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May 31 2013

14:08

This Week in Review: Debating journalists’ role in DOJ seizures, and Facebook tackles hate speech

james-rosen-fox-news

Blame for both the DOJ and journalists: The story of the U.S. Department of Justice’s seizure of news organizations’ phone and email records moved into “who knew what and when” stage, especially regarding the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Fox didn’t know Rosen’s phone records and emails had been taken until it became public last week, but The Wall Street Journal reported this week that its parent company, News Corp., was notified by the DOJ in 2010 but didn’t tell Fox.

News Corp. issued some mixed signals in response, initially saying it had no record of notification from the DOJ but eventually conceding that it didn’t dispute the DOJ’s claim that notification was sent. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza put forward a theory as to why it’s in News Corp.’s interest to be more deferential to the Obama administration DOJ, but in Fox News’ interest to be more antagonistic. However, The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve noted that Fox News doesn’t have a very good track record on advocating for journalists’ freedom in these cases.

The metastasizing issue — coupled with the DOJ’s seizure of what the Associated Press claims is “thousands and thousands” of its phone records — has led Attorney General Eric Holder to plan a meeting with the top representatives of several major news organizations to hash out guidelines for DOJ intrusion. Several news organizations, including The New York Times and AP, announced, however, that they wouldn’t attend the meeting because it’s set to be off the record. The Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman wrote a thorough piece on Holder’s regrets in these cases, saying that it’s not part of the progressive image in which he views himself, and Salon’s Alex Pareene explained why Holder’s likely to keep his job despite the outcry.

In a pair of stories, The New York Times reported on the remarkable scale of many of the Obama administration’s leak inquiries and journalists’ charges that such efforts are creating a chilling effect on investigative journalism on the federal government. Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian expressed his dismay at journalists’ lack of action against the administration’s actions: In the current climate, he said, “it’s very difficult to imagine the US press corps taking any meaningful steps to push back against these attacks. And as long as that’s true, it’s very hard to see why the Obama administration would possibly stop doing it.”

At the same time, several others argued that the press’s self-defense reaction is a bit too knee-jerk in this case. Slate’s Fred Kaplan and The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus both argued that Rosen’s source was not a whistleblower exposing corruption but someone simply breaking the law and revealing harmful information. And Reuters’ Jack Shafer contended that Obama has not declared war on the press, as his crusade against leaks has been much more on the supply side than the demand side.

Still others, including Peter Sterne of the New York Observer and Matthew Cooper of the National Journal, were concerned that the proposed shield law wouldn’t do enough to protect journalists. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones tried to find a middle way between their concern for journalists and the objections of those such as Pincus.

Facebook rape ad

Facebook, hate speech, and censorship: Yet another debate over Facebook’s control over its users’ content simmered this week, though it was a bit different from the privacy flaps of the past. A coalition of feminist groups called Women, Action, and the Media wrote an open letter to Facebook last week urging it to remove content that trivializes or glorifies violence against women, noting that Facebook already moderates what it considers hate speech and pornographic content.

The groups also campaigned to Facebook’s advertisers, succeeding in getting several of them to pull their advertising until Facebook took some action. Facebook ultimately responded by posting a statement saying it hadn’t policed gender-related hate speech as well as it should have and vowing to take several steps to more closely moderate such content. The New York Times has a good, quick summary tying together the advertiser campaign and Facebook’s response.

While Valleywag’s Sam Biddle argued that all Facebook did was try to placate those protesting rather than commit to any real action, while Forbes’ Kashmir Hill and Reuters’ Jack Shafer noted that Facebook probably didn’t do this out of any morally consistent concern over content, but simply because of advertiser pressure. Hill concluded that “the procedure appears to be that they will draw the line when advertisers start complaining to them,” and Shafer argued that Facebook has only pushed this discourse underground, further away from the voices of reason and shame.

And while everyone seemed to agree that Facebook’s well within its rights to police speech on its own platform (and that it’s clamping down on a particularly heinous form of speech in this case), they also wondered about the precedent. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered about the slippery slope of what Facebook considers hate speech.

newsweek feature

Newsweek on the block (again): Variety reported that IAC is attempting to sell Newsweek, a month after its chairman, Barry Diller, called his purchase of the magazine a “mistake.” IAC shut down Newsweek’s print edition at the end of 2012, turning it into a web-only publication. As Variety noted, most every indicator at Newsweek — subscriptions, traffic, cash flow — is trending downward.

Newsweek confirmed the attempted sale with an internal memo, saying that Newsweek is drawing resources away from its sister site, The Daily Beast. Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici offered a more detailed explanation: Diller bought Newsweek thinking he needed a print publication to supplement its digital ad base, but since it’s failed at that, it’s become a mere distraction (and drag on the bottom line). Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan urged prospective buyers to stay away, though Mathew Ingram of paidContent offered some tips for its new owner: drop the paywall, aggregate, go deep on particular topics, develop a strong voice, and embrace mobile.

Reading roundup: Despite the quiet week overall, there were several smaller stories to watch:

— Rob Fishman of BuzzFeed wrote a thoughtful piece questioning whether the social media editor might be an endangered species at news organizations, as engagement with social media becomes a deeper part of each journalists’ work and routines. Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa (more on him in a bit) said social media editors are more important than ever, and Digital First’s Mandy Jenkins countered that many news organizations (especially smaller ones) still have a need for someone dedicated to newsroom-wide social media integration and gave some useful advice about how to do it. Elsewhere in social media, Twitter said it wants to partner with media companies rather than become one of them, and Jeswin and Jesse Koepke talked on Medium about how undo Facebook’s massification of online social interaction.

— One of the news industry’s most prominent social media editors, Anthony De Rosa, announced he’s leaving Reuters to join Circa, the startup that summarizes top news stories by breaking them down into “atomic units.” PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram explained what Circa’s up to, and Fast Company’s Anjali Mullany published a Q&A with De Rosa about his plans there.

— A few News Corp. pieces: It announced it will officially split into a publishing company (called News Corp.) and an entertainment company (21st Century Fox) on June 28. It introduced its retooled News Corp. logo, and the new News Corp.’s head, Robert Thomson, declared that it would have “relentless” cuts in store after the split.

— BuzzFeed announced a new YouTube channel featuring video through a partnership with CNN. The Wall Street Journal explained what’s behind both companies’ move deeper into online video.

— Finally, a couple of smart pieces on the native advertising phenomenon: CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis made the case against news orgs getting into native advertising, and Publish2′s Scott Karp laid out some of the difficulties of making native advertising scale.

April 11 2012

14:00

Governments Increasingly Targeting Twitter Users for Expressing Their Opinion

This piece is co-authored by Trevor Timm.

In its six years of existence, Twitter has staked out a position as the most free speech-friendly social network. Its utility in the uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa is unmatched, its usage by activists and journalists alike to spread news and galvanize the public unprecedented.

As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo recently boasted at the Guardian Changing Media Summit, Twitter is "the free speech wing of the free speech party."

But at the same time, some governments -- in both not-so-democratic and democratic societies -- have not taken such a positive view of Twitter and freedom of expression. Instead, they've threatened, arrested and prosecuted their citizens for what they express in 140 characters or less.

Not surprisingly, in a number of authoritarian-minded states, journalists are often the first targets. And as bloggers and pundits take to the ephemeral style of Twitter to criticize rules, the government has been -- in a number of cases -- one step ahead. While some countries, such as Bahrain and Tunisia, have chosen to block individual Twitter accounts, others prefer to go straight to the source.

Crackdown in the Middle East

In February, Saudi blogger and journalist Hamza Kashgari fled the country after threats on his life. His crime? Tweeting a mock conversation with the Prophet Mohammed, an action which many called blasphemous. Though Kashgari was on his way to a country that would have granted him asylum, he transferred in Malaysia where, upon his arrival, he was detained, and finally extradited back to his home country, despite pleas from the international community to allow him to continue onward.

Kashgari remains in detention in Saudi Arabia, while outside of prison, members of the public continue to call for his murder. Nearly as chilling is the threat to his livelihood: Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Abdul Aziz Khoja has banned Kashgari, a journalist by profession, from writing in "any Saudi paper or magazine," meaning that even if he walks free, he'll be prohibited from continuing in the only profession he has ever known -- and all for a tweet.

In the United Arab Emirates -- no stranger to Internet censorship -- political activist Mohammed Abdel-Razzaq al-Siddiq was arrested in late March for criticizing one of the country's rulers on his Twitter account. Earlier in the month, blogger and activist Saleh AlDhufair was arrested for criticizing repressive actions by state authorities on Twitter as well.

According to one source, UAE authorities also detained three other people in recent weeks for postings on social media, including one young citizen who faces charges for commenting on uprisings against autocratic rulers in the region on Twitter. All are free on bail for now, but their ultimate fates have yet to be determined.

muawiya-375x250.jpg

In Oman, police arrested prominent blogger Muawiya Alrawahi in February after he posted a series of tweets in which he criticized the country's rulers on a variety of issues. Alrawahi's arrest directly followed that of two journalists charged with "insulting" the Minister of Justice. And in nearby Kuwait, writer Mohammad al-Mulaifi has been held for more than a month over accusations of "insulting the Muslim Shi'ite minority," a charge which for another activist, Mubarak Al-Bathali, whose "crime" was also committed on Twitter, resulted in a prison sentence of three years (later commuted to six months). His detention was not the first of its kind in the country either; in the summer of 2011, Nasser Abul spent three months in prison for criticizing the Bahraini and Saudi royal families on Twitter.

Outside the Gulf, Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has taken a similar approach. Last summer, SCAF court-martialed young activist Asmaa Mahfouz and charged her with inciting violence, disturbing public order and spreading false information via her Twitter account. Tunisia and Morocco have also cracked down on social media punditry of late and have arrested Facebook users for expressing themselves politically.

Facebook is as likely a target as Twitter. In the West Bank, Palestinian authorities arrested two Palestinian journalists, which may prove to have a self-silencing effect on other local reporters. Two journalists and a university lecturer were recently detained for comments made on Facebook that offended the Palestinian Authority. The lecturer remains imprisoned.

Democracy?

Arrests and prosecutions based on tweets is not relegated to Middle Eastern countries, however. A string of cases in otherwise robust democracies have raised questions by using the legal system to attempt to jail citizens who many would say are engaging in free speech.

South Korea -- one of a handful of democracies that justifies online censorship on the basis of "national security" -- has used its National Security Law to mete out harsh punishments to those who "praise, encourage disseminate or cooperate with anti-state groups, members or those under their control." The law applies to "affiliation with or support for" North Korea, and allows the government to censor websites related to North Korea or communism.

As reported by the New York Times in February, authorities arrested Park Jung-geun, a 23-year-old photographer, who re-posted content from North Korean government site Uriminzokkiri.com to his Twitter account. Ironically, South Korean media regularly cite the government-run website in news reports. Though Park claimed that his Twitter posts were intended sarcastically, prosecutors disagreed, countering that the Twitter account "served as a tool to spread North Korean propaganda." If convicted, Park could face up to seven years in jail.

In the United Kingdom, where the prime minister already floated the idea of censoring Twitter accounts during the London riots last year, a judge sentenced 21-year-old college student Liam Stacey to 56 days in jail for tweeting racist remarks about a prominent footballer for the Bolton Wanderers. While the tweets were certainly "vile and abhorrent" as the judge concluded, his statement that "there is no alternative to an immediate prison sentence" is misguided. By making an international case out of the tweets, the prison sentence ended up giving them more reach than if had they been ignored.

In the United States, strong free speech protections under the First Amendment have kept Twitter users out of jail for expressing their opinion, but increasingly, the federal and local governments have been going after Twitter users in a different way -- by subpoenaing their Twitter information in criminal investigations. Most notably, this tactic was used against three former WikiLeaks volunteers, who saw their Twitter and email information subpoenaed in a Grand Jury investigation into the publishing of classified information -- a practice normally protected by the First Amendment.

occupy.jpg

But more recently, a series of subpoenas have been issued by the Boston and New York district attorneys offices in response to Occupy Wall Street protests. At least four accounts have been targeted, and often the subpoenas come with requests for months of information for minor crimes such as disorderly conduct that often don't rise to a felony, require jail time, or even show up on one's permanent criminal record. Critics have seen it as an intimidation tactic against protesters who are engaging in legitimate First Amendment-protected speech.

While social media sites like Twitter will continue to proliferate in the coming years, governments -- whether they are fearful of the power of communication, because of existing strict speech laws, or a combination of both -- will find ways to "fight back" against increasing venues for expression. Journalists -- whose livelihood is increasingly bolstered by social media -- must continue to call attention to them.

Occupy image by asterix611, CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

Jillian C. York is the director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online, and has written for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Bloomberg.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. Previously, he helped the former general counsel of the New York Times write a book on press freedom and the First Amendment. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic and Al Jazeera.

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February 10 2012

14:00

Mediatwits #37: Merger Mania: CIR-Bay Citizen; GigaOM-PaidContent; Twitter Censorship

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Welcome to the 37th episode of "The Mediatwits," the weekly audio podcast from MediaShift. The co-hosts are MediaShift's Mark Glaser and Jillian York, who is filling in for Rafat Ali. It's been a crazy week in media + tech, with important mergers abounding! First up is the Center for Investigative Reporting announcing that it will try to merge with another non-profit, the Bay Citizen, making a powerhouse investigative team to cover local, state and national issues. We get all the key players in that deal as guests on the show: CIR chairman Phil Bronstein, CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal and Bay Citizen interim CEO Brian Kelley.

Next up, there's a merger of key tech sites, both started by Indian-born bloggers who turned them into startup businesses. GigaOM announced it was buying PaidContent from the Guardian for an undisclosed sum. The Guardian will get stock in GigaOM's parent company and get a seat on the board. Special guests OM Malik, founder of GigaOM and Staci Kramer, SVP at ContentNext (and sometimes co-host of Mediatwits), talked about the deal and how the "synergy" in this case didn't mean layoffs. And finally, we discussed the recent move by Twitter to censor some tweets in countries that had more stringent free speech controls. Was Twitter right to implement these rules?

Check it out!

mediatwits37.mp3

Subscribe to the podcast here

Subscribe to Mediatwits via iTunes

Follow @TheMediatwits on Twitter here

Intro and outro music by 3 Feet Up; mid-podcast music by Autumn Eyes via Mevio's Music Alley.

Here are some highlighted topics from the show:

PhilBronstein.jpg

Intro

1:00: Jillian York explains her work at the EFF

2:20: Blogs, online forums, social media only places for free expression in many countries

3:35: Rundown of topics for the podcast

CIR and Bay Citizen

4:30: Special guests Phil Bronstein, Robert Rosenthal, Brian Kelley

8:00: Rosenthal: Want to create engaged audience in Bay Area and globally

11:10: Kelley: Should be excellent synergy between organizations

12:45: Kelley: Striking about timing of executive departures, but not connected

17:20: Bronstein: Sustainability is something we talk about every day

GigaOM buys PaidContent

20:00: Special guests Om Malik and Staci Kramer

22:30: Malik: We can now cover a broader spectrum of topics

22:40: Kramer: In this case, synergy won't mean layoffs, cost-cutting

26:30: Kramer: We're not new media, we're media

28:50: How is Om any different than Michael Arrington as VC?

Twitter censoring tweets

32:30: Micro-blog service will comply with rules in other countries

33:45: Is the #TwitterBlackout a good idea?

35:50: York: The laws in the countries are the problem, not the companies' policies

38:10: York: I don't think these companies should be in China

More Reading

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Plan to Merge. Now What? at MediaShift

Bay Citizen in Merger Talks With Another Nonprofit at Wall Street Journal

The Bay Citizen's short, strange saga in nonprofit news could be coming to an end at SF Business Times

Bay Citizen, Center for Investigative Reporting Announce Intent to Merge at Bay Citizen

GigaOM + PaidContent = Perfect Sense at MediaShift

Is GigaOM Buying paidContent? at AllThingsD

Why We Are Buying PaidContent at GigaOM

GigaOM And paidContent Join Forces at PaidContent

Twitter Censorship Move Sparks Backlash: Is It Justified? at Wired

Twitter's censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter at Reuters

Twitter Censorship: Outkast's Big Boi Involved In Beyonce Tweet Takedown at Huffington Post

South Korean Indicted Over Twitter Posts From North at NY Times

Weekly Poll

Don't forget to vote in our weekly poll, this time about Twitter censoring tweets:


What do you think about Twitter censoring tweets?

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+

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February 03 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Twitter’s censorship compromise, and Facebook files with big numbers

Twitter spells out its censorship policy: Just a couple of weeks after the SOPA/PIPA fight came to a head, Twitter pushed the discussion about online censorship a bit further when it announced late last week a new policy for censoring tweets: When Twitter gets requests from governments to block tweets containing what they deem illegal speech, its new policy will allow it to block those tweets only to readers within that country, leaving it visible to the rest of the world. Twitter will send notice that it’s blocked a tweet to the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects.

As the Guardian and The New York Times noted, much of the initial response among Twitter users consisted of complaints about censorship and the chilling of free speech in countries with oppressive regimes. The policy had critics elsewhere, too: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin said “it’s hard to see this as anything but a huge setback and disappointment,” and the international group Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Twitter questioning the policy and urging the company to reconsider. And later, BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza pointed out that even though Twitter implied that it had already been blocking tweets at the request of governments (which would have made the new policy a reduction in censorship), it’s never actually done so — only in response to legal challenges on copyright issues.

But perhaps surprisingly, Twitter had far more defenders than critics among media observers. Alex Howard of GovFresh put together the most comprehensive roundup of opinions on the subject, praising Twitter himself for “sticking up for users where it can.” Two free-speech advocates, Mike Masnick of TechDirt and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York, made similar arguments: When a government is demanding censorship, Twitter can either refuse and be blocked entirely in that country, or it can comply. Twitter, they said, has chosen the latter in as limited and transparent fashion as possible.

Others, like The Next Web’s Nancy Messieh, commended Twitter for shifting the censorship focus to the government — as Reuters’ Paul Smalera argued, the gray box noting that a tweet has been censored in a certain country is a black mark for that government, not Twitter. The broadest argument in Twitter’s defense came from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who, in addition to these arguments, also praised Twitter for its transparency and for allowing users an easy way to circumvent censorship.

Still others weren’t firmly on either side regarding the policy itself, but pointed to larger issues surrounding it. Media prof C.W. Anderson said that while Twitter did the best it could under the circumstances but showed it doesn’t have any values that override its place as a business: “non-market values are, in the long run, incompatible with the logic of the market, and what Twitter is trying to do now is reconcile what it believes with what the market needs it to do.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer called for people to learn to be able to organize themselves outside of Twitter’s infrastructure and the possibly of censorship.

In a pair of thoughtful posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised caution in trusting Twitter, recognizing that like Google and Facebook, it’s a business whose interests might not align with our own. The EFF’s York and Eva Galperin encouraged users and observers to keep a close eye on Twitter in order to keep them accountable for adhering to their professed beliefs.

Facebook goes public: Facebook’s much-anticipated filing for a public stock offering came on Wednesday, and The New York Times and Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land have the best quick-hit summaries of the S-1 document. The big numbers are mind-bogglingly big: 845 million monthly active users, $5 billion in stock, $3.71 billion in revenue last year, $1 billion in profit. Of that revenue, 85% came from advertising, and 12% came from the social gaming giant Zynga alone. (All Things D has the background on that relationship.) And when you average it out, Facebook’s only getting $4.39 in revenue per active user.

Aside from the numbers, among the other items of interest from the filings was its risk assessment — as summarized by Mashable, it sees slowing expected growth, difficulty in making money off of mobile access, competition from the likes of Google and Twitter, and global government censorship as some of its main risk factors. There’s also Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders, annotated with delightful snark by Wired’s Tim Carmody, which includes the explanation of a company code Zuckerberg calls “The Hacker Way.” Forbes’ Andy Greenberg made one of the first of what’s sure to be many comparisons between The Hacker Way and Google’s “Don’t Be Evil.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram took note of the grandiosity of Zuckerberg’s stated mission to rewire the world.

Two main questions emerged in commentary on the filing: How much is Facebook really worth? And what happens to Facebook now? To the first question, as The New York Times pointed out on the eve of Facebook’s filing, the company’s massive net worth is a stark indicator of the booming value of personal data collected online. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum took the opposite tack, wondering why Facebook gets so little money out of each of its hundreds of millions of users before concluding that “Facebook is still a young business figuring out how to sell ads and figuring it how aggressive it can get without ticking off users.”

To the second question, Mathew Ingram noted that going public is usually a way for tech companies to get the financing they need to build up for some major growth — something Facebook has already done. So, he asked, is this just an attempt for Facebook’s employees and backers to cash out, and the end of the company’s most productive growth phase? Leaning on tech entrepreneurship leader John Battelle, Wired’s Tim Carmody and Mike Isaac reasoned that Facebook is mature enough already that in order to attain the growth it’s promising, it needs to be in the midst of some massive changes as a company. A couple of guesses at some of those specific changes: More ads and purchases of tech companies (Fast Company) and a big ramp-up in mobile ads (Marketing Land).

Murdoch’s candor amid scandal: The phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has continued to spread (rather quietly here in the States, but much more prominently in the U.K.), and it may have turned yet another corner with the arrest last weekend of four journalists from News Corp.’s Sun, significantly deepening the scandal beyond the now-defunct News of the World, where it began.

News Corp. has also turned over an enormous new trove of data which, along with the arrests, could begin to seriously threaten News Corp.’s other British newspapers, including the Times, according to the Guardian’s Nick Davies. British j-prof Roy Greenslade reported that many Sun staffers are worried that they may not be part of News Corp. much longer.

In the midst of all this, Murdoch’s feisty Twitter account continues unfettered, prompting praise from The New York Times’ David Carr for his refreshing candor. Mathew Ingram agreed that this “sources go direct” approach should be viewed as a boon, not a challenge, to serious journalism. The AP’s Jonathan Stray had perhaps the best summation of the relationship between sources using their own platforms and journalism: “When they want you to know, sources will go direct. When they don’t… that’s journalism.”

Reading roundup: It was a relatively quiet week outside of the big Twitter and Facebook stories, but there were still some cool nuggets to be found:

— Facebook’s relatively new Twitter-like Subscribe feature continues to draw complaints of rampant spam. Those criticisms have been led by Jim Romenesko, but this week the New York Daily News and Slate’s Katherine Goldstein chimed in, voicing concerns in particular about inappropriate comments directed toward women. Meanwhile, Mashable’s Todd Wasserman said Subscribe is ruining the News Feed.

— Big news in the journalism-academy world: Columbia and Stanford are teaming up to create a new Institute for Media Innovation, thanks to a $30 million gift from longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

— Jay Rosen posted an inspiring interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Tracy Samantha Schmidt, gleaning some useful insights on how to nurture an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit within a large organization, rather than a startup.

— Megan Garber of The Atlantic presented the results of a Hot or Not-style study that determined what type of Twitter content people like. Here’s what they don’t like: Old news, Twitter jargon, personal details, negativity, and lack of context.

Rupert Murdoch photo by David Shankbone and original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

January 20 2012

16:00

This Week in Review: The SOPA standoff, and Apple takes on textbooks with ebooks

The web flexes its political muscle: After a couple of months of growing concern, the online backlash against the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA reached a rather impressive peak this week. There’s a lot of moving parts to this, so I’ll break it down into three parts: the arguments for and against the bill, the status of the bill, and this week’s protests.

The bills’ opponents have covered a wide variety of arguments over the past few months, but there were still a few more new angles this week in the arguments against SOPA. NYU prof Clay Shirky put the bill in historical context in a 14-minute TED talk, and social-media researcher danah boyd parsed out both the competitive and cultural facets of piracy. At the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel framed the issue as a struggle between big content companies and smaller innovators. The New York Times asked six contributors for their ideas about viable SOPA alternatives in fighting piracy, and at Slate, Matthew Yglesias argued that piracy actually has some real benefits for society and the entertainment industry.

The most prominent SOPA supporter on the web this week was News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, who went on a Twitter rant against SOPA opponents and Google in particular, reportedly after seeing a Google TV presentation in which the company said it wouldn’t remove links in search to illegal movie streams. Both j-prof Jeff Jarvis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram responded that Murdoch doesn’t understand how the Internet works, with Jarvis arguing that Murdoch isn’t opposed so much to piracy as the entire architecture of the web. At the Guardian, however, Dan Gillmor disagreed with the idea that Murdoch doesn’t get the web, saying that he and other big-media execs know exactly the threat it represents to their longstanding control of media content.

Now for the status of the bill itself: Late last week, SOPA was temporarily weakened and delayed, as its sponsor, Lamar Smith, said he would remove domain-name blocking until the issue has been “studied,” and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he won’t bring the bill to the House floor until some real consensus about the bill can be found.

That consensus became a bit less likely this week, after the White House came out forcefully against SOPA and PIPA, calling for, as Techdirt described it, a “hard reset” on the bills. The real blow to the bills came after Wednesday’s protests, when dozens of members of Congress announced their opposition. The fight is far from over, though — as Mathew Ingram noted, PIPA still has plenty of steam, and the House Judiciary Committee will resume its work on SOPA next month.

But easily the biggest news surrounding SOPA and PIPA this week was the massive protests of it around the web. Hundreds of sites, including such heavyweights as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, BoingBoing, and WordPress, blacked out on Wednesday, and other sites such as Google and Wired joined with “censored” versions of their home pages. As I noted above, the protest was extremely successful politically, as some key members of Congress backed off their support of the bill, leading The New York Times to call it a “political coming of age” for the tech industry.

The most prominent of those protesting sites was Wikipedia, which redirected site users to an anti-SOPA action page on Wednesday. Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales’ announcement of the protest was met with derision in some corners, with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and PandoDaily’s Paul Carr chastising the global site for doing something so drastic in response to a single national issue. Wales defended the decision by saying that the law will affect web users around the world, and he also got support from writers like Mathew Ingram and the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who argued that Wikipedia and Google’s protests could help take the issue out of the tech community and into the mainstream.

The New York Times’ David Pogue was put off by some aspects of the SOPA outrage and argued that some of the bill’s opposition grew out of a philosophy that was little more than, “Don’t take my free stuff!” And ReadWriteWeb’s Joe Brockmeier was concerned about what happens after the protest is over, when Congress goes back to business as usual and the public remains largely in the dark about what they’re doing. “Even if SOPA goes down in flames, it’s not over. It’s never over,” he wrote.

Apple’s bid to reinvent the textbook: Apple announced yesterday its plans to add educational publishing to the many industries it’s radically disrupted, through its new iBooks and iBooks Author systems. Wired’s Tim Carmody, who’s been consistently producing the sharpest stuff on this subject, has the best summary of what Apple’s rolling out: A better iBooks platform, a program (iBooks Author) allowing authors to design their own iBooks, textbooks in the iBookstore, and a classroom management app called iTunes U.

After news of the announcement was broken earlier this week by Ars Technica, the Lab’s Joshua Benton explained some of the reasons the textbook industry is ripe for disruption and wondered about the new tool’s usability. (Afterward, he listed some of the change’s implications, including for the news industry.) Tim Carmody, meanwhile, gave some historical perspective on Steve Jobs’ approach to education reform.

As Carmody detailed after the announcement, education publishing is a big business for Apple to come crashing into. But The Atlantic’s Megan Garber explained that that isn’t exactly what Apple’s doing here; instead, it’s simply “identifying transformative currents and building the right tools to navigate them.” Still, Reuters’ Jack Shafer asserted that what’s bad for these companies is good for readers like him.

But while Apple talked about reinventing the textbook, several observers didn’t see revolutionary changes around the corner. ReadWriteWeb’s John Paul Titlow noted that Apple is teaming up with big publishers, not killing them, and Paul Carr of PandoDaily argued that iBook Author’s self-made ebooks won’t challenge the professionally produced and marketed ones. All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka did the math to show the publishers should still get plenty of the new revenue streams.

The news still brought plenty of concerns: At CNET, Lindsey Turrentine wondered how many schools will have the funds to afford the hardware for iBooks, and David Carnoy and Scott Stein questioned how open Apple’s new platforms would be. That theme was echoed elsewhere, especially by developer Dan Wineman, who found that through its user agreement, Apple will essentially assert rights to anything produced with its iBooks file format. That level of control gave some, like GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, pause, but Paul Carr said we shouldn’t be surprised: This is what Apple does, he said, and we all buy its products anyway.

Making ‘truth vigilantes’ mainstream: The outrage late last week over New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane’s column asking whether the paper’s reporters should challenge misleading claims by officials continued to yield thoughtful responses this week. After his column last week voicing his support for journalism’s “truth vigilantes,” j-prof Robert Niles created a site to honor them, pointing out instances in which reporters call out their sources for lying. Salon’s Gene Lyons, meanwhile, said that attitudes like Brisbane’s are a big part of what’s led to the erosion of trust in the Times and the mainstream press.

The two sharpest takes on the issue this week came from The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and from Columbia Ph.D. student Lucas Graves here at the Lab. Friedersdorf took on journalists’ argument that people should read the news section for unvarnished facts and the opinion section for analysis: That argument doesn’t work, he said, because readers don’t consume a publication as a bundle anymore.

Graves analyzed the issue in light of both the audience’s expectations for news and the growth of the fact-checking movement. He argued for fact-checking to be incorporated into journalists’ everyday work, rather than remaining a specialized form of journalism. Reuters’ Felix Salmon agreed, asserting that “the greatest triumph of the fact-checking movement will come when it puts itself out of work, because journalists are doing its job for it as a matter of course.” At the Lab, Craig Newmark of Craigslist also chimed in, prescribing more rigorous fact-checking efforts as a way for journalists to regain the public’s trust.

Reading roundup: Not a ton of other news developments per se this week, but plenty of good reads nonetheless. Here’s a sample:

— There was one major development on the ongoing News Corp. phone hacking case: The company settled 36 lawsuits by victims, admitting a cover-up of the hacking. Here’s the basic story from Reuters and more in-depth live coverage from the Guardian.

— Rolling Stone published a long, wide-ranging interview with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange as he awaits his final extradition hearing. Reuters’ Jack Shafer also wrote a thoughtful piece on the long-term journalistic implications of WikiLeaks, focusing particularly on the continued importance of institutions.

— Two interesting pieces of journalism-related research: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo described a Facebook-based study that throws some cold water on the idea of the web as a haven for like-minded echo chambers, and the Lab’s Andrew Phelps wrote about a study that describes and categorizes the significant group people who stumble across news online.

— In a thorough feature, Nick Summers of Newsweek/The Daily Beast laid out the concerns over how big ESPN is getting, and whether that’s good for ESPN itself and sports media in general.

— Finally, for those thinking about how to develop the programmer-journalists of the future, j-prof Matt Waite has a set of thoughts on the topic that functions as a great jumping-off point for more ideas and discussion.

May 27 2011

14:30

This Week in Review: Confounding censors with Twitter, and space for big and small media on the iPad

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Censorship, the law, and Twitter: If we hadn’t already learned how social media are opening the traditional media’s gatekeeping role to the masses, we got a pretty good object lesson this week in Britain. Here’s what happened: To keep the British tabloids from digging into an alleged affair with a reality TV star, Manchester United soccer star Ryan Giggs took out a British court provision called a super-injunction that prohibits media from identifying him and reporting on both the story and the very fact that a super-injunction exists.

But the super-injunction was no match for Facebook, Twitter, and soccer forums, where thousands of people talked about Giggs and the affair in spite of (and because of) the order. Since then, a Scottish newspaper and a member of Parliament have both named Giggs, rendering the super-injunction essentially ineffective and causing quite a bit of handwringing over whether gag orders are a lost cause in the Twitter age, and whether or not that’s a good thing.

Giggs sued Twitter for the breach, and some members of Parliament started looking for ways to control the site. Prime Minister David Cameron said Twitter made Britain’s injunctions “unfair” and “unsustainable” for traditional media and urged Parliament to change them. Some people, including World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and the Guardian’s Richard Hillgrove, said the problem lies with Twitter, not the law, with Hillgrove (rather absurdly) suggesting a delay mechanism to monitor posts before they go up: “Twitter and Facebook are not blank sheets of paper. They are media publishers like any other.”

Others faulted the law instead: At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor said it allows the wealthy to play by different rules, and the Telegraph’s Harry Mount said that thanks to the web, “a form of people power has been effectively absorbed into that new body of privacy law.” The Vancouver Sun’s Mario Canseco documented the failure of gag orders in the Internet age in Canada, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM advised courts and governments to quit trying to enforce antiquated laws, saying they “may not like the implications of a totally distributed real-time information network, but they are going to have to start living with it sooner rather than later.”

Then, of course, there’s the question of whether the anonymous online super-injunction violators have any legal repercussions to worry about. As the New York Times noted, Twitter has been resistant to turning over its users’ identities in the past, though a Twitter official said this week it will hand over user info to the authorities if it’s legally required to. But even with Twitter’s compliance, there would still be hurdles to clear in identifying users, the Telegraph explained.

iPad channels for big and small media: Several big-media publications neared or hit iPad milestones this week: On stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, The Daily’s Greg Clayman said it’s nearing a million downloads since it was launched in January. Clayman wouldn’t say how many paid subscribers the News Corp. iPad-only publication has (a far more interesting figure in determining The Daily’s viability), but Adweek’s Lucia Moses said The Daily will announce its number of paid downloads — it only started charging in March — once it hits a “target level.”

Meanwhile, Wired and GQ were made available for in-app subscriptions through Apple App Store this week, after their owner, Condé Nast, became one of the first major publishers to strike a deal with Apple for in-app subscriptions earlier this month. Another major publication, Playboy, launched an iPad subscription outside the App Store, because it obviously has some difficulty complying with Apple’s “no nudity” policy.

Playboy’s app is essentially an iPad-optimized website, which might seem like a tempting option for publishers who don’t want to deal with Apple’s restrictions, but as Mashable and GigaOM explained, Playboy might be uniquely positioned to pull this off where others can’t. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at those cases and weighed the pluses and minuses for publishers of getting into bed with Apple.

Of course, big publishers aren’t the only ones getting into the iPad game: At paidContent, Ashley Norris, CEO of a small publishing company that just released an iPad app, argued that indie publishers could play a key role in developing the tablet magazine. Flipboard is a pretty ideal model for those publishers: It’s valued at $200 million, and SiliconAngle’s Tom Foremski said it exemplifies the current en vogue tech-bubble business plan: “find free content and organize it into a useful interface.” That niche might not play as big of a part in the iPad market as we think, though: As Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman noted via ReadWriteWeb, news apps make up only 3% of all the apps in the App Store.

Driving more traffic from Facebook: Facebook has been working hard lately to cozy up to news organizations, and this week it provided some statistics that may have some of those organizations looking more closely at integrating Facebook into their sites. According to stats Search Engine Land got from Facebook (so grain of salt, etc.), the average media site integrated with Facebook has gotten a 300% jump in Facebook referral traffic, and ABC News, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post have all reportedly doubled their traffic from Facebook since adding social plugins. Meanwhile, Fortune’s Peter Lauria talked to Facebook’s Vadim Lavrusik about the possibility of news orgs charging on Facebook using Facebook credits, like some Facebook games do now.

As it’s been known to do, Facebook played a big role in the aftermath of another natural disaster this week when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri. The local newspaper, the Joplin Globe, told Poynter about how they set up a Facebook page to help people find family and friends in the tornado’s wake, and KOMU’s Jen Lee Reeves wrote about her station’s Facebook efforts at PBS MediaShift.

Elsewhere in social media and news, the New York Times experimented this week with a human-powered Twitter feed, as opposed to its usual mostly automatically driven style. The Times’ Liz Heron (and a couple of other newspaper social media editors) talked to Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman about their Twitter strategies, and Jessica Roy of 10,000 Words looked at how the experiment changed the Times’ Twitter feed. Heron also revealed the Times’ informal social media guidelines at the BBC’s Social Media Summit: “Use common sense and don’t be stupid.”

Reading roundup: Not a lot of big future-of-news stories this week, a several smaller things worth keeping an eye on:

— Google notified publishers late last week that it’s abandoning its project to scan and archive hundreds of years of old newspapers. The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes lamented the decision, and Paul Balcerak urged newspapers to pick up where Google left off.

— This week’s AOL/Huffington Post bits and pieces: Huffington Post Canada has been launched, AOL’s Daily Finance has been made over, and some HuffPo staff are reportedly leaving because they’re upset with how the AOL/HuffPo marriage has gone so far. Meanwhile, even though AOL’s content is free, CEO Tim Armstrong expressed his general belief in paid content online.

— Ben Huh of the Cheezburger network of comedy sites announced he’s working on what he’s calling the Moby Dick Project — an effort to reform the way news is presented and consumed online. ReadWriteWeb gave more details of the type of software he’s developing.

— A couple of addenda to last week’s linking discussion: Former Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Fry wrote about solving the workflow issue at newspapers, and at the Guardian, Dan Gillmor called out lazy linking — linking to a summary, rather than the original piece — in online aggregation.

— CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis made a case for news as conversation and the value of comments, and at 10,000 Words, Alex Schmidt wrote about the way poisonous online comments can affect reporters.

— Finally, Canadian media consultant Ken Goldstein issued a paper looking at decline circulation of newspapers in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. He included a possibly remarkably prescient 1964 quotation by media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press. Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”

April 01 2011

11:58

Blocking content sites by ‘self-regulation’ – a recipe for easy censorship

At the start of this month I said that journalists were failing to “protect the public sphere”. Well, here’s just one example of this in action that we need to be watching.

Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, has confirmed to the Open Rights Group “that discussion are ongoing between rights-holders and Internet Service Providers about ‘self-regulatory’ site-blocking measures.”

For journalists any move in this direction should be particularly concerning, as it provides a non-legal avenue (i.e. without due process) for anyone to suppress information they don’t like.

The point is not blocking sites, but the ease with which it might be done. If distribution van drivers ‘self-regulated’ to stop delivering newspapers whenever anyone complained, publishers and journalists would have a problem. An avenue to appeal doesn’t solve it, because by then the editorial moment will likely have passed – not to mention the extra costs it incurs for content producers.

Here are some precedents from elsewhere:

If you want to write to your MP, you can do so here.

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December 26 2010

23:30

Online Censorship Grows in 2010, Showing Power of Netizens

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Despite some good PR for online freedom this year, online censorship grew and became more subtle in 2010. Online propaganda remains strong within countries like China and Iran, where media censorship is everywhere and the governments have mastered online censorship tools. These countries are as efficient as hacktivists when it comes to controlling information.

China and Vietnam remain among the most repressive countries, with 77 and 16 netizens in jail, respectively (read our recent report on Vietnam here). Thailand is unmerciful when it comes to lese-majeste laws (also read our recent report about how this law is being abused). And a new player, Venezuela, is on the verge of adopting a bill that will introduce Internet filtering and a range of penalties for online media for vaguely worded offenses.

Democracies such as France are also taking further steps to implement a legal framework for online filtering. The French government is working on an ineffective and dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers in the name of fighting child pornography.

Overall, netizens continue to be victims of threats and unfair trials and arrests. In just one example, a 28-year-old Egyptian human rights activist was beaten to death by police in Alexandria on June 6.

But along with the setbacks, 2010 saw a few high profile cases that hinted at an improving state of affairs for online freedom. The positive developments include Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer being set free in November after completing a four-year jail sentence, Turkey ending its two-and-a-half-year ban on YouTube in the spring 2010, and Turkmenistan, which has been called the "European North Korea," began to slowly open up to the Internet.

As of today, 112 netizens are in jail. This is an improvement over the 151 that were arrested in 2009. So does that mean things are getting better?

Netizens and the Public Interest

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Despite the strengthening of online propaganda and the growing expertise being developed by what we at Reporters Without Borders call the Enemies of the Internet, netizens keep finding ways to practice online freedom of expression even in the most repressive countries. In 2010 netizens proved the essential role they play in repressive societies. In China and Russia, netizens denounced corruption by local authorities and made important information available to their fellow citizens.

Overall, the environment, corruption, health care and politics remain the main topics focused on by the netizens defended by Reporters Without Borders. For example, in China, the activist Zhao Lianhai created a website to detail the effect that contaminated milk powder sold from Chinese company Sanluon had on young children. An estimated 300,000 children in China were made ill, 50,000 were hospitalized and at least six newborn babies died as result of consuming the milk powder. One of Lianhai's children was made ill by the milk powder, and he used the website to urge parents to bring a class action suit against those responsible. In the end, Lianhai was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for "inciting social unrest."

Netizens and the Law

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Because the Internet is still a vague legal notion in many of the countries, it has always been easy for repressive regimes to convict netizens on vague charges. As an example, netizens belonging to minorities can be accused of "separatism," and using the Internet and social media can be considered activities aimed at overthrowing the government.

2010 was no stranger to legal absurdity. In Azerbaijan, two well-known bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Mili were released after spending more than a year in jail for "hooliganism." This was because they went to the police to report after they were assaulted in a restaurant by two men. In Egypt, blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny will be tried by court martial for creating a Facebook page that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army.

Internet Companies: Accomplices?

When Google decided to withdraw its email services from China after being a victim of cyberattacks, the issue of corporate responsibility gained worldwide attention. Later in the year, Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, was involved in a situation that showed we cannot expect technology companies to respect human rights. The company has been under intense pressure from several governments to allow access to encrypted BlackBerry communications, among other requests. The nature of the agreements made between RIM and these governments remains unclear due to conflicting statements from the parties. Reporters Without Borders has called for more transparency so that users know exactly what's going on.

Compared with the past decade, authorities and governments have never put as much energy into attempts to control online content. But this is good news. It illustrates that online free speech is spreading and netizens are winning. The battle is not lost in advance, but it is still far from being lost.

Photo of tainted milk event by jiruan via Flickr

Note that on December 30 Reporters Without Borders will publish its annual round up for 2010, which presents the number of bloggers attacked, arrested and jailed, as well as the number of countries who practice a form of Internet censorship.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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December 21 2010

17:05

Vietnam Pushes Facebook Clone to Control Online Speech

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Inside one of Hanoi's more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch -- all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom -- give the place a slightly European feel.

With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There's no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.

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The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam's nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter's Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.

Facebooking Vietnam

Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend's pages.

The manager's answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. "We just change the DNS," he said.

The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.

Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government's agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country's Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government's policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.

Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.

Government-Run Facebook Clone

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In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country's biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.

Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world's second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.

I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, "What is that?" I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.

Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.

Photo of traffic in Hanoi by Simon Roughneen

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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December 10 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: The WikiBacklash, information control and news, and a tightening paywall

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Only one topic really grabbed everyone’s attention this week in future-of-news circles (and most of the rest of the world, too): WikiLeaks. To make the story a bit easier to digest, I’ve divided it into two sections — the crackdown on WikiLeaks, and its implications for journalism.

Attacks and counterattacks around WikiLeaks: Since it released 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables last week, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been at the center of attacks by governments, international organizations, and private businesses. The forms and intensity they’ve taken have seemed unprecedented, though Daniel Ellsberg said he faced all the same things when he leaked the Pentagon Papers nearly 40 years ago.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happened since late last week: Both Amazon and the domain registry EveryDNS.net booted WikiLeaks, leaving it scrambling to stay online. (Here’s a good conversation between Ethan Zuckerman and The Columbia Journalism Review on the implications of Amazon’s decision.) PayPal, the company that WikiLeaks uses to collect most of its donations, cut off service to WikiLeaks, too. PayPal later relented, but not before botching its explanation of whether U.S. government pressure was involved.

On the government side, the Library of Congress blocked WikiLeaks, and Assange surrendered to British authorities on a Swedish sexual assault warrant (the evidence for which David Cay Johnston said the media should be questioning) and is being held without bail. Slate’s Jack Shafer said the arrest could be a blessing in disguise for Assange.

WikiLeaks obviously has plenty of critics: Christopher Hitchens called Assange a megalomaniac who’s “made everyone complicit in his own private decision to try to sabotage U.S. foreign policy,” and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Joe Lieberman called for Assange and The New York Times, respectively, to be prosecuted via the Espionage Act. But WikiLeaks’ many online defenders also manifested themselves this week, too, as hundreds of mirror sites cropped up when WikiLeaks’ main site was taken down, and various online groups attacked the sites of companies that had pulled back on services to WikiLeaks. By Wednesday, it was starting to resemble what Dave Winer called “a full-out war on the Internet.”

Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan looked at the response by WikiLeaks’ defenders to argue that WikiLeaks will never be blocked, and web pioneer Mark Pesce said that WikiLeaks has formed the blueprint for every group like it to follow. Many other writers and thinkers lambasted the backlash against WikiLeaks, including Reporters Without Borders, Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, Roberto Arguedas at Gizmodo, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin, Wired’s Evan Hansen, and David Samuels of The Atlantic.

Four defenses of WikiLeaks’ rights raised particularly salient points: First, NYU prof Clay Shirky argued that while WikiLeaks may prove to be damaging in the long run, democracy needs it to be protected in the short run: “If it’s OK for a democracy to just decide to run someone off the internet for doing something they wouldn’t prosecute a newspaper for doing, the idea of an internet that further democratizes the public sphere will have taken a mortal blow.” Second, CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis said that WikiLeaks fosters a critical power shift from secrecy to transparency.

Finally, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Salon’s Dan Gillmor made similar points about the parallel between WikiLeaks’ rights and the press’s First Amendment rights. Whether we agree with them or not, Assange and WikiLeaks are protected under the same legal umbrella as The New York Times, they argued, and every attack on the rights of the former is an attack on the latter’s rights, too. “If journalism can routinely be shut down the way the government wants to do this time, we’ll have thrown out free speech in this lawless frenzy,” Gillmor wrote.

WikiLeaks and journalism: In between all the attacks and counterattacks surrounding him, Julian Assange did a little bit of talking of his own this week, too. He warned about releasing more documents if he’s prosecuted or killed, including possible Guantánamo Bay files. He defended WikiLeaks in an op-ed in The Australian. He answered readers’ questions at The Guardian, and dodged one about diplomacy that started an intriguing discussion at Jay Rosen’s Posterous. When faced with the (rather pointless) question of whether he’s a journalist, he responded with a rather pointless answer.

Fortunately, plenty of other people did some deep thinking about what WikiLeaks means for journalism and society. (The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has a far more comprehensive list of those people’s thoughts here.) Former Guardian web editor Emily Bell argued that WikiLeaks has awakened journalism to a renewed focus on the purpose behind what it does, as opposed to its current obsession with the models by which it achieves that purpose. Here at the Lab, USC grad student Nikki Usher listed a few ways that WikiLeaks shows that both traditional and nontraditional journalism matter and pointed out the value of the two working together.

At the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles said that WikiLeaks divides journalists into two camps: “Those who want to see information get to the public, by whatever means, and those who want to control the means by which information flows.” Honolulu Civil Beat editor John Temple thought a bit about what WikiLeaks means for small, local news organizations like his, and British j-prof Paul Bradshaw used WikiLeaks as a study in how to handle big data dumps journalistically.

Also at the Lab, CUNY j-prof C.W. Anderson had some thoughts about this new quasi-source in the form of large databases, and how journalists might be challenged to think about it. Finally, if you’re looking for some deep thoughts on WikiLeaks in audio form, Jay Rosen has you covered — in short form at PBS MediaShift, and at quite a bit more length with Dave Winer on their Rebooting the News podcast.

How porous should paywalls be?: Meanwhile, the paid-content train chugs along, led by The New York Times, which is still planning on instituting its paywall next year. The Times’ digital chief, Martin Nisenholtz, dropped a few more details this week about how its model will work, again stressing that the site will remain open to inbound links across the web.

But for the first time, Nisenholtz also stressed the need to limit the abuse of those links as a way to get inside the wall without paying, revealing that The Times will be working with Google to limit the number of times a reader can access Times articles for free via its search. Nisenholtz also hinted at the size of the paywall’s target audience, leading Poynter’s Rick Edmonds to estimate that The Times will be focusing on about 6 million “heavy users of the site.”

Reuters’ Felix Salmon was skeptical of Nisenholtz’s stricter paywall plans, saying that they won’t be worth the cost: “Strengthening your paywall sends the message that you don’t trust your subscribers, or your subscribers’ non-subscriber friends: you’re treating them as potential content thieves.” The only way such a strategy would make sense, he said, is if The Times is considering starting at a very high price point, something like $20 a month. Henry Blodget of Business Insider, on the other hand, is warming to the idea of a paywall for The Times.

In other paid-content news: News Corp.’s Times of London, which is running a very different paywall from The New York Times, may have only 54,000 people accessing content behind it, according to research by the competing Guardian. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle announced it’s launching an metered model powered by Steve Brill’s Press+, a plan Steve Yelvington defended and Matthew Terenzio questioned.

While one paid-content plan gets started, another one might be coming to an end: Newsday is taking its notoriously unsuccessful paywall down through next month, and several on Twitter guessed that the move would become permanent. One news organization that’s not going to be a pioneer in paid online news: The Washington Post, as Post Co. CEO Don Graham said at a conference this week.

Reading roundup: Other than the ongoing WikiLeaks brouhaha, it’s been a relatively quiet week on the future-of-news front. Here’s a bit of what else went on:

— Web guru Tim O’Reilly held his News Foo Camp in Arizona last weekend, and since it was an intentionally quiet event, it didn’t dominate the online discussion like many such summits do. Still, there were a few interesting post-Newsfoo pieces for the rest of us to chew on, including a roundup of the event by TBD’s Steve Buttry, Alex Hillman’s reflections, and USC j-prof Robert Hernandez’s thoughts on journalists’ calling a lie a lie.

— A few iPad bits: News media marketer Earl Wilkinson wrote about a possible image problem with the iPad, All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka reported on the negotiations between Apple and publishers on iTunes subscriptions, and The New York Times’ David Nolen gave some lessons from designing election results for the iPad.

— The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley interviewed former TBD general manager Jim Brady about the ambitious local online-TV project, and Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman looked at TBD and other local TV online branding efforts.

— Advertising Age’s Ann Marie Kerwin has an illuminating list of 10 trends in global media consumption.

— Finally, two good pieces from the Lab: Harvard prof Nicholas Christakis on why popularity doesn’t equal influence on social media, and The New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and Jennifer Preston provided a glimpse into how one very influential news organization is evolving on social media.

December 01 2010

18:35

Suu Kyi Set Free But Media Still Held Captive in Burma

Burma has in recent weeks been one of the top world news stories. The country's November 7 general election was followed less than a week later by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's best-known political dissidents, whose appearance at her front gate on Saturday, November 13, was carried on news networks around the world.

However, getting news out of Burma is no easy task. As detailed by MediaShift contributor Clothilde Le Coz, foreign journalists were banned from entering the country to cover the elections. Though an estimated 30 to 40 managed to sneak in on tourist visas, seven were deported after being detained by the police. Fourteen media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. There are a total of around 2,200 political prisoners who remain locked up, despite the release of Suu Kyi.

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Still, high-profile reporters such as BBC's John Simpson managed to interview Suu Kyi after her release, with no apparent retaliation or punitive measures by the ruling junta. One reporter in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous due to the restrictions on foreign journalists operating in Burma, told me the apparent indifference to the journalists-posing-as-tourists was more due to ineptitude on the part of the police, rather than newfound tolerance.

Telecom Backwater

Chinese correspondents are the only foreign press permitted to work in Burma on a full-time basis; news agencies and wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse are only allowed to deploy Burmese stringers.

The information challenge was heightened in the week before the November 7 election, when a moratorium on new SIM cards was imposed by the junta, pushing the price of black market SIMs to well over $1,000. Economics are another form of censorship in Burma, as the average wage is a little over $200 per year. Even if the release of Suu Kyi somehow galvanized the public into another confrontation with the junta, there is little prospect of seeing the SMS-organized mass protests that emerged a decade ago elsewhere in southeast Asia, such as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

All told, only four percent of the population are wired up to telephone networks, one of the world's lowest telephone usage rates. There are rumors that various multinational telecommunications companies are seeking ways into the market, and trying to get around U.S., E.U. and Australian sanctions by setting up shell companies in Singapore and Hong Kong. However, the privatization of various state assets's-economy-and-investment-175390 over the past year appears to have only benefited a narrow cabal of Burmese businessmen affiliated to the ruling junta. There are 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines in Burma, according to statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. The country has a population of roughly 50 million people. In contrast, over half the population of neighboring Thailand has mobile phones.

The country has been deemed "an enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), and Vincent Brossell, RSF's Asia representative, told me that "it is so risky to try to work with people inside Burma."

When it comes to the Internet, foreign news and social networking sites are blocked, though tech-savvy Internet users and Internet cafe owners in Rangoon and Mandalay can find ways around the wall using various proxies. However, just one in 455 Burmese were Internet users in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay charge around $0.40 an hour for access, which is far too expensive for ordinary Burmese.

Enhanced Online Surveillance

A new ISP regime is being implemented by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the official title for the junta. The planned "national web portal" will split the military, government and general ISPs into separate services, meaning that the publicly available Internet can be closed down or slowed without impinging on the government or army's web access. Critics say the new plan will enhance surveillance and online snooping, and make the country's few bloggers more vulnerable than ever to arrest.

During the monk-led mass protests in September 2007, citizens used the web to send reports and video to the outside world, circumventing the ban on foreign media. Blogger Nay Phone Latt was a central figure in that effort, but he was given a 12 year jail term for his efforts -- a harsh reminder of what happens to those who use the Internet to speak out against the ruling junta.

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Any hope that the release of Suu Kyi signals even a tentative loosening-up appear to be misplaced. The military censors have stuck to the old ways, as evidenced by the fact that only ten of the country's 100-plus privately owned publications were sanctioned to offer coverage of the release of Suu Kyi. All publications in Burma must have their content approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny Board. Speaking at a seminar on post-election Burma in Bangkok on November 23, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand but run by Burmese journalists, told me that "media in Burma are trying to push the envelope with the censor, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me there is a "yawning news gap" caused by heavy censorship and intimidation inside Burma. Burmese exiles try to fill the void, operating mainly from India and Thailand. Clandestine reporters inside the country take great risks to funnel information to editors in Chiang Mai, New Delhi and beyond.

Late in 2009, Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Norway-headquartered Democratic Voice of Burma, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in jail for violating the Electronics Act, another draconian lever used by the junta to stop information from getting around the country or to the outside.

First Eleven's Cover

However, since the release of Suu Kyi, even the state-watched media in Burma have shown daring creativity to get their message out, risking the wrath of the regime in the process. Sports journal First Eleven led with a front-page story on the Tuesday after Suu Kyi's release that was a combination of headlines ostensibly about English Premier League soccer matches, but that also used colored lettering to discuss Suu Kyi's release. Three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- read as "Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope."

First Eleven got the ruse past the censors by submitting the advance copy of the page in black and white, but were subsequently hit with a two week publishing ban after the military realized that they had been fooled.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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September 30 2010

19:42

Will France Sacrifice Online Freedom for the Sake of Security?

On September 8, the French Senate voted for a bill, called Loppsi 2, that seeks to create a dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers, as well as online freedom of speech for French citizens.

If this bill becomes law, any French website could be shut down with nothing more than a notification from an administrative authority. When the bill was passed in a lower house last February, it required intervention from a judge to make that happen.

The situation in France reflects the trend that's seeing democratic states such as England and Spain step up online surveillance and control. This could pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and information. Under the current French bill, a government department called the Central Office for Combating Crime Related to Information and Communication Technology would be able to order Internet service providers and website hosts to filter websites without requiring a court order.

Filter Failure

The effectiveness of online filtering has been disputed by many studies, including one released by the French Federation of Telecom and Electronic Communications Companies in July 2009 entitled, "Study of the Impact of Blocking Paedophile and Porn Sites." At Reporters Without Borders, we raised concerns about the law, noting in a release that:

Filtering mechanisms will not be able to prevent their circumvention by offenders, will not eliminate offending content from the Internet and will have no impact on the source of the problem. And furthermore, they tend to filter out innocent content as well, such as the websites of child protection groups or sites that defend minors who have been the victims of sexual abuse.

zommerman.jpgJeremie Zimmerman, co-founder and spokesperson of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, has long been warning against the dangers of this law. He cautions about how "collateral censorship" can affect the work of reporters and bloggers.

"Technically, blocking legal websites is inevitable," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no legal means to gain access to the list of the blocked websites."

Brice Manenti covers the issue for the magazine Nouvel Observateur. "With Loppsi 2, I am worried for freedom of speech as a citizen, more than as a journalist," he said. "Allowing filtering is a way to get to a generalized filtering of the web, as it is in China for example. Freedom of expression would be under particular threat."

Legalized Spyware

In July 2009, an earlier version of the law stated that the police who suspect criminal activity would be able to use remotely introduced spyware under an investigating judge's supervision in order to obtain information from computers without the knowledge of those targeted. If any kind of criminal activity is discovered -- even if it's outside of the initial suspicions -- the information obtained can still be used to bring a prosecution.

The French Commission on computing and freedoms reserved judgment regarding this aspect of the law in 2009. (Journalists would be protected from of this kind of spyware by a law that protects the the secrecy of journalists' sources, but bloggers and amateur journalists would not be protected.) The law would also extend the length of phone taps on people suspected of a crime.

In and of itself, Loppsi 2 is not a bill focused on freedom of speech and freedom of the press; but as it is currently drafted it ends up posing a threat to these principles. In a September article, the French daily newspaper Le Monde accused presidential aides of using a domestic intelligence agency to identify an official who was leaking information about a judicial investigation about a case involving labor minister Eric Woerth and L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Reporters without Borders subsequently joined with Le Monde in a lawsuit related to these actions. From our release about this action:

Reporters Without Borders campaigned for years for a law explicitly protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources and appeared before both the National Assembly and the Senate when they examined the proposed law that was eventually adopted.

The organization is outraged that covert police activity has trampled on the protection of sources enshrined in article 2 of this law. The authorities have a right to investigate leaks of confidential information but such investigations must be conducted according to the law. Any failure to respect the law protecting journalists' sources must be punished or else it will be rendered meaningless.

In light of this example, there is reason to be concerned about the government's increased use of spyware. It seems like it would only be a matter of time before it finds its way onto bloggers' computers and machines inside newsrooms.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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September 22 2010

10:29

The Economist on where it is banned or censored

The Economist has released information on countries that have banned or censored its issues:

Since January 2009 the Economist has been banned or censored in 12 of the 190-odd countries in which it is sold, with news-stand (as opposed to subscription) copies particularly at risk. India, the only democracy on our list, has censored 31 issues and at first glance might look like the worst culprit. However its censorship consists of stamping “Illegal” on maps of Kashmir because it disputes the borders shown. China is more proscriptive. Distributors destroy copies or remove articles that contain contentious political content, and maps of Taiwan are usually blacked out.

Full chart on the Economist at this link…Similar Posts:



September 10 2010

14:00

August 26 2010

18:06

Free Speech at Stake as India Demands Encrypted BlackBerry Data

Next week will be decisive for BlackBerry corporate users. BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) could provide a solution to help security agencies in India access corporate email by obtaining encrypted data in readable formats. If RIM does not offer a solution before the end of the month, India has warned that it will block BlackBerry Messenger service in the country for corporate users.

BlackBerry phones encrypt their services better than most smartphones do, and this has been one of the selling points for BlackBerry as a device for corporate users. RIM has to this point refused to provide access codes that would allow governments to monitor the content of encrypted messages. Should RIM provide the Indian government with access to the data, it would not only hurt freedom of expression -- it would likely also hurt the BlackBerry's reputation as the business device of choice.

About More Than The BlackBerry

The Indian government isn't the only seeking access to BlackBerry data. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia claim that BlackBerry's services break their laws and threaten national security. The UAE's Telecommunication Regulatory Authority announced that it will suspend BlackBerry's instant messaging, email, web browsing and roaming services starting October 11. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is still allowing BlackBerry's instant messaging service to operate. Saudi authorities had planned to suspend it on August 6, but they only ended up blocking the service for a few hours. The company and government continue to work toward a compromise.

Reporters Without Borders is worried about the BlackBerry issue because the "national security" argument is just a pretext for these countries to take steps to restrict access to new technology and to tools that help with freedom of expression. In the UAE, some BlackBerry users were arrested for using BlackBerry Messenger to try to organize a protest against increased gas prices.

What really bothers these countries is their inability to monitor the communication flowing via BlackBerry's services. Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Kuwait have also voiced concern about BlackBerry's encrypted services, and it's no coincidence that some of these countries are home to a wide range of censorship measures. In Indonesia, for example, the government requires ISPs to filter out porn -- without providing them a specific list of offending sites. The inevitable result is that the ISPs cause collateral damage by blocking other websites with no direct link to pornography. This is also the case in Saudi Arabia. Filtering also slows down connection speeds throughout the country. Aside from censorship, these countries are also known for monitoring the communications and web usage of citizens.

It's therefore natural to question whether the requests for BlackBerry to offer access to its services are truly meant to fight terrorism, or if it's about finding another way to monitor the communications of citizens?

U.S. Perspective

These countries would do well to learn from an example in the United States. In 2003, the Department of Justice drafted legislation that would have lengthened prison sentences for people who used encryption in the commission of a crime. Defenders of encryption said it would do little to help catch terrorists, and would instead hamper the work of activists. The legislation never passed -- even though the fight against terrorism was a top priority of the government.

RIM's BlackBerry encryption isn't alone in being targeted. India plans on asking Google and Skype for similar access, which means this issue is about more than just one company's device. It's about the future of private communications in countries prone to censorship and other abuses.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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June 25 2010

14:00

The Wikipedia of news translation: Yeeyan.org’s volunteer community

BEIJING — Yeeyan.org has 150,000 registered users, who collectively translate 50 to 100 news articles every day from English to Chinese. Since its inception in 2006, the site has grown into a key gateway for Chinese speakers who want to follow international news. It has been so successful that it has attracted the attention of major news sources like The Guardian and ReadWriteWeb — and also the Chinese government, which abruptly shut Yeeyan down last year for several months.

But this is not a story about China. I believe that Yeeyan is pioneering cost-effective solutions to a major global problem: the ghettoization of information by language. This is a change with potentially far-reaching implications for journalism. I met Kitty Wang, the vice general manager, and Walter Wang, Yeeyan’s community manager (no relation), in a Beijing cafe and asked them to explain to me how Yeeyan works, from technological, social, and business perspectives.

The name Yeeyan derives from the Chinese characters 译 (yi) and 言 (yan), which together mean something like “translate the information,” and Kitty and Walter told me that the site’s primary aim is to increase the flow of information between cultures. Yeeyan.org looks like a news site, with headlining photos and editor-selected hot stories on the front page. (English readers can check out the Google translation.) Stories are arranged into typical sections such as business, sports, technology, and life. The difference is that all of the Chinese-language material on the site has been translated from English sources by members of the Yeeyan community, almost always for free.

The success of the site in producing a continual stream of translations — over 60,000 so far — is the result of careful community management and well-designed social features. And it’s a model that seems like it could be replicated for other languages.

Putting the community to work

Aside from reading stories, users can perform two basic actions: recommend a story or a URL for translation, or translate a recommended story. All visitors to the site are readers, many are recommenders, and only a few thousand — a couple percent — actually create translations. That turns out to be enough, but Yeeyan’s existence depends on getting people to translate.

The site’s design encourages participation in a number of different ways. The front page prominently displays a staff-curated selection of recommended but as-yet-untranslated articles. Users can create “projects,” collections of articles around a specific topic, such as “foreign affairs,” “film lovers,” or “Toyota recall,” and active topics are featured on the front page. Each user has a profile which shows a history of their recommendations and completed translations, and a number of typical social networking features are supported, such as comments on articles and messages between users.

Yeeyan has also recently adopted a badge system, to encourage both participation and quality. There are automatically awarded badges for things like “most translations this week” and “most comments this week,” as well as a series of overall “levels” that users can attain by translating and commenting. Kitty says participation has shot up since the introduction of these incentives.

“Amazing ah?” says Kitty. “Even this little thing can intrigue passion.” As Napoleon once said, a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.

But clever software can never replace the involvement of human community managers. Yeeyan’s staff must read each translation before it is posted to ensure that it does not violate government taboos on reporting. (Since reopening in January, Yeeyan has dropped its “current events” category and now avoids all overtly political news, including stories from erstwhile partner The Guardian.) All websites in China are required to self-censor in this manner, but Yeeyan also takes this opportunity to interact with its translators.

“We are the first readers, so we comment first, we encourage users first, we proofread first,” says Kitty. “Those are all important to build up [the] community phenomenon.”

Participation over quality

Kitty told me that there had been much early discussion over whether the site should publish only “good” translations, but in the end they decided that “the gate should be opened to everyone.” Part of their strategy is to encourage readers to become translators. Beginning translators tend to produce rough texts and make many mistakes, says Kitty, but “it is cruel if we don’t even provide a chance.” The policy occasionally drives good translators away from the site, but the Yeeyan team sees translator training as an important part of their social mission.

Nonetheless, Yeeyan has recently debuted a proofreading feature. The original text and a user translation are displayed side by side, and the proofreader can comment on each paragraph. Participation is encouraged by awarding badges for proofreading.

Copyright and the business

Under international law, permission from the copyright holder is generally required to create or publish a translation. By publishing user-supplied translations of arbitrary news material, Yeeyan creates a public good in a legally dubious fashion. But it’s worth remembering that many of the vital information services we now take for granted began on similarly vague principles. The web search engine could not exist without wholesale duplication of the entire web onto local servers, a move which was by no means obviously legal when the first commercial search engines appeared — and which some news organizations still aren’t sure about. The legality of Google scanning books is similarly being challenged.

Even so, Yeeyan is actively seeking agreements with copyright holders to create and publish translations of their work. “We do not want to use content for business illegally, but how to get authorization is a big problem,” Kitty said. “That’s why we are trying to talk to [copyright holders] to have win-win-win business model.”

The three parties in “win-win-win” are the content producer, Yeeyan, and the translator. Yeeyan has just such an agreement with ReadWriteWeb. All RWW articles are translated by a paid freelancer and posted on rwwchina.com, with the ad revenue split between Yeeyan and RWW.

Yeeyan is reluctant to put too much advertising on the main site, both because of the legal questions raised by commercial use of translations and for fear of alienating its all-volunteer community. But there’s money to be made offline if you have access to a huge pool of translation talent, and connections to publishers on both sides of the language divide. Yeeyan hopes to make its money out of brokering translations for foreign firms eager to enter the Chinese market, both online and offline. The company already handles the Chinese language versions of Men’s Health and several other magazines and has brokered more than 20 book deals. Translators are drawn from the best of Yeeyan’s volunteer talent pool. As an incentive to reach professional proficiency, translators who have earned the “Level 4″ badge can apply to be Yeeyan partners. If approved, these skilled translators get the “Partner” badge, plus 3 RMB for every 1,000 views of their translated articles — and possibly a translation job offer later.

Journalism in an era of cheap translation

Yeeyan’s success raises broader questions for journalists and journalism. First, could the model be replicated? Could, say, the Associated Press cultivate a community that actively translated their reporting into other languages? I don’t see why not, though any organization that tried this would need a deep understanding of “community” and everything that implies — and deliver such an obvious public good that thousands of people would be willing to volunteer their time. The business model might also be different, but I can think of a number of ways to monetize a pool of translators and an audience eager for foreign-language news.

But suppose that a news organization was able to deliver a substantial amount of content to foreign-language audiences for very little cost, through communities like Yeeyan, or machine translation, or a combination of the two as in the hybrid World Wide Lexicon project. Such translations would not be up to professional quality initially — if ever — and publishers may be hesitant to endorse error-prone representations of their work. But asking about absolute accuracy and brand dilution misses the point — it’s like critiquing Wikipedia for its (improving) accuracy without discussing the net benefit to humanity. How would cheap translation change foreign reporting, and the very concept of international news? It’s a question which will soon be forced upon the profession by rising technological tides.

For the curious, and because I have repeatedly advocated that reporters make available their full source material, here’s a transcript of my followup IM chats with Kitty. In it we discuss further details of the site’s origin and operations, and their experience with the Chinese censors.

June 03 2010

16:27

Crisis in Thailand Leads to Net Crackdown, Censorship

At least 80 people were killed during the latest clashes in Thailand. But the confusion and danger that are present in various parts of Bangkok do not explain why several Thai and foreign journalists have been shot since April. Two are dead. The tense political situation also doesn't justify the leadership's blocking of more than 4,000 anti-monarchy websites.

As we at Reporters Without Borders recently stated in regards to the Thai government's actions, "The right to information is more important than ever when a country is in crisis." Yet several reporters have been gunned down and the Internet is falling prey to censorship. So far, around 4,500 websites have been blocked in an attempt by the regime to institute partial censorship of news about the nine-week crisis. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Twitter account has also been blocked since May 19.

On that same day, the leadership's Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) blocked Facebook and Twitter, which had been functioning as alternative sources of news after TV stations began broadcasting government-controlled programming. Also that day, the Bangkok headquarters of Channel 3 was set on fire by anti-government protesters, and the two biggest English-speaking dailies, the Bangkok Post and the Nation, sent their employees home at 3 p.m. due to fears that their offices could be attacked by Red Shirts. At this point, almost all local journalists avoid going into the streets to cover the situation because of concerns about the risks.

Gathering Info in a Tough Environment

Journalists have been gathering information via social networks, the telephone, and from people trapped in the Wat Pathum Wanaram temple. (It adjoins the square where the Red Shirt protestors had gathered.) Only a few foreign reporters are still on the ground. Here is a video interview with Italian photo-journalist Fabio Polenghi in which he explains the varying treatment of local and foreign reporters:

Sadly, Polenghi died on May 19 during the army's assault on the Red Shirts in Bangkok.

As of today, two reporters have been killed and several injured since mid-March. In testimonies obtained by Reporters Without Borders, foreign journalists also reported feeling targeted. Arnaud Dubus, a reporter for the French daily Libération and for Radio France Internationale, told us, "This is the first time in Thailand that I feel that foreign journalists are really targeted."

The Geneva Convention forbids journalists from being military targets. Thailand was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 15, and now it is violating humanitarian and international law principles.

Online Crackdown Goes On

Blocking Twitter and Facebook is nothing new for Thai authorities. Since at least 2009, this has been a regular practice among the Thai police. So far, one blogger, Suwicha Thakor, has been jailed for his online activities. In April of last year, he was given a 10-year jail sentence by a criminal court in the northeast Bangkok district of Ratchada. This was for posting content online that was deemed to have insulted the monarchy. Thakor has been held in Bangkok's Klong Prem prison since January 14.

One challenge is that the Internet is not well regulated in Thailand. The country's Computer Crimes Act, which was adopted in 2007, is too vague. That means the ongoing trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the Prachatai news website, could create a legal precedent. She is facing up to 50 years in prison for failing to act with sufficient speed to remove "offensive" comments about the monarchy that were posted on the site.

Arrested on March 31, Chiranuch was released after three hours when her sister guaranteed the 300,000 bahts (6,000 euros) in bail demanded by the judicial authorities.

"In normal times I would be more confident about this initial hearing," she told Reporters Without Borders. "I hope the court will make allowance."

Under the Computer Crimes Act, owners and editors of websites can be prosecuted when they publish comments that are deemed to have broken the law. The owners are regarded as being as responsible as the commenters themselves.

Chiranuch's website, as well as its Facebook page and Twitter account, has repeatedly been blocked by the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation since the start of Thailand's political crisis. The Prachatai news website was founded in 2004 -- when the now deposed Thaksin Shinawatra was still prime minister -- with the aim of being an alternative source of news. Its news section receives more than 20,000 visitors a day, while its forum receives about 30,000.

The harassment of netizens is widely spread and does not stop at Thai borders. In 2006, Anthony Chai, an American citizen from California, was interrogated by Thai officials in Thailand and again later in the U.S. for allegedly insulting the monarchy in 2006. Originally from Thailand, Chai was granted U.S. citizenship in the late 1970s. He faces possible arrest if he returns to Thailand. "What if now the U.S. is allowing a U.S. citizen to be interrogated by foreign agents on U.S. soil?" he said. You can read more about Chai's case here.

(For more on Thailand and other countries' "lese majeste" laws against insulting the monarchy, see this previous story on MediaShift.)

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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May 12 2010

19:17

CDA Protects Newspapers from Liability for Libelous Comments

A desperate, weeks-long search in 2007 for missing Purdue University student Wade Steffey yielded a number of stories in the local Lafayette, Indiana, newspaper, the Journal & Courier. The newspaper also covered a mugging incident that was reported by another student, Timothy Collins, on the same night of Steffey's disappearance.

Local police, apparently suspicious of the coincidence between the two events, questioned Collins and administered a polygraph test. He was later charged with false informing, and the University disciplined Collins as a result of that charge. These developments were reported in subsequent news stories in the Journal & Courier. The online versions of the articles prompted many vitriolic statements by readers, including a number that accused Collins of being responsible for Steffey's disappearance.

Steffey's body was eventually discovered; his death apparently was the result of an accident. Even before that discovery, the false-informing charge against Collins was dismissed for lack of evidence. Collins subsequently brought suit against numerous parties, including the police, the University, one online commenter who used his real name, as well as various anonymous commenters, and the newspaper. Collins claimed that the newspaper was liable for defaming him, not only in its news coverage, but also as a result of the accusatory statements made by the online commenters with respect to those news stories.

In Collins v. Purdue University, 2010 WL 1250916 (N.D. Ind. March 24, 2010), a federal court held that under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996, the newspaper could not be held liable for the online comments posted by third parties.

Had the same accusatory third-party comments been published in the newspaper's print edition -- say in a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece -- the newspaper might have had a much harder time avoiding liability. That's because the legal rule in Section 230 of the CDA that is applicable to liability for online statements made by another party is much more favorable to a publisher than the legal rules applicable to liability for third-party statements in a print publication.

Why is Liability Different on the Internet?

The U.S. Congress took a bold step in 1996 with the enactment of Section 230 of the CDA. (See this previous MediaShift report, which also discussed Section 230.) While most of the provisions of the Act were aimed at censoring objectionable content on the Internet, Section 230 was aimed at protecting "interactive service providers" from liability for objectionable content provided by third party users of their services. Section 230 also protects users themselves from liability for content provided by other users.

gavel1.jpgThe purpose of Section 230 was, among other things, "to maintain the robust nature of Internet communication," and to maintain the Internet and interactive computer services as "a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity," according to a ruling in Zeran v. America Online [PDF] (4th Cir. 1997).

Under Section 230, an "interactive service provider" (e.g., an Internet Service Provider or a website operator, among others) may not be treated as the "publisher or distributor" of "information" provided by a third party user of its service. As the district court explained in Collins v. Purdue University, this language has been consistently interpreted to provide online publishers with broad immunity from liability for defamation and other wrongful acts on the part of users of their services.

The Expansive Interpretation of Section 230

The ruling in Collins v. Purdue University is a routine application of Section 230. Since the enactment of Section 230 in 1996, there have been hundreds of opinions interpreting the provision, and expanding its coverage beyond the kinds of defamation claims more usually associated with parties defined as "publishers" or "distributors."

For example, the protection afforded interactive service providers such as the newspaper in Collins v. Purdue is not limited to defamation claims. Courts have interpreted the language prohibiting the treatment of a provider "as a publisher or distributor" to limit the liability of providers for a wide range of other wrongful acts by users. (But note that claims of intellectual property infringement are expressly excluded from the protective scope of Section 230). Thus, in Green v. America Online [PDF] (3d Cir. 2003), an online provider was protected from liability for damage to a user's computer that was allegedly caused by another user's malicious transmission of a "punter" signal in an online chat room.

craigslist-hq-logo.jpgOnline providers have also been held immune from liability for the acts of sexual predators who contacted underage victims via their services (Doe v. MySpace [PDF] (5th Cir. 2008)) and from liability under civil rights statutes for religious harassment by users (Noah v. America Online (E.D. Va. 2003)). The online bulletin board Craigslist has been held immune under Section 230 from a local sheriff's claims that the service is liable under public nuisance laws for causing or inducing prostitution as a result of its "erotic services" listings. Dart v. CraigsList [PDF] (N.D. Ill. 2009)

The interpretation of Section 230 has been expansive not only in the range of claims against which it protects providers, but in situations in which it operates to protect service providers and users from liability for content provided by other parties. For example, the owner of a mailing list has been held immune from liability for defamatory statements contained in an e-mail message that the owner forwarded to mailing list subscribers. Batzel v. Smith [PDF] (9th Cir. 2003).

As controversial as some of Section 230 rulings have been, one of its more troubling applications may be in a case involving an attempt by the original author of defamatory content to have it removed from a provider's site.

In Global Royalties v. Xcentric Ventures (D. Ariz. 2007), the "Ripoff Report" online consumer complaint site was sued for refusing to remove allegedly defamatory postings at the request of the original user. The court held that refusing to remove a posting, even at the request of the original author, was an editorial function reserved to the site owner, and protected under Section 230.

The Role of Anonymity for Online Comments

If a newspaper can't be sued for defamatory online comments by readers, what about suing the individual who posted the comments?

Section 230 does not affect the liability of individuals for their own online statements, and such lawsuits can be and have been brought. But, unlike at least one of the posters in the Collins v. Purdue University case, the individuals responsible for defamatory posts frequently do not post under their real names.

In order to successfully sue an anonymous individual who posted an online comment on a newspaper (or any other) website, the plaintiff usually must serve a subpoena on the newspaper to obtain account registration information or an IP address that will lead to the poster's true identity. Many newspapers resist such subpoenas, however, and, as I have previously written, a plaintiff often must make a special showing to the court before an order will be issued requiring the newspaper or other provider to turn over of identifying information.

While it is possible to obtain such an order and ultimately sue the actual author of a defamatory online statement, it is a challenging endeavor for a plaintiff, who may spend a great deal in attorney fees to prosecute a lawsuit against a defendant who may ultimately turn out to be penniless or otherwise judgment-proof. By immunizing online providers such as newspapers from such lawsuits, Section 230 removes the obvious deep-pocket defendant from the line of fire.

Newspapers Reconsidering Online Comments?

It's easy to see the effect of Section 230 on almost any website that allows comments (such as newspapers): User comments often range from thoughtful, intelligent and carefully reasoned to venomous, vitriolic, and obviously defamatory, and everything in between.

The protection of Section 230 of the CDA enables newspapers to ignore the the user comments made on their sites, at least from the perspective of legal liability for defamatory or harmful content. Despite the legal protection Section 230 provides, however, some news sites utilize measures aimed at improving the nature of the discourse in their comments areas.

As The New York Times recently noted in an article on this phenomenon, the Wall Street Journal allows its subscribers to choose whether they will view only comments posted by other subscribers, and many news sites that police comments for content facilitate the reporting of offensive comments by other readers.

The article also reported that both the Gray Lady herself and the Washington Post are revising their comments policies to at least lessen the importance of anonymous comments. The Washington Post reportedly is considering a rating system that would boost the prominence of commenters using their real names.

This is not the first time that newspapers have reconsidered their online commenting policies. In 2005, the Los Angeles Times abandoned an early experiment in user participation when it closed a website that allowed readers to rewrite editorials, due to an overabundance of obscene content added to the site. In 2006, the Washington Post temporarily suspended online commenting when it determined that reader responses to a particular article violated its prohibitions against personal attacks, profanity and hate speech.

In a recent controversy over anonymous online comments, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) reportedly has threatened the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, with financial consequences in an effort to abolish anonymous comments on the newspaper website. The University's Commission on Student Affairs cited "discontent" in the college community over "irresponsible and inappropriate" anonymous comments. But the editors have so far refused to modify the policy to allow only authored comments.

Conclusion

It was the stated goal of the U.S. Congress in enacting Section 230 of the CDA to "offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity." That goal has certainly been achieved, but the diversity of discourse, cultural development and intellectual activity that is supported by Section 230 is accompanied by a significant amount of objectionable content in the form of defamation, vitriol and hate speech.

Section 230 provides newspapers and other online providers with legal protection from liability for such content provided by third parties, leaving providers to determine as a matter of individual policy and editorial judgment what measures, if any, they will take to address the appearance of such content on their sites.

Image of Craigslist headquarters via cyberaxis

Jeffrey D. Neuburger is a partner in the New York office of Proskauer Rose LLP, and co-chair of the Technology, Media and Communications Practice Group. His practice focuses on technology and media-related business transactions and counseling of clients in the utilization of new media. He is an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law teaching E-Commerce Law and the co-author of two books, "Doing Business on the Internet" and "Emerging Technologies and the Law." He also co-writes the New Media & Technology Law Blog.

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April 30 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Gizmodo and the shield law, making sense of social data, and the WSJ’s local push

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Apple and Gizmodo’s shield law test: The biggest tech story of the last couple of weeks has undoubtedly been the gadget blog Gizmodo’s photos of a prototype of Apple’s next iPhone that was allegedly left in a bar by an Apple employee. That story got a lot more interesting for journalism- and media-oriented folks this week, when we found out that police raided a Gizmodo blogger’s apartment based on a search warrant for theft.

What had been a leaked-gadget story turned into a case study on web journalism and the shield law. Mashable and Poynter did a fine job of laying out the facts of the case and the legal principles at stake: Was Gizmodo engaged in acts of journalism when it paid for the lost iPhone and published information about it? Social media consultant Simon Owens has a good roundup of opinions on the issue, including whether the situation would be different if Gizmodo hadn’t bought the iPhone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, came out most strongly against the raid, arguing to Wired and Laptop magazine and in its own post that California law is clear that the Gizmodo blogger was acting as a reporter. The Citizen Media Law Project’s Sam Bayard agreed, backing the point up with a bit more case history. Not everyone had Gizmodo’s back, though: In a piece written before the raid, media critic Jeff Bercovici of Daily Finance said that Gizmodo was guilty of straight-up theft, journalistic motives or no.

J-prof Jay Rosen added a helpful clarification to the “are bloggers journalists” debate (it’s actually about whether Gizmodo was engaged in an act of journalism, he says) and ex-Saloner Scott Rosenberg reached back to a piece he wrote five years ago to explain why that debate frustrates him so much. Meanwhile, the Columbia Journalism Review noted that the Gizmodo incident was just one in a long line of examples of Apple’s anti-press behavior.

Bridging the newsroom-academy gap: Texas j-prof Rosental Alves held his annual International Symposium on Online Journalism last weekend, and thanks to a lot of people’s work in documenting the conference, we have access to much of what was presented and discussed there. The conference site and Canadian professor Alfred Hermida devoted about 20 posts each to the event’s sessions and guests, so there’s loads of great stuff to peruse if you have time.

The conference included presentations on all kinds of stuff like Wikipedia, news site design, online comments, micropayments, and news innovation, but I want to highlight two sessions in particular. The first is the keynote by Demand Media’s Steven Kydd, who defended the company’s content and businessmodel from criticism that it’s a harmful “content farm.” Kydd described Demand Media as “service journalism,” providing content on subjects that people want to know about while giving freelancers another market. You can check summaries of his talk at the official site, Hermida’s blog, and in a live blog by Matt Thompson. The conference site also has video of the Q&A session and reflections on Kydd’s charisma and a disappointing audience reaction. The other session worth taking a closer look at was a panel on nonprofit journalism, which, judging from Hermida and the conference’s roundups, seemed especially rich with insight into particular organizations’ approaches.

The conference got Matt Thompson, a veteran of both the newsroom and the academy who’s currently working for NPR, thinking about what researchers can do to bring the two arenas closer together. “I saw a number of studies this weekend that working journalists would find fascinating and helpful,” he wrote. “Yet they’re not available in forms I’d feel comfortable sending around the newsroom.” He has some practical, doable tips that should be required reading for journalism researchers.

Making sense of social data: Most of the commentary on Facebook’s recent big announcements came out last week, but there’s still been plenty of good stuff since then. The tech blog ReadWriteWeb published the best explanation yet of what these moves mean, questioning whether publishers will be willing to give up ownership of their comments and ratings to Facebook. Writers at ReadWriteWeb and O’Reilly Radar also defended Facebook’s expansion against last week’s privacy concerns.

Three other folks did a little bit of thinking about the social effects of Facebook’s spread across the web: New media prof Jeff Jarvis said Facebook isn’t just identifying us throughout the web, it’s adding a valuable layer of data on places, things, ideas, everything. But, he cautions, that data isn’t worth much if it’s controlled by a company and the crowd isn’t able to create meaning out of it. Columbia grad student Vadim Lavrusik made the case for a “social nut graph” that gives context to this flood of data and allows people to do something more substantive than “like” things. PR blogger Paul Seaman wondered about how much people will trust Facebook with their data while knowing that they’re giving up some of their privacy rights for Facebook’s basic services. And social media researcher danah boyd had some insightful thoughts about the deeper issue of privacy in a world of “big data.”

The Wall Street Journal goes local: The Wall Street Journal made the big move in its war with The New York Times this week, launching its long-expected New York edition. The Times’ media columnist, David Carr, took a pretty thorough look at the first day’s offering and the fight in general, and Columbia j-prof Sree Sreenivasan liked what he saw from the Journal on day one.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer said the struggle between the Journal and the Times is a personal one for the Journal’s owner, Rupert Murdoch — he wants to own Manhattan, and he wants to see the Times go down in flames there. Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis stifled a yawn, calling it “two dinosaurs fighting over a dodo bird.”

Along with its local edition, the Journal also announced a partnership with the geolocation site Foursquare that gives users news tips or factoids when they check in at certain places around New York — a bit more of a hard-news angle than Foursquare’s other news partnerships so far. Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram applauded the Journal’s innovation but questioned whether it would help the paper much.

Apple and app control: The fury over Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore’s proposed iPhone app has largely died down, but there were a few more app-censorship developments this week to note. MSNBC.com cartoonist Daryl Cagle pointed out that despite Apple’s letup in Fiore’s case, they’re not reconsidering their rejection of his “Tiger Woods cartoons” app. Political satirist Daniel Kurtzman had two of his apps rejected, too, and an app of Michael Wolff’s Newser column — which frequently mocks Apple’s Steve Jobs — was nixed as well. Asked about the iPad at the aforementioned International Symposium on Online Journalism, renowned web scholar Ethan Zuckerman said Apple’s control over apps makes him “very nervous.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also went deep into the iPad’s implications for publishers this week in a piece on the iPad, the Kindle and the book industry. You can hear him delve into those issues in interviews with Charlie Rose and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

Reading roundup: We had some great smaller conversations on a handful of news-related topics this week.

— Long-form journalism has been getting a lot of attention lately. Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about longform.org, an effort to collect and link to the best narrative journalism on the web. Several journalistic heavyweights — Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger, Bill Keller — sang the praises of narrative journalism during a Boston University conference on the subject.

Nieman Storyboard focused on Keller’s message, in which he expressed optimism that long-form journalism could thrive in the age of the web. Jason Fry agreed with Keller’s main thrust but took issue with the points he made to get there. Meanwhile, Jonathan Stray argued that “the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness” and urges journalists not to cut on the web what they’re used to leaving out in print.

— FEED co-founder Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Columbia last week about the future of text, especially as it relates to tablets and e-readers. You can check it out here as an essay and here on video. Johnson criticizes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for creating iPad apps that don’t let users manipulate text. The American Prospect’s Nancy Scola appreciates the argument, but says Johnson ignored the significant cultural impact of a closed app process.

— Two intriguing sets of ideas for news design online: Belgian designer Stijn Debrouwere has spent the last three weeks writing a thoughtful series of posts exploring a new set of principles for news design, and French media consultant Frederic Filloux argues that most news sites are an ineffective, restrictive funnel that cut users off from their most interesting content. Instead, he proposes a “serendipity test” for news sites.

— Finally, if you have 40 free minutes sometime, I highly recommend watching the Lab editor Joshua Benton’s recent lecture at Harvard’s Berkman Center on aggregation and journalism. Benton makes a compelling argument from history that all journalism is aggregation and says that if journalists don’t like the aggregation they’re seeing online, they need to do it better. It makes for a great introductory piece on journalism practices in transition on the web.

April 08 2010

00:03

Navigating Media Ethics and Censorship in Dubai

Around the world, dozens of organizations, from Freedom House to Reporters Without Borders, advance the ideal of a free press and a free citizenry. The ideal suggests there is one type of free press to be secured globally: the Western model of a constitutionally protected free press.

What stands over and against the free press? The typical examples are the media systems found in China or Burma.

But this thinking is too simple for a global age. The attempt to develop a free press follows different pathways in different regions. New ways of combining media freedom and responsibility are evolving.

Consider the impressive development of media in the more liberal Arab states, such as Dubai. Rather than quote statistics, I will describe one journalist in Dubai who experiences daily the tensions at work as the Arab media evolve.

"Freedom" Within Limits

nightline.jpgIt is 10 p.m. in Dubai and I am a guest on Nightline, Dubai's English-language radio talk show.

The host is James Piecowye, whose studio is in the radio station DubaiEye, 103.8 FM, which is part of Arabian Radio Network. The network is one of the largest media conglomerates in the Middle East and is owned by the ruling family of Dubai.

Piecowye is a Canadian who earned a doctorate in communication from the University of Montreal. He arrived in the United Arab Emirates a decade ago to teach at Zayed University, a college for Emirati women. About four years ago, he tried radio broadcasting after deciding that Dubai's English radio was a "wasteland" of classic rock and pop stations.

Radio, and especially talk radio, is new to Dubai. Before 1971, there was no locally operated radio in the region. Citizens relied on the BBC, Radio America, and stations in Lebanon and Jordan. When radio was established, a Western style was often adopted. Each night, on air, Piecowye carefully walks a tightrope between the listeners who call in and the state officials who monitor the show.

Some boundaries are clear: Topics such as homosexuality, drugs, prostitution, abortion, and religion are taboo. When Dubai World announced recently it was $40 billion in debt, shocking the markets, Piecowye could not discuss the problem on his show. Even discussion of lifestyles, such as dating, is sensitive in a country that outlaws kissing in public.

Still, Piecowye manages to provide interesting discussions using officials, scholars, and professors to discuss sanitation, traffic, education, and tonight's topic -- media ethics. He finds inventive ways to discuss sensitive topics.

For example, he cannot ask callers to discuss the drug problem. But he can invite the chief of the Dubai narcotics division to discuss what the division is doing to combat drugs. Back in Canada or the United States, using only comments from officials is considered one-sided and, well, boring. In Dubai, it is a way of putting the issue into the public sphere.

Working Without a Net

JamesPiecowye.jpeg

Yet, despite these precautions, any show can be cause for worry. "Offensive" is a terribly subjective word and concept, even in a country with strict laws.

"Often, I am never really sure where the line is between offending and not offending, and who will take offensive to what," said Piecowye.

Having grown up with CBC Radio, the Canadian public broadcaster, Piecowye added: "I attempt to bring Canadian journalism values into my show." He takes on the role of the neutral CBC-like moderator who seeks facts and reasoned discussion.

But here is the kicker: Piecowye works without a tape delay. Offensive comments by guests or his callers potentially can go straight to air. Luckily, this has rarely happened.

And what happens when officials do not approve of something on Nightline? The radio station gets a call from a well-placed person who expresses official displeasure. Such calls are taken very seriously. Violations of media laws in Dubai can lead to jail or swift deportation.

The danger is always there: One seriously offensive broadcast and Piecowye's decade of service to Zayed University and Dubai could be in jeopardy.

So, on this night, I and three other international ethicists engage in discussion with Piecowye about global media ethics, the theme of a conference we are attending. We talk in general terms about what global media ethics is, and how media can be made more responsible. We are fully aware that there is no tape delay. No one wants to get Piecowye in trouble by uttering an offensive comment or by raising a taboo topic.

I find myself, like Piecowye, dancing with the sheiks and their monitoring officials -- at least in my imagination. I find myself rephrasing comments before they come out of my mouth. Nonetheless, our group has a lively discussion on media freedom and responsibility, without directly attacking media restrictions in Dubai.

Negotiating Freedom

Piecowye later recounted an on-air anecdote that captured the experience. "One night I was struggling to not say something that couldn't be said, and I got a text message from a listener," he said. "The person wrote, 'We know what you're trying to say, so why don't you just SAY it!' "

This experience of "saying some things but not saying everything" defines the working conditions of many journalists in Dubai and other Arab countries. It is not full media freedom but it is not insignificant, either. It should not be dismissed as odious self-censorship. It is an important and evolving experiment that runs counter to hundreds of years of tradition.

Dubai's Nightline shows that we need a nuanced understanding of how to advance media freedom globally; there is no master plan.

The evolution of media freedom will depend on the country's media laws, the culture's tolerance of free speech, and local definitions of what is appropriate and what is offensive.
In many countries, journalists will negotiate for increasing freedom, and learn to navigate around limits. In the new "hybrid" globalized societies, such as Dubai, media freedom will take on hybrid forms.

There is no guarantee that liberalizing forces will win; and no predicting how far they will advance. There is no saying how this dance will end.

But Piecowye and other journalists continue to expand the boundaries of media freedom, working pragmatically within the limits of law and society.

Stephen J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

JSOURCE_logo_colR1.jpg

This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

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