Brands are arbiters of quality on the Internet

June 29, 2009

Knowledge, news, music, opinion shall be free (as unfettered). That was the promise of the Internet, and bloggers were expected to deliver on that promise.

What followed was utter chaos, irresponsible reporting, plagiarizing without batting an eyelid, and an overload of information. The dark underbelly of society was showing on the Internet.

Wikipedia suddenly became less reliable. People very often edited entries on Wikipedia to suit their personal agendas, and the users’ only hope for accuracy is that some other guy got there before him and corrected the inaccuracy.

Folks, even bloggers, now need help to negotiate the labyrinth of the Internet to find information that is quotable and credible. Hence most bloggers now quote what are considered long-established credible sources, such as The New York Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal, and a few new online credible sources of information.

A lot has been written about Twitter. Like email when it started, Twitter is a great way to get the message out. But as spammers and frauds started using email, the message was increasingly questionable.

That is happening to Twitter as well……I don’t know who is my source of information on Twitter, whether he is reliable, whether he was at all in Iran while updating me on the youth unrest in that country after the elections.

Most of the time it is not hard core information I get on Twitter, but some vague reports from equally diffuse people on what they are eating now, how they are feeling at the moment, or what car they are driving.

Many times people themselves are filtering information to put them in a good light, or promote themselves. After all this is the age of personal brand building, and any channel is useful.

In 2007, I had written that although the Internet had made expression free, whether the expression was in the form of writing, art or music, there would still be needed gatekeepers to the Internet who would separate the wheat from the chaff.

See article titled ” Finding gold on the Net is a long shot”.

It was expected then that new brands would emerge to play counsellors and guides to Internet users. The “Long Tail” had created opportunities of all sorts of online purveyors of music, news, and other forms of art, by lowering the cost of inventory, distribution, and marketing.

But the gold rush to the Internet left people gasping for some guidance on how to avoid the trash. Already they were suffering from clutter and information overload.

eMusic, for example, focused on the “Long Tail”, and tried to build a music download brand around that. Leading newspapers set up blogs aiming to be arbiters of quality in both formal news reporting, and the more informal world of blogs.

The upshot is that a mix of new and old brands have emerged as gatekeepers to the Internet. That makes navigating the Internet for quality and reliable stuff more reliable.

But to a large extent it has also robbed the Internet of its fierce democracy. Once again the big brands – a few – will decide what goes through its filters. Once again smaller purveyors of content will have to kow-tow to the big brands or go unnoticed, and end up in some corner on YouTube.


Savitabhabhi and the right to smut

June 29, 2009

News reports from India’s ContentSutra have it that a porn cartoons web site has been banned by the Indian government.

While we all stand for freedom of speech, I am not sure that we should extend it to the right to publish smut.

What is cute about an online celebration of a sister-in-law who has the hots ? That incidentally was the theme of, and some of the morally neutered media, US and Indian, gushed over it.

On this point I differ with the ultra-liberals who would argue that it has to be freedom at all costs, even if the freedom is exercised at the expense of good taste, or could endanger our kids who are also online.

Extending the liberal point of view further, this would add up to freedom to be solicited by pedophiles and other maniacs.

The fact is that if civil society is befuddled with confused liberal notions, somebody has to stop the smut online. If civil society does not have the way and means and the will to do it, the government does it.

The government has decided to take up the issue, and ban Hopefully, they will extend it to other pornographic sites. Else they would quite justifiably be seen as arbitrary.

I am not comfortable with the government deciding what should be made available to readers online, because the mandarins may misuse it, and they are not sophisticated enough to take a nuanced view.

That the government intervened however reflects the people’s inability to take a call as a concerted group, which is once again a reflection of the breakdown of consensus in civil society and the body politic.

Instead of relying on the liberal reflex, people worldwide have to take a serious view of the proliferation of smut and other things dangerous on the Internet. Just as we practively try to avoid crime on the streets, we should proactively try to stop criminal activities on the Internet.

As on the streets, there is the danger of fascism on the Internet. Governments also tend to want to curtail all freedoms in the name of curbing pornography, as in the case of China’s controversial filtering software for PCs.

But we have to find a middle-path for the sake of decency, good manners our sanity and that of the younger generation. We have to agree, or else the government will have to step in to tell us what is right.

P.S: A web site has sprouted on the Internet to save the porn site….yet another example of misplaced liberalism.

Yahoo’s settlement with families of Chinese dissidents may not change its ways in China

November 14, 2007

Internet company Yahoo Inc. has settled a lawsuit brought by the families of a Chinese dissident and a journalist, who claim they were jailed after the company cooperated with Chinese authorities, according to a report in CNN.

Yahoo’s decision to settle comes a week after the company was criticized in Congress, with one congressman accusing the company of being moral pygmies. “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, said at a hearing.

Yahoo and other Internet companies have maintained that to operate in countries like China they have to play by local rules. This stand has however come in for criticism that when it comes to business interests, Internet companies like Yahoo and Google Inc. give democratic norms the go by.

In this instance, the Chinese government demanded from Yahoo the name of the account holder who was using a Yahoo account to send out pro-democracy documents, and Yahoo complied.

Tom Lantos called on Internet companies to “resist any attempts by authoritarian regimes to make them complicit in cracking down on free speech, otherwise they simply should not do business in those markets”, according to this report by the Associated Press.

In interviews, Yahoo executives have said that their refusal to comply could land their local employees in China in trouble. They add that the technologies for online community and sharing that they offer will in the final analysis promote democracy in countries run by repressive regimes.

There may be some merit to this argument. During the violent repression in Myanmar earlier this year, the Internet has proven to be an useful conduit to the world for people to communicate the atrocities to the rest of the world. Even as Pakistan places curbs on traditional media and television in Pakistan, the Internet has emerged as a key alternative.

Yahoo and other Internet companies have argued that it is not for one company to challenge the system in China. It requires an inter-governmental resolution between the US and Chinese governments.

It is not clear at this point whether the settlement by Yahoo reflects a change in the company’s position on how it operates in China. At this point it seems that the company settled to avoid further embarrassment and scrutiny in the US.

The company may now be in a better position legally in the US after it handed over the management of its Chinese operations to in which Yahoo has a 40 percent stake. It is now more likely to argue that it has no control over in which it holds a minority stake.

Will you buy potatoes on the Net ?

October 17, 2007

Once again we are hearing rumblings that online sales are killing brick-and-mortar sales. That story, if you remember, fueled the dotcom boom, which busted soon after.

Now many years later, people are more net savvy, there is a lot of stuff folks can buy online, but for a variety of reasons including technical and cultural, it may be again premature to talk about the imminent demise of the brick-and-mortar store.

Movie Gallery Inc., the second- largest U.S. video-rental chain, sought bankruptcy protection from creditors, citing increased competition from Blockbuster Inc. and Netflix Inc., according to a report from Bloomberg.

The point here is that Movie Gallery may have lost out to guys like Netflix, which save you the walk to a Movie Gallery store by letting you select online from a large repertoire. But the delivery of the DVDs is still done offline to the customer. So it is not a case of a brick-and-mortar play losing out to a pure online play.

A pure online play offering high quality, low-cost video downloads alone may not be as successful as Netflix, because that assumes large Internet bandwidth pipes to the home, which are not there yet across the US, and less so around the world.

In music too, don’t expect online music to wipe out the CD business. It is true that online music stores provide access to a much larger repertoire than a large brick-and mortar store can ever offer. But after the first flush of excitement over quick gratification, folks are going to take a long hard look at sound quality.

They will not only look at encoding bit rates, but at the encoding formats for downloaded music. These formats like MP3 are lossy, because to make files sizes smaller and manageable, they lop out a lot of music information that you would ordinarily find on CDs.

A lot of folks may go back to buying CDs if only because they offer better sound quality. A not-so-fringe benefit is that currently most CDs are not covered by DRM (digital rights management). I got back a week ago to buying CDs, after a downloading frenzy. The downloaded MP3 files were okay on a portable digital music player like an iPod, but the lossy character of the format really showed when the file was played on a home music system.

Finally, would folks buy potatoes and other groceries on the Net ?

I doubt it. Not a lot of folks buy vegetables without feeling them for solidity, consistency, and to spot out for those pernicious insects that tend to get to vegetables. They would rather go to the nearby store, or call up the store that has delivered reliably, quickly, and top quality stuff over the years. What is the buyer’s incentive to shift to buying online ?

Would folks buy art online, after taking a look at digitized images of a painting or sculpture ? Would die-hard shoppers give up the real-world shopping experience for clicks on a computer ?

Some categories like packed and branded products, we have bought and tried before, will most probably be purchased online. Coke cans for example, but certainly not designer wear, or furniture. Well known books by authors with impeccable credentials may be bought online if the store nearby does not stock it. Most people would still like to flick through the pages of a new book before they buy it.

Some of the conditions that proved the prophets of the online retail (etail) boom wrong in the late 1990s still hold good.

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Finding gold on the Net is a long shot

Google says don’t shoot the messenger

October 16, 2007

Google Inc. is agitated that the Indian government may retain a provision in its Information Technology Act., that makes intermediaries such ISPs (Internet Service Providers), website hosting companies, search engines, email services, social networks liable for illegal user content. See here the comments from a policy analyst at Google India.

Google has reasons to be worried about “intermediary liability”. Recently a cantankerous political party in Mumbai, called the Shiv Sena, demanded that Google’s social networking site, Orkut, should be banned in India, and prosecuted, after some users posted content considered defamatory of the party’s leader.

There is a precedent of sorts for that. In 2004, Avnish Bajaj, the then CEO of eBay’s Indian subsidiary was arrested in connection with the sale of a pornographic video clip on the online auction portal. Bajaj was arrested under the provisions of the Information Technology Act relating to intermediary liability.

I agree that intermediaries should not be held responsible for illegal content. Google’s policy analyst, Rishi Jaitly, says a telephone company is not held responsible if two people use a telephone call to plan a crime.

The argument about the telephone is specious and does not recognize that the times have changed. The content of a phone call between two housewives slandering somebody remains between the two, or if it spreads it will be a few persons at a time.

In contrast, because of the viral nature of content on the Internet, if somebody takes a young girl’s naked picture, using a spy camera, or he takes her face shot and adds someone else’s naked body to it, that picture will be all over the world in seconds.

By the time the aggrieved person discovers that it has happened, and reports it to Google, and then Google goes through its internal procedures to decide whether the content should be brought down or not, that picture will be all over the Internet, and the young lady’s honor and privacy in shambles.

Folks like Google and other Internet service providers have been pushing social networking and online communities without coming up with appropriate ways to counter misuse of these large, scale communication platforms. “It would be technologically infeasible for ISPs and web companies to pre-screen each and every bit of content being uploaded onto our platforms, especially as the amount of information coming online increases exponentially in India and around the world,” says the Google policy analyst.

Fair enough, but what this means is that technology innovation and new applications like social networking, touted as part of the brave new Web 2.0, have thrown up new problems. Like Google and a lot of other people, Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology is also fumbling in search of a solution. Don’t blame them. Work with them, because as government they are more concerned about the individual. Perhaps the government worries that if intermediaries are not at all held liable for content, they may be more inclined to turn a blind eye to such content.

Instead Google decides to harangue the government with its self-serving view on Internet freedom and economic development. “More importantly, imposing such a burdensome standard (of intermediary liability) would crush innovation, throttle Indian competitiveness, and prevent entrepreneurs from deploying new services in the first place, a truly unfortunate outcome for the growth of the Internet in India,” says the Google policy analyst.

Internet growth is not the topmost priority for all people. More important to most of them is protecting their modesty and privacy.

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems

China’s Internet censorship unparalleled, says report

October 11, 2007

China now has more than 160 million Internet users and at least 1.3 million websites. But the Internet’s promise of free expression and information has been nipped in the bud by the Chinese government’s online censorship and surveillance system, according to a joint study by Reporters Without Borders and Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Chinese Internet expert working in IT industry.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government have deployed colossal human and financial resources to obstruct online free expression, according to the study. Chinese news web sites and blogs have been brought under the editorial control of the propaganda apparatus at both the national and local levels, it added.

The study comes ahead of the 17th National Congress of the CCP, which opens this week in Beijing. It is also less than a year to the Olympic Games in Beijing, when China will attempt to present the best side of the country.

The Chinese government controls traditional news media like TV, radio, and print, but finds that its control is eroded by the Internet. The Internet has emerged as a new forum for dissident activity in countries like Myanmar and China where information flow is controlled by the authorities. During the recent crushing by the military in Myanmar of an agitation by Buddhist monks and students, blogs and videos posted on the Internet were the main information source on the army brutality for the outside world.

Foreign Internet businesses have been quite willing to go along with the Chinese government, if only to get market access. Their pet line is that they have to play by the rules, and that they actually help by being in China, by providing the Internet tools for people to communicate and collaborate.

In 2005, Yahoo was accused by Reporters Without Borders of supplying information to China which led to the jailing of a journalist for “divulging state secrets”, according to this report in the BBC.

In 2006, Google said it would censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China’s fast-growing market, according to this report. Those that don’t cooperate like online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, find themselves sporadically blocked out.

For a PDF version of the study see here

Corrupt bloggers: part of the dark underbelly of the Internet

October 6, 2007

Blogs and bloggers have always been romanticized as the ultimate example of freedom of expression. Citizen journalists, with fire in their belly, were expected to give their own unique perspective on events, new information that the traditional media had missed out, and a freshness of outlook and analysis. Information, we were told, would be really free, both as in unpriced and uncontrolled.

Unfortunately some corrupt bloggers are quickly turning that dream to dust. Some bloggers are putting up content on their blog posts up for sale to the corporate sector and other buyers. Their line: pay me and I will put up your news release.

Marketing communications managers in companies currently budget payments to bloggers that, depending on the popularity of the blogs, range from hefty checks to not-so-hefty checks, or even just a meal at an expensive restaurant.

“Soon after we issue a press release or make a product announcement, there are a large number of bloggers calling to discuss payments for running the story on their blogs”, said the communications manager of a leading multinational Internet company.

Why do companies pay ? Blogs are competing as news sources for the public because of their viral nature and quicker time to getting a story online. A good report helps a company, as it goes that much further, and more quickly, across cyberspace. By the same token if one of the more popular blogs ignores the news or publishes a competitor’s news item, the company that didn’t pay up stands to lose.

Bloggers are quickly realizing their importance, and some of them now demand that they be invited for press conferences, media briefings, and even company-paid junkets to exotic locations.

In an earlier posting, I had quoted Google Inc.’s president and chief Internet evangelist Vinton Cerf as saying that the Internet is a mirror to the population that uses it. “When you have a problem in the mirror you do not fix the mirror, you fix that which is reflected in the mirror”, Cerf said while rejecting regulation of the Internet.

The dark under-belly of society has moved to the Internet, but now more powerful, more viral because of the reach, and anonymity that the Internet offers.

There have been many instances through the decades of some small town journalists and publishers, and even some big city journalists and publishers, corrupted by handouts from politicians and companies. I knew a publisher who brought out his newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000 every time a company or a political party had an axes to grind through his newspaper.

But for these few black sheep, there are solid doyens of journalism, both publishers and journalists, committed to delivering to the reader a great, interesting, and accurate story.

This pattern too will likely emerge on the Internet, but the numbers are so many, that separating the wheat from the chaff is an impossible task for readers online. And there are more news and commentary blogs and product review blogs getting added each day. That is because the barriers to entry to becoming a purveyor of news and opinions has come crashing down.

If in the old days you needed to have a degree in journalism, and required an appreciation of the finer points and the ethics of the profession before you were credible, now anybody with an Internet account and access to a blog hosting site can set up a news blog.

Citizen journalism therefore is fraught with danger. I am worried not only of citizen journalism promoting corporate interests, but of citizen journalism promoting political interests, promoting disharmony between religions, at a price. Aggrieved folks may sometimes be able to slap the blog with a “cease and desist”, but the problem with such orders is that by the time your lawyer has finished drafting it out, various versions of the story may be on hundreds, nay a million other blogs.

My guess is that a confused public will eventually go back to their traditional gatekeepers of the news, like online editions of some of the established newspapers, and narrow down to a few blogs they have thoroughly vetted for quality. But until then it will be corruption and chaos in the blogosphere.

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