TOC Searching from scratch Your Turn

January 15, 2008

In a footnote to last week's fillip, I hailed Wikia search as an important initiative. Before taking a deeper look at it, it is worth though to highlight two other contributions to democracy, a natural topic in the context of Wikipedia.

The first is a suggestion by Nina E. Olson, the national taxpayer advocate. As reported by David Cay Johnston (*), Ms Olson proposes the IRS make "apology payments of $100 to $1,000, adjusted for inflation" to "taxpayers who endure "excessive expense or undue burden" on their time". It is too soon to rejoice as such astute recommendations are rarely adopted. Yet Ms Olson's endorsement of cash apologies is gratifying.

Many laws and countless rules boil down to pattern recognition tasks, which, science tells us, inevitably lead to mistakes. It is more efficient to compensate innocent victims according to a fair, public, systematic process than to require all errors be eliminated, a material impossibility, or worse to assume they have been, a perversion of democracy. As far as eprivacy is concerned, we have advocated this remedy whenever individual profiling carries an adverse potential (see 6/6/06 and 9/19/07 fillips).

For good measure, shaken down and overflowing, user time is the one valuable commodity to be compensated for, according to Ms Olson. There is no time to lose. She should become our eprivacy advocate and start taking legal spammers to task for stealing our precious time.

The second recommendation is by the California Energy Commission. According to Felicity Barringer (**), it contemplates allowing electric utilities to override users' thermostats in case of an emergency. This is certainly preferable to rotating blackouts and next time I bump up the thermostat in the summer, I will blame my provider rather than be called a skinflint. But why limit market overrides to users? Why not shave dividends too? Could shareholders object to put up some free cash toward extra production capacity? It would happen "very rarely, once every few years".

Wikia search is also about putting users on par with central planners. Its principles are transparency, community, quality and privacy (1). We cannot agree more. These fillips are all about privacy. Users know result relevance of current search engines is not yet optimal. Ranking search results with user participation will decentralize the underlying recommendation process. And we have already called for greater transparency over its algorithm.

Google's founders had lofty principles too. Wikia has set a challenging task for itself to implement its principles without betraying them. It would be too easy and unfair to criticize Wikia search today. Its use of cookies is cavalier, the quality of its results abysmal, my attempts at participation frustrated at every turn (2) and the transparency of the search process quite opaque. But let us give them a break. They opened a week ago.

What I want to point out are some of the dangers which lie ahead. Some stem from the contradictory pull behind these four principles. Take quality and community for example. Give too much control to the community and you get spam (3). But how do you eliminate spam without discouraging normal users? Can you believe that two days ago Hotmail rejected an email I had sent to a very good friend of mine "because it had spam-like characteristics" (4)? I wish I knew which ones. But then transparency and community clash too, as spammers would love nothing more than details they can analyze for faults.

The bigger challenge though is about privacy. I have already shown how falls short on its goal to promote better user privacy. I realize my suggestions may be ahead of their time, but, given Wikia search is a for profit venture, what, short of such radical measures, can ensure Wikia's shareholders will not do an about face on targeted advertising and go the Google way? Beware democracy without checks and balances.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Advocate for Taxpayers Calls for Paid Apologies, by David Cay Johnston (New York Times) - January 10, 2008
  • (**) ...... California Seeks Thermostat Control, by Felicity Barringer (New York Times) - January 11, 2008
  • (1) for more information, see About Wikia Search
  • (2) I registered and got to edit so-called mini-articles without any problem
    but contributing to search results still eludes me and, if I trust Wikia forums, many other users.
  • (3) See for example the Bulletin Board of
  • (4) "Mail rejected by Windows Live Hotmail for policy reasons.
    Reasons for rejection may be related to content with spam-like characteristics or IP/domain reputation problems."
January 2008
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