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Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics)

Published: 2013-07-01T18:47:12-05:00


Blog over. Infothought RIP 2002 - 2013


Executive Summary ("tl;dr"): It hasn't worked. Google changes were the last straw. Blog over. (image)

[Disclaimer - this is NOT a disguised beg for links. It wouldn't solve any of the structural problems outlined below.]

It's been clear for a long time I've considered blogging to have been a failure, for me. I'll skip reciting again my delusion. In sum, while I treasure the occasional indication that someone has enjoyed something I've written, the practical matter is overall, the net effect on my life is that I have much more to lose than I have to gain. I'm reaching the same tiny audience over and over, and squeaking in a basement does nothing against those who shout from the rooftops. More importantly, protesting from below has been sadly useless when being trashed from the top.

What kept me from ultimately abandoning the blog before was that it'd likely be irrevocable. Once I made such an announcement, there would be no going back. The audience would be gone, never to return. Did I really need to do that? Was it precipitous? Instead, I decided to just limp along, posting every once in a while in order to keep active status in feed readers and similar.

But the readership numbers are now going to be decimated anyway, due to the Google Reader shutdown. While there's other feed readers trying to fill the void, it's well-known that such shifts almost always lead to a big drop. Further, recent Google algorithm changes seem to be unfavorable. That's a complicated topic involving details like "over-optimization" and "negative SEO" and "[codename] Penguin update", etc. However, the key aspect is that there's now many more ways for a small blog to run afoul of Google even by mistake or just as collateral damage in the ongoing web spam-war. I even wonder if Google would _de facto_ punish my site if I continued blogging, since the constant addition of pages which have no links/tweets/likes/plusones/[attention!] might be regarded as a lowering of "quality" (remember, for the all hype, Google is not good at making human-level distinctions between thoughtful material and ad-bait - the proof of that is evident in the results of many searches. And if it's relying on social signals such as the list above, I don't do well there).

And those are the last straws. Let me re-emphasize, it would be wrong to say Google killed my blog. It's more along the lines of, after a long, protracted, lingering decline, Google finally pushed it through death's door.

Note Twitter is no answer. While I've had a Twitter account for a while, if I were to spend much time on Twitter, it strikes me that I'd be making the same mistake as with blogging (anti-strawman - this is for my circumstances, which I do not claim apply to every person categorically). I keep thinking: Not again, not another rat-race on a hamster-wheel. I don't want to get on that treadmill, of endlessly trying to find interesting and entertaining items to convey, attempting to gain "followers". I can't win at that game, and I don't want to play. Worse, it's another "power law curve" environment that structurally favors bullying, as those "high up" can broadcast personal attacks against anyone "below" them, with no way even for the target to effectively reply. It's not for me.

I've pointed out the cruelty of blog-evangelism many times in the past, how it preys on people's desire to be heard. And I don't think I'm immune from that weakness, or the "sunk costs" cognitive fallacy. But there comes a time to recognize when a project has failed. And to stop.

Details of Aaron Swartz Case from Lessig Response Paper


[My withering-away but not-dead-yet blog seems to be turning into all-Swartz all-the-time when I manage to post. But sigh, I feel an emotional connection here.] In a legal debate over the Aaron Swartz prosecution (does any really need an explanatory link now?), Lessig has posted a response paper which has some interesting details for those who follow the case closely. It's worth reading for its treatment of various claims, via correcting errors in the paper to which he's replying. I'll extract some important parts below. The first plea deal (everything afterwards was worse) is given as: The initial offer was (1) 90 days in prison, (2) then time in a half-way house or home detention, (3) two years banned from using a computer, and (4) pleading guilty to a felony. As was discussed with the prosecutor, because of a medical condition, Aaron could not qualify for a "minimum security facility." Note that computer use ban for two years. That's essentially two years of professional unemployment and isolation these days. Further, the part of being a convicted Federal felon deserves emphasis. It's not just about being unable to vote or own firearms. It's a huge burden for one's entire life, affecting employment, housing, travel, and more (yes, it would have hurt someone of Aaron's privilege much less than it would, say, a poor black man, no debate there - but it's still immensely destructive). I suspect this is one of those things which is outside common experience, so simply doesn't enter consciousness when people think about the case. I've seen many comments that assume the downside of a guilty plea would be a few months at most of prison, then he could just put it all behind him (and then some people go on to presume since that wouldn't be so bad, it's obviously irrational not to take the deal, so his suicide must be irrational, end of thought-process). But that calculation is wrong. The downside of a plea includes a certainty of lifelong "Federal felon" damage. And pleas are not even bounded to the downside in themselves: I know many advised Aaron to accept the plea. His lawyers warned him that there was some chance the prosecutor would not stick to her offer (in US v. Gonczy, 357 F3d 50 (CA1 2004), she was admonished for promising to support one sentence and then arguing for a more significant penalty), but even so, many viewed the costs of fighting the charge (both the estimated $1 million in legal fees and the threatened penalties if he lost) as greater than admitting his own guilt. Note, regarding penalties, I've seen several objections to quoting the maximum years of prison of the various felony charges, in terms of this being misleading. Yes, the maximum isn't the average, and almost nobody gets the maximum. But that's sort of the definition of "maximum", i.e. it's the worst possible outcome, not the typical result. HOWEVER, when people then seem to implicitly argue that the value has no relevance, I think there's a severe reasoning error there. To wit: Almost nobody will get the worst case result, but everybody has to worry that it'll be them. It's also struck me that "maximum" != "average" would be a particularly unhappy argument to someone in Aaron's position, as he'd just had the situation go extremely, horribly, incredibly badly. Putting aside finger-wagging moralizing about accepting consequences, I don't think he expected to wind up facing multiple Federal criminal charges. The key question I suspect he'd be thinking about isn't "What do Federal Sentencing Guidelines recommend?" (which is complicated in itself). It's "What if the end result is as bad as everything else has been up to now?". Lessig also has an interesting comment on motive, similar to what he's said before: Neither you nor the prosecutor knows Aaron's motives here. I do. But without revealing what I know, let's be clear about what could reasonably be believed: one could reasonably believe only one of two possible motives: either he was (1) building a database to analyze bias in scholarship (as he had done w[...]

New Yorker "The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz" - case strategy info comment


I haven't written a long "personal" Aaron Swartz post. It's not my skill. I knew him and liked him, and was greatly saddened by his death. I recently had occasion to look back at some activism discussions I'd had with him. It was, well, I shouldn't use the word "depressing" - let's say "dishearteningly melancholic". But others were much closer to him than I was. After all the articles that have been written, I'm inclined to think that everything worth saying along such lines is now being said by better writers.

I'm just going to comment here about one nugget about the legal case to be found in the contemplative article "The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz":

Second, while he had previously tried to keep the case quiet, in order to give M.I.T. a chance to reverse its stance without embarrassment, now he and others recognized that this strategy had failed. Their new strategy entailed hiring a P.R. firm to stir up public outrage before the trial.

I'd long wondered why there hadn't been much publicity about the case. For a long time, it seemed like I was one of very few people blogging about the case. The absence of an intense PR campaign was extremely odd considering how many high-attention allies he had (note I didn't use the word "friends" there - in politics, it's "allies" that's needed, and don't confuse the two), plus all the "markers" from his work with literal political campaigns. There wasn't even a website giving his side of the story, a fact which was extremely puzzling to me. Looks like indeed, that relative quietness was a deliberate decision by people in charge.

It's a continuing mystery to me, in terms of my failure at policy interactions, how one reads what I call "The Memo" about what one should do. That is, nobody posts a literal memo like:

To: All net.activists
Subject: Swartz strategy
Everyone - we're trying to do a plea deal. No "FREE AARON!" flaming, please. If that deal falls through, we'll get in touch, and then it'll be time to start messaging "He's being persecuted for checking out too many library books". But not right now, thanks folks.

But sometimes that might as well be what happens, from the outside. For example, in the "Net Neutrality" fight (a dispute between Google, etc. and telecommunications companies over costs), a Memo essentially got sent around to the Google, etc side that a big talking point was ISPS-ARE-*CENSORS*. And it was mind-boggling to behold.

Anyway, I should make clear this isn't a criticism the low publicity strategic decision. He had first-class, top-flight lawyers throughout the case. I'm not going to second guess them at their job in this situation.

My point is that, regardless of the merits of the cause, "public outrage" often does have a "P.R. firm" behind it. Even for causes dear to the grassroots, like Aaron Swartz. This is a rare example where that was demonstrated in the negative (no PR firm, no outrage).

Tesla Test Drive Controversy Data - Speed HIGH by 10% ?


[Summary - Think about the data. The speed looks HIGH by around 10%.] I'm going to toss this post up, with some trepidation - I don't know if it's better if it remains in the low grass of my many handfuls of readers, or if I'd rue being an ant among elephants. Anyway, one-sentence intro: I've been following the issue of the _New York Times_ reporter who test-drove a Tesla electric car, had problems with driving range, and has been attacked by the company. I'm not going to attempt to summarize it all, it's well-covered. A key point was that the Tesla car's internal tracking data conflicted with the written account of the reporter. Company: "Cruise control was never set to 54 m.p.h. as claimed in the article, nor did he limp along at 45 m.p.h. Broder in fact drove at speeds from 65 m.p.h. to 81 m.p.h. for a majority of the trip ..." Reporter: I do recall setting the cruise control to about 54 m.p.h., as I wrote. The log shows the car traveling about 60 m.p.h. for a nearly 100-mile stretch on the New Jersey Turnpike. I cannot account for the discrepancy, nor for a later stretch in Connecticut where I recall driving about 45 m.p.h., but it may be the result of the car being delivered with 19-inch wheels and all-season tires, not the specified 21-inch wheels and summer tires. ... Here's where I start to think, we have an objective way to attempt to determine truth. I'm wary of teach-the-controversy and middling-truth punditry (e.g. Republicans say the Earth is flat, Democrats say it's round, we need bipartisanship - how about a compromise middle ground from both "extremes", that it's flat but has rounded corners?). Putting aside possible bad memory about the number, this discrepancy should be a critical point. In the company's article, under "Vehicle Logs for Media Drive by John Broder on January 23 and 24", let's look closely at the first graph, "Speed" vs "Distance" There's a long flat stretch around "200 mi", of almost exactly "60 mph". Yup, that's cruise control. The reporter says it was "54 mph". Later on, around "450 mi", there's another flatish stretch of about "52 mph", reporter says "about 45 mph". Hmm ... 60 54 52 45 Just suppose, for the sake of discussion, that the "Speed" value shown on the graph should be reduced by 10% to derive the actual value. Then we have: 60 -> 54 (vs 54) 52 -> 46.8 (vs 45) That starts to look very close. Plus,there's a long section of supposed "70mph"-ish readings at around "100 mi" that would look much better as "63mph"-ish results, given that the speed limit was 65 (granted, this isn't the strongest argument, but I'll assume the reporter would think risking a speeding ticket was a bad idea on a test drive). I'm cautious about whether anything is due to different tires. That's tempting, but it may be a red herring. There was a comment in the reporter's rebuttal post that "The diameter for the 19" all season tire is 27.7 inches, with 755 revolutions per mile. The diameter of the 21" summer tire is 27.8 inches with 750 revolutions per mile. The difference of 19" and 21" are the diameters of the wheels. So as you based your calculation on wheel diameters and not tire diameters you won't get to the actual difference in speedometer readings. My calculation has a difference of .13%.". Maybe someone just fumble-figured a conversion number for translating the tracking data into a figure of speed in terms of miles per hour. That is, where hypothetically they should have entered "755" (revolutions per mile), instead they might've entered something like "855". Such things have been known to happen. In a thoughtful world, there'd be a cry of "THAT DATA LOOKS HIGH!". I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determined what sort of world we live in from the relative prominence of what is being cried. [...]

Aaron Swartz suicide and the "JSTOR" case


The facts: "Aaron Swartz commits suicide": "Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City yesterday, Jan. 11 ..."

Others can write eulogies. I'm not good at that. Forgive me for not doing a personal remembrance in this post - it's an area where my writing skills fail me. I must take refuge in a certain distance.

I've been trying to articulate why I think his death had deeper implications than intrinsic personal tragedy. Maybe it's too soon to take that up. Too political, too distracting now. I know the moment I start writing about my view that his prosecution for various felony charges in the "JSTOR" case was a key cause, I'll get a backlash. People will say, you can't know that for sure (right - that I can't prove it doesn't stop me from thinking it's true). His other problems have been mentioned in many discussions (however, combinations of factors still mean each one was a contributor). They'll be an argument that the law can't take into account such stress on a defendant (even if so, the effect is still real).

But I've read through almost all the case documents, and it felt to me like the prosecution was doing their best to make an example of him. And that was going to harm his life even if he was eventually acquitted (after a long grueling ordeal which would cost a fortune and take a huge emotional toll). It's the sort of situation where even if you win, you still lose in many ways.

Maybe I'll say more later. Or maybe there isn't any more for me to say.


Old Year's Disillusions 2012


New Year's Resolutions are a tradition of listing things in the next year you would like to do - but (realistically) you know that you won't (I think there should also be a tradition of "Dissolutions", things you actually did do in the past year, and wish you hadn't - but that's another topic, for a different type of blogger). I'm going to turn it around, and list "Disillusions", a few items I would have liked to have done, but couldn't. Every so often I think about writing out some of my thoughts on the activism strategy in Lawrence Lessig's "Republic, Lost" anti-corruption efforts. I agree with him overwhelming in terms of the general topic of the corrupting influence of money in politics. However, when it comes to proposed solutions, there's a set of patterns which are very common and well-worn. For example, the Work Within The System types constantly argue with The Outsiders (or at least those who style themselves that way - some outsiders are too far away socially to even argue with "liberal" reformers). And thus, recursively, I fear I'd be falling into one of the bad patterns myself, the Pundit Pontificator. That's useless, and for me, dangerous. It's useless because anything of the form "I agree with your goals but not your tactics" is one of the oldest cliches of activism. And it's dangerous for me as I'm not at the power-level to argue at any sort of reasonably risk/reward ratio. Moreover, it doesn't seem like there's any great need for me to say anything. Lessig might even end up eventually shifting via the Ignored Insider pattern (where reformers become more radical after years of contention with other insiders). Being too early in politics is another endemic risk, with no rewards. During the fight over the proposed "SOPA" law for new copyright enforcement powers, I blogged a few times about being torn over the ends-vs-means dilemma. I opposed SOPA, but the tactics used against it were extremely manipulative (yes, politics, that's the point). Then there was another UN-to-take-over-the-Internet manufactured panic. That last moved Marc Rotenberg, president of Electronic Privacy Information Center (a dedicated organization that doesn't get corporate sugar-daddying) to write But where once advocacy efforts were aligned with international human rights instruments and decoupled from the lobbying efforts of particular companies, increasingly the debate over Internet freedom is one that pits governments against large corporations, with the advocates in tow. I'm glad he said it. Somebody needed to. I'm disheartened by the extent of the transformation of Internet civil liberties advocacy into corporate liberties advocacy via application of that's-where-the-money-is. However, I'm not going to go through that battle again myself. Once was enough. Wikipedia still fascinates me, even though I've basically given up on getting policy people to think about the points I've made about its dysfunctional dynamics and being a creature of Google's page-ranking algorithm. I found the Philip Roth Wikipedia controversy (about his inspiration for a novel) extremely revealing about one aspect I keep noting, the status hierarchy differences between experts and Wikipedia editors (i.e. the different worldview between Roth, etc. vs extensive Wikipedia contributors about who is high-status and who is low-status, which group should defer to the other). But there was a large amount of nastiness flying about, I believe exactly because of the hierarchy difference being in such stark relief over such a prominent literary figure. I decided not to stick my head into that storm. Roth hardly needs me to defend him, while enduring the attacks of Wikipedian flamers just didn't seem worth it for something which wasn't going to have any effect. Anyway, Happy New Year, especially to anyone who is still reading down here way under the tail. [...]

Wikia Raises Deka-Million More For Digital Sharecropping


Wikia, the for-profit start-up described in a Trader Daily article as one Wikipedia co-founder's "effort to take the success -- and, indeed, the underlying philosophy -- of Wikipedia, and commercialize the hell out of it.", has now raised over $10 million in more venture capital funding. I've written about Wikia a while back, e.g. in a column "How will Wikia cope when the workers all quit the plantation?". There's many issues surrounding the company - its ties to Wikipedia (it's a legally separate organization, but there's a been a long history of various connections), the reaction many contributors feel to being used for digital sharecropping, whether its model is even profitable or if so how much, etc. None of this seems to be discussed much, sadly.

Some time ago, I tried to figure out a rough estimate of Wikia's valuation, based on various pieces of public data. Unfortunately I was never able to come up with anything that I wanted to publish (that might have been a mistake in bogospheric terms, where one saying is "the editing occurs after publication"). I wish someone who was more skilled than I am at making ballpark corporate valuation estimates would try it. For all the advantages Wikia has, most notably a "halo effect" from the immense success of Wikipedia, it never struck me as a doing especially well. Obviously it hasn't gone out of business. But it seems sort of like an idiot cousin of a megastar. Enough comes its way indirectly from the big earner that it does OK. But that minor success is far more due to the "family connection", than any innate talent or ability.

I believe the crucial factor is that Google hasn't blessed Wikia in the way it has blessed Wikipedia. That is, Wikia pages do not dominate search results like Wikipedia pages do. That hasn't been for lack of trying on Wikia's part. But the almighty Google, gatekeeper of attention to web sites, has not changed "partners".

Perhaps related, one often hears during Wikipedia fundraising the idea that Wikipedia is trustworthy because it doesn't have advertising. If the speaker is also associated with Wikia, I wish a reporter would ask if that means the "commercialize the hell out of it" company Wikia is therefore untrustworthy.

Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" case Defense Begins


[Not an echo! News from the filings!]

For people interested in following the details of the Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" case developments, the legal defense has begun. There are now filings such as a motion to dismiss "wire fraud" charges, and many "suppress" motions (i.e. challenging the legality of the collection of various pieces of proposed evidence).

One reason I'm hesitant to get too much into the popular case discussion is that the punditry tends to revolve around concepts people have regarding the overall morality of various supposed actions. Now, that's a valid discussion, involving topics ranging from Open Access, the appropriate conduct of activism, and proportional prosection response. But it's a different one than whether the charges brought are supported by the applied law and the legal evidence. And the costs (in several senses) of fighting, of maintaining the specific charges are not supported by the alleged law and evidence.

One of my favorite commentaries on this topic is from the Cyber Patrol break FAQ, about the lawsuit aftermath of two programmers who reverse-engineered censorware and published research and software about their results:

When we published the essay I didn't expect a lawsuit, but I had also thought, "Well, if there is a lawsuit it won't be a problem, because there are organizations that take care of things like that." I fondly imagined that in case of legal silliness, someone would just step in and say "We'll take it from here." What I found out was that those organizations, through no fault of their own, were able to give me a lot of sympathy and not enough of anything else, particularly money, to bring my personal risk of tragic consequences down to an acceptable level, despite, incredibly, the fact that what I had done was legal. Ultimately, I couldn't rely on anybody to deal with my problems but myself.

Some people learn that lesson a bit less impressively than I had to.

Note that particularly money phrase. As well as personal risk of tragic consequences. It matters. The sort of detailed and thorough legal argument in all those defense motions is not something that's going to be data-mined from a forum discussion thread, or lifted from a semi-plagiarized Wikipedia article.

Note: Aaron Swartz Legal Defense Fund. Disclosure: I know him socially, and have admired his work.

Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" case post reaction, and State charges were dropped


[Personal post reaction, and an under-reported aspect of the case] Two weeks ago when I wrote about the indictment revision and expansion for the Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" case (disclosure: I know him socially, and have admired his work), actually breaking news, I only expected it to be read by my Z-list audience which amounts to handfuls, nay, veritable dozens, of readers. But due to being echoed by a few A-listers (thanks folks), it worked its way somewhat up the steep slope of power-law mountain, getting roughly 10,000 hits. As another proof of the Big-Head distribution effect, the readership was almost all from Hacker News. The spike only brought me maybe 10 new subscribers though. All in all, given that the post wasn't a tremendous amount of research and writing work, that's fine. But overall it's the sort of gambling-jackpot result that evangelists point to for the froth, but neglect the lack of sustainability ("Look, little Z-lister, you got read, so you should keep working away for no money and no support, the startups need their buyouts"). Anyway, in several discussions about the case, I saw some people taking the view that while Aaron Swartz is alleged to have done minor physical entry violations, that's not part of indictment. It's important to know that the United States legal system is separated into different levels. As I wrote a while back, something like breaking-and-entering is a "State" charge. It's the domain of one of the fifty states which make up the United States of America, specifically Massachusetts. The United States government itself, is a different "sovereign", to use the legal jargon. The indictment being discussed is, literally, a Federal case. It turns out that the State charges were dropped back in March, in favor of the Federal case. State drops charges against Swartz; federal charges remain March 16, 2012 John A. Hawkinson The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has dropped all six charges against Aaron H. Swartz, ... "In the interest of justice, we agreed to let the federal case have precedence," said Cara O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex District Attorney's office. Many of the witnesses would have been the same in the two cases, she said, and since the state case would have gone to trial first, witnesses testimony might compromise the federal case. ... The charges dropped by Massachusetts were two counts of breaking and entering, one count of larceny over $250, and three counts of unauthorized access to a computer system. Strategically, the thinking here is clear. I'm not a lawyer. But speculating, for a high-status first offender with a sterling record and no aggravating factors, I'd say the sort of charges above are ordinarily plea-bargained, and at worst would result in probation if there's a conviction. Swartz is blessed with the rare capability to mount a top-flight defense, and his legal team has every incentive to fight for an acquittal. If he's found innocent, that undercuts the Federal case against him in terms of the requirements to prove criminal legal violations of authorization. Thus the Massachussets prosecutor can at best hope for a piddling conviction on relatively minor (though still felony) charges, which they will have to work extremely hard for, and at worst work against a much larger Federal case. Hence they defer that Federal case, which has a huge amount of prosecutorial resources. Note if Swartz didn't have the resources for an excellent defense, the overall prosecution strategy might have been to try to convict him on the State charges, and then leverage that result in the Federal case. There's significant practical calculation involved in these decisions. For people who want case analysis from someone who is a lawyer, see Maxwell Kennerly: Examining The Outrageous Aaron Swartz Indictment For Computer Fraud. And again, there is also a[...]

Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" case indictment revised/expanded


[A little original, if boring, reporting below]

I'm continuing to follow the Aaron Swartz case, which is grinding away (disclosure: I know him socially, and have admired his work). The latest development, which seems to have not been reported anywhere but here (scoop! :-) breaking story! :-)), is that the prosecution has issued a "Superseding Indictment". That is, the charges against Swartz have been revised and expanded from the original form.

And as I've said before - they don't like him. They really don't like him. Previously the indictment had alleged four "counts" of different legal violations each, making four felonies in total. There are now 13 felony counts in the new indictment, derived from claims of multiple instances of breaking those four laws. In specific:

Wire Fraud - 2 counts
Computer Fraud - 5 counts
Unlawfully Obtaining Information from a Protected Computer - 5 counts
Recklessly Damaging a Protected Computer - 1 count

It's beyond my pay grade to figure out how many years in prison that all could be, when taking into account the complexities of sentencing law. Let's leave it at a large scary number. Enough to ruin someone's life.

A note regarding coverage - I'm surprised there isn't more close commentary about this case now. There's something of a paradox for Z-list bloggers, as to the extent that the dominant blogs on the top of the "power-law" curve cover it, there's not much more to say. While down at the bottom under the massive Long Tail, the potential risks are much higher than likely rewards. I'm not sure it's a good idea for me personally to be blogging about it extensively. It's a huge amount of effort to do any sort of journalistic legal analysis, and the social gains are basically all for ranting (whatever side one is on, popularity comes from telling people what they want to hear). "Citizen journalism", bah-humbug!

UPDATE: For fairness - Aaron Swartz Legal Defense Fund

Wikimedia proposes "Legal Fees Assistance Program" for Wikipedia, etc support role


I hope I'm not drummed out of the Wikipedia Critics Guild for this post, but it's worth noting there's a hopeful proposal from the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit which owns Wikipedia and various other projects) for a "Legal Fees Assistance Program"

The Legal Fees Assistance Program of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has been established to help secure funds for legal assistance in appropriate cases for Wikimedia users who serve in a community administrator, arbitrator, email response, or project governance role that is specified in this document. ... [It] is intended to help with the costs of a legal defense arising from a support role in the unlikely event that a user should face legal action for their actions in such a role.

I should note this specific program is not about content, which is a different policy.

One of my deeper criticisms of the exploitative nature of Wikipedia, and why I don't believe it's a good model for anything much except taking advantage of relatively powerless people, is the way it engages in the practice "risk-shifting". For example, where low-level volunteers bear the legal risks and costs of legally problematic actions. The con-men who push wonderful stories about self-emergent collective-mind free work, typically never mention that lawsuits can get directed towards real people, not technomystic concepts. This problem is made much worse by the ability of some organizations to disclaim liability and push it onto the unpaid labor.

Kudos to whoever at the Wikimedia Foundation took steps to address this issue. It would be a great use of resources.

That being said, I have some unfortunate worries which I'll phrase as follows: I hope that what sounds so much like a program which would defend the rank-and-file against abuse of power, doesn't get corrupted into stealth lobbying for Google or similar in legal fights about copyright. Basically, misused as another way to channel Wikipedia prominence and reputation into the service of corporate interests. Again, I don't contend that's what the proposers have in mind, and I'm not claiming this is intended as any sort of propaganda effort. But there's many forces who do want to use Wikimedia as a corporate front. And sadly I could see a way it might happen here. Maybe it's dour to bring that up that possibility for such a praiseworthy proposal. But I've seen too much bad net.politics to be unreservedly optimistic.

Aaron Swartz "JSTOR" court case drags on


[Original, if boring, reporting below]

It's been more than a year since the Aaron Swartz indictment was announced (disclosure: I know him socially, and have admired his work). The court case has fallen out of the news now. But it hasn't been dropped or plea-bargained. It's still slowly and agonizingly grinding through the legal system. I've been following it via the court filings, out of personal interest in situations where programmers get sued for electronic activism.

Basically, Judge Learned Hand was right about lawsuits, they are dreadful. On and on the filing go, a slow-motion battle that is part war of attrition, part trial by ordeal before trial by jury. It appears that Aaron Swartz is fortunate enough to be able to mount a first-class defense, so his lawyers can challenge various evidence that the prosecution wants to introduce. Here's some of the flavor of the process, from a status conference:

[snip] ... The defense intends to file Motions to Suppress and Dismiss. The parties agree that such motions will be filed raise complex matters and that the Court should set a filing date for such matters 60 days from the date of the status conference;

(6) The parties propose that expert witness disclosure in this case take place in three phases. The government will make its initial expert witness disclosure 11 weeks before trial. The defense will make theirs 8 weeks before trial. The government may then make an additional expert disclosure 5 weeks before trial, if an additional expert or experts are necessary to address matters raised in the defense disclosure. [snip]

(9) The parties believe that trial is likely and that the trial will last around 3 weeks.

This apparently is going to continue on for a long time yet.

Update: As of August 2012, the trial date was set for February 4, 2013

An old New York Times article headline change - "Censorship" vs "Filtering"


Recently Jacob Appelbaum asked about early censorware investigations. In writing back to him, I mentioned the 2001 New York Times profile of me, which I thought was called (my emphasis) "Cracking the Code Of Online Censorship". Except when I went to find what the article's URL was these days (I remember back when URLs were supposed to be permanent locations, which seems naively hubristic now), I discovered the article is currently called "Cracking the Code Of Online Filtering". I wonder when it changed, and why.

First, I determined I'm not hallucinating. There's a contemporary mailing list post "NYT Profile of Cyberian Seth Finkelstein" which clearly shows the "Censorship" title.

So - to the Wayback machine:

A 2010 version has "Censorship".

While a 2011 version has "Filtering".

Thus it seemed the change was sometimes between 2010 and 2011. Or was it? Some more searching turned up a 2001 version with the "Filtering" headline, which looked like it came from a news briefs distribution. Still, it seems strange to have the New York Times website article headline changing after so many years.

I think the original "Censorship" headline was more accurate (given the heavy use of these programs by various governments, if nothing else). But it's not worth any effort (I doubt that old article has many readers anyway).

Wikipedia Is(n't?) For Porn - or, Being A Cult Leader Is Difficult


Wikipedia co-Founder Larry Sanger has generated some attention from a post What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?. Given that it's been echoed by a couple of A-listers (who have around three orders of magnitude more audience than me), plus mega-gatekeeper sites, I don't feel that I'm going to be doing any harm in adding a few of my squeaks from the bottom of power-law mountain.

Now, as I mentioned in my own post a while back about Wikimedia/Wikipedia Image Filter "referendum" results, "Between ankle-biting wikicultists on one side, and wiki-porn-porn-porn complainers waving bloody heads on the other", other writers can argue the censorship-related issues. I've been there, done that, and got the suffering for it. I'm intrigued by the way various pro and anti Wikipedia factions react (which is not something that's been argued endlessly).

Note there's many topics which get mixed in these discussion. There's legal sexual material but not appropriate for little children, material where let's say one should think very carefully about obscenity and child pornography law, and some extremely dark corners of Wikimedia-world that I remain amazed have not resulted in a major scandal (yet). All of it, however, is a public-relations problem. And that hits the Wikimedia Foundation (owner of Wikipedia and related sites) like nothing else.

In another post about Wikipedia's other co-founder Jimmy Wales's reaction, Sanger states "I found it implausible that the God King could do nothing". However, this is closer to truth than is apparent at first glance. There's no hucksters interested in hyping the following formulation, but being a cult leader is in fact pure democracy. Any follower can leave at any time, at least to as good an approximation as many other things which get called "democracy". If a large, vocal base, having some of the organization's most fanatical followers, wants to do something which is embarrassing to the Dear Leader, then Dear Leader has a problem. Getting into a costly battle with the base is bad politics, even for the most absolute of monarchs.

And the last time he did try to take on the base over this topic, they actually started revolting. It was very revealing as to the dynamics. When I talk about how Wikipedia is a cult, too many people seem to take that as if it were a cartoonish statement of zombies being ruled by a puppet-master. It's not like a bad genre story. A cult leader only remains in that position by fulfilling the emotional needs of the acolytes. Go against those feelings, and there's trouble. Alternatively, no king wants to massacre a bunch of farmers over bad PR, even content-farmers.

I have no idea how it's all going to shake out. I'll just end with what I've said before:

Have fun, Wikimedia Foundation folks. I don't envy you. Running a cult is not all PR puff-pieces and back-scratching among elites. Sometimes you have to actually deal with the uncomfortable fact that the "community" isn't completely dedicated to doing unpaid work exactly as you desire.

Google Power - from "Penguin" update to CISPA security bill


Another Google search algorithm update, another set of implications:

Petition: Google: Please kill your Penguin update

With the recent Google Penguin update, it has become nearly impossible for small content based websites to stay competitive with large publishers like eHow, WikiHow, Yahoo Answers and Amazon.

Countless webmasters have seen their livelihoods vanish overnight. ...

Have you noticed any great outcry in law/policy circles at this re-intermediation, as a potential threat to innovation? Any worry over the immense power vested in the whims of a single company, about what it might all mean for Freedom And The Internet? There's not much to be heard over the sounds of backscratching.

While it's definitely possible to go too far into seeing Google everywhere, one also shouldn't go too far in the other direction either, and pretend there's no economy of influence. Though I've basically given up on writing about the search algorithm implications myself. The SEO world knows all about it, they live it, they don't need to have it rehashed. The "connected" law/policy quasi-lobbyists don't want to know about it, ranging from unconcerned to actively hostile. For the remaining groups, well, we see how much notice is garnered by petitions like the above.

And the attention-driving aspect is further shown by articles over the battle about a "cyber-security" bill called CISPA: Why is Silicon Valley silent on CISPA?

In January, America's major tech companies joined everyday internet users to break the back of a reviled law called SOPA. Months later, Washington is brewing a new law that alarms many SOPA opponents — but this time the same companies have been quiet as church mice.

We put in calls about the vote to some of our Silicon Valley sources and the response has been nothing but crickets. Silence from Google. Ditto from Facebook. ....

Just a few months ago, the net was marinated in tales of how the evil SOPA-ians quaked before The Power Of Google, *cough*, I mean, The People. About how laws which threaten The Business Model Of Google, *cough*, I mean Civil Liberties, could no longer stand in the New Era. Fate gives us these little parallels to show how much that was all manipulation and feeding the masses delusions of significance. I have to grant that the end result of the SOPA battle did pass my test of being a positive outcome on civil-liberties (end-vs-means wouldn't be a difficult question if the "ends" view had nothing on its side). But it seems that's almost more accident than design.

Unfortunately, the only powerful faction making any of these points is the big media companies, who are Google's opponents, but not my friends or, perhaps more relevantly, patrons. While I don't want to be an unpaid Google lobbyist, it's even less appealing to be an unpaid media company flack.