Protests in Egypt continue to make headlines across the globe today, but not everyone is getting the same story. Take a look at this morning's (8:00am CDT) top story from the web feeds of two leading news agencies on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the AP in the United States, and the BBC in the United Kingdom.
Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt
"Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails across Egypt before dawn Sunday, helping to free hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates as police vanished from the streets of Cairo and other cities." (article)
Protesters dominate central Cairo
"Anti-government protesters take over the centre of the Egyptian capital Cairo, as armed citizens' groups form to counter widespread looting." (article)
These stories naturally each go on at length, but I've only copied the headline and summary broadcast by each organization's RSS/Atom feed. Often, this is all that subscribers glance at anyway.
Although both reports are rooted in fact, the difference in emphasis is startling. The AP headline, "Gangs free militants, foreigners try to flee Egypt," stresses chaos, danger, and crime. The less sensational BBC headline, "Protesters dominate central Cairo," stresses the scope of protest — a human right. You might say that the BBC emphasizes "civil" and the AP emphasizes "disobedience."
The summaries show even more contrast. The AP raises the familiar American terror of "Muslim militants" freed by "gangs of armed men", whereas the BBC recognizes "armed citizens' groups." These are not instances of using different terms to refer to the same thing; the focus is on different facts altogether. The facts are, however, related: the AP establishes that "police vanished from the streets," stressing a descent into chaos, while the BBC confirms that "citizens' groups form to counter widespread looting," stressing the people's positive attempts to maintain order.
What I've described is only one isolated example of the disparate perspectives that can arise between two supposedly neutral and objective news agencies. The Internet's deleterious effects on our attention spans might exaggerate these differences, for when news writers compress complicated stories into one-sentence blurbs for syndication, they're likely to concentrate their biases too. Thankfully, the Internet also provides readers with mechanisms for dealing with bias: we can subscribe to a dozen feeds like this from around the world and gain diverse perspectives on every issue, we can click "read more" for the full story, and we can discuss the news on blogs or social networks. The Internet gives us more tools for making sense of the world than ever before — and more reason to use the tools it gives us.
We live in an Information Age. The laws that govern how people use, share, and interact with information are more deeply entwined with daily life now than ever before. As citizens of this era, we have a duty to understand these laws, their applicability, and their problems — and we can profit by our knowledge. Whether we like it or not, copyright law is as fundamental to life in the Information Age as the right to free speech. Like free speech, copyrights in America have a basis in the U.S. Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gave Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Congress used its power to enact Title 17 of the United States Code, which deals with copyright law. Unlike the right to free speech, however, copyright law is far from commonly understood.
At its simplest, a copyright is the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute a piece of information. That information could be a painting, a film, a software program, a textbook, an email, or any number of other things. As the U.S. Constitution stipulates, it is also an "exclusive right." Copyright law in the United States essentially states that the only person who has the right to copy, modify, and/or distribute an original work is the person who created that work. Anyone else who wishes to copy, modify, or distribute a copyrighted work must get permission from the copyright holder, or they can face legal repercussions. Copyright holders can demand special conditions or royalty payments in exchange for sharing their rights with others. This much, I hope, is common knowledge.
The purpose for copyrights, as the Constitution puts it, is "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." Giving authors the sole right to copy and distribute their creations gives them an incentive to create, for if anybody could copy works freely from the moment they were created, it would be very difficult for creators to earn any credit or rewards for their effort — and therefore, little reason to undertake the effort at all. Copyrights ensure that people have a reason to exercise their freedom of speech and push forward public knowledge and culture.
At the same time, excessive copyright exclusivity can hamper progress. Restrictions on copying, changing, or distributing original works could bring the flow of information to a standstill, or limit the spread of information to elite circles. Those things would hardly be good for a democracy. As a result, the U.S. Constitution stipulated that the exclusive rights that Congress could grant to authors were "limited." They are limited in time, but they are also limited in terms of what kind of information can be copyrighted and by the "fair use" doctrine, which allows exceptions to copyright exclusivity in order to promote the fair flow of information. The result is that copyright law is far from straightforward — it is a balance between rights for creators and the rights of the public. Title 17 is today over 300 pages long. Here are some of the most crucial points of Copyright Law in the United States today: Read the rest of this entry »
"Our business is advertising."
These are the words of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, from an interview published in the April 20, 2009 issue of BusinessWeek. She continued:
"We believe advertising needs to blend into the experience ... we don't have big banners across the site, nor do we have text-based ads that are really part of the search experience. We have ads that act like our site."
Facebook is the world's premier social networking website. Hundreds of millions of people use it to keep in touch with their friends, families, and associates. These are the relationships and conversations that make human life meaningful. But:
"These naturally occurring social actions now also can be paired with sponsored content and advertising to create a Social Ad."
- Facebook Product Overview FAQ
Facebook is a privately owned company that profits by surreptitiously injecting paid advertisements into its users' human relationships.
"You understand that we may not identify paid communications as such."
- Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. ("By using or accessing Facebook, you agree to this Statement.")
Research firm eMarketer predicts that advertisers will spend $605 million to reach Facebook users in 2010 — a 39% increase from 2009. Marketers are increasingly confident that the money they spend at Facebook will draw consumers to pay for their products and services.
"People treat Facebook as an authentic part of their lives, so you can be sure you are connecting with real people with real interest in your products."
- Facebook case study in a promotional message to advertisers.
People from around the globe login to Facebook hoping to share stories of life, love, hope, and achievement. Facebook's aim is to make them talk about commercial products instead.
"The next hundred years will be different for advertising, and it starts today. ... We are announcing a new advertising system, not about broadcasting messages, about getting into the conversations between people."
- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, at a press conference on November 6, 2007. Quoted by TechCrunch.
"[Facebook has] put the power of recommendation and referrals into a systematic environment."
- Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook VP-product marketing and operations. Quoted in the November 12, 2007 issue of Advertising Age.
Facebook's entire financial model rests on the fact that its users — or more accurately its used — are willing to display products as prominently as their friends and build their identities out of advertisements. John Doe's Facebook profile does not list his beliefs, his achievements, or his goals. It is not set up to demonstrate his individuality or creativity or personality. It simply lists, "John Doe is a fan of: [insert brands here]." This is exactly how Facebook wants it to be.
"Facebook Pages are designed for businesses and brands to efficiently interact and communicate with users. Through Pages, businesses can engage with their fans and capture new audiences virally through their fans’ recommendations to their friends."
- Facebook Product Overview FAQ.
It doesn't stop here. Third party companies that develop Facebook applications also sell their users to advertisers.
If you ever assumed that what you do on the Internet is private unless someone is looking over your shoulder, think again. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has recently published a series of articles about how easily people can be identified online even within the limits set by federal laws and typical web site privacy policies. Although these policies usually promise that any "personally-identifiable information" you share will be kept strictly confidential, they also make exceptions for the supposedly anonymous demographic information you reveal. This includes statistics like your birth date, gender, zip code, and the technical specifications of your computer and web browser. It would be impossible to identify you from just one of these anonymous bits of information. However, the EFF points out that these demographic facts, used in combination, are almost always enough to pinpoint individuals.
For example, in a September blog post, the EFF cited a study at Carnegie Mellon University to show that 87% of Americans have a unique combination of birth date, zip code, and gender. If you live in the United States, that means there is an 87% chance that these three supposedly "anonymous" facts, taken together, are enough to identify you. The less populous your zip code, the more likely that someone can link that data directly to your name. For a more detailed explanation of the mathematics of identifying unique individuals with this kind of demographic information, see the EFF's recent Primer on Information Theory and Privacy.
The technical information that your computer sends to each website you visit reduces your anonymity even further. Websites collect data on the configuration of your computer in order to optimize their own compatibility with your system. However, the high number of unique computer configurations means that few people are likely to be using exactly the same combination of operating system, screen resolution, web browser version, browser plug-ins, and fonts as you are. The EFF has launched a website called Panopticlick that can tell you just how unique your own setup is.
Like a fingerprint, a unique computer configuration can easily be tracked as it hops from web page to web page, even if you have cookies disabled and you have a dynamic IP address. If you share information as limited as your birth date, gender, and zip code at a website where someone connects it with your particular computer setup, that person could potentially track your movement online, gaining clues about your interests, your hobbies, your beliefs, your political opinions, and your friends, while linking this data directly to your name and address. Companies like Acxiom specialize in just this kind of data analysis in order to help advertisers develop targeted marketing campaigns, and to aid credit card and insurance companies in deciding whether or not to provide you their services and at what price.
You may think you have nothing to hide. Privacy isn't just about keeping dirty secrets, however. You can surely think of things in your life that you would be embarrassed to tell certain people. Is that wrong? How many people would tell their parents everything they tell their best friends, or tell their best friends everything they tell their parents, or tell either of these things to their children or their coworkers? The truth doesn't have to be "bad" to be uncomfortable. Think of the secrets you keep with good intentions, to surprise someone or protect someone. Is that wrong? Would you tell a random stranger where you live? Would you give away your email password or your bank account number?
We all have secrets. You have a right to privacy — a right to choose what the world should or should not know about you. Information is power, and information about you is the power to persuade you, to embarrass you, to manipulate you, to rob you, and even to predict you. Laws about privacy are defined by our expectations of privacy. What happens if you don't care what kind of information Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter collect from you? The U.S. Constitution only guarantees against "unreasonable searches and seizures." If you think it's reasonable to be spied on while you're on the web, then how much privacy does the law grant you?
It seems like everyone is on Facebook. Almost everyone. I'm one of the dwindling holdouts, a child of the web who builds computers and designs websites but who doesn't see the attraction of jumping on the social networking bandwagon. I'm not the only holdout. The media has been quick to pounce on Facebook and similar sites over issues like lost privacy and cyber-stalking, and while I think these issues are little more than network ratings fodder, others have taken them to heart. My grievance with Facebook is more fundamental, not at heart a problem with what Facebook does, but a problem with what Facebook is—a monolithic private company that millions of people have chosen to facilitate the most important thing in their lives: their relationships.
People, or so I recall, have mouths for just this purpose.