Apr 28 2006 11:23:08 AM EDT

EFF Pioneer Awards Honor Gigi Sohn, Craigslist, and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia

EFF Honors Craigslist, Gigi Sohn, and Jimmy Wales with Pioneer Awards

15th Annual Ceremony Highlights Innovations in Information Technology

Washington, DC - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) will honor craigslist and its leaders, Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster; Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge; and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia at its 15th annual Pioneer Awards ceremony. The presentation is at 7pm on Wednesday, May 3 at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, in conjunction with the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference (CFP)….

…. “I’m thrilled to honor this year’s Pioneer Award recipients,” said EFF’s Executive Director, Shari Steele. “The Internet is a web of communities, among other things, and Craig, Jim, Gigi and Jimmy have all been instrumental in helping to give people the tools they need for sharing information online.”

The judges for this year’s awards were Kim Alexander (President and Founder, California Voter Foundation), Esther Dyson (editor, Release 1.0, CNET Networks), Edward W. Felten (Professor of Computer Science and Public Affairs, Princeton University), Mitch Kapor (Chair, Open Source Applications Foundation), Drazen Pantic (Co-Director, Location One, New York), Barbara Simons (IBM Research [Retired]and former President ACM), and James Tyre (Founder, The Censorware Project).

(You can read the whole press release here. I ran the Pioneer Awards for EFF for about six or seven years during the 1990s, and I still get a kick out of seeing who they pick and attending the awards ceremonies. I’ll be at CFP myself this year, conducting a tutorial on constitutional law in cyberspace and participating in a panel concerning Google Book Search.)

Apr 15 2006 08:01:23 PM EDT

Can We Handle Change?

In the early evening last week, I want to a presentation by a Yale professor of psychiatry. It was about what he called “the neurobiological antagonism to difference” — all about how, after we reach a certain age (12, about the age of sexual maturity), our brains look at the world for confirmations of their perceptual frameworks, and so cope less well with “difference” — data that challenge our perceptions. In the comments period I said I thought this view was a little pessimistic — after all, don’t scientists, who learned all the old scientific theories first, come up with new and different theories? He allowed as how human beings probably have other means of adapting to new conditions. I think a complete theory would include an explanation of how it is, even though our brains lose the plasticity of early childhood, we can continue to learn new things and even adopt new world views into old age.

Mar 27 2006 11:21:02 PM EST

Djinn Fizz

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading Tim Powers’s novel DECLARE. I’ve read a bunch of Powers’s books over the last 20 years, including THE ANUBIS GATES, and find myself thinking that Powers is as much a fan of the literature of espionage as anyone could be — everything he writes about this stuff feels true on multiple levels.

I like Powers’s depictions of the djinn (genies), who are also fallen angels. It has also been said of God (theologically speaking) that, in Him, Will and Act are one. The same is true of the djinn. I also like the idea that the double-consciousness required of someone who’s a spy may help one deal with/survive the djinn. It’s why the novel’s hero, Andrew Hale, the Communist spy Elena, and famous British traitor Kim Philby survive the 1948 mission

I had known a bit about Philby, Burgess, Maclean, and so on from reading THE FOURTH MAN, but hadn’t known that Philby’s father was an Arabist who converted to Islam.

Other things I kept remarking: Powers’s detailed, almost loving descriptions of the different guns people use. Speaking as someone who has never fired a gun in anger (or, you know, at all), I found these descriptions fascinating.

The sheer amount of research that went into this book is incredible. Even if you subtract the fantastic elements, you end up knowing a whole lot more about (e.g.) Kim Philby than you might ever have expected.

Or Mount Ararat.

Or what it might have been like to be walking around Moscow in 1964.

Nice tribute in the closing scene to Milton’s closing scene in “Paradise Lost”.

Mar 15 2006 03:25:34 PM EST

Open Letter to Texas Student Media

This is a letter I sent today to Texas Student Media, the umbrella organization that operates The Daily Texan and other publications and entities at the University of Texas at Austin. (Seems like I get caught up in events at my alma mater every year at this time. Must be a seasonal thing.)

Date: March 15, 2006
To: The TSM Board of Operating Trustees:

Thank you for this opportunity to provide input into the proposed restructuring of Texas Student Media.

You’ve asked that commenters identify themselves and their interests as stakeholders, so let me take a moment here to do so. My name is Mike Godwin, and I worked extensively on The Daily Texan staff and on the UTmost staff in the 1980s. I ran for editor of The Daily Texan twice — I won the second time I ran for editor, a year and a half after I had come back to UT Austin to attend law school. I’ve written one of the few comprehensive accounts of the formation and history of The Daily Texan and of Texas Student Media, and my work served as source material for Tara Copp’s and Rob Roger’s book on The Texan and for the Handbook of Texas entry on the Texan. That account appeared as an article in UTmost magazine in fall 1987.

I’m also a lawyer who has specialized in First Amendment issues. That experience too informs my comments here.

I agree generally with other commenters who urge that TSM revert in structure to something like the independent nonprofit corporation it was prior to 1971. Because I know your time and attention are valuable, I won’t repeat those arguments Instead, I shall limit myself to comments in the following four areas:
(1) The history of TSP/TSM and the ongoing trust obligations
(2) The institution of the elected editorship of The Daily Texan
(3) The role of the General Manager
(4) The need for rigorous requirements for editor candidates

I. Remembering the History of the Daily Texan and TSP.

As you know, students founded The Daily Texan. Moreover, for most of its history the newspaper was legally owned by the students of the University of Texas, as represented by the student government. The transfer of Texas Student Publication Inc.’s ownership to the University of Texas in 1971 was a transfer “in trust” — the legal owners of TSP’s (now TSM’s) assets have an ongoing fiduciary obligation to the UT student body, which is the beneficiary of the trust. Reorganizing TSM must not be done in a way that removes or diminishes the rights and benefits of UT students. (Indeed, any restructuring that removes or diminishes these rights and benefits could well be vulnerable to a legal challenge from stakeholders.) Among these rights and benefits is the right to elect the editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan. As a consequence of this history, the elected editorship of The Texan remains and will continue to remain a fiduciary obligation, even though some may dispute whether electing the editor is a good idea.

II. The Institution of the Elected Editor

There is plenty of evidence, however, that electing the editor is a good idea. The overwhelming testimony from former editors, former staff members, and former students has been that the elected editorship has been a wellspring of vitality and connectedness for The Texan and its relationship with the community it serves. Nevertheless, there have been efforts over the years to eliminate or undermine the elected editorship. (The undermining often comes in the form of a particularly misconceived notion — that the elected editor’s powers be limited to the editorial page.) These efforts have mostly come from three sources:

(a) The UT Administration or the Board of Regents, which sometimes have had an antagonistic relationship with The Texan;

(b) The General Manager’s office, because the GM has wished both to consolidate power within that office and to make The Daily Texan more like other student newspapers; and

(c) A few students who are fearful that the election process makes the position “too political” — without realizing that *all* processes by which an editor-in-chief is selected are inherently political.

Fortunately, the proposed restructuring of TSM can address the first two of these real and perceived problems. And a reinstitution of rigorous requirements for Daily Texan editor candidates can address the third.

III. The Benefits of Restructuring TSM

Restructuring TSM as an independent non-profit corporation will, it is hoped limit the ability of the UT Administration to constrain what The Daily Texan can do, what issues it can cover, and so on. It creates the opportunity to eliminate the prior-review institution, originally imposed by the Board of Regents in order to constrain the Texan. Eliminating prior review is a worthy goal.

What may be less obvious that this restructuring also creates a great opportunity to define more precisely the role of the General Manager. In some years, the General Manager’s office has taken the view that it functions as a kind of Faculty Adviser/Sponsor of TSM’s writers and editors. This view is, I think, incorrect. Loyd Edmonds, who is widely regarded as the best General Manager TSP ever had, understood his role to be one of making sure the *business operations* of the newspaper remained healthy. He abstained to the greatest extent possible from the politics of editor election/selection — he believed it was extremely risky if TSP departed from its historically anchored traditions, and when he helped create the Declaration of Trust in 1971 his highest priority was to preserve those traditions, including the elected editorship. No one knew better than Loyd how strong the elected editorship had made The Daily Texan over time.

I propose that under any restructuring of TSM the General Manager position be renamed/redefined as the “General Business Manager” position, to make clearer that this management role is primarily and essentially to maintain the economic health of The Daily Texan and other TSM enterprises, and not to act as a student advisor or faculty sponsor.

IV. Professionalism and the Elected Editor

As I noted above, a great number of former editors, both elected and appointed, have argued for the value of having an elected editor. Other former Texan staffers who have not been editors have also chimed in on this point, most recently in a group letter to the TSM Board of Operating Trustees a year ago. I won’t attempt to summarize all that testimony here. But I will note that any concern current students or TSM Board members have about “professionalism” can be addressed in part by re-instituting the following standard: the course and education requirements for the editorship should be the same as — or exceed — those for the managing editorship. If the editor is to be in charge of the entire paper (as he or she must continue to be), it undermines that institution to hold editor candidates to a lower education/experience standard than that to which managing-editor candidates are held.

I don’t pretend to know with certainty what the elements of these requirements ought to be. I do know that they have been changed over the years, sometimes for good reasons, but often for shortsighted ad-hoc reasons, such as trying to guarantee that multiple candidates are available to run for editor. I believe that the TSM Board is better off when it sticks to its guns and refuses to suspend those experience or education requirements that guarantee experienced editor candidates who have made a long-term commitment to The Texan. And I believe that on occasions in recent years the TSM Board has unwittingly undermined staff faith in the position of the elected editor by holding editor candidates to a less rigorous standard than that applied to managing-editor candidates — or to editor candidates in previous years.

Through most of the history of The Daily Texan, the newspaper’s staffers have known that the editor-in-chief had paid his or her dues even before attempting to qualify as a candidate for the position. That’s a tradition that must be restored and maintained. Do that, and you can preserve the benefits of the elected editorship while ensuring that those who hold that position have met the educational and professional standards and have demonstrated a commitment to The Daily Texan.

Thank you again for this opportunity to provide input. I remain available to provide further input on these or any other issues as TSM explores the complex problem of restructuring itself to increase its independence while maintaining its longstanding obligations to the students who are its spiritual owners and publishers.

Mike Godwin
Daily Texan editor 1988-89
J.D., the School of Law, University of Texas at Austin, 1990
Research Scientist and Fellow, Yale University, 2005-6

Feb 24 2006 11:19:28 PM EST

Buckley Now Opposes the Iraq War

In what looks to me like a major defection by an American conservative, William F. Buckley, the founding editor of The National Review, has declared the war in Iraq as a failure, and has argued that the United States must now plan to pull out in defeat.

“One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed,” Buckley writes. “[D]ifferent plans have to be made. And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat. ”

I’m not sure how relevant Buckley now is considered in the American conservative community, but it seems certain that, regardless of Buckley’s current position, this recent editorial has to sting.

Feb 05 2006 08:54:27 PM EST

Unintelligent Design at NASA

Distressing to read in the New York Times that political appointees are trying to dictate how NASA reports science. I note that one White-House-appointed flack apparently wants “intelligent design” to be considered as an alternative to Big Bang cosmology. This is new and weird, since “intelligent design” has up until now been offered as an alternative to the theory of evolution.

There are of course no observational data at all to support the idea that the universe was intelligently designed. (It may well have been, but nothing in what we can observe cosmologically suggests this is so.)

Jan 10 2006 10:09:11 AM EST

Brother, Can You Spare a Hyperlink?

Paul Di Filippo has posted a lovely science-fiction mini-story about the (future, presumably) death of the blogosphere:

Ex-bloggers were everywhere in this high-foot-traffic neighborhood. As the capital of Silicon Valley, San Francisco had drawn members of the obsolescent tribe from all across the nation, to bolster the native population. In just the space of a few blocks, I saw Wonkette, Arianna Huffington, Mickey Kaus, Kathryn Cramer, both Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Andrew Sullivan, Tom Spurgeon, John Scalzi, Matt Drudge, and a dozen lookalike Slashdot habitués. All these decripit wretches were besieging and buttonholing any poor passerby who made the mistake of offering them the slightest sympathetic look or body language. Most of the victims were tourists, naturally.

Look for the special guest appearance of uber-blogger and science-fiction writer
Cory Doctorow.

Dec 20 2005 01:46:47 PM EST

President Bush and Warrantless Wiretaps

Bruce Schneier has a great Salon column today on President Bush’s authorization of the NSA to engage in domestic wiretapping without seeking court approval:

Most likely, Bush wanted a whole new surveillance paradigm. You can think of the FBI’s capabilities as “retail surveillance”: It eavesdrops on a particular person or phone. The NSA, on the other hand, conducts “wholesale surveillance.” It, or more exactly its computers, listens to everything.

Dec 06 2005 10:36:31 AM EST

Will Wikipedia Fail in Five Years?

My friend Eric Goldman, who’s a law professor at Marquette, has bet me that Wikipedia will fail within five years. Here’s his blog posting about the bet.

I read Jimbo Wales’s announcement — that soon anonymous authors won’t be able to start Wikipedia articles — as being less significant than Eric thinks it is. First of all, anonymous authors will still be able to edit Wikipedia entries, and so still will be able, theoretically, to accomplish all the evils Eric worries about. Secondly, I think part of the design of Wikipedia was to allow for the evolution of contributor standards, even though as a “foundational” principle anonymous contributors will always be allowed to edit it. Such evolution ought to be enough to keep Wikipedia alive and vital in the face of a changing digital environment.

Dec 01 2005 03:40:50 PM EST

Wikilibel

My friend John Siegenthaler, whom I know from my affiliation with the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, recently published an op-ed in USA Today about his experience with Wikipedia — it turns out that some malicious, anonymous Wikipedia author crafted an utterly false “biographical” entry for Siegenthaler.

I won’t repost what the bogus Wikipedia entry said — best to err on the side of not repeating anything defamatory — but you can read the details in Seigenthaler’s op-ed here.

I know and love John Siegenthaler, and I too have been the subject of the occasional online defamation, but it seems worth noting that John could have
corrected the Wikipedia entry himself. Because I know John, I know he’s perfectly capable of learning how to edit a Wikipedia entry. (He was, after all, a newspaper editor well into the age of computerized editing, during most of which it was a lot harder to edit electronic copy than it is to fix a Wikipedia entry.) This isn’t the answer to the entire problem of Wikipedia defamation, but it’s one answer to the prospective component of it.

The larger problem of how to make defamers accountable, given Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the general unwillingness of service providers to help identify abusers, is of course not unique to Wikimedia — Siegenthaler could have been defamed anywhere on the Web and run into similar problems. This is a problem as old as the Internet itself — nothing about Wikipedia makes it any newer.

(That, as John points out, Answers.com and Reference.com uncritically import Wikipedia content is also troubling, because they effectively strip Wikipedia of one of its central virtues — that it’s instantly correctable.)

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think what was done to Siegenthaler was harmless. It was obviously hurtful. (I do think it’s worth asking whether his reputation was damaged, however, given that anybody — at all — who knows Siegenthaler and his reputation would necessarily know that the Wikipedia “bio” entry was bogus.)

But the real question isn’t whether this was hurtful. Instead, it’s
whether there is any obvious fix for the hurt. Yes, you could eliminate
anonymity, but would that fix things — especially since Wikipedians routinely use pseudonyms even when they’re not anonymous, and since crafting an identity to participate in Wikipedia would be trivial? At what price? Should you really have
to register as a Wikipedia user in order to fix a typo, a grammatical error, an incorrect historical date?

(Note by the way that John himself didn’t offer in his op-ed a proposal for how to fix this, although he implicitly blames anonymity for the problem.)

Furthermore, are the harms here specific to Wikipedia? Isn’t the reality here
that anything published anywhere on the Web may be defamatory? With the ever-present risk that nobody can be found to sue, or else that there’s
nobody worth suing?

And what should we make of the fact that it’s easy to fix Wikipedia entries, and far
more difficult to fix About.com or Reference.com entries — and even more
difficult to fix false information on the Web generally?

To me, the notable thing about this incident is that it seems to have given
John and others doubts about Wikipedia in particular, when in fact the
problems he sees are endemic to the Web and the Internet at large.

These are real issues, but they’re not specific to Wikipedia, which does
more than most online offerings to facilite correcting the problems.

By the way, take a look at the current entry on Siegenthaler now. Note that there’s also an external link on that page to Siegenthaler’s USA TODAY op-ed.