Category Archives: Technology

No change in comments for now

I recently floated the idea of morphing the real-names requirement into a registration requirement — you’d have to sign in with WordPress, Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook, which meant that you’d be posting under a verified identity but not necessarily a real name.

I’ve decided to leave things alone, at least for the time being. A few people really think the real-names requirement is something I ought to keep. And if I’m going to do that, then there’s no reason to require registration with a third-party service.

If WordPress.com ever makes it possible to add a service like Disqus or Open ID, I may revisit the issue. For now, those services can only be used with hosted blogs using WordPress.org.

What are your thoughts on tweaking comments?

I’m thinking of making a tweak to commenting on Media Nation. Rather than requiring real names, first and last, as I have since 2010, I might shift to requiring online verification instead.

There’s a function I can turn on that would require people to sign in using their Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or Google Plus account before commenting. I would still screen comments before posting them. But no longer would I be tracking people down to remind them to use their full names — something that causes me to lose a fair number of comments.

Most of the commenting energy has shifted to Facebook anyway. (If you don’t follow the conversation when I post a Media Nation link on Facebook, you’re missing a lot. You can follow my public feed by clicking here.) But I feel like I need to give the on-site comments a jolt.

A word about Facebook: If you comment on Media Nation using your Facebook account, your comment will not appear anywhere on Facebook. It’s simply a log-in mechanism. Still, I have no doubt that Facebook tracks you for its own internal advertising purposes.

As for the alternatives, logging in with WordPress is probably the most benign. WordPress is part of a nonprofit organization and it’s not a social network, at least not in the sense that the other three are. You can sign up for an account without having to start a blog. If you’re comfortable posting comments in public, then you shouldn’t have any problem registering with WordPress.

Thoughts?

Correction: WordPress.com’s owner, Automattic, is in fact a for-profit company. See this comment.

How offline relationships affect online debates

I had an interesting experience Friday debating politics with Jeff Jacoby and Howard Owens on Twitter. It was the usual: big versus small government, federal versus local, food stamps and the best way to help the poor, etc.

I thought we had a civil discussion, although it got a bit heated at times. Then others came in and were pretty disparaging of Jeff and Howard. And I realized what a difference it makes when you know someone in the real world, and how that changes the way you frame your online discussions. I know Jeff and Howard offline, and I also know they are as intelligent and well-read as I am, if not more so. Yes, I think they’re wrong on some issues, but I know they arrived at their positions honestly and that I’m not going to change their minds by shooting off 140-character rockets.

And it underscored the futility of getting into social-media battles with people you don’t know. It is a massive waste of time. Yes, talking politics with people we know is always a good idea. Listen and learn. Even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll understand more than you did before. And don’t bother fighting with strangers.

Speaking of online conversations … like many, I have found that discussions are often richer and more substantive on Facebook than anywhere else. So feel free to weigh in here.

The Swartz suicide and the sick culture of the Justice Dept.

Harvey headshotRepublished by permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where this article first appeared. Thanks to my friend Harvey for making this available to readers of Media Nation.

By Harvey A. Silverglate

Some lawyers are joking when they refer to the Moakley Courthouse as “the House of Pain.” I’m not.

The ill-considered prosecution leading to the suicide of computer prodigy Aaron Swartz is the most recent in a long line of abusive prosecutions coming out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, representing a disastrous culture shift. It sadly reflects what’s happened to the federal criminal courts, not only in Massachusetts but across the country.

It’s difficult for lawyers to step back and view the larger picture of the unflattering system from which we derive our status and our living. But we have an ethical obligation to criticize the legal system when warranted.

Who else, after all, knows as much about where the proverbial bodies are buried and is in as good a position to tell truth to power as members of the independent bar?

Yet the palpable injustices flowing regularly out of the federal criminal courts have by and large escaped the critical scrutiny of the lawyers who are in the best position to say something. And judges tend not to recognize what to outsiders are serious flaws, because the system touts itself as the best and fairest in the world.

Since the mid-1980s, a proliferation of vague and overlapping federal criminal statutes has given federal prosecutors the ability to indict, and convict, virtually anyone unfortunate enough to come within their sights. And sentencing guidelines confer yet additional power on prosecutors, who have the discretion to pick and choose from statutes covering the same behavior.

This dangerous state of affairs has resulted in countless miscarriages of justice, many of which aren’t recognized as such until long after unfairly incarcerated defendants have served “boxcar-length” sentences.

Aaron Swartz was a victim of this system run amok. He was indicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.

As Harvard Law School Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig has written for The Atlantic: “For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn’t like.”

Swartz believed that information on the Internet should be free to the extent possible. He entered the site operated by JSTOR, a repository of millions of pages of academic articles available for sale, and downloaded a huge cache. He did not sell any, and while it remains unclear exactly how or even if he intended to make his “information should be free” point, no one who knew Swartz, not even the government, thought he was in it to make money.

Therefore, JSTOR insisted that criminal charges not be brought.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz obscured that point when announcing the indictment. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars, and whether its to feed your children or for buying a new car” she said, failing to recognize the most basic fact: that Swartz neither deprived the owners of the articles of their property nor made a penny from his caper. Continue reading

How empty space led to experimentation at the Globe

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

Creative technologist Chris Marstall at the Boston Globe Idea Lab.

The New York Times has a terrific story today about how the downsized Boston Globe — a sister paper — has turned over a chunk of unused space to entrepreneurs, its online radio station, RadioBDC, and even a pilot for a television series.

As Times reporter Christine Haughney observes, the experimental venture by Globe publisher Christopher Mayer has already paid off in the form of a partnership with Michael Morisy, the co-founder of the public-records website MuckRock.

Dominating the space is the Idea Lab, where a small group of smart young people try out new ideas, such as different approaches to tracking Globe stories on social media and a wall-size group of screens that plots Instagram photos on a map of Boston. The latter ended up playing a role in the Globe’s recent interactive series on life in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Dorchester, “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope.”

I’ve brought several groups of students to tour the Idea Lab. For anyone interested in the future of journalism, it’s one of the most interesting places you can visit.

Photo © 2012 by Megan Lieberman and used by permission.

Sununu blasts MIT and Carmen Ortiz in Swartz case

It’s interesting that even a conservative like John E. Sununu is disgusted with the actions of MIT and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz regarding their investigation of the late Internet democracy activist Aaron Swartz.

Sununu, an MIT graduate with some serious basketball moves, writes in The Boston Globe that Swartz was charged criminally for behavior that in an earlier time might have been considered no more serious than any one of a number of pranks for which the university is known. The whole thing, he says, should have been handled in house:

Whereas the institute once would have taken pains to find an appropriate and internal resolution to violations of regulations — and even laws — within its campus, it chose to defer to others. That reaction isn’t unique to MIT, but rather a reflection of gradual changes in accepted cultural and government behavior over the past 20 years. Today, regulators and prosecutors regularly use their power to impose agreements, plea bargains, and consent decrees with little judicial review. They threaten the maximum penalty allowable — regardless of whether a rational mind would consider it fitting for the infraction — in order to gain an outcome that enhances their stature or pleases their political base.

Meanwhile, Noam Cohen of The New York Times takes a detailed look at how MIT caught Swartz, who downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles from the JSTOR subscription service without authorization.