Elsewhere


Ian Crouch, The Inconvenient Image Of Dzohokhar Tsarnaev
The vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them.

Ian Crouch, The Inconvenient Image Of Dzohokhar Tsarnaev

The vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them.

The debate about tools like Twitter Trends is, I believe, a debate we will be having more and more often. As more and more of our online public discourse takes place on a select set of private content platforms and communication networks, and these providers turn to complex algorithms to manage, curate, and organize these massive collections, there is an important tension emerging between what we expect these algorithms to be, and what they in fact are. Not only must we recognize that these algorithms are not neutral, and that they encode political choices, and that they frame information in a particular way. We must also understand what it means that we are coming to rely on these algorithms, that we want them to be neutral, we want them to be reliable, we want them to be the effective ways in which we come to know what is most important.

Twitter Trends is only the most visible of these tools. The search engine itself, whether Google or the search bar on your favorite content site (often the same engine, under the hood), is an algorithm that promises to provide a logical set of results in response to a query, but is in fact the result of an algorithm designed to take a range of criteria into account so as to serve up results that satisfy, not just the user, but the aims of the provider, their vision of relevance or newsworthiness or public import, and the particular demands of their business model. As James Grimmelmann observed, “Search engines pride themselves on being automated, except when they aren’t.” When Amazon, or YouTube, or Facebook, offer to algorithmically and in real time report on what is “most popular” or “liked” or “most viewed” or “best selling” or “most commented” or “highest rated,” it is curating a list whose legitimacy is based on the presumption that it has not been curated. And we want them to feel that way, even to the point that we are unwilling to ask about the choices and implications of the algorithms we use every day.

Peel back the algorithms, and this becomes quite apparent. Yes, a casual visit to Twitter’s home page may present Trends as an unproblematic list of terms, that might appear a simple calculation. But a cursory look at Twitter’s explanation of how Trends works – in its policies and help pages, in its company blog, in tweets, in response to press queries, even in the comment threads of the censorship discussions - Twitter lays bare the variety of weighted factors Trends takes into account, and cops to the occasional and unfortunate consequences of these algorithms.

- Tarleton Gillespie, Can an algorithm be wrong? Twitter Trends, the specter of censorship, and our faith in the algorithms around us

Gillespie pulls back the curtain and shows the little man working the levers and knobs that control the public face of the great impartial oracle that we seem to want the web to be. However, the ‘reality’ that Twitter’s trending topics or Tumblr’s Explore shows is the result of conscious algorithmic and curatorial decisions that shape the results. And that shaping is not just one of emphasis, but of exclusion and censorship.

We are confronting a serious issue of public discourse, one that has been with us for hundreds of years, since Gutenberg: those that control the presses, control public discourse.

Increasingly, as we move out of the industrial, modern era, that control is shifting from corporate media companies — TV, magazine, and newspaper companies — into a web-based, post-modern, post industrial time. The rise of search and social tools has raised up companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, and our notions of relevance — and our beliefs and values — are directly influenced by the mazes that these companies have built.

Our social discourse has migrated online: first, in the early ’00s, to a constellation of blogs, but now we have migrated into social territorial explicitly owned and managed by web companies.

This is a direct analogue of the growing ownership of US public space by retailers, landlords, and developers. We live in a world of malls, private parks (like Zucotti Park, strangely enough), and other semi-public, privately controlled environments. These are not places solely under the jurisdiction of our civil laws: they are subject to arbitrary controls by their owners. (Paradoxically, it is the fact that Zuccotti Park is not a New York City park that allows protestors to sleep their over night.)

Can we rely on the corporation interests — or whims — of entrepreneurs to control public discourse?

Or more centrally: Is there actually an alternative? If I am interested in seeing what is most relevant to me when I turn on my device, some software has to run, some agency is needed to filter through petabytes of blurbage to pick out the snippets I can read over breakfast. If not this system of Twitter, Flipboard, News.me, and Summify, then what? Are all curation and algorithmic filtering inherently censorship?

I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, any system to filter — either by social curation or algorithmic analysis — will impose some worldview to determine what factors should go into excluding some stories and surfacing others. But, no, that worldview should not be intentionally ideological, imposing an extremist viewpoint. Or perhaps, in the perfect world, we could imagine that the worldview would be something like our own, and potentially even accessible to users.

When a long list of complex factors are smooshed together, and these companies have to decide how things will be filtered and float, the last thing any user wants is a system skewed to sell more soap. The interests of the individual and the public should predominate.

Just as the government has stepped in to stop unscrupulous advertising in the industrial era (like claims that cigarettes aren’t dangerous) we will likely have to regulate the degree to which web media services factor in commercial interests to their inner machinery.

Just because a restaurant is private property does not mean the laws of the land don’t apply. This is why the challenge against Jim Crow laws started with lunch counters: to challenge the notion that owners could pick their clientele, and make their own laws.

We are likely to see a new sort of rights movement: not a civil rights movement, but a social rights movement.

Davos Dispatches: Brin defends Google’s China move

Sergey Brin equates Google’s acquiescence to China’s request for censorship about democracy and freedom to blocking Nazi content in Germany and child pornography in the US. Please.

[Davos Dispatches: Brin defends Google’s China move - Jan. 25, 2006]

Brin: […] We ultimately made a difficult decision, but we felt that by participating there, and making our services more available, even if not to the 100 percent that we ideally would like, that it will be better for Chinese Web users, because ultimately they would get more information, though not quite all of it.

[…]

And we also by the way have to do similar things in the U.S. and Germany. We also have to block certain material based on law. The U.S., child pornography, for example, and also DMCA

Fortune: You actually actively block child pornography?

Brin: No, but if we got a specific government request. If a third party makes a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) claim that another party is violating copyright, and that party is not able to counter, then we are obligated to block that.

In France and Germany there are Nazi material laws. One thing we do, and which we are implementing in China as well, is that if there’s any kind of material blocked by local regulations we put a message to that effect at the bottom of the search engine. “Local regulations prevent us from showing all the results.” And we’re doing that in China also, and that makes us transparent.

Oh. By saying that you are censoring something, that makes it alright?

[Update: Noticed that Businessweek is running a poll about Google’s actions: it’s very close, pro v con.

Dont bother searching for Tianenmen Square

As I drove across San Francisco Bay this morning, I heard via NPR the news about Google joining the ranks of MSN and Yahoo, caving to pressure from the fascist Chinese government to support censorship:

[from Version of Google in China Won’t Offer E-Mail or Blogs - New York Times by David Barboza]

In an effort to cope with China’s increasingly pervasive Internet controls, Google said Tuesday that it would introduce a search engine here this week that excludes e-mail messaging and the ability to create blogs. 

Google officials said the new search engine, Google.cn, was created partly as a way to avoid potential legal conflicts with the Chinese government, which has become much more sophisticated at policing and monitoring material appearing on the Internet.

Web sites have exploded in popularity in a country eager for freer flow of information. But Web portals and search engines trying to win Chinese users face a significant balancing act: they do not want to flout government rules and guidelines that restrict the spread of sensitive content, but they want to attract users with interesting content.

One result has been that search engines and Web portals have censored their sites and cooperated with Chinese authorities. Indeed, the move to create a new site comes after Google itself, as well as Yahoo and Microsoft, have come under scrutiny over the last few years for cooperating with the Chinese government to censor or block online content.

We should ostracize from the world community those governments who don’t want to allow basic human rights for their citizens. But players like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are afraid of losing market share, so they go along with repression. This is a black day. Google is not on the side of the angels in this.

I expect that overly pragmatic fatalists will tell me that I am being too idealistic, that Google is merely bowing to the inevitable, that China is a sovereign country, blah blah, woof woof. But I just don’t care. It’s wrong, and going along with it for money is simply appeasing the Chinese. If we are willing to threaten sanctions against Iran — they are a sovereign country aren’t they? — why can’t we do the same with China? Low-cost underwear? Or are we just so jaded that we don’t care?

Tom Zeller on China Still Winning Against The Web

The hue and cry about Microsoft’s acquiesence to China’s censorship of blogs will not die down, and Tom Zeller’s piece in the Sunday NYTimes attempts to present a balanced view, but ultimately, that falls apart:

[from China, Still Winning Against the Web - New York Times by Tom Zeller]

The company said it was simply facing reality. “Microsoft does business in many countries around the world,” said Brooke Richardson, a group product manager for its MSN division, in an e-mailed statement. “While different countries have different standards, Microsoft and other multinational companies have to ensure that our products and services comply with local laws, norms and industry practices.”  Microsoft was only the latest technology company to be criticized for cooperating with the Chinese government. Yahoo, Cisco and Google have all been accused of helping to maintain what the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional investigatory body, has called “the most sophisticated Internet control system in the world.” 

The reality is that these companies are more interested in profits and future competitiveness than they are in human rights.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, we should use non-violent protest — such as withholding access to tools like MSN Spaces — so that China moves toward a better human rights stance. If the mega companies are not willing to use their leverage to do so, we should protest until they do. So I continue to call for a boycott of Microsoft until they stop doing the work of the censors.

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