Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Back Channel School Sites" in Japan

Recently there has been a phenomenon in Japanese society of clandestine websites run by middle and high school students known as “Urasaito”, or literally “back channel school sites”. These sites generally have message boards that allow students to exchange information as bland and trivial as homework and class announcements, but more importantly, have too often become a place for harassment, bullying, and slander. More than 40% of respondents to a survey stated that the worst part about these sites was the libeling that goes on.

The bullying that occurs on these sites all have a common characteristic—teachers and parents remain painfully unaware, and often until it is too late. These sites, estimated to be at least 200,000 in number by some experts, are unofficial sites of the school and hard to find for unknowing adults because most of them are titled using nicknames or abbreviations of the school and are spread by word of mouth. This issue came to the forefront of national concern in 2004 when a 6th grader was stabbed to death by her classmate because of comments on a website. Since then, there have been numerous cases similar in nature.

One of the reasons this is a problem specific to Japan is that Japanese cell phones are unique in that almost all of them come with access to the internet and internet use through cell phones is very widespread. A survey found that 40% of respondents accessed the internet from cell phones, while 60% accessed from computers. Internet use from cell phones is much harder for parents to monitor than internet use from PCs, thus many parents and teachers remain oblivious and have a hard time fully grasping the issue.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications are trying to tackle this problem by requiring providers to supply a filtering service for all underaged cell phone users. However, experts believe that this will not be sufficient, as some “back channel school sites” are still accessible through these filters.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Charity begins at home

P.T. Barnum said "There's a sucker born every minute." Just don't go looking for them on the web.

Consider the case of Holden Karnofsky. A well paid, young financial hotshot, Mr. Karnofosky was hunting for a charity worthy of his donation. Put off by a lack of reliable, transparent information (and sensing a market need) he enlisted his friend Elie Hassenfeld to form GiveWell. Borrowing a page from Moodys, their new non-profit began researching, analyzing and ranking charitable organizations according to their effectiveness.

Things went well. They made some noise. Profiled by The New York Times, NPR and by noted philosopher Peter Singer.

Last month, however, Karnofsky was swiftly relieved of his duties as Executive Director of GiveWell by its Board of Directors after a stunning lapse in judgement. Posing as someone looking for a reputable place to donate, and posting under the pseudonym Geremiah, Karnofsky queried users of the blog Ask MetaFilter for guidance on an organization that could reliably vet charities.

All the websites I've seen just have huge lists of charities with some basic financial data/ratings. I'd ideally like to hear from someone who has put some time into examining/comparing charities and can recommend someone who's good. Any ideas?
After a commenters suggested Charity Navigator, a GiveWell competitor, Karnofsky made his move. Assuming a slightly (*ahem*) transparent screen name, HoldenO, he began posting answers to his own question, guiding the "donor" to GiveWell's website. He was busted after gettting the ire up of user Miko, who smelled a rat when HoldenO and Geremiah both seemed to gang up on him. Miko writes:

Is This Transparency? OP with very slim, one-year posting history asks a question about finding a good charity in AskMe, just prior to year-end tax-decision time. Newly registered responder posts a newly formed charity-aggregator/evaluator organization, without mentioning that he is, apparently, one of the two founders. Self-promotional setup leading to self-link? Or am I being too cynical?

No, Miko, it seems you got it exactly right. Mr. Hassenfeld admitted to indulging in similar self-aggrandizing online behavior a week later. And so Messrs. Karnofsky learned the same lesson as John Mackey, namely that if you try to fool the online community, you are trying to fool an extremely savvy demographic.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Web 2.0 Accessibility and Disability is an online community for people with disabilities where members can, among other things, blog about their experiences, research relevant information on health and lifestyle, and find resources on disability related policies.

An article that appeared in Wired in 2005 highlighted how the online virtual world, Second Life, was being used by individuals with certain disorders “to experience being around other people without being judged”:

"Many of the real-world challenges are bypassed in Second Life," said June-Marie Mahay, who works with the nine at an adult day-care center in Mattapan, Massachusetts. "Fewer folks have a problem hanging out with them, which is quite the opposite in real life. Also, due to their speech challenges, many would need help understanding them in real life, but in Second Life, I just type what they say and do what they want."

Added Mahay, "They felt stigmatized by their disabilities, (which) kept them from the normal social integration we take for granted. Second Life removes both of these things."

Mahay's charges spend their in-world time on the small island known as live2give. Another in-world island, known as Brigadoon, is a place created for sufferers of autism and Asperger's syndrome to try out the social interactions that are so hard for them in the real world.
The Internet in general can make independent living easier for those with disabilities by providing opportunities for distance learning, online shopping, and rapid exchange of health-related information, to name just a few examples.

But Web 2.0 is raising some concerns. Although its development has allowed for many positive advances in social interaction, with more complex functions come greater challenges to accessibility and inclusion for disabled individuals.

Take AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), for example. The programming technique is used to create dynamic and interactive web applications, but continually changing or updated text makes it difficult for screen readers to interpret websites for visually impaired Internet users.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides information related to web use by people with disabilities, including an overview of different impairments that may affect web accessibility and scenarios, such as a student with dyslexia using online curricula and a teenager with deaf-blindness seeking entertainment on the web.

Mary Zajicek of Oxford Brookes University’s Department of Computing notes worrying trends related to internet accessibility in Web 2.0: Hype or Happiness?:
The increase in the use of video on Web 2.0 is cited by Liz Ball who is deafblind, and uses Braille output, as causing one of the greatest problems. She says [4] ‘“Video is being used more and more either to augment or instead of other web content. It would be a tragedy if the increased use of video led to deafblind people becoming less and less able to access the web. We need to ensure that people do provide text alternatives.” ...

Many Web 2.0 facilities rely on fast download times, which are unattainable for many disabled people and older people who live on low incomes and rely on dial up. For them large downloads are very slow and therefore extremely expensive...

Isolation of particular groups – while particular disabled groups can gain support and useful information from special community sites there is a danger of isolation. While Web 2.0 has enormous potential to bring people together it could encourage the formation of isolated groups that do not engage in mainstream activities and who develop their own sub culture which excludes others.
WAI also provides a list of guidelines for making web content accessible.

Compliance in some cases isn’t just an ethical question but a legal one. Read more about different countries’ policies related to Internet accessibility and disability here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wikileaks shutdown raises censorship questions

The muckraking website Wikileaks was ordered shut down earlier this week by a Federal Judge in San Francisco, in response to a request made by Swiss bank Julius Baer (the site can still be accessed via its IP address

Wikileak's mission is to provide a repository for "untraceable mass document leaking and analysis." Whistleblowers can post to Wikileaks anonymously. The site made a splash in late 2007 when it posted a military manual with details of the daily workings of the Guantanomo Bay detention facility.

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly - in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances - the internet, and cryptography - the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

Predictably, there has been much online discussion of the shutdown order -- most of it disapproving. Palo Alto, CA internet attorney Julie Turner told CBS News that the order "is akin to seizing all the copies of The New York Times, locking the doors and ordering the landlords not to let anyone back in the building."


While conceding my belief that Wikileaks undoubtedly provides an aggregate benefit to society, allow me to indulge in a bit of devil's advocacy. Looking at the injuction request with my untrained legal eye, it seems pretty clear that Julius Baer sought only the "temporary and preliminary" shutdown of the site until the removal of the documents could be verified. As the bank alleges that the documents were pilfered by a "disgruntled employee" and subsequently altered, their continued display causes the bank "further irreparable harm."

Now, we could all potentially agree that the bank is probably lying here. And we could all see eye-to-eye on the likelihood that the bank will lose this case, and rightly so. But, wouldn't we also agree that property rights (these documents are the bank's property) and privacy rights (they refer to client's financial information ) are the bedrock rights of our legal system?

"But what about Wikileak's First Amendment rights," you say?

Good question. We should be ever vigilant. But should those rights extend to stolen property? We know that they don't.

Again, I'm not a lawyer, but at the very least, I think disputes of this sort should play out in court, not online. Some jurisdictions may not allow a transparent and impartial setting for whistleblowers to make their case, but San Francisco is certainly not one of them.

The fact is, we are not talking here about a rogue judge shutting down The New York Times without cause or warning. This is a legal dispute in which one side is seeking legal protection and the other is displaying potentially prejudicial evidence in public.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

South Africa struggles with online hate

It's not often you hear a newspaper editor question the value of free speech. Yet, that is precisely what Ray Hartley, editor of The Times, a daily published in Johannesburg, South Africa, did in a blog post last week. In a mere 250 words, Hartley managed to convey the frustrating divisiveness that is the byproduct of new media formats. Here is the post reprinted in full:

Is Web 2.0 stirring up racism and hate in South Africa?
I ask this question because of the hundreds - yes HUNDREDS - of highly abusive, racist and hate-filled comments that are posted on any story to do with anything on South African sites that allow the public to comment. Fortunately, these comments are mostly filtered out by administrators, but they do suggest that the open social media utopia that we dream of is in danger of becoming a cesspit of hate and anger.
A typical discussion thread goes like this:
1. An article is posted, say on why the football team drew a game after a valiant 90 minute effort;
2. A reasonable, argued comment goes up along the lines of: “We should have done better, but our defence was too weak and we lacked a striker”;
3. Then comes: “Maybe they should have stuck with a white captain. But Neil Tovey would never even get into this new South Africa trash side.”
4. The floodgates open and the racist invective flows like blood from a severed caratoid.
5. Those posting comments start reporting views they disagree with as abuse and these are removed.
6. Moderators sift through the flotsam and jetsam at a loss for words.
7. The next article goes up and it all starts again.
I don’t mean to demean the many very positive, very constructive and frequently highly articulate participants in our discussions. But there are seriously awful people out there who are finally giving vent to their seriously awful views online.
Makes you long for the old media.

As you can imagine, commenters on this post took the opportunity to prove him right -- often pseudonomously. It may be tempting to conclude that post-apartheid South Africa, a nation struggling with violence, disease and extreme social tension, is particularly susceptible to online racism and anger. But we know that South Africa is not unique and that the internet is, by its nature, an international forum.

How long before well-meaning people give up on new media as a space for childish venting and the anonymous realization of cowardly fantasies?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Level Playing Field? IOC to allow limited athlete blogs at Beijing Games

The International Olympic Committee has decided to allow athletes to blog during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Many unofficial blogs have appeared during previous competitions.

But there are draconian restrictions regarding what content an athlete can post. The IOC has taken the tack that blogs are personal expression, not journalism, and it is guarding the intellectual property associated with the event and the broadcast rights. For example, video and still photography of events and medals ceremonies is disallowed or limited.

Is this censorship in the name of branding? "Domain names for blogs should not include any word similar to 'Olympic' or 'Olympics,'" reports The Canadian Press. I would think Olympics qualifies as public domain after several thousand years; fair use at the very least.

Has anyone heard how the IOC intends to enforce this policy? In addition to the usual medals being stripped for steroid use will we see an angry IOC dragging athletes to court for copyright infringement?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Steve Clemons Interviewed on Blogging

Blogger Steve Clemons was recently interviewed by The Pakistani Spectator:

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

I am a policy entrepreneur in Washington working at a think tank called the New America Foundation, but on the side, I run and publish a popular political blog called The blog is focused on a variety of things ranging from American politics to foreign and national security policy to economic issues — but many people read the blog because they like the pictures of my dogs, Annie and Oakley, two Weimaraners that I occasionally put up.

The object behind every blog is the attainment of a state of being. Do you agree with this statement?

No. I think blogs are different depending on who is writing or using them. I think people in my business who are writers and thinkers use blogs to distribute material and information — and to interact with audiences. Others use them as diaries or hobbies. These latter bloggers may be achieving some state of being — but I’m not into the metaphysical aspects of blogging.

I'm wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

I’ve had too many to recount — but some of the most interesting began when Senators and Congressman began writing letters to the blog — or wanting me to cover their events or views.

What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?

I think that Facebook is the leader among social networking sites that allows new groups to quickly and efficiently form, raise money, and take action. Next to blogging about politics — I think the social networking sites are the most interesting in politics. And then the next pillar is political video commentary on YouTube and elsewhere.

You are also sometimes found on Huffpo, why is that site so popular?

There is a great deal of diversity. It’s a little bit sensationalized — and never static. People who read HuffPost want to hear what some Hollywood celebrities think about politics but also want a gusher of information. Much of it is very original and high quality. But some of it needs to be skipped over. Arianna Huffington has more than 1800 writers on board with her. She can stir up stuff any time she wants with that kind of stable.

Do you think that these new technologies are effective in making people more responsive?

Yes I do. People can use technology to gently nudge them in different directions — and I think that RSS feeds, blogs, desired email notes, etc. all mean that the recipient/reader/user is pointing a self-designed pipe of information at themselves. I think it’s amazing — and very powerful for distributors of information and receivers.

What do you think sets Your site apart from others?

The Washington Note is mostly serious, principled, genuinely “radically centrist” and not ideologically stuck on any candidate or position. It has a view — but that view seems unpredictable to some who follow different ideological grooves. I think people like to see the pictures of my dogs. It’s a human blog. My essays are often long and clunky — not short and humorous. So people who read my blog are “readers” and “thinkers”. I also break a lot of original news and have — according to others — very original analysis of political and foreign policy dramas.

If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success, what would it be?

I enjoy writing and think I have a sense of strategy. This helps get through the simple binary, yes/no, black/white, off/on style that dominates political punditry. I’m a bit different and more nuanced.

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

Happiest moment was fishing with my family when I was in Junior High School in New Hampshire before we all moved to Japan. The gloomiest was my first day of college when my father died.

Do you think [the use of Twitter and other social networking tools by politicians] is bandwagon jumping or what?

Not sure what you mean by bandwagon jumping so can’t respond. I like microjournalism and “twitter commentary” though from all users of it — politicians, journalists, or just average people.

If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it's paid for - what would your top 3 choices be?

Antartica, Tibet, Congo

Please see into your crystal ball and tell us who would be the next President of US?

No idea — but I think the Dems will win this round, so either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Both have strengths. Both have flaws. Both would be exciting — though Obama certainly would be something far “newer” than Clinton — but there are things that worry me about his profile as much as hers. We need a hybrid of them. I doubt they will, but I sort of hope that one is on the Democratic Ticket as President and the other as Vice President.

What is your favorite book and why?

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt — because it tells the real story of how a fragile balance of interests got cobbled together into a republic and established the roots of America’s style of democracy and nation. One realizes that all branches of government and society have to vigorously pursue their interests for the balance to remain in check. I thought that the book was magnificently written and exciting — and has great insights regarding our struggles today inside America.

What's the first thing you notice about a person (whether you know them or not)?

Whether they bite their fingernails or not — and thus if they are nervous or confident. I try to make those who are nervous to feel calm or at ease. There are too many bulldozer types in Washington.

Why US is still unable to find Osama after all these years?

Because it’s not the Bush administration’s highest priority, because of mistakes that distracted resources and national attention, and because bin Laden has devout followers and doesn’t want to be found.

Is there anyone from your past that once told you you couldn't write?

No. But one of my uncles was surprised when former California Governor Jerry Brown hired me to be his speechwriter for a Japan trip he was taking when I was 20 years old. My uncle said, “couldn’t Brown afford anyone else?”

How bloggers can benefit from blogs financially?

If they can generate large traffic, they can sell advertisements — but trying to make a living from blogging is something that only a very few people have been able to do.

Is it true that who has a successful blog has an awful lot of time on their hands?

No. The best blogs — the most read blogs — are done by people who typically have multiple roles as academics, journalists, policy practitioners, think tank intellectuals, closeted soldiers, and the like. The busiest people with no time on their hands generally write the best blogs.

What are your thoughts on corporate blogs and what do you think the biggest advantages and disadvantages are?

I am ambivalent about them. There is little advantage — and the disadvantage is that they tend to be advertisements in another form. Corporations are not dedicated to inquiry and free expression. That’s not what they are designed to do — so they ought not to try and move to far into this kind of venue. They’ll get punished by the market of ideas and opinion that won’t like the controls companies must deploy on their content.

What role can bloggers of the world play to make this world more friendlier and less hostile?

Bloggers come in all shapes and sizes. I wouldn’t think of burdening bloggers with such lofty ambitions unless they chose to pursue these goals themselves. Blogging is not easy and requires passion. That’s something that can be encouraged — but not dominated with the objectives of others, no matter how lofty and worthy the goals. That said, just getting more people up to bat, so to speak, on blogs or video or political cartooning is healthy for society and probably the world at some level.

Who are your top five favourite bloggers?

I can’t limit to 5
The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan
Tapped by American Prospect
Matthew Yglesias Blog — at the Atlantic Monthly
The Swamp/Time
Foreign Policy’s “Passport”
CommentIsFree/The Guardian

Is there one observation or column or post that has gotten the most powerful reaction from people?

I have many. I have written more than 2,750 blog posts. And many of them have been considered zinger articles. But the role my blog played during the 21 month long battle fighting John Bolton’s confirmation vote as US Ambassador to the United Nations is what made my blog particularly famous. I think that the blog is also now having an impact on the ecosystem of foreign policy discussion in Washington — at a broad geostrategic level, and also focused on the Middle East, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and US-Cuba relations.

What is your perception about Pakistan and its people?

I think Pakistan’s equilibrium as a cohesive nation is out of balance — and I think that it will take some time for the country to bring the military, the lawyers/judges, and the various groups of citizens back together behind a cohesive state. I think highly of Pakistani people and have many friends from Pakistan and in Pakistan.

Have you ever become stunned by the uniqueness of any blogger?

I am not easily stunned, so no. But others may have been. The one person I think is remarkably unique in the world of new journalism is not a blogger — but rather a political cartoonist named Tom Toles who is at the Washington Post. But behind the cartoons he draws are ideas that often animate others like me — and thus to some degree, I’m convinced that blogging is a lot like being a political cartoonist.

What is the most striking difference between a developed country and a developing country?

Developed countries are generally rich, have options — but tend not to realize how fortunate they are and don’t have a good sense of how they achieved stability and success. Developing countries are hungry for success and want more options for their people — but they are stifled by many different constraints. Occasionally, their collective energies and focus help them achieve real success moving up the economic ladder and the ladder of self-determination and stability. But many developing societies are fundamentally unstable with shifting sets of winners and losers and thus subject to waves of political convulsions that are hard to accept and work through.

What is the future of blogging?

Huge. Blogging will spread globally — and will become the foundation of a new journalism, a new political organizing mechanism, and a new global communications vehicle. But blogging may become less and less written and may become more and more video, spoken, or driven by the personal creation of non-verbal images.

You have also got a blogging life, how has it directly affected both your personal and professional life?

It as enriched both my personal and professional life by bringing me into contact with hundreds of thousands of people I did not know. It has made me more aware of alternative thinking and made me a more efficient writer and political commentator. I enjoy all of this so my personal life is enriched as well — after all, I put pictures of my dogs on the website. They are now very famous. Just go to Google and type in the word “Weimaraner”. My dogs picture and mine come up --- this is because so many people in the world have linked to it. That’s fun.

What are your future plans?

To eventually finish this long interview. And then sleep. Then I’ll blog again and go running. Not sure after that.

Any Message you want to give to the readers of The Pakistani Spectator?

Thanks for reading all the way through this. I wish I could give you a prize or medal for making it to the end. Seriously though, blogging or any other kind of civic expression is a vehicle to participate in our respective societies. We are all stakeholders in our communities, our nations, and in the world — and blogging gives a portal for many who have been “passive” in this contract as stakeholders to become “active” and “engaged.” I hope those who read this check out my blog at — but I also hope that you find a way to learn, to listen, to share, to celebrate, and protest when the need arises those things in society you like or dislike. As Cicero explained over 2,000 years ago — our collective good depends on active engagement of all the constituent parts of our societies. Otherwise, the system won’t find an equilibrium that generally works for all.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Internet Ablaze

As CGM (Consumer Generated Media) becomes more and more widespread, “middle media” known as “CGM aggregators” are becoming popular. CGM aggregators filter through the flood of blogs and SNSs (Social Networking Service) to pick up notable articles or events going on in CGM. The proliferation of CGM has caused an overflow of information on the internet that is impossible to sift through; thus middle media is a way for consumers to access information that has already been screened, condensed. Middle media also acts as a bridge between CGM and mass media, that is, stories that are picked up by middle media are in turn, covered by mass media.

However, this seemingly convenient tool has also given rise to one of the newly rapidly escalating issues of the internet: “ablaze” sites and internet mob lynching. “Ablaze” sites and blogs was a term coined in Japan in 2005 when site after site was forced into closing after being picked up in middle media as “inappropriate” or “problematic” and millions of viewers rushed to the site, leaving angry comments, working together to expose individual information on the owner of the blog or site. Disagreements on the internet have a tendency to get emotional, heated, personal, and very self-righteous. In the heat of the moment, people work together to expose a person’s personal information very quickly, and contact related authorities or institutions to demand reparations and punishment. In fact, there are whole sites dedicated to the exposing and progression of their jihad against a particular individual. One such site is committed to reporting the actions of one college student working part time at a bookstore who secretly took a photo of a customer with a skin disease, posted it on his page in an SNS with derogatory comments. Another internet user with skin disease stumbled upon the page and reported it in a middle media, causing a mob of internet users to immediately flood the page with angry comments and the student was eventually forced to leave the SNS, not to mention that he was reported by one of them to his school and suspended.

Until only a few years ago, this kind of “mob lynching” was a tool only mass media enjoyed. They wielded a self-righteous power in what and how they reported, seeing themselves as the “voice of the people”, meting out social sanctions even before the law would come to a conclusion. However, as mass media and internet media work in unison, this phenomenon is only escalating. A common argument in defense of media is James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds", in which he states that

Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them

However, he also notes that the conditions required for this is
(1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people's errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are "smarter" than if a single expert had been in charge.

On the internet, while 2, 3, and 4 are satisfied, 1 is certainly not, and this mob mentality and urge to bandwagon out of fear of being ostracized is perhaps the biggest cause of internet mob lynching.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bloggers Impact Transportation Security Administration

Late last month the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) launched its Evolution of Security blog to improve communication about TSA policies between travelers and TSA officials. From the Welcome post:

The opportunity is that we will incorporate what we learn in this forum in our checkpoint process evolution. We will not only give you straight answers to your questions but we will challenge you with new ideas and involve you in upcoming changes.
The blog's motto is "Terrorists Evolve. Threats Evolve. Security Must Stay Ahead. You Play a Part."

On Wednesday, the administrators posted a thread titled “Hooray Bloggers!” explaining how the commenters on the blog “had their first official impact on [TSA’s] operations”:
On Monday afternoon we began receiving questions about airports that were requiring ALL electronics to be removed from carry-on bags (everything, including blackberrys, iPods and even cords). This practice was also mentioned on several other blogs and left us scratching our heads.

So…we checked with our security operations team to figure out what was going on. After some calls to our airports, we learned that this exercise was set up by local TSA offices and was not part of any grand plan across the country. These practices were stopped on Monday afternoon and blackberrys, cords and iPods began to flow through checkpoints like the booze was flowing on Bourbon Street Tuesday night. (Fat Tuesday of course).
Not all of the feedback, however, has been so helpful. The blog began moderating comments after having received over 700 comments within 24 hours after the first post went up:
In the spirit of transparency, we plan to note how many comments we've rejected and tell you why. Mostly the rejected comments include profane language, political rants or abusive posts that we just can't print, and some are completely off topic. Other than these, every post will go up as written and we will continue to operate this way.
The Chicago Tribune’s Internet Critic posted an “advance copy” of guidelines for the blog, including “Commenters must arrive at the blog 45 minutes before attempting to post a comment,” which you can read here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Professionalism and Profit

The New York Review of Books recently ran an article on blogs by Sarah Boxer. Boxer discussed differences in print versus online media, such as hyperlinks and multimedia. She also differentiated between bloggers and professional writers:

Bloggers are golden when they're at the bottom of the heap, kicking up. Give them a salary, a book contract, or a press credential, though, and it just isn't the same. (And this includes, for the most part, the blogs set up by magazines, companies, and newspapers.) Why? When you write for pay, you worry about lawsuits, sentence structure, and word choice. You worry about your boss, your publisher, your mother, and your superego looking over your shoulder. And that's no way to blog.
Suggestions that bloggers and journalists are at opposite ends of the media spectrum run throughout Boxer’s review:
Bloggers thrive on fragmented attention and dole it out too—one-liners, samples of songs, summary news, and summary judgments. Sometimes they don't even stop to punctuate…

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford who writes for newspapers and radio and sometimes contributes to the blog Language Log, admitted on NPR back in 2004, "I don't quite have the hang of the form." And, he added, many journalists who get called upon by their editors to keep blogs are similarly stumped: "They fashion engaging ledes, they develop their arguments methodically, they give context and background, and tack helpful IDs onto the names they introduce." Guess what? They read like journalists, not bloggers.
Citizen journalism, which the blogosphere has allowed to flourish, is defined as citizens “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information…to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.”

When done right, this sector of bloggers counters many of Boxer’s generalizations. But the ethics of paying for blog postings is a concern that’s being raised by many others.

To what extent does removing the independence factor affect the reliability of citizen journalists? What kind of blog postings merit payment? What percentage of revenue for ads run on blog hosts should go to the writers? Where’s the line between sponsored product reviews and influence peddling?

Chris Mooney, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests that a bloggers' union or guild might be the answer to some of these questions:
I imagine it something like this: the most successful writers take the initiative to organize, because they’re the ones who will actually be listened to by employers. Then, they’ll set up a structure that separates the workhorse bloggers (those who make large collective sites like Daily Kos and The Huffington Post possible) from the pure “hobbyists.” Whatever these distinctions may be, they should have nothing to do with whether or not the blogger in question has another salary from another job. (Not all writers in the guild work full-time on TV and screen writing, but all are equally protected.)

A bloggers guild could also, of course, work to protect bloggers’ intellectual property and help ensure they’re compensated for it. In 2001, the Supreme Court heard The New York Times Co. v. Tasini, in which six freelance writers took on publications that had run their work in print, paying them for the copyright, and then republished that work in online databases. In a 7-2 vote, the Court found in favor of the freelancers, ruling that writers should be compensated for work published online in addition to their print compensation. It takes only the tiniest of logical leaps to apply this ruling to the work of bloggers.

The paradigm shifts we’re in the midst of—in media usage and, then, in standards of intellectual property—demand that we rethink not just what writers contribute to the media marketplace, but also how they should be compensated for their contributions. Individual blogs, and Web sites hosting large numbers of bloggers, are profiting—not just culturally and intellectually, but economically—from bloggers work. Organizing, in that sense, seems not only inevitable, but necessary; “professional” bloggers need to be compensated for their work. It’s only fair.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Canada wrestles with speech laws

This past week, Canadian authorities announced an investigation into the blog postings of Solman Hossain, a University of Toronto student. Although he has not yet been charged with a crime, the government is monitoring and reviewing Hossain's activities online. The case promises to test Canada's controversial free-speech laws.

At issue are posts, such as those found on this comment thread, that Hossain made urging the killing of Canadian soldiers training for deployment in Afghanistan under NATO's banner. Hossain writes:

Canadian soldiers on Canadian soil who are training to go to Afghanistan or Iraq are legitimate targets to be killed. Now it is possible and legitimate ... believe me, if we could have enough of our soldiers killed, then we'd be forced to withdrawn (sic) from Afghanistan.
From the Associated Press report:
In a December post Hossain wrote that he hoped the Taliban would kill Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay during his December visit to Afghanistan. Hossain also writes many anti-Semitic blogs.WHEN DO I GET TO SHOOT A FEW JEWS DOWN FOR ATTEMPTING TO BLOW UP DOZENS OF MOSQUES IN AMERICA RIGHT AFTER 9-11?
Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication" to "everyone" in Canada. However, the Criminal Code of Canada (section 319) criminalizes anyone who issues "statements in any public place, [and] incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace."

Hossain's posts appear to fit that bill. But Canada is a multicultural, multilingual society struggling to define the limits of appropriate speech. (You can read some of the vexing details of the recent Canadian trend toward political correctness on the issue of speech here and here.) Investigators are therefore proceeding cautiously.

The Hossain case is merely the latest contentious debate between Canadian muslims and a Canadian institution to play out in public. Four muslim law students filed complaints with several Canadian governmental bodies in late 2007, alleging that their human rights had been violated by a series of articles in Maclean's magazine. One of these articles, "The future belongs to Islam" by author and columnist Mark Steyn, highlights demographic trends in Europe that seem to indicate a greater political role for Islam in the near future.
In a few years, as millions of Muslim teenagers are entering their voting booths, some European countries will not be living formally under sharia, but -- as much as parts of Nigeria, they will have reached an accommodation with their radicalized Islamic compatriots, who like many intolerant types are expert at exploiting the "tolerance" of pluralist societies....Wherever one's sympathies lie on Islam's multiple battle fronts the fact is the jihad has held out a long time against very tough enemies. If you're not shy about taking on the Israelis and Russians, why wouldn't you fancy your chances against the Belgians and Spaniards?
In the filing, the students charge that Maclean's "targets the Muslim community, promotes stereotypes, misrepresents fringe elements as the mainstream Muslim community, and distorts facts to present a false image of Muslims." You can read Steyn's reply to the charges here.

Canada's hate speech law seem in for a real test. In a story on the Maclean's flap, the Canadian Broadcasting Company quotes Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association: "Even truthful articles describing some of the awful situations in this world could run afoul of this law, it is so broad and such a potential threat to freedom of speech." That organization's motto is "The Freedom of no one in safe unless the freedom of everyone is safe."

Easier said than done.