March 28, 2015

For the Anti-Gay Indiana GOP, the Web Is a Harsh Mistress

It was with obvious glee two days ago that GOP Governor Mike Pence signed Indiana's new "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" -- in reality a law created to gladden the political voting hearts of closeted and outed racists, not to mention other right-wing lowlifes throughout the Hoosier State.

While written so broadly that it conveniently could be used to discriminate against any "minority" religious group, the true purpose of the legislation was never in question -- it was designed to provide a mechanism for treating LGBT persons as second-class citizens -- for example, to be denied entry to establishments at the whim of prejudiced prune heads.

Pence and his GOP minions apparently figured they had a real winner with the RFRA -- "Hell, our base racist voters will flock to us in droves," they must have thought.

But it's a funny thing about politicians these days. They usually like to make a lot of noise about being "Internet-savvy" -- but in reality their understanding of the Web and the two-edged sword of social media can be unimpressive in the extreme.

So seemingly just a few heartbeats after the RFRA was signed into law, we have the sickly amusing spectacle of its supporters expressing surprise that pretty much the entire world -- including major tech firms, sports leagues, and the vast power of social media -- has turned against them, with enormously expensive boycotts of Indiana rapidly being announced, and vastly more under consideration.

While the law's supporters hem and haw claiming that discrimination was not the purpose of the legislation, everyone knows that's a lie -- legalizing discrimination was precisely the reason for the law's enactment. Nor will Indiana politicians' protests that other states have seemingly similar laws on the books make a difference -- if anything those states may now come to regret the fuse that the Indiana GOP lit under this issue.

For as much as many politicians don't really understand the Internet at all, there's one thing they all certainly understand -- money. And the financial loss that can be foreseen from announced and future boycotts related to this issue could be staggering -- something to chill the hearts of politicians everywhere.

Particularly fascinating is the sense that Indiana's governor and cohorts in the abomination of RFRA appear to be genuinely surprised by the massive and rapid backlash.

Perhaps this is the result of spending so much time in racially and religiously intolerant "echo chambers" of Indiana state government.

But it's also likely to be an artifact of their inability to understand the power of the Web -- and of social media in particular -- to mobilize concerned persons around the country and the globe in ways that were unimaginable even a relatively few years ago.

Well, they're learning that lesson now.

Welcome to the 21st century, boys. We still may be waiting for those flying cars, but we've already got the Internet -- and the Net is far more powerful than a fleet of flying Ferraris.

You can take that to the bank -- whatever you have left after the boycotts, that is.


Posted by Lauren at 12:43 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 16, 2015

As We Age, Smartphones Don't Make Us Stupid -- They're Our Saviors

Throughout human history, pretty much every development or invention that increased our information storage and management capabilities has had its loud and voracious naysayers.

Around 370 BCE, both Socrates and Plato were already badmouthing the written word as inherently inferior to in-person verbal dialogue. The printing press, typewriter, telegraph, telephone, and Internet have all been targeted as the presumed bringers of universal intellectual decay.

So it comes as no surprise that when Web search engines appeared on the scene -- to organize Internet-based information and make it widely available -- much the same tired old attack arguments were trotted out by the usual suspects, in the form of multitudinous "Google Is making Us Stupid!" articles and similar varieties of vacuous commentaries.

The crux of most arguments against having quick access to information seem to largely parallel the attempts not that many years ago (and in some venues, still continuing) to routinely ban calculators from physics and other similar subject tests, on the grounds that not doing the math by hand was somehow -- perhaps in a moral judgment "You'll go to hell!" kind of sense -- horribly cheating.

But unless the test you're taking is specifically one for mathematical skills, the rote manual calculation process is practically worthless compared with developing the necessary skills to actually analyze a problem and determining appropriate methodologies for reaching correct answers. Even a specific answer itself may often be far less relevant in many contexts than development and analysis of appropriate problem solving processes.

One wonders how many potentially brilliant would-be physicists with wonderful analytic skills were sidelined into other professions simply due to not having a knack for manual math.

With the rise of the mobile Net comes the latest incarnation of this twisted saga, the "Are smartphones making us stupid?" meme. There seems to be a new version of this one somewhere pretty much every few days.

In a very real way the term "smartphone" in this context is being used by detractors largely as a proxy for saying "Portable Google" -- as a wireless retread of search engine criticisms.

However, in this case the critics are even farther off the mark than usual, because smartphones not only don't reduce our intelligence, they can be our saviors as we age.

Physiological studies show that our memory for much specific data usually begins to decline at the ripe old age of -- 20. Yeah, pretty depressing. But in contrast, our reasoning and analytic skills can in many cases continue developing throughout our lives without limit, as we integrate ever more experiences into the mix.

And here is where the smartphone (along with the vast information ecosystem that supports it) really becomes something of a technological miracle.

For there on your belt or in your purse is a little box that can act as an almost limitless adjunct to your own memory, to your own brain.

Type on it, talk to it. Ask it questions, note its reminders. Smartphones can provide us with very much the exact kind of information that our brains gradually become less adept at recalling past age 20 or so.

To argue that it's somehow wrong, somehow cheating or unethical or unnatural, to use these devices and their supporting infrastructures in this way, is itself as dumb and stupid as forcing a potentially brilliant future physicist to drop out of school because you wouldn't let them use a calculator.

Obviously, for smartphones to be most useful at all ages, issues of accessibility become paramount -- matters for ground-up consideration, not after-the-fact excuses. Input and output methodologies, font sizes and contrast, all become especially important, since our vision typically begins to decline at the same young age as our memory. These are all relatively straightforward user interface design issues though, given the will to deal with them appropriately.

It would probably be a pretty tough slog to get Plato comfortable with smartphones. On the other hand, he's quoted as saying: "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." And especially when it comes to smartphones and the immense value they can bring to us throughout our lives, only a fool would argue with Plato about that.


Posted by Lauren at 03:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 13, 2015

Google Search Results and The Truth

My inbox these days tends to be something of a barometer of Internet hopes and fears, as comments and queries flow in from around the world on a range of topics.

I keep my own informal tally of my inbox trends, and while the results are usually fairly predictable based on what's in the news at the moment, sometimes there are notable surprises.

So you might expect -- and be correct -- that lately there's been a flood of email about the FCC's Net Neutrality decision -- mostly from confused folks who have bought the false propaganda of a "Big Brother" takeover of the Internet. However, no matter how essentially ridiculous their concerns, my policy is that if they're polite to me I always try to respond and explain realities as I see them.

But while the net neutrality brouhaha was predictable, my latest inbox trend is much more bizarre -- people in a panic that Google search results might be -- wait for it ... -- too truthful!

In particular, an array of (apparently mostly but not exclusively right wing) commentators have gone ballistic at the rumored prospect that Google might begin prioritizing -- that is, ranking more highly -- search results that are objectively correct and truthful.

Facts being emphasized over falsehoods -- oh the horror of it all!

These nutty complaints can seemingly be traced back to a recent Google research paper that discussed the technical issues surrounding the estimation of "trust" in Web-based sources, and how that kind of data could be usefully employed. The paper did not announce -- and Google has not announced -- any plans to actually implement the techniques described in that paper. Google may not ever use them.

But I'd be very happy indeed if Google did start giving truth a specific ranking boost in that manner or through some other similar procedure.

There's a twisted notion among the Google haters in particular that search results should somehow be "neutral" -- advocates frequently attempt to make loony and completely false comparisons with net neutrality.

But "neutral" Google search results -- or from any competing search service -- would be effectively worthless for the vast majority of searches, effectively turning search into a telephone white pages directory of unprioritized gobbledygook. The point of search is to return the most useful, relevant results -- and that normally should give a very heavy emphasis to truthful ones.

There's a saying that everyone has a right to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And there are significant areas where opinion reigns and objective truth cannot be reasonably ascertained to a level that would be suitable for ranking boosts. Various religious philosophies are in an obvious area where truth-ranking would likely be impossible -- though that doesn't necessarily mean that widely accepted historical facts regarding the impact of religions wouldn't be subject to various degrees of validation. That said, I'd probably avoid the whole area of religion in the truth ranking context.

Let's take an example like where President Obama was born. If you throw that query into Google, you'll actually get a top "fact box" that correctly notes Honolulu. Indeed, Google already usefully provides various sorts of knowledge boxes that show immediate, direct answers to common questions.

But the top organic search result currently is a page of Obama birth conspiracy theories from Wikipedia, and more to the point the third result is a page claiming Obama admitted to being born in Kenya.

How does a total wacko result rank so highly? Most likely because the site in question has a lot of inbound links (presumably from other wacko sites), which gives that result significant rank. If that ranking included a truth factor as a signal, it would likely be pushed much further down in the results -- where it rightfully belongs.

Now, one might argue that this really isn't such a big deal. After all, anyone with half a brain knows that Obama was born in the USA, and that the moon landings weren't faked, and that integrated circuits aren't powered by fairies on teeny-tiny treadmills.

But there are other areas where high ranking of utterly false and misleading information can do serious harm.

Anti-vaccine nuts continue to claim a connection between autism and vaccinations, long after the study they usually cite was utterly discredited. Global warming deniers spout all manner of fabricated false evidence and imaginary statistics. The list of crackpot claims that can do real damage to real people seems almost endless.

And while I would definitely not advocate muzzling these views -- I'm a free speech guy, after all -- I do not see any reason why their harmful and often hateful fantasies should rank highly along with objectively correct facts.

You can see the same problem on cable news. There can be 10K experts who agree that a vaccine is safe, but CNN or FOX News will seek out a buffoon who doesn't believe this, and give them equal ranking in a "debate" on air.

One might as well debate whether the Earth is actually flat as in medieval imagery. Probably coming soon to a cable news channel near you!

Folks terrified of truth in search rankings argue that Google shouldn't be the arbiter of what's correct or false.

But the reality is that Google wouldn't be making those decisions. Google would merely be reflecting objective facts that are overwhelmingly accepted as truth, rather than giving nonsense similar rankings merely by virtue of that silliness being widely publicized -- publicity does not equal truth.

So as far as I'm concerned, I'd love to see a Google Truth Mode in search results as the default. Hell, provide an option users could trigger to turn off Truth Mode if they wanted -- that could be very amusing for comparison. If some people want to live in their own fantasy mode that would still be their choice.

But I for one would prefer those fantasies not to be diluting truth when I do a search.

And that's a fact.


Posted by Lauren at 11:09 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

Announcing "Troll Patrol" -- and Why Social Media Comments Are Crucial

We see them all the time now, proclamations related to articles or social media postings that say: "Don't read the comments!"

The fact that this has become a meme unto itself is both depressing and rather frightening, because comments on social media postings and Internet articles are not only crucial to the value of these materials, but also to free speech itself in a much broader context. And the very crux of "don't read the comments" really suggests that the trolls -- the idiots, the haters -- are winning, big time. I personally refuse to accept this without a fight. Communication and free speech is too important to be surrendered on any basis, particularly at the slimy hands of the trolls.

Posting and thread moderation is key to keeping social media and other commenting ecosystems viable. My view is that social media moderation at scale must depend first on automated filters and systems as the first pass -- ideally with sufficient controls and tools so that users can appropriately signal and train in the face of inevitable false positives and false negatives. This also suggests the need for ways to surface quarantined comments for moderator inspection and decision without exposing them to the entire readership in the process.

Beyond this, the tools available for moderators for their manual moderation tasks are crucial, with pre-moderation queues important as one available option, and ideally ways to "anoint" some commenters as pre-approved, ways to delegate moderation tasks in flexible ways, and so on.

I very recently created the Google+ community "Troll Patrol" for serious discussions of these and related issues, specifically to discuss topics surrounding social media abuse; comments; comment moderation techniques and tools; associated operational, policy and technical topics; free speech aspects, etc.

Everyone is welcome, unless you're a troll, of course.

My goal for Troll Patrol is to stay focused on practical processes and solutions that are workable at very large scales. I'd like to avoid diversions into the political motivations of particular comment abusers or discussion of politics in general, except to the extent that political realities might affect the practicality of any given approaches to solving the problems in focus.

It's a very big topic area and I'm under no illusions of easy fixes, but I hope we can together move the ball at least a bit forward in a positive way!

Hope to be seeing you there! Thanks all.


Posted by Lauren at 08:42 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 12, 2015

Google Blows Trust Again: Kills "Google Code" Service

UPDATE (March 14, 2015): Google now states that rather than deleting unmigrated projects after December 2016 as implied in their original posting, they will instead be preserving those projects in a repository on googlesource. Apparently this was the plan all along. Why didn't they explain this originally? I dunno, but perhaps it was to encourage users to migrate on their own. If they'd been straightforward about this in the first place, it would have saved me an inbox full of concerned queries and an entire blog posting. Still, all's well that ends well.

Google seems to be on a roll lately when it comes to pulling the rug out from under users. Recently there was their sudden announcement of banning explicit materials from Blogger (quickly and wisely reversed -- for which I've thanked them in the name of free speech and courtesy to users).

Now comes word of another change which -- while on a somewhat longer fuse -- may ultimately do far more damage.

You may not have heard of Google Code (GC), but over the years it has become a key repository for important open source and other software projects, documentation, and other materials.

While Google Code has clearly been eclipsed by sites such as GitHub in recent years, the fact remains that for a vast number of technical software searches the only existing references link to materials stored only on Google Code.

Google announced on their Open Source Blog today that they are not permitting new projects on GC as of ... today!

The site goes read-only this summer, and early in January goes to "tarball-only" (bulk download) read-only status until the end of 2016. Then ... it all vanishes. Poof!

The end of 2016 may seem like some time away, but in terms of the Internet and software code resources it's just a blink of the eye.

Google complains of high levels of abuse on Google Code. One might argue that lack of sufficient support resources provided to GC for years is at the root of that issue, but let that pass for now.

Google also asserts that since they are providing tools and assistance for moving projects from GC to GitHub, that this all shouldn't be a big problem at all.

Wrong. It is a big problem, and here's why.

First, much of the code on GC is from older projects -- still critical for reference purposes -- but there's nobody actively maintaining their GC project archives. Administrative email addresses have changed, the archives have long been stable, and so on.

There literally won't be anyone to migrate enormous numbers of those archives to other sites, or even receive notices regarding their upcoming demise.

Yet for vast numbers of GC projects there are also enormous numbers of links that point deeply into those GC repositories. The first clue users will have when they search for those un-migrated projects a couple of years from now -- perhaps in a critical situation -- will be "404 -- That's all we know!" -- thanks a bunch.

Vanishing code. Vanishing documentation. You get the picture. Just dandy.

Worst of all, there are obvious ways that Google could have avoided this disappearing act.

The simplest would be to take the site read-only with appropriate notification banners and explanations, and keep it available indefinitely as an important archive -- not just for less than two years. I'm sure Google could spare the disk space.

Or, as the site shutdown date approached, Google could themselves migrate the currently un-migrated projects to GitHub. Would GitHub object to this if consulted appropriately beforehand? I doubt it.

And for all migrations, Google could offer link forwarding so that the GC link references are not lost.

There are also other possible approaches, virtually all of them superior to the path that Google has chosen in this case.

Yes, there would be ongoing administrative efforts and costs necessary for all except the "After December 2016 you're just out of luck, kid!" approach.

But Google isn't some fly-by-night operation. They have the knowledge, skills, and resources to deal with this situation in a much more user-friendly, trust-positive manner, helping to maintain Internet resources, rather then deleting them for convenience's sake.

It's knowing that Google knows how to do these things right, that makes decisions like this one regarding Google Code so inexplicable and so very disappointing.

UPDATE (11:14 AM): Google tells me that they will put in place for some unspecified period of time a link redirection service for moved projects. That's very useful and appreciated. But of course that does nothing for projects that haven't been moved. Google should migrate the projects themselves that have not been migrated by the deadline.


UPDATE (March 14, 2015): Google now states that rather than deleting unmigrated projects after December 2016 as implied in their original posting, they will instead be preserving those projects in a repository on googlesource. Apparently this was the plan all along. Why didn't they explain this originally? I dunno, but perhaps it was to encourage users to migrate on their own. If they'd been straightforward about this in the first place, it would have saved me an inbox full of concerned queries and an entire blog posting. Still, all's well that ends well.

Posted by Lauren at 10:12 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

March 06, 2015

India Censors a Rape Documentary, and the Streisand Effect Goes Nuclear

We get a lot of laughs out of the so-called "Streisand Effect" -- the phenomenon of someone trying to cover up or otherwise limit public knowledge of some already public aspect of their life, and in the process drawing far more attention to the situation than would have been the case if they'd just kept quiet in the first place. When we're talking about a wealthy celebrity trying to suppress photos of their Malibu mansion -- that's what the Streisand Effect is named for, by the way -- at least a few chuckles seem entirely understandable.

But when governments unwittingly invoke the Streisand Effect via shortsighted, misguided, hamfisted attempts at censorship of important issues, it's difficult to find any humor on the stage.

So we now have the sorry spectacle of the government of India -- at least in theory the world's largest democracy -- petulantly and disastrously attempting to suppress the viewing of a BBC documentary exposing a nightmarish culture of rape within India itself.

That the situation has many complexities and subtleties is without question. A confluence of historical, cultural, religious, caste, and political forces are in play.

And while it's certainly true that problems with rape are not by any means restricted to India, the unique character of the problem there, including the bizarre twist of many government officials who apparently themselves have had accusations lodged against them involving abuse of women, creates a particularly convoluted tapestry.

It's into this sordid mix comes the new BBC documentary "India's Daughter" -- exploring in painfully but necessarily straightforward detail many key aspects and circumstances of this problem.

The Indian government had three choices in the face of this incredibly important film.

They could have ignored it. They could have embraced it as an element toward helping to solve their endemic problems with the abuse of women.

Then there's the choice they actually made -- the worst possible of them all.

The Indian government's choice was to attack the film, to attack the BBC, to attack the filmmaker -- then they acted as quickly as they could (but ineffectually, as we'll see) to try prevent their own citizens from seeing the documentary itself.

The actual visibility of the film in different parts of the world is tricky to catalog since it's a moving target, but one thing is pretty clear -- anyone who really wants to see it can find a way to do so.

The original broadcast version was on BBC-controlled outlets, and the BBC has followed its usual practice of asserting ownership rights to (try) remove unauthorized copies from the Net (e.g., from YouTube).

But the proliferation of copies -- both on YouTube and on other easily accessible Net venues -- has made that effort of limited success at best.

Of course since BBC does indeed control those rights, it's within their purview to exercise them.

The behavior of the government of India regarding this film falls into an entirely different category, however.

Variously asserting "risks to public order" and "damage to tourism" -- among other arguments -- the Indian government not only filed blocking demands with Google's YouTube -- with which Google has been complying as per local laws through geographical blocks --- but has also proclaimed the film a "defamation" of India. They've even proclaimed, seemingly taking a page from the EU's twisted sensibilities regarding "Right To Be Forgotten" censorship, that they'd like to find a way to ban the film globally.

Not a chance, India. Ain't gonna happen.

You know where this story is going. The censorship demands of India have vastly increased global awareness of "India's Daughter" and shot viewership globally (and in India) through the roof, for the multiplicity of copies and the relative ease of evading geo-blocks through a variety of technical means have made a laughingstock of the Indian government's reaction.

The real tragedy though isn't what this means for inept Indian government officials, but rather for the vast majority of people in India who are decent, hardworking, and even more horrified about the abuse of women in their country than are outside observers.

I've heard from a lot of them directly from India over the last couple of days.

Many heap criticism on their government, fearing that the government's behavior may be viewed in some quarters as an attempt to "cover up" or somehow justify abuse of women, and so reflect terribly on views of India globally.

Most note that they have been able to see the film despite the government's efforts to block it, and some are literally praying that the end result will be positive for India and particularly for women, despite their government's atrocious behavior.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, there are the vulgar trolls as well. I've been dealing with them on my Google+ threads on this topic -- I keep the "banhammer" on my belt right next to my phone, and the trapdoor lever is always close at hand -- and as usual these vermin have made their presence known on YouTube video comments as well.

You never want to feed the trolls, and you can't let yourself be distracted by them either.

Despite the immediate debacle of the Indian government's behavior regarding "India's Daughter" and their attempts to suppress it, the power of the Internet and yes, the Streisand Effect, will inevitably win the day in the end.

And regardless of angry machinations by Indian politicians against the best interests of their own citizens, the Internet sunlight pouring in to illuminate the specter of rape and other abuse of women in India is in the end unstoppable.

Not just in India, but around the entire globe, no matter how politicians pontificate and harass, ultimately the sands of censorship will still slip through their fingers.

This has tended to be historically true in the long run even before the time of the Internet, even before the coming of electronic communications in any form.

In the Internet age, it's even more of a truth that governments and leaders can attempt to ignore only unsuccessfully, and only with the most extreme of peril.


Posted by Lauren at 11:15 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein