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Friday, November 09, 2007

Porn & Violence Go Hand-in-hand

Right here, Right Now

It's just awful. From my very own local Palo Alto Daily News comes a horrifying story. In
"Fight Over Porn Spurred Attack", Kristina Peterson reports how local 20-year-old Todd Burpee attacked a 17-year-old girl, bashed her head against the pavement, and then kidnapped and sexually assaulted her.Why? According to Peterson,

Burpee's relationship with his fiancee soured after she discovered a Craigslist personal ad he had been composing on their computer seeking sexual intimacy with older women, titled "desperate housewives," according to police reports. Recently, she had also caught him surfing teenage porn sites, she told police.

A police search of Burpee's car after his arrest turned up six pornographic DVDs, 16 pages of computer printouts of naked men, women and children from a nudist Web site, and three sexually explicit magazines, including one called "Asian Fever."

Burpee had spent most of the night prior to the assault seething in his car. The following day, as the fight with his fiancee continued, he told police that when he spotted his victim, he thought she was in elementary school.

When asked by police what the victim looked like, Burpee...

"...told officers "I seen like an As ..." before stammering "I didn't know she was Asian until I attacked her back here."

Burpee is remorseful. He has confessed and believes he should be punished for his crimes. And at 20, his life is a wreck.

Because of porn?

Draw your own conclusions.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Post. Sue. Rinse and Repeat. But Watch that Drain...

Drawing a Line in the Internet Sand

It's perhaps the biggest fundamental challenge to law-and-order on the Internet, and it's like sand at the beach -- it's everywhere; the minute you do more than look from the safety of your car, it gets everywhere on you; and then it sticks everywhere, even after you think you've washed it clear.

In his CNET News perspective "Others Post, You Get Sued", Eric Sinrod of the law firm Duane Morris places the spot-light on the big question: "Who's responsible for content?"

In a legal dispute between and fair-housing proponents, that question related to whether the site should be held accountable for the content that was posted there, which in some cases was either discriminatory or led to discriminatory behavior. Sinrod addresses two salient points in the law:
  1. The CDA (Communications Decency Act) provides that "(no) provider...of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Hence, the immunity of a service provider, for example, from liability for any content that it ships over its lines or "passively" hosts on its servers.

  2. The CDA doesn't protect an information content provider, defined as "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet."
How do we make the discrimination between a service provider and a content provider? At first, it might sound easy, and in some cases it's indeed obvious. At its simplest, if I'm just moving bits, I'm not a content provider, therefore I'm not liable.

But move that line just a little bit, and grains of sand start falling on the other side.

For example: Is a Web-hosting company that offers tools to help you build your website a service provider or a content provider? Let's take GeoCities, for example. They don't make your page. But they provide the templates - graphics, headers, etc. Isn't that content?

What about MySpace? More grains of sand fall to the other side. MySpace provides surveys, ornaments, and more. Are they content providers?

How about a news site or portal page that creates or publishes news stories and then invites feedback from its readership? Responsible or not? What about a blog site? I've created some of the content here, and provided you with an opportunity to comment. Am I responsible?

And Well, they provide surveys that allow you to express a preference for who you would be willing to live with. As in, "Straight/Lesbian/Gay". That's content. And it provides the ability to discriminate against a "protected class" of citizens.

Furthermore, you have the ability to customize your profile with a block of text, where you might express even more discriminating (in both the good sense and bad sense) preferences. "I like to play jazz really loud, and won't take a roommate who listens to gangsta rap."

So the judgment call here is "What constitutes the creation/provision of 'content'?" There are as many nuances to this call as there are ideas and expressions.

The closer we look, the harder it is to discern -- l
ike so many grains of sand. An army of judges could never classify it all.

Just as problematic is the sheer volume of content. Sinrod points out:
Consider also that Roommates contains approximately 150,000 active listings at a time. Should the site be deemed potentially liable for discriminatory postings among these listings and be forced to police those postings on a constant basis?

Millions of hosted websites. Millions of MySpace pages. Millions of postings on bulletin boards. Who is going to read them all? Who is going to police them?

The public can sometimes act as a governor of illegal behavior if the questions are clear enough. Reporting an illegal website, web-page, or posting can serve as a kind of "virtual citizen's arrest", but only when the violation is clearly on the wrong side of a clear line. When that's not the case, it's a recipe for clogged legal pipes and unhappy communities.

The content comprising the Internet might be thought of as billions and billions of grains of sand, shifting all the time. Any lines drawn only become clear at 100 feet above the ground, and even then, only for a moment. Judges have to work one grain at a time.

Somewhere in between, we as citizens (adults, parents, and kids) have a role to play.

That role? Play responsibly.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ads Woven Into Virtual Worlds - But Are Kids Ready?

Gives new meaning to "Warp and Weft"

In the tapestry of a virtual world, the finer the weave, the more powerfully real the experience. And when that weave includes expertly integrated advertising, it's time to ask some hard questions.

Stephanie Olsen of CNet News explores this ground in her October 16th article, "Are Kids Ready for Ads in Virtual Worlds?" Olsen reports from the Virtual Worlds conference and expo held in San Jose last week.

The news is intriguing and alarming.

Virtual worlds mean different things to different constituencies. To adults, virtual worlds are playgrounds of escape and fantasy.

To kids, who have grown up with no notion of "before the Internet", they're just a part of the fabric of THE reality. Virtual worlds aren't virtual reality -- they ARE reality, just as much as conversing by cell phone or chatting on line.

And, to advertisers, they're a chance to embed a product or brand message into an immersive experience.

Two snips from Olsen's article leaped out at me:
"This kind of marketing is designed to operate at a subconscious level. And kids don't know how to think critically about how someone's trying to get them to be loyal to a brand or buy their products," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the School of Communication at American University and author of Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet."

"This is a very powerful medium for marketing because it involves this huge engagement. It's more powerful than a sugar cereal commercial," said Bob Bowers, CEO of Numedeon, whose Whyville members spend about three and a half hours a month on the virtual world.

The challenge for parents in this media-dense (media-infested?) age is that everywhere we turn, somebody is trying to hook the attention of our children, and each one of those somebodies typically cares more about their revenue stream than about our kids mental, social, or moral development (see "Ten is the new Fifteen"). As our kids venture into virtual worlds, those somebodies will have even more opportunity to attach their messages to our kids' minds.

With kids, the ability to distinguish between truth and manipulation is limited. Kids inherently "trust" more than adults do. As they explore virtual worlds -- generally on their own, without a parent by their virtual side -- they'll be engaging in experiences that are crafted by advertisers.

Immersive advertising is much more powerful than anything we've experienced to date, especially when targeted toward kids. This new and powerful toolkit hands advertisers the ability to shape (and warp!) our childrens' view of reality much more effectively than ever before.

It's a brave new world. Olsen quotes Jason Root, vice president of digital for Nickelodeon's, who showed both enthusiasm and admirable (for now) restraint:
"We've had no advertising since we launched, (but we're) on the cusp of interesting advertising developments, and we're evolving with that. We're going to have a great immersive experience both with kids and advertisers,"

Olsen reports that is being cautious, ensuring that ads are clearly marked. I hope that discipline lasts, and I hope "clearly marked" really means "CLEARLY Marked". But how do you make an ad obvious to a 5-year-old?

Ultimatly, Root admitted that: to kids in virtual worlds is a gray area and "it's only getting grayer."

Grayer indeed. My hair is getting grayer by the minute.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to School, Back to MySpace (Part II)

Back to the Black Board

State Attorneys General seem to take this Internet Safety stuff seriously. Perhaps because when trouble strikes in the form of some heinous Internet-borne tragedy, it’s usually left on the AG’s doorstep.

AGs from at least twelve states are anxious to do something about it. Much of their attention seems to be focused on the dangers of social networking sites, no doubt because that’s the most fertile soil for tragedy to take root. AGs in Connecticut and North Carolina want to make it tougher for kids to sign up.

Here’s a horror story from the North Carolina AGs office that illustrates why:
In 2006 alone, the media reported almost 100 criminal incidents across the country involving adults who used MySpace to prey or attempt to prey on children. In North Carolina, a former sheriff’s deputy was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2006 for molesting a 15-year-old Cary boy he met on MySpace. In 2006, the NC State Bureau of Investigation arrested a Boiling Spring Lakes police officer for raping a 14-year-old girl he lured through MySpace.

North Carolina AG Roy Cooper is understandably upset, and he's not alone. Last year, I had the privilege of speaking at the National Association of Attorneys General summer 2006 conference on this very topic with several colleagues from the social networking industry. The AGs were not pleased, and many related horror stories similar to Cooper’s.

One AG is taking it to the streets – and the classroom. Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell is sending his staff out to Virginia schools to educate kids about the very near and present dangers of careless social networking.

How is Virginia different? One word: LAW.

Virginia is one of the first states to mandate Internet Safety as part of the curriculum. In
Back to School: Reading, Writing and Internet Safety, Adam Hochberg quotes Virgina AG McDonnell:

"Young kids don't see how they could possibly get hurt at a computer in their own home. Parents don't know enough about the Internet to have the conversations they need to have with their kids. And so that's why we're doing this. The key now is education."

And laws that compel us to behave differently. Not just AGs, teachers, and school administrators, but ISPs, content providers, and technology companies. And law-enforcement officers. We need
informed, fresh, and thoughtful eyes on this problem from all perspectives. (I'd also add "unbiased by pre-disposition, prejudice, or profit" to the list, but I'm not that unrealistic...)

Education alone is not enough, in my opinion. North Carolina AG Cooper doesn't so either. He'd like to force age verification:

"It's better for their protection that younger kids not be on these sites. And if they are, the parents ought to know about it, the parents ought to give express consent and they ought to monitor these sites very carefully."

And why not? We restrict minors from accessing other harmful, dangerous materials and activities, like buying cigarettes and alcohol. And we restrict certain kinds of content, too, like access to R-rated movies without a parent or guardian. Should social networking sites be so different? Is it just because it's hard? Or because it's on the Internet? We need a dialog, and some sensible social policy.

And whether they know it or not, social networking sites like MySpace would benefit from some enlightened regulation.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Back to School, Back to MySpace (Part I)

AGs: Gunslingers or Mudslingers?
MySpace: Yellow-bellied or Duty-bound?

State Attorneys General take their obligations seriously. AGs from eight states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio) all communicated their intentions to MySpace back in May when MySpace kicked thousands of known sex offenders off their site. Credit goes to MySpace for taking the initiative, but many AGs are not satisfied that the social-networking giant is doing enough.

Many AGs are doing more on their own. AGs in Connecticut and North Carolina want to require parents' permission before a child signs up.

From AGs aim to make MySpace a safe space, Daniel C. Vock cites Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal:
“Failing to verify ages means that children are exposed to sexual predators who may be older men lying to seem younger. There is no excuse in technology or cost for refusing age verification...”

Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace chief security officer, is looking for air cover, and rightly so. MySpace privacy policy requires that MySpace exercise care in what user information they release, and to whom. Caught between a rock and a hard place, MySpace struggles (perhaps in a trap of their own making) to balance their responsiveness to law enforcement with obligations to their user-base.

A key part of the problem is that the AG's don't have the right tools for the job. So they often resort to grandstanding and eye-gouging to get their way. Mark Rasch's Your Space, My Space, Everybody's Space illuminates the apparently bizarre behavior of the AGs in their search for justice. The AGs heard about the purge of sex-offenders, and asked MySpace for the list. MySpace said, "Sure, but we need a subpoena…". And the mud started to fly:
When MySpace insisted on some legal process to provide subscriber or identity information about people they had already kicked off the service, the Attorney Generals cried foul and went to the press.

The AG's lambasted MySpace in the media, accusing them of protecting child molestors, abusing their public trust, and refusing to cooperate. But that's just not fair. MySpace was simply trying to act according to governing law, which forbids them from releasing information about subscribers. Rasch goes on to note how:
in the case of Freedman v. Am. Online, Inc., 325 F. Supp. 2d 638 (D. Va. 2004) AOL was successfully sued for giving out subscriber information without an effective warrant... In another case, United States v. Hambrick, 55 F. Supp. 2d 504 (D. Va. 1999), the Court refused to suppress the subscriber information delivered to the cops when a Justice of the Peace... signed off on an invalid warrant. In both Freedman and Hambrick, the ISP gave subscriber data to the cops without an effective warrant, and in both cases the courts found that the ISP could be held civilly liable for it.

Civil liability for cooperating with Law Enforcement. It's a tough problem, especially when the Electronic Communications Privacy Act limits the legal authority of a person or entity providing an electronic communication service to the public to disclose user information to government authorities.

There is no villain in this story. In reality, any effort to fix this problem requires thoughtful involvement from a team of key stakeholders. MySpace's Nigam is calling for laws that require sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, so MySpace can keep them off the site in the first place. That's just a drop in the bucket. We need a wholesale examination of relevant law, and a smart, dedicated group of technologists, constitutionalists, privacy lawyers, and community advocates to even have a chance of taking on this problem.

Not an easy task, but a worthy one.

Next: What else are those AG's up to?

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