Archive for October, 2010


In an August Newsweek article, William J. Dobson tried defending Haystack and its creator–Austin Heap–as a new generation of “Hacktivists” eschewing silver bullets for a “go-slow” approach to fighting online censorship. Dobson’s article was the last gasp of Haystack media praise. A month later on September 13, Heap shut down Haystack and its website, the Censorship Research Center, in response to criticism over the program’s safety by Foreign Policy‘s Evgeny Morozov, who later likened Haystack’s collapse as the internet’s version of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Haystack’s  rise to fame and sudden fall, and the amount of publicity the program received highlights the limits of micro-blogging and raises questions about the media’s complicity in hyping online social media.

If you haven’t heard of it before, Haystack’s purpose was to provide users anonymity by rerouting traffic through proxies and making use of sites like Twitter and Facebook seem as innocuous as browsing weather reports. The software program was the invention of a 26-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Heap, who created Haystack in response to the 2009 Iranian election protests—one of the two so-called “Twitter Revolutions.” (The other being the 2009 civil unrest in Moldova.)

Heap’s efforts earned him notoriety, including being titled an Innovator of the year by the Guardian, and Heap was quick to capitalize on the attention. In a now infamous August 9, 2009 interview with the BBC, Heap touted his product’s safety:

[Haystack] is completely secure for the user so the government can’t snoop on them. We use many anonymising steps so that identities are masked and it is as safe as possible so people have a safe way to communicate with the world.

But that safety has proven illusory. Now, after Haystack’s source code has finally been released, it’s clear massive holes in Haystack’s programming could’ve allowed Iranian authorities to track down and punish users. In particular, as Simon Phipps of Simon Says has pointed out, routing Haystack’s traffic through a single site was akin to fixing the program with a “big red self-destruct button.”

That Haystack could be so flawed is disturbing; but what’s worse is the media’s  fanning of Haystack’s notoriety without doing a basic fact-check. Jillian C. York had some sharp criticism for the media—and Heap in particular—on her blog:

I also firmly place blame on the media, which elevated the status of a person who, at best was just trying to help, and a tool which very well could have been a great thing, to the level of a kid genius and his silver bullet, without so much as a call to circumvention experts.

…While Heap and his partners were out pushing Haystack to the media, actual Iranian human beings were being used as lab rats, to test a product that could potentially put their very lives in danger.

Hopefully, Haystack will prove a lesson, and the next “big thing” in social media will be greeted with more skepticism. But I have my doubts.

Much has been said about how to blog well. Less has been said about how to blog ethically.

You might find bloggers and blogging questionable, and not without reason. Bloggers lack fact-checkers; they’re not required to properly cite their sources (or even cite them at all); they can write pretty much anything; and the means for holding them accountable are few. Some believe unethical, one-sided blogging has been responsible for the past decade’s worth of political polarization. (A good study of the issue can be found summed up on crookedtimber.org.)

However, responsible bloggers do exist and so do a number of good ethics resources–if you know where to find them.

Check out Rebecca’s Pocket, a catch-all blog that happens to have a critical discussion on blogging ethics.

If you’re looking for something succinct, Cyberjournalist.net provides an code of ethics based off of the Society of Professional Journalists‘.

Another good resource from a professional’s perspective can be found at Journalismethics.ca. The site includes a code of ethics as well as other resources relevant to aspiring journalists.

Additionally, you can find one final site for ethical info: my own. For the sake of being fashionable, I’ve compiled a code of ethics too:

  1. Don’t prevaricate and be objective: Be honest and fair; don’t lie or delibrately misrepresent facts.
  2. Link your sources: When you make a point or accusation, have the gumption to link your sources (if they’re online) so your reader can check them for his or herself.
  3. Be open about your source’s shortcomings: Where your sources are questionable, admit as much to your reader.
  4. Be honest about conflicts of interest: Generally not a problem for your average amateur blogger. However, if you own a shoe shop and blog about shoes, be sure to mention it to your readers. It’ll give them the context they need to properly judge your blog’s slant.
  5. Be open and accountable about errors: When you make a mistake, acknowledge and correct it; treat each post as a final, finished product. You can add to a post, but it’s not kosher to remove entries. Nor should you try concealing an error by surreptitiously editing it out of existence. (When you decide to excise a paragraph, don’t delete; instead use strikethrough to indicate what’s been removed.)

If you want to keep ethical, it’s recommended to post a list of ethics in your workspace.

If you really don’t care and would rather just learn how to blog, click no further than—here. Problogger.net has a comprehensive set of posts on everything from blog concept to design.

<Edited to fix broken links.>

There’s another debate swirling about the internet; this time it’s regarding social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and how important they are to social activism.

The debate’s trigger, in this case, was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in which he argues social networks increase activism only by lowering the threshold for participation.  As opposed to the close friendships formed by the American civil rights movement, the weak ties created by social networking sites are a waste of resources. At best, Gladwell argues, they’re only good for tasks like helping “Wall Streeters” retrieve cell-phones stolen by teenaged girls.

Needless to say, the article proved controversial. Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone responded promptly, calling Gladwell’s article “laughable.” Others, notably in the New York Times, had more productive responses.

If there’s something that can be extracted from Gladwell’s article, it’s that Twitter and Facebook are just tools. Their effectiveness depends on the humans using them, and even good use doesn’t  guarantee success. In Iran, the twitter-casted Green Movement proved unable to overcome the military might and organization of the Revolutionary Guard. Moldova’s 2009 unrest, which included the use of Facebook and other social networking sites to organize, resulted in rioting and reprisals that left the nation fractured. Twittering is no match for the barrel of a gun. Nor is it a guarantee against anarchy.

What Gladwell misses, however, is that strong and weak ties aren’t mutually exclusive; they bolster one another.

As has been mentioned, the rights movement didn’t deconstruct Jim Crow on guts and grit alone. Activists had help from a powerful new technology: the television, which made the brutality and hypocrisy undergirding Jim Crow embarrassingly public. It was television, and the media coverage starting with the 1964 Freedom Summer murders, that helped provide the public support President Lyndon B. Johnson needed to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In many ways, social networking sites have now supplanted TV  as the go to source for subversive information. During the 2009 Iranian protests, networking sites circumvented the press blackout and distributed news that directly challenged the regime’s version of events. It was social networks that spread footage of protesters on the march and of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death—an event that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in a pre-YouTube age.

So perhaps the revolution won’t be hasn’t been tweeted, yet. Nonetheless, sites like Twitter, when used properly, are a powerful resource; they act like signposts, engaging people who might not otherwise care and connecting those who’d normally lack the means to contribute. A multitude of weakly tied individuals, when combined with a concerted, well organized movement, can prove especially potent, as in the case of Barrack Obama’s presidential  campaign.

A social networking site, therefore, has its uses. But it’s a matter of using that resource in conjunction with others that gets results, whether that be for a revolution or just a humble campaign to save the local community garden.

What’s the Deal over Bill C-32 and internet Copyright laws?

It all comes down to locks. That’s one of the latest analogies that’s been circulating around the Canadian blogosphere.

The locks refer to digital locks, used by distributors on copyrighted material (like DVDs and music) to keep material from being reproduced and, consequentially, keep profits in corporate hands. If you’ve ever tried to access an online video and been shut out because of location, that’s a digital lock in action.

Much of the debate around Bill C-32 (i.e., Canada’s latest attempt to update it’s copyright laws) has circulated around locks and whether or not they’re an effective deterrent and how severe trespassers should be punished. But the whole debate leaves my skepitcal senses tingling. In particular, I’m scepitcal about arguments that claim picking a digital lock is as easy as reaching through a gate and lifting a latch.

Certainly, locks are deterrents; a concerted hacker will find a way past. Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe (for someone who has trouble deciphering a microwave’s defrost function) that opening a digital lock could be that easy–that locks are merely minor inconveniences that anyone with the slightest wherewithal, and a bit of incentive, can circumvent.

What seems to be at issue isn’t Joe Average stumbling across a secret back-yard entrance into Toy Story 3 and running afoul of the law. What’s more likely is a clash between distributors and the public’s right to quote, parody, and incorporate material for artistic and educational purposes.

Bill C-32 seems slated to address the most issues around an individuals’ rights to copy material. The criminalization of format shifting (i.e., copying songs from a CD to your ipod), for example, will end if the bill is passed. The Minister of Industry, Tony Clement, felt confident enough about the coming change to boast about his own illegal stash of ipod songs.

Bill C-32 also supposedly contains exceptions for users remixing material for making video montages on sites like Youtube.

However, here’s where the controversy arises: those exceptions come with a caveat. As far as the impending bill is concerned, once a digital lock is introduced one’s rights to remix copyrighted material, for whatever purpose, are void.

So maybe you’ve a child, a nephew or niece, or a younger sibling who uses Facebook to communicate and wants you in the loop. Or maybe you’ve an acquaintance that won’t stop pestering you to enlist. Either way, you’re mildly curious about joining, but also concerned about what your page will reveal and to whom.

You’re not alone.

Since its inception Facebook has been embroiled in a string of controversies: once in 2006 for implementing a newsfeed feature that broadcasted users’ remote actions (e.g., like unfriending someone); again in 2009 for making friends lists public by default for anyone to read; and again in early 2010 when an online security consultant Ron Bowles collected then distributed data from 100 million Facebook users.

The site’s continued wrangling over its privacy settings has even earned it some particularly sharp criticism from down under.

Thus Facebook has proven a constant source of anxiety over privacy and raised some serious questions over how much access friends, familiy, prospective employers, or even the law should have to our personal lives. Detractors have accused Facebook of subverting democracy; while supporters have claimed Facebook is merely responding to a natural evolution in societal values. Either way, Facebook has become a flashpoint for controversy in a way which other social networking sites just haven’t.

Despite the controversies, however, Facebook has still managed to grow to become the number-one  social networking site, beating out MySpace in 2008. The site now has over 500 million members and is slated to grow even further.

So how does one deal with this social megalith? How do you keep your private information safe?

Thankfully Facebook has responded to public pressure and provided a new “simplified” array of profile settings to help keep the spooks and stalkers out. Those options aren’t always easy to find; Facebook keeps them buried in separate and unintuitive places. But a little digging can excavate them and allow you to opt out.

If you’re still unsatisfied, there’s always the age-old tactic of taking an alias and posting as a Guy Incognito or an Iam Huiam.