Archive for the ‘legal issues’ category

OneWebDay: Like Earth Day, But. . .No, Not Like Earth Day

18, September, 2008

It’s hard to know what to make of OneWebDay, an initiative that promotes itself as “an environmental movement for the Internet ecosystem.” It appears to be a one-day awareness-raising event devoted to keeping this former Defense Department project free from government surveillance, commercial malfeasance and anti-democratic social stratification.

Plenty to like, from where I sit.

OneWebDay is Monday, September 22, exactly six months from Earth Day–one half an an earthly orbit of the sun, the yin to the vernal equinox’s yang. (Very cerebral, if a bit creepily astrological.)

The OWD site, oddly, can use a lot of work–usability experts or WordPress programmers may want to volunteer some time for the effort, sort of like a geek squad Habitat for Humanity project.

But anyway, what should you do to participate in OWD on Monday?

The site has some pretty good ideas. I paraphrase:

Eschew Internet Explorer. Quote: “…use a standards-compliant Web browser like Firefox or Opera. They’re free, faster, and more protective of your privacy.”

Go on a virus hunt on your own computer–not only to save yourself headaches, but because what happens on your computer doesn’t stay there.

Donate a computer. “You can donate a new $100 laptop to children in impoverished countries, or donate your used computer to Goodwill or a school.”

The only really bad ideas on the list are editing a Wikipedia entry and donating to the Wikimedia Foundation.

I have previously inveighed about how the public costs of Wikipedia outweigh the public benefits–about how the scattered errors and regular acts of mischief on Wikipedia, combined with its ubiquity and dominance of search results, create a clear and present danger to the world.

So I’ll just say this: If you choose to observe OneWebDay by supporting either of those projects, my own 501(c)3 group, “Wikipedia Must Be Stopped,” will vandalize Sarah Palin’s entry again.

Trust me. You don’t want to provoke us.


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Crowdsourcing Crime: UCrime.com

5, August, 2008

Geographic visualizations of crime data are already old hat. At least since 2005, when peerless journogeek Adrian Holovaty created chicagocrime.org, people have been mashing up public crime data with various maps to illustrate where, in a manner of speaking, the bodies are buried. [Chicagocrime.org has since been swept into Holovaty’s latest adventure, Everyblock.com.]

UCrime.com, a Baltimore startup launched last month, takes crime mashups to college, providing visual reports on incidents on over 100 college campuses. The picture is not always pretty. Here is a snapshot of the last six months of mischief that’s taken place at the University of Maryland at College Park, the school my son will be attending in the fall:

Looks like those crazy Terps have a blast on campus, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, take a look at Brigham Young. Crime? Not so much.

The icons are kind of humorous (unless of course you’re the victim of one of the incidents). A spray can shows malicious destruction of property, a moneybag is theft, a fist a simple assault. Handcuffs show a successful collar. Users can choose to view all crimes or just, say, burglaries.

While the site is just launched, it promises to introduce a couple of social media features. It appears students can join a sort of digital neighborhood watch and report crimes. Users can “comment” on specific incidents or collaborate like junior crimesolvers.

Crowdsourced crime reports, “reviews” of certain incidents, collective responses to crime. . .Call me a worrywart, but if I were running this site I’d want to have a skilled moderator–and an even more skilled lawyer on retainer.

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing new to the information here. Campus newspapers always run crime reports. Local cop agencies make this material public. UCrime simply collects the information over time, tags it by type and connects the crimes with geography.

But it’s a good illustration of the power of even a very simple data visualization. The medium transforms a public datastream into a compelling story about a community and what goes on there.

Of course, that story is misleading. Three top-of-the-head reasons:

  • A compact campus with a given level of crime looks more crime-dense than a spread-out one.
  • The visualization does not take into account the size of a student body–“there’s no denominator,” as they say in applied stats class.
  • A quick glance makes it hard to distinguish a campus where there are dozens of open-container violations from one with a lot of gunpoint robberies.

In the end, perhaps the most valuable service is the one that lets students get alerts–via mobile phone, if they like–of crimes occurring within a specified chunk of geography. It’s good to know two kids just had their laptops taken form a certain dorm, for instance.

Of course, there’s nothing keeping a parent from signing up for this service too.

Yikes. What dorm is my kid staying in this fall again?

User-generated litigation

24, December, 2007

The inherent fairness of wisdom-of-the-crowds ratings matters very little when applied to things like recipes, R&B songs, videos, restaurants or blog entries (Digg this entry, folks, please!).

When public opinions are gathered about lawyers, however, things get a little stickier.

Witness Browne v. Avvo, Inc.

Avvo is a web 2.0 site that invites users to rank lawyers. Browne is John Henry Browne, a Seattle attorney who was ranked by Avvo. I’m guessing you know where this story is headed.

Bottom line: Browne’s class-action suit against Avvo’s CEO and 25 “John Does” was thrown out. Frankly I don’t want to get into much detail here, because I don’t need Browne or any individual so situated to sue my puny butt. But read David Ardia’s summary of the Browne v. Avvo on the website of the Citizen Media Law Project for all the details.

I will, however, share this one ripe bit of commentary from U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik, who granted the defendants’ dismissal of the suit:

[P]laintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number [[the rating published by Avvo–cs]] assigned to them because (a) it could harm their reputation, (b) it could cost them customers/fees, or (c) it could mislead the lawyer-hiring public into retaining poor lawyers or bypassing better lawyers. To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action.

If there’s been a more astute observation about the practice of aggregating public opinion to provide consumer guidance, I’ve yet to read it. It’s a dumb practice. And it’s pointless to fight it.

[Conflict-of-interest note: CMLP’s David Ardia is a former attorney for my ex-employer, the Washington Post. On several occasions he managed to keep stories I edited on the proper side of the law.]