Friday, October 28, 2005

Attack bloggers on the loose???

There's a lovely piece in Forbes magazine slamming the blogging community. Yet the article itself is a prime example of the over-the-top slam story that's lacking in the kind of credibility you get when you check your facts carefully.

Attack of the Blogs (Daniel Lyons, 11.14.05, forbes.com, registration required)

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.

And with that bit of distortion as the foundation for the article, can we expect fair and balanced journalism?

The article leads off with the story of Gregory Halpern and the woes of his company. His company offered several products for sale, and was going fine until a blogger latched on:

Then the bloggers attacked. A supposed crusading journalist launched an online campaign long on invective and wobbly on facts, posting articles on his Web log (blog) calling Halpern "deceitful,""unethical,""incredibly stupid" and "a pathological liar" who had misled investors. The author claimed to be Nick Tracy, a London writer who started his one-man "watchdog" Web site, our-street.com, to expose corporate fraud. He put out press releases saying he had filed complaints against Circle with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

The result of the "attack" has been a drastic decline in the company stock price, their deal with Nestle never came through, etc. The "journalist" turned out to be an out of work stock analyst who later was indicted and convicted in stock a pump-and-dump scheme.

Okay, fine, perhaps Halpern and his company are innocent victims. But is "bloging" the culprit here? The whole slant of the article is to label bloggers as a vicious horde out to damage and destroy for some kind of evil ends. But is that true?

A blog is merely a web site of a particular shape and functionality. The fake "journalist" mentioned above could have done the same damage using a regular web site. That he used blog software has nothing to do with the effect of what he did.

For example here's another section of the article:

"Bloggers are more of a threat than people realize, and they are only going to get more toxic. This is the new reality," says Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at Intelliseek, a Cincinnati firm that sifts through millions of blogs to provide watch-your-back service to 75 clients, including Procter & Gamble and Ford. "The potential for brand damage is really high," says Frank Shaw, executive vice president at Microsoft's main public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom. "There is bad information out there in the blog space, and you have only hours to get ahead of it and cut it off, especially if it's juicy."

These people are confused ... Sure, there probably is bad information out there. But it doesn't matter whether it's a blog or not. Blogs are not the enemy.

Some companies now use blogs as a weapon, unleashing swarms of critics on their rivals. "I'd say 50% to 60% of attacks are sponsored by competitors," says Bruce Fischman, a lawyer in Miami for targets of online abuse. He says he represents a high-tech firm thrashed by blogs that were secretly funded by a rival; the parties are in talks to settle out of court. One blog, Groklaw, exists primarily to bash software maker SCOGroup in its Linux patent lawsuit against IBM, producing laughably biased, pro-IBMcoverage; its origins are a mystery (see box, p. 136).

In other words, this is the same old process (corporate PR warfare) moved into a new arena.

Corporations have been slamming each other for years. Faked up slam stories have been circulated for years. PR firms have for years specialized in making spin and counter spin work to create or destroy public image. There's nothing new here, it's the same old practices clothed in new technology.

But here's one of the few interesting thoughts in the article:

Google and other services operate with government-sanctioned impunity, protected from any liability for anything posted on the blogs they host. Thus they serve up vitriolic "content" without bearing any legal responsibility for ensuring it is fair or accurate; at times they even sell ads alongside the diatribes. "We don't get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander," says Jason Goldman, a manager at Google's blogging division. In squabbles between anonymous bloggers and victims Google sides with the attackers, refusing to turn over any information unless a judge orders it to open up. "We'll do it if we believe we are required to by law," he says.

There are several large blog hosting services such as Google (Blogger.com), TypePad, LiveJournal and Movable Type plus others. What this paragraph suggests is that perhaps the blog hosting services ought to be held accountable for the statements of the people for whom they host blogs.

Okay, let's ponder this for a moment.

At first blush the attraction to operating a blog is one has a virtual soapbox from which to speak to the world. Everybody has their own message to bring to the world (as I discuss here), and not everybody's message is one of love and light. Further, there are many messages to speak to the world that the corporatists would find damaging to their precious businesses. Hence, it would behoove a blog hosting service to not censor what the users of the service write.

They might not get many customers to their blog hosting service if they were very heavy-handed in censoring what the bloggers write.

For example the blogger.com terms of service spell it out pretty well.

5. PRIVACY POLICY ... It is Pyra's policy to respect the privacy of Members. Therefore, Pyra will not disclose to any third party Member's name or contact information. Pyra will also not monitor, edit, or disclose the contents of a Member's information unless required to do so by law or in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to: (1) conform to the edicts of the law or comply with legal process served on Pyra; (2) protect and defend the rights or property of Pyra; or (3) act under exigent circumstances to protect the personal safety of BTS members or the public; (4) fix or debug problems with the Blogger software/service.

... 6b. CONTENT RESPONSIBILITY Member acknowledges and agrees that Pyra neither endorses the contents of any Member communications nor assumes responsibility for any threatening, libelous, obscene, harassing or offensive material contained therein, any infringement of third party intellectual property rights arising therefrom or any crime facilitated thereby.

... 12. MEMBER CONDUCT ... (2) not to use the Service for illegal purposes; ... Member agrees not to transmit through the Service any unlawful, harassing, libelous, abusive, threatening, or harmful material of any kind or nature. Member further agrees not to transmit any material that encourages conduct that could constitute a criminal offense, give rise to civil liability or otherwise violate any applicable local, state, national or international law or regulation. Attempts to gain unauthorized access to other computer systems are prohibited.

...

The way I read the policy, the intent is to portray blogger.com as a soapbox from which people can write pretty much what they want within some reasonably loose bounds of acceptibility. However one of the restrictions is against posting libelous or abusive material, so if blogger.com were to adhere to their publicly claimed policies then they would cancel blogs which are deemed libelous or abusive. What's the problem, then?

Not that one really needs blogger.com to launch a blog. It's trivially easy to set up a blog with blogger.com, but it's only slightly harder to do so with a regular web hosting company.

That is, suppose someone dearly wanted to be posting abusively libelous material. Suppose blogger.com were hardline about terminating accounts of people who post abusively libelous material? How would that someone go about posting their abusively libelous material? Simple ... they go to any of the dozens of web hosting companies, get an account, install blog software, and they're online with a blog.

Why should the hosting company be held liable for the actions of one of their customers?

Let's take a physical world example. Say a drug dealer was renting a storefront as a cover for their drug dealing operation. Is the building owner responsible? No. When the police capture the drug dealer, would the building owner also be accused of any crime? No.

That's the kind of arrangement we have going on here. Hosting companies are operating a kind of rental operation, where they run computers and offer people the space to store their web sites. Why should the hosting company be held liable for what their customers are doing? Yet, that's what the Forbes article suggests, that the hosting company should be liable.