Monthly Archives: December 2011

On Twitter suspensions, spam, censorship and SOPA

Suspended OwlEarlier this afternoon, David Seaman claimed that Twitter suspended his account for tweeting too much about “Occupy Wall Street … and talking too much about the controversial detainment without trial provisions contained in the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).”

His account is now back online. Twitter’s official response to him, according to Seaman, was that his account was ‘caught up in one of spam groups by mistake.

Seaman continued to suggest otherwise and implied that Twitter is banning accounts because of their content.

Speaking only for myself, I believe this was completely unrelated to NDAA or OWS and was instead tied to his behavior using a new account. I think what happened today was an auto-suspension of a new account exhibiting behavior associated, not intentional censorship by Twitter. Jillian C. York, the director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agreed:

I’m writing without an official statement from Twitter but I’d bet that’s what happened. (If I receive such a statement, I’ll post it here.)

UPDATE: Here are the emails Seaman posted to his post, containing Twitter’s responses. They validates my understanding of Twitter’s anti-spam protocols.

At approximately 7:37pm ET, my Twitter account was restored, and I received the following message from Twitter support: “Hello, Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake. I’ve restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience. Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal.” At 8:29pm ET, a second email from Twitter support was received: “Hello, As a clarification, your account was suspended twice; the initial suspension was due to a number of unsolicited duplicate or near-duplicate messages being sent using the @reply and/or mention feature. These features are intended to make communication between people on Twitter easier. Twitter monitors the use of these features to make sure they are used as intended and not for abuse. Using either feature to post messages to a bunch of users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is considered an abuse of its use, which results in an automated account suspension. However, the second suspension after you navigated the self-unsuspension page was due to a known error we are working to fix; our apologies for the re-suspension. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

As far as I know, Twitter accounts aren’t automatically suspended based upon a journalist writing about a controversial issue. You can read the Twitter FAQ on suspensions for their official position. Suspensions are only supposed to happen when a user breaks the Twitter Rules, not because of what they describe or report on. Again, York:

Suspending accounts on Twitter is precedented behavior. What’s less so is a self-identified journalist making a sweeping claim of censorship like this without confirmation, corroboration or analysis of Twitter’s past practices. My account was suspended 2 years ago when @Twitter swept it up on people tweeting on the #g2s hashtag. It was restored the day after wards, along with other people tweeting from the IP address.

I doubt Seaman’s contention that this suspension was related to content. I think it was a mistaken outcome based upon interactions. New accounts are more likely to be flagged automatically as @spam. What happened wasn’t about any one tweet: it’s came through nine tweets in a row of nearly duplicate content to non-followers from a new account. Specifically, “How #Occupy and the #TeaParty could end their struggle tonight: http://read.bi/vL02ZI #NDAA #SOPA #OWS”

Bottom line: Seaman made a sensational claim that probably shouldn’t have been made without more legwork and a statement from Twitter. He used Business Insider’s platform to bring attention to a mistake. It may have brought Business Insider a lot of traffic today but I think, on balance, that Seaman damaged his credibility today.

That’s unfortunate, given that the episode could have been leveraged to make an important point about how governments might work with private social media platforms to remove content that they do not wish to see published.

On that count, learn more about the Stop Online Piracy Act at Radar.

Update: Conor Adams Stevens picked up the Business Insider post and wrote a largely uncritical op-ed at International Business Times that repeated the claim that “NDAA, SOPA, Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous may be off-limits on Twitter.” (If that were true, I wouldn’t have been able to tweet for quite a few months now.)

Update: Nick Judd picked up the story at techPresident, adding some context to the latest episode of Twitter denying another censorship accusation. Judd observes that Deamon’s post “appears to be flat out wrong”:

Seaman still seems to think that some occult hand is at work against opponents of NDAA, questioning the veracity of Twitter’s response to him. This makes no sense, given that NDAA has generated at least 117,000 tweets in the last seven days. None of those have been swept under the digital rug.

There’s also a conspiracy theory floating around about why Twitter has not listed NDAA as a trending topic. Mat Honan bursts that bubble in a post from last week for Gizmodo, which is actually focused on a hashtag memorializing the late Christopher Hitchens. Its title is succinct: “Shutup, Twitter Isn’t Censoring Your Dumb Trends.”

Image Credit: Steve Garfield

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Stop Online Piracy Act up for markup in the U.S. House of Representatives

Today in Washington, I’m following a hearing in the United States House of Representatives where the Manager’s Amendment of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is being marked up. For those unfamiliar, “markup” refers to the process by which a U.S. congressional committee or state legislative session debates, amends, and rewrites proposed legislation.

If the bill is going to be changed before it heads to the House floor, this is the time. There are many further amendments to SOPA proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, as Michael Masnick has listed at Techdirt.

There are two options to watch the hearing online: the U.S. House stream and Rep. Issa’s “Keep the Web Open” site. Here’s my backgrounder on SOPA, if you haven’t been following this bill, “Congress considers anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries.”

During the hearing, Representative Lofgren asked that the bill be read into the Congressional record and raised issues with how the legislation has been moved forward.

There’s a new op-ed today by DNS engineers on SOPA versus network architecture. The New York Times also ran an article  on the lay of the land with a couple of questionable lines, calling one side of the debate the “Internet world.

The author of the New York Times article, Edward Wyatt, didn’t mention that newspaper journalists have now come out against SOPA as well. The Washington Post linked to Dan Gillmor’s Google+ page, where Dan observes that “finally, journalists see the threat from SOPA and ProtectIP: the American Society of News Editors…has asked Congress to stop this runaway train.”  I talked with the Knight Digital Media Center about how SOPA could chill innovation at news startups.

Sergey Brin also weighed in on SOPA last night on his Google+ account.

“In just two decades, the world wide web has transformed and democratized access to information all around the world. I am proud of the role Google has played alongside many others such as Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Twitter. Whether you are a student in an internet cafe in the developing world or a head of state of a wealthy nation, the knowledge of the world is at your fingertips.

Of course, offering these services has come with its challenges. Multiple countries have sought to suppress the flow of information to serve their own political goals. At various times notable Google websites have been blocked in China, Iran, Libya (prior to their revolution), Tunisia (also prior to revolution), and others. For our own websites and for the internet as a whole we have worked tirelessly to combat internet censorship around the world alongside governments and NGO promoting free speech.

Thus, imagine my astonishment when the newest threat to free speech has come from none other but the United States. Two bills currently making their way through congress — SOPA and PIPA — give the US government and copyright holders extraordinary powers including the ability to hijack DNS and censor search results (and this is even without so much as a proper court trial). While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world. This is why I signed on to the following open letter with many other founders – http://dq99alanzv66m.cloudfront.net/sopa/img/12-14-letter.pdf See also: http://americancensorship.org/ and http://engineadvocacy.org/

More to come as the markup goes forward. With more than 50 amendments proposed, this could continue on into Friday.

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What open source can teach open journalism

Faced with continuing disruptions to the way that information is collected, shared and published, foundations, academics and media companies are all looking for better answers about the future of news. One rich source of ideas that some would tap lie in the history and culture open source software.

This evening at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., two

Melanie Sill, journalism executive in residence at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, talked about her new paper about “open journalism. Following Sill, George Washington University professor Nicki Usher talked about she envisages that relationship of open source software and culture to this idea of open journalism. Notably, the principles that both aspired to for open journalism in a networked society have much in common with those expressed in the open government movement.

According to Sill, “open journalism” is:

Transparent
Who are we? what do we do? How can you check our work?

Responsive
That means that sites include options to comments or requests to follow: do you reply? What value do you show you place in the time or opinion of the reader?

Accountable
If readers try to find who’s in charge, how to report an error, or how to give a tip to a media outlet, how easy is it to do?

Participatory
Amongst journalists, sources, contributors. in open journalism, participation is part of what they do, not an add-on. Participatory journalism is part of the working day. It’s not relegated to a ‘user-generated content’ area bolted on to another part of the site.

Networked
Open journalism links out. It establishes journalists as active participants in a universe of information sharing.

Sill says that media organizations need to break old way of one-way patterns. Social media offers new opportunities and changes expectations of journalists. People need simple ways — better reader interfaces – to contribute to the work of journalists, quoting Jay Rosen, a process that she said will improve the quality of the work.

Sill asserted that increasing understanding of what it takes to create quality journalism can build public support for it. She also sees promise in ‘digital first’ newsrooms, examples of which she cited in her reports.

We have to go beyond simply implementing new production routines, suggested Sill, building ideas of relationship and connection into the process of newsgathering, thereby becoming less insular and more outwardly focused.

How open source relates to open journalism

Usher gives shoutouts to HacksHackers, Newsfoo, Knight, Google, Mozilla and other organizations experimenting with open source software, including several of the winners of the Knight News Challenge and the growing ‘newsroom stack.

News is suddenly an interesting ‘problem space’ to hackers, says Usher. One of the things that open source begins with is “scratching an itch.” There are misconceptions — that open source has has to be noncommercial or without leadership. Open source is not just about code or hackers, says Usher. It’s about ideas and culture. Usher organizes her metaphor around 4 elements:

Transparency – bug tracking is a lot like fact checking, in this sense. Usher suggests thinking of hackers not as criminals but thinking differently about them as people as obsessed with sharing information. In the larger sense, sharing info for great good. Usher thinks it would be helpful for people to see stories as reported, as a way of transparency leads to loyalty.

Tinkering – Usher suggests privileging play & experimentation, process vs product, embracing playfulness, remixing, experimenting, doing good. Journalism could do with a little more tinkering and less “complete reinvention.”

Iteration – there’s a spirit of continual release in open source and technology, says Usher. Think of journalism as iteration, she says. She’s heard the tropes heard again and again: idea that journalism needs to be a lot more like Silicon Valley. The reason we hear that is that in Silicon Valley, companies are allowed to fail. That’s part of the culture there: it’s OK in journalism too, says Usher. Newsrooms have been for a long time afraid of failure. Instead of “reinventing the newsroom,” take small pieces at a time and reorient workflow.

Participation – for open source projects to succeed, they need to get as many people involved as possible. Usher suggests thinking of journalism in the ethic of participation. Instead of opening up journalism as just a service, she says we need to make people part of the process. Open source brings people together in a way that distributes their intelligence, so that they can construct collaborative frameworks.

When you’re participating, have to feel like what you’re participating counts. Open source platforms fail without participation, Usher says. The same is true of open journalism.

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Make Washington more awesome through microphilanthropy

My friend Jennifer 8. Lee was on NPR’s Marketplace tonight, talking about microphilanthropy at Awesome Foundation. You can listen to her segment on “giving awesomely” over at Marketplace.org,

Full disclosure: I’m a trustee here in DC. We’ve given a lot of great grants over the past year. Just this past month, $1000 went to support CodeNow, a new “startup nonprofit” that focused on closing the digital divide by teaching disadvantaged kids to code. The White House is impressed withCode Now’s work in this area, too.

You can see other awesome ideas in DC that inspired us at the Awesome Foundation blog.

If you have more ideas that would make the Washington area more awesome and think you can make it happen, please apply. We’re all ears.

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