Archive for December, 2008

Andy Burnham – in ur internetz, classifyin ur sitez

28 December 2008

In the quietness of the holiday season, the Secretary of State for Culture, Andy Burnham has come forth with plans to age-certify the web like is currently done with films and DVDs. Coming in wake of the IWF’s horribly misguided attempt to block Wikipedia, this is another hamfisted approach to regulating the Internet as if it were old media that solves very little.

So what will it look like? It certainly won’t look like a BBFC for the web: First there’s questions of scale: the total number of sites (not counting subdomains) alone is around 156 million, while the Google index is in the billions of individual pages and there may be up to a trillion unique URLs on the web. Compared to the 639 films and 11,439 videos and DVDs that the BBFC classified in 2008, that’s more than just a few orders of magnitude. No human-oriented solution would be able to get the job done – it’ll face a hard enough job coping with the 120,000 blogs created every day. So any such system will be automated.

Secondly of course, there’s the international dimension. How is a site in Russia or Tuvalu going to be compelled to undergo certification by a UK body? Answer: none at all. So the idea of a website being clearly labelled “PG” or “18″ like a DVD is can go right out of the window – expect it all to be done on the ISP level as it comes into the UK, filtered as you access the site.

Oddly enough, automated filtering like this has existed for years, in corporate firewalls and software specifically targeted at parents such as CyberPatrol and NetNanny. You pay for a licence and it monitors what comes in and out, a bit like a virus scanner, for specific keywords or pictures that might look like nudity. These are hideously imperfect and have their faults by being too over-zealous – how do you prevent filtering out of information about sex education, or other health issues such as breast cancer, for example? But an imperfect solution is better than none for some parents, so why not fork out on the software if you’re worried about your kids, and leave the rest of us be?

Censorship of legal but possibly offensive material in this way is a private, not a public, good – most of us are adults and want our access unfettered. But rather than just tell parents to buy a copy of censorware and install, Burnham wants ISPs to spend millions at the network level to implement it. This is a fairly idiotic waste of money, but then the more you look at what Burnham says, it’s clear he hasn’t got a full grasp of facts on the issue:

Mr Burnham said: ?If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn?t reach.”

This is utter bollocks. If you’re talking about the ARPANET, the Internet’s predecessor, it was created by the United States Department of Defense. Burnham is probably thinking of John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, with its famous quote:

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

But this was written in 1996, long after the Internet had taken hold; Barlow was not a creator of the Internet, far from it, instead while the TCP/IP protocol was being proposed and the early Internet assembled, he was writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead. Back to Burnham:

I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It?s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

Libel online is an emerging issue? The first Internet libel case, Godfrey v. Demon Internet was over eleven years ago (and a dangerous precedent it set too). It has since been clear with cases such as the Alisher Usmanov blog silencing that like all libel cases, the plaintiff has an unfair advantage. Far from being lawless, it’s all too easy for the rich and powerful to silence anything online that is in the UK’s jurisdiction.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

Categorical as he likes to be, Burnham burbles over what exact content should not be available, or to whom – is he still talking about child protection here or is he going further? Far from being clear about it he’s muddying the water, starting off by talking about child protection but now touching on the wider issues of freedom of speech and what content can be seen by anyone.

?It worries me – like anybody with children,? he says. ?Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do.”

Well then don’t do it. Supervise your own bloody kids. Or cough up for some supervisory software. Or learn about what’s out there and talk to them about it first.

?I think there is definitely a case for clearer standards online,? he said. ?More ability for parents to understand if their child is on a site, what standards it is operating to. What are the protections that are in place??

Actually most sites children use online (such as Bebo, Habbo or MySpace) have quite clear and helpful parental advice sections which if he took the time to read, could be quite edifying.

“This isn?t about turning the clock back. The internet has been empowering and democratising in many ways but we haven?t yet got the stakes in the ground to help people navigate their way safely around?what can be a very, very complex and quite dangerous world.?

You could start with yourself, minister. This bit tickles me the most:

He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama?s incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites.

Given how web-savvy the Obama administration is, I expect their response to be mostly along the lines of “WTF?”.

So, in conclusion, the minister for fun doesn’t really have much of a clue – all he knows is there is a problem of some sort and he must be seen to be doing something about it. And the truth is there are already plenty of cheap software solutions, which flawed as they may be, offer a quick fix to the problem. But rather than tell people to fork out themselves, it will eventually cost all Internet users both money and convenience.

A better solution is to not let kids go online alone without educating yourself about what sites are good and what child protection policies they have, talking to your kids about it and showing them how to use the web safely. But in this government’s bizarre world, telling parents how to bring up their kids would be seen as nannying and intrusive, while quietly classifying & censoring everything they download is nothing more than a matter of course.

Extra: John has some extra good points over at Sore Eyes while Tom Watson MP is clever enough to open up discussion to everyone on his blog, with a promise he’ll feed them back to Burnham. Now there’s Government 2.0 for you.

And a bit more: Alex has an excellent rant – although I don’t quite agree with him it’s purely a class-based thing, the English-language bit is an excellent point I hadn’t picked up on. Terence meanwhile argues it’s merely the fear of the new and unknown. Finally – Richard Clayton has a rather excellent summary of the problems with age ratings and content filtering.


Little bit of Boxing Day geekery

26 December 2008

Here’s a little bit of Christmas fun for you – using Wordle to make tag clouds of major Chrismas speeched. Compare & contrast, the Queen’s Christmas Message to the Channel 4 Alternative Christmas Message by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ahmadinejad’s is not only full of religious rhetoric (Christ, Jesus, prophets, almighty) but also lots of stirring politicalisation (Humanity, nations, justice, demands). The Queen’s on the other hand is lot quieter -words such as service, family, life, as well as a curious verbal tic in overusing the word “many”. It’s also worth comparing both in comparison with Barack Obama’s address, which is overwhelmingly optimistic and positive (although not much use of the word “hope”) – it’s as if there was nothing wrong with the world right now:

Anyway, there’s not much insight one can really draw from the above – my original intention was to instead look at the Queen’s own messages to the nation(s) over the years to see if there were changes in her outlook. As with all such looks – this is just a bit of fun as we’re just picking a few samples – but it’s still interesting to see the clouds from over the years – every ten from the past half-decade:

1958 was very much about family and domesticity – perhaps not surprising as Her Maj herself was mother of two young children at this point in time.

1968 was much more a message of peace and reconciliation, after a turbulent year of social unrest and change.

1978 was a weird speech, as it contained many excerpts from the Queen’s father and grandfather. Excluding those, it looked very much to the future, no doubt influenced by the birth of her first grandchild the previous year.

1988 on the other hand turned about 180 degrees, looking historically and talking about the many anniversaries and commemorations (including the 500th of the Spanish Armada and 300th of the Glorious Revolution).

Finally, 1998, and again the Queen is talking about family and what different generations can learn from each other. Interestingly, this is the one that least mentions Christmas.

And back to 2008 again. Still a lot of family stuff but more touching on religious themes than in previous decades.

So what is there to learn from the above? Firstly, although the Queen is sensitive to world events (as characterise in 1968 and 1988), she seems to be quite influenced by her family and her immediate surrounds more than she may think. And finally, her outlook on the world seems to have shrunk over the years to being much more closer to home.


You will give us your time and money because you?re a cunt

18 December 2008

At the excellent spoof Ideas Brothers agency blog, comes the the secret brief behind the Wispa ad campaign (via Tom). I’ve never liked the Wispa campaign – it seems a little too well-staged to be entirely grassroots to me (or is that going down the New Coke conspiracy theory route?). Then again I don’t like Wispa either – nearly all of Cadbury’s chocolate is basically horrible – it tastes like cocoa-flavoured margarine to me, rather than anything like proper chocolate. Anyway, bolstered by the “success” of the “bring back Wispa” campaign, the creatives have gone one better and asked the public to just give them stuff to make ads with. Ideas Brothers put this and the target demographic firmly back in their place:

What do we aim to do with this campaign?
Ejaculate our brand into the open mouths of the flashmobbing post-adolescent cunts who think there is something fun about their own nostalgia for a chocolate bar.

It goes on…

What?s the selling idea?
You will give us your time and money because you?re a cunt.
We want to tell these credulous fuckwits to donate everything we need to make a major TV commercial, saving us half a million pounds in production costs.

(I wonder if the target demographic will be able to take a joke or not?)

Within the savage humour, there is still a very good point, scratching at the surface of an apparent contradiction: The internet allows us to live in the future, yet so many people use it to live in the past. Whether it’s the proliferation of the Hoff or Mr T on YouTube virals, or the lovingly-restored DVD boxsets of Mysterious Cities of Gold for sale, or authentic Rainbow-branded Zippy sex toys in online stores*, the eighties are big business, and the Internet helps it thrive.

* I may have made this last one up, by the way.

Is it just that technology making us dumb and infantile? That’s far too determinist an argument for my liking, and in any case there’s plenty of evidence that its enmeshing with popular culture is making us smarter in some ways, although they may be different from what we traditionally measure, this is no different from the effects other revolutions in technology & media have produced.

Is it just the inevitable culmination of postmodernity – resorting to everlasting pastiche as we’ve run out of ideas? The stagnating movie industry would suggest so, with its endless remakes and reboots, but online you can still get new ideas and amazingly fresh stuff. On B3ta, the nostalgia and endless creativity even manage to coexist in a sort of weird harmony – this week’s newsletter for example combines the bizarreness of urban knitting graffiti with heartfelt tributes to Oliver Postgate.

Here’s my stab at an explanation, as an eighties kid (born 1981 so I just about make the grade), with a more people-focused look than one of determinism. Thanks to Maggie, the eighties were a time of radical redrawing of British society; old class solidarities and identities thrown out and the UK’s nascent consumer culture replaced it. People growing up in the 1980s no longer had the identities their parents had, so in retrospect the only thing they can cling to is the media they consumed – all those episodes of Knightrider and TMHT serve as a common beacon.

At the same time, suddenly children of the eighties are getting “old”. Most are either in or approaching their thirties, and are being left behind by an ever-younger crowd elsewhere, culturally. Look at the music scene – it’s now filled with much younger acts – and increasingly they’re drawing on influences from the later 80s and early 1990s such as rave, acid house and Britpop. Eighties kids were among the first to go online, but the generation that followed them, the “digital natives” that had MySpace accounts before they first had sex, are now the ones making waves. Clinging onto what common culture they have is just a stand the children of the eighties feel they must make, to keep a space that was originally theirs.

As I say, just a coffee-fuelled stab at not so much a theory and more a hypothesis. I might be wrong. But it’s less misanthropic (if also less funny) than saying it’s just because we’re all a bunch of cunts.


20 signs you don’t want that social media project

15 December 2008

As some of you know, I now work in social media PR advising clients on how to best practice relations with bloggers and other aspects of social media. Most of my clients are fab and get it. Some clients (or potential clients) are less so. Inspired by Jeffrey Zeldman’s 20 signs you don?t want that web design project, here’s 20 signs you don’t want that social media project. Some of these are from personal experience, others from war stories heard from others in the trade, and one or two I’ve just made up for comedic effect (but are utterly plausible):

  1. Client calls it an “internet blog”.
  2. Client has a “hilarious” viral they want you to “seed”, which turns out to be their latest TV ad on YouTube.
  3. Bonus points if the above is a ripoff of a famous existing meme.
  4. Client demands that the viral use Mr T, David Hasselhoff, or both.
  5. Client wants something edgy “like that suicide bomber viral” – but first subject to clearance by their legal department.
  6. “I don’t see why we need to pay you so much when we could just email all these bloggers a press release.”
  7. “This Tom Coates guy, can we get him on board? I heard he’s really popular.”
  8. Client admits to anonymously posting links to their site on a range of forums.
  9. Client insists that you anonymously post links to their site on a range of forums.
  10. Client panics over a random blogger’s negative post about them and orders you to get it taken down. Won’t take “sorry, it’s impossible” for an answer.
  11. Client says their new site is “really Web 2.0″ but it’s made entirely in Flash with no permalinks.
  12. Client enthuses about their new blog presence. Will there be comments? No.
  13. Client asks you to invite bloggers to an event, but to keep it quiet as “we don’t want any nutters turning up”.
  14. “I want this top of the charts on Digg”. Client makes fashion accessories for teenage girls.
  15. Client demands you delete all the negative criticism from the Wikipedia article about them.
  16. Every Tweet you post to client’s official Twitter stream has to be OK’ed by the brand manager first.
  17. Client says they’re sure the photoblog you’ve built for them is nice, but their corporate firewall has blocked Flickr.com and they can’t see it.
  18. Client refuses to budget for site moderation on their new UGC site, then is angrily surprised once B3ta discover it and submit lots of pictures of crudely drawn cocks.
  19. Client has spent a six-figure sum on a presence in Second Life.
  20. “We want our site to be as popular as, you know, Facebook.”

Any more horror stories (with names removed to protect the guilty, natch) are welcome in the comments…

Update: Thanks for all your suggestions! Of course, agencies are not totally innocent and can be as bad or even worse than clients in some ways. Tom has put together 21 signs I don?t want your online marketing pitch.


Housekeeping: RSS feeds

10 December 2008

I’ve been off sick with something halfway between man flu and full-on killer flu, and while I did so I idly set about upgrading little bits of the blog backend here and there, including moving my RSS feeds over to Feedburner. There are now four different feeds for the site; the default is blog posts only, in full text. You can also subscribe to an uberfeed that includes my delicious and Flickr accounts for people who’d rather not subscribe to all three separately. For for those of you who like RSS posts as summaries (why?) then there’s also a summary feed. And finally there’s also a comments feed with which you can keep track of comments & banter here.

The transition to Feedburner is automatically handled thanks to plugins so there’s no need to change your feed reader settings if you’re an existing subscriber. Some of you who subscribe to my RSS feed may have got the uberfeed by mistake for a short while last night – apologies, it’s been set back to the default now.

Right that’s it, housekeeping message over.


There is no HTTP code for censorship

9 December 2008

The biggest story in UK Internet circles the past couple of days has been the censorship of Wikipedia by the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). For those of you not entirely sure what it’s all about – after a tipoff the IWF blacklisted the Wikipedia article (NSFW) on the Scorpions’ 1976 album “Virgin Killer”, thanking the IWF for bringing it to his attention). The album in question contains the picture of a naked prepubescent girl (with a fake lens crack obscuring her genitalia), and was not only freely available all over the Internet (including Amazon) but has never been classified as child pornography nor has anyone been prosecuted for it.

The IWF’s blacklist is used by many major ISPs without question, and so they added wikipedia.org to a list of sites routed through their transparent proxy servers, normally use to deal with traffic aimed child pornography sites in Russia and other poorly-regulated areas of the world. The transparent proxy works in a roundabout way. With my provider, O2, rather than blocking off the entire site, it scanned all requests to wikipedia.org; any that weren’t to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgin_Killer it OK’ed, but any for the offending page, it would produce a fake 404 message.

This was ridiculously dumb, as it did not block the image directly, but only the container webpage – as the filter was over-precise, in practice the image was still accessible through a variety of other methods, though you had to hack. Not only was it dumb but also oppressive – by blocking the text and discussion around the image rather than the image itself, they censored all discussion of its legality, the controversy around it or accounts of the band’s reaction to it and why it was eventually pulled and replaced. Simply, this is censorship of the most despotically stupid kind.

The transparent proxy also had an unfortunate technical consquence – it limited 95% of UK access to wikipedia.org to just a few IPs. With anonymous edits this meant it was impossible to tell who was a vandal and who was not, meaning well-meaning anonymous editors were summarily blocked, and prevented from creating accounts that could allow them to edit via a login. A terrible impact on the many contributions UK-based contributors make to Wikipedia (disclosure: I am a Wikipedia administrator, but am a volunteer only and hold no post with the Wikimedia Foundation) and something that usually affects countries with strict Internet controls such as Singapore or Qatar.

Thankfully, after a considerable backlash, this evening the block was lifted, and from about 1930 this evening I’ve been able to access the page (as can much of the UK by now, no doubt). In the meantime, no doubt, thousands of people wondering what the fuss is about have looked at and downloaded the “Virgin Killer” artwork, thereby ruining the IWF’s original intention.

The IWF is a curious beast. It’s nominally an independent charity, but in practice acts with the blessing of the Home Office as an unaccountable pseudo-government censor for the Internet, against “potentially illegal online content”. This ranges from child pornography to incitement to racial hatred, though they generally concentrate on the former. Given its enormous impact, the office is surprisingly tiny. From The Guardian:

Normally the IWF, which is paid for by the EU and through a levy on the internet industry, works quietly away in its Cambridge offices. A team of four police-trained “analysts” plough through 35,000 URLs sent to them each year that are under suspicion of being obscene.

That works out to an average of 700 per week, or 140 per working day, or 35 per working day per analyst – giving each an average workload for a seven-hour day of 5 URLs per hour. Typically about one-third of the URLs are deemed illegal.

So that’s four people (whose qualifications are not fully disclosed, nor how they were selected), are responsible for what 95% of the UK online population cannot see, after a typical review of just 12 minutes. Their decisions are implemented through BT’s Cleanfeed system, used with almost blind obedience by ISPs. The blacklist cannot be legitimately seen or reviewed by anyone outside of the IWF (although ironically, Cleanfeed’s architecture may open a backdoor to the blacklist) and site administrators are not notified, so unless you find your own site there by accident (as in the Wikipedia case) then you’ll never know. And the appeals process is conducted via the IWF, without recourse to a independent authority or means of oversight. The Wikipedia appeal, incidentally, was the first to be brought in the IWF’s history.

The IWF/Cleanfeed system of judge, jury & executioner is obviously broken, both technologically and socially. And in an ideal world a system such as the IWF would not exist, but it’s clear that it’s either that or full-on government regulation. Which to be honest, probably wouldn’t look that different from the current system anyway. So in the ugly world we live in, how can we make the current sociotechnical system of censorship less broken and as minimal as possible?

For starters, we have no way of knowing what we see is actually being censored. The blank “404 error page” for blocked sites breaks HTTP status code conventions – although there is no HTTP code for censorship. While some sites such as Google will be good enough to mention if their search results have been censored thanks to the IWF or copyright takedowns under the DMCA, in co-operation with the Chilling Effects project (e.g.). Why was there such reluctance for provision of a notice that says to the effect of “We have been advised by the IWF that this page contains illegal material and has been blocked.”? Was it because telling people what they’re reading is subject to censorship would have looked bad? Surely however that’s not as much a PR disaster as this?

As well as this, Cleanfeed broke Wikipedia by munging IPs and forcing people through a few proxies – not only damaging Wikipedia but any other site that uses source IP checks as part of its efforts to prevent session or identity hijacking. It also failed to filter alternative URLs, or to combat one of Wikipedia’s most pervasive legacies – the free licensing which means articles can also be reproduced on mirrors such as wapedia or Answers.com. In short, it was horribly ineffective while breaking a lot of conventions and testing the goodwill of one of the largest and most open-minded online projects around.

From the more social side, IWF’s approach is broken as well. The blacklist is secret – with at least one good reason – it prevents paedophiles from easily finding a whole new list of sites to bookmark. But this blacklist secrecy lends problems of accountability. It’s a tricky problem – I for one see little gain in opening the list to all, but there’s nothing stopping them publicly releasing one-way hashes of the URLs, say, so researchers and webmasters can check to see if any given site is on it.

The blacklist should definitely be open to an oversight committee, independent of the IWF – specialist police officers, civil servants, lawyers specialising in cases such as this, for their oversight, and these same people should handle appeals to be taken off the list as well, rather than the IWF. An independent board of technologists meanwhile should be tasked with overseeing implementation, testing its robustness independently, and to make sure that blocking and site redirection are properly dealt with according to established RFCs, and not by fake 404 messages.

As for the people who make the decisions, four people in an office with some police training doesn’t sound enough given the impact of the censorship they are inflicting. A review of how many staff there are and what level of training they get, and whether they need to be supplemented by, say, senior police officers. A clearer mandate on the material they should be looking for and blocking is required – the “potentially illegal” is too fuzzy and the censorship of text surrounding images utterly misguided.

This fuzzy remit should be especially borne in mind given their other work on “incitement to racial hatred”, and from January 2009, what has been termed “extreme” pornography. If the IWF are going to be as clueless about content on Wikipedia then I have no confidence in their ability to deal with these new (and untested) laws when they come into place.

Finally a note: the IWF are not evil. Child pornography isn’t just illegal but morally wrong, and their intentions are noble, even if we know what kind of road those intentions can pave. Preventing the spread of child pornography online, particularly when the perpetrators and distributors are beyond usual remits, is not an easy nor a thankful task. But letting them act unilaterally can lead to damaging consequences, as we’ve just seen. Good intentions must be backed up with independent cynical controls, or they are no use at all.

Further reading (updated 10/12): The Open Rights Group has a good post summarising with some questions of their own and there’s a couple of good posts over at Septicisle – which also points out the IWF is the one that has pushed for the “Girls Aloud” case to be prosecuted, the first obscenity case covering fictional text in over two decades, which opens another can of worms.


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