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24 September 2004

Search Engine Watch publishes a good roundup of the latest coverage of flaws and bias in the way Google News’s automated news gathering works in practice. They link to a New Scientist article revealing “Google China has suppressed links to ‘forbidden’ news”:http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99996426 on the grounds that:

“In order to create the best possible news search experience for our users, we sometimes decide not to include some sites, for a variety of reasons. These sources were not included because their sites are inaccessible.”

. It’s an explanation but not really a justification…

28 August 2004

Following on from my brief mention of “blogs from US troops in Iraq”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_current_affairs_world.html#001217 I have discovered a collection of “pictures taken by troops in Iraq with picturephones”:http://www.yafro.com/frontline.php – you need to click on the ‘comments’ part or mouse over the photos to see the context they give them.

Incidentally (and probably not coincidentally) the blogger who was interviewed on NPR I mentioned earlier has now had to pull his weblog down.

Thanks to Torill Mortensen for the link

22 July 2004

The report on children’s Internet use I “mentioned earlier”:http://blog.org/archives/000905.html has now been made available in full.

UK Children Go Online is an excellent overview of kids’ online experiences in Britain and I am pleased to see it taking a very sensible balanced view of the risks and benefits of childrens’ online use. From the conclusion:

one cannot simply recommend greater monitoring of children by parents. From children’s point of view, some key benefits of the internet depend on maintaining some privacy and freedom from their parents, making them less favourable particularly to intrusive or hidden forms of parental regulation. Moreover, the internet must be perceived by children as an exciting and free space for play and experimentation if they are to become capable and creative actors in this new environment.

I am a little disappointed, however, that the press release leads on “parents underestimating risks”:http://personal.lse.ac.uk/bober/PressReleaseJuly04.pdf and lo and behold the “BBC’s coverage”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3910319.stm doesn’t mention anything about the possible benefits of childrens’ online use or the divide that was found in the ‘quality’ of their use.

It is true that, ’57 per cent have come into contact with pornography online (compared with 16
per cent of parents who say their children have seen porn online)’ but as “Josephine Fraser”:http://fraser.typepad.com/edtechuk/2004/07/lse_uk_children.html points out a large problem with this survey is that it’s investigating ‘children’ between the ages of 9 and 19 (of course the data is usually split by age in the body of the report but not often in the summaries).

If you are concerned mainly about under-12s exposed to porn (for example) the proportion drops to 21 percent and this doesn’t indicate how often this exposure happened or how ‘severe’ it is. Would a single exposure to the promotional front page of a porn site in a few years of a ten-year-old’s surfing really be traumatic? Doesn’t it depend on what kind of stuff is considered pornographic (the report does not provide a definition)? I presume such sites don’t normally display really hard-core stuff on their front page without payment and young kids are exposed to soft-core images like that in lots of other ways. It’s true that 20% of 12-19 year olds say they have seen porn on the Internet five or more times but 17% of the same kids say they have seen it that often on TV.

Likewise it may be true that, ‘8 per cent of young users who go online at least once a week say they have met face to face with someone they first met on the internet’ but of those only 1% – one person (!) age unknown – said they didn’t enjoy the experience.

I guess as the report concludes what you see in it depends on your prior expectations and I am a ‘glass half full’ person more keen to ensure that kids have the opportunity to become digitally literate without having parents and teachers excessively limiting their chance to explore. And of course I am not the parent of an Internet-surfing child – if I were my views might be different!

5 May 2004

I can’t improve on the Berkman Centre’s blog entry:

An international team of researchers has launched a new program to map censorship of the Internet.  The Open Net Initiative — a partnership of the Berkman Center, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Toronto — has formally begun tracking international filtering of the Internet.  As the Berkman Center’s Jonathan Zittrain explains, “The aim of the ONI is to excavate, analyze, and report censorship and surveillance practices in a rigorous, ongoing fashion.”  Read more about the project in this News Release.

30 March 2004

The New Republic has published a story “dictatorship.com”:http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20040405&s=kurlantzick040504 pooh poohing the notion that access to the Internet in a nation can help to undermine dictatorships. Needless to say this was like a red rag to a bull for some of the more Internet-philic – “Jeff Jarvis”:http://www.buzzmachine.com/archives/2004_03_27.html#about calls the piece, “load of naysaying, stick-in-the-sludge, cynical, behind-the-times, underreported, snotty crap“.

Though Jeff is right to pour scorn on TNR’s occaisional recycling of un-researched prejudices like the assertion that the Internet “lends itself to individual rather than communal activities”, I have to say I think TNR’s article is on the whole a welcome corrective to the kind of utopian thinking often espoused by online pundits and the furious reaction to the piece only reinforces this view. That’s not to say that the Internet does not have a potential role in the growth of civil society – of course it can be helpful. But to say as Jeff Jarvis does that, “In the last century, Coke meant freedom. In this century, the Internet means freedom” is to indulge in knee jerk technological determinism that overlooks the vital importance of the social context of technology use.

Also see an “earlier blog entry”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_academia.html#000758 of mine on an excellent book on the Internet in authoritarian regimes cited in the TNR piece.

29 March 2004

A recent blog survey on Expectations of Privacy and Accountability from Fernanda Viégas at the “MIT’s media lab”:http://web.media.mit.edu/. The results found were interesting but I found one of the asides in the report interesting as well, for a different reason. Ninety percent of those blogging in their (admittedly biased) sample have better than a high school education but the report begins by being critical of the notion that weblogging is “a marginal activity restricted to the technically savvy”?

24 January 2004

Here’s a topic that continues to run and run. Will Davies compares Internet-mediated ‘democracy’ to the ‘democratic’ governance of, for example, foundation hospitals and warns that the quality of the results depends on wide participation. He also says, ‘any democratic society rests partially on an undemocratic element, such as the US Supreme Court’, suggesting that moderators may keep things running in a similar way in online discussions. While apathy is indeed a barrier to widespread political participation online I think Will understates the importance of the digital divide here as well.

His musings were prompted by Clay Shirky’s oddly upbeat musings implying that the occasions where online polls come up with results that are unrepresentative (as with the Radio 4 “let us shoot burglars” poll) are part of the ‘glory of this medium’.

For the gloomier side of this picture, check out this depressing posting from Dan (ex Up My Street) about how vociferous local racists are taking over that brave experiment in giving local communities a voice. He blames a lack of moderators and the fact no system of user-managed moderation is possible.

8 January 2004

It has been noted before that search engines’s algorithms don’t magically provide the ‘best’ results for any query – they only provide the best matches using a given algorithm, and that algorithm can be biased. The latest issue of “First Monday”:http://firstmonday.org/ – an excellent e-journal – includes a detailed examination of one key aspect. Dr “Susan L Gerhart”:http://pr.erau.edu/~gerharts/ has attempted to determine whether the problems with such algorithms tend to conceal controversies and while her results (done on a small scale) don’t seem to show consistent failures she nonetheless suggests that search engines may indeed suppress controversy and adduces some interesting arguments why this might be the case alongside recommendations for search engine programmers of how to produce more representative results.

31 December 2003

More evidence (if more were needed) that search engines like Google have a certain amount of unaccountable power. A satirical site that (among many other things) passed on instructions on how to make a search for ‘miserable failure’ come back with a George Bush page found that “it had been banned from using Google to advertise”:http://www.blather.net/shitegeist/000169.htm. It turns out you can’t place ads using Google for a site criticising an individual unless the site is clearly labelled “satire”. Of course the site still turns up in Google searches…

It’s possible that it wasn’t so much the anti-Bush sentiment that annoyed Google’s ad staff as the encitement to ‘game’ Google.

21 August 2003

I was wondering when this issue would start receiving some attention. A recent survey discovered that on average 17 percent of “permission-based” marketing messages are “erroneously” tagged as spam by ISP spam filters and are therefore never seen by their intended recipients. I would imagine that at least some of that is due to large numbers of people tagging email as spam that comes to them because of dubious definitions of “permission” (where companies have passed on details of their addresses to other “partners” for example). It’s noteable that 46 percent of email from “catalogers” (whoever they are?) is bounced on average compared to less than 1% of non-profit email so I expect some of the email bounced arguably deserved to be.

Nonetheless this is a serious problem and may become more so over time if spam volumes continue to rise and more people start to rely increasingly on technical “fixes”. The problem is, of course, that people who really do want to receive some bulk-delivered email – notifications of special offers they requested, for example, or even political communications – will end up missing it and won’t even know it happened. That’s why I believe carefully-phrased legal solutions to spam will in the end be better solutions to the problem than technical “fixes”.

Some suggest spammers (who are mostly in the US – and apparently mostly in Florida) will simply move overseas to avoid regulation but I believe only a hard core will be willing to live with the disruption to their lives and businesses that moving overseas to a country without anti-spam laws would cause. Anyway it has to be worth at least trying to lessen irresponsible bulk emailing using the law.

Thanks to this Techdirt thread for the heads-up

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