Wars over words and data

LAST week, as if to spite the Fourth of July, the Internet coughed up two nice examples of the antidemocratic way much of the online world operates. First we saw the fallout from the well-known blogger Xeni Jardin’s decision to erase dozens of posts from her Boing Boing blog, without telling her readers or co-authors she did so until the act was discovered more than a year later. And then, even worse, we saw media giant Viacom’s successful motion, as part of its $1-billion copyright lawsuit against Google, to get its hands on a record of every video ever watched by YouTube users, including which user watched it, and when. Considering tens of millions have watched billions of clips on YouTube, that’s more than a little private information that just entered the possession of a litigious corporate media entity.

Over several years, Boing Boing, one of the Internet’s most popular and successful blogs, had frequently written about or linked to the writings of Violet Blue, the San Francisco Chronicle’s sex columnist, and prolific online commentator on carnal matters. Jardin, who had once had a close relationship with Blue (Blue characterized it as romantic; Jardin would not confirm or deny that), was the author of every Blue-related post.

But the two stopped associating. And sometime thereafter, Jardin systematically unpublished every Boing Boing reference to Blue she could find, without alerting the blog’s co-writers. (Unpublishing is different than deleting, as it allows you the option of re-publishing later).


Under the radar

This wholesale cleansing of Blue’s Boing Boing presence went unnoticed for nearly a year and a half, until someone alerted Blue that the posts were gone. When Blue noted the disappearance on her own blog, she kicked up an online whirlwind. Suddenly, both Boing Boing and Jardin found themselves in the middle of a furor over what many readers saw as a less-than-transparent act by a blog known for its commitment to openness and free culture.

Boing Boing was slow to react, ignoring initial interview requests in favor of posting its own rather terse explanation, the key bit of which is this: “Violet behaved in a way that made us reconsider whether we wanted to lend her any credibility or associate with her. It’s our blog and so we made an editorial decision, like we do every single day.”

That explanation did not specify that it was Jardin who had acted alone to remove the posts, or offer any note of regret for an action that had spurred so much consternation among the blog’s own readers.

Later, Jardin said via telephone that “there wasn’t an attempt to hide it. And I didn’t bring it up again in part because it involved some personal, private stuff that I don’t tend to get into. Like whether someone’s character is this or that, or whatever kind of personal dirty laundry was involved.”

On the same phone call, Boing Boing’s bloggers and its business manager explained that this was a kind of growing pain, wherein a blog that had started out as an informal and personal space for its writers had now become a widely read media outlet.

The long-standing rule, said John Battelle, chief executive of Federated Media and Boing Boing’s business manager, was that the site’s bloggers “can post anything they want, about anything they want, whenever they want without asking permission, and if they want to change those posts or take them down, they can do that too.

“Our learning from this is that we need to step back and have a conversation, listening to all the feedback we’ve been getting, and see if we need to review this approach and change it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

But I’m not sure about the framing of this as an educational experience, wherein the naive bloggers learned a tough lesson. Boing Boing’s archives are home to more than 42,000 blog posts, and its writers are some of the most experienced on the Internet, not to mention vehement backers of fairness and transparency in the blogosphere. Removal of even one post without notice has long been verboten among online journalists and professional bloggers. And so it’s striking that neither Jardin nor Boing Boing issued a real apology or note of contrition about this regrettable act -- which, because it was motivated by something personal in nature, would seem more forgivable if there was a simple apology, rather than a fancy rationalization.

Growing up into an established media source comes with its own set of responsibilities. When you make a mistake, you have to ‘fess up -- fast, and publicly. Anyone who’s made a mistake in public knows admitting it can sting. But hey Boing Boing, I think you’ll bounce back.

Massive amount of data

Over at Viacom, the aim is to prove that YouTube is little more than a beehive of copyright infringement, where users copy and distribute proprietary content with no regard for the rights of creators (or conglomerates). Viacom has said that since early 2007, it has removed 340,000 infringing clips.

So now YouTube must turn over 12 terabytes of user history logs, a massive trove of demographic and behavioral data around the size of the entire printed works of the Library of Congress. You could make the case that this information is so potent that YouTube shouldn’t even be storing it -- just as people worry that Google shouldn’t be storing all of our searches. Do we really want some for-profit business to have a permanent record of everything we watch online -- a record we can’t even access ourselves?

On the other hand, you could argue that this trove of information is so big, it’s bigger than YouTube. A data set that contains the viewing patterns of millions, in 20 countries, over a several-year period is an anthropological gold mine so rich that maybe scientists should be able to examine it.

But there’s no one arguing that Viacom should be able to. Except Viacom.

After the public got wind of the ruling and remembered the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s crusade against file-sharing college students, Viacom rushed to explain “unequivocally” that it would not go after individual YouTube users for violating copyright, and that they’d keep user information confidential.

Which means we’re being asked to trust Viacom not to misuse the information. For the record, CBS isn’t suing YouTube. Nor is Universal Music Group, Fox, HBO, Showtime, Oxygen or Scripps. In fact, all of those companies have deals with the site under which they can share in any advertising revenue generated by their content.

Protecting content

YouTube has also spent millions of dollars paying a team of computer scientists to develop an ingenious video identification system to help owners like Viacom quickly identify and, if they like, remove infringing content. All Viacom has to do is upload a sample of the shows and movies they want to protect, and YouTube automatically matches every unauthorized copy in its database. Then all Viacom has to do is click a button and poof! The pirated version disappears.

“It’s really too early to say whether it’s effective,” a Viacom spokesman said of the system in an e-mail. “It’s very new and still being tested by the large content owners.”

But that’s not exactly true. The system is now 9 months old, and has been embraced by multiple rights holders as a way to keep tabs on unauthorized copies of their material. The truth is that by allowing content owners the power to efficiently track unauthorized copies, YouTube’s system is giving more control to major media companies than they’ve ever had online.

All of which is to say, it’s no longer clear what Viacom is trying to do with this lawsuit. Some of it is no doubt the momentum and sunken costs of a giant legal effort -- and there are probably others who have come to see YouTube as a virtual Moby-Dick, and can’t stop hunting.

Which is a shame, because we all know how that story ended.