Friday, May 29, 2009

Is Google the Enemy of the Truth?

Source: ReputationDefenderBlog

Google has taught the world that great things can be free. More than any other company, Google’s existential and commercial constitution holds that information should be free to Internet readers, in exchange for some amount of advertising revenue.

But even Google cannot give us a free lunch. The costs of this Google-culture shift are appearing, and they are heavy. Newspapers across the country are imploding as they fail to replace lost subscription, classifieds, and print advertising revenue with online eyeballs dollars. Efforts to impose subscription fees on Internet readers have met with protest, scorn, or reader disappearance.

It’s not all Google’s fault. Newspapers–and TV and radio–have been slow to change. Cross-linking among sites, which generates strong search engine ranking, has come only lately to newspaper webpages. Traditional news media have likewise only recently started to make their pages “persistent”–so that they stay up on the web permanently–which adds to search visibility over time. (Both of these “rules” of Internet life were created, basically, by Google.)

But the expectation that “information must be free” is an article of faith among the Internet generation. This is a fatal problem for journalism. Someone has to pay reporters and editors. Online advertising revenue isn’t enough: according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, half of newspaper readers reach their content via the web, but newspapers generate less than 10% of their revenue from the Internet. That’s a formula for impending doom. The media industry is laying off heavily. According to the News Cycle blog, over the past 16 months, 27,000 newspaper employees have lost their jobs. When the economy comes back, some advertising revenue will return, but most of the papers will be gone, and the higher advertising rates won’t be sufficient to bring them back.

True, bloggers and amateur journalists are filling some of the void (see the citation in the previous paragraph). But it doesn’t take a genius to observe that bloggers are simply not subject to the same tenets that the formal editorial process demands. Moreover, the economic threat of liability for libelous publications has long imposed on professional outlets incentives to get their stories right. By contrast, nearly all bloggers have small enough incomes to be judgment proof, or they are anonymous, so the barrier to suing them is much higher. The net result is a lower quality of reporting and fact-finding.

Not all the papers will die. The top five in the US will most likely thrive. This may guarantee excellent coverage of New York, LA, Washington, Chicago, Wall Street, national politics, business, and global affairs. Very local police blotters may continue to blot. But who will cover Newark, St. Louis, Boston with regularity and care? What about the smaller cities? Who will gather sources and data for small stories that later make up the infrastructure supporting the larger, trendline stories that reach across towns, states, and decades?

Hope springs eternal. The new website True/Slant is intelligently mashing up economic features of traditional publishing, Digg, Arts & Letters Daily, and pay-for-play blogging to seek revenues. The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post are creatively tying long-term subscription revenue to technology hardware purchases in a deal struck with Amazon for discounted Kindles. David Carr recently suggested in the New York Times that the SEC should hire out-of-work investigative journalists to boost their fact-finding powers. News-gathering agencies seem to be considering, at long last, endowing themselves with long-term foundation-style support. Maybe enhanced feature sets like very-first-look breaking news feeds and searchable archive access will yield unexpected sources of revenue: Walter Isaacson has suggested that readers should pay for pieces that are costly to report. Americans find ways to fill vacuums, so there’s always reason for optimism, but, at scale, good reporting needs to be financially incentivized, and we haven’t yet found solutions.

And what happens if the reporting doesn’t get done? The quality of information will decline over time. The relatively good information gathered, analyzed, and published by professional organizations will be replaced with relatively bad information from unedited and consequence-free sources. Google will continue to do what it does best: find and present massive amounts of data to consumers hungry for information. But Google will, increasingly, be finding speculation, innuendo, sloppy reporting, and falsehood. It will not be finding the truth.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sue Scheff: Kids and Protection Online

As a parent advocate, I am proactive in helping parents keep their kids safe in cyberspace. One of my favorite services, which I believe is priceless for all families with kids online, is ReputationDefender. I have personally used their services for several years and have been completely satisfied. It is a cost-effective way to help protect your children while they surf.

What is MyChild?

MyChild by ReputationDefender scours the Internet for all references to your child or teen - by name, photography, screen name, or social network profiles - and packages it to you in an easy-to-understand report. Worried about bullies? Concerned that your teens' friends and peers are posting inappropriate materials online? MyChild searches every corner of the Internet for traces of your kids. If you want to help your teen manage their online reputation, but have felt powerless to do so, ReputationDefender is your answer!
Posted by Sue Scheff at 9:25 AM

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sue Scheff: Help ReputationDefender Support Nikki

When a family loses a child, I can’t even imagine the pain they endure. How they wake up the next day, how they feel, what they feel and how they go on with life. When a family loses a child in a tragic accident it seems it could only compound all the feelings of loss.

On October 31, 2006 the Catsouras family experienced the nightmare every parent fears - losing a teen in a tragic automobile accident.

The accident was the beginning of an emotional roller coaster. If you haven’t heard about this story, it is time to take a moment and help make a difference. Nikki Catsouras, after having a horrific car accident was dead on impact, the scene was described as shocking as Nikki’s head was nearly decapitated.

Can you even imagine as a parent, learning of this? Can you imagine living through this? As a parent advocate and a parent of two young adults now, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what this family has gone through.

What follows next is nothing short of evil, in my opinion. Shortly after Nikki was buried, her parents and sisters still in mourning, the Internet creeped into their lives in the most heinous way. Photo’s of Nikki’s crime scene were posted online! Yes, their daughter’s body, or what was left of it, was going viral! Where is justice? Who in God’s name would do this?

Please take a moment to read “A Tribute to Nikki Catsouras” and sign the petition to help create reasonable protection for personal privacy on the Internet.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sue Scheff: ReputationDefender Blog and Their Articles

By Michael Fertik
According to Wikipedia, the phrase “information wants to be free” is an “expression that has come to be the unofficial motto of the free content movement.” Much of what we do at ReputationDefender has to do with this concept. Do we as a society and as individuals really want every type of information to be visible to anyone, at any time? Do we want our medical history, phone numbers, old addresses and private photos to be as readily accessible as, say, who played third base for the Red Sox in 1912? (The answer to this question is found below).
I recently read a couple of books that, specifically speaking in one case and broadly speaking in another, illustrate the narrative of information’s wanting to be free (in the sense of freely available), and the potentially history-altering or life-changing consequences that may arrive when it is.

The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks tells the story of the battle to wrest access over the Scrolls, discovered in the early 1950s, from an exclusionary group of scholars who more or less refused to publish or grant access to them for decades. It also offers a precis of the potential religious and historical significance the scrolls, including possible redefinition of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Even though the Scrolls represented the most significant biblical archaeological find of the 20th century, the scholars who worked on deciphering them declined to publish their findings or even more than very narrowly disseminate facsimiles of the primary materials for a startlingly long time. It was not till Shanks and a handful of others forced the hands of the scholars that the world finally was able to see the scrolls for themselves. Now, thanks to their good efforts and the power of the Internet, together with the work of places like the Library of Congress, we can all see detailed images of the scrolls themselves, at any time, wherever we are in the world.

The publication of the primary material of scrolls has generated a massive bibliography and new fields of scholarship (including one called Qumran Studies, after the location of the scrolls’ discovery). In this case, information really did want to be free, and it took the hard work of a dedicated group of people to make it free.

Still, it seems, there are persistent and, according to Shanks, apparently plausible rumors of other intact Dead Sea Scrolls that are circulating in private hands around the world. The information bound up in these items, should they exist, needs to be set free through their publication, so that a more complete picture of this historical time can continue to be assembled. Even more scrolls are expected to be lurking in caves around Qumran the entrances to which have been covered up by earthquake over the millennia.

Gunther Grass’s memoir Peeling the Onion gets at the theme of information freedom differently. Grass, a Nobel prize winning German author, has been writing for more than half a century, during which time he has been an outspoken literary and activist left-of-center critic of Germany’s Nazi past, of its collective guilt, and of insufficient transparency and penance among the German people for their participation in the Holocaust and in the other crimes of the Third Reich. In the mid-1980s, he attacked President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl for visiting a cemetery than included Waffen graves. He was often described as–and seems to have been comfortable with the appellation–one of Germany’s chief moral authorities.

However, in 2006, it was revealed that Grass had himself been a member of the Waffen-SS. He joined when he was 17. Spiegel Online confirmed the basic facts of this story through the publication of several historical records. Grass published Peeling the Onion that year. While it purports to be a memoir of his life, or at least the first few decades of it, more or less up to the time he started writing The Tin Drum, one can’t help but get the feeling that he wrote it as an apologia pro sua Waffen vita.

In one long stretch of the book–the longest and most detailed piece of it, at least as my memory serves me as I write this–he makes himself out to be a coward (but only just) in World War II. He runs away, he doesn’t know how to use a gun, he fears for his life, he soils himself, he spends time in a POW camp, etc.. It comes across, after all the nouns and verbs, as an attempt to explain away the significance of his fighting for the Reich and his subsequent decades of hiding it. Was he really a Nazi? This seems very unlikely. But it did seem to me that, burdened by his secret and the gap between his public persona and his private history, and perhaps also worried that the information about his past would eventually want to be free, Grass set out to cast it in the most luminous and best-shaped bronze he could.

As a book, Peeling the Onion is also a powerful literary biography of a man who must be one of the most highly literate writers now living. Grass gives us the source material from his life experiences of some of his brightly vivid major and minor characters. I am guessing that the memoir will be used as some sort of key to unlock his novels and plays by Grass scholars for many years to come. I also doubt that Grass’s past will obliterate entirely my own view of his writing (The Meeting at Telgte is outstanding). But in the end, I don’t think I will cherish this memoir.

Two books about information that, we might say, should be free.

(The answer to the question who played third base for Red Sox in 1912 is Larry Gardner. This is the kind of obscure piece of information that becomes immediately accessible on the Internet, through a single search on a major search engine. I’ll be revisiting what we might call the Larry Gardner Theory of the Internet in future writings).

Monday, May 11, 2009

ReputationDefender in Toronto Sun Article


Becoming web dead

Web content that sullies your reputation can be cleansed


It was 3 a.m. when Lori Paris sleepwalked her way into work, ready to anchor the overnight shift at her local radio station.

As always, she went to log into her Facebook account looking for the company of virtual friends at a lonely hour, but was blocked, greeted instead by hostile "error" messages flashing on her screen.

"Then a co-worker who works down the hall ran down asking, 'What do you need help with?" Paris recalled.

While the real McCoy was sitting at her desk in a Toronto radio station, an imposter from England had hijacked Paris' Facebook profile and was pleading for help in her status message.

"Apparently, I was stuck in London and needed $500 to get home," Paris said.

"I had been robbed at gunpoint and had no money to get back."

For the next few days, Paris was fielding frantic phone calls from friends and family who were ready to fork over money.

"I didn't want anyone to get ripped off," she said.

Unlike stories of feckless users who post personal information on public profiles, Paris had restricted access to friends she approved.

She was likely the victim of a worldwide phishing attack earlier this year that used the same ruse of being stuck in London and struck a "small number of users," said Debbie Frost, a Facebook spokesman.

"We're reminding users to be very suspicious of anyone, even friends, who ask you over the Internet to send money."

But users overestimate the security levels of social networking sites and forget that they're for-profit businesses with crude security systems -- not banks, said Avner Levin, the director of the Privacy Institute at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Meanwhile, though identity thieves are creating multiple doppelgangers of people online, an opposite phenomenon has also been surfacing -- scrubbing oneself offline, or web dead.

Companies such as ReputationDefender will scour the Internet and remove unflattering material that could sully their client's online reputation. For example, when a grad student discovered a picture of her half-naked body posted by a bitter ex-boyfriend, she enlisted ReputationDefender's help. The company's strategy is surprisingly simple: They ask the site host politely. They're not a legal team, says founder Michael Fertik, but they've seldom had to resort to legal methods in the 10,000 removal requests made so far.

Not everything is erasable. Official records like court documents and news clippings are immune.

"People are alive to the fact that the web is not their enemy," Fertik said from California. "It's a fact of life and people want to have as much control over it as possible."

But what if you don't have an online profile or e-mail account, as is common among the computer illiterate? Don't be quick to congratulate yourself on preserving anonymity, experts say.

Because unbeknownst to you, you could be identified in a nephew's Facebook family picture.

"The world is changing with social media," Levin said. "People will have to play by a new set of rules. Very little is sacred or within our control anymore."

But that shouldn't mean we get little say in how our information is used, say experts at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic in Ottawa.

"The big criticism of social networking sites is that the terms of use aren't clear," said acting director and lawyer David Fewer. "The benefits are clear, but the cost of engaging in the service is unknown."

Lawyers at the clinic filed a complaint against the networking giant, alleging Facebook's policies violate Canadian privacy law by failing to identify how it collects and uses personal information, and what they do with personal information after users deactivate their accounts.

The policy must be in plain language and refrain from legalese, Fewer said, and clearly spell out privacy settings to its client base, which is made up predominantly of young users.

"The claim that privacy policies take care of everything is an incredible abdication of responsibility," Fewer said.

Facebook officials, meanwhile, maintain the complaint is flawed because it overlooks the obvious: That the data is willingly shared by users.

"At Facebook, we ... believe (the controls) are entirely consistent with both the spirit and requirements of Canadian privacy law," Frost said.

But are we asking too much of a service that, at the end of the day, is a for-profit business and not a government institution?

"We need to be reminded that Facebook is a business and has to make money," Levin said. "There's a strong sense of entitlement to privacy in social media. It's part of a larger sense of entitlement from getting things for free on the Internet like movies, music and software."

When you sign up for a free service, you "choose" to volunteer personal information that's then shared with third-party advertisers -- there has to be an exchange, Levin said.

"People have unrealistic expectations that you can get the best of both worlds. In the real world, something has to give."