Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Dec 01

Solutions to Fake News 1: Deny Lie Merchants Access to Premium Ad Revenue

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, Digital Migration, journalism, new media, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Is a market-based solution the best way to solve the fake news problem?

There’s been a sudden realization outside the cozy confines of digital business model nerds, that the open nature of the web has allowed an entire class of scammers to establish themselves, grow, and flourish.

journalist taking notes rather than creating fake news stories

Actual journalists take notes and try to verify information before publishing. Fake News sites just make stuff up.

The end result of this has been that a substantial percentage of the U.S. public can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. And they then vote accordingly. This is generally seen as a Bad Thing. Not just because one particular political party lost the recent election – if anything, the GOP is as up in arms over this as the Democrats, because they see their voting base as unruly and detached from reality, due to their reliance on fake news stories. The end game of an entire voting population lost to fantasy is that the country, already borderline ungovernable, becomes so splintered that it starts making really idiotic decisions (“Let’s invade Guatemala! They’re sending us Snake People disguised as immigrants!”).

A lot of journalism pundits have started to pile on, as the stories about scammers (and let’s just coin this phrase right here and now: LIE MERCHANTS) surface, and their behavior becomes more and more brazen. The last few weeks have seen:

  1. Lie Merchants using “typo-squatting” to impersonate the USA Today or ABC news, in order to promulgate fantasies, such as protesters getting paid $3,500 apiece by George Soros to protest Trump’s election.
  2. Two nitwit brothers in Long Beach who gleefully seize on actual news events, and create elaborate, hateful conspiracy theories around them, which they then promote on Facebook, all to drive traffic to their LibertyWritersNews site, making up to $12,000 a week on ads.
  3. Unemployed Macedonian musicians exploiting the anti-Clinton hatred whipped up by Fox News and talk radio, fabricating “exposes” about child sex rings and devil worship so they can pay for amps and guitars.

A history of fake news reporting here on Sips

I’ve written about these kinds of scams here on Sips.

I even wrote an entire book about the tabloid industry back in the 90s, because I saw the entire news industry going off the rails, and pursuing lurid stories in their desperate efforts to satisfy the corporate profit imperatives.

Lately, I’ve been writing about the vast Clickfraud industry that steals an estimated 33% of online ad revenues from honest content producers.

All these trend lines have converged this year, and resulted in a toxic mess. We now have the worst of both worlds: the Lie Merchants are making coin hand over fist, because they spend nothing on reporting, research, fact-checking, interviews, verification, travel to personally witness events, or any of the other costs of an actual, functioning news organization.

Meanwhile, actual journalists are being fired in droves, because the public has become so addicted to these fantasies, that they now reject any hint that the disgusting lies they are fed via rabid AM-radio hosts, email chains, Facebook, Breitbart comment threads, etc. etc. — are not based in objective reality. From the BuzzFeed investigation:

Pages like Freedom Daily play to the biases of their audiences — and to those of Facebook’s News Feed algorithm — by sharing videos, photos, and links that demonize opposing points of view. They write explosive headlines and passages that urge people to click and share in order to show their support, or to express outrage. And in this tense and polarizing presidential election season, they continue to grow and gain influence.

There are a lot of solutions being bandied about, but today I will focus on one that to me, shows a lot of promise: cutting these Lie Merchants off from the advertising revenue that sustains their operations. This will necessitate some kind of human intervention; we are going to need to come up with a human-intermediated way of validating people who produce actual, factual, news.

The opening shot in this burgeoning war was fired by online ad-tech outfit DoubleVerify, with their DV Digital Impression Quality product, which purports to be able to block advertiser’s money flowing to fake news sites by blocking their ads from being displayed on Lie Merchant sites via the (broken, but that’s a different subject) ad exchanges.

Can a market-based solution to Lie Merchants work? Well, one of the biggest obstacles is going to be the public’s appetite for such ugly, idiotic brain fodder. But if we choke off the reason these fake news sites exist in the first place – that they are wildly profitable – then we are going to take an important step towards cleaning up the online news space.

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Apr 22

Lesson from Reddit and the Boston Bombing — Don’t Stop Experimenting with Crowdsourcing

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Conspiracy Theories.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Is every crowdsourced “let’s catch the Bad Guys” effort inherently doomed to wind up as a witch hunt?

For a while last week, as we were all caught up in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was cheered up a bit by the efforts of Reddit and 4chan to try to figure out what they could do to assist in a positive way. It seemed like they were doing all the right things, in a sincere effort to help law enforcement by crowdsourced the efforts to determine who had planted the bombs. Right up front, Reddit said that racism, trolling, idiocy of any kind would not be tolerated. They even had as a “sticky” post up at the top of the page, a notice reminded everyone of the sad story of Richard Jewell.

For a while, it seemed like they might actually be able to contribute something. That maybe having tens of thousands of sharp-eyed internet sleuths poring over the mountains of photos, videos, and eyewitness reports might lead to what the pros call “actionable intelligence.”  Noted internet provocateur Jason Calacanis went so far as to say,

“Twitter is where all the smart and important people in the world spend their time, which means  instant coverage of these horrific events unfolds there in real time. Sure, there are spammers and idiots on Twitter, but smart people favor Twitter over any other social network by far.”

(snip)

Yet folks say, ‘Don’t speculate’?!

Ummmm, that’s exactly what we need to do!

Sometimes the rules change. Sometimes dogma needs to be flipped: ‘Shut up and let the cops do their job’ in the case of a terrorist attack is EXACTLY wrong.”

But very quickly, the idiot side of the internet took over, as 4channers started inserting “Where’s Waldo” into the photos and mocking the efforts to sift through the assets to find something of use, while outlets like CBS started wringing their hands over the fact that hordes of people on the web had self-deputized, and were now possibly (because who knows? It’s the unruly internet, after all!) out of control.

CBS news doubts the effectiveness of amateur internet sleuths

CBS news was not a believer.

But the apology today from Reddit makes it clear that whatever clear intentions we started out with, no matter the warnings posted to try to ward off the kind of unthinking, hysterical shaming/assumptions of guilt … at the end of the road, we wound up at the same old familiar virtual lynching tree.

reddit boston bomber thread taken down

Like two vast and trunkless legs in the sand, this is all that remains of the once-great campaign to find the Boston Marathon bombers.

A few years ago, reddit enacted a policy to not allow personal information on the site. This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong. The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different.

Of course, the traditional media is now pretty much hanging on the rim, whooping it up over the mistakes made on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And the digital media are firing back at the well-publicized errors at CNN, the NY Post, AP, and Fox News (whose coverage could have had poor Zooey Deschanel wondering if she was about to be sent to Gitmo with a sack on her head).

From 4chan to the front page. Not such a short journey, after all.

So what’s the real takeaway here? Well, the hard fact that I keep coming back to is that there were hundreds of thousands of people spending hours of their lives, obsessively poring over photos and videos. In some cases, this can lead to killers being found, mysteries being solves, and the innocent being set free.

In this case, it did not.

That does not mean that we should slam the door on crowdsourcing and leave everything to “the professionals.”

Look, we’ve got The People Formerly Known As The Audience no longer willing to sit passively and just let “news” wash over them. They want to be involved. They want to react. They want to DO SOMETHING. Send money, travel to New Orleans and man a bass boat with a rescue crew, build tents in Haiti, pepper their congressman with Tweets … whatever.

Philly-reddit apologizes for Boston witchhunt

This generation grew up playing video games. You push the buttons on your digital device, and stuff on the screen in front of your face reacts. This paradigm is powerful. That’s why kids, including me, back in my [*wheeze*] youth loved playing them. They make you feel involved, empowered, in charge, filled with agency. Pick a phrase.

This genie is not going back into the bottle. No matter how much all the scolders tut-tut, the impulse of human beings to get off their asses and do something when they see something that moves them deeply, is going to continue. It will continue not just in the safe and societally acceptable channels of sending money/volunteering (and I think the mountains of teddy bears sent to the parents in Sandy Hook are misguided). This impulse is inevitably going to continue to play out in the digital realm, where we increasingly spend so much of our attentionshare.

Nobody really covered themselves in glory this past week.

Nobody really covered themselves in glory this past week.

The genie is not going back into the bottle. Nor should it.

Our jobs as journalists/media professionals are to figure out how better to make this impulse actually turn into something productive. I give Reddit a lot of credit for actually pitching in and helping.

Apropos of this: over the weekend, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome was at the Los Angeles Book Fair, plugging his new book “Citizenville,” all about Government 2.0. He answered questions about what he thought the intersection of technology and society can and should do and told a great story about the virtue of trying. Paraphrasing here:

“I own a hotel in Reno that was built back in the 60s. It’s old-school, so it has no air-conditioning. In the summer, to keep it cool, we open the doors to let the breeze flow through. The problem is, the mosquitoes also come in.

“Well, we had a night clerk. He was a little … strange. Like you’d pretty much expect from a guy who chooses to work the 2 a.m. shift. So he comes up with an idea to try to solve the mosquito problem. He goes out and gets a whole bunch of catfish and stocks them into the ponds surrounding the hotel, that were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“A day later, I get a call from one of the managers. He’s freaking out – ‘There’s blood everywhere! Blood and meat and torn flesh in the hallways! Something terrible happened here! I gotta go!”

“And then he hangs up. I’m freaking out. Wondering if the Manson Family somehow got loose and went Helter Skelter all over my hotel.

“And then I get the callback. Turns out the catfish really didn’t feast on the mosquitoes the way it was planned.

“But the raccoons? They feasted on the catfish. They went into such a frenzy, they were running through the halls of the hotel, ripping apart and eating the catfish they were easily catching out of these ponds. Looked like a massacre.

“The manager says, ‘So we fire him, right?’

“I said, ‘Hell no! Give that man a raise! At least he tried to solve the problem. He didn’t sit around, waiting for someone else to try to solve things. He saw a need and he jumped in and tried to fix things.’

“Granted. His solution didn’t work. But at least he tried something new and different.

“And that’s how the award for ‘Best Failure’ was born.”

 

That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about not only the attempts by ordinary citizens to help find the Boston Bombers … but the fact that Reddit is trying to work out the acceptable rules for how to run a crowdsourcing project that adds value to the response to a tragedy. If nobody tries anything until we have it all perfect … then nothing will ever get done.

If you want a more formal response to media coverage of the Boston bombings, you can check out the Poynter “4 Takeaways” list.

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Jan 24

A Social Media Milestone: A Crowdsourced State of the Union Address?

Posted: under Amusing Nonsense, Conspiracy Theories, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Teleprompter is Us

Tonight’s State of the Union address is being billed as “the most interactive political act ever.”

Well, other than the crowdsourcing that brought people to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Although, if you read through the comments sections on some of the danker political blogs, there’s certainly reason to look back on The Terror as a relatively sane & genteel epoch.

Anyway – it appears that Obama’s web team has spent the past year (or more) preparing to swing into full campaign mode.

From ReadWriteWeb:

In December 2011, I wrote in the ReadWriteWeb Predictions for 2012 that the presidential candidate with the best social media campaign would be the one to win the White House in November 2012. I also said that President Obama would likely be reelected. While social media is not the be all, end all factor in determining the results of elections, pundits will argue that it has greater weight now than it ever has. Candidates pay attention to what their Twitter followers are saying.

(snip)

To a certain extent, tonight’s State Of The Union will be the biggest campaign stump speech that Obama will give all year, except for maybe the Democratic National Convention. Around the State of the Union speech, the President has built a robust social media campaign to give citizens a voice. This is how government should be run. Open. Transparent. Interactive. Go to where the people are as opposed to making them come to you.

 

UPDATE:

Let’s see how that interactive thingy worked, shall we? ue

The YouTube questions were pretty much what you’d expect – a mix of the rude, the longwinded, the unanswerable and the insane.

Tell EMINEM to Put another Album out..(Name is E=Mc2)
Are you going to liglize weed?
What are your plans for a Zombie Apocalypse? Because you know, if you planned for zombies, you planned for everything.
Dear Obama, is the republican primaries as hilarious for you as it is for me?

im scared of this year. Do u think that think year that the world might end (by the simi-end of Dec. 2012) or it’s completely a myth?

mjh186, Santa Monica, CA
What are you going to do with all the police who think they are all that, just because they can do almost anything they want without getting caught doesn’t make them better. Also my friend told me a police was setting a role model of cussing a 5 grdr
Will you tell us why you passed the SOPA? Do you have anything againsy gay people? Can YOU stop making Cigars? What do people have to have in order to become the president? Is the world gonna end in 2012? PLEASE ANSWER ALL THESE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS!!
mr.president wat do u think about the immagrashin are you think about giving paper 2 those in need
123deadmau5, sunvally cal
I would love to know why marijuana not legal. It is really good for you they said on cnn News it don’t do anything to your lungs compared to people who smoke cigarettes. Also it kills Brain cancer cells and blocks heart blockages.
panterafan6969, Richmond, Virginia
Mr. President, Church’s Chicken or KFC?
train2failure, Long Beach
Why you are spending more money to grab genitles at airports, sell children, traffic weapons, drugs, eugincs depopulation…rather than allowing non corrupt technicians associated with The Venus Project to solve every human need including yours?
Mr. President, if you want my vote again this November, please answer this: WHERE IS THE CHANGE!?Minimum wage still doesn’t cover our basic necessities.A human being cannot survive on these wages with children. How are your children doing? Quite well
I’ll keep my guns, money and freedom You can keep the change you communist bastard!
Can you speak to the American people about the Fema camps ? Maybe quell some of the fear that’s spreading thru the country ?
I can has moonbase?
commanderq, Australia

The Quora questions were a helluva lot better.

Some are pretty interesting: What are the estimated costs to taxpayers of the new agencies proposed by President Obama, such as the Trade Enforcement Unit?

Others are clearly partisan: Why did Obama just rag on George W/Republicans? Was it merely because it’s an election year?

Some are just goofy: Did Jon Favreau write the 2012 State of the Union?

 

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Dec 15

“Filter Bubbles” and the Raison d’Etre for This Here Blog

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of allowing someone else to choose what you see/hear/feel

If I were a weaker man, I’d just fold up my tent and move on.

However, upon closer inspection, I find myself saying “Yahbut …” a lot throughout this FUD screed.

Pariser has an entire web site devoted to this concept, called, The Filter Bubble. 

To all this sturm und drang, I can only respond by calling upon the wisdom of the Great Philosopher, Sgt. Hulka:

Lighten up, Francis.

Read More

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Mar 22

Cookie Abuse: Absurd Expiration Dates & How to Fix This

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Doop-de-doop, just adjusting the settings on Safari so’s it doesn’t keep opening up a new window every time I click a link. It’s one of the default settings in Safari that I really deplore. Maybe this made sense back when Safari first came out, and it was common to open new instances of a browser when you were doing something complicated like (gasp!) viewing two of the literally dozens of websites that were then in existence — at the same time! Wowee-zowie! It makes no sense for Safari to have defaults that make it act like Internet Explorer 3.0 or Netscape Navigator.

(Aside: have you ever tried to explain to someone younger than 20 what it was like to be “mousetrapped” back in the day? Do any of you remember what being “mousetrapped” on your browser was like? Hello? Is this thing on…?)

Anyway, I happened to click on the Security tab and then the Show Cookies button. Here’s what I saw:

list of absurd expiration dates for browser cookies

This is a short list of the cookies on my Mac. I've expunged some of the scary-looking hexcode on the right. Pay attention to the dates in the column in pink.

Yeah, that’s right. Some of the cookies on my computer won’t expire until nearly 30 years after I hit my 100th birthday. Most of the others will (supposedly) stay resident and not expire for another quarter-century.

Who does this? I mean, really? Is it really sensible in any way to assume that this computer, as much as I love & use it on a daily basis, will still be alive and kicking in more than 10 years? Or even 5? Have these guys even heard of Moore’s Law? I’m not bumming specifically on Lynda.com, because there are many other offenders, different only in degree.

But really, this is user abuse. Why would you cram something onto my machine that is so obviously useless, unless

  1. You figure your average user is too thickwitted to actually delete their cookies regularly, the way most websavvy users do (or at least try to – more about that in a bit)
  2. You arbitrarily picked a date far into the future because you couldn’t be bothered to take the extra 30 seconds to actually consider the needs of your audience;
  3. You are being sneaky and underhanded, and you’re either planting what amounts to spyware on my computer, or you are actively engaging in the practice of Zombie Cookies.

It is #3 above that really gets my goat. It exploits the users’ trust, relying on the same obliviousness that makes so many of us just click on the “I Agree” button when faced with these labyrinthine EULAs & suchlike. This is short-term thinking. And it is wrong.

This has changed the way that I look at the sites that have placed these kinds of hidden, ill-considered material on my computer. I pass this on in the hopes that other users voice their concerns as well — only if enough people start becoming aware of shady practices like this will companies start policing themselves.

Useful stuff: If you want Safari to stop acting like Internet Explorer/Netscape circa 1997, here’s what you do:

  1. Under the Safari menu, click on “Preferences” (⌘,)
  2. Click on the Tabs tab (and yes, I know how that sounds, but that’s what it is)
  3. Click on the pulldown menu next to “Open pages in tabs instead of windows” and choose anything other than “Never”

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Feb 02

More Apple EULA Goodness

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories.
Tags: , , , ,

Not to sound like a whiny ex-Apple fanboi here (check out the wrath Cory Doctorow has incurred over a BoingBoing by addressing this issue, if you dare) — but every time I tap to update my iPhone apps, I gotta swallow another amended EULA from Apple.

This latest cramdown seems to center around the whole subscription issue – one that mag publishers have been screaming about for the last year.

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Jan 25

Mindshare LA: “The Illusion of Free Will”

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No. this isn’t about how advertising brainwashes us all into buying the latest overpriced electronic P.O.S. (although The Onion News Network has one of the most hilarious stream-of-consciousness obscene NSFW videos about this very subject).

This is an intro to a mind-blowing speech by Caltech neurologist Moran Cerf at last week’s Mindshare LA, wherein we all learned that we’re not alone in our heads … (cue Psycho music). In fact, we’re not really the ones behind the steering wheel up there; our decisions are made by what seems to be something of a quorum. And what we think we know … we don’t actually know. We just react to the most recent events, no matter how traumatic the actual event was … which goes a long way towards explaining why the U.S. voted the Republicans back into power. We really have no long-term recollection of how f’d up things were — just as long as they are slightly less painful NOW. There is a part of us that actually is rational, that knows and remembers … we just choose to shove that part/persona/personality to the background in our heads so we can go about our days cheerfully smiling into the face of our delusions.

In the rest of Moran’s speech, he dealt with such things as what are the five things that actually make us happy (and no, money & sex were NOT on the list), and how we can “listen in” to the neurons firing in a human brain to detect if a person is thinking about Marilyn Monroe, or Josh Brolin. Wearing a red bandana around his head.

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Jan 07

WikiLeaks Fallout: Draconian EULAs from Adobe, Apple, etc.

Posted: under Blogging, Conspiracy Theories.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This is only an educated guess, but something has changed in the past month in those voluminous End User Licensing Agreements (aka EULAs aka “That dense small-font document that nobody bothers to read”), and it seems to be coming from Homeland Security.

It looked so friendly and inviting on my taskbar...

It started innocently enough when I updated my Mac software and discovered a new icon down in the taskbar. Well hello there, App Store! Wow, it appears as though you launched with more than 1,000 applications already waiting for me to play with. Everyone’s been chattering excitedly about what this will mean for apps that do more than produce gastrointestinal sounds.

Cool! Can’t wait to start partaking of the free & open marketplace for creativity, ingenuity and that childlike sense of wonder – wha? A new Terms & Services Agreement? Again?

Every few weeks, with your iTunes, you’re making me agree to some massive list of incomprehensible junk, and now you want me to agree to something ELSE? Dammit.

OK, I’ve got a few spare minutes and have been eating a high-fiber diet recently. Maybe it’s safe to scroll through and see if there’s anything particularly noxious about the rules governing how this App Store for my desktop Mac…

Good Christ, what’s this?

So the apps you’re serving up for me to use on my main computer, the one where I have the really important data stored, may just come with viruses, spyware and trojans. And in the next breath, I have to basically hold Apple harmless if they happen to sell me something that destroys my business? Hey, can car manufacturers and prescription drug companies get in on this kinda scam?

Can you imagine that? “Oh yeah, here’s your new heart medication. It may actually contain arsenic, other heavy metals or rat poison. We don’t know. We just shovel this stuff out the door. It’s on you. And if you happen to drop dead because of it, we ain’t responsible and you can’t sue us.” That’d go over well with all the people screeching about Death Panels, wouldn’t it?

But where does HomeSec come in? Read this and see if you don’t feel ghostly fingers clenching around your throat:

You agree that Apple has the right, without liability to you, to
disclose any Registration Data and/or Account information to law
enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or a third party, as
Apple believes is reasonably necessary or appropriate to enforce and/or
verify compliance with any part of this Agreement (including but not
limited to Apple’s right to cooperate with any legal process relating to
your use of the Service and/or Products, and/or a third-party claim
that your use of the Service and/or Products is unlawful and/or
infringes such third party’s rights).

OK, maybe that’s just Hollywood, the MPAA and the RIAA again … what’s this?

You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes
prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the
development, design, manufacture, or production of nuclear, missile, or
chemical or biological weapons.

Seriously?

Jesus Christ.

I’m not even going to get into all the creepy spyware language in Apple’s EULA, that basically says that they are going to record everything you do while online, match it up with your GPS data and whatever kinds of interactions you make on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, e-mail, chat, etc., and then bundle all that information together and sell it to the highest bidder. Plow through it yourselves, lazybones.

Next up was having to install/upgrade Adobe Reader so I can look at pdfs of reconciled accounts from Quickbooks (part of the joys of running your own shop – gahhhh!). By this time, I’m kind of in a state. I mean, like everyone else who’s gone from the CompuServe/Prodigy days of online to today’s web, I expect a certain level of monitoring of what I do online, and know that this is the price I have to pay for free (well, other than the damn escalating high-speed Time-Warner cable bill) access to all kinds of amazing content created & curated by geniuses all over the world. Maybe I’ll look at Adobe’s EULA. I don’t really expect much other than the usual boilerplate legalese.

Well, how bad can it be, really? I mean – pdfs, right? It’s just a basic document structure for people to …

The Software may cause your Computer, without additional notice, automatically to connect to the Internet and to communicate with an Adobe website or Adobe domain for purposes that may include providing you with additional information, features, and functionality. Unless otherwise specified in Sections 14.2 through 14.6, the following provisions apply to all automatic Internet connections by the Software:
14.1.1 When the Software automatically connects to the Internet, an Internet protocol address (“IP Address”) that is associated with your current Internet connection is sent to an Adobe website;

(snip)

Adobe may deliver in-product marketing to provide information about the Software and other Adobe products and Services, including but not limited to Adobe Online Services, based on certain Software and Adobe Online Services specific features including but not limited to, the version of the Software, including without limitation, platform version, version of the Software, and language. For further information about in-product marketing, please see the “help” menu in the Software;

Dude, WTF!

Your software is going to wake up in the middle of the night, dial the mothership, rat me out and then start serving ads into the middle of whatever I’m doing?

Not. Cool.

OK, is there anything about…?

…any end user who you know or have reason to know will utilize them in the design, development or production of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or rocket systems, space launch vehicles, and sounding rockets, or unmanned air vehicle systems (each, a “Prohibited Use”), or (c) any end user who has been prohibited from participating in the U.S. export transactions by any federal agency of the U.S. government (each, a “Sanctioned Party”).

Guys. If I could use Flash Catalyst to make a space launch vehicle, I’d be kicking it James T. Kirk-style on my own moonbase right now, doncha think?

Great. Anything else?

Additional Terms of Use, the Adobe.com Terms of Use (http://www.adobe.com/go/terms) shall apply. Please note that the Adobe Privacy Policy allows tracking of website visits and it addresses in detail the topic of tracking and use of cookies, web beacons, and similar devices.

This just keeps getting better and better. So once again, you’re going to monitor what I do, turn it over to whomever you want, and somehow feel it necessary to put in a big scary paragraph about espionage and misuse of data?

Who owns your data? And I don't mean this guy...

I don’t remember all this garbage showing up in the earlier EULAs software/hardware companies crammed down our throats. Maybe I just wasn’t as observant. But it appears that someone has been having some very intense, shall be say, meetings with internet/software companies in the past month or so, with an aim towards making sure that if We The Users step out of line, there exists all manner of heavy-duty legal agreements by which to come down on our heads.  All that alarmist verbiage about nukes & nerve gas can only come from a gummint agency that’s paid to be paranoid & fearful.

And what’s been on their minds lately? Oh yeah – Mr. Assange and his cohorts peeking under their skirts. How best to head this off next time around, before any of the 500,000 or so minions with Top Secret access get frisky? Hmmm … how ’bout we make sure that the revisions to the basic document viewing and sharing software that pretty much everybody uses has “features” in it that check to see if you’re working with anything that’s been flagged as Top Secret, and then finks on you to The Man.

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Nov 05

Kazakhstan: Old Stalinist Repression in a New CyberWar Wrapper

Posted: under Blogging, Conspiracy Theories, Online Video, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Under the guise of “protecting citizens from terrorists and porn,” the government in Kazakhstan is eliminating freedom of speech and of the press via a particularly toxic cocktail of Old Stalinist School beatings, jailings and intimidation – and cutting-edge CyberWar attacks.

I conducted a series of interviews with journalists, bloggers, opposition political leaders and human rights workers in the cities of Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. I was there because in mid-October of 2009, the US State Department invited me to travel to Kazakhstan to do a series of training sessions on New Media and how journalists there could learn from the mistakes that First-World TV & newspapers have made, to prepare themselves for the future.

While I was able to show them some of the new technologies and techniques in online video, mobile, social media and web monetization that I’ve developed an expertise in, I found that their crisis is far more serious than that of US publishers and journalists, whose problems revolve around absurd levels of debt entered into by multi-billion dollar corporations, and the lack of a coherent business strategy.

Kazakh journalists are quite literally fighting for their lives – and losing.

I found this out myself, when I wound up in the hospital with a severe case of food poisoning, the night before I was scheduled to conduct a class for the pro-democracy rights workers, independent journalists and dissenting bloggers. I feel almost ashamed to bring this up, because compared to what the Kazakh journalists go through, barfing for 8 hours seems like a resort vacation. Still, the embassy doctor told me I was on the point of cascading organ failure from radical dehydration. Next stop: a pine box in the cargo hold on the way back to Los Angeles.Medical supplies

A couple days and 4 liters of IV fluid and antibiotics later, my vision cleared and I was finally able to reschedule with the Kazakhstan’s most independent journalists and bloggers. (I had to cancel a trip to Shymkent, where even more dissidents hoped to get my help.) They wanted to interview me, because they were suspicious about my absence. “You don’t honestly think that what happened to you was an accident?” they asked. I admitted that in my most paranoid moments, I wondered…

“There are no coincidences here,” they told me. They went on to state that repeatedly, journalists, human rights workers or others who have come from the U.S. or Europe to meet with them, mysteriously get sick – just the way I did – are hospitalized, and wind up going home a couple of days later without ever actually meeting or doing any work.  They all wanted to shake my hand and congratulate me for joining the club of journalists who have gone to the hospital because of their political beliefs.

I will never know if it was just a bad piece of chicken, or if I barfed out some heinous admixture of polonium and whatever PCBs/Dioxins they fed to the former president of Ukraine that turned his face into a puffy, pockmarked lunar landscape. But I will admit that seeing a couple of goons waiting in an SUV every morning to tail us around contributed to my motivation to publish this piece.

First – a bit of scene-setting: Kazakhstan is an enormous country, spread out over vast empty sub-Siberian steppes (as you can see in my pictures here), with a relatively tiny population of 16 million. It’s floating on an ocean of oil and gas, and may soon be the world’s leading exporter of uranium – check out the Wikipedia entry, if you want more facts & figures.

Put simply, Kazakhstan is a popcorn shell jammed in the teeth of international war & petro-diplomacy. It’s stuck between China to the east, Russia to the north, and Afghanistan & Pakistan to the south. They export a billion barrels of oil a year to Russian refineries, and their natural gas keeps the lights on throughout Western Europe. The U.S. uses their airspace and bases for the war in Afghanistan, and rocket launches from the old Soyuz complex near Baikonur keep the International Space Station functioning.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been president of Kazakhstan since it split off from the former Soviet Union in 1989.  Just this year, the constitution was changed to basically allow him to be president for life, and it’s a tossup as to whether or not there will ever again be open elections.

While I was there, I visited the cities of Almaty and Astana, which represent the past and the future of Kazakhstan. In 1997, Nazarbayev decreed that the capitol would be moved from the ancient city of Almaty, which is in a green valley just north of the Himalayas, on the old Silk Road, to Astana, which lies in the midst of 1,000 miles of Siberian steppes, surrounded by nothing.

A brief aside on Astana: the best way I can describe this city is to ask you to imagine what would happen if you downloaded the brains of Albert Speer and Walt Disney into a 14-year-old ADHD sci-fi fan & meth freak, and then gave him a trillion dollars and asked him to design the capitol city of Mars.  Dubai in the tundra? Shanghai without the workers or industrial base? Calgary with a creeping sense of menace?

The oil billions have funded the construction of massive towers and buildings; of wide boulevards, lined with struggling fresh-planted saplings; of monuments to the ego of Nazarbayev, where wide-eyed rural citizens line up, and hold up their babies so they can put their tiny hands into the impression of the Glorious Leader’s hand, memorialized forever in a 20-pound block of solid gold.

“It’s all one giant money-laundering scheme,” a journalist confided to me. “The government says that it’s putting up these buildlings, making this city out of nothing for the future of the people of Kazakhstan. They keep comparing this place to Washington, D.C.

“But what it’s really about is that they budget $200 million, maybe for a new library or art gallery. ‘For the people, for the culture of our country,’ they say. Then they build it for $50 million, maybe $20 million.  The rest all disappears.”

There is no real reason for this city, built for giants, and inhabited only by people who work for the kleptocracy, to exist, other than what you can read in “Ozymandias.”

““My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Yeah. It’s like that. Particularly the parts about the “sneer of cold command.”  If you squint a little bit, from atop the big observation towers, you can see the tangled rusted girders sticking up out of the blasted, brown tundra.

As you’ll see in the following videos, the main problem they need help with is the Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that are unleashed on them when they dare to step over the line and criticize the government, write about the massive corruption in the banking system, or report the latest bombshell from the president’s ex-son in law. (He fled the country, and now lives in Austria, from whence he periodically releases embarrassing information – such as audiotapes of government officials conspiring to murder & steal.)

In the interviews that are included here, the Kazakh journalists talk about these kinds of problems – of the beatings, intimidation, jailings, fines, cyber-attacks and other methods by which freedom is being systematically strangled to death.  I will write more about this issue in other postings, but for now, I think the greatest impact is for you to hear their raw voices.

I apologize in advance for this video.  I had to blur the face and distort the voice of this journalist, to protect him from the brutal reprisals that are becoming almost commonplace in Kazakhstan. I wish that I could show you the blood clot in this man’s eye, or the fading bruises at the corners of his mouth.

I wish that you could see the way he hunches his shoulders when talking about the beating, stomping and kicking orgy of violence that landed him in the hospital recently, or the anger that replaces that fear when he talks of the beatings that have been inflicted on his colleagues.

I hope that you can still hear in his voice the raw sadness and sense of loss that is evident when he talks about the feeble FlashMob protests that are the only act of defiance left to them, and how even that is being systematically taken away.

But I cannot. I cannot bring this story to you in this open and honest way; maybe it is paranoia, but if it is, then it is well-founded paranoia. The pervasive fear that has been pounded into journalists in Kazakhstan is communicable, and if I have succumbed to it as well, so be it.  I would rather err on the side of caution with these interviews than expose some of the people in them to further harm. This is also why I have beeped out the names of some of the other recent victims, as well as other information that would make it easy to identify this person.

I do recognize that this journalist’s voice and accent make what he is saying a little hard to understand, and so I am adding subtitles.

These journalists told me that the hardest part for them is the feeling of being utterly alone; that the daily outrages against them have been covered up, denied, made to disappear as they themselves are being made to vanish, one by one.

I decided to share these improvised videos (recorded before and after training sessions I led) because the journalists and bloggers I met pleaded with me to share their stories in the hopes that someone in the outside world would pay attention.  To them, the internet represents the last, best hope of writers and photographers and editors who dare to speak truth to power. They have been pushed to the brink, and the DDoS attacks now threaten even that.

I was authorized to show the face and voice of journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina of Respublika.kz, and so she appears here undisguised, although there were some subjects that we discussed that she later requested be edited out. I will post some of the other videos in a later post, since this is getting a bit long.

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Jan 05

TwitHacking Obama & Fox News: “Real Funny, Script Kiddies…”

Posted: under Conspiracy Theories, new media.
Tags: , ,

So the Tweetverse is predictably, uh … twittering? tittering? snickertwitting? someone hack together a “TomKat”-like neologism to describe this … over the hacking of several prominent Twitter accounts.

The updates say that the account hacking is not related to the weekend phishing outbreak.

twithack-bill-oreilly-is-gay1
The official Twitter blog says:

This morning we discovered 33 Twitter accounts had been “hacked” including prominent Twitter-ers like Rick Sanchez and Barack Obama
(who has not been Twittering since becoming the president elect due to transition issues). We immediately locked down the accounts and
investigated the issue. Rick, Barack, and others are now back in control of their accounts.

I know that the Traditional Media Curmudgeons (should I just shorten that to TMCs?) will react with finger-pointing and howls of how you just can’t trust all this newfangled crowdsourcy fancypants technology, that if the Preznit-elect’s Twitter account has been hacked, then that means that you can never tell who’s behind the information you’re seeing on the screen.

Which is correct, as far as that goes.

But the larger point is one that was driven home to me recently – that the online check/balance system is pretty quick on the self-regulation; the account-hacking was pointed out, shut down & blogged about all before 10:44 a.m.  And yeah, OK, in a fire, if some schiesskopf hacked a Fire Dep’t account and put up Tweets directing families into, rather than out of, the onrushing Wall O’ Flame we so often get in Southern Cal, that would indeed be A Bad Thing.

So let me head this strawman off at the pass.  Traditional Media are not immune to hackery.  Examples: the reports that the Oklahoma City bombings were the work of Arab terrorists.  The “Filipino Monkey” that almost touched off World War III (or IV or whatever arbitrary number you want to assign) by taunting US Navy ships into believing they were under attack by Iranians in the Strait of Hormuz a year ago. And we can go all the way back to the War of the Worlds hoax back in ’39 (a brilliant homage to this was created in ’08 on … wait for it … Twitter).

I’m not saying that the machine is perfect & reliable. Nothing is. But the crowdsourcing power of the web is useful, as long as you apply all the same fact-checking and verification procedures you do to any source(s).

One last thing: to the Script Kiddies that thought this would be a hoot.  It was.  And now you will be tracked down & harassed by the News Corp & Justice Department lawyers until your bones bleach in the sun. Thus the Circle of Life is completed.

UPDATE:

Fox News’ Twitter page still down:

Fox News Twitter Feed Still Offline

Fox News Twitter Feed Still Offline

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