe.

We actually see the “for free” concept all the time. Emerging musicians go through years of practice and giving free recitals before they can earn a living from their art. In fact, going to school and then internship is a “for free” concept. But it’s supposed to be followed by the real thing. Too bad, during recessions, people are sometimes counseled to work for free.

But “knowledge management” has become a largely “for free” public good. Generally, then it can provide a living or job for relatively small numbers of people (like the staff of Wikipedia) until companies like the big boys today bring advertisers in to support it. Doing so can introduce bias and compromise the presentation of "objective truth." But ultimately, people have to pay for something.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Facebook privacy changes go live: are they a "work in progress"?

This morning, when I logged onto Facebook I was greeted with the invitation to convert my privacy settings to their new system. That was quite simple.

ABC News technology consultant Ian Paul has a critique of the new system, however, called “Facebook’s Privacy Settings: 5 Things You Should Know”, link here.

IDG has a similar “Tech Insider” article by David Coursey: “Facebook Privacy Changes Go Live: Beware of ‘Everyone’” link here.

One “complaint” from ABC was that the default seems to turn on the option to index your profile to pubic search engines. You have to make sure to turn it off it that’s what you really want.

I’m a little confused right now about the criticism on the PAI (publicly available information) component, which ABC says the user has no control over. Does this mean the member cannot keep it out of search engines? The main risk in practice (for people in certain sensitive business situations) is that their affinity to others with certain kinds of controversial views or goals could remain public. In theory that could make it impossible for people in certain kinds of management situations to use Facebook at all. In view of the tone of Mark Zuckerberg's blog entry announcing the changes some time back, I'm surprised that the PAI isn't more narrowly restricted.

The meaning of “everyone” remains important. There is a common law notion called “right of publicity” which more or less equates to “fame”. The Internet has certainly changed that, but people in socially cohesive cultures sometimes don’t want certain members to be able to become known by “everyone” outside the culture, because it is seen as disloyal to the group.

We’ll have to follow up carefully on where this leads. It sounds like it will get refined more later.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Could the whole Internet really crash in a digital 2012?

MSN featured an article Thursday “What if the Internet broke?” The link was here ("What if the Internet breaks" by Katherine Reynolds Lewis). We see this kind of digital-2012 scenario once in while in scaremongering articles or sci-fi scenarios.

Because the Internet is decentralized and has many redundancies, it sounds unlikely. But hackers could undermine the integrity of the DNS system (resulting in emergency meetings in July 2008, covered on my ID theft blog in August 2008), or the dozen or so companies that host big DNS servers.

Banks and hospitals do have manual and paper records and could process locally on mainframes as they had in the past. Electric power would stay up but power companies could not send signals.

It’s common for big regional routers to fail, which usually results in a user’s being able to visit some websites but being unable to connect to others for a couple of hours. Sometimes a cable company loses connection to one of these routers, resulting in partial but not complete disruption of broadband Internet service.

As the article explains, the original Internet was around in limited fashion for DOD and certain universities back in 1969, when I was tucked away in the Army.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Texts, tweets, posts fodder for divorce lawyers as well as employers and insurance companies

ABC Good Morning America gave Internet posters a tongue-lashing this morning with the appearance of Parry Aftab and the story “If You Want to Keep It Hidden, Don't Text or Post it Online, Experts Say: Text Messages Can Now 'Make or Break' a Divorce Case, Attorney Says”, by Andrea Canning, Linda Owens and Suzan Clarke, link here. Divorce and trial lawyers, employers, insurance companies, perhaps landlords, and somtimes police love to track down digital footprints that people didn't have to leave.

There are two kinds of issues here. Yes, if you want to check up on your spouse or child and have the resources, it may be possible to retrieve his or her texts or tweets, or social network posts, even if made with privacy settings, even if made by the improved privacy settings recently proposed by Facebook, which wants to restore the sort of privacy in socializing that we used to have in the "real world" for those who want it.

Then the poster will kick himself and say, "I didn't have to do it."

The other issue is global publication, search-engine sensitive, where the speaker wants to be found (perhaps to become a social or political “player”, Robert Altman style), but where others may react much more negatively that expected, possibly for “existential” reasons. The news story mentions Heather Armstrong ( . What Heather Armstrong says about her firing is worth quoting: “What I was doing was completely benign," she said. "I never, you know, mentioned any trade secrets. I never mentioned the company. And so, I was really shocked when this had happened, because I didn't think that this could be a reason”. Usually, people don’t get into trouble until they “name names”, but in some cases the circumstances are so recognizable that others consider the posting compromising. This is related to the “libel in fiction” problem discussed here earlier (as July 27, 2007).

And then IBM-Quebec employer Natalie Blanchard was denied sick-leave benefits when her employer’s insurance company found compromising material in the open on Facebook.

As for the "player" concept, that loops back to "the privilege of being listened to." Can the mere fact that someone placed himself in the limelight with "positive controversy" be used against him propsectively?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Blogger exposes TSA security lapse

Hurray for bloggers. “Wandering Aaramean”, that is Seth Miller, 32, has exposed a security scandal at the TSA, which posted all of its screening policies for contractors ("Screening Management: Standard Operating Procedures"), and used a program to cover up classified words, which a programmer could easily disable. It would have been safer just to use 1920s technology -- an ink blot pen.

Here is his blog.

The person who posted the document(s) was a contractor, but several TSA managers have been placed on administrative leave for the laspe.

I applied for a job a security screener in 2002, and once again as a parttimer in 2003. You’re supposed to keep the application secret when you are in process, and back in 2002 the TSA 800 numbers were very hard to reach. I think I’ve covered why it broke down on the blogs before. Yet they were “gung ho” to hire screeners then, although it was less clear whether screeners needed previous experience.

Are there legal problems with deliberately exposing a security breach that you find? As they say, it ain't that hard to do. Look at the posting here about the Salahi's Nov. 26.
Maybe, as with journalists shield laws in Congress, it could matter if you're "professional".

"Security through obsurity" never works (CNN). Look at the controversy a couple years ago over bump keys.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Why "The Rules" are so important to some people; redux on "the privilege of being listened to"

While watching the tense POW scenes involving the Taliban’s capture of the American Marine captain in the movie “Brothers” (as played by Tobey Maguire) Saturday, I was struck by the way the radical Islamist characters are so taken by a world under absolute rules and laws, and how they feel that Americans and westerners have taken moral certainty away from them. You get the impression that a belief that everyone adheres to “The Rules” is very important to them in a personal way in their own family lives (however their treatment of women comes across to westerners). That may help explain the psychology that led relatively privileged young Saudi men into 9/11. (It’s easy, by the way, to understand the personal “shame” that radical Palestinians feel about the West Bank settlement issue; its much harder for individualistic-thinking westerners to understand the more abstract sense of invasion of Islamic lands as mentioned in the film.)

There’s one aspect of extremely conservative religion: the laws are dictated by “God” or “Allah”, and as long as everyone can be forced to obey them, no one can cheat the system; no one can get out of things, no one can benefit from a hidden dependence on others, and there should be no "double standards". Of course, we may say that is not really true (look at the regal lifestyles of Saudi Arabia’s royal family), but people of that persuasion believe it is true. There is no “democratic debate” on the “rules”: they are supposedly dictated in the Koran. Likewise, with a lot of conservative (sometimes “evangelical”) Christianity, the rules are laid out in the Bible and not subject to debate. And again, no one gets out of stuff (so they think). Indeed, some conservative religious groups, like the Mormon Church (LDS) do a good job of having its members share social responsibility at a deep level. On the other hand, there have been secular attempts to enforce a similar view of “morality”: look at the Cultural Revolution of Red China back in the 1960s, when intellectuals were forced to take their turns becoming peasants (described by some left-wing authors as an exercise in "absolute justice"). Isn’t this what the Cold War came down to?

It’s pretty clear that radical Islam (whether Sunni or Shiite) is as vitriolic in its treatment of homosexuals as any society since the Third Reich. I look back at what happened to me, with my college expulsion in 1961 and the subsequent period, and a related, if somewhat different, set of values is apparent. Back in the 1950s, one of the main purposes of anti-homosexual views (and sodomy laws) was to “guarantee” parents that their kids would be loyal to the families that they (pro)created. This was seen as an important “insurance policy” for the longevity and stability of marriage itself, that everyone share in the cultural value of biological lineage (just see how lineage plays out in the Old Testament). As an only child, this was especially critical for me, yet I did not understand this at, say, age 18 because I had never dated girls or even been interested in heterosexual experience myself. But, yup, to some parents this kind of loyalty really was that important (and still is today – look at the confrontation scene in the film “Latter Days” between the “boy” and his mother). The mandatory sharing of family responsibility was viewed as a social temporizer, a way to make class divisions (even as segregation started to come to an end) morally acceptable.

Of course we know what happened. The “sexual revolution” that started in the 60s and that draws so much criticism from cultural conservatives now really was born on the need for social diversity in order to have the intellectual capital it took to win wars. That is, we couldn’t win WWII without Alan Turing (who was gay), and we couldn’t win the Cold War without pampering geeks and intellectuals, who were often too self-absorbed to care much about procreation. This would play out in the moral conflict over student deferments in the Vietnam era draft, a problem that would bear a curious contraposition to “don’t ask don’t tell” today.

Then, starting pretty much in the supposedly “collectivist” 1970s, individualism and objectivism started to gain credibility as moral theories. The Libertarian Party was born and gradually grew. Individualism could be challenged by problems ranging from oil shocks in the 1970s to AIDS in the 1980s, but, ironically in large part because of Reaganism, it flourished. (In many ways, the 80s were the best years of my life. I hate to say it, but I miss the Reagan years.) With a focus on personal responsibility (including “safer sex” and medical research) we were solving our problems.

We’ve seen a lot of this unravel, especially during the second Bush presidency, especially since 9/11 and now during the financial meltdown. There’s a new concern about the basis of our moral values, and the idea that there is too much inward focus on the self, not enough “generativity” necessary for a sustainable future. A childless person, so the theory goes, might not care about how much carbon he or she puts into the air.

This brings up the position of the Vatican, not just recently in the DC gay marriage debate, but on the whole panoply of homosexual orientation and conduct (one could extend this discussion to the attitude of the military). The Vatican says that the “Teachings” of the “Church” (which are not debatable or negotiable with them any more than with the Koran) require that any access to sexuality (even fantasy or masturbation) requires “openness to procreation” and the continuation of life – generativity. It goes way beyond the bounds of the usual debate on abortion. It requires that everyone share some of the responsibility for raising the next generation and, particularly now given suddenly longer life spans, the previous generation(s). Family responsibility comes from the fact that one has a life in a community at all; it doesn’t come about just because someone has heterosexual intercourse and creates a pregnancy. The point has become particularly relevant because medicine today makes it possible to extend life much longer, particularly for the elderly; there will be many more people with disability or a need to depend on others for long periods of time than there were even two decades ago. Therefore, the notion that “everyone plays” (something we see in the health care debate with proposals regarding mandatory insurance and higher premiums for younger people) becomes morally relevant, perhaps compelling. But it’s also possible, as Jonathan Rauch points out, to imagine a world where this is so (and were filial responsibility laws are enforced) and welcome gay marriage as long as it is really “expected” and understood as offering an “alternative” path to lifelong responsibility for others. As long as “nobody gets out of things” marriages (straight or gay) will be better motivated and remain stable. People become important relative to media and fantasy and “creativity”. But one important benefit of this world view is that in a community, everyone’s life has intrinsic value because everyone has some interpersonal obligations, even those who did not beget their own children. That seems to be the real aim of the Vatican’s mandatory “openness to procreation,” and the uncertainties or risks any family faces (despite “personal responsibility”) when having children. (It doesn’t seem to apply to priests – because they are supposed to have no access to sexuality – believe that!)

This is really difficult. Even fifteen years ago, we were talking like we could base civil rights legislation (including equality for gays, in terms of service in the military as well as domestic relationship benefits) on the idea of “absolute personal responsibility for the self.” Sometimes President Clinton seemed to embrace that idea in the 1990s, even as he did tell the Democratic Convention back in 1996 “we aren’t going back to the days of fending for yourself.” Well, we did, given the course of the health care debatwe! Today, we find that “equality” is a much trickier notion. In a community, no two beings are exactly equal in everything they do; there is always some interdependence, and in families there is usually a lot of with the Vatican likes to call “complementarity”.

We are left, then, with debate, in a pluralistic society, where not everyone functions on the same “moral vector basis” when it comes to responsibilities one has for others besides the self (as well as basic genetic luck and “where one started in line”). Until the Internet age, most political matters like this were settled by organizing and funding of groups, and tended to involve a lot of bargaining among special interests, in a way not morally or intellectually satisfying.

Then, with Internet innovation, individuals like me enter the debate and “keep ‘em honest” (as Anderson Cooper says it). I think it really works. But it brings up that notorious notion “The Privilege of Being Listened To.” Others question, why is involvement in all of these political matters “my business” when I can put myself and perhaps drag others into the firing line, given the self-generated limelight -- perhaps by playing devil's advocate and making those "autistic connections", connecting the dots and showing new ways for things to fail (as in I.T. person, I was paid well to do that for thirty-plus years). “What can you do about it?” they say. “You still belong to a family”. (Some people tell me they do not think there is any point in an average Joe's following the news!) It’s no longer about choice, it seems; it’s about accepting the uncertainty necessary for a worthwhile and reasonably free community to grow with some overall sustainability. In religious terms, it’s about Grace rather than equality and individual justice as we usually see it. Yet it seems sad. We have lost a lot of ability to determine the courses of our own lives, to make our own choices (let alone take moral responsibility later for these choices), to call our own shots, as Cameron Johnson says it. The bad Bush Decade has taught us that we are much more interdependent, and much more dependent on the unseen sacrifices of others, than we were ever able to admit.

Yet, for the time being, I am in. There is nothing to do but press on. Keep them honest.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

EFF writes about TOS and AUP issues: there's a lot under the surface

Ed Bayley has an interesting article at Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The Clicks that Bind: Ways Users ‘Agree’ to Online Terms of Service,” link here.

He goes into two concepts: “Clickwrap” and then “Browsewrap,” the latter of which means that a user assents to the terms just by using the product.

I can recall that back in the 1990s, AOL (when Steve Case was CEO) went to great pains to write “rules of the road” in plain English as well as legalese. Then, a lot of people did not grasp the harm that could come from inappropriate behavior online; but that’s remained true, with the range of perils (like the P2P copyright issue and the DMCA) just keeps growing. Now, parents in many families still have to grope with the “risks” of the new world, until their teen kids are mature enough (in terms of “seeing around corners” as Dr. Phil puts it) to grasp their responsibilities.

Telecommunications companies, ISP’s and service providers (like Blogger itself) typically call these agreements either “Acceptable Use Policies” (AUP’s) or “Terms of Service”. They range from unreasonable use of bandwidth (applicable in the network neutrality debate) to intellectual property violations like copyright infringement, libel, invasion of privacy, harassment or hate speech, cyberbullying, or outright criminal behavior (such as child pornography or that behavior so well documented by Chris Hansen on Dateline).

Another little potential legal trap is indemnification. As with book publishers, ISP’s sometimes state in their AUP’s that they can pursue users for any downstream liability judgments, although for the most part Section 230 and the notorious DMCA “takedown” already protect ISP’s (some people in Congress want to change that). Few users are aware of this. And they’re rarely enforced except in really egregious cases (otherwise the providers would have no business model).

All of this looks toward an environment where media perils insurance becomes more of an issue, perhaps complicated or at least enriched by the development of more sophisticated privacy controls by companies like Facebook, which could well require that users learn to use them.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Military, journalism, other professions use DVD's to train in ethical choices: is self always last?

Here’s a challenge for budding filmmakers: to make videos taking one through ethical choices. Actually, the Ethics Center at the Newseum im Washington offers visitors that experience from a journalist’s perspective; but the US Naval Academy is trying this for midshipmen.

The news story is “Charting morally murky waters: Midshipmen study ethical dilemmas in interactive DVDs, by Ashley Halsey III in the Metro Section of the Friday Dec. 4 Washington Post, link here.

The Navy has a hierarchy of priorities: “ship, shipmate, self”. That sounds like the Christian “Jesus first, others second, me last” – quite anti-objectivistic. But, really, loyalty fits into the military concept of unit cohesion, as well as rank and command. In the real world, it seems to wander into Rick Warren territory: how much control should a person have over his own implementation of right and wrong? Warren warns that this can entail “too much responsibility” in his “Purpose-Driven Life”.

Even so, in the Navy example, the midshipman does not substitute his own moral thinking for loyalty to shipmates; he uses moral rules developed for the greater good of the group ("the ship").

The examples in the story deal with covering for a shipmate who gets drunk on shore. But it isn’t hard to imagine situations where doing so puts everyone in danger. And academics at all the service academies follow a strict Honor Code: you can never cover up someone for an Honor Violation.. Joe Steffan went into the puzzles that could create in his 1992 book “Honor Bound”, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how this contradicts “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"The Washington Times", DC's "convservative" paper, will downsize, no longer be full service news

Not two weeks after the “restructuring” of the Washington Blade, across the cultural-war aisle the Washington Times (“TWT”) admitted that it is having to trim down. December 2, it gave all employees a mandatory 60-day advance letter that anyone may be laid off, and 40% of the staff will be gone by about Feb. 1. The conservative paper plans to change to a “free print” edition with mostly national issues news and arguments. The story by Jennifer Harper is here. The website will be enhanced, and perhaps combined with “The Conservatives” (link).

But The Washington Post has a more candid story today by Howard Kurtz, “Washington Times cuts in staff, coverage cue new era” here. That article discusses the role of the Unification Church and Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Earlier in 2009 the Washington Times had dropped printing a Saturday edition.

John Solomon had led the paper until recently, and had curtailed some lowball practices like putting quotes in the phrase ‘gay “marriage”’. Sometimes the paper has, in the past, zeroed in on some sordid episodes at most tangentially related to the gay community, such as a particularly graphic crime in Washington State back in 1989. During the 1990s, while the debate on gays in the military boiled, I sent five letters to the Times, and four were published (an .800 "slugging average"). I had a letter published Aug. 22, 2008 (see that day here) on teachers. However a longer Forum contribution on substitute teachers in October 2008 was not published. An editorial in the Washington Times on October 12, 2005 was coincidentally related to an incident when I was substitute teaching (see July 27, 2007).

Very much to its credit, TWT has often presented libertarian-leading columnists, such as Deroy Murdock.

It is with some amusement that I note that when I lived in Dallas in the 1980s, TWT stood for “This Week in Texas”, a gay-oriented weekly.

Newspaper people say that the Washington Times downsizing is a sign that it is very hard for marginal "professional journalists" to make a good living today. The implication is that the blogosphere and social media (previous post here) are forcing journalism to redo its entire business model. As so often, it's "The Kids" who change our world (and so do some seniors).

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Facebook considers revising its privacy paradigm: an example for all social media and even self-publishers?

Facebook’s CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced a change in the overall design of its privacy controls, in a blog posting made December 1, with direct link here.

The original privacy control concept was that of a “regional network” which stemmed from the origin of the service as most suited for educational campuses. As it spread, Zuckerberg explains, some networks became so large that they essentially amounted to granting full public access.

Instead Facebook envisions three levels of control: friends, “friends of friends”, or everyone (full public access, as with most regular websites). But – and this sounds like a critical privacy concept – members will be able to set different privacy settings for each individual content item. That would correspond to being able to control at what level every file or application on a personal website can be viewed.

This concept could set an important example for web publishing as well as for social networking or for “social media” as we have come to understand the concept. For example, employers, at least for associates in management or otherwise sensitive positions, could demand that the associates restrict their personal web activity according to some combination of levels that follows the Facebook example. Or in time insurance companies offering “media perils” could set premiums along the lines of how much access is offered. In the long run, such developments could affect the capability of "amateur" bloggers to function as "citizen journalists".

The concept of “publication” in the law is tricky. Sometimes it means communication to just one person who understands it (sometimes that’s enough for libel). But when a book is published (which is how I got into this), it’s available to all, and the writer is not entitled to know who has purchased or read it.

Admittedly, Zuckerberg could make a different argument for what Facebook plans. In the physical world prior to the Internet era, people would share personal "secrets" and have to trust people theu told (without the idea that such information every became "public"). I remember personal situations like this myself, particularly in the 1970s. Therefore he could try to reproduce the same capability in the digital world.

Zuckerberg’s “Wall” uses his diagonal black-and-white thumbnail repeatedly, and it is curiously effective. I like the Sao Paolo pictures.

Here is the 60 Minutes interview from Jan. 2008 with Leslie Stahl. Yup, note the label “toddler CEO”. The report is pretty interesting as to explaining how “privacy” and “publication” concepts evolve on the site.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

MSN Slate has a piece (Dec. 4) by Farhad Manjoo, "Can Anyone Stop Facebook?; Twitter couldn't. Google couldn't", link here with discussion of Facebook Connect.

My own Profile is still under "gradual construction" here. My thumbnail would not be so effective as "wallpaper"; it has too much resemblance to Marlena's coffin in an epsiode of "Days of our Lives" in 2004.

Update: Sat. Dec. 5

CNN has a story about the ending of "geographical distinctions" here. CNN says that all users will have to use "transitional tools".

EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) has a link discussing Facebook privacy here.

Update: July 21, 2010

See "Bill's TV Reviews and News" Blog July 21, 2010 for an ABC interview of Zuckerberg by Diane Sawyer in Palo Alto CA.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

One month to the end of the "00" decade: It is about "us"

Time Magazine has created stir with its Pearl Harbor Day issue with the lead story by Andy Serwer, “The Decade from Hell: And why the next one will be better”. The online link for the story about the “00’s” is (web url) here.

In a simple phrase, we had been living beyond our means, and it caught up with us. Call it “sustainability.” One problem that former political activists know is that, even as an “average individual”, living off unseen sacrifices of others is a bad thing. Commies talk about exploitation of workers. Radical Islam talks about exploitation of Muslim lands and resources and religious and cultural intrusion. In the Middle East, it’s clear that, even from a libertarian perspective, individual Israelis could be regarded as having “benefited” from involuntary takings from individual Palestinians.

We’ve seen a shift in culture in our country, to one where one derives a sense of belonging from family and community to an individualism-based system where one accounts for oneself. The Internet, born of individualism, ironically has exposed some of the problems that occur with this. Christianity, with its emphasis on Grace, maintains that some values are more important than just “the measure of a man” (or Rick Warren’s “it’s not about you”) – perfect earthly justice is incompatible with freedom (rather as is true in modern physics). However, some conservative forms of Christianity (like LDS) and many other religions (Judaism and Islam both) seem very concerned with the assessment of and eventual judgment of the performance of the individual.

In recent years, I have come to understand how some self-concept in radical Islam works, and why well-off young men do some of the terrible things they have done. It’s true, the “measure” of virtue in Islam is very strict and includes “paying your dues” as well as faithfulness to gender within the context of ‘family”, resulting in very low personal crime, paradoxically contrasting to the violent and suicidal behavior sometimes demanded of men in radical religious belief. Virtue, or the belief that it has been preserved, becomes its own end, and even becomes a source of mental pleasure, even reinforcing marital values for men. The idea that others will not be allowed to violate “the rules” makes satisfying them more exciting, for some.

Different religious persuasions lead to different implementations of “sacrifice.” Communal early Christianity, with its deep psychological socialism, would have hid it entirely for the welfare of the group, and in modern society that corresponds to the (easily abused) notion that the family is more important as a fundamental unit that the “particulate” individual. But some religious systems see sacrifice as a natural “paying your dues”, winding up in eternity with “what you deserve” relative to what others have to do. All of this can invite totalitarianism. No wonder libertarians want the simple free market to make all moral decisions. And yet, the markets, say people like Al Gore, don’t look ahead far enough to give us a sustainable future. Think about it. It may require the sharing of "sacrifice."

One could mute the notion of sacrifice by saying that sometimes a "sacrfice" is really a repayment of a hidden debt, perhaps related to the notion that today's concerns about sustainability will require "generativity" from everyone as a fundamental moral value!

Update: Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009
Joel Achenbach has a Washington Post story, "Joel Achenbach on the 2000's: The decade we didn't see coming", link here. I have to make a quote, which pretty much matches my "philosophy": "Except the real world wouldn't leave us alone.

"Throughout the decade, the real world pursued, hectored, harassed. Ignorance was punished. Hubris found its comeuppance. The optimists were routed, the pessimists validated. The fabulous economy turned out to be something of a hoax. A war predicted to be a "cakewalk" turned into a dismal slog.

"This was a decade when things you didn't know about could really hurt you."