Monday, January 7, 2013

Recent highlights from blogosphere

A few (absurd / unexpected / interesting ) highlights from the blogosphere:

French ISP Free Blocks All Web Advertising - Hard to imagine an ISP would do this, and apparently it didn't last long either: The blocking was announced on Jan 3, and abandoned on Jan 7.

Irish newspapers demand to be paid if you link to them - This sounds like a joke, but apparently isn't:
They said that they had the right to be paid to be linked to. They said they had the right to set the rates for those links, as they had set rates in the past for other forms of licensing of their intellectual property.

Could You Be Sued For That Negative Yelp Review? - A lady wrote "a scathing review of a contractor’s work on her home," but "she had no idea that it would result in a $750,000 defamation lawsuit." When is an opinion defamation? Sharing something verbally among friends could get you sued as well perhaps?

Social Media and the Devolution of Friendship: Full Essay
This last one is a bit too long to read in its entirety, but it has an interesting take on the proper etiquette for the intersection of pre-shared online updates and real life conversation:
Some felt it was rude and insensitive for friends to cut each other off; others felt it was rude and entitled for friends to expect each other to sit through the same story twice. The eventual compromise was to declare a sort of ‘best practice,’ which was that person A should signal being caught up with person B’s online feeds by chiming in with a detail from the story: “Oh yeah! But then you found your cat hiding in the wall, right?” Person B, on the other hand, should truncate the story accordingly: “Yeah! I have no idea how she got in there!” (excerpt is slightly modified from original)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Linking or referencing illegal

Seriously? A film referencing Faulkner with a brief quote and attribution is cause for legal action?

Similarly, Google is having legal issues for linking to newspapers.

Even SEO companies write cease and desist letters to remove incoming links, how crazy is that?

How can free speech be upheld if you cannot talk about anything?

In China citizens use nicknames to refer to blacklisted or monitored terms. We'll have to do the same. Could I get sued for badmouthing Mikki Maus, Helminway and Foukner?

(The views are my own, unrelated to my employer)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Firewall for books

It is neither the first nor last time that accidental censorship is enforced in a country committed to free speech. This time it happened in Sweden, where Tintin cartoons were banned in a children's library in the name of political correctness.

Tintin in Sweden

On September 25th,  Tintin cartoons were banned from a Swedish children's library because the cartoons were deemed too racist. After public outrage, this decision was quickly overturned. While free speech mostly* prevailed, the entire issue could have been overlooked and the ban remained in place.

I couldn't find any big announcement online declaring the Tintin books would officially be banned, and in light of other, admittedly more important events, this could have passed us by unnoticed.

Anything can be banned

Outrage will not always happen, hashtags will not always be trending. So it makes sense to agree on some ground rules for how information should be distributed to prevent censorship in the future.

I intended to create a witty list of books below, where I would make up reasons for why someone might want to ban them as I went along. I picked what I thought were uncontroversial children's books.

The banning reasons (in parentheses) were intended to be absurd, humorous and invented. However, this was not necessary - the reasons below are real complaints.

Here is a non-exahustive list of books for which banning has been requested:

It's not even a joke

There is a vast number of books that are banned, or attempted banned, in schools, libraries, states or countries - and it is surprising that this list of books goes far beyond the commonly banned books (The Satanic Verses, Catcher in the Rye, etc.).

Parents (and others) are complaining about The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, instead of a) taking advantage of popular culture as a motivational vehicle that encourages children to read, and b) seizing this opportunity to educate their children about complicated issues.

It appears that you can disapprove of a totalitarian book-banning regime, of the Stasi secret police or a fatwa and still go ahead and request that a book be removed from a library.

Food for thought: Should it ever be legal to outlaw ideas? Can banning books ever be considered legitimate?

* I write "mostly" because Tintin in Congo is not, and has never been, permitted in this library according to this blog post by the Tiotretton staff.  This particular omission is beyond the scope of this post, but it's worth mentioning that Tintin in Congo has been examined by a Belgian court and found not to breach racism laws.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Corporate protection of human rights

Think about your audience when you write. When you speak. When you tweet, post, comment. Think, even though it's protected as free speech. Even t-shirts are under the auspices of free speech.

"Likes" and "+1s" aren't.

The self-censorship you already do (considering what you post, to whom, etc.) isn't enough.

A "+1" or "Like" that you click on can get you fired. This first happened back in May 2012, when NYT covered it. Basically, six public employees in a Sheriff's office had clicked "Like" on the Facebook page of the Sheriff's political opponent. After they got fired they sought to settle the matter in court, but the judge that only "actual statements" are protected, not clicking on "Like".

Had a "Like" been protected as free speech, nothing would have happened. Or if these six individuals had expressly written that they liked the opponent, there wouldn't be legal consequences. Instead, clicking "Like" in this case lies in a kafkaesque grey area of unprotected expressive speech.

Thankfully, Facebook stepped in last week, supporting the court appeals to protect the defendants. The appeal will be based on:
[...] the original judge’s conclusion that the “Like” was insignificant speech that did not involve “actual statements.” Facebook is countering this by pointing out that the “Like” appeared on Carter’s profile page and in the news feed of Carter’s friends. Source: GigaOM
The entire case seems absurd and preposterous, but there you have it. We have reason to be confident about the original judgement being overturned, so we'll soon be able to "+1" pages of our competitors and "Like" pages of individuals, having nothing to fear but social disdain.

Nevertheless, I'm sad to see it requires corporate intervention to support individuals' right to free speech.

Shouldn't it be the courts defending individuals from corporations, rather than corporations defending individuals from public officers?

Finally, some legislative humour:

Facebook's 26-page brief for this appeal (makes you wonder how you say "long" in legalese) concludes that it is compliant with the formatting requirements (my emphasis):
In accordance with Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure 29(c)(7) and32(a)(7)(c), the undersigned certifies that this brief complies with the applicable type-volume limitations. Exclusive of the portions exempted by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(7)(B)(iii), this brief contains 4,405 words. This certificate was prepared in reliance on the word-count function of the word- processing system (Microsoft Word 2007) used to prepare the text of this brief.
The undersigned further certifies that this brief complies with the typeface and type-style requirements of Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 30(a)(5) and(a)(6) because it has been prepared in a proportionally spaced typeface using Microsoft Word 2007 in 14-point Times Roman font.
  I suppose this is what you get when your legal army is paid by the hour?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Everybody gets a cause

Transaction costs, an economist term for the time spent in meetings, administration, etc. is reduced with technology. Hierarchies are made smaller, bureaucracies smoother, affecting all aspects of society. In a column in The Guardian Cory Doctorow relates changes in transaction costs to activism:
The past 20 years has seen radical shifts to the job of activists, which formerly meant spending most of one's time addressing and stuffing envelopes (or distributing handbills, or putting up posters), and using a few stolen moments around the edges to figure out what the posters, letters and handbills should say.
The column is interesting throughout, but what caught my eye is that activism is so much easier now, that the "boring" part has been eliminated. Without the envelope-stuffing, only the cause remains...

As marvellous as this is, it raises another concern: the barrier to entry in activism is gone. Anyone can setup a cause, create a website, an FB or G+ page or start tweeting about it. The experience required to run an efficient fund-raising campaign is equivalent to sending out 4th grade birthday party invitations.

Our news feeds, social feeds and inboxes have seen a flurry of campaigns and causes, and it's only going to increase. Campaigns are not only about important issues and nice-to-haves, but also about individuals who can't pay for an organ transplant, for a school that needs newer books, for the scout camp that needs a new canoe.

How do we discern between worthwhile causes and spam?

How do we make our way through the avalanche of invitations, agitations and calls to action?

If poster-printing and envelope-stuffing is no longer a requirement at the local activist meeting, the only barrier to entry is critical social mass - the networked tipping point for activism engagement. Mind you, this depends on other people's ability to choose a worthy cause...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Internet declared a human right

It's pretty big news: U.N. Affirms Internet Freedom as a Basic Right.

There are mixed opinions about it online, which is important to keep in mind: In January, Vint Cerf explained why the internet should not be a human right.

While I consider free speech on the internet extremely important, I see it as something that needs to be fought for, even in democratic countries. Here's a crazy example of how a Facebook "Like" is not considered free speech: Facebook Like Can Get You Fired, Says Judge.

So in support of internet freedom, someone created an online petition, which spawned another, and then other, so there are now several different kinds, which is fairly confusing:

The Declaration of Internet Freedom ( is a very short declaration with only five points: Expression, Access, Openness, Innovation, Privacy. You can sign up as a company or as an individual.

In response to the above, Declaration of Internet Freedom ( was created. The site explains:
We’re not convinced Internet policymaking can be effectively guided by something as short as the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” issued by Free Press and other groups. But since they’ve used a term of such import to free people everywhere — "Internet Freedom" — with an ambiguity that could pave the way for more government intervention, we felt compelled to offer our own statement of principles. Our vision emphasizes what truly matters to Internet policymaking today: the process of technological evolution, not the end result.
Google's Take Action website also lets you sign something, but there is no clear declaration on the page. It seems like you only sign up for "freedom" and an "open internet". A bit too vague, actually.

The difference and conflict between the first two is mentioned here.

Looking forward to seeing if any positive change will come of this.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Free speech, not free algorithm

Without moving too far away from free spech and online copyright issues, make sure you read this article in Ars Technica about freedom of speech being limited when text is computer-generated:
Tim Wu, the Columbia law professor who coined the phrase "network neutrality," [is] arguing that the First Amendment doesn't protect the contents of the New York Times website. A significant amount of the content on the Times website—stock tickers, the "most e-mailed" list, various interactive features—were generated not by human beings, but by computer programs.
Is automatically generated content not protected by free speech? What if it is only partially automatic, with moderate levels of human editing?