TOC A circus vast, a hundred rings which span the Earth. Your Turn

Giving justice to a French poet in translation is quite out my reach, especially when the poet is La Fontaine (1), so light on his feet, so swift in his wit. Yet, back from a trip to France, how could I resist to quote him (2) as I look at today's newspapers ? They seem to have captured Internet in all its kaleidoscopic variety.

My purpose however is not to compete with the news but to extract meaning from their endless rush. Let us see what lessons to draw from today's surge based on our motto: Privacy, Identity, Responsibility (12/05/06 fillip).

I start with a front page article by David D. Kirkpatrick (*) who analyses how stories no longer need to be true to be newsworthy. Lack of professionalism is not new and it would not be the first time that rumor had carried the day (12/05/06, 11/28/06, 8/22/06 fillips). What is striking is how Jeffrey T. Kuhner represents his publishing "anonymous reports by anonymous reporters", i.e. pure speculations: "It's a winning formula". In other words truth is costlier and not as entertaining, Identity and Responsibility are bad for business.

The story at hand implicated Senator Clinton in a smear attempt on Senator Obama, her current rival. Along those lines, I can hardly wait to read the forthcoming fizzy scoop featuring Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola in a plot to poison the public. Although, come to think of it, I may wait for ever. While Internet makes it hard to get paid to publish facts (1/9/07 fillip), the future may lie in getting paid not to publish lies.

Next comes an article by Tom Zeller Jr (**) on how Senator McCain was caught snoozing on camera during a speech by President Bush. Provided with the text of the speech in advance, Senator McCain was using his time wisely. Wished for in laptops, smart power management is yet frowned upon in elected officials. Senator McCain must have been unaware of my first fillip of the year (1/02/07) or else he would have expected round the clock surveillance. On the ultimate agora, there is no Privacy and telling lapses propagate as fast as clever sound bites.

Let us leave the US Senate for the big cities. Barnaby Feder next reports on how to be publicly welcome by a billboard as you drive by (***). Even if I appreciate to be quietly recognized by the maitre d' in my favorite restaurant, I have my doubts about being hailed in a crowd. But based on radio frequency identification (RFID), the scheme requires the assent of the targets picked by its promoter, an auto manufacturer. In this mutual agreement, Identity and Responsibility are respected and Privacy becomes what the parties decide to make out of it. At the very least auto thieves ought to avoid these extrovert cars.

The pull of politics is too strong. Back to President Bush, who was google-bombed into a "miserable failure". Noam Cohen (****) tells us Google has defused the bomb, which is an about face for the company (11/07/06 fillip). Still the bomber, George Johnston, is quick to doubt whether Google developed a better recommendation algorithm, beyond blacklisting his spurious page by hand. Given the outcome of Noam Cohen's search for "French military victories", Google's improvements, clouded as they are in corporate secrecy (9/12/06 fillip), do leave room for further progress. Let us agree with Jeffrey T. Kuhner that a good lie is more fun than the truth and with Google that Responsibility is a bore.

Responsibility is again very much at the heart of Noam Cohen's next article on the US courts citing Wikipedia (*****). Judge Richard A. Posner is quoted as saying: "It wouldn't be right to use it in a critical issue", and Professor Gillers: "Because you want your opinion to be readable, [...] background facts (from Wikipedia) [...] help the reader appreciate the context." It appears the courts see Wikipedia as a source of truth not from authority, to be relied upon, but from popularity, to readily appeal to the general public (12/05/06 fillip). Within limits, it does not hurt to inject some lighter writing in a judicial opinion to better get the argument across.

Noam Cohen however raises a good point. Even for mundane backgound reference, what does it mean to quote Wikipedia if its content varies with time? This issue is not new. Who can certify the exact meaning of the very words of a judicial opinion (8/1/06 fillip)? Scholarly studies on contemporaneous vocabulary usage can illuminate "original intent" though. But how to master the speed at which anonymous, publicly-edited content changes overtime? Requiring each quote to be followed by its content would defeat the purpose. Suggesting all past contents to be retrievable for ever can only come in the dreams of storage device manufacturers. Lack of Identity undercuts Responsibility.

Exposés, rumors and popular truth may be entertaining but one needs to earn a living. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson tells us from Davos that Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube, has changed his tune (******). Its content providers are now promised a share of advertising revenues. YouTube should not be blamed for monetising its audience and Chad Hurley is right in pointing to the scale of its new owner, Google, as a determining factor. In the name of Identity and Responsibility, authors deserve to be compensated and an advertising-based model is easier to sustain than one based on proprietary digital right management systems. I only need to remind the reader of the potential dangers to Privacy caused by an ever increasing advertising presence (1/2/07 fillip) and the tempting rewards of personalized advertising (12/12/06 fillip).

Internet-based advertising is not without its own issues relative to Responsibility though. He who has the ruler decides who gets the gold, an unorthodox version of the golden rule (3). How indeed to measure the audience on which payments are based when clicks may not be all what they seem. I could not locate an article on click fraud today but will instead substitute Louise Story's report on Nielsen television ratings (*******). Until today, Nielsen could not reliably measure viewership by college students and hence content providers could not charge advertisers for this audience. What if Nielsen also owned a television network on which it sold its own advertising. Other networks would worry lest Nielsen warp competition to its advantage. Yet Google is both a content provider supported by AdWords and the one counting the clicks for both AdSense and AdWords. A conflict of interest perhaps?

Had I La Fontaine's talent to turn each of today's stories into charming fables about human foibles when it comes to Privacy, Identity, Responsibility!

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ................. Feeding Frenzy For a Big Story, Even if It's False, by David D. Kirkpatrick (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (**) .............. In Politics the Camera Never Blinks (or Nods), by Tom Zeller Jr. (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (***) ............ Billboards That Know You by Name, by Barnaby Feder (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (****) ......... Google Halts 'Miserable Failure' Link to President Bush, by Noam Cohen (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (*****) ....... Courts Turn to Wikipedia, but Selectively, by Noam Cohen (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (******) .... YouTube uploaders in line for share of revenues, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (*******) .. At Last, Television Ratings Go to College, by Louise Story (New-York Times) - January 29, 2007
  • (1) see La Fontaine in the Wikipedia
  • (2) "Une ample comédie aux cent actes divers, Et dont la scène est l'univers" in "Le Bûcheron et Mercure", Fables livre 5, fable 1
  • (3) "He who has the gold, rules" is the popular version.
January 2007
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