Granular Sharing

I swear that one day I will stop talking about Google+.

One of the things that struck me the other day as I was writing the post about LiveJournal was the realization that LJ had recognized early on in the social media scene that people want choices when they’re sharing certain information.  LiveJournal developed communities of people around a certain interest, and those entries could be public or private depending on the community.  Many of the snark communities are private until you become a member, and all the entries on it are blocked until you are approved by a moderator.  Within your personal journals you are able to make any entry totally public, available to your friends, available to a customized group of friends, or even available to no one but yourself.

To my knowledge there is no other blogging software that exists that has this level of customizable sharing.  And actually, to my knowledge there is no other social media platform until Google+ came along that allowed that kind of granular level of sharing.

Now, some people have asked me if I’ve made use of the customizable sharing of Google+.  The answer is not really very much, because I live a fairly public life.  That said, I like having the option of keeping things a little closer to home than not.  There are plenty of things that I would prefer to keep private, and yet feel comfortable talking about those things with a select group of friends.  This could be health issues, religious question, questions that I feel are only appropriate if asked of people within my field of work just to name a few.

There are some people in my life with whom I would divulge anything.  My mother for instance.  I cannot keep a secret from her, nor would I ever want to.  Also I have a select group of friends with whom I feel comfortable confiding things that I don’t want to announce to the world.

When I was more active on LiveJournal I made very heavy use of this.  One of the common things that I would keep private were conversations about my job. There come times in every job that try your soul, and when I was in that dark place about 6 years ago I needed to share those troubles with people I trusted.  To do that I went to my LiveJournal community and confided in a select group of trusted friends.  The resulting conversations led me to try to start my own business, to see if I could make a go of it on my own.  Ultimately the home business did not pan out (hello tanking economy!), but the support that I got from my friends at LiveJournal was all the incentive I needed to get encouragement in my troubled time.

Its moments like this that are why we need to have granular sharing that is functional and intuitive in social media. Even if it is only an option.

While these functions sort of exist in Facebook, they are really pushing you to share absolutely everything with everyone.  As part of my control freaky nature I have often disabled people from tagging me in pictures and I don’t allow anyone to write on my wall.  My one exception is to turn on wall writing for my birthday, only because everyone and their mother will write happy birthday on your wall.  It’s kind of cool, but I don’t want my wall turning into what happened on MySpace where people post ridiculous glittering unicorn .gifs and sexy shirtless dudes.  That’s just not something I really want to see on my Facebook Page, because I feel it’s supposed to represent who I am. Also, because things that get posted to your wall get reshared across all your friends, and I have coworkers on there, I try and control my message on Facebook.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever realizes that they’re saying what they do in a public forum.  I mean, it’s incredible how much people will share without a thought in the world as to who may read it.

I’m even more controlling when it comes to blogs.  I chose WordPress for this content because a lot of other library bloggers are on here, and that creates a great ping-back community when we cross link to each other.  Plus the dashboard is pretty awesome.  But the downside is that everything is public.  There are no secrets here, nor is there any way to make something secret here.  This is the place to publish, and by publish they really mean it.  They want your stuff to go out to the entire world, and make it available via whatever means necessary. Blogger and TypePad are the same in that respect, once it’s live, it’s live for the world to see.  No secrets.  For professional writing this makes sense.

But LiveJournal, at least as it’s been used in America, has always been a place for the personal.  It’s been where people go to bear their soul, and do silly quizzes at each other.  I also feel like it’s grown up a lot since I began using it.  Maybe it’s just me, and the way I use LiveJournal who has grown up.  To me it actually has the feel of a journal, the kind that one would keep as a paper diary, only in an electronic format.  The privacy settings allow it to retain that feeling, by being able to limit a post to only yourself, or to a limited group.  You’re not announcing something to the world as a whole, but rather to a small group of known friends.

Someone asked me if I was going to migrate my content off of LJ to protect it in case the company crashes.  I think that any content migration would have to be something that would respect the variant levels of privacy that I set in there.  So, no, there is no real way to maintain the integrity of the LJ blog in a content migration. There’s no way I would be able to recreate the individual user access that I have in there among the friends that used that service, and still do today.

The reality of all of this is that the people I have in each of my social networks are totally different.  There are some people who are on all of them with me, and some who are only on one or another.  There are some people I am more comfortable sharing with on LJ, some on Facebook, Some on Google+ and some here on WordPress.  Each venue has its own unique vibe, and the content that I post in each of those places varies, and that depends upon who’s in there.  So here’s a snapshot of who’s in where.

  • WordPress: Totally Public – WordPress is my professional voice.  It’s my soapbox for library and tech things.  I tend to write here about three times a week.
  • LiveJournal: Semi-Public – LiveJournal is my personal voice.  It’s where I share the more intimate details of my life, to varying degrees of openness.  I also have a second LJ for some occasional creative writing projects.  Writing comes in fits and starts on both accounts, sometimes I’m on a tear and go every day, and sometimes it’s nothing for a month.  Depends on my mood really.
  • Facebook: Friends and Colleagues – Facebook is kind of a free for all.  Its made up of people that I personally know, or plan to meet someday.  It’s kind of a blend of personal and professional.  I post some of the pictures from the crazy street performances I do with the faeries and talk about some professional and political things as well.  None of it, however, is anything that I would be embarrassed to show my mother.  Facebook is an every day affair.
  • Google+: Random Happy Mutants – Google+ is kind of a sandbox.  I have a lot of strangers in there, but all of them fit into neat little compartments of librarians, authors, comic book people, bears and Pagans.  If someone by chance adds me who I have no idea who they are I will look at who they are and who we share in common and put them in the appropriate group.  For those who don’t fit I put them in “the whole wide world” unless they are posting things I really can’t look at while I’m at work, like hot shirtless dudes.  I check G+ multiple times a day.
  • Twitter: Colleagues Only – Twitter I am on, but hardly use for anything.  I follow very few people, and all I post are relays from the WordPress.  Mostly because library people Twitter, and I push stuff out for them.  I never look at twitter any more.

So that’s where I’m at with social media.  It does consume an inordinate amount of time, but its time that I appreciate.  I feel like I’m truly connecting with people, that I’m learning things, and that I’m sharing things that are meaningful, fun, and occasionally funny.  I like having the option to share privately, and occasionally I do.  It’s not always, but sometimes it’s important to have that around.


LiveJournal DDoS: An Actual Internet Human Rights Violation

Over the last few weeks I’ve been blogging about Andre Vrignaud’s data capping internet shutoff, and whether or not that could be construed as a human rights violation.  Most people seem to be of the opinion that it’s really pushing a button that doesn’t need to be pushed (the human rights card?).  But here’s something that is in fact an actual violation of human rights: the LiveJournal DDoS attack that’s happening right now.

You may or may not know about LiveJournal.  It was one of the early blogging platforms to come out in 1999 right around when blogging was the thing and Facebook didn’t exist.  But unlike other blogging platforms, LiveJournal was much more social.  You could add friends who also had LJ accounts.  You could join groups.  When you posted an update it could be made totally public, available to a group, available to all your friends, available to a customized list of your friends, or only available to yourself.  That level of granular sharing detail is unheard of in the world of blogging.  Hell, it’s unheard of on Facebook!  Only in Google+ do you get that level of customizable content sharing, and even that only started about a month ago!  LJ has been doing this for over a decade, because they understand that you don’t always want to post things to the entire world.

LiveJournal was purchased several years ago by a company called SUP, which is based in Russia.  LiveJournal had been a very global company in general prior to that, and Russian activity on LJ was very high.  Today, over 80 of the top 100 Russian bloggers use LJ professionally.

And that is a problem to the Russian government.  Many of these bloggers are extremely vocal about political corruption in Russia and they use LJ to call people out.

For the last few weeks the entirety of LiveJournal has been assaulted by a Distributed Denial of Service attack.  From what the folks at LJ can surmise, this is a direct attempt to silence bloggers who are critical of the Russian government.  The impact of this is not just on Russian bloggers though, it is effecting everyone who uses LiveJournal as a blogging platform.  Numerous friends of mine have reported frustration and site outages for days.  Unfortunately you can’t even get to the site news, because of the outage.  The LiveJournal staff have had to make site outage announcements via Twitter and Facebook.

Let’s go back to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on the internet and human rights.  This is from the section IV.E on “cyber attacks”:

The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned that websites of human rights organizations, critical bloggers, and other individuals or organizations that disseminate information that is embarrassing to the State or the powerful have increasingly become targets of cyber-attacks. 81. When a cyber-attack can be attributed to the State, it clearly constitutes, inter alia, a violation of its obligation to respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Although determining the origin of cyber-attacks and the identity of the perpetrator is often technically difficult, it should be noted that States have an obligation to protect individuals against interference by third parties that undermines the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

It’s unclear whether or not this is an act being perpetrated by the Russian government, but the article linked from Time magazine at the head of this piece strongly implies that it’s the most likely candidate. Especially since Russian political candidates are gearing up for next year’s election cycle, and that an attack upon LiveJournal, the country’s most powerful blogging service, could lead readers to question the credibility of the bloggers.

But whether or not this is in fact perpetrated by the state, the DDoS attack is effecting the most powerful voice of the Russian people, one that is unmediated by the government.  By taking the site down, the hackers are silencing critics of the government, and that is a violation of freedom of speech.  By extension they are also taking down the rest of the users of the system who live in other countries, including my friends and myself here in the US.

Yes, I have a LiveJournal account, and I have had one since 2002.  In fact, I have two!  When I moved to DC LJ was the only way I was able to stay connected with the vast majority of my friends around the country (Cincinnati, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York).  I have thousands of entries on LiveJournal, and still use it for personal blogging and occasional creative writing.  I started this WordPress blog for professional purposes, because I do believe in having a public and private face, though my private side is very publicly accessible.  The WordPress is strictly for me to write about libraries, technology and apparently legal issues therefrom.  The LJ is where I talk about my religion, social activism, my family, my vacations, and other juicy, intimate details that no one from my workplace ought to know about (those are hidden to my LJ friends only).

Am I claiming a human rights violation because LJ is being DDoS’d and I can’t write about my Frappuccino?  No.  I’m claiming that this the DDoS attack that LJ is currently undergoing is most likely a result of someone trying to silence critics of the Russian government, and THAT should be considered a violation according to the document released by the U.N.  I just happen to be an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire, along with over 31 million other bloggers.

The question now is, if this is in fact a human rights violation, how does one stop it?  How do you stop a DDoS attack?  Since this is directed against a very specific web service, is the UN obligated to try to do something to help LiveJournal?  Are they going to investigate the Russian government?  Sadly, I don’t think anything is really going to come of it.  Users will continue to get error messages and see Frank the Goat eating their posts until the hackers give up. If it is an attack coordinated by the state, that probably won’t let up until long after the elections are over, if then.

All I can do is sigh…

Information Gathering

This is my new information gathering m.o.

  • Wake up in the morning and grab my cellphone.
  • Click the Google Plus button and scroll through what’s in there.
  • Start opening links from friend’s posts into the browser tabs, and floating back to G+.
  • Go to Facebook, and do the same thing.
  • Once I’ve gone through all the posts on Facebook, I click to browser and read the articles.
  • Occasionally reshare, like or +1 the article in its home site.
  • Shower (phone playing music from my files)
  • Down to the laptop at the kitchen table, eat breakfast and read any articles I missed from the phone.
  • THEN I check the following sites: BoingBoing, The Atlantic, io9, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, NY Times.
  • Share articles from respective sites to my FB and G+ feeds.

This kind of information behavior is becoming the new norm, and that’s what social networking sites are banking on.  I’m absolutely certain that Google, the most predominant search engine out there, is upgrading their algorithms to incorporate things like the resharing of articles and +1, to boost the signal on content that is becoming socially relevant to people.  That’s more than likely how Sparks is supposed to work, but who looks at Sparks anyway?  With all of the awesome things coming through your stream, there’s no need to go out looking for more.

Sharing information between friends has always part of the experience of gathering information.  Social networks and availability of online content have expanded that tremendously, but each does it differently due to their policies on how you can add people.  Facebook requires you to mutually accept a friend request. This is a barrier designed to focus on the relationship between the people involved.  You are acknowledging that you and this other person are friends, and that acknowledgment allows you to see their content.  Google+ on the other hand has the option to follow people, and not have them follow you back, thus allowing you to see content from people you wouldn’t normally have acknowledged as a friend, and thus extending your relationships beyond personal acquaintance.

Part of the reason I go to Google+ first now is because a) I have a vast majority of people who are not necessarily close to me (increasing the complexity of what I’m reading) and b) there is a greater space to contextualize the information being received.  So not only am I seeing a wide array of content that I would not be exposed to via my Facebook friends, but I’m also getting a clearer picture of why they’re sharing that content with me and what they believe it means.  Twitter has never really felt relevant to me, because I get far too little information from the people posting to encourage me to want to click a shortened URL.  They can’t explain why they’re providing the link, or what their pros and cons are with a piece.  Facebook at least allows you a little breathing room when sharing a link.  But even there you have a limited character space.  Google+ affords you the opportunity to practically write a thesis in rebuttal or praise of an article.  People who read your post can truly get to the heart of why you’re sharing this content with them. Add to that the fact that resharing a post from the original author incorporates not only his/her massive context, but also allows the resharer to post his/her response to the article.  That gives you two extended opinions from two different people as well as the original link to the article online, which vastly increases the trust one has with the content that they’re reading.

Google+ only has about 30,000 people on the network, as opposed to Facebook which has half a billion.  And yet blog sites are reporting that G+ is driving a tremendous amount of traffic to their pages, I know that I’ve seen this and loads of other bloggers have to.  It’s because it’s built on the very real culture of discussing literature and sharing it with your friends.  And when your definition of friend is ever-widening, you see content going viral more often.

Then again, maybe G+ users are just extremely avid readers, like these folks…

Why The Public Library Should Always Remain Free

My voice is only one of hundreds who have already chimed in about this ridiculous piece of flame bait from The Atlantic on charging public library users a per item borrowing fee.  I’m sure that someone has already said what I’m going to say, probably in the epic comments thread, but I’m going to say it anyway.

Barry Greenfield’s piece suffers from one fundamental flaw: Capitalism.  Public Libraries, as all public institutions, are inherently experiments in Socialism.  We utilize public funds, to provide a resource that is unavailable to those who do not have the means to procure them, i.e. knowledge, education and culture via our shared literary heritage (and I include film and music in that definition of “literary”). Capitalizing on that access, even in the smallest way, is a barrier to access that should never be tolerated.

The philanthropic push by Andrew Carnegie was about creating opportunity for those who, like himself, lacked the ability to live the American Dream of social mobility.  The dream of the public library was, and still is, to provide public access to those things that provide the means to achieve social mobility.  Carnegie understood that to get ahead, one needed to be educated.  But access to schools and universities was extremely limited, and mostly reserved for an already wealthy elite, perpetuating a ruling class.  The main factor in this class divide was monetary.  Those who cannot afford to purchase books, cannot read them. The creation of the Free Public Library broke the monopoly on education for the American elite, and allowed those born into lower classes the ability to learn beyond their raising and the circumstances of their birth.   The Free Public Library still does this today, and here’s how.

Early Literacy

The area that the public library is most known for, is also the most crucial to the development of our society’s future.  The public library offers programs for parents and caregivers of very young children that expose them to human contact, expanding the language that they hear, and engaging them in complex social environments that prepare them to be ready to read and interact in a pre-K and Kindergarten school environment.  Children from birth to age two are developing the complex array of brain synapses that will enable them to learn when the are older, and research has shown that children who are engaged with books in a positive way at an early age become better readers, and ultimately better learners when in school.  Children between the ages of 3-5 are engaged in amassing a large amount of vocabulary so that when they encounter written words for the first time that they will be able to recognize them, because they will have heard them before.  Lap Time programs for infants and toddlers and Story Time programs for pre-school age children are exactly the right environment to build those skills. If you’re curious about the research check out Saroj Ghoting’s website on early literacy for children.

But beyond those single hours per week, parents and caregivers need to have access to the books that will engage their children.  The average picture book costs between $12.00 and $17.00.  No parent on their own would be able to provide the exposure to the wide variety of material needed to give their child an exceptionally deep vocabulary.  Most parents and caregivers will check out about 15 books per week from the public library.  That amount in sales would have cost them between $180.00 to $255.00.  Some of the more affluent parents I know are already shelling out thousands in day care.  There is no way they could afford to buy those books.  And children from families living in poverty can’t even come close to making up that difference.  To ask a parent to spend $10.00 a week in library books is to ask them if they are willing to make another sacrifice they can’t afford.  This will put their children at yet another disadvantage, this one a fundamentally developmental challenge.

Access to Educational Resources

School libraries around the country are being slashed as “budget drainers” (like music and art before them) and school librarians are being interrogated about their contribution to the educational process.  As more and more schools lose access to educational material, public libraries are pulling up the slack.  While we can’t provide an entire classroom with a set of textbooks, we can provide access to educational databases that students can use to supplement what few resources can be provided by their school.  These resources can also help educators who need to prepare their students to be ready to do online research and evaluate resources so that they are ready for college entrance exams and college itself.  The other important thing the public library does is provide low-filtered internet access to children.  Most public schools run software that will block legitimately invaluable websites like Wikipedia and Google, because of the potential for children to access harmful information.  The Public Library provides a much more open environment where children can explore the complexity of the internet with their parents, the librarian, their friends and on their own.  This gives them a richer media environment than any school can provide or pay for, and we provide this for free.

Adult Literacy

Beyond children, America is still grappling with adult populations who are functionally illiterate.  And in today’s text heavy, web centric society, illiteracy is even more detrimental than ever.  Adults who cannot read cannot apply for numerous government assistance programs, because most all of them are migrating online.  One of the most common uses of public computers is applying for jobs (many of them entry level), and filing for unemployment.  But public libraries have long been a home for adult literacy programs, both for those who have never learned to read and for those non-native speakers of English who need to learn the language to function in our society.  Paying for this kind of service is often times impossible, not to mention demoralizing to a person who already experiences shame for his/her problem.

Adult Basic Education

Another of the more common services we offer are adult basic education classes to help people pass the GED.  High School dropout rates are slowly decreasing, but still a major problem, especially among minority students.  Those who do not have a high school diploma or GED are at extreme economic disadvantage.  There is an ever widening salary gulf between those who have a high school diploma and those who have a Bachelor’s degree, and with degree inflation on the rise due to the extremities of the economy having a high school diploma or GED becomes more and more critical in order to get to the next step, college.  Public libraries have long been places for people to get access to the resources they need to educate themselves to pass the GED.  Good GED test prep books can cost between $20.00 and $30.00.  Not to mention special practice booklets to help students pass difficult parts of the exam.  Not only do we provide the resources, but many public libraries also provide courses to help students pass the GED as well.

Access to Technology

Just say “digital divide” and it feels like we’re back in the 90’s.  But the reality is that the digital divide is still as real and strong as ever.  With broadband costs on the rise and computer costs still a hurdle for many families, the internet may seem like a luxury item.  But as mentioned before, there are a host of reasons why people need to use the internet and they are only increasing.  One of the most common requests I have dealt with at the information desk has been to help an adult, who has never been online ever, fill out a job application on a web form.  And these jobs are not for like executive administrative assistant or CIO at a Fortune 500 company.  I’m talking about jobs for food service, grocery clerks, and janitors.  The world has so fundamentally changed that even the lowest paid position at a company requires at least a rudimentary level of tech savvy.  You have to have an email address, an electronic copy of a resume, and the skill to navigate numerous websites with radically different and unique forms.   Not to mention the tenacity to come and check your email on a daily basis to see if you’ve gotten a hit on a job lead.  Without this skill, people remain unemployed, and the U.S. economy keeps going down.

Public Meeting Spaces

One of the other extraordinarily valuable assets the public library offers is empty space for meetings. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is.  Meetings at the library have provided access to non-profits and start-up businesses to gather collaborators and investors, brought tutors to students, helped people to engage in civil debate and political organizing, space to adequately train volunteers, and more.  Many of these places need a space that they can access for free so they can get the leg up they need to help develop our society at a grassroots level.  Some public libraries charge for this, but many do not, again, because money is a barrier to access, stifling development and change.

Cultural Exploration

We live in a global society.  Anyone with half a mind to watch the nightly news knows that.  But not everyone is exposed to what it means to be a part of a global society.  Public Libraries provide access to language learning materials, books, music and films from other parts of the world, and programming that exposes people to cultures that they never would have known existed.  From indigenous American traditions to countries on the opposite side of the world.  People can delve into nearly any culture of the world, and via the internet, engage with that culture as well.  Most people today are more likely to know about the ripple effects of the U.S. housing bubble or the Greek economic collapse than they were just 20 years ago.  Access to the internet has made that possible.  Again, a service we provide for free.  As Seth Godin commented about a week ago some people only come to the library to borrow videos.  And that is absolutely true.  But the videos we offer range far and wide; from Madea Goes to Jail to Götterdämmerung to the entire set of Ken Burns’ The Civil War.  We reserve no judgment on what people choose to watch, just as we reserve no judgment on what they choose to read.  But some offerings can never be captured as a book, and must be experienced.  Providing access to cultural treasures in music and film is just as relevant as learning how to read.

I could go on and on and on about how bad of an idea this $.50 fee is, but you get the picture.  The fact of the matter is that public libraries are free and public for a reason; because our society believes that social mobility is gained by access to education, and that barriers to access keep our population impoverished.  The free public library is the only resource available to our residents that can provide this.  We pay for it via our taxes because we believe in its mission to help those who cannot afford to help themselves.  We believe that when we have a well educated, self-motivated, and more affluent society, everyone wins.  There are many things that should never be monetized, and the free public library is one of them.

Yes it’s Socialist, and no, that’s not a bad word.

Who Are You, and Why Are You Oversharing?

Warning: This is about Google+, so if you’re not on it, it’s probably going to be a little confused.  Hell, I’m confused.

I’ve been on Google+ for a couple weeks now and the thing that continues to perplex me is the Incoming stream.  From what I can gather, the only content that goes in there are posts that are a) from people who have added you to their circles, but who you have not circled back and b) people who have chosen to share a post to their Extended Circles which pushes content to their friends’ friends.

Point “A” I can understand, even if it is a bit like spamming people.  I mean, why would you add someone you don’t know and intentionally push content to them?  It’s kind of vain, and could lead to crazy amounts of abuse.  But at least its in a separate stream, and you can block the major offenders and report them as spammers.  So, not so bad really.

But what I don’t understand is Point “B.”  You may know me, but you don’t know my friends, nor do you know how I may have chosen to divide my circles up.  Sure, a few of my friends may be interested in your random content.  But who do you think you are?  Is your post so important that you’re trying to push it to people who might be interested just on the hopes to get more friends?  Do you think you’re not famous enough?  Are you desperately searching for more readers, but too lazy to go making actual connections with people that you resort to sending messages to FOAFs?

Extended Circles is an option that should be used judiciously, as should all of them, but this especially.  If something is generally acceptable to be made a public post, then do so, and all your circles will see it.  If you only want your circles to see it, then only select which circle should see it. If, however, you’re interested in sharing something that you seriously believe is important enough to randomly notify people you don’t know please think about limiting it to a specific circle and only to their extensions.

Let me give a couple appropriate examples of use for extended circles.

Professional Dragnet

Say you have a circle full of people in your industry.  These are a combination of people you know and people you’re following. Say you want to find people who are interested in presenting at a conference. You could broadcast to that specific industry focused circle, and their extended circles, and boom, more of the right people know about your conference.

The Hottest Party Ever

You know a lot of local folks into a particular hobby.  I’ll leave the hobby to your imagination.  You want to have a kickass party around that hobby, but you want to cast a wider net.  So you invite your hobby friends, and their extended circles.  This sends the information about the event to their FOAFs and you wind up getting a great turnout for your party.

Now in each of these cases you’re capitalizing on your own ability to sort out the folks in your circles, and you’re also banking that your friends have other friends in the same field.  Generally that’s not such a bad bet, but you’ll still wind up pushing content to those unsuspecting folks like me, who are like “WTF is this post about, who sent this to me, and why me?”  Some may pick it up and run with it, and others may just tune you out.

The other thing you would have to consider is signal spreading.  You may want to announce, out of courtesy and your best interest as well, that this post is going out to extended circles and that it’s okay to share with other people’s circles and extended circles within a particular sphere of use.  In the case of your awesome party, you may wind up with way more than you bargained for, especially if you want to keep it a little contained.

So please, be kind, don’t overshare unless you’ve got a damn good reason.

The Internet As A Human Right

I got some feedback on the post I did last week that the guy who pushed beyond the 250 GB data cap threshold with Comcast basically shouldn’t be playing the human rights card.  The best responses were that it was a white whine or a “first world problem.”  I think that’s a legitimate criticism, but I hadn’t bothered to read the actual report to the U.N. about viewing access to the internet as a human right.  So I looked it up and read it.  So, is there a case within the report of the Special Rapporteur to the U.N. that data capping is a violation of human rights?  Let’s look at it.

The document outlines the following areas of concern in regards to people’s access to the internet in light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other U.N. treaties.

  1. Arbitrary blocking or filtering of content on the Internet
  2. Criminalization of legitimate expression
  3. Imposition of intermediary liability
  4. Disconnecting users from Internet access, including on the basis of intellectual property rights law
  5. Cyber attacks
  6. Inadequate protection of the right to privacy and data protection
  7. Access to the Internet and the necessary infrastructure

Each of these elements is explained by a page or two, but here is the nutshell version.

  1. i.e. the great firewall of China.
  2. Silencing dissent and dissidents.
  3. Finding third parties culpable for facilitating illegal activities, or requiring their participation in extra-judicial censorship.
  4. France’s three strikes law and ACTA
  5. DDoS of any sort, especially when used to silence political opposition
  6. Facebook, as well as warrantless search of people’s online information
  7. Allowing systems to be in place as well as to make them cost-effective for general use.

Data capping is not explicitly addressed in the Special Rapporteur’s report.  But there are two elements here that one could construct a case against the practice of data capping, the first being point 4 (actually A-4 in the report).  While the report focuses on supposed violations of intellectual property law (a point driven by media corporations such as MPAA and RIAA), it merely does so as an example.  The point of this section of the report is that disconnection from the internet prohibits one from exercising his/her freedom of expression.  Whatever the reason put forth, disconnection from the internet is a violation of a person’s right to engage in contemporary society.

The second element to bear in mind is #3, imposition of intermediary liability.  Paragraph 45 engages the private sector actors and businesses to recognize their responsibility to respect human rights, and that the state should actively protect its citizens against private violations.

The framework rests on three pillars: (a) the duty of the State to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudications; (b) the corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means that business enterpreises should act with due diligence to avoid infringing the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which they are involved; and (c) the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.

This framework for social responsibility to safeguard against human rights violations has the State check the corporation, the corporation check itself, and that there be legal recourse for the victims to redress their grievances.  This means that the ISP needs to be regulated by the government against abuses of its users, that the ISP should be respectful of its users in the establishment of its policies and the execution of its actions, and that if all else fails the victims can take the ISP to court over the violation.  Currently there is little the FCC is doing to regulate this kind of behavior from American ISPs, and if the so-called net neutrality compromises that have been bandied about are any indication, the agency is not terribly interested in regulating on behalf of the consumer.  As it stands ISPs can engage in data capping, bandwidth throttling, exorbitantly priced service tiers and absolute shutoffs with little to no repercussions.  And given that the user signs a terms of service agreement with whichever ISP s/he uses there is little in the way of legal recourse to retaliate against an ISP lockout if one does wind up violating the ToS, for whatever reason.

So, can the case be made that the 250 GB data cap is a violation of the author’s human rights?  Yes.  I believe so.  Is it as grievous a practice as the great firewall, or complete lack of access?  No.  But qualitative distinctions aside the facts remain.  Someone was cut off from the Internet.  The action was carried out by the ISP.  The government has not regulated the industry such that it could prevent or reverse such a decision.  While the user could seek legal recourse, this requires the capital to engage in the legal battle against a massive corporation (here Comcast) who can afford corporate attorneys.  Few people would be willing to step up to that kind of challenge and hope to win.  Only in a class action lawsuit would much be likely to happen, and common cause for a class action has been tougher to prove these days.

Is this all just justification for my own self to engage in massive amounts of downloads/uploads?  Maybe, but why shouldn’t everyone have that option?

Kids, Truth, and Lies

Kids lie. Any parent will tell you that.
“Did you eat the cookies?”
“Did you break the lamp?”
“Did you sign up for a Facebook account?”

Yes you did. Yes, you ate the cookies, broke the lamp and lied about your age to get onto Facebook. Children want to get online, because their older siblings are getting online, their friends are doing it, their parents are doing it and they want to be a part of that.

Earlier this month a post went around the internet about a woman who established a Gmail account for her eight year old son, and two years later (now) he got a Google+ invitation. Due to age restrictions on the internet he was required to put in his age, and since his parents raised him to be a truthful person he entered his actual age of ten. This led to the child being not only blocked from Google+ but also from his Gmail account where he talks to his grandparents.  The mother blogged about it and got completely inundated with comments both for and against.

The reason why her son got banned is because Google is taking the easy way out on COPPA enforcement.  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act basically limits children under the age of 13 from engaging in basically any activity on the internet without their parent’s consent.  If the service doesn’t provide any options for parental consent (as Google and Facebook do not) then the child just has to wait.

Or they can lie.  And a lot of them lie.

It happens all the time.  Anyone can enter any age they want into the Facebook, and kids who want to do something they’re not supposed to do will find a way to do it.  And that means that they will lie to get online and do things they probably shouldn’t do.  But some, as this woman’s child was, are simply online because they are learning to be an active part of the information culture that we all share.

I totally respect that parents have and desire different levels of control over what their children do and do not see online.  I also think it’s a Sisyphean challenge on their behalf, but that’s not what I’m writing about today.  No.  Rather I would like to look at the values that this legislation is trying to instill and how flawed it is in implementation and enforcement. There are several factors that merit consideration.

Lack of Parental Options

The primary problem in this situation is that Google is not providing a method by which a parent could be involved in the child’s online presence.  This parent clearly values teaching the child how to be a responsible internet user, and that’s something that she should have the right to exercise on whatever site she wishes. By not providing a parental consent option Google does a disservice to responsible parents.

Ease of the Lie

The amount of verification that is required in order to get a Google or Facebook account is paper thin.  They’re basically just taking your word for it.  And for the majority of adults that’s awesome, because any of these age verification methods is just one more frustrating bullshit roadblock to have to deal with.  But if you’re talking about legal compliance, it’s the least amount of age compliance that anyone bothers with.  If you say you’re 14, we’ll just believe you.

The Value of the Lie

Children get a lot of use out of the internet, just as much as adults do.  They get to talk to their friends, share photos, play games together, listen to music, watch videos.  It’s awesome.  And if they have to lie to get to do something awesome, they will totally do it.  And there are basically no repercussions for doing so except for getting blocked if you get caught.

I Learned It By Watching You

Adults are on the internet constantly.  I’m a librarian and a blogger who’s married to a programmer, it’s like I’m mainlining the internet on a daily basis.  Make no mistake that kids want to be on these sites because their friends are, you are, everyone they know is but them.  They want to play with the big kids.  And why shouldn’t they?

Let’s have a real conversation about this.

This legislation, all the legislation that came before it, and all the legislation that will probably ever come after it is only going to work as far as kids can get around it and as far as companies are willing to put up with it.  The problem is not that eight-year-olds are signing up for Gmail, it’s that some parents want to legislate proper parenting for everyone else.  Different parents have different values.  My parents raised me to watch R rated films and when they didn’t want to see the movie my mother would buy my ticket for me and drop me off at the theater.  She wasn’t happy about it.  She’d rather I was allowed to buy my own tickets, but she did it.  If I was a child today I would ask my mom to sign me up for email and any other site on the internet.  And parents should have that right.

But you can’t petition a company for redress the same way you can petition the government.  You just get what you get.  And with the way things are set up now, you get lies from children.  And you know what lying about who you are on the internet leads to?  Gay girl in Damascus and Lez Get Real.  That’s all I’m saying.

More and more often the internet is placing a greater value on your true identity.  And we should value truth.  If a child wants to sign up for an internet service they should be encouraged to be truthful.  They should be educated about making safe choices on the internet, being honest with people, and knowing how to protect themselves, and yes there absolutely should be parental involvement.  Will kids still lie online?  Probably.  But the more we talk to them about what they could experience online the more prepared they will be to deal with those situations when they arise, and they will be stronger people online because of it.